As the most celebrated of Bulgaria’s religious sites, famed for its fine architecture and mountainous setting – and declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO – the Rila Monastery receives a steady stream of visitors, many of them day-trippers from Sofia. Joining one of these one-day tours from the capital (which can be arranged with Zig-Zag Holidays) is the simplest way of getting here, but can work out expensive (most tours cost around 120Lv p.p.). It’s much more economical to get there by public transport, though realistically you’ll have to stay the night in the monastery’s reasonably comfortable rooms.
Ringed by mighty walls, the monastery has the outward appearance of a fortress, but this impression is negated by the beauty of the interior, which even the crowds can’t mar. Graceful arches above the flagstoned courtyard support tiers of monastic cells, and stairways ascend to wooden balconies. Bold red stripes and black-and-white check patterns enliven the facade, contrasting with the sombre mountains behind and creating a harmony between the cloisters and the church. Richly coloured frescoes shelter beneath the church porch and cover much of its interior. The iconostasis is splendid, almost 10m wide and covered by a mass of intricate carvings and gold leaf. Beside the church is Hrelyo’s Tower, the sole remaining building from the fourteenth century. Cauldrons, which were once used to prepare food for pilgrims, occupy the soot-encrusted kitchen on the ground floor of the north wing, while on the floors above you can inspect the spartan refectory and panelled guest rooms. Beneath the east wing is the treasury, where, among other things, you can view a wooden cross carved with more than 1500 miniature human figures during the 1790s.
There are three buses a day from Rila Monastery to Rila village from where hourly buses depart for nearby Blagoevgrad and beyond.