Getting to the Rila Monastery
Heading to the Rila Monastery by public transport from Sofia is difficult to do in just one day. The bus takes around 3 1/2 hours, with lots of stop offs and a long way to walk once you arrive. I would not recommend public transport for a day trip to Rila. If you want to spend a few days in the mountains, it may be a viable option as you will not be going there and back on the same day.
You can book a shuttle or Private tour with www.rilashuttle.com. Prices start from just 14EURO. A place on that really a shuttle is just 19.95EURO. The Rila shuttle will pick you up from your hostel in Sofia city centre and get you to Rila monastery in around two hours. This was cheaper than the other companies I found, which charge 24.95EURO or 29.95EURO.
We set out from Crosspoint Hostel at around 8:45 AM. Philip and Megy of Rila shuttle were very informative about Bulgarian culture and the history of Rila Monastery. It was also very interesting to see some local Bulgarian villages, which were big contrast to the city of Sofia.
We managed to drive past Rila Monastery and start with St John’s cave. The story is that St John, who was the founder of Rila Monastery, lived as a hermit in this cave.
Hiking up to St John’s Cave in Rila
It is a small hike, around 20 minutes to get up to St John’s cave. The views are stunning across the Rila Mountains.
Just be careful of your footing, as it is very rocky and uneven. It can also be slippy in the rain. The route to the cave is marked on trees and rocks as you can see. It is customary to greet other hikers in the mountains, you can say Dobre Den.
Inside the cave, you will see that people have left icons and candles in memory of St John wasn’t van. In order to get out of the cave the other side, you have to get through an extremely small hole. There are steps to help you and actually it looks smaller than it is. However, if you are a little claustrophobic, you may not want to go through this part of the cave!
The Bulgarians say that those who fit through the whole okay to come out the other side of good people, and anyone who cannot fit through are sinners – thankfully, I made it through!
There is a very small chapel next to the cave, which I recommend that you go in. Remember that this is an Orthodox Christian place of worship and pilgrimage, so speak quietly and cover your legs and shoulders. You can purchase a candle and light it in memory of St John. You can also make a small donation to the chapel.
Rila Monastery on the day of the Ascension of St John
We then headed to Rila Monastery. Today was a very special day to visit the ministry, because for Bulgarian Orthodox Christians, it was the Ascension of St Paul, the founder of the Monastery.
The Rila Monastery remains in use and the place of worship. There are around 10 monks who still lives there.
Rila Monastery itself presents some stunning architecture set against an amazing backdrop of mountains.
You can go into the Monastery and into the central Church, the Church of the Nativity, for free of charge. Again, remember to respect that it is a place of worship. Women should have their legs and shoulders covered and no photos in the Church.
Inside, you will say the ornate frescoes and stunning gold leaf that is standard of Orthodox churches. Words cannot really describe how astonishing the inside of the church is. It is covered with vibrant Christian icons from floor to ceiling.
This really is Bulgaria’s hidden gem.
In and around Rila Monastery
There is a museum in the Monastery that you can visit for just 8 Bulgarian Lev. Inside you will see frescos, tapestries, Bibles and priests vestements. The most stunning piece on display is Raphael’s cross, a wood carving containing tiny carved saintly and religious figurines.
Please note that photos are not allowed in the Rila Monastery Museum or inside the Church of the Nativity.
What to eat at Rila Monastery
If you go through the Monastery and out the other side you will find a restaurant with beautiful mountainous views. Philip highly recommended the trout – it is mountain trout (not sea trout) and a speciality of Rila. It was amazing. Get it with a salad (it comes on it’s own!) and make sure that you remove the bones!
If you want a traditional Bulgarian drink, you can try the Rakya, but be warned, it’s quite strong! So after you have visited the Church please, not before!
Many thanks to www.rilashuttle.com for their sponsorship, and, of course to Philip and Megy who ensured that we had the most wonderful day.