Rila Monastery: A real masterpiece of Bulgarian Orthodox Christianity
How to get there? Despite the Monastery’s fame, it’s a bit complicated to get there if you don’t have a car. You will have to take the one public bus that runs daily. It departs at 10:20 from Sofia and arrives at Rila at 13:00. The return bus departs at 15:00, and it is therefore best to stay overnight. A return ticket costs only 11eur.
Brief data and short history of Rila monastery: This is the largest monastery in Bulgaria and one of the oldest. The monastery is located on Rila Mountain and dates from the 10th century. The monastery was founded by the hermit Ivan Rilski. During the medieval Bulgarian Empire, the monastery became the main center of Bulgarian culture and religion. Monks lived there and still do, in search of a spiritual retreat. People used to come here to worship. Almost every Bulgarian emperor gave donations to the monastery as a gesture of respect. The oldest preserved parts from medieval times date from the 14th century and consist of a small church and fortification tower. During the Ottoman period, the monastery served as a retreat to protect Bulgarian culture, language, literature, religion, and national identity. In the second half of the 19th century, during the Bulgarian national revival, the church was reconstructed within the monastery complex. The Monastery is under the protection of UNESCO.
What to see there?
Fortification Tower: The fortification around the monastery will be the first thing that you will see as you approach the large monastery complex. Especially interesting is the 14th century tower (22m high) that served to defend the monastery from the Ottomans. Probably you have never before seen a monastery surrounded by fortifications, but prayer was not enough to protect culture and identity in that turbulent time. There are other fortified monasteries in the Balkans.
Main Church: The latest version of the main church and central prayer site of the monastery was reconstructed in the 19th century. The church is very big and beautifully decorated with arches outside and five major domes. There are three altars inside the church, where there is also a gold-plated iconostasis. The icons date between the 14th and 19th centuries. Also inside are beautiful wooden carvings which surround the iconostasis. There is also a rich collection of frescoes, painted by the most famous Bulgarian masters of the 19th century. The outer walls of the church are decorated with frescoes, too. There are many frescoes on which are depicted various saints, scenes of the crucifixion, the resurrection, heaven, and hell. The variety of frescoes probably impressed me more than anything else in the monastery:
Museum: Located within the complex is a very valuable collection of Bulgarian religious literature. More than 250 manuscripts and 16 000 printed books and documents show the richness of the monastery and its role in preserving the culture, language, and identity of Bulgaria between the 14th and 19th centuries. The most notable thing in the museum is Rafail’s cross. It was made from one piece of wood measuring 81cm x 43cm. The cross was carved by a monk called Rafail, who used steel chisels and magnifying lenses to create 104 religious scenes and 650 miniature figures. This took him 12 years, and he finished it only in 1802, as he was losing his eyesight. Because of the accuracy of its many details, the cross looks unreal even when you stand in front of it.
Residential area: It surrounds the main church and has five floors. There are 300 chambers, an abbot room, guest rooms, and a kitchen. Outside it has many arches and small windows. Inside, it is simple and modest as is logical given that it is a residence for ascetic monks.
Dining: There are a few restaurants outside of the main gate. You can try amazing Shishceta – a Bulgarian version of skewers with pieces of pork grilled on the same stick with vegetables. You can get it for only about 5eur. If you have a hangover from the night before, you can eat Shkembe (Tripe) soup that is made from whole cooked parts of pork and beef tripe. It’s believed to be a natural remedy for hangover and cannot cost more than 3eur. Also you can try amazing chushki burek. It is the Bulgarian version of burek but filled with baked peppers instead of cheese. This costs around 2eur.
Accommodation: The best idea is to stay overnight in the monastery. It costs only 10eur and includes a monastic breakfast composed of salad, bread, and cooked eggs. In the evening the gates are closed, and it is really atmospheric to stay inside the monastery. Men and women sleep in separate rooms unless they are a married couple. At night you can sit in your room and pray, read the Bible by the light of an oil lamp, and smell the incense that is so ubiquitously used in the Eastern Orthodox world. If you want, you can walk around the church at night and observe the mysterious dark mountains that surround the monastery and seem scary in the darkness.
Before departure: You can wake up early in morning and hike in the hills around the monastery. You can also visit the tomb of Ivan Rilski in the nearby forests. The area has beautiful streams and lakes. The bus to Sofia departs at 15:00.
Plovdiv – one of oldest cities in Europe
This is the next stop on our train tour. We are moving now towards eastern Bulgaria.
How to reach it? Take a morning train from Sofia. The trip lasts 4h as Bulgarian trains are quite slow. The price of a ticket is 5eur for adults and 2.50eur for students. Take some snacks with you on the train.
Intro to the city: Before you get there you should know something about the city. Plovdiv is the second largest city in Bulgaria and has 400 000 inhabitants. It is one of the oldest cities in Europe as it was founded around 6000 years ago. The first inhabitants of Plovdiv were Thracians. Later, in the 5th century BC, the Greeks took control of Plovdiv. With new rulers came new inhabitants. After the Greeks came the Romans. Later, Plovdiv became an important center in the Byzantine Empire but was captured by the Bulgarian ruler Khan Krum in the 9th century and became part of the Bulgarian Empire. Of course the Ottomans came to Plovdiv, too, in the 14th century, and Plovdiv became part of Bulgaria again at the end of the 19th century. Each ruling power left traces of its culture. In 2014, Plovdiv was a European capital of culture.
From railway station to the old city: Here are locations that you must check out in Plovdiv.
St. Marina Church: This is the closest major sight to the railway station. Built in the 16th century, this is the most unique church in Plovdiv as it has a 19th century wooden tower. Also its murals are very beautiful. Inside the church there is 170-year-old iconostasis. Small and frequently overlooked, the St.Marina church has a mysterious atmosphere, partly thanks to the absence of visitors. The church yard is very suitable for sitting and relaxing thanks to the shade of large trees.
Ancient Theatre – A short distance from the railway station is an ancient Roman theatre, built in the 2nd century by the Roman Emperor Trajan. This is considered to be one of the world’s best-preserved amphitheaters, with many of its ancient pillars still standing alongside old white marble seats with the names of the notable citizens of ancient Philippopolis (the old name of Plovdiv) inscribed on them. The theater could seat 7000 people at a time, and it demonstrates how rich old Plovdiv was. You can explore it and take pictures here. From the theatre there is also a nice view over the city as it is located on the southern slope of one of Old Town’s hills. In the evenings during summer there are often frequent concerts or dance festivals. You can, for example, watch Bulgarian folkloric performances in the old Roman theatre.
Battenberg Street: You will immediately notice Plovdiv’s beautiful and colorful pedestrian street, with many 19th century European-style buildings and a large choice of bars and restaurants and modern shops. You can sit in a confectionery and refresh yourself with the Bulgarian version of coffee, cooked in a special pot. It doesn’t cost more than 80 cents.
Jumaya Mosque: A 14th century mosque located in downtown Plovdiv. The mosque has nine domes and one tall minaret. Its internal and external paintings are very beautiful and date from the 18th century. If you are there at the right time you can hear calls for prayer – known as Ezan – that can be heard from the minaret quite clearly.
Old Town: This is one of the largest and best-preserved old towns in Bulgaria, encompassing almost all of 18th century Plovdiv. The streets of the Old Town are slightly steep as they are located on a hill. The houses are quite big and handsome, as Plovdiv was one of main trade centers of the Ottoman Empire. Therefore wealthy Turkish, Bulgarian, and Greek merchant families used to live here. The houses are well preserved, often painted in white, red, orange, or blue. The details of the facades are decorated in oriental style. The houses have very strangely shaped chimneys. A few of the houses serve as museums such as the Ethnographic Museum and the Philippopolis Art Gallery and Museum. Entry fees are 2.5euros for adults and 1eur for students. A few of the courtyards are open to visitors, offering peaceful settings that are rich with greenery. Passing along streets paved with cobblestones, between old houses and among souvenir shops, you will take in the atmosphere of the past. The spirit of by-gone times will additionally be felt if you hear an old street artist playing bagpipes in one of the streets. You can also visit many souvenir shops selling wooden figures, pottery, and paintings, and you can buy beautiful paintings of the Old Town for about 5-10eur. From many places at the periphery of Old Town there is a nice view of the new city and the mountains in theh distance. You can watch a sunset from the western slope of Old Town.
Time for a meal: After an exhausting walk you will be hungry again. This time you can try gyuvech – a dish that is popular all over the Balkans. It is a portion of baked vegetables and meat (cooked in earthenware), and it includes tomatoes, olives, carrots, peppers, garlic, eggplant, potato, and chicken. Gyuvech is more than delicious, and doesn’t cost more than 4-5eur. Also you can try stuffed peppers, a very interesting dish made of big roasted peppers filled with minced meat and rice. A portion of stuffed peppers costs 4eur. If you prefer your meat grilled, you can order spicy sausages known as Karnache, served with green salad and fries and costing about 3.5eur.
Night in Plovdiv: If you had a crazy night in Sofia, you can have a calmer one in Plovdiv. At night you have many such opportunities here. You can walk through Old Town and feel its romantic night atmosphere. Also you can check if there is a performance in the ancient theatre and get tickets to it. Entry fees can range between 3-10eur. A good idea is to sit in one of the bars there or in the main street to try more Plovdiv specialties. In addition to beer you can try other drinks. For example, you can try Menta. It’s a liquor made from mint, and it’s very tasty when it’s drunk cold. A glass of it costs about 2eur. If you are a bit tired of alcohol you can try boza, a typical Balkan and Middle Eastern drink made from wheat, millet, or corn. It is drunk cold and is very tasty, and thick, and it doesn’t cost more than 1eur.
Sleeping time: Among the many hotels and hostels, the cheapest is the Crib. A night in the Crib will cost 8eur.