I love visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites and though not every of 1000+ places in the list are really interesting to visit, but mostly it’s something to consider while visiting the country. Almost all my planning include at least checking whether there is any Heritage site in the area and is it worth visiting. While beeing in Sofia, i have found that 2 sites are located not far away from the city and it is possible to visit them as a day journey with the tour. At first, i thought about doing it by myself, but after learning the transport options (read about it at the end of the article), decided to go with the tour.
We started our day with 2 hours drive from Sofia and some fun facts about Bulgaria on our way. I have learned that Bulgaria is the only european country that hasn’t changed it’s name, The Bulgarian orthodox Church is the oldest Slavic Orthodox church and that Cyrillic became the third official alphabet in EU after Bulgaria joined EU.
After a smooth ride we arrived to the Rila monastery, which is the most famous monastery in the country. It is located in the mountains on the altitude of more than 1000 metres. That brings beautiful views to surroundings and clear crispy air. The monastery was founded in 10th century and was highly valued among Bulgarian rulers since that time. That gave the monastery the opportunity and resources to develop and collect a lot of priceless objects. Thought the monastery was destroyed by the ottomans in 14th century, it was reerected. Oldest building in Rila monastery dates back to 14th century.
Main church is absolutely stunning: it is covered with numerous frescoes from outside and inside. From the first glance the stories on all the frescoes looks quite ordinary, but when i looked closer i saw very clear scenes of punishment for the different types of sins. So everyone could learn what will happened if you done something wrong. The church from the inside is fully covered with more peaceful frescoes and extremely beautiful wood-carved gold-plated iconostas. Enjoying the church definetely needs time as it’s absolutely beautiful, thought all the frescoes are relatively new and dates back only to 19th century. Btw, i was very pleasantly surprised how well the monastery is maintained: it looks very fresh, clean and bright!
Residential part of Rila monastery consists of 300 cells. Some times back they were full, but these days not many people are ready to leave world to serve the God, so there are only few dozens of monks living there now. Another reason for it is that Rila monastery is very popular tourist destination. If someone wants to became a monk and focus on his inner world, it could be tricky because of the noise and crowds around. Our guide got some priveledges and was able to open the door of one of the cells to show us what was inside. The room consists of two parts: one for the monk and one for the servant. Every monk should work as a servant for 6 years before turning into monk.
Some of the cells these days are turned into hotel rooms and it is possible to stay there. The price is around 10 euro/night. There are 2 types of rooms: “luxury” with private shower, bed and “ordinary” with sleeping benches, common showers and fireplace. So it is an option for those, looking for something unique places to stay in Bulgaria. As an additional privelege, you will have an opportunity to walk around areas, which are closed to the general public like some corridors and terraces. But of course, you need to understand, that it’s a place for worship, so you need to be calm and quite.
Also Rila monastery got a museum with the most precious objects. I usually prefere not to go inside museums of this kind as it could be super boring, but this time i haven’t regret that we went there. It got numerous presents from Russia and absolutely fantastic Rafail’s Cross, a wooden cross made from a whole piece of wood. Beeing less than 1 meter hight, this cross consists of more than hundred religious scenes and 600+ figures. This cross is already 200 years old, it took 12 years to make it and the monk, who done it lost his sight after finishing. It’s such an amazing piece of art, that it definetely couldn’t be missed. It is said, that this cross was one of the strongest reason to include Rila monastery in UNESCO World Heritage List.
After spending couple of hours in the monastery we headed to the second UNESCO site for today – Boyana church. It is famous for it’s absolutely unique frescoes. Boyana church is located on one of the neighbourhoods of Sofia. This site is very different from Rila monastery and doesn’t look so attractive from outside, but the best part of it is inside. The church is little and consists of 3 parts, which were build during the centuries: the first past was buld in 11th century, the central part was build in 13th century and last wing was added in 19th century.
Frescoes, which are located inside Boyana church, are the most unique and preciuos part of it and the main reason to visit. There are literally layers of frescoes: the oldest fragments dates back to 11th century with the most famous murals from 13th century and some frescoes from 14th and 16th century. It’s a miracle, really! I was blown away: how they managed to survive through the centuries and all that time? I mean, it’s not the oldest frescoes in the world (the oldest surviving frescoes according to wiki are the frescoes on Santorini island in Greece and dates back to 16th century BC), but the history of invasions in the region is so complicated, that it feels like a miracle. And the frescoes itself are really stunning! When i see this portraits, it is so clear that humans have changed over the centuries. We still have 2 legs and 2 arms, but the faces and structure of the bodies are not the same.
The way this frescoes are preserved these days are worth some extra paragraph. Firstly, somehow they managed to install air-conditioning inside the 11th century church to keep the temperature low. Secondly, the visits to the church could be compared to visiting “The last supper” in Milano: you better have prior reservation to the designated time, have only 10 minutes inside, taking pictures is strictly prohibited (and they really watch for it) and you need to leave all you bags outside. Firstly it feels like too much, but when i get inside, i realise why all this measures are important. The church is really very little and frescoes are really worth to be protected!
That was definetely a beautiful day of exploring UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Bulgaria around Sofia!
How to get to Rila Monastery from Sofia:
By train: Take the train from Sofia Central Train Station to Dupnitsa. Then from Dupnitsa take the bus directly to Rila Monastery at 6:40 am or 14:15. The bus back to Dupnitsa is at 09:00 am, 15:00 and 17:00h. Then take the train back to Sofia.
By bus: There is only 1 direct bus a day to Rila Monastery from bus station “Ovcha kupel” (not Central Bus Station), every day at 10:20 am. The bus from Rila Monastery to Sofia is at 15:00 h.
By car: If you rent a car take the route Sofia-Kulata. Exit the road in Kocherinovo village. There are 30 km to the monastery from there.
How to get to Boyana Church from Sofia:
By bus: take bus 9TM from the National Palace of Culture and get of at the last stop Hladilnika. Then bus 64 to Boyansko hanche stop. You can also take Bus 64 from bul. Bulgaria and bul. Akad. Ivan Evstatiev Geshov.
By taxi: 5-7 euro from the city center
The number of visits is strictly limited, so it’s better to have a reservation. I haven’t found a way to do it online, so i think to call them is a way to do it. They allow visitors to enter without reservation if there are free slots, but it’s a matter of luck. I have read that some people have to came several times to visit.
Because this public options are really limited, the most convinient way to get from Sofia to Rila Monastery and Boyana church is with the daily Rila Monastery & Boyana Church Tour from Traventuria.bg. It starts dayly at 9am from Alexander Nevski Cathedral and you will be back approximately at 5pm.