Last weekend we took advantage of an extra couple of days off to check out two nearby attractions- Raifa Monastery and Sviyazhsk Island.
The first is only around 30 minutes from Kazan, but it proved pretty much impossible to locate the local bus stop leaving Kazan, so instead of wasting the prettiest day of the year so far we opted to haggle a 50 buck round trip cab ride over there. I’m glad we did, because the monastery is stunning.
Set next to the slightly misnamed Blue Lake, this white-walled retreat feels like something out of another century (the 16th, to be exact). Against the background of a pure blue sky, the effect is even more striking. Inside its walls are several churches, one holding a copy of Our Lady of Kazan, one of the holiest icons in all of Russia.
The original is actually in the Vatican, but due to bad blood between the Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches, it hasn’t been returned (even when John Paul II offered to). For those that aren’t familiar, icons are small paintings, usually of Christ, Mary, or the two together, that are revered much in the same way some Catholics do statues of the Saints and other holy relics.
The second Church is even larger, and as we found when we entered, perfect acoustically, as four Orthodox monks filled the domed chamber with their singing. It was a short, but beautiful performance.
After molesting a few of the friendly abbey cats and eating a lunch of typical Russian barbeque, shashlik, and onions, we walked out behind the monastery to find a typical countryside town. The multicolored clapboard houses (as well as some actual log homes- not built for their “atmosphere” but because that was the cheapest nearby material) showed an entirely different, more representative side of rural Russia than you’ll see in cities or around tourist sites. The coughing, ancient hatchbacks and sullen teenagers idly sitting on a swing-set completed the picture.
Before heading back to sample the holy springwater at the monastery (bring your own bottles, or jugs if you’re a huge fan) we made a detour through a quiet pine forest situated on the lakeside. All told, Raifa proved a welcome natural respite after several months spent in Kazan.
Sviyazhsk we’ll definitely revisit and cover better, as our visit was cut short by the opposite brand of weather than the previous day. However, even in our short time there it was easy to see why scores of Russian writers and painters were inspired by the place (apparently it was Pushkin’s favorite in all of Russia. Sviyazhsk is a quaint village (and monastery, of course) set atop a high-bluffed island in the middle of the Volga River (although a modern causeway has turned it into a peninsula).
After an hour and a half-plus train/taxi combo we grabbed a quick shashlik and Tartar fried rice meal before walking over to the first monastery. Only one small chapel was open there, but the grounds were an interesting contrast to our Raifa experience the day before.
We then followed our sightline to the large onion domes on the other side of the small island. This was the principal Cathedral on the island, an imposing structure that was also closed, but thankfully a reconstruction of the first wooden church on the island was open, and we could even take pictures inside.
After a peek at the Volga from the bluffs, and a quick circuit to discover what else lay on the island, (a few more churches and several 200 year old homes that were also closed) we made our way back to the train station;
And planned our inevitable return in finer circumstances.