Thursday, March 7, 2013

Scenes from "Valley of Thracians": Rila

A short while ago I posted a picture of the Rila Monastery on my Facebook page and one of my friends immediately identified it. "I recognized it from the book!" The Rila Monastery is one of the most well-known destinations in Bulgaria, attracting both tourists and the faithful who travel from all over the country on pilgrimages to the site. Known as the "Jerusalem of Bulgaria", the monastery was named after a ninth-century holy man, John of Rila, who lived as a recluse in a nearby cave.

The Rila Monastery is a special and very beautiful place, and I visited it several times during my two years in Bulgaria. Join me today on a pilgrimage to Rila, with texts from Valley of Thracians and pictures of the location where a pivotal scene from the book takes place.

There was pure harmony here. Graceful arches in bold stripes of black and white surrounded a huge, flagstone courtyard supporting two floors of monastic cells. Wooden railings lined the stairways leading to the upper levels. Beyond the tiled roofs he could see the thick greenery of mountain forests, and in the distance, the rough upper peaks of the Rila range.

But what attracted his attention more than anything else was the church in the center of the plaza. This amazing construction looked too surreal to be an actual house of worship. It was a square edifice, with its courtyard-level porches encased by the same black-and-white striped arches as the surrounding buildings. Below the arches, Simon could depict the brilliant colors of fresco murals that completely covered the outer walls. Atop the arches was a row of gargoyles, their details impossible to discern from a distance. A roof of gray interspersed with layers of red-and-white brick extended upward toward additional decorations. Rising above everything was the church’s main dome, one of five topping this unique building.

Sophia was inspecting one of the apocalyptic frescoes, this one not yet restored to its original brilliance. “Look at all these depictions of the devil,” she said, her hand reaching out and nearly touching the faded red-colored figures parading across a surrealistic series of frames like a medieval comic strip.

Sophia led him toward the eastern gate, at the far side of the plaza. This passageway cut through the monastery walls to a bridge that spanned a swollen mountain stream. Beyond, a cobbled street sloped steeply downward to another church and a complex of restaurants and souvenir stands. Many of the visitors ended their tour of the Rila Monastery here, buying handmade religious icons and crucifix beads as reminders of the holy shrine. Others wandered along the pathway deeper into the valley toward the original cave where Ivan Rilski lived during his years of hermitage.

The Rila Monastery is a very special place. If you don't have a chance to visit Rila, at least you will be transported to the monastery by reading Valley of Thracians. Please also read the other articles in this series, which will take you on visits to:

* Plovdiv
* Varna
* Sofia
* Veliko Tarnovo
* Belogradchik


  1. Again, Ellis you transport me to places I may never get to see, but yet I can visit them by the way you write and the pictures you share.

  2. Such a beautiful looking structure and place Ellis. This has really affected me.