Oh Russia–Part two
It’s all a matter of getting into the groove, doing everything on their terms and just going with the flow. Can’t beat ‘em? Then join ‘em.
So, we showed our passports (again), smiled sweetly, didn’t question, said “spasibo” and did our best to get a smile (50% success). But the minute we saw what we were hoping to see, all of those small niggles became nothing. For there really is nowhere quite like Russia when it comes to cathedrals. And that is what was on our agenda today.
We woke to bright sunshine and enjoyed breakfast with a glorious view. Apparently St Petersburg gets abut 35 sunny days per year, so how lucky were we?
Our first goal for the day was St Isaacs Cathedral, the one we’ve been driving past to and fro and the dome of which we can see from our ship. It’s just down the road and across the river, in fact. We’d seen it from the outside on each of our visits but had never been inside.
Whilst we waited for our guide, we stood admiring the ochre-painted palace to the side of the cathedral, only noting the “Four Season Hotel” sign some minutes later. Hmm. Could be a neat place to stay!
We were asked to stand under the canopy whilst Nadya, our guide, bought our tickets. For St Isaacs is no longer a working cathedral but a museum.
And it’s not only we who get irritated by the petty bureaucracy. Nadya asked the guy on the gate which turnstile she should bring her group through and was totally ignored. She led us through #3 and was promptly told that #1 was for groups. She sighed, muttered under her breath and just got on with it. There was no point in having an argument and she’d clearly had years of experience dealing with such attitudes. Wouldn’t do for me!
But of course, as soon as we were inside, all such irritations were forgotten. Though it’s no longer a working cathedral, the interior is just as it was and to all intents and purposes, it’s still a church.
Of course, we were not the only ones there – in fact, it was packed with tourists just like ourselves. Still, most of what we wanted to see was way above our heads and so it didn’t really matter.
The richly decorated surfaces were mostly covered by mosaic icons and there was a wealth of gold throughout the cathedral.
The colours were breathtaking, especially those of the iconostasis and stained glass window beyond. Those malachite and lapis lazuli pillars alone were enough to set the heart racing.
My eye was caught by the old Russian gentleman in the icon just to the right of centre. His face and demeanour seemed just right and very much in keeping with the whole arrangement.
Wherever we stood, a benign saint was watching over us, or in the case of the holiest spots, icons of Christ himself, richly painted in gold and adorned with precious stones.
High above us all was the dome and there, right in the centre, was a feature I couldn’t quite work out.
until I zoomed in and saw it was a dove. There had been a pendulum there, placed by the Soviets when the cathedral was taken over by the state, demonstrating the movement of the Earth. Later, the original concept of a dove was reinstated – though not necessarily with the original dove itself.
I was paying attention to Nadya by means of my earpiece, but I was also wandering around making the most of my visit. At one point, I slipped my shawl over my head and joined a few old women in a small chapel to one side of the altar, quietly observing their devotions and standing, enjoying the atmosphere and peace. There is such power in the atmosphere of these places.
In my ear, I could hear Nadya talking about St Isaac himself, patron saint of the cathedral and I hurried back to see who she was referring to. Well, look at that – the old man who had caught my eye earlier, holding a picture of the cathedral in his hand.
We were almost ready to move on, but I caught sight of a few old photos, one of which showed a cabbage patch there in front of the building during Soviet times. My goodness, how things change.
With a last glance around, we gathered ourselves and returned to the bus, to make our way to the second cathedral, this time a working church.
The Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan on Nevsky Prospekt was already known to us as well. It was another landmark we had visited on a previous visit without actually stepping aside, so we looked forward to seeing what we’d missed.
Now, this is a working church and no photographs are taken inside out of respect for those worshipping. Gentlemen were requested to remove their caps and ladies invited to cover their heads if they wanted. Inside was rather brighter and less atmospheric than I’d imagined, for really, there were more tourists than worshippers, but nevertheless, a couple of things caught our eye.
Firstly, there was the queue of people waiting to kiss and speak to the 16th century icon of Our Lady of Kazan. Such devotion is unfamiliar to us, but the patience of those in the queue as each person took their turn to spend however long it took to make their request, offer thanks or seek advice was remarkable.
As we stood and gazed around, we noted a familiar group of saints – the Romanovs. Nadya explained that modern Russian saints were created to include real people such as these.
But there was one corner which had a spooky significance. We had reminded ourselves of the Kutusov family following our cruise on the river yesterday and I had enjoyed seeing the pictures from the BBC website of Brian Cox in the role, his picture firmly in my mind as a result. Nadya explained that there was only one single grave in the Kazan Cathedral and you’ve probably guessed whose it was? Yes, Mikhail Kutusov – and his picture by the side of the memorial stone looked for all the world like Brian Cox (the actor, not the astronomer!)
I love it when things like that happen!
We had five minutes before moving on, so I skipped quickly outside onto Nevsky Prospekt to see what’s what – the street is the equivalent of Oxford Street and we’d not had chance to see how things had changed since our last visit.
Sure enough, on a sunny Monday afternoon, it was bustling with people and traffic.
The lovely art nouveau former Singer sewing machine shop on the corner looked lovely and I wished I’d had time to run over there and take a look inside.
But we had one last church to visit: the Church of our Saviour on Spilled Blood, which we had seen from outside yesterday and had remembered clearly (for obvious reasons) from our previous visits too.
Spectacular exterior, don’t you think? Wait till we got inside…
The interior was literally breathtaking, with wall to wall to ceiling mosaics in the richest palette of colours available.
Needless to say, in the sunshine it was all looking pretty amazing and I think we all held our breath for a minute.
Above our heads was a portrait of Christ, high up in the dome, flanked by rich pattern and the portraits of saints, each one carefully depicted in the finest mosaic technique worked by Russian craftsmen.
Nadya drew our attention to the small wooden pavilion at one corner of the church. Here, in 1881, Alexander II had been assassinated by a group by the name of “The Peoples’ Will”. He’d been by the canal and the church was built to cover the spot where his blood had spilled on the cobblestones, now marked by a cross of red carnations.
I went back for a closer look a little later.
So this isn’t an ancient church at all, but built during Victorian times. We loved it all the same.
One iconostasis was particularly interesting as many of the icons had been stolen during the revolution, for their precious stones, mostly. Just one remained/had been restored, in the centre.
Alexander Nevsky, saviour of Russia from the Teutonic Knights and after whom the Prospekt is named was there, in pride of place.
Of course, we could have spent hours looking around here, simply gazing and marvelling at the place. I kept spotting something of interest: a saint with a particular pattern on his cope, or a particularly lovely face. But it came time for us to go.
Through the exit under the starry ceiling, we were out into the bright sunshine.
Out by the canal again.
With the sun behind us, this was prime photo territory. Prime pickpocket territory too, so we took note of Nadya’s advice and kept our hands on our bags and our pockets.
On such a glorious afternoon, it was hard to stop taking pictures!
Just one more…
Even the souvenir stalls were a poor distraction!
But of course, it really was time to return to the ship.
Back past the bronze horseman again.
And yes, through all the passport palaver again.
It was worth every bit of it, of course!