Rila Monastery in the Rila Mountains:
Rila Monastery is nestled in the Rila Mountains, at a spot near where John of Rila (or Ivan Rilski) bunked in a cave during part of the first half of the 10th Century. The Rila Mountains are also home to the Rila National Park - good for hiking or bike riding for hardcore nature lovers.
The Tradition of Rila Monastery:
A monastery has stood in the same place in the Rila Mountains since the year 1335. It was built by John of Rila's students and rebuilt throughout the centuries as raids and fires took their toll on the Rila Monastery complex. It has traditionally been the most important seat of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, and it is the most visited pilgrimage and tourist site in Bulgaria today.
Rila Monastery Church:
The inside of Rila Monastery church is richly decorated in frescoes and icons. The church contains three special items: a 12th century icon of the Virgin, the hand of John of Rila, and Tsar Boris III's heart, buried in the chapel. The tower beside the church is the only original structure from the 14th century remaining on the Rila Monastery complex.
Rila Monastery Museum:
One of the most interesting pieces at the Rila Monastery museum is Rafail's cross, a cross carved and whittled with needles for over more than a decade to produce minute biblical scenes. You will also see artifacts from the original monastery, such as icons and manuscripts.
John of Rila's Cave:
It's possible to hike from the monastery to see the actual cave in which John of Rila stayed for two decades. Legend has it that those able to pass through a hole in the rock are free of sin. Many pilgrims do this as a part of religious ritual, and the rock has since worn smooth.
Hiking Around Rila Monastery and in Rila National Park:
Hiking paths around Rila Monastery will take visitors by one church and two chapels. However, there are some longer hikes that require hikers to be fit and prepared with provisions. Choose your hikes carefully. Bring along bottled water and bug repellent at the very least.
Sleeping at Rila Monastery:
For a small fee, visitors can overnight at Rila monastery in monks' cells. They are said to be relatively comfortable, though they lack the luxury of hot water. While staying at Rila isn't requisite to your visit, it certainly will add to the experience. However, hotel accommodations can be easily made nearby if you choose.
Getting to Rila Monastery:
As Rila is a popular destination and only about an hour south of Sofia, day trips are easily taken from the capital. Hotels may be able to arrange for transportation to Rila Monastery, or you may want to check with local companies for tours to the monastery.
Services at Rila Monastery:
If you wish to take part in a service at Rila Monastery, prayers are at 7 or 8 am and 4 or 5 pm. You'll be able to tell that services are starting by the monks, who pound on stakes to symbolize the nailing of Christ to the cross.