On your visit to the Vratsa region don't miss the famous Cherepish Monastery, occupying an important place in Bulgarian history and related to the cause of prominent Bulgarians, including Pimen Zografski, Sofronii Vrachanski, Dimitar Obshti, Ivan Vazov, Aleko Konstantinov, among many others. The monastery sits at the foot of the Vratsa Mountain, near the Iskar River, opposite to the Ritlite landmark cliffs.
This is what the Austrian explorer and adventurer, Felix Canitz (1829 - 1904) exclaimed at the sight of it: "Cherepish Monastery is the most beautiful and attractive place in the Balkans!"
The Cherepish Monastery was built during the time of Tsar Ivan Shishman according to a document from 1392, kept in the Sofia Church History and Archaeological Museum. The name of the monastery, according to local legend, comes from the sight of the white bones of the warriors who perished during the monumental battle of Tsar Ivan Shishman's troops with the Ottoman invaders in the area.
During the years of the Ottoman Empire, the monastery was burned and ravaged several times, abandoned by monks and rebuilt over again. In late 16th century it was refurbished and redecorated by a prominent painter and writer of that time, St. Pimen Sofiyski, who remained in the monastery until his death in 1610, as evidenced by his biography (zhitie) and by Paisiy Hilendarski's Slavic-Bulgarian History. While working on the monastery, St. Pimen was trying to emulate the Zograf Monastery in Athos. Today, the murals of the illustrious icon painter can be seen in the oldest building near the monastery, the Holy Assumption of the Virgin church, built in the 14th century. The walls of the church building are about a meter thick as a result of multiple reinforcements during the years of Ottoman rule. The relics of the Holy Unmercenaries, the Damian and Kozma brothers, believed to have been endowed with the power to heal, are also kept here.
During the National Revival, the monastery became an educational centre with its own school. Books, saints' biographies and gospels were written or rewritten at the monastery. Some of the most valuable Bulgarian medieval literary works were created here, e.g. the Cherepish Gospel; the Gospel of Daniel; an apostolic piece by James; "Margarit", a collection of exhortations by the orthodox priest Todor, etc. In the period 1797-1798, the monastery Provided refuge to Sofronii Vrachanski fleeing from of the Kardzhalii raids. As monastery legends have it, the eminent spiritual leader of the Bulgarian East Orthodox Church found refuge in one of the multiple caves In the vicinity for 24 days. The same cave today is called Sofronieva.
The Cherepish Monastery also provided refuge to many of Botev's rebels. Rashov Dol (Rashov Gulley) – where a portion of Botev's company, led by Georgi Apostolov, held its last battle – is not far from the monastery. The monastery yard also features a small chapel-cum-ossuary building where the bones of fallen monks and Chetniks are stored. Walking into the yard, you can see it perched high on the right-hand side, on top of a steep stone staircase.
The so-called Vazov's Terrace is right underneath the ossuary. It was the favourite place of Ivan Vazov, the so called patriarch of Bulgarian literature. Contemporaries recount that he loved to have his coffee here, engrossed in the flouncing of Iskar's waters. They also say that his famous One Bulgarian woman was written here inspired by the accounts Vazov heard from Chelopek locals. A dedicated corner of the museum displays some paraphernalia related to the writer, as well as printouts of some of his stories, thought to have been created here.
Another landmark seated in the monastery courtyard is the so-called Rashid's House. Legend has it that the daughter of Vratsa's governor, Rashid Bay, became seriously ill. One day, the young girl was approached in her dream by the Holy Virgin, who called on her to come to the monastery and be healed. Rashid Bay indulged his daughter's wish and built a small cottage in a rock crevice by the monastery. He was summoned to the monastery not long after. Although he was heartbroken on his way to the monastery, how big was his surprise when she saw his daughter was alive and well. He promised the monks to support their holy place and lived up to his word. Rashid Bay also built a beautiful house at the spot where his daughter adopted the Christian faith.
The house is also reportedly linked to a fateful event in Bulgarian history: “There is also hearsay that on August 15, 1872, the fatal decision to rob the Turkish Treasury at the Arabakonak Pass was taken here at the Rashid House, under the supervision of Dimitar Obshti”. This is what Ilia Borisov writes in his study of Lyuti Brod (Todorov 2002: 209).
The monastery was also a favourite place of Aleko Konstantinov, who wrote here his popular travelogue "The Bulgarian Switzerland". "And it's beautiful indeed, my Lord, how beautiful is this Cherepish Monastery! The curves of the effervescent Iskar, squeezed on one side by green and flowering wooded hills chockfull of nightingales; and on the other side squashed by overhanging multicoloured and multifaceted giant rocks pocked by caves ..."
The monastery is not in its prime today (the only monk is Archimandrite Ioanikiy, the abbot), but it still draws in thousands of visitors and pilgrims from all over the world.
You can get to the Cherepish Monastery by the road to Mezdra and Vratsa through the Iskar Gorge, 5 km after Zverino and 85 km from Sofia. The monastery can put up 30 people for the night. In a modest setting, its mess (magernitsa) offers a few monastery dishes and traditional Bulgarian cuisine.