My first visit to Rila Monastery was in 1989, on my way back from Zimbabwe. I still remember coming back from the pleasant temperatures of southern Africa, to the chilly April clime around wet Rila Monastery, with snow still on the surrounding mountains. More than 30 years later, we are driving directly from the airport to the monastery, in early summer, with the temperatures that go with it. After leaving the highway, we follow a small road meandering through the landscape and villages, and drive up Rila valley. i am frantically searching my memory: how did I drive up here, what do I recognize? Thirty years is a long time. After admiring the colourful entrance, we step into the courtyard. Now, all the vague bits and pieces of my memory puzzle come together.
The black-and-white striped arches of the main church portico, the red-and-white stripes of its walls, the yellow dome, the colonnades of the residential area encircling the main church, the stone tower - yes, I have found a match with my memory! The surrounding mountains are green now, and while they dwarf us, we are still well over 1100m altitude here. Ivan Rilski, a monk who lived in a nearby cave in the 9th century, is often thought to have founded the monastery, but it might have been his students to erect it in the early 9th century. It grew into an important centre of Eastern Orthodox religion, received sizeable donations of Bulgarian tsars, and managed to preserve Bulgarian culture even during the Ottoman occupation of the lands. A fire destroyed much of the monastery in 1833, but it again received funds and was rebuilt immediately after the destruction.
Now, another disaster has struck: the Covid-19 pandemic, which has severely limited travel. This is the first day borders in Europe are starting to open up, and we have seized the opportunity to travel with both hands. The courtyard of this iconic, and normally much-visited, monastery is virtually empty. We walk over the cobble-stone courtyard to the Nativity of the Virgin Mother church, where we take our time to see the walls and ceiling with their rich, and brightly painted frescoes depicting biblical scenes. The interior of the church has the icons, and frescoes typical for any Orthodox church. Adjacent to the main church, we find the Hreliova, a stone tower that is the only 14th century structure that has survived the big fire. We walk around the courtyard again, wondering how the 60 monks live here in these beautiful surroundings, shortly consider staying the night (which is possible), have another look at the frescoes of the church, before we decide to drive down the valley to look for accommodation and a nice meal.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Rila Monastery (Bulgaria). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Rila Monastery. Read more about this site.