Kiev’s first UNESCO site, the 13 spires of the 11th century Byzantine St Sophia Cathedral contrast wildly with the more modern concrete blocks courtesy of communism. Named for the famous church-turned-mosque the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul/Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia is one of the best architectural relics of the Kievan Rus. With ground broken in 1011, St Sophia’s Cathedral celebrated its 1000th anniversary in 2011! Like many religious buildings, its history has been far from peaceful. St Sophia was pillaged in 1169 and again in 1240, leading to abandonment and disrepair, including the loss of irreplaceable wall paintings. It was later damaged again in the 1500s when Poland and Ukraine joined forces in a misguided (and doomed to fail) attempt to unite the Catholic and Orthodox churches. It was claimed by several Orthodox communities – notably, the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church and the Moldavian Orthodox Church, who made repairs to St Sophia in the Ukrainian Baroque style. The Soviets wanted to destroy the cathedral and turn it into park, and indeed they managed to do so with St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery at the other end of the boulevard. But its popularity and reputation caused many to speak for the cathedral and St Sophia was saved, instead being turned into a history museum. And today, due to arguments over which branch of Orthodoxy should hold the rights to this ancient place, St Sophia remains a museum, frequented more by tourists than by members of the Orthodox community.
Pro tip: Things in the Ukraine follow their own rules and opening hours. Be sure to arrive early and be ready to wait if they say its not open. Special rates for students. Be sure to visit St Michael’s afterwards!
Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, St Petersburg, Russia
To some, the stunning Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood resembles a giant cupcake; to others a Disney World attraction; to locals, a mere copy of the more-famous St Basil‘s on Moscow‘s Red Square. And yet. This stunning church has a life and attitude all of its own. Inside and out, it is a work of art, an example of high romantic nationalism and Art Nouveauthat stands out from the rest of Baroque and Neoclassical St Petersburg. Conceived and completed in fin de siecle Russia, it was meant to be a way of immortalising Tsar Alexander II by his son, Alexander III, who was assassinated here by a group of anarchists. Inside, every inch of the high walls are covered with biblical art, containing over 7,500 square meters of mosaics, which by some estimates, is more than any other church in the world! Sadly, during the war, it was used as a temporary morgue during the WWII Siege of Leningrad, and afterwards as the city was still recovering, it was used as a storehouse for produce and other foodstuffs – lending it the derogatory nickname, Saviour on Potatoes. Today, it is a museum and a tribute to another Russia, another era. It was never reconsecrated, and therefore is not a proper place of worship, but does attract visitors from all over the world to admire its expert craftsmanship.
Pro tip: There is a small entrance fee of 250 rubles (about €3) but it goes towards the renovation and upkeep of the church. The church is closed Wednesdays.
On the shores of Lake Ohrid sits the ancient town of the same name. Historic, storied, beautiful – Ohrid is a place that stirs up emotion from within. It is indeed ancient – churches like the one here may date as far back as the 800s…! Built in the Byzantine style, it was not unusual for such churches to be converted to mosques during the Ottoman rule. Despite the fact that the Ottomans were supposedly open-minded when it came to religion, this apparently did not affect the church-to-mosque conversion. The best way to get a feel for old Ohrid is simply to stroll around this ancient place littered with Byzantine churches, beautiful quirky houses, cobblestone alleys, and an ancient Roman theatre. Find a cafe and relax outside on a terrace. Duck inside an ancient church to admire the ancient motifs painted on the walls and ceilings. Explore the ruins of the old fortress tucked inside the old city. Climb to the top of the hill and find a place to settle down and enjoy the magnificent panoramas of Ohrid town and lake – Ohrid the Beautiful awaits.
Ivan the Great Bell Tower in the Kremlin, Moscow, Russia
The Kremlin: probably one of the most infamous places across the Globe, it seems that few people choose to venture inside this massive and widely important complex. In essence, the Moscow Kremlin is a fortified complex snuggled between Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral, and encompasses five palaces, four cathedrals, and the Kremlin Wall interspersed with the famed red towers of the Kremlin. It is the Russian version of the White House, serving as personal residence of Russia’s president (today meaning the controversial Vladimir Putin). In the past, versions of the site have served as the seat of the Grand Dukes of Russia, the famous Russian Tsars, Catherine the Great and her extravagant Neoclassical palace and Soviet rulers. The above building is the Ivan the Great Bell Tower, which contains 22 bells and is now the tallest Kremlin structure. It is not the first bell tower to appear here; indeed, Moscow’s first bell tower was erected here in 1329, called St Ivan of the Ladder Under the Bell. One of Russia’s Grand Dukes, Ivan Kalita, built this massive whitewashed brick version in 1508 – the name is supposedly a nod towards the original tower, but one can imagine that Grand Duke Ivan wasn’t too opposed to name his construction the ‘Ivan the Great Bell Tower’ either! To visit this tower and the rest of the ever-impressive and awe-inspiring complex, one must buy tickets at the entrance, taking care stay with the carefully-allotted paths and buildings unless you’d like to see what the inside of a Russian prison looks like! Visit the exterior of the complex by exploring Red Square and alternatively, take a boat tour of the Moskva River at sunset to see Moscow in a new light!
Church of Saints Clement and Panteleimon in Ohrid, Macedonia
The Jewel of the Balkins, Ohrid lays on the edge of Lake Ohrid. From Romans to Ottomans, from Byzantines to Yugoslavs, Ohrid is a place comprised of historic layers, each foundation mixed with that of the one that came before. This Orthodox basilica, the Church of Saints Clement and Panteleimon, was reconstructed in Byzantine style in 2002, on an ancient site where the original students learned the Glagolitic alphabet, which was created by Saint Clement (used to translate the Bible into Old Slavonic, the predecessor to the Cyrillic alphabet). The original church was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman Empire before eventually being torn down. Later, thanks to the Macedonian government’s newfound interest in historical monuments and tourism, they used what they knew of the original church to rebuild the basilica in all its former glory. At last.
Visit Other Lesser-Known Churches & Cathedrals in Europe
The Church of Saint Clement of Ohrid, Skopje, Macedonia
Modern and sleek – in quite a contrast to the ancient orthodox that traditionally come to mind in this region – the Church of St Clement of Ohrid was begun in 1972 and consecrated on 12 August 1990 – which just so happens to be the 1150th anniversary of the birth of the church’s patron, St Clement. Impressive numbers aside, the modernity mixed with traditional design so clearly marks with the rest of the Macedonian capital. Wandering the ancient narrow streets of the bazaars, lined with tiny shops, covered archways, local merchants, and ancient mosques, it is easy to imagine oneself transported in time to the Ottoman Empire. Cross the Stone Bridge – a national icon in itself – to Macedonia Square (shadowed by the massive statue of none other than Alexander the Great), and you cross into the modern era, rebuilt after a 1963 earthquake. Neoclassical buildings, shiny high-rises, and fancy rotundas all recently constructed greet the wayward traveller. It is this interesting juxtaposition between old and new, past and progress, tradition and innovation, expressed here in the form of Skopje’s modern Church of St Clement’s, that is the most striking and remarkable thing about this capital city snuggled into the beautifully diverse Balkan Peninsula.
Latvia—like its neighbours Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, etc—was once a part of the Russian Empire, and the Russians, as you know, are orthodox. Therefore, in the years 1867-83, the Russians got to work constructing an orthodox house of worship in the centre of Riga, Latvia’s capital. Built in the Neo-Byzantine style, Riga’s cathedral still stands proudly in the in downtown Riga. While other ex-Russian satellite nations have torn down their cathedrals (*cough Poland cough*), Riga still has one right in the centre. Despite the mostly-negative impact of Russian occupation of the Baltic States, it is important to remember and recognise all aspects of history—and to appreciate culture and beauty. Because the Nativity of Christ Cathedral is beautiful! Russian Orthodox cathedrals usually are. The biggest Orthodox cathedral in the Baltics, it was commissioned by Tsar Alexander II. The church was briefly a Lutheran cathedral—and later a planetarium in the early days of independent Latvia—but since 1991, it has been restored to its original design. And now today, it resembles a delicious gateau enough to make my mouth water…!
Андріївська церква, or, St Andrew’s Church, Kiev, Ukraine
In light of Kiev‘s recent, rather negative ascent to the spotlight, I thought I’d turn tables and show the beautiful side of the Ukrainian capital. Here is St Andrew’s Church (which also happens to be my favourite church I’ve so far visited), reaching for the heavens with its beautiful bejewelled turquoise dome. According to legend, St Andrew had planted a cross on this exact site, proclaiming that one day, it would be the site of a ‘great Christian city.’ Not exactly a cathedral, St Andrew’s namesake is no ordinary church either. Commissioned by the famous Catherine the Great, built by the famed Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli who had a penchant for extravagance and opulence (architect of St Petersburg‘s Winter Palace and Smolny Cathedral), and named for St. Andrew, the patron saint of Kiev, St Andrew’s Church was constructed in the years 1747-54 in Baroque style. However, for some reason, Catherine wasn’t pleased, and poor Rastrelli was fired. Apparently, she had no taste for beauty because today, Андріївська церкваone is one of the most beautiful buildings not only in Kiev, but in the entire continent.
St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, Kiev, Ukraine,
or, Михайлівський золотоверхий монастир
It’s like fairyland, no? Overlooking the Dnieper River in central Kiev and facing down its beautiful sister, St Sophia, this magnificent piece of architecture is actually a functioning monastery. Though built in 1108-1113, it was demolished in 1934-1936 (three guesses who destroyed it…), and not rebuilt until 1999. So really, it’s only the site that’s old, not the cathedral itself. If you’ve never been to an orthodox cathedral, prepare for jaw-dropping beauty, both inside and out. Hershey-kissed shaped golden domes top its exterior towers, and inside, well, prepare for walls covered floor-to-ceiling in intricately-painted pictures and paintings. Golden walls and impressive idols line the alter. The whole interior is seems massively never-ending, and its acoustics are amazing; it’s like you’ve stepped into another world! Buildings like this make you appreciate the artistic capabilities of humanity all over again.