Going to Bulgaria and only seeing Sofia is a crime, in my book – Plovdiv and the Rila Monastery prove my point. Sofia has some of the key sites to see in Bulgaria for sure but it is only but a fraction of what a visitor should experience. I did not have ample time to travel around Bulgaria but wish I had been able to. I hear folks in the smaller towns are very hospitable and that the natural beauty of the countryside and the large number of monasteries and churches around the country are worth seeing. And let’s not forget wineries!
Our time was limited in Bulgaria since we were there for a wedding but was expanded courtesy of the volcano in Iceland that shall not be called by its name.
That presented us with an unexpected opportunity… So we decided to explore more of this interesting Eastern European country!
Since our time was limited, we made the Rila Monastery our top priority for being the largest monastery in Bulgaria and being a beautiful one in a beautiful location, about 73 (117 km) miles from Sofia in the valley of the Rilska River and at an altitude of over 3,700 ft (1,100m +).
We got a car and a driver as we did not have time to figure out other logistics given how busy we had been with the wedding events. This allowed us to recover from the wedding party the night before but also to soak in the scenery. We drove past apple orchards (I had never seen one) and small towns on our way to enter the Rila Mountains area where the monastery is nestled in. This part of the drive was simply beautiful full of green and tracking the river most of the way. With the snowmelt from the mountains, the river was fast and it was a sight to behold.
We arrived at the monastery and seeing it blew us away. What an incredible structure! It is not ancient (reconstructed in the 1830s; the tower dates from the 14th century) but the site has been in use for centuries as a monastery. St. Ivan of Rila lived in a cave about an hour’s walk away from the monastery many centuries before. One can make the hike to the cave and it surely is a beautiful walk through the forest but we didn’t have time to do that…
Inside the monastery’s courtyard is a beautiful church. Its architecture seems an interesting mix of what I understand Orthodox church architecture to be but also with elements that reminded me of the Mezquita de Córdoba in Spain (and, thereby, of Arab architecture as in the columns and arcs on the perimeter of the church).
As we looked into how to spend an our final day in Bulgaria, Plovdiv was brought to our attention as worth seeing so, since it wasn’t far from Sofia (about 90 miles), we decided late that morning to go for it.
Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city and has a population of over 330,000, was something unexpected to me. It is a very charming town, with a large pedestrian area in the old part of town. It has seemingly a different climate than Sofia and I do not mean just in meteorological terms: it felt happier, livelier. Not being the capital city, it didn’t seem to have the weight that title may impose. While there were definitely buildings that carried Soviet-bloc stereotypical architecture, there did not seem to be much of it in the city center – I am glad they did not raze parts of old town, like in Bucharest, for grandiose communist projects!
The city center teemed with life, people were out and about, and the open spaces seemed more inviting and taken advantage of than in Sofia. To be fair, it rained most of the time I was in Sofia but somehow, I think Sofia is more of a “city” and Plovdiv more of a “town” where I give the town label a more positive meaning. In the city center (which reminded me of Bratislava and maybe Salzburg, a little bit), there are some Roman ruins, cleverly revealed in the midst of the pedestrian area.
The hill (one of 6 around the city; a seventh was removed early in the 20th century) in old town Plovdiv is definitely a must-see. It has some of the best views of the city but also some neat architecture. It also offers views to excavations of Roman ruins and a Roman theater near the appropriately named Yellow School.
While some of the old buildings need repair, restoration work is evident in many of the structures, which are very interesting architecturally.
I wish we had known about Plovdiv before going to Bulgaria. I would have really enjoyed an overnight stay to relax in a cafe and watch life go by… If you go to Bulgaria, do not miss spending some time in Plovdiv!