Staying In Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

So do you want to get locked inside the 1000 year old Rila Monastery, nestled deep within a dark valley in Bulgaria with no food and no escape until sunrise? Ummmmm, yeah sure…. will I survive?

We couldn’t turn down the opportunity to stay a night in Rila Monastery, Bulgaria’s spiritual centre and home to 60 worshipping monks.  Rila is one of Bulgaria’s premier tourist sights, but we had no idea you could actually stay overnight. It’s a little known secret, but thanks to Nina & Ellie @ FollowTheSisters we were able to enjoy a night in this incredible place.

“The next best thing to staying in the Vatican with the Pope!”

Dazzled upon entering the courtyard of the magical and colourful Rila Monastery

Dazzled upon entering the courtyard of the magical and colourful Rila Monastery

Founded by St. Ivanski in the year 927, Rila Monastery has welcomed pilgrims from across the Balkans for centuries but it is only recently that regular tourists like ourselves have been welcome. Converted into a guestrooms is  block of former monk dorms, ranging from single rooms to triple rooms – all en suite. However, no matter what your beliefs, you must follow the same rules as the resident monks and pilgrims – that means:

  • The Monastery gates are locked shut from sunset until sunrise – no way in, no way out.
  • Fasting takes place between sunset and sunrise, so food cannot be consumed until dawn.
  • Strictly no alcohol – whoops, I guess that bottle of wine will have to wait

Thankfully the food rule isn’t strictly enforced, so you can sneak some food in your bag and eat in your room. There’s no canteen or kitchen available for cooking. So make sure to pack some bread and goodies beforehand. Top Tip – there’s a gigantic Kaufland supermarket next to the bus station in Sofia.

The Monastery, as it stands today, is a testament to the Bulgarian National Revival Architectural period of the 19th century. Today it is a UNESCO heritage site and a national treasure .

The Monastery, as it stands today, is a testament to the Bulgarian National Revival Architectural period of the 19th century. Today it is a UNESCO heritage site and a national treasure.

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The colourful Nativity of the Virgin church was built in 1840, and is centred within the courtyard of the surrounding monastery. During the day, especially in the summer, large crowds of tourists visit this historic sight. But as the day draws to a close, the crowds diminish and as the sun sets against the steep mountains, an eerie silence descends upon the monastery. It is a welcoming calm and allows for uninterrupted exploration of the monastery. Most of the monastery is off limits to visitors, but not guests- so get your cameras ready!
In the evening and early morning, the only disturbances are elderly monks shuffling along the wooden balconies and inquisitive cats purring in the alcoves. It’s easy to see why pilgrims would have come here to escape the trappings of the outside world – there’s a sense of pure serenity and calm.

Monks and nuns of all ages live in the monastery today, escaping the trappings of modern city life. They keep to themselves and appear to be quite reserved.

Monks and nuns of all ages live in the monastery today, escaping the trappings of modern city life. They keep to themselves and appear to be quite reserved – then again we don’t speak a word of Bulgarian so couldn’t communicate!

The stunning frescoes that adore the curved ceilings around the church depict hundreds of scenes from the Bible. Artists from across Bulgaria continue to paint new frescoes every year.

The stunning colourful frescoes that adorn the curved ceilings around the church depict hundreds of scenes from the Bible. Artists from across Bulgaria continue to paint new frescoes every year.

The artwork around the church and the monastery is simply beautiful. We were lucky enough to catch a painter putting the finishing touches to this amazingly colourful piece of work.

Reservations

Rila is 2 hours 30 minutes from Sofia. While it is not necessary to make a booking, it is recommended, just in case others have the same idea. However when we stayed there was just one other room taken, so you could chance it and just turn up. The small reception is located next the small museum behind the church. The price of a small two bed room with bathroom was 45LEV, however I believe it may be cheaper for Bulgarian citizens. There is no online booking, so you must call the Monastery on +359 896 872010 – maybe best to get a Bulgarian friend or hostel reception to call for you.

Rila Monastery is set deep within a dark valley. On a clear night the sky above is studded with glittering stars, added to the tranquillity of this spiritual place

An eerie silence descends on the monastery at night. You sense that the ghosts of thousands of monks, nuns and pilgrims are following you at every step as you walk along the creaking, dimly lit wooden corridors

The rooms, while heated, do get very cold in the winter time. We stayed at the end of September, and while it was hot during the day, the temperature dropped to -1c in the evening. So tuck in tightly to your bed. Hot water is available and the pressure is amazing. To be quite honest the shower was one of most powerful I’ve used in a while!

The monks who live in the Monastery spend their time gardening, reading in the historic library and praying. We did catch one or two playing games on their mobile phones :)

The monks who live in the Monastery spend their time gardening, reading in the historic library and praying. We did catch one or two playing games on their mobile phones 🙂

Morning mass takes place at sunrise inside the church. As turtle doves amble in the morning sun, weary priests and monks make their way into the church to pray. It is a remarkable scene and symbolises the devotion of the resident monks. We strolled down to the church entrance, but felt it would be respectful to enter the church while the monks prayed. If you feel comfortable though, feel free to enter.

How to Get There

The bus timetable at the small bus station in Rila village. Make sense?! 🙂

A direct bus serves Rila Monastery from Sofia everyday. Rila village is 30 minutes from the Monastery itself and has frequent connections to Blagoevgrad (Благоевград). From Blagoevgrad you can connect by bus or train to Sofia and further afield. Comprehsive bus timestables can be found @ www.bgrazpisanie.com

Two Days In Rila – Sofia to Rila Monastery and Back

Day 1 – 09:30: Tram #19 from city centre to Sofia Ovcha Kupel (South bus station). 1.60LEV
10:20: Depart Sofia Ovcha Kupel (south bus station) on the Rila Express Bus. Arrive to the bus station by at least 10AM as the bus is small and can be busy. We were lucky to get the last two seats. 11LEV Single ticket
13:00: Arrive at Rila Monastery. Free entry to explore the church and courtyards
14:30: Room Check In begins at 15:00 next to the little Monastery museum. 45LEV per room
Day 2 – 08:10: Bus from Rila Monastery to Blagoevgrad. Connect at Rila village. 3.50LEV
10:30: Bus from Blagoevgrad to Sofia. 10LEV
12:00: Arrive in Sofia city centre.

Stuck for Time? Rila in One day

If you pressed for time, you can always take the 10:20 bus and return directly to Sofia at 15:00 from the Monastery. Cost is 15LEV each way. This allows for 2 hours to explore the monastery and gets you back to Sofia by 17:30. Alternatively, if you want more time to explore, there is one bus from Rila Monastery to Blagoevgrad (via Rila) at 17:00, allowing for a transfer to Sofia by bus or train.

Timetables

Sofia – Rila Monastery Direct: 10:20 Daily
Rila Monastery – Sofia Direct: 15:00 Daily
Rila Monastery – Rila Village bus station: 08:10 / 09:00 / 15:00 / 17:00
Rila Village – Rila Monastery: 07:40 / 12:40 / 15:50
Rila Village – Blagoevgrad: 10 connections daily between 06:20 & 19:00
Blagoevgrad – Sofia: 15 connections Daily between 06:00 & 20:00

Rila Monastery is an unmissable stop on any vacation to Bulgaria. The setting of the monastery is incomparable.

Rila Monastery is an unmissable stop on any vacation to Bulgaria. The setting of the monastery is incomparable.

Hitch-Hiking and Cycling – The road to Rila is busy in summer and autumn, so hitch-hiking should be easy. It’s quite popular in Bulgaria. Cyclists will enjoy the winding road and sweeping views, however be aware of trucks and tourist coaches.
By Car –
It is possible to drive to Rila Monastery, journey time is 2 hours. For guests who staying the night, free parking is available to the rear of the Monastery. Paid parking is available for day trippers at the front of the Moanstery.  The road becomes icy in winter, therefore it can be difficult to drive between November and March.

Again thanks to the awesome girls and their Follow The Sisters blog. Without them we wouldn’t have had the chance to stay in Rila. View their blog for more stunning photos of Rila and Bulgaria.

17 Comments

  1. 05/02/2017 / 3:26 AM

    Wow I had no idea you could actually stay over night in a monastery! That sounds awesome, I hope I can try it one day!

  2. 05/02/2017 / 1:48 PM

    What a cool place to spend a night, looks so beautiful! The church and the monastery have gorgeous artwork and architecture, seems like an amazing travel experience!

  3. 05/02/2017 / 2:59 PM

    I’ve been looking into staying in Monasteries during my upcoming Europe trip. Most of what I’m finding is out of my budget though 😛 It does sound like an incredible experience, though maybe a little eerie at night?

    • 05/02/2017 / 10:46 PM

      Thanks for reading Brianna! That’s cool… if you do manage to find others to go you could share the cost. They have triple rooms so it would be like €7 each 🙂 And defo a little eerie at night, especially when monks just appear out of nowhere in the dark!

  4. 05/02/2017 / 7:45 PM

    How cool!! I never know you could stay in a monastery!! I’m sure it was quite the experience. I would have had to sneak some snacks in as well. I’m sure I would have gotten hungry eventually! Lol.

    • 05/02/2017 / 10:45 PM

      Haha it was awesome. And yep I can’t imagine what it would have been like if we didn’t bring any food. Would have collapsed with starvation! 🙂

  5. 06/02/2017 / 12:34 AM

    I love reading about your experience! I’m planning a trip to Bulgaria in late summer – this gem will be on my list!

    • 06/02/2017 / 8:21 PM

      Cool! I’ll be adding another couple of tid bits about Bulgaria in the next couple of weeks, so stay tuned! :

  6. 06/02/2017 / 6:30 AM

    It sounds pretty peaceful to stay at Rila overnight. We just went there on a day trip and really enjoyed it. Great tips!

  7. 06/02/2017 / 10:50 AM

    What a unique choice of accommodation! That would be pretty neat to stay but just for one day, I think. I would also probably sneak some snacks into my room hehe.

  8. 07/02/2017 / 2:45 AM

    What a beautiful monastery and a very unique experience. I’d be up for doing something like this so thanks for sharing. Saving!

  9. 08/02/2017 / 1:59 AM

    What a cool experience to stay in this monastery! I actually quite like the horizontal stripes on the exterior – it makes the buildings stand out. Great tip about sneaking food in – I would absolutely have to do that because I am constantly eating and could never go that long without food! 😀

    • 08/02/2017 / 8:36 PM

      The colours were so amazing Diana! It was all so perfect, and well maintained too by the artists and decorators. Haha and yep, the food is a must 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  10. 08/02/2017 / 7:15 PM

    Wow, I’m so happy I found your post on Rila monastery. I had no clue you could stay there. I wil most definitely put this on my list and I might even do it this year. I’m getting super excited seeing this.

    • 08/02/2017 / 8:35 PM

      Awesome. So good to hear Romy, you should definitely do it, such an incredible experience. I’d love to do it again!

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