Traveling to Orthodox Monasteries … My New Obsession
I had no idea when I picked Cyrpus as my first place to travel after quitting my job that it would be the beginnings of an obsession. After seeing the gorgeous Painted Churches in the Troodos in Cyprus, then seeing Meteora in Greece and Rila in Bulgaria, I was hooked. Dozens of Orthodox monasteries later (many of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites), I’m always looking for beautiful places to head next. Here nine travel bloggers share their favorite Orthodox monasteries, ranging from Ethiopia to Russia to Greece. Have you been to all nine?
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Meteora in Greece
Bodbe Monastery in Georgia
One of the first nations to adopt Christianity as its state religion, Republic of Georgia is home to a plethora of Orthodox pilgrimage sites. The Monastery of St. Nino at Bodbe, or Bodbe Monastery for short, is one of the most venerated. Its history is closely intertwined with that of St. Nino, the 4th-century evangelist who was responsible for Georgia’s Christianisation.
Bodbe is located in the country’s eastern Kakheti region, within walking distance of the pretty walled city of Sighnaghi. The original monastery complex was constructed in the 9th century to house St. Nino’s relics. In the 1920s, Bodbe was decommissioned and used as a hospital by the Soviets. Its basilica and bell tower were later restored, and it eventually reopened as a nunnery in the early 2000s.
Bodbe is set on a steep hill overlooking the gorgeous Alazani Valley. Below the basilica, via a long flight of stone steps, is St. Nino’s Spring—a divine water source that according to legend, sprung from Kakheti’s semi-desert at the behest of St. Nino herself. The real joy of Bodbe is the monastery’s gardens, kept flawless by the nuns who live there. Nested between towering Cyprus trees, the manicured lawns and spring blossoms are said to be unmatched anywhere else in Georgia.
Contributed by Emily of Wander-Lush
Agios Neophytos Monastery in Cyprus
This is a beautiful monastery in Cyprus located around 9 km from Paphos in the southern part of Cyprus. The Monastery dates back to 1159 when it was founded by Saint Neophytos. The Monastery sits on the edge of the forest at the edge of Tala village.
Saint Neophytos lived here until the age of 85, and 200 years following his death they added a church dedicated to Saint Mary. The frescoes in the church were painted by famous Cypriot Theodoros Apsevdis. The monastery also has a museum with exhibits of icons, pottery and more dating back to Roman and Byzantine periods.
Opposite the monastery, is a cave with the cell of Saint Neophytos, also known as Enkleistra. It is an enclosure carved out of the mountain with some of the finest Byzantine frescos in the world. It is said that the Saint carved the cave out of the rock with his bare hands. The monastery is one of the most peaceful places I have ever visited and is a great place to stop when visiting Paphos. Just outside the monastery walls is a lovely shaded little cafe where you can sit in absolute peace and quiet and enjoy the forest and the birds singing.
On the drive up to the Monastery, you will see a Cat Sanctuary, run by a group of volunteers (many of them British), that looks after hundreds of feral cats, most of whom have been strays or abandoned. The Monastery Cat Park receives no funding and relies 100% on support and donations from the public.
Contributed by Faith from XYUandBeyond
Debre Maryam Monastery in Ethiopia
Ethiopia is home to the oldest Christian churches and monasteries in the world. However, from Bahir Dar, we decided to visit one of the slightly newer monasteries: the orthodox monastery of Debre Maryam located on a small green island in Lake Tana. After a boat ride of about 15-20 minutes over calm waters, we arrived at the harbor. From here, a path led us through a forest of coffee and fig trees, lined with many souvenir stalls to the round monastery of Debre Maryam (admission 100 Birr). Debre Maryam was re-built in the 19th century by the emperor Tewodros, but the original church was built in the 14th century. Inside, we walked passed the colorful Ethiopian orthodox-style murals depicting biblical stories such as judgment day. Although most of the murals are quite new, there were also still some of the older murals present. After that, we visited the dining halls of the monks and the small, but interesting museum. Returning back over the lake by boat, we were lucky enough to spot some hippoes!
Contributed by Manouk of Bunch of Backpackers
Studenica Monastery in Serbia
Studenica Monastery is one of the most important Orthodox monasteries in Serbia. 800 years ago it was the political and religious center of Medieval Serbia. Even today, it is still the largest and the richest of all the Serbian Orthodox monasteries. It contains the remains of the first Serbian kings and has been named as a World Heritage Site because of its historical significance.
It’s not an easy place to get to without a car, though. The closest town is called Usce and you can get a bus there from Novi Pazar. However, there is only occasionally public transport to take you the 12 kilometers further to Studenica.
But, however you get there, it is worth the journey. Inside the church and the chapels are beautifully-detailed frescoes painted in the 13th and 14th centuries. The garden is well-tended and the architecture is impressive but restrained.
One of the benefits of being so far from a town is that the Studenica Monastery is extremely peaceful and surrounded by green countryside. The artworks on the walls may be the most significant elements here but it’s also a lovely place just to relax and explore slowly.
Contributed by Michael from Time Travel Turtle
Patriarchal Monastery of the Holy Trinity in Bulgaria
The Patriarchal Monastery of the Holy Trinity in Veliko Tarnovo lies in a peaceful neighborhood 6 kilometers north of the city. Every day from 7 am to 6 pm, people can visit the monastery and catch a glimpse of the mural paintings surrounding its walls and the large icons inside the monastery. Speaking of which, the large icons represent the image of the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, Christ, and the Holy Trinity. Aside from these ornaments, the Patriarchal Monastery of the Holy Trinity is also surrounded with cliffs that served as prison cells from the Medieval period. There used to be an underground chapel too but because of the strong earthquake that hit the nation in 1913, the church was severely damaged. Luckily, some of the items were restored and the church went back to its original state.
When visiting the monastery, everyone should observe proper dress code where the shoulder, elbow, and knees should not be visible. Keeping silent is also one of the ground rules.
Contributed by Eloise from Tripsionista
Caraiman Monastery in Romania
St. George’s Monastery in Russia
The St.George’s (Yuriev) monastery in Veliky Novgorod, one hundred and ninety-five km from St. Petersburg is one of the oldest monasteries in Russia. Before Christianity became an official religion in Russia the area occupied by the monastery used to be a shrine of Perun, a main pagan god of Slavic mythology. In 988 Prince Vladimir baptized Russia and old pagan shrines were replaced with Orthodox churches and monasteries. The monastery was founded in 1030 by the Grand Prince Yaroslav Mudry (Yaroslav the Wise), Christian name George from where the monastery’s name comes. At first, the monastery and church were wooden like most of the buildings in Russia in that period, later in 1119, it was rebuilt in stone. Since then for centuries the monastery and its churches were one of the main spiritual centers of Russia.
After the Revolution of 1917 till the end of the 20th century, for almost 80 years, St.George’s monastery was closed. During that period the monastery complex was used as a post office, school, museum even as a hostel for people that lost their homes after the World War II. From 1995 St.George is a monastery in function again. The monastery complex is big with several churches of different periods and styles. The place is beautiful and very peaceful at the Volkhov river 10 km outside of the town. The monastery bakery makes great bread and pastry, so you can have a quick lunch here. A visit to Veliky Novgorod can easily be included in Saint Petersburg itinerary as a day trip, it takes 3 hours to get here by train.
Contributed by Campbell & Alya from Stingy Nomads
Dryanovo Monastery in Bulgaria
Hidden in a valley of the foothills of central Bulgaria’s Balkan Mountains lies the Dryanovo Monastery. Secluded between high cliffs, this small Bulgarian Orthodox monastery sits on the valley floor at the confluence of the Andaka and Dryanovska rivers. The monastery’s stunning scenery and surrounds, not to mention its off-the-beaten-path nature, mean that a visit to Dryanovo Monastery feels like a secret that only you’ve been let in on.
The monastery’s story begins back in the 12th century when it was dedicated to Archangel Michael during the Second Bulgarian Empire. Tragically, it suffered repeated fires during the Ottoman period and its esteemed library was lost as a result. Despite its hardships, the monastery has remained active to this day. It was last restored in the mid 19th century, still seen in both its traditional exterior and ornate chapel interior. Near the monastery, you’ll find several small waterfalls, as well as the cavernous Bacho Kiro Cave. For children, a small animal center with goats and ponies is sure to delight.
By David of Travelsewhere
Sumela Monastery in Turkey
Sumela Monastery is located 45 km south of Trabzon in the Altındere National Park in the Zigana Mountains (East Pontic Mountains) at an altitude of 1071 m. The name comes from Melas (black), after the Greek name of the mountain where the monastery is located. From the small town of Maçka, 30 km away from Trabzon, a sometimes quite narrow road leads through the Zigana Mountains to the monastery.
The interior and exterior walls of the rock church and the adjacent chapel are decorated with impressive frescoes. The representations on the inside of the wall to the courtyard of the rock church date back to the time of Alexios III, Byzantine Emperor from 1195 to 1203. Other frescoes date back to the early 18th century and show scenes of the Old and New Testament.
The most interesting thing about the monastery, however, is that over the centuries it has been a place of pilgrimage for both Christians and Muslims. This has left its mark, as most frescoes are scratched-out.
Contributed by Clemens from Travellers Archive