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The cave of St. Ivan Rilski: a sacred place

We took a few steps into the deciduous forest. Walking in absolute silence, we were headed to one of the most sacred places in Bulgaria – the cave of St. Ivan Rilski.

Where is Ivan Rilski’s cave?

The cave in which St. Ivan Rilski spent more than 7 years of his life is located only 3-4km away from the Rila Monastery. Pass the parking of the monastery and continue for another 3-4km. Before a sharp U-turn, you’ll see a large wooden icon on the left side of the road. This is where you can leave your car. You’ll continue by foot through the forest for roughly 15 minutes until you reach a small church. There are signs along the way and the path is well-trodden, so do not worry about getting lost.

The forest surrounding the cave of St. Ivan Rilski

Ellie and I have traveled quite a bit and this certainly wasn’t the first forest we entered. But there was something about it! I don’t know if it was the massive trees reaching for the sky, or the sun rays, fighting with the leaves for a chance to touch the ground. It could have been the incredible serenity of this place or… It could also have been my thoughts. With every step I took, I told myself that I am walking in the footsteps of a great man who inspired an entire nation. I still don’t know what it was, that made me feel both happy and sad, but I do know that I NEED to go back there. Hopefully soon. There’s magic in this forest.

Quick info about the life of St. Ivan Rilski (St. John of Rila)

Ivan Rilski was born in the village of Skrino in 876 and was a shepherd until his 25th birthday. After the death of his parents, he gave away all of his material possessions and entered a monastery where his religious journey began. I won’t bore you with details – someone already wrote a lot of information about St. John of Rila on Wikipedia, and if you’re curious, you can find it here.


The cave of St. Ivan Rilski

The first thing you see as you approach the cave is a little church. According to the information that I found online, this was the first monastery built by the disciples of the monk. Sadly, it was closed on that particular Monday when we visited, but we are surely going back.

To enter the cave continue on the right side of this little church. You’ll see the stone stairs leading you inside.

As you will see inside the cave, there’s nothing spectacular about it. There is barely any light, and the stone “bed” doesn’t seem tempting at all. Although it wasn’t a cold day, Ellie and I got shivers as we walked in. Within 2 minutes inside the cave my fear gradually increased to the point where I nearly started crying. But we were there with a purpose.

Cleansing your soul: passing through the tunnel of St. Ivan Rilski

At the end of the tiny cave of Ivan Rilski, you can see a thin ray of light. It comes from a narrow, two-meter tunnel ending on top of the cave. The belief is that only people with clean souls can pass through and that magical powers keep the sinners away. Well, we did pass. And yes, it does feel incredible.

The holy spring next to the cave of St. Ivan Rilski

While you’re there, do not forget to drink some water from the holy spring. In Bulgarian the word for holy springs is “ayazmo” and it is believed that this water never stops, nor freezes even when it is extremely cold.

During our stay in Rila Monastery, I had the incredible opportunity to talk to one of the priests. He told me that St. Ivan Rilski was against killing animals. In modern terms, we can say that he was a vegetarian. The love and respect for all of God’s creatures were amongst the values he passed on to his followers. Years later, when one of the bishops of the Rila Monastery announced that this will no longer be followed, the spring dried up for a week. This was the first and last time this happened.

If you also feel the incredible magic of this place while there, make a wish, write it on a little note and place it near the Ayazmo. The legend says that every now and then St. Ivan Rilski returns to his grave and grants the wishes of some of us. Will it be yours? I don’t know. But as people say: until you ask the question, the answer is No.

By Nina Alexander

Nina is the big sister. She's a marketing professional by day, traveler by heart, tech geek, bookworm, beer lover and an amateur photographer. Her motto is Friedrich Nietzsche's famous quote "And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music."

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