The Osenovlak or else called Sedemte Prestola (i.e. the Seven Altars) monastery lies in a charming part of the Balkan mountains at the foot of the Izmerets peak. The monastery, bearing the religious name of Our Lady, was built in the beautiful valley of the medium-sized Gabrovnitsa river, in the skirts of the Northern Balkans. As the distance between the city of Sofia and the monastery is about 86km, Sedemte Prestola is a popular destination for a weekend trip out of the city.
Even if the monastery’s origin is hard to time exactly, historians agree that it dates back to the Second Bulgarian State that ended with Bulgaria’s fall under Ottoman rule at the end of the 14th century. Some historians go further to claim that the cloister was built during the rule of Peter Delyan, king of Western Bulgaria (including not only the Sofia and Vidin regions but also the entire Northern part of the country). It was built close to a Roman fortress, few remains of which (i.e. a part of the stone wall) can still be seen if one takes a signed but steep path from the monastery. Interestingly, the monastery’s gate (kept to date) was in fact taken from that very Roman fortress. In 1737, Sultan Mahmud, nicknamed by the Bulgarians as ‘The Godless’ ordered the destruction of many monasteries and churches. The Osenovlak monastery was not saved and was razed to the ground as well. Following the Russian-Turkish war in 1769 and the signed peace agreement, Sultan Abdul Medzhit issued a decree, allowing to the subdued Christians to profess their faith and built their own churches and monasteries. Quite a few monasteries and churches, including Sedemte Prestola, were reconstructed following the promulgation of that decree. Thus, the monastery was brought back to life by two priest brothers, Todor and Marko from Teteven with the help of master Stoyu from Troyan. In 1848, Father Hristophor established a monastery school with one of the teachers being he himself. Following the completion of their studies, the students used to become teachers, priests, or public figures. Besides the historical evidence, there is also a parallel legend for the establishment of the monastery. According to it, the cloister was set up by 7 boyars (or by 7 brothers under an alternative version of the story), hence the name Sedemte Prestola (i.e. the Seven Altars). The 7 boyars are believed to have come from Bessarabia in the 11th century and settled in the Balkan mountains together with their Slav families. Their settlement in those lands is also related to the establishment of 7 villages in the neghbourhood of the monastery – Osenovlak, Ogoya, Ogradishte, Bukovets, Leskov Dol, Zhelen and Lakatnik. As most Bulgarian monasteries, Sedemte Prestola is surrounded by a high stone wall while the church lies in the middle of the inner yard. Besides, the complex also consists of a belltower and two perpendicular residential buildings, a large part of which represent cozy and neat rooms for accommodation of visitors. The belltower consists of two bells (made in 1799 and 1940 respectively) and wooden and metal clappers – the latter made of metal taken from the Roman fortress in 1799. The relatively small yard immediately takes any visitors for its nicely kept garden with many flowers, blossoming bushes and old trees, including a century-old sequoia. The church in turn is no less impressive with its unique design of seven separate altars – something that has no architectural equivalent in any other Bulgarian church. The four main altars form a cross and are separated from the main hall by inside walls. The other two altars are closer to the door and are even more isolated. They are reached via small no-door entrances to two chapels. Finally, the 7th altar is the central one just straight in front of the door. Each altar in fact represents a separate chapel with its own wall paintings and iconostasis and is dedicated to a Bulgarian saint (or saints). The church’s miraculous icon, the Birth of Our Lady, is believed to have been brought from Athos by Father Gavril at the time of the monastery’s establishment. Besides the altars, the visitor is caught by the massive wood-carved and painted chandelier with religious images, named “The Horo”. All the wall paintings in the church are more than 100 years old. The monastery also has its library, which holds ancient Orthodox books, including one gifted by the Russian empress Ekaterina the Great.
Most of the residential part is open to visitors. There are double, triple and bigger rooms, though restrooms and bathrooms are outside the guestrooms and common for all guests accommodated at a floor. The monastery is quite popular among Sofia citizens and hence we recommend prior booking of accommodation, particularly for weekend trips and big religious holidays. As regards food, there is a small pub detached to the outer side of monastery (close to the gate), though the menu is quite scarce. Hence, it is advisable to bring food to your liking. There is a big dining room in the residential part and also dining tables at the building’s terraces looking to the inner yard. Besides, if the weather permits, guests can use a fireplace with tables and benches next to the monastery and just by the river.
The monastery can be easily reached by car from Sofia, following the road to Mezdra through the Iskar river defile. Once in the village of Eliseyna, which lies on the main road, one needs to cross the railway and take the (acceptable asphalt) offroad to the village of Osenovlak and the monastery.