I joined a day tour from the hostel in Sofia to Rila Monastery, as the cost of taking public buses was almost the same and would not allow enough time to visit the tomb as well as the monastery. I’m so glad I did. We stopped at an old monastery along the way, and had plenty of time to hike up to St. Ivan’s Tomb and the small chapel there while still having a couple of hours to explore Rila Monastery.
The first main stop was the tomb of St. Ivan, which was a fifteen minute walk from where we parked the car and a few kilometres behind Rila Monastery. It was a lovely walk uphill through the forest to the small site, where there is a chapel, the tomb and a small shrine. There’s a tiny rock cave where it is claimed St. Ivan lived for decades, and we entered there first. It doesn’t look like a comfortable place to live, nor does it look like it would be warm or dry in winter. We didn’t leave the way we came in, but through a small fissure in the rock that we had to quite literally squeeze through. From there we walked to the small shrine, around which every late gap in the rocks is stuffed with folded scraps of paper bearing wishes or desires. We all wrote something down and hunted for a gap to squish our wishes into. Last stop here was the chapel. The light was magical, and it made it look as though it had been snowing. It hadn’t been, but the effect was quite special. Inside the chapel is the tomb of St. Ivan, and of course frescoes covered the walls and ceiling.
Rila Monastery is regarded as one of Bulgaria’s most important cultural, religious and historical sites and this is well deserved. The Eastern Orthodox monastery is simply beautiful, and the combination of black and white stripes with vibrant frescoes is astounding. The church at the centre of the monastery is huge, and of course photos were forbidden. This was disappointing if unsurprising, as the frescoes of the interior are just marvellous, with the high soaring domes vividly painted and the icons adorned with gold. The iconostasis was unbelievably richly decorated, and there were many local people praying and lighting candles. Centuries of candles have darkened the frescoes with a layer of smoke, but restoration work is restoring these to their former glory.
A huge monastic complex surrounds the church, and it remains in operation despite having only about eight monks there. The grounds are beautiful and there was a steady stream of both tourists and pilgrims. Souvenir shops sold postcards and tacky gold plastic icons, and a small group of Orthodox priests gathered before the cathedral. Outside the complex there are a few restaurants and further souvenir shops, and a small canal running beside the fortified wall surrounding the complex held a number of chunks of ice – it certainly wasn’t warm up there.
We spent a few hours at the monastery, and had a hearty if not spectacular lunch. I was the last back to the car [although spot on time] as I was busy losing my feet in large piles of autumn leaves, as well as enjoying kicking the piles as i walked back to the car along the side of the road. I still take a childish delight in making piles of red-golden leaves fly.