Rila Monastery Pilgrims's Path
(13.5 km - 440m ascent - 440m descent)     

Today's walk was the result of a major change of plans. We had originally intended to do a 4 day circuit in the Rila Mountains starting and ending at the Rila Monastery. However, with temperatures reaching 36°C today and a climb of 1300m, it was going to be a very hard first day. Moreover, after discovering that the distances on our walk through the Pirin mountains were underestimated by up to 15%, we had lost a little confidence in our guidebook. We didn't want to walk any more 10-hour days! Nonetheless, we wanted to see Rila Monastery, founded in the 10th century and the most sacred pilgrimage site for the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

Our Plan B was to make a day trip by local bus to the monastery from our base in Blagoevgrad and combine a monastery visit with a walk along the поклоннически път (Pilgrim's Path) up the beautiful, tree-covered Rila Valley. It was a bit higher and shadier than the baking Bulgarian plains and, with a lot less climbing involved, would hopefully be a nice "cool-down" walk after our Pirin Wine Trail efforts.

Eastern entrance to Rila Monastery

The tranquility of the Rila River

We caught the early bus to arrive at the Monastery soon after 8am - time to explore its magnificent architecture and frescoes, check out the gallery of icons and enjoy the atmosphere of its cloisters before the crowds of pilgrims arrived, and still set out on the walk in the relative cool of the morning.

Ceiling fresco

Hrelyo Tower (1335) - oldest building in the monastery

View towards the Rila Mountains from the path

The cloisters of Rila

Flower-filled fields of the Rila Valley

The track wandered up beneath the forest trees and alongside the rushing torrent of the Rila River. A little while later, it crossed the asphalt road to climb up through a flower-filled meadow. We walked slowly, as butterflies flitted by and crickets chirped loudly. Even though it was only a short section in the open sun, it soon had us perspiring and we were glad to get back into the cool shade of the forest.

The Hermitage of St Luke the Evangelist

After a while, we caught a glimpse of red terracotta through the trees and soon after arrived at the site of The Hermitage of St Luke the Evangelist, a meditational outpost of the monastery. We stopped to inspect the original 18th century chapel, the house of Nicholas Rilski, a monk and the father of secular education in Bulgaria, and an adjacent 19th century chapel to the Virgin Mary (exteriors only - all doors were bolted). It was a pleasant setting and, if I were keen to meditate, this place would do me.

Leaving via the courtyard gate, we pushed on beneath the bright green canopy of the tall beech, to climb steeply up to the next and more important pilgrimage site, the Hermitage of St John, where St John of Rila (St Ivan Rilski) spent time living the hermit life in a cave during the 9th century. The monastery was founded in his honour by his followers (though I wonder what someone who espoused denial of the material and slept on the earth would make of the current splendours of Rila Monastery).

Shady forest on the pilgrim pathway

Icon of St John of Rila

The present chapel is a 19th century reconstruction of the original, with frescoes on its ceiling and walls. Behind it is the hermit cave and the fair Nello and I visited this, then exited via a narrow hole in the natural rock ceiling at its far end. This act is part of the pilgrim pathway, though (as we saw) many modern pilgrims are now of a size that limits their ability to fulfil this tradition.

The Hermitage of St John of Rila

From the Hermitage, we descended fairly steeply through a beautiful section of forest set amongst the mossy rocks of the hillside. Sadly, the modern pilgrims appear to have created a new tradition of carving their names in the trunks of these trees. St John of Rila, a devotee of nature, would not be pleased.

Chapel of the Virgin Mary

Nello emerging from St John's cave

The path actually led down to the road and start of the Pilgrim Way (we had walked it in reverse) and from here we followed the asphalt road, heading into the forest on occasions, to reach the small grassy meadow of Kirilova Polyana. Its open expanses allowed clear views of the valley walls and rocky tops of the Rila Mountains for the first time.

Tall beech on the valley slopes

Panorama of the Rila Mountains from from Kirilova Polyana

It was time to go native and join the Bulgarian families enjoying a picnic in this pleasant spot - we found a table on the edge of the sparkling stream to soak up the atmosphere and our feet in the cold rushing water.

Picnic spot on the Rila River

Crystal clear water and lush green pines

Mountains and meadows

Then it was time to head back, following shaded road, forest short-cut and creek-side picnic spots to provide a different route back to the monastery.

A set of cascades near the monastery

View down the Rila Valley toward the monastery

Road along the valley floor

One last visit to the magnificent Monastery at Rila

We arrived in time to spend a little more time taking in the ambience of this beacon of Eastern Orthodox Architecture and art, before catching the afternoon bus back to Blagoevgrad. Our day trip to Rila Monastery was over, but, despite the heat, it had been a pleasant day - a little exercise, a little culture and a better idea of the spiritual heritage of this country. Moreover, feeling recovered, we were now looking forward to a climb up to the higher levels of the superb Rila Mountains.