But this area south of Sofia leaves an environment of "Water Mountains" (Thracian name) equipped with lakes, rivers and even wildlife reserves and has led us to taste the best wine in the country at the foot of a cliff in Melnik or even knowing a pyramid in Stob.
Rila Monastery: How to get there, schedules, accommodation and first impressions
We must admit that some of the most magical places that have managed to trick us of their mysticism around the world come from a common history. Do you remember "The Monastery of San Jorge de Cobiza"in Palestine? Or the Byzantine set of"the Church of San Simeón"the Stylite, in the ill-fated Syria? Even pilgrimage corners likeChak Chak in Iran, considered the world center of Zoroastrianism in the world. What do they have in common? The removal of a hermit to an isolated place of human contact, usually some mountains.How to get to Rila? It is obvious that we have arrived by rental car (E-79 road and later a small road afaltada) but the Rila Monastery is located about 120 km from Sofia. Is it possible to arrive in other ways if you go through the capital of Bulgaria for a few days? The answer is yes. Options:
- Public bus: From the Ovcha Kupel bus station it leaves at 10.20 in the morning one (you can go to the station, which is on the Tsar Boris III, with trams 4 and 5). It takes about 2 and a half making a stop in the town of Rila, arriving around 1:00 p.m. and returning at 3:00 p.m. (in 2 hours you have time to see it, but not around) for about BGN 11 each way. If you want to have more margin you can choose to stay in Rila to sleep (5 daily buses to the monastery for 4 BGN (€ 2) or Dupnitsa (2 daily buses). Thanks to Antonio's update in the comments 😉
- Car with driver: Approximately € 60-70 one way, wait for the visit and return to Sofia or 20 BGN (€ 10) from Rila if you have previously come by public bus
- Organized tour: Approximately 100 BGN (€ 50). They don't have flexibility, you go with a lot of people, but they can include visits to the area
It's 7 am (The schedule is from 7 am to 22 pm) when, still without breakfast and checkout at the Hotel Neven, we show up at the entrance of the Monastery for our visit (parking for the 4 BGN car). Sleeping just 7 km helps, and we had read that in summer it can become full of people. A place like this (or any other, you know we always get up early) well deserves to see it in its most mystical moment ... in complete silence! although being 1,147 meters above sea level it has a particular microclimate far from 30ºC from the rest of the country this August
What can we say about a monastic enclosure like this that has not already been said and World Heritage by Unesco since 1983? From the moment you go through any of its doors (we have entered through Dupnist's) you remain hypnotized.
We are facing much more than a sacred sanctuary. We are facing a symbol and icon of the Bulgarian resistance and pride of a feeling of homeland rarely seen.
The complex itself is simple, consisting of a main church and two museums, guest rooms (if someone wants to stay as well as wants to read an excellent story, don't miss the article of M. Teresa Trilla in Travel Notes) and some offices. Inside the walls of the monastery we can also find warehouses, kitchen and other apartments divided into 4 floors of beautiful balconies surrounding a central courtyard where the impressive Church of the Nativity is located.
The frescoes are simply spectacular, providing a special color all in conclave and starting already on the roof of the main doors that well admit an effort of our neck to reach to see.
Rila Monastery, a visit to a "big" of the world
But let's try to put some order to this story and contextualize it. Worth it, the story is worth highlighting. Legend has it that a hermit named Ivan Rilski sought his inner peace in the hollow of a carved tree shaped coffin in his retreat to the mountains (remember San Simeón in a column or San Jorge in the abrupt canyon of Wadi Qel). A story that would seem today of a spiritual established in the area dedicated to fasting and prayer, caused an effect on the pilgrimage of monks that led to the construction of a first monastery founded in the 10th century by Ivan himself now canonized by the orthodox church like San Juan de Rila
Saint John of Rila gave way to his grave and with it to Medieval Bulgaria where the primitive monastery evolved into a larger complex, a place of sacred worship, playing an important role in the spiritual and social life of the people.
Possibly at that time no one was aware of what was born in those closed forests of Bulgaria but the resistance of the growing Orthodox Christian Church to wars and the Ottoman siege (although fallen in the 15th century and rebuilt by Russian and Greek donations) could only be seriously disturbed by destruction by fire already in the 19th century and reconstruction of what we see today between 1834 and 1862, true resurgence of the Slavic identity. From the previous period only the Hrelyu tower (or Hrelyu tower) erected in 1334 is preserved where on the last floor you can visit the chapel of the Transfiguration of God (only open to the public during the summer for 3 BGN although it is under renovation) and excellent views
As in other places in the world, such as in the imposing sacred sanctuaries of Iran, we are not in a monument of history but in a current place of daily life, where monks continue to care for and venerate an architectural jewel of the so-called Bulgarian Renaissance .
We could write lines and lines describing an exceptional artistic ensemble where demons torture fishermen or gods appear in bizarre scenes, but the considered second temple of the Orthodox Church after Mount Atos in Greece has already made it clear to us that it is not only a "great of Bulgaria" but of the world for any traveler / pilgrim /collector
And the Church of the Nativity? It does not allow photos inside but murals, a dome, three niches on the altar and two side chapels but especially the gold-plated wooden iconostasis inside, leave anyone speechless. The exterior is impressive too, with five Byzantine domes that contrast with arches and murals just like the rest of the monastery
Museum lovers have in theAgriculture Museum (5 BGN) or the Treasury Museum(8 BGN) its space, with important art collections and explanation of history and where a valuable cross carved in wood stands out, although the bells of the tower of Hrelyu have been rung and almost awake to the whole monastery.
It is a good time for breakfast. Samokov Gate (the East Gate), which also leaves open-mouthed gives access to another more touristy area, where there are taverns, restaurants and souvenir shops (8 BGN) and where we take the opportunity to fill the belly (16.20 BGN)
We are not going to leave without go back inside the monastery. Many things have changed since our entry at 7 o'clock. The monks are already alive, guests appear on the high floors of the wooden planks and large groups begin to appear in the courtyard.
Without being too overcrowded, the sun now provides the enclosure with a special light for the photos although that peace and spirituality of before is no longer breathed.
We resist leaving without taking some last photos to a sacred place that we may never step on again (do we?)
But it is time to follow our long route. And is that Bulgaria has much to offer yet
Surroundings of the Rila Monastery: The Stob Pyramid
The Rila Monastery is not the only jewel sheltered by these spectacular Rila Mountains that we cross through bad roads with our car and reach almost 3,000m high (the highest in the Balkans)Surroundings of the Monastery of Rila for a full day:
- Hermitage of San Lucas and Cave of San Juan: About 4 km north of the Monastery, to the left of the road, a path leads to a hermitage dating from 1798 with a large courtyard. If you walk another 15 minutes you can reach the cave of San Juan where it is supposed to lie buried San Juan de Rila in the same place where he preached in his day
- The Rila National Park and the 7 Lakes: For nature lovers who want to spend several days here, with hiking trails, rivers and glacial lakes in a spectacular setting
We return by the 107 road we came yesterday and we will make a route similar to the following ...
First we will stop 17 km from the Monastery (30 min) in other curious formations near the Stob population.
It's about theStobski pyramids that, although declared a natural monument, are not usually reflected in the guides. Basically they are a species of giant mushrooms 10-12 m high and thick up to 40 meters of striking colors, from yellow to brown, through different shades of red and accessed by a small path of about 25 minutes after paying an entry of 2 BGN each
Of course, some have their own names: Chukite, the Fairy Chimneys or Pinacles. We do not know who will have put them on but of course they leave perfect sculptural forms
It seems that the Melnik, where we are heading now there are other more famous. We have 100 km ahead (1h 30 min) to assimilate everything we have seen so far in a very complete day
Melnik, Bulgarian wine and the Rhozen Monastery
Behind we leave the scenic green of the Rila area to enter a place in the southern slopes of Pirin Mountain, among other types of sand pyramids of strange shapes. Melnik, almost touching the border of Greece, is our first contact with the Thracians although today he proudly shows the legacy of the Bulgarian Renaissance in houses such as Kordopulov or Pashov ... and also with the 36ºC that stick to the shadow (2 waters, please, for 2 BGN)
And we talked about the Thracians because here it is said that I live the Thracian tribe Medi (do you think Spartacus?) until it happened at the hands of Romans, Bulgarians and even Ottomans.
Today we find an atmosphere that falls in love. A picturesque town where there are them with valuable architectural monuments such as the Basilica of "San Anthonii".
We can also see the Monastery of "Santa Virgen Spileotisa" on the hill of San Nicola or the remains of the church of "Santa Varvara".
Although it is a walk through the village under imposing cliffs and we even take the opportunity to approach the Kordopulov house (3 EUR since they have allowed us to pay in them), the largest museum house in the Balkans and former home of one of the main wine merchants.
In addition to its stained glass windows or its halls, the cellar of its ground floor is AWESOME, with 180 m of labyrinth and where to try one of the attractions of the city ...
… !!He bulgarian wine of unique grape called “Shiroka Melnishka Loza” !! By the way, spectacular!
We return to the entrance of the town where we take the opportunity to eat something (20.50 BGN) before we refresh ourselves again (2.10 BGN) and return to the parking lot (by the way, it is not difficult to park anywhere)
Melnik is very small and we decided to approach an attraction par excellence, Rozhen Monastery, leaving aside the famous Melnik Pyramids, declared a natural monument in 1960 and that are a unique natural formation due to the erosion of clay soil and different from the views in Stob
Approaching the Monastery of Rozhen (or also called Monastery of the Virgin Mary) 7-8 km from Melnik has a reason, it is a reconstructed 1217 building and is one of the few preserved Bulgarian medieval monasteries.
After a long day we will not go into complex details that you can find in any guide or wikipedia but highlight its strategic position, its beautiful views and, of course, its frescoes
Route through the mountains to the picturesque Shiroka Laka
We have to recognize that we had no idea where we would end the day by not knowing that the secondary roads of Bulgaria would hold us. We can already confirm that you forget any warning ... they are false! Secondary roads are that ... secondary but no longer have bumps, or problems of any kind. In recent years they have been paved or repaired and it circulates perfectly, and more in places like today. !Wonderful!Paula's notes:
We still see many Little horses or burritos pulling cars. More than someone like me would like to see, but what brings us to the Spain of the 70s? To some extent we are finding an authentic Bulgaria in full evolution.
Thanks a lot to see how the Bulgarians say "Da" (yes), performing a kind of balancing of the head as if they were dancing. They seem like very good people, in general with everyone we have met.
Of course, maybe you find things that happened 30 years ago in Spain such as that you pass a "cows over", multitude of sawmills or slate quarries and even enter true canyons taken from an Indiana Jones movie, but by road
We write now from the population of Shiroka laka, from theGuest House James 3 hours and a half (and 175 km) from Rozhen where we left at around 3.30 pm as we continue with the idea of driving late to take advantage of early rises and enjoy a new location. We do not know how long this new "travel strategy" will last but we are currently enjoying it.
This population is very small, but also certainly picturesque, with small bridges over the river, white wooden houses on the mountain and a small square where the main restaurants gather.
In fact in one of them we had dinner a while ago (24 BGN) although we will talk about Bulgarian cuisine later
It has been another beautiful but intense day in Bulgaria and we are going to retire now to sleep. Despite Melnik, Rhozen or Stob, we cannot forget the feeling of Enter the Rila Monastery very early, one of those memories that will remain forever in our memory and in our little logbook. !See you tomorrow everyone! Family, we are still great
Isaac and Paula from Shiroka Laka (Bulgaria)
EXPENSES OF THE DAY: 72.8 BGN (approx. 39.14 EUR) and GIFTS: 8 BGN (approx. 4.30 EUR)