The Monastery of St. John of Rila, aka the Rila Monastery, is one of nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Bulgaria and probably the most famous one.
In case this 1000 year old stronghold of Christian Orthodox faith is on your to-do list while visiting our beautiful country, here are a couple of things you should know …
Best to have a scarf handy to put around your shoulders when you enter the courtyard.
The dress code for entering the The Nativity of the Holy Virgin Church is even stricter:
- your shoulders and knees must be completely covered. They do loan proper attire for covering up during your tour of the church just in case;
- take off your hat and sunglasses, and do not place your hands in your pockets, as this is considered to be disrespectful;
- leave your backpack behind. You are not allowed to enter the church with a backpack as quite often people end up leaning on or scratching the walls and thus, destroying the delicate frescoes.
The restrictions on taking pictures and making videos in the monastery are very tight. You are allowed to do so in and around the courtyard, as well as with regard to the outside frescos of the main church, but that’s about it.
Taking pictures inside the museums and the church are strictly forbidden, not even against a small donation.
Most people visiting the Rila Monastery are unaware that there is more than one museum on the premises. Entrance fees are paid in the main Ecclesiastic & Historical Museum and here is a list of all exhibitions you can visit.
- Ecclesiastic & Historical Museum – Located in the East wing, this is the main museum dedicated to the monastery’s history, from its establishment in the 10th century to the 19th Here you can see the monastery’s most prized possession – the Rafail’s Cross.
- Monastic Cell – Located in the South wing, in proximity to the Ecclesiastic & Historical Museum, where you can get the key, the reconstructed monastic cell and novice room are a bit of a surprise for most visitors. As it turns out, Orthodox monks didn’t have it too shabby.
- Hrelyo’s Tower – This prominent building in the monastery’s courtyard is the oldest construction in the complex dating back to the 14th Most of the tower’s floors are open for visitors. It offers a nice view on the yard, but beware the steep stairs.
- Ethnographic Museum and Revival Era Guestrooms – Located in the North wing, this exhibit displays traditional Bulgarian cloths, jewelry and items from the Revival Era Period. Especially stunning are the richly decorated guestrooms, furnished with funds and gifts from several Bulgarian towns and hence, carrying their names, e.g. the Koprivshtitsa, Chirpan, Teteven and Kyustendil Rooms.
- Monastery Industries in the 19th century – The exhibit shows some of the monks’ activities like sheep breeding, dairying, bee-keeping, farming and includes the monastery’s water-mill, the bakery and the kitchen.
- Icon Gallery – Located in the South wing, here you can see some of the monastery’s most prized icons from the 17th – 19th century, as well as portraits of its abbots. It’s a rare treat for Christian Art enthusiasts.
Did you know that you can stay overnight in the monastery itself? Well, now you do! You can rent a room on the premises, however, be aware that as a couple you can sleep together in a room only if you are lawfully married, else it would be women, respectively men rooms only 😉
There are also several small hotels in the area, as well as an official camping spot.
In case all these Orthodox icons and frescoes make you hungry, there are two things one must try when visiting the Rila Monastery:
1) ‘mekitsa’ – a traditional Bulgarian pastry made from deep fired kneaded dough. You can get a ‘mekitsa’ from the monastery’s own bakery, just outside Samokovska Gate … look for the crowd waiting in line;
2) local trout for lunch, as this is traditional for the area. You can get trout in any of the numerous restaurants in the vicinity of the monastery, so just pick one. We, however, recommend a visit to Tsarev Vrah Restaurant, behind the bakery, for two reasons – first, they serve freshly baked, homemade bread from the bakery, which is simply delicious; and second, when you are a visitor of the restaurant, you get a discount on your entrance to the monastery’s History Museum, just show them you receipt;
For all you postcard fans out there, the Rila Monastery has its own Post Office located to your right when you enter the grounds through the Dupnitsa Gate (West wing). It works daily, including Saturday and Sunday, between 8:30 and 17:00 with a lunch break from 12:00 to 13:30; however, the lady running it might occasionally not show up at all due to personal reasons and there is no replacement.
The monastery has a medical professional present on Monday, Friday, Saturday & Sunday. For the rest of the week, you can call an on-duty medic. Their mobile number can be found on the door of the Medical Service office.