A Day Trip to Rila Monastery and Boyana Church from Sofia, Bulgaria
In my post on Brasov I explained that one of the reasons I was drawn to this region of Eastern Europe in particular was because of a book called The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova.
Whilst the majority of the book is set in Romania, there was one place in Bulgaria I wanted to go ever since I heard it described in the book; the Rila Monastery.
In fact if it wasn’t for this UNESCO World Heritage Listed Monastery, located in the hills outside of Sofia, I might not have ended up in Bulgaria at all.
Thus my visit had some hype and excitement to live up to and I’m happy to report that I didn’t leave disappointed!
How to Get There
Before I go on to rave about how amazing the Rila Monastery is, I wanted to answer some practical questions first. The Rila Monastery makes a perfect day trip from nearby Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. I didn’t even see Sofia at all, and just passed through specifically to do this trip on the spare day I had.
There are lots of different tour companies offering this day trip, at varying prices and comfort levels. The best value I found was that offered by Rila Monastery Bus. The day tour costs €25 which is basically the cost of the shuttle bus.
They take you to two places; Boyana Church and Rila Monastery and give you what I thought was plenty of time to explore them. Entrance fees were separate which I didn’t mind because buying my own ticket allowed me to benefit from my student discount. They also make a stop for lunch which also isn’t included but wasn’t hugely expensive given it was a tourist stop.
I think it’s the perfect way to check these two places off your bucket list!
Boyana Church is a medieval church built between the 10th to the 13th centuries. It is also inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
But what makes this church so special is the frescoes that are painted on to the inside of the church. They depict events in the Bible and in Bulgarian history, and have a distinctively human focus. They also tell their own stories as archaeology and historical dating has revealed the many layers of these frescoes, with some stories being covered by others over time.
Given the need to protect these frescoes, some of which are almost 1000 years old, no photography is allowed inside the church. Hence I don’t have any pretty pictures of the incredible inside of the church. This is definitely a case of having to go to Bulgaria and see it for yourselves!
But while Boyana Church was incredible in its own right, I was obviously most excited about our visit to the Monastery.
It was a bit of a drive between Boyana and Monastery as we whizzed through the mountains above Sofia. The temperature dropped (which seemed impossible given how cold Sofia was to begin with) and I tried very hard not to sleep so I could take in the view around me. This drive really demonstrated just how much of Bulgaria is covered in forest. I imagine there would be some amazing hiking in the area- that’s if you can avoid the local wolves and bears.
When we finally arrived in Rila Monastery it was as spectacular as I’d always imagined it to be. After visiting countless cathedrals, churches, and monasteries in Europe they had all begun to merge into one. But Rila Monastery was undoubtedly different.
The bright colours and stripey patterns on the building are truly unique. So are the murals painted on the outside of the building that are just incredible works of art.
Before arriving I’d prepaid for an audio guide but our guide told me the audio guide in English was really bad so gave me a private tour and explanation of the murals himself. The outside of the main church part of the Monastery was most definitely the highlight.
The inside of the church was also rather pretty but again I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside.
Other than the Monastery itself, we decided to go exploring down by the river that runs directly past the Monastery. Here we found the Monastery cemetery and a depilated crypt that gave me the heebie jeebies!
It wasn’t long before we were climbing back into the minibus for the trip back to Sofia. Of course the lunch stop meant I could have one last taste of my favourite Bulgaria dish; the mish-mash omelette. I really must learn how to make that home!
Visiting Rila Monastery meant that I didn’t get to see any of Sofia. A detour to the Buzludzha and a general delay stretching back from my time with a knee injury in Slovakia meant I was running short on time. So I arrived in Sofia late the night before, and jumped straight on an overnight train to Belgrade after returning from my tour. But it is surely not a decision I regret. Rila Monastery was everything I imagined!