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!”
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 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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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
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.