During my visit to Sofia I heard repeatedly that the nearby UNESCO World Heritage Site of Rila Monastery was a must see. Based upon this endorsement my expectations were high, but my first view of the monastery’s tall stone walls left me uninspired; it appeared to be nothing more than a simple stone fortress tucked into a pretty mountain glade. Disappointed, I walked through a long tunnel to a vaulted entrance and stopped in my tracks, stunned by the unexpected beauty of the interior courtyard that spread before me.

One of two entrance tunnels leading into the interior courtyard at Rila Monastery in Bulgaria

One of two entrance tunnels leading into the interior courtyard at Rila Monastery in Bulgaria

Three stories of arches stacked on stone columns decorated the facade of monastic apartments that formed the roughly pentagonal enclosure. In the center of the yard stood the Nativity of the Virgin Church, where exquisite frescoes in the cloistered entrance peeked through black and white arches, above which red and white striped brick walls supported five burnished gold and olive cupolas topped by filigree crosses. The crenelated stone Hrelyu Tower, constructed in 1334-1335 and the oldest building at the site, rose majestically behind the church.

Looking through fresco-painted colonnades of the Nativity of the Virgin Church to arches set upon stone columns that form the loggias of the monastic apartments at Rila Monastery

Looking through fresco-painted colonnades of the Nativity of the Virgin Church to arches set upon stone columns that form the loggias of the monastic apartments at Rila Monastery

Ironically, this stunning monastery evolved as a result of the ascetic Ivan of Rilski (Saint John of Mila), a simple shepherd born in 876, who became a monk and retired to a cave near the present day site, intending to lead a isolated life devoted to prayer, meditation, and fasting. His plans were foiled, however, when word of his ability to perform miracles became public knowledge. Pilgrims began arriving, seeking to be blessed or cured of their infirmities. Buildings sprung up near the hermit’s cave, forming the nucleus of a community that eventually evolved into an Eastern Orthodox monastery.

Frontal view of Nativity of the Virgin church at Rila Monastery

Frontal view of Nativity of the Virgin church at Rila Monastery

The original buildings were completely destroyed by fire in the 13th century, but in 1355 a powerful local prince, Stefan Hrelyu, ordered the construction of the tower that now bears his name and is the oldest structure on the site. By the time the relics of Saint Ivan were installed at the monastery in 1469, it had become a symbol of national pride and a repository for Bulgarian literature and art, a passion that was heightened during the Ottoman Turkish domination of Bulgaria and the Soviet years.

Hrelyu Tower (left), built between the 13th and 14th centuries by prince Hrelyu Dragovol, and The Nativity of the Virgin church (right) at Rila Monastery

Hrelyu Tower (left), built between the 13th and 14th centuries by prince Hrelyu Dragovol, and The Nativity of the Virgin church (right) at Rila Monastery

With the exception of Hrelyu Tower and a small chapel that stands next to it, the current buildings date back to the mid-19th century, as the complex was destroyed by fire once again in 1833. Perhaps the most important of these latter-day buildings is the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin, the walls and ceilings of which are covered with vibrant frescoes painted by the top Bulgarian artists of the day.

Frescoes on "The Nativity of the Virgin" church at Rila Monastery in Bulgaria

Frescoes on “The Nativity of the Virgin” church at Rila Monastery in Bulgaria

Even more famous than the frescoes is the iconostasis, a partition separating the sanctuary from the main part of the church, which took a group of woodcarvers three years to complete. The gold-plated iconostasis gleams softly, reflecting light from a crystal chandelier that hangs from the center of the dimly lit nave, as worshipers stream in and out, reverently kissing the icons of saints embedded in the screen.

Hand carved, gold plated iconostasis inside "The Nativity of the Virgin" church at Rila Monastery in Bulgaria

Hand carved, gold plated iconostasis inside “The Nativity of the Virgin” church at Rila Monastery in Bulgaria

I couldn’t help wonder what Ivan the hermit, who sought only to live a life of seclusion and prayer, would have thought about the complex, which ironically attracts an estimated 900,000 visitors each year.

How to visit Rila Monastery:

Located about 73 miles south of Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, the site is easily accessible via well-maintained roads. A day tour is also offered by Rila Monastery Bus, which combines visit to Rila with a stop at Boyana Church in Sofia, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, these day trips allow an hour to 1.5 hours at the monastery, which is barely sufficient to see the main site, much less allow time hike to St. Ivan’s original cave or visit his crypt and the on-site museum. For those who wish to stay longer, take a 25-minute ride on the N5 tram from behind the Palace of Justice in Sofia to the west bus station (Ovcha Kupel).  At the west bus station, take the bus to Rila Monastery, which leaves once per day at 10:20 a.m. arriving around 1:00 p.m. The return bus to Sofia departs at 3:00 p.m. and arrives back in the city around 5:30 p.m.. The round-trip ticket costs 22 BGN ($15-16 USD) and is purchased on board from the driver. It is also possible to stay overnight and catch the public bus back the next day, as inns are located within easy walking distance and it is also possible to sleep in the monastery for about $20 per night.