Bulgaria's second-largest monastery is, like Rila, a UNESCO-listed monument, and while the natural environment does not impose the sense of grandeur that surrounds its more famous sister, Bachkovo's artworks alone make this a must-see if you are in the region. Founded in 1083 by two Georgian brothers, the complex was razed during the Ottoman invasion. Today the oldest buildings are the Refectory (1601) and the principal Church of the Assumption of Our Lady (Sveta Bogoroditsa), the latter built in 1604 (though the Sveta Troitsa, a church about 600m/1,968 ft. from the gates, dates from the 14th century, it is usually locked). Sveta Bogoroditsa is filled with beautiful frescoes and murals, but what draws local pilgrims is its 14th-century Virgin Mary icon -- said to be a portrait painted by the apostle Luke. Pilgrims believe it has miraculous properties. Besides Sveta Bogoroditsa, the complex also has two smaller churches: Church of the Archangels (13th-14th c.), located next to the main church, and Church of St. Nikolai (1834-37), in the adjoining courtyard. The latter is worth visiting for the murals, said to be the first documented work by Zahary Zograf and featuring a portrait of the artist in the upper-left-hand corner of the Last Judgment mural that dominates the porch. You also can enter the refectory (4lev/$3.25/£2), where you will find murals of the great Greek philosophers. The monastery is still home to men in flowing black cassocks and gray beards, but today they are vastly outnumbered by tourists and pilgrims lined up to see the icon or to fill their plastic water bottles with the delicious mineral water that runs continuously from the monastery's piped spring.

Tip: The walkway to the monastery gates is lined with dozens of small stalls selling tourist knickknacks as well as Rhodopean specialties and fast foods. On weekends it can be annoying with blaring music and thronging crowds. For a more convivial atmosphere and decent service, keep heading downhill to the restaurant Vodopada (tel. 359 0896 021 053). You can't miss the huge outdoor terrace situated around a waterfall and trout-filled pond, and the food is excellent. There is no English menu, but ask for Lily, the can-do English-speaking waitress, and order the house specialties: marinated mushrooms, followed by charcoal-grilled fresh trout or spit-grilled lamb.