One of the most famous landmarks of Bulgaria is the Rila Monastery, tucked inside the mountainous area bearing the same name.

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You arrive at a car park at the end of a winding road up a valley surrounded by mountains. A car attendant approaches and asks for 4 lev, more or less 2 euros. You pay, of course, no question about this. In front of you, there’s a bulky squarish building in light brown stone. You can see it’s of a religious nature because of a cross engraved high up on the facade and an arched portico with paintings of human looking entities with wings or halos. Through the doorway, you get a tiny glimpse into the architectural glory that is about to unfold.

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The arcades are only accessible for the public at ground level. Upstairs there are the living quarters of the monks which, in contrast to the drab and rather grim looking exterior, provide a visual extravaganza on the inside of the monastery, further enhanced by the spectacular backdrop of the mountains. The good monks may (or may not) lead an ascetic existence, but they certainly can’t complain about the view. Unless, of course, the whole point of their chosen way of existence is to live in misery.

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The church itself is covered in murals, inside and outside. Real Christian Orthodox stuff, quite impressive (and, sorry, it’s forbidden to take pictures inside a Christian Orthodox holy place. Unless you pay. Money is such a miracle worker – it even neutralises the desecration caused by taking of pictures). I was intrigued, in particular, by a painting at the left corner of the front of the church.

20180215_130756The main character (click on the picture to enlarge) is a young man who looks rather a lot like a 1970s rock musician. He is wearing golden boots with the toe-caps strangely removed, a mini-skirt and a gold breastplate topped with, on his shoulders, stern faces with paper money instead of a mouth and a chin. Ah, yes, he has a huge pair of wings and a halo around his head. Nothing unusual so far. What did intrigue me was the fact that this ancient forefather of Roger Daltrey, this saintly man depicted on one of the most sacred churches in Bulgaria, is standing on top of a prostrate old man and seriously threatening to slay him with a large sword.

Not setting a nice example to youngsters, in my opinion.

In the background, a bare chested youth is floating in mid-air. Or else he is being lifted off the ground by his hair by the King Kong sized Saint Michael (I should presume it’s Michael, as also suggested by the Cyrillic lettering at the Painting extracttop of the painting). A dark skinned (of course) horned Satan is watching indignantly while holding up a parchment carrying what looks like a protest message, which magically stays horizontal in spite of being held only from one side. What I love most in the mural, however, is the look on the (again, of course) veiled woman’s face, who is holding one side of her face while clearly thinking: “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!” The artist forgot to give a body to the two persons behind the veiled woman. The giant leg of Saint Michael is still not big enough to justify their lack of a lower body.

Having said all this, if you happen to be in or around Sofia with an intent to explore the surroundings, the Rila Monastery is indeed a pretty place. There are also marked hiking trails leaving the car park which, if you don’t go there during winter, should be a thoroughly interesting proposition.

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