Backpacking Bulgaria: Sofia and the Rila Monastery

On Thursday we bid farewell to historic Plovdiv and began our three-hour journey to Sofia, Bulgaria.STARA_ZAGORAWe chose to take the train, since it seemed the most cost-effective at only $4 per ticket. 🙂 DSC_8956In 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_8961The reality was a congested and filthy hot box that reeked of urine and cigarettes. 😦DSC_8965No bathrooms or WiFi, plus non-functioning windows left us rationing our water, and painting eachother nails in hopes that the chemical lacquer could briefly mask the nasty odor. Hah. 😛 P.U.37d6c-eau-de-photoAfter 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_9049Common area with cozy lounge chairs and a free pool table.DSC_9051DSC_9050Breakfast of eggs, waffles, meats, cheese and fresh produce.DSC_9238DSC_9239Dinner choices: Rice and beans, pasta with tomato sauce, or eggs and potatoes with coleslaw and complimentary Bulgarian beer. I’m a happy girl. 😀DSC_9234DSC_9235DSC_9237Since 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_8970Our guide was a bubbly college student who told us many unique facts about both Sofia and the country Bulgaria as a whole. 😀DSC_8981For 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_9035The Bulgarian coat of arms has three crowned golden lions and a dark red shield. The country’s motto is “Unity makes strength.”
DSC_9029The 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.

This peaceful coexistence is most notable in Sofia’s Square of Tolerance, where four different places of worship reside. 😀DSC_9010DSC_9006DSC_9003DSC_8990Now, the most famous religious structure in Sofia is undoubtedly the Orthodox Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky. The second largest cathedral on the Balkan PeninsulaDSC_9245The interior is decorated with Italian marble and Brazilian onyx. Quite luxurious! 😀DSC_9260DSC_9256DSC_9264In general, Sofia reminded me a lot of Chicago, with very modern buildings towering over wide open boulevards.
DSC_8997DSC_8991DSC_9271In fact, the buildings appear modern since many of them were built during the 19th century, after the fall of the Ottoman EmpireDSC_9033DSC_9044Overall, 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

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It 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_9053DSC_9058St. Ivan had few material possessions, aside from a small religious shrine. Entering the cave was quite challenging as well. :/
DSC_9065DSC_9067Near the cave there is a natural spring surrounded by rock piles littered with small slips of paper, prayers for good fortune. 😀
DSC_9077DSC_9064After writing down a few wishes, we made our way to the Rila Monastery.

Looks almost like a fortress! 🙂 DSC_9231

The 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_9185The 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.

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The 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_9165DSC_9155DSC_9111Dazzling frescoes depict important Biblical events. DSC_9099DSC_9119DSC_9208DSC_9095DSC_9161In 1983, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for preserving both Slavic language and customs, even during the destructive Ottoman reign.

Looks almost impossible to bust down these doors! Hah. 😛
DSC_9129DSC_9115DSC_9117DSC_9202Absolutely spectacular! 😀DSC_9091After walking the gorgeous grounds, we all went to grab lunch at the convenient Rila Monastery Restaurant.

New friends from Valencia, Spain and Singapore. 🙂
DSC_9134Beware: 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. 😀
DSC_9142I even found a few souvenirs nearby for Mom and Dad. 😀

Reppin’ the Bulgarian coat of arms. 😛
DSC_9137Rose perfume, since Bulgaria is the world’s largest producer of rose essential oils. 🙂
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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. 🙂

IMG_7908IMG_7911IMG_7913Our 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! 😀IMG_7917Overall, 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, accomodation, 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_9240After 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.
IMG_7920

Now 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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