Set in the wooded Rila mountains about 75 mi/120 km south of Sofia, this magnificent monastery is one of the highlights of Bulgaria.
Although other monasteries may have more impressive individual frescoes, the beauty of Rila is in its totality—its location, layout and architecture. Founded in 927 but destroyed by fire in 1833, the holy site was rebuilt in the National Revival style. Today it houses beautiful icons, intricately woven carpets and three museums full of treasures, including a silver throne and the lifework of Brother Raphael—a wooden cross featuring scenes from the Bible and 1,500 detailed characters, each the size of a grain of rice.
The main cathedral itself is a work of art: Its portico and inside walls are covered with frescoes. There's also an area showing how Rila's monks used to live. To be on the safe side, dress conservatively for guaranteed entry into the church and monastery.
Often seen as a day trip from Sofia, the Rila area really merits two or three days of sightseeing. The wooded mountains surrounding the monastery are filled with glacial lakes, making it a worthy destination for nature lovers (marked trails, escorted treks and chalet accommodations are available for hikers).
Near Rila Monastery is picturesque Kocherinovo, the "stork village." Legend has it that the town will be blessed with many children as long as its storks keep returning year after year to build their nests in Kocherinovo's chimneys and treetops.
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