Not far from Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria, but far enough away to make you feel as if you are out in the wilds, is the highest mountain in Bulgaria, the Rila Mountain. Set amid the 81046 hectare Rila National Park, the biggest of the three National Parks in Bulgaria and one of the largest in Europe, the mountain takes a little slice of the Alps and places it in Bulgaria. From the pine forested foothills and grassy slopes right up to the highest peak Mousala, which at 2925 m is the highest peaknot just in Bulgaria, but the Balkans this sub-alpine area is a feast of natural beauty.
Several species of eagle, wild boar, deer and even bears are just a few of the animals to be found, while the flora and fauna are delightful and varied. Higher up, the mountain, glacial lakes feed the rivers Iskar, Maritsa and Mesta, the highest and longest rivers on the Balkan Peninsula, as they flow down through to the lush valleys below.
Thousands of people are attracted to the area every year, form the extreme sports enthusiast who test their climbing skill against the rock walls of Malyovitsa, Zlia Zab, Orlovets through to the walkers and hikers who follow the marked trails around the mountain and up to the peaks. Amidst all of this natural beauty there are two distinct features of Rila that keep the visitors coming to the area.
The Rila Monastery is the largest active religious centre in Bulgaria and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its representation of continuous history that dates back to the Middle Ages. Internationally renowned for the way the architecture is fused with the hand painted frescoesthat adorn the archways and ceilings, the building is a visually stunning and artistic representation of the creative abilities of the Bulgarian people. Architectural styles that have been preserved there can be traced to have developed between the 11th and 19th centuries. Part of the building was burnt down and restored in the 19th century and has stood virtually unaltered since then.
The history of Rila dates back to Ivan of Rila, a Bulgarian hermit who lived in a cave near the site of the present day monastery until 946. He devoted his life to prayer and fasting and was later canonized as a Saint. The holy cloister at Rila was founded in the latter half of the 10th Century. Rila became the spiritual and cultural centre of Bulgaria and since having its monastic status restored from that of a museum in 1996, continues to act as such. The monastery has preserved the coffin and relics of St Ivan of Rila since 1469 when they were returned there.
Covering a total area of 8800 square metres there are around 300 rooms of which 100 are monastic cells. The courtyard, The Birth of the Virgin Mary Temple, Hrelyo’s Tower, and other buildings are protected by a 22 metre high wall.
On arrival, visitors often stand awestruck at the beauty before them. There are some parts of the towers that date back to the original buildings and the cloister in particular dates back to the 1400s. There are also many centuries old paintings on the walls including one in the nave that again dates back to the 14th Century.
Seven Lakes of Rila
Past the monastery and approximately one kilometre up the road there is a camp-site with a delightful pine clad restaurant some bungalows plus tent and motor home facilities. This makes a great base to explore another stunning feature of Rila – the Seven Lakes.
These are high-altitude glacial lakes that form part of a series of around 280 such lakes in the Rila and Pirin ranges. Situated at altitudes of over 2200 metres they usually freeze in October when sheets of ice up to two feet thick can form across the winter. They often remain frozen until around June. They are extremely picturesque and make a stunning hiking and trekking destination using the many trails that lead up to and around them.
Found at different altitudes on the mountain, the lakes appear to be like giant footprints that ascend up to the highest of them , tiny Salzata Lake (Tear Lake) at 2,535 metres. Trailing around the mountain there are different vantage points where some of the lakes may be seen at any one time. Three of them can even be seen the winter resort of Bansko when the setting sun makes them glow pink in the distance. Many walkers and hikers come to the area in the summer months to enjoy the superb natural beauty the wildlife and the peace and solitude of the area.
The Rila Mountain in its own right can provide endless pleasure to the visitor, but with the whole National Park available to explore, even a longer visit would not serve to do this stunning area justice.