Backpacking Bulgaria: Sofia and the Rila Monastery

On Thursday we bid farewell to historic Plovdiv and began our three-hour journey to Sofia, Bulgaria.

 24607794274_2b34a87fe8We chose to take the train, since it seemed the most cost-effective at only $4 per ticket. 🙂

dsc_8956_21781091275_oIn my mind, I had envisioned this whimsical train ride, where I could hang out the door, scooping up wild flowers and enjoying the scenic countryside. 😀

dsc_8961_21781091355_oThe reality was a congested and filthy hot box that reeked of urine and cigarettes. 😦dsc_8965_21781091455_oNo bathrooms or WiFi, plus non-functioning windows left us rationing our water, and painting each other nails in hopes that the chemical lacquer could briefly mask the nasty odor. Hah. 😛 P.U.

29176864124_bd66c42ffeAfter three long hours, we arrived in Sofia, feeling parched, famished, and on the brink of throwing away all our clothes. Hah. Fortunately these problems weren’t anything our amazing hostel couldn’t solve. 😀

We checked in at Hostel Mostel for an incredibly affordable 12 euro per night. Hostel amenities included free all-you-can-eat breakfast, free dinner with beer, WiFi, organized tours, and most importantly, long hot showers and laundry service. 😀
Rustic cabin beds with warm comforters and an en-suite bathroom.dsc_9049_21160077973_oCommon area with cozy lounge chairs and a free pool table.dsc_9051_21160078203_odsc_9050_21160078103_oBreakfast of eggs, waffles, meats, cheese and fresh produce.dsc_9052_21160078273_o

dsc_9239_21594227728_oDinner choices: Rice and beans, pasta with tomato sauce, or eggs and potatoes with coleslaw and complimentary Bulgarian beer. I’m a happy girl. 😀dsc_9234_21594179798_o
dsc_9235_21594179718_odsc_9237_21594227608_oSince our hostel had done such a fantastic job putting us back in a good mood, we decided to head out in Sofia for the free city tour, hoping to explore this cosmopolitan Bulgarian capital.

Sightseeing in Sofia

The tour group met at 6 PM at City Hall.

dsc_8970_21593075900_oOur guide was a bubbly college student who told us many unique facts about both Sofia and the country Bulgaria as a whole. 😀dsc_8981_21593076050_oFor starters, Sofia was originally inhabited by Thracians between 6-8,000 years ago, making the city older than Rome.

Thracian ruins are spotted throughout the city, like the ones seen here in this partially excavated Sardica settlement.

dsc_9035_21593095360_oThe Bulgarian coat of arms has three crowned golden lions and a dark red shield. The country’s motto is “Unity makes strength.”
21887235921_827d56f88f_zThe motto appears fitting since Bulgaria is one of the few countries with peaceful religious coexistence in a multicultural society. Additionally, Bulgaria is one of the few countries during the Holocaust that was able to save their whole Jewish population.21887235901_b2b0d8a647_zThis peaceful coexistence is most notable in Sofia’s Square of Tolerance, where four different places of worship reside. 😀dsc_9006_21593095190_odsc_8990_21593076230_oNow, the most famous religious structure in Sofia is undoubtedly the Orthodox Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky. The second largest cathedral on the Balkan Peninsula.
dsc_9248_21594234588_oThe interior is decorated with Italian marble and Brazilian onyx. Quite luxurious! 😀dsc_9260_21594234648_odsc_9256_21594234528_o
dsc_9264_21594234748_oIn general, Sofia reminded me a lot of Chicago, with very modern buildings towering over wide open boulevards.dsc_8997_21593095120_oIn fact, the buildings appear modern since many of them were built during the 19th century, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.dsc_9033_21593095310_odsc_9044_21593095460_oOverall, the tour was the perfect introduction to Sofia, and a great way to pass the time on a drizzling and dreary afternoon. 🙂

http://www.freesofiatour.com/

After a fantastic night’s rest, I thought I would end my Bulgarian backpacking trip with a bang, by embarking on a day tour to the Rila Monastery.

The Rila Monastery

dsc_9184_21781239585_oIt was thought that the monastery was named after St. Ivan of Rila, a hermit monk who actually lived in a cave not too far from the religious complex.

When we first arrived, we hiked into the woods to check out his barren abode and the nearby church.
dsc_9058_21160078523_oSt. Ivan had few material possessions, aside from a small religious shrine. Entering the cave was quite challenging as well. :/dsc_9065_21790621531_odsc_9067_21790621601_oNear the cave there is a natural spring surrounded by rock piles littered with small slips of paper, prayers for good fortune. 😀21887236001_aa2bb32317_zAfter writing down a few wishes, we made our way to the Rila Monastery.

Looks almost like a fortress! 🙂dsc_9231_21594179938_oThe Rila Monastery is situated deep in a valley of the Rila Mountains, the highest mountain in Bulgaria. Its location makes for striking panoramic views of these breathtaking bluffs. 😀dsc_9175_21781239515_oThe Rila Monastery has been the most important spiritual center in Bulgaria since the Middle Ages, and has functioned continuously for 11 centuries. During this time it has acquired one of the most impressive medieval literary collections in the world.dsc_9150_21790670721_oThe monastery has over 300 monastic apartments, a library, dining hall, hospital and over 30 drawing-rooms. For a small fee, visitors can stay overnight in a monk’s cell. So cool! 😀dsc_9165_21790670881_odsc_9155_21790670791_odsc_9202_21594180118_oDazzling frescoes depict important Biblical events.dsc_9193_21781239705_o
dsc_9161_21790670851_oIn 1983, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for preserving both Slavic language and customs, even during the destructive Ottoman reign.dsc_9119_21755038656_oLooks almost impossible to bust down these doors! Hah. 😛dsc_9129_21769485512_oAbsolutely spectacular! 😀dsc_9091_21790621861_oAfter walking the gorgeous grounds, we all went to grab lunch at the convenient Rila Monastery Restaurant.

New friends from Valencia, Spain and Singapore. 🙂dsc_9134_21769485812_oBeware: Bulgarians shake their heads for “yes” and nod for “no”, which caused a lot of confusion when ordering our meals. Oh well! May not have been exactly what we ordered, but at least the food still tasted great! Hah. 😀

I even found a few souvenirs nearby for Mom and Dad. 😀

Reppin’ the Bulgarian coat of arms. 😛

dsc_9137_21769485892_oRose perfume, since Bulgaria is the world’s largest producer of rose essential oils. 🙂

dsc_9140_21790670531_o

http://rilamonastery.pmg-blg.com/

On our last night at the hostel, we chose to join the hostel pub crawl for a taste of Bulgarian nightlife. 🙂21594279338_a1b0de1ae1_z21594279388_e43f149f47_z21594279458_61da91143a_zOur favorite spot in Sofia was definitely The Apartment, a beatnik bar with a true bohemian vibe. Loved the patterned wallpaper and ambient lighting. Just perfect! 😀
21791609131_3bbcdb7ecb_zOverall, Bulgaria completely blew us away as a seriously underrated tourist destination. 😀

Cuisine, culture and striking natural beauty at an affordable price. For food and drinks, accommodation, tours, and transportation for the past week, I spent around $250. Not too shabby. 🙂

Although we didn’t have time, Sofia also offers a free hiking tour to the Boyana waterfalls, free biking tour of the city, and a free food tour.

http://www.sofiagreentour.com/free-hike-tour.html

http://www.balkanbites.bg/

Definitely something you might want to check out if you plan to visit. 😀

Before we left, my roomie made sure to get our last bite of pork sausage before crossing the border back into Turkey. 😛dsc_9240_21594227828_oAfter an 8-hour overnight bus, we arrived back in Istanbul for one final breakfast together before parting ways and heading back to our homes. 😦
This is chorba or lentil soup. Turks usually eat borek for breakfast, but this was the perfect comfort food on this chilly Sunday morning.
21791609171_2dd731b1d0_zNow we are back to work and back to reality. This week has been a whirlwind of experiences seeing as it was the first week of school. Hope to update you on school happenings in the next post. Until then! Have a great weekend. 😀

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