Rila Monastery is nestled in the highest mountain on the Balkan Peninsula – Rila at 1147 m. a. s. l. along Rilska River. It is the most famous landmark of Bulgaria, founded in 10-th century by the hermit St. Ivan Rilski – a wonder worker and patron saint of Bulgaria. This is the largest Bulgarian monastery, a spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983 and most visited tourist site in Bulgaria by both foreign and local tourists. Known also as the Holy Rila Retreat, it’s the most outstanding monument of the Bulgarian National Revival period, an ultimate expression of the Bulgarian genius in matters of spirit, culture, architecture, construction, icon painting and woodcarving. The monastery was built as it stands now by Bulgarian master builders between 1816 and 1847.
Before discovering the monastery we go for lunch in a nice restaurant perched above Rilska River to try the local specialty – grilled or fried trout.
In Rila Monastery we first visit the main church Nativity of the Virgin (1835 – 1837) decorated with wonderful and very well preserved murals. In all the scenes depicted on the exterior and the interior of the church are more than 1200. In the church we see the holy relics of St. Ivan Rilski as well as the tomb of the last Bulgarian king – Boris III. Next to the main temple is the only left building from the 14-th century – the Hrelio’s tower which represents a strong fortification erected by the local feudal lord Hrelio in 1334 – 1335. The “Transfiguration” chapel on the top floor of the building houses precious mural paintings from the 14-th century. In the monastery museum we see some ancient weapons of the monastery guards, church objects, documents, ancient printing machine from Vienna, ornaments, ancient coins and many more. The most impressive exhibit here is the wooden cross carved by monk Rafail. He worked on it for 12 years (between 1790 and 1802) and finally became blind. This unique piece of art contains 36 scenes from the Bible and about 600 figures as small as a rice grain!
After exploring the Holy Rila Retreat optionally at a little extra cost we can go to the nearby cave of St. Ivan Rilski where he spent many years in hermitage, prayer and meditation. It takes around 25 min walking in a wonderful forest to reach this holy site where actually the monastery was originally founded. Next to the cave stands the Assumption of St. Ivan Rilski church which was built around the rock tomb of the saint. The “wish fountain” is nearby where visitors and pilgrims write wishes on a paper and put them between the stones.
Period: Year round
Trip duration: 8,5-9 hours
Included: English speaking tour guide, transfers from/to your hotel in Plovdiv
Not included: Rila Monastery museum entrance fee (4 EUR) – optional, Hrelio’s tower entrance fee (2,50 EUR) – optional, food and tips
Note: Dress code at the monastery – shoulders and knees must be covered. Men can be in shorts above the knees. Sandals and T-shirts are allowed. You can combine this day trip with a transfer to Sofia if you need to be delivered there after the tour or vice-versa – to get collected from your Sofia hotel in the morning and after exploring Rila Monastery to get transferred to your accommodation in Plovdiv. Rila Monastery and the Seven Rila Lakes day tour is possible but it takes around 14-14.5 h and the start from Plovdiv is at 7.00 – 7.30 the latest.