Project Description

Even before arriving in Bulgaria, I was interrested about visiting the famous Rila Monastery, one of the jewels of the Bulgarian heritage. It is 120 km aways from Sofia, in the forest of Rila. It has the administrative status of populated place, the only one among all the monasteries and is the most visited place in Bulgaria, in addition to being classified as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO. A must-see for any visitor in Bulgaria!

I chose to book my trip with the agency Traventuria, based in Sofia. The agency promotes responsible travel and has environmental, economic and social objectives. Also offering many other trips throughout Bulgaria, I used their service several times and have been very pleased overall. I appreciated the kindness of my driver and guide Simon (the same who guided me to Plovdiv) and his explanations greatly facilitated my understanding of the place.


Just after the visit of the town of Melnik in the late morning, my driver and guide Simon brings me now to Rila Monastery. We stop just before the monastery for a bite to eat in a small but nice tavern. I eat a trout (breeding prodction, unfortunately) along with potatoes and vegetables. Food was good and the service too. Some explanations about the monastery are needed before we arrived.

The monastery lies in the recesses of Rila Mountain, between Rilska and Drushlyavitsa rivers, at 1147 meters above sea level. It was founded in the first half of the 10th century. Its history is directly related to St. Ivan of Rila, the first Bulgarian hermit, who settled in the region and devoted his life to fasting and prayers. The monastery was initially situated near the cave where the saint dwelled. After he passed away in 946, St. Ivan of Rila was buried in the cave in which he found solitude. Tsar Peter (who reigned in the period 927 to 969) brought the relics of St. Ivan from Rila to Sredets (Sofia). It was probably at that time that he was canonized as a saint. The relics were returned to Rila holy cloister in 1469.

Throughout the centuries, Rila Monastery has always been the spiritual, educational and cultural centre of Bulgaria. During the Bulgarian Revival Period (18th to 19th centuries) Rila Monastery set up approximately 50 metochions in the large Bulgarian towns and villages where some of the most well-educated monks from Rila performed their religious rites, established schools, and brought pilgrims to the monastery. In 1961, Rila Monastery became a National Museum. In 1976, it was declared a National Historical Reserve and in 1983, it was included in the List of World Cultural Heritage Sites by the UNESCO. In 1991 the state restored the monastic status of the cloister. Here is a video presenting the area:

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After a few minutes ride in a dense forest, we arrived at the monastery complex.

We enter the courtyard of about 3’200 square meters by one of the two main gates, Samokov. And there is the wonder! The impression of greatness and splendor of the place is striking. The church is beautiful, with its frescoes that I will hasten to admire. The monastic buildings are equally impressive in a more streamlined style and dominated by a beautiful white color.

The least we can say is that the monastery is anything but small. Indeed, it occupies a total area of 8’800 square meters and consists of 4 parts, each corresponding to the four geographical directions. Those 4 parts were built in 1817-1819 but soon after ravaged by a large fire. The eastern, western and northern parts were rebuilt in 1834 and are those that can be admired today. In 1847 the southern part was added. All 4 sections of the monastery have more than 300 monks cells and 4 walls. In the northern and eastern parts are furnished rooms that carry the names of cities which have donated money to the monastery, as Koprivshtitsa, Samokov, Tchirpan, etc.

Rila holy cloister got its present appearance in the 19th century and only the new part of the eastern wing of the monastery dates from the 20th century. Hrelyo tower, the oldest building in the holy cloister was built in the 14th century (1335).

It was the fortress of the monastery and also the place where monks dwelled in times of trouble. The Chapel of the Transfiguration of God is on the fifth and last floor of this 24 m-high tower. Some of the 14th century wall-paintings can be seen through the window niches of the chapel.

The Birth of the Virgin Mary main church of the monastery was built in the place of an old temple in 1834 to 1837. It is a five-domed, cross-in-square building. It has two side chapels and three altar niches. The wood-carved iconostases and the wall-paintings by masters from Samokov and Bansko are impressive.

Many artists and wood-carvers worked in the temple but only Zahari Zograf left his signature. The church preserves the coffin with the relics of founder of the monastery St. Ivan of Rila, the 12th century Virgin Hodegetria wonderworking icon, the 17th century St. Ivan of Rila wonderworking icon, and many other iconostasis and icons for believers to kiss from the 19th century.

Just before visiting Rila Monastery’s Museum, my guide recovered a key from the receptionist that opens one of the 300 monk cells which we will be able to visit. The life of a monk is simple, and so is the place where he lives. It is composed of two parts: a main room where the monk lives and prays, and a small room with a small kitchen near the entrance. This is the place where the monk apprentice lives and takes care of meals and housekeeping.

All right, let’s visit this museum now. It exhibits items providing information about the history of the monastery throughout the centuries and was established in Rila holy cloister at the end of the 19th century. The museum exhibition has valuable examples of Bulgarian and foreign art from the 14th to 19th centuries. The most valuable exhibit is the wooden cross decorated with exquisite miniature wood-carvings by Father Rafail. The master wood-carver used the finest chisels and tools and worked for many years until he eventually completed his masterpiece in 1802, when he lost his sight as a result of the hard toil. It depicts 36 biblical scenes, 18 on each side, and over 600 miniature figures. Entrance is not free of charge and it is not allowed to take pictures.

Rila holy cloister is a functioning monastery. There are car and coach parks outside the two monastery gates. Accommodation is available at the monastery. Icons, albums, cards, souvenirs, and traditional Bulgarian crafted items are sold at the monastery bookstore, the shop at Hrelyo tower and in the area around the monastery. I didn’t bought anything, except some postcards. After this, we return to Sofia in the late afternoon.



A great architectural, spiritual, cultural, and natural visit. Rila Monastery is a must-see if you are visiting Bulgaria! I did this tour using the service of a travel agency, but you do not even have to refer to any tour operator. Indeed, buses do now the return trip from Sofia. If you plan to stay a few days in the area, do not hesitate in addition to the monastery to visit the town of Rila, the Seven lakes and the National Park which is also a World Heritage Site classified by UNESCO.