Rila is the highest mountain in Bulgaria and on the entire Balkan Peninsula (and sixth in all of Europe). It covers an area of approximately 2400 km2 (925 miles2). It is made up mainly of granite, but marble and crystallized shales (among others) are also found. Its climate is transitional between continental and Mediterranean. The lowest temperature ever measured in Bulgaria, -31.2°C (-24.2°F), was recorded at Musala Peak. Precipitation, mostly snow, is significant; the snow cover is often higher than 2 meters (6.5 ft). The winds are mainly west and southwest. The climactic factors provide the conditions for the formation of avalanches.
There are 4 sections: eastern, central, northwestern and southwestern. The highest and most extensive of these is the eastern. The highest peak, Musala (2925 m or 9506 ft), is here, followed by Lesser Musala (2902 m or 9432 ft), Irechek (2863 m or 9305 ft), Deno (2790 m or 9068 ft) and Aleko (2713 m or 8817 ft). Rila is the peninsula’s central mountain range and is its main orographic and hydrographic hub. Its name is of Thracian origin: the original form was Dounkas (place with much water), but later changed to Roula, which the Slavs further adjusted to the current Rila (watery mountain). This name is completely justified; beside its own 230 lakes, the sources of some of Bulgaria’s largest rivers are here – the Iskar, the Maritsa, the Mesta, and the Dzherman. In the Malyovitsa section of Rila one finds the largest lake groups – Urdini, Malyovishki, Elenski, Gradinski, and Popovokapski – as well as the most beautiful cirque in Bulgaria, the Seven Rila Lakes, situated in terraces- Tear, Eye, Kidney, Twin, Botanical (Trefoil), Fish and Lower. The waters of the lakes flow from one and into the next and are the headwater of the Dzherman River. The deepest is the Eye (37.5 m or 122 ft) and the shallowest is the Fish (around 2.5 m or 8 ft). The view is wonderful, especially in summer, when the lush greenery on the banks, the abundance of water and the cool air are ideally combined for a true rest. Among the starting points for the cirque are the resorts of Panichishte and Sapareva Banya with the hottest mineral spring in Europe (103°C or 217°F). One can also reach the Skakavitsa Holiday Base (constructed back in 1921) and the Skakavitsa waterfall, which is frozen during the winter and is a favorite ice climbing site, from Panichishte. One of the most famous mountain resorts and the best ski centres in Bulgaria, Borovets (founded as early as 1897), is situated in the Rila Mountain. The skiing season lasts from November to May. The ski runs vary in their level of difficulty – from beginner to expert, marked in the appropriate international-standard signage. More than 20 hotels are available for the guests as well as the Yastrebets cabin lift, which covers a distance of 4800 m (3 miles) and a change in altitude of 1043 m (3390 ft) in 23 minutes, one of the best ski schools in Europe, equipment rental, a kindergarten and a children’s skiing garden. Comfortable spots for a short rest are the tourist centres of Musala, Chakar Voyvoda, Maritsa, Zavrachitsa and Yastrebets, and the palaces of Sitnyakovo and Saragyol. Rila is the cradle of Bulgarian mountaineering. The most challenging and, yet, most attractive mountaineering sites in Bulgaria are situated in the Malyovitsa section – one of Rila’s most interesting sections. They include: Malyovitsa (one of the symbols of Bulgarian mountaineering), Kupenite, Elenin, Orlovets, Zliyat Zab (Evil Tooth), Dyavolskite Igli (The Devils Needles), Dvuglav (Two-Headed), Iglata (the Needle), Kamilata (the Camel), etc. There is a good tourist base with over 30 chalets and alpine shelters, which are found via well-marked paths. The European hiking thoroughfare E-4 passes through here. There are many ski lifts, ski runs, eating establishments and stores in this region. The path to the Rila Monastery of St. Ivan Rilski, one of Bulgaria’s holy places, takes approximately 6-7 hours. It was founded in the 10th century by the Bulgarian hermit-saint Ivan Rilski (876-946), and was reconstructed on its current site in the 14th century. The building resembles a medieval fortress with its high walls and tiny, narrow stone windows. Hrelyo’s Tower looms in the middle of the yard. The residential buildings are distributed into 4 wings, connected via a common architectural ensemble. The monastery’s kitchen, watermill, entrance gate and monks’ cells (among which is the cell of the founding father of the Bulgarian National Revival and author of Slavo-Bulgarian History, Paisiy of Hilendar) are interesting. The monastery’s main temple, The Nativity of the Holy Virgin’s Church, was constructed in 1837 and its murals (the work of distinguished National Revival painters) date from 1844—48. The original iconostasis, made of walnut wood and gold-leafed, is a valuable monument of wood-carving art. During the 15th century, Bulgaria’s oldest monastery established its position as the greatest spiritual centre in the Bulgarian lands. Distinguished Bulgarian men of letters worked here and created some of the most precious works of Old Bulgarian literature. The monastery’s library contains 16,000 volumes of valuable and unique books. The museum on the premises contains finery, coins, weapons, church vessels, an icon collection and a unique work of art – the wooden cross, created over a period of 12 years by a monk, Rafail, who went blind in the end. The monastery has been declared an international cultural monument by the UNESCO.
Around 30% of the mountain massif (81046 hectares or 313 miles2) are part of the Rila National Park, including the following reserves: Parangalitsa, Central Rila (included in UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Program), Ibar and Skakavitsa. The name “Parangalitsa” (1509 hectares or 3729 acres) comes from the Greek word parangalos and means forbidden, guarded. One of the oldest spruce forests in Europe is protected here, and also around 290 higher plants and many protected animal species. Central Rila Reserve (12393.7 hectares or 48 miles2) is the largest in Bulgaria and one of the most extensive in Europe. It preserves forests, sub-alpine and alpine ecosystems – the white fir, the spruce, the dwarf pine, unique relic (from past geological eras) and endemic (of limited geographic incidence) plant and animal species. The alpine rose, with its evergreen leaves, blooms on the northern slopes. The Ibar Reserve (2248.6 hectares or 5556 acres) shelters over 400 species of higher plant life, rare animal species and more than 50 species of birds, some of which are in danger of extinction – the golden eagle and the goshawk. The typical forest reserve, Skakavitsa, covers a small area -just 70.8 hectares (or 175 acres) – and includes age-old white fir forests. One can see protected and rare plant and animal species here.
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