We took a day trip from Sofia to visit the Rila Monastery, which is located about two hours away in the Rila Mountains southwest of the capital of Bulgaria. The monastery was first founded in the 10th century and gets its name, as does the mountainous region, from the hermit Ivan of Rila who founded it. Although the monastery bears some resemblance to the fortified churches that we saw in Romania a few years back, it did not serve the same purpose as the mountains were fortification enough. The Rila Monastery is considered to be one of Bulgaria’s most important cultural, historical and architectural sites and therefore does attract a fair number of visitors every year.
The main church of the monastery was built in the middle of the 19th century and is still in use today. The paintings on the exterior walls are quite dramatic and tell a variety of biblical stories. Next to the main church is the clock tower, which is more of a fortress tower than an actual clock tower, but it is quite dramatic to see as it looks over the entire monastery complex. Surrounding the church in the walls are the quarters where the monks of the monastery would live and work when not at the church for prayers. There are only two gated entrances to the Rila Monastery, one near the parking area where visitors arrive and the other that leads to a small village with a restaurant that is on the opposite side of the main entrance.
When visiting Sofia, taking a day trip to the Rila Monastery is certainly worthwhile and can be combined with a wine tasting in the same region. For those who enjoy hiking, there are also several hiking trails in the area and many local people visit the mountains simply to enjoy the natural surroundings and beautiful scenery. Just like visiting any other religious site, dressing appropriately is always recommended and women should have their knees and shoulders covered. We definitely enjoyed our time at the monastery as well as lunch at a local restaurant on the river in a village along the road to and from the monastery.