The road to get from Sofia to Rila, two hours by car (or bus) approximately, is a succession of valleys, small towns, endless plains and a few sparse industrial systems, not far to the east the Serbia border, to the south the Greek border.A simple route that, surpassed Dupnitsa, begins a long and winding ascent to the Rila Mountains and to theirs famous monastery.
Before arriving in Rila city, you can meet Kocherinovo, a small village known in Bulgaria as the land of giant storks. Just stop in the main square and look up to notice the huge stork nests placed on the chimneys and on the roofs of the houses.
During the winter the storks migrate to North Africa leaving their shelters, that then they find (the locals considered a real sacrilege to touch them) at the beginning of the spring season.
According to popular tradition their arrival, usually in March, marks the beginning of spring and the greeting of winter, a sort of auspicious rite become over time a real celebration for the people of Kocherinovo with lots of festivities and traditional customs.
Like the Martenitsa, famous in all Bulgaria.
Ornaments (mostly bracelets) in red and white thread worn by men and women only during the month of March and hanging from a tree, tied to a desire to fulfill, after watching the first arriving stork.
Continuing to the west, not far from Kocherinovo, you can turn left to Rila city, the starting point (especially for those coming from here by bus) for trips that reach the monastery, which is around 20 km, and the lakes.
If you make this path in the middle of winter, with cold temperatures that reach up to 18 degrees and snow, thanks to a breathtaking scenery, you can have a real risk of exchanging the reality for a fairy tale.
As the road climbs the vegetation becomes more dense and the trees, completely whitewashed, have by the sun a silvery reflections and the wind, in the most absolute silence, move the snow grains in the air.
At the end of the road, on top of a hill, opens a clearing, a kind of stone fortress that hides a small archway painted with delicate colors that, once crossed, uncover the greatest symbol of orthodox Bulgarian, a complex of churches, towers, museums, paintings, precious icons, stories and mythical characters suspended between tradition and historical reality, the Rila Monastery.
Unesco World Heritage Site since 1983, this sacred complex, founded by a monk, Ivan Rilski, around 1000 and expanded and renovated several times over the centuries, has the merit of having preserved, during the Ottoman invasion, Bulgarian culture and religious traditions.
The Monastery, where if you want you can also stay overnight, is open daily from 6 to 22.
The Church of the Nativity, the biggest in Bulgaria, the Museum, inside the way is preserved the precious and mysterious Cross of Rila, a crucifix illuminated with 140 entries and more than 600 biblical human figures, carved in wood with such precision as to have blinded his author, the monk Raphael, the Tower Heliova, the kitchen and some of the rooms used in the past to apprenticeship of the monks, are open but it is absolutely forbidden to take pictures inside.
The advice, as always, is to explore the space inside the monastery, to discover particularities in the corners between the church and the tower, in the shops selling wooden icons and objects connected to the monastery, between the balconies of the refectory, and to drink the purest water that gushing from the fountains at the sides of the square and carefully observe the side passages under the arches, it is not unusual to come across it in one of the six monks who still live in the monastery.
Some useful suggestions.
On the way back, before reaching Rila city, you can meet several taverns, which are also rents rooms, for refreshment and rest at very low price.
I tried to Gorski-Kut, great choice of dishes, generous portions, house wine and a total cost of about 8 Euros (16 lev).
Every morning from the bus station Ovcha Kupel in Sofia you can take a bus to Rila (about two hours, a cost of 18 lev), then to go to the Rila Monastery is necessary to take a taxi or one of the five daily shuttles (5 lev).
Some local agencies provide for a cost, that is around 40 euro per person, daily trips from Sofia with driver and, on request, a private guide.
Otherwise you can book a rental car in Sofia. The roads are easy to cross and the road signs in cyrillic are almost always accompanied by a version in Latin characters below.