After spending one full autumn day exploring Sofia, Bulgaria, I had one more entire day to explore. A bit of research revealed there were a couple “must see” churches, but it turns out they aren’t actually located in the city center.
Both Boyana Church and Rila Monastery are UNESCO sights and hard to reach without taking a day trip. However, given they are obviously worthy of international recognition and attention, they’re also worth the expense and early morning start.
A chilly nip hung in the air, but the bus was warm as we traveled out of the city for our day of church visits.
First up: Boyana Church, a medieval Bulgarian Orthodox church. Originally constructed in the late 10th or early 11th century, the church has undergone a couple expansions over the centuries.
Boyana is quite small — only ten people can go inside at a time. And, due to its delicacy, no one can take pictures inside.
It’s known for its exceptionally well-preserved frescoes; there are 89 scenes with 240 human images on the walls. The first layer is from the 11th century, and the second layer is from the 13th century. Certainly time has taken a bit of a toll on the artwork. Considering how old they are, however, they’ve retrained color and detail well.
I’m not a religious person at all, and I actually find most churches pretty snooze-worthy, but this one felt cave-like and secretive, a piece of art with a sense of spirituality in the shape of a tiny building.
Rila is very much the opposite of Boyana. The monastery is a massive complex — the largest Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria. Its interior and exterior are decorated with bright, animated, and even humorous frescoes from the 19th century. The multi-level buildings, which house only ten monks today, look like something straight out of the North Pole.
The inside of the church didn’t necessary impress me — you’ve seen one Orthodox church, you’ve kind of seen them all — but the exterior and tower really are lovely.
Set in the Rila Mountains about 70 miles south of Sofia, the monastery’s surrounding landscape is jaw-droppingly beautiful. Since I visited right on the cusp of winter, I could see my breath and pulled my scarf a bit tighter. Worth it.
I’ve decided monks definitely know how to choose a beautiful setting. Bulgaria, like Ukraine, has a lot of wild, untamed countryside, but it also has mountains and is really quite lovely. The monks who have lived at Rila Monastery over the years certainly woke up to an inspiring, idyllic landscape every single day.