Today we took a trip out of Sofia into the mountains to see the Rila monastery. Despite being a 90 minute drive from Sofia this is a common day trip for tourists and Bulgarians alike due to the influence the monastery has had on the country, a spiritual beacon for over 1000 years. We had looked at the options of local buses but having to make two connections and a long journey time persuaded us to look elsewhere. The owners of our apartment offered a shuttle service which we took up but were a little surprised when they turned up in their home car rather than the mini bus we had expected. Still a personal service! The  monastery was founded by Saint Ivan of Rila. Born in 876AD Ivan's parents died when he was only 25 and already a pious and virtuous chap he concentrated on giving away everything he had to the poor. He retreated to the Ruen mountains to live in a secluded hut. It's commented that the thinner he got the more spiritually rich he felt so it's a fair guess to say that he wasn't eating too well. The sight of this odd skinny guy hanging around made the locals nervous and they moved him on after 6 months. Possibly deciding that living in a hut was too easy he moved into a cave in the Rila mountains for the next 12 years. During this time it is alleged that he healed people with all many of aliments and his fame grew throughout Bulgaria. Other would be monks arrived and together they set up the Rila monastery. Later in the 14th century the monastery grew such that it became clear they had to move the site and also a desire to pick a more defensive location given the highwaymen infesting the mountains. The site was supposedly chosen in part because it was more sheltered from the weather than the other options. Having stood outside it in wind driven hail I'd hate to see the alternatives.  In terms of its location it sits high up in the mountains at 1147m and enjoys (?) a very monastic -22 degrees C in winter and a more pleasant 29 in the summer.  During the time of Turkish rule the monastery had a predictably hard time, being constantly sacked by Turkish and Albanian marauders in the 18th century but survived due to large donations from the Bulgarian people and Russia. During this time it was seen as a vital beacon for the Christian faith during the Turkish occupation. In addition more recently it was clearly a seat of learning and not only of a religious nature.

We arrived after a lengthy car journey and were dropped off at the gate. The construction today is a large square building which is mostly courtyard inside. This forms the dorms for the monks as well as the kitchens and museum. Inside the courtyard is a church and a defensive stone tower left over from the days of bandits. The weather can only be described as crazy with sun one minute and hail the next. First we dashed into the church to avoid the first round of hail. Being built relatively recently the murals were much more vibrant than others we had seen. While back home it was Easter Sunday being Orthodox in Bulgaria it was the following week but even so this Sunday was a special celebration and so the church was busier than usual. Part of the celebration seemed to involve everyone buying a bushel of a green and leafy branch which had been on sale all over Sofia and also inside the church. The paintings on the side of the church were especially clear and bright, depicting the pleasures or not of hell and heaven. Back outside for a brief period of sun we were soon herded back into the museum to hide from the hail again. Here we saw lots of garments from the monastery, a huge chest which used to contain the gold and required all five keys to open it and finally a wooden cross which has been engraved to an astonishing level of detail. So much so the carpenter had gone blind by the time he had finished but despite this it's tempting to say that the finished article was worth it. With most of the sights seen we headed over to a restaurant a few feet away from the back entrance and prepared ourselves to pay top tourist prices for poor food. Luckily we were surprised on both fronts, clearly the locals hadn't caught on to milking the opportunity of limited supply and large demand.

On the drive back we stopped off at a church in the outskirts of Sofia: Boyana church. This is a small church built in the 13th century and from the outside seemed quite unremarkable. However, on the inside it is covered with detailed frescoes. Tourists are only allowed 10 minutes inside the climate controlled church and with a 10 lev entrance fee it made this the most expensive activity per minute we would undertake for the entire holiday. On being waved into the entrance hallway a lively intense chap started explaining a little about the church and offered his services as a guide. It turns out he is a professor studying the frescoes and like professors the world over was somewhat enthusiastic. The frescoes themselves were good but just as I was thinking that they weren't up to the standard we had seen in Italy we learnt that they were all painted before the Italian renaissance. Of even more significance these were the first examples of saints being painted with human expressions of emotion on their faces, a large departure from the accepted norm at the time.

Feeling suitably virtuous by our heavily religious sight seeing we set off into town, after stopping at the apartment to watch the end of the Paris-Roubaix cycling race, for some food. After a nice Italian restaurant had served us some much needed pasta we went to the happy restaurant for chocolate dessert and where once again Premier football was turned on just as we arrived - impeccable timing again!