Eastern Orthodox monasteries are among Bulgaria’s most valuable cultural heritage. Some like the fortress-like Rila Monastery are rightfully UNESCO World Heritage Sites, others like the Bachkovo Monastery in the verdant Rhodopes attract crowds with their unique and aesthetically-pleasing Byzantine architecture.
However, many of the most interesting Bulgarian monasteries remain relatively off the beaten track. As a result, they have retained their antique appeal and authentic appearance. Put on your cassock (or not) and head for the holy water, for kashkaval tourist presents 7 mystical Bulgarian monasteries and their well-kept secrets!
1. Nine centuries of stone: Zemen Monastery
If you somehow end up in the tiny town of Zemen between Pernik and Kyustendil, you’ll be surprised to discover a well-kept piece of medieval Bulgarian history. The fascinating Zemen Monastery (Земенски манастир Zemenski manastir) dates to the 11th century and has preserved a curious cube-shaped church as old as the monastery itself. In the church’s cool stone interior you can see vivid biblical frescoes from the 14th centuries as well as one of the earliest donor’s portraits (of an unnamed Bulgarian aristocrat and his wife Doya).
Curiously, on my visit to the monastery three years ago I also found a not-so-ancient cassette player. Thankfully, it was playing religious hymns rather than tacky Bulgarian pop folk music!
2. Bulgarian Gothic: Lopushna Monastery
Did you know Bulgaria made its own unique contribution to Gothic architecture… albeit some three or four centuries after it went out of fashion in Western Europe? Indeed, a few dozen 19th-century churches in northwestern Bulgaria bear the classic traces of medieval Gothic architecture – including sharp arches, geometric details like rosettes and rich carved stone decoration.
The Lopushna Monastery (Лопушански манастир Lopushanski manastir) near Georgi Damyanovo is perhaps the most majestic examples of this late Bulgarian Gothic style. Established in medieval times, this monastery was reconstructed in its present appearance in the 1850s – and the monastery church stands out with its unique sharp-pointed design and naïve exterior reliefs, including stone (self?) portraits of the moustached architect and his assistant.
3. Among the sand pyramids: Rozhen Monastery
High above the charming town of Melnik, famous for its wine (a Churchill favourite, according to rumours), lies the serene Rozhen Monastery (Роженски манастир Rozhenski manastir). The monastery impresses with its panoramic setting among the Melnik sand pyramids just like it does with the antique treasures hidden behind its tall white walls.
Founded most likely in the 13th century, this religious abode features rustic living quarters with wooden porches and lifelike medieval frescoes in its 16th-century church, of which even the exterior walls have been painted with religious art. In addition, there’s the wonder-working icon of the Mother of God, which cures any sickness, or so they say.
4. Grandeur by the waterfall: Etropole Monastery
Nested in the wooded foothills of the Balkan Mountains, the Etropole Monastery (Етрополски манастир Etropolski manastir) is also known as Varovitets, which happens to be the name of the murmuring 15-metre waterfall located nearby. Though its history can be traced to the Middle Ages, the Etropole Monastery prospered under Ottoman rule – in the 16th-18th century, it was a major centre of religious literature in northern Bulgaria.
The main church may be a relatively recent 19th-century construction, but what it lacks in age it compensates with aesthetics – its regular shape and five charming turret domes are an absolute treat to the eyes of culture lovers.
5. Above the capital city: Dragalevtsi Monastery
It’s easy to miss this charming medieval monastery when you visit the capital Sofia – quite simply, you won’t find it in the historic city centre like most other Sofia attractions. Rather, the Dragalevtsi Monastery (Драгалевски манастир Dragalevski manastir) is situated above the Dragalevtsi neighborhood in the lower reaches of the mountain Vitosha.
The Dragalevtsi Monastery dates back to the 14th century, when it was richly endowed by the last rulers of medieval Bulgaria, Ivan Alexander and his son Ivan Shishman. It survived the Ottoman conquest and continued to rise in importance, as the present church was built in the early 15th century with the financial aid of local Bulgarian lord Radoslav Mavar. His direct family is painted in the church’s interior, as are other amazing examples of medieval Bulgarian art – including saints in full knight’s armour!
6. The hajduk tower: Arapovo Monastery
Observed from the outside, the Arapovo Monastery (Араповски манастир Arapovski manastir) looks more like an impenetrable fortress than a peaceful Christian retreat. However, the turbulent times of the 19th-century Balkans meant that the monastery’s existence depended on its defensive ability.
The builders weren’t satisfied with tall walls – they even added an uncanny three-story tower in the middle of the courtyard. The tower was reportedly inhabited by famous hajduk leader Angel Voyvoda. Otherwise, the monastery church is a spacious cathedral with pleasant rounded features and a style characteristic for the Asenovgrad part of the northern Rhodopes.
7. The last patriarch’s very own: Patriarchal Monastery of the Holy Trinity
Situated in the gorge of the Yantra River near the old capital Veliko Tarnovo, the Patriarchal Monastery of the Holy Trinity (Патриаршески манастир „Света Троица“ Patriarsheski manastir “Sveta Troitsa”) is famous for its association with the patriarchs of medieval Bulgaria. It is particularly linked to the last one, Patriarch Euthymius, of whom it seems to have been a favourite location.
None of the monastery’s medieval buildings may survive, but its present 19th-century premises are still quite interesting. None more so than the church’s altar, which is in fact a 1900-year-old pagan sacrificial altar brought from the ruined Ancient Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum! The altar of a Christian church bearing inscriptions hailing Ancient Greek gods, now that is a paradox.