The holiest place in Bulgaria is a must-see for anyone visiting Sofia, or even Bulgaria as a whole. The Rila Monastery lived and bled together with the Bulgarian people, therefore trying to understand Bulgaria without understanding its religion and customs is in senseless endeavor.
Although the Rila Monastery is particularly beautiful during spring, given the amount of nature surrounding it, visiting it during Christmas is an old tradition among Bulgarians. So I would suggest joining them.
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St. Ivan Rilski (St. John of Rila)
Ivan Rilski was already a saint when he was still alive. The holiest man in Bulgarian achieved this through performing unbelievable miracles.
At the age of 25 he became a priest in the St. Dimitrii Monastery, but after accepting the life of a monk he decided to become a hermit and live in solitude and prayer inside a cave at the Rila mountains.
He could not stand to see people suffering, so in an attempt to help them, he managed to perform a series of miracles. This brought him unwanted attention, as he wanted to live the life of a hermit.
The Founding of the Monastery
Believers and supporters from all over Bulgaria set up camps around the cave in which Ivan Rislki lived, seeking blessings from the holy man. This eventually led to the construction of the Rila Monastery.
Ever since its creation, Rila Monastery has been supported by the Bulgarian Tsars. Large donations were made by all the Tsars from the Second Bulgarian Empire up to the Ottoman Invasion.
The Monastery has become a cultural and spiritual center for Bulgarians, as it lived Bulgarian history together with its people through the highs and the lows.
This was proved at most during the times of Ottoman occupation, when the Monastery served as a depository of Bulgarian language and culture in times when those were being publicly destroyed by the foreign invader.
It even served as a hidding spot for revolutionaries from the period of the Bulgarian Liberation, giving shelter to famous revolutionary characters such as Vasil Levski himself.
The Rila Monastery Today
The Monastery today contains a main church, a residential part and a museum. You cannot really visit the residences, as those are reserved for the monks living there, but you should definitely see the church and the museum.
You are not allowed to take pictures inside of the church, so be respectful. There you can purchase candles and light them for both living as well as passed-away relatives. At the very center of the church, there is a major golden device that channels good spiritual energies onto the person standing on the center of it. It is said that if you stand under it, you will receive energy from the heavens themselves.
On the back, outside of the complex, you can follow a path that will take you to a beautiful river, with a beautiful sight of the mountain and forests surrounding it. There will also be some kittens following you through the path, something cute that adds up to the whole experience.
In case you are visiting during the winter, which in my opinion is one of the best times to see the Rila Monastery, you can take a break outside and try some Bulgarian traditional snacks.
My favorite is the Mekitsa, a flatbread made with kneaded dough that is then deep-fried in hot oil. The dough usually consists of flour, water, salt, oil, eggs, yogurt, and a leavening agent. Definitely very warming, ideal for the cold mountain temperature.