Bulgaria: Seven Rila Lakes and Rila Monastery

Bulgaria's Seven Rila Lakes are quite something. Situated in the Rila Mountains, about a two-hour drive from Sofia, the lakes are definitely worth visiting. The Rila Monastery, on the other hand, I'm not so sure. I'll get to that later.

We set off early to St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral to meet our tour group for our self-guided tour (£30.25 each) to the Seven Rila Lakes and Rila Monastery. We needed to be there by 7am so we could be at the Pionerska chairlift for when it opened at 9am.

The chair lift is cash only and costs 20 lev each for a return trip - we walked straight on (ditto for our descent) but queues in summer can be as long as an hour, which is why they recommend you get there as soon as possible.

Twenty minutes later you'll be 2,135 metres above sea level at the Rila Lakes Hut - we were armed with some great instructions from our guide and were ready to explore. In our backpack we had water, cereal bars (for breakfast), snacks, a flask full of hot water (we took pot noodles for lunch that we'd brought from the UK), sun cream and a jumper each.

When we were there in August the Rila Lakes Hut was serving fries, burgers, snacks and drinks, but there is no guarantee it will be open so it's advisable to always take supplies with you. This hut is the only place where you will find a loo as well - you have been warned!

Our tour allowed for us to spend six hours at Seven Rila Lakes, and we decided this was enough time to do the 8.5km hike which allows you see most of the lakes from a close distance, plus (most of) them from above at the panoramic view.

We did this in about 5 hours, which included breaks for breakfast, to take in the views, and lunch. The hike is a stunning one. In terms of difficulty, I'd say if you have a moderate level of fitness you're going to be fine. Sure, some bits will be tough - there's quite a bit of climbing to do to get to that panoramic view and at the beginning of the hike - but the majority of it is quite flat.

It's easy to get around as there are coloured arrows to guide you. We followed the red route from the Rila Lakes Hut, joining the yellow/green route at Babreka Lake ("the kidney") to get to the panoramic view. We then kept on the yellow/green route to the Seven Lakes Hut between Ribnoto Ezero ("the fish lake") and Dolnoto Ezero ("the lower lake"), then took the red/yellow route back to the Rila Lakes Hut and chairlift.

That left us an hour to sit in the sunshine before it was time to get back on the bus at 3pm to drive to Rila Monastery. Don't let the shared "Rila" fool you - you're looking at a drive of 1 hour 45 minutes to get from the Lakes to the Monastery, and then the same length drive to get from Rila Monastery back to Sofia. At this point we were pretty exhausted from the hike.

But, we hopped out to explore Rila Monastery, which was founded in the 10th century by St John of Rila, though the monastery was rebuilt in the 1800s because of a fire. It is very colourful, as you can see, and has many vibrant frescoes depicting biblical tales, but I just couldn't muster up much enthusiasm for it.

I'm not sure if we'd have made the 3.5 round trip from Sofia to visit the monastery without doing the hike I'd have felt any different about it but, regardless, I am very glad we did the hike. If you're visiting Sofia in summer it's a lovely way to spend a day - just explore options without visiting the monastery, maybe.

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