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Rila Monastery

120km (74 miles) south of Sofia

Bulgarian monks knew how to pick prime real estate, and Rila is no exception. Accosted by thundering water charging over large boulders -- two rivers, the Rilksa and Drushlyavitsa, flank the monastery -- and the startling sight of thick alpine forests rising above you like cliffs, you know you are in one of the most beautiful places in Bulgaria. And that's before you step inside the country's biggest monastery.

Rila was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1983 as "a characteristic example of the Bulgarian Renaissance, symbolizing an awareness of a Slavic cultural identity following centuries of occupation." The original sanctuary was founded in the 10th century by the followers of Ivan Rilski "the Miracleworker," aka St. John of Rila, who lived in a tiny cave about a 30-minute walk from the monastery. Revered by kings and subjects alike, the monastery was a cultural and religious refuge during centuries of foreign rule, but it was during the 1830s that the monks gave physical expression to its powerful position within the Bulgarian psyche, building a four-floor residential building within fortresslike stone walls to house 300 monks and provide guest rooms for its many donors. In fact, most of what you see today was built between 1834 and 1837 (predated only by the 14th-c. brick tower that rises in the middle of the inner courtyard, and the small 14th-c. church [1343] that stands next to the tower; this had a belfry added in 1844).

Despite the impressive surroundings, it is the church they call "the Nativity of the Virgin" that draws the visitor's eye, with its porch entirely covered in rich decorative frescoes. Step inside and the interiors are equally beautiful, with an intricately carved and glittering gilt iconostasis beckoning devotees closer. This is one of the finest examples of the art of the woodcarvers of Samokov, a nearby town that is famous (like Tryavna) for producing Bulgaria's finest artists. Here you'll find a silver box with the hand of St. John of Rila. Farther to the left, kept in a drawer, is a 12th-century icon of the Virgin. In a chapel opposite, underneath a simple wooden cross, lies the heart of Tsar Boris III. The king, who had refused to hand over his Jewish subjects, died on his way back from a trip to Berlin in 1944, prompting speculation that he had been poisoned by the Nazis. The murals were painted by many artists, including Dimitar and Zahari Zograf, the Samakov brothers who were to become the most famous icon painters of the 19th-century National Revival. Zahari is in fact the better known, perhaps because he was arrogant (or sensible) enough to sign his work. He eventually courted enormous controversy by painting himself into some of his murals. The exterior murals are particularly absorbing, with the most awful damnations heaped upon sinners, apocalyptic images that look inspired by the diabolical imagination of Hieronymus Bosch, and must have done plenty to herd the illiterate into the Orthodox fold.

After viewing the church, move on to the renovated monastery museum (daily 8am-5pm; 5lev/$4.05/£2.50), which houses a number of interesting artworks and relics, the most fascinating of which is Raphael's Cross: Carved from a single piece of wood, the 81cm-high (32-in.) cross features no less than 104 religious tableaux with 1,500 tiny figures, a 12-year labor of love that cost the monk Raphael his eyesight. After this you can visit one of the monk's cells and the massive cauldrons in the "kitchen" -- look up and you realize you've stepped into what is effectively the world's largest chimney. If you have a few hours, set off on the 4km (2.5-mile) walk through the forest above the monastery to St. John of Rila's original hermitage, a fairly nondescript cave unless you try to work your way up through the fissure known as "Miracle Hole." In days of yore, those who could not achieve this relatively simple feat were thought to be tainted with sin and sent home to atone.

Getting There & Getting a Meal

Rila Monastery (tel. 07054/2208), about 90 minutes south of Sofia, is an easy day trip from the capital by car or tour bus, and serviced by numerous tour operators. Zig Zag (tel. 02/980 5102; www.zigzagbg.com) offers the best-value day trip (58€/$74). The trip is in a private car with a guide, and a maximum of four others. If you don't want to share the experience, book with Surprise Tours, which will take you to the monastery for 80€ ($102). If you're not hassled by traveling in a large impersonal group book with FairPlay International JSC (tel. 02/943 4574; www.fpitravel.com; 25€/$32, lunch and guide included). Note that there are no direct public buses from Sofia. Using this travel method may require an overnight stay. Except for the new Gorski Kut Hotel, none of the accommodations options, including the spartan and less-than-spotless monastery cells, make for a happy holiday experience.

Dining is the exception, as the monk-run bakery just outside the monastery sells the best Bulgarian doughnuts and delicious yogurt. If you're ready for a full meal, keep space for these as a takeout dessert and grab a table at the Gorski Kut restaurant (tel. 359 07/054 2170; www.gorski-kut.com; daily 8:30am-11pm). Nikolay Davidkov and his wife Tsveta have wowed diners for more than 10 years with Gorski Kut's fabulous and affordable (2.50lev-13lev/$2-$11/£1.25-£5.50) dishes, including fried trout, bean soup, salads, and egg dishes in this restaurant on a bluff overlooking the Rilska River about 5km (3 miles) from the monastery. In 2007 the couple opened the Gorski-Kut Hotel, a delightful 12-unit property adjacent to the restaurant (doubles from 72lev/$58/£36; suites from 107lev ($87/£54 with breakfast). The rooms are bright and airy and, Nikolay says, they have heaters instead of air-conditioners because of the cool mountain air.

Above the monastery, Drushliavitsa restaurant (daily 8am-11pm) is perched above the complex to the one side of its namesake river, with a small outdoor terrace. This is another great place to eat in the area, serving fresh trout, the mildly spiced local sausage (kebabche), and wonderful firm yellow-fleshed potato chips. Bread is baked fresh daily by the monastery bakery. Despite being next to Bulgaria's top inland attraction, the most expensive item is 5lev ($4.05/£2.50).

Tips: Monastery gates open at dawn and close at dusk; try to get here at 7am (or 8am, depending on time of year) to catch the early-morning service. There's a good chance you'll be the only visitor here, watching a ritual that has been witnessed daily by these walls for 200 years. On Thursdays the morning service is dedicated to St. John; the beautiful liturgical chanting that accompanies the service dates from the 15th century. Avoid the weekends when the natural tranquillity of the monastery is all but ruined by the huge number of visitors. The same goes for the two main festivals celebrated on August 18 (St. John's birthday) and October 19 (his feast day).

Kissing the Bones of a Well-Traveled Saint -- John of Rila (aka Ivan Rilski) died in 946 at 66. His devoted, grieving followers virtually defiled his corpse, which was sent to Sofia. Stolen as plunder by the Hungarian king Bela III in 1183, the relic (or what remained of it) was returned 5 years later (apparently it had made a Catholic bishop blind after the bishop denied the bones were those of a saint), only to then make its way to Veliko Tarnovo in 1194. St. John of Rila finally came home in 1469, but his respite was short. A century later his right hand was removed and toured Russia, distributing miracles and earning funds for the monastery. St. John's left hand is now kept in the church, and is believed to have healing powers -- you can ask one of the monks to draw back the velvet cover to reveal the glass box under which the yellowed bones still miraculously gleam, but note that you will then have to kiss it as a sign of respect. Wads of cotton wool, kept on a pedestal nearby, are said to be imbued with healing power because of their proximity to the hand. Pilgrims who take a piece to place near a source of pain apparently experience real relief.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.