Do you remember the scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy is knocked unconscious in a black and white Kansas, and wakes up in a vivid, Technicolor Oz?
If you do, then you’ll know exactly what it’s like to walk through the arched gate and into the courtyard of the Rila Monastery.
Rarely have we seen a more breathtaking sight than stepping into this magnificent courtyard.
Located 75 miles south of Sofia, Bulgaria in the steep, forest-covered mountains, Rila (pronounced Ree-la) was the country’s first Christian monastery. Founded in AD 927 by John of Rila – a cave-dwelling hermit and the country’s traditional patron saint – it was originally built as a four-floor residential building to house 300 monks and provide guest rooms.
Surrounded by deep-green forests and with mountains looming overhead, the monks couldn’t have picked a more spectacular and tranquil spot to pray, meditate, and worship God.
The high stone walls surrounding the monastery look more like a fortress than an abbey, and they do an excellent job of hiding the incredible splendor inside.
A glance through the ornate gateway provides a delightful teaser view, but once inside you’re overwhelmed with floor upon floor of covered galleries, with colonnades and arches stretching along the walls. Each floor has it’s own unique style and color scheme, which is different than floors above and below. The repetition and simple color palette is classic elegance at its best.
Dominating the center of the courtyard is the Church of The Virgin, famous for its fresco-covered veranda. Lush colored illustrations cover every square inch, forming a remarkable, visual textbook on Orthodox religious beliefs.
Our visit to the Rila monastery was one of the highlights of our Balkan trip. It’s hard to overstate how impressive both the monastery and its location are, which is why it’s a major attraction for both Bulgarian pilgrims and foreign tourists. We don’t put attractions on our Do Not Miss list lightly, but this monastery sits right up there on the top with a few of our other favorite holy places: Bangkok’s Grand Palace; The Cave Temples of Dambulla, Sri Lanka; and the Temples of Luang Prabang, Laos.
James & Terri
P.S. Getting to the Rila Monastery:
If you have car, Rila is only a short drive from Sofia and should be a super easy day trip. But if you’re like us, and prefer public transit, its remote location makes it difficult to get to. We found it easiest to organize a day tour from Sofia. We organized our tour online with a local company (€25/person), and couldn’t have been happier with their service. It’s a low-key tour, and for a small additional fee, they’ll pick you up at your hotel. Also, we visited mid-week and crowds were not a problem, but weekends can be busy, so plan accordingly.
11. Petr Dlouhý via Wikimedia Commons