Sergiev Posad by Night

UNESCO World heritage site review: Architectural Ensemble of the Trinity Sergius Lavra in Sergiev Posad

The Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius is a still working Orthodox monastery and a popular site of pilgrimage and tourism. The monastery is the spiritual centre of the Russian Orthodox Church. It is situated in the town of Sergiev Posad, about 75 km north from Moscow and part of Russia’s Golden Ring. The monastery is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site under the name ‘Architectural Ensemble of the Trinity Sergius Lavra in Sergiev Posad’. We reviewed this site to let you know if it’s also an interesting site to visit as a tourist.

History

Sergiev Posad Trinity Lavra
Main square

Russia’s patron saint Sergius of Radonezh founded the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius in 1337. Sergius developed the monastery according to his own charter, that specified which supporting buildings were necessary for the development of a monastery. This charter would be used by his followers to found hundreds of monasteries across Russia.

Serbian monks build the first stone cathedral, the Trinity Cathedral in 1422. In 1476 the church of the Holy Spirit was added to the complex. Several other buildings would be added in the 16th century which also saw the wooden palisade replaced by a stone towered wall. This was finished just in time to help the monastery survive the 16-month long Polish-Lithuanian siege in 1608.

In 1559 the building of the Assumption Cathedral started which would take 26 years to finish. It’s the only place where a Russian Tsar is buried, besides the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg and the Moscow Kremlin. The monastery would become one of the wealthiest landowners in Russia and would continue to be that until the end of the 19th century.

In the 17th century churches and buildings continued to be added. This expansion included several palaces and the giant refectory of St. Sergius, the largest hall in Russia at that time. The last major shrine was added in the 18th century by Empress Elizabeth who also commissioned the 88-meter-high bell tower.

Many patriarchs of the Russian Orthodox church are buried in the monastery. It functioned as their headquarter until 1983 when it was moved to the Danilov Monastery in Moscow.

Review

Beauty 4/5

Sergiev Posad Assumption Cathedral
Assumption Cathedral

Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius is the embodiment of stereotypical Russian Orthodox architecture. It is colourful with soft salmon pink contrasted by hard dark blues and a range of other colours. The insides are filled with fresco’s leaving no spot untouched. Golden icons stare at you from all directions. The site is extravagant and in good condition. Although the site is over the top, we rate this site a 4 mainly for being so photogenic and pleasing to the eye.

Uniqueness 3.5/5

Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius has an important place in the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s almost on the same level as the Vatican is for the Roman Catholic Church. Apart from this important place in history, the site feels a bit generic. This generic feeling is caused by the fact that most buildings are 18th-20th century restorations aimed to conform to the stereotypes of Orthodox architecture. If you travel the Golden Ring you will see more stunning examples of Orthodox architecture. This results in a score of 3.5 on uniqueness.

Experience 3/5

Sergiev Posad Bell tower


The site is an active monastery and a pilgrimage site. So, catering to tourists, especially international ones, is not the most important function. There are just some signs with the names of the different buildings in Russian and English. The rest of the information you will have to find in a guidebook or on the internet.

Disability:

The complex is accessible by wheelchair. There are smooth brick walkways to make getting around easier for everyone. Sadly, most churches have high stone stairs without ramps. There is a lack of overall signages and there are none for the visually impaired.

Value for money:

Access to the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius monastery is free, so the value for money is great.
This all results in a 3 for the experience.

Location 4/5

Sergiev Posad by Night
Sergiev Posad by Night

Sergiev Posad lies 75km north of Moscow, an hour and a half drive if the traffic isn’t too busy. There are several train connections which also take around 1.5 hours. Sergiev Posad is part of the Golden Ring and as such is on many tourist itineraries. So, chances are high that you’ll visit it when you’re on an organised tour of Russia. This results in a score of 4 for location.

Overall rating 3.5/5

The site is photogenic and beautiful, but so are a lot of the other sites of the Golden Ring. The tourist experience isn’t that great because of the lack of information, as is the accessibility of this site. But it’s not that far from Moscow and fairly easy to include in your itinerary especially if you’re doing Russia’s Golden Ring. This all results in an overall score of 3.5

Kizhi Pogost

UNESCO World heritage site review: Kizhi Pogost

Kizhi Pogost is the most important tourist destination in Russian Karelia. But is it worth the visit? Globazine reviews this UNESCO World Heritage Site, exploring its history, beauty, uniqueness, and experience. Continue reading to learn more!

Kizhi Pogost is not a single building but three different ones. The pogost is the area within the wooden enclosure. Within this enclosure are two churches and one bell tower which together form Kizhi Pogost.

History

Kizhi Pogost Church
Kizhi Pogost Church

The religious significance of the island goes back further than the present-day churches. Before Christianity came to this area, pagan rituals were performed here. The earliest reference of churches on the island is 1496, then there were also two churches and one bell tower within the pogost. Lightning hit these buildings in 1693 and as a result they burned down.

The main building is the ‘church of the Transfiguration’. This church has 22 domes and is 37 meters high. It was the second church rebuild in the pogost and was finished in 1714. This church is the summer (Preobrazhenskaya) church for services during the summer since it’s not heated.

The winter (Pokrovskaya) church, the Church of the Intercession was the first church to be rebuilt and was finished in 1694. It would be rebuilt several times until it got its final present-day 9-dome shape in 1764.

The belfry, or bell tower, was only rebuilt in 1862 but deteriorated so fast that it needed to be rebuilt once again twelve years later. The surrounding fence serves no defensive purpose but only marks the area of the pogost.

The area started to function as an open-air museum from 1951 when monumental wooden buildings started to be transported to Kizhi.
Review

Beauty 4.5/5

Kizhi house
House near the water

Situated on a green island in Lake Onega in Russian Karelia, Kizhi Pogost is a perfect sight. It naturally fits in with its surroundings. Whatever the angle, this wooden church looks the part. The design is simple but beautiful. This results in a 4.5 out of 5.

Uniqueness 4.5/5

Wooden churches once were a common sight in northern Russia. But fire, destruction and neglect has destroyed most of them. Of the remaining wooden churches, none look so typical Russian Orthodox as Kizhi Pogost. But at the same time, its strangely different because of the wooden building material. If you don’t have the opportunity to visit Kizhi, try to visit the wooden churches of Suzdal, so you at least get an impression of Russian wooden churches. On uniqueness, Kizhi scores a 4.5 out of 5.

Experience 4.5/5

Kizhi farmers
Farmers working the field

Most people will get to Kizhi by boat, probably by hydrofoil. This is an exhilarating ride across a remote part of Russia. Apart from Kizhi Pogost, the island houses many other wooden structures kept here for preservation. This gives a good insight into how life used to be in this part of the world. During the summer season, people will exhibit typical professions, while traditionally dressed. There are a lot of signs in both English and Russian to explain the function of the different buildings and its origins. The staff usually is willing to tell more about the buildings, although language can be a barrier. There are audio guides available in English, Finnish, French and Chinese.

Disability:

The biggest hurdle for people in a wheelchair is getting to the island. The hydrofoils are cramped with limited facilities and extra space. There are alternatives, such as helicopter rides, but these are far more expensive. Contact the operators to get more information about the possibilities.
The island itself has hardened walkways between the different buildings. But most buildings have wooden stairs without ramps as an entrance. The audio guide can be used by the visually impaired to get information about the site.

Value for money:

Going to Kizhi is relatively expensive as you need both transport to the island and an entry ticket. Altogether this is around 50-euro pp. This is reasonable value for money as you get an exciting boat ride and a visit to a unique museum-reserve.

Location 2.5/5

Kizhi-hydrofoil
Hydrofoil

The best place to explore Kizhi from is Petrozavodsk which is 5 hours away by train from St. Petersburg. There are a limited number of trains per day and the train schedule makes it impossible to go here as a day trip. There are night trains to St. Petersburg and Murmansk. From Petrozavodsk, it’s another 1.5 hours by boat to get to Kizhi. So, it takes at least 1.5 days to visit this place. There are some organised tours from St. Petersburg, but most stick to the city and the surrounding palaces. The difficult reachability results in a 2.5 for the location.

Overall rating 4/5

Kizhi Pogost is a beautiful place that is a unique experience in Russia. Compared to other Russian tourist sites it’s well developed and friendly to tourists, providing a pleasant experience. The only downside is the relative remoteness of the site. This leads to an overall score of 4.

Kizhi Pogost
Bourges Cathedral

Bourges Cathedral: an UNESCO WHS Review

History

The site of the cathedral served as the city’s main church all the way back to Carolingian times (714-1124) and maybe even further back to the founding of the bishopric, proposedly by saint Ursin in the 3th century.

It is not known when the construction of the current cathedral began, but documents suggest somewhere around 1194. The building was completed in different steps and finally consecrated in 1324. Due to structural problems with the South tower, an adjoining buttress tower was built in the 14th century. Probably due to similar problems the North tower collapsed in 1506, afterwards it was rebuilt in a more contemporary style.

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Review of Bourges Cathedral

Read more about how we rated Bourges Cathedral and other sites at our UNESCO World Heritage Site Review.

Bourges Cathedral
Bourges Cathedral

Beauty: 4

The cathedral of Bourges is a highpoint of Gothic architecture. The stone work on the front façade is especially beautiful and intricate. When the light hits the original stained-glass windows, they come to live and add to the spiritual atmosphere of the place. The rest of the interior is restrained and simple with a 37m high nave that inspires awe.

Uniqueness: 3.5

Bourges cathedral is an excellent example of Western-European Gothic architecture. What makes it especially unique is the fact that the building survived through all the ages relatively undamaged. Therefor all but one of the stained-glass windows date back to 1215. But similar buildings can be found in France, not that far from this one. Four other great examples are the cathedrals of Chartres, Amiens, Reims and the Notre-Dame in Paris.

Stained glass

Experience: 3.5

The cathedral gets its fair share of visitors, but its far less crowded than similar Gothic cathedrals elsewhere. This leaves more room for silent contemplation and admiration here. Guided tours are available, but only in French. You can visit the tower which provides magnificent views of the town and the surrounding area.

Disability:

The site is wheelchair accessible except for the tower with its 396 steps. Tours for the visual impaired are available by appointment.

Value for money:

The entrance fee is €8.00; the visit will take you between 30-60 minutes. This gives you reasonably good value for money.

Location: 3.5

Bourges lies along the A-71 highway and has a train station with trains to Paris and other cities. There are also various bus connections available. The cathedral is 15 minutes by bus from the station or 25 minutes on foot which takes you through the old town. It’s an easy daytrip from the popular Loire Valley. But it is further afield from Paris than the cathedrals of Reims, Amiens and Chartres.

Bourges

Overall rating: 3.5

Bourges cathedral is a beautiful building which provides a decent visitors experience. There are other comparable cathedrals in the country and this one is a bit further away from the main tourist itineraries. Definitely worth the visit when you are in the area or are interested in gothic architecture. This all results in an overall score of 3.5 out of 5.

Also read our review of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Himeji Castle.

Should you visit Bourges Cathedral?
hachimangu

Kamakura | a day with trees, shrines and temples

To get a break from the big city of Tokyo, a day trip to Kamakura – just an hour away by train – is the ideal destination. In hindsight, we consider this one of the highlights of our journey to Japan as it perfectly summarizes its extensive culture and offers a nice hike in the woods. Are you ready for some temples and Buddha’s? Kamakura is also being called ‘Small Kyoto’ and it surely lives up to this name.

As Kamakura has a lot to offer, we take an early train from Tokyo, right in the middle of the morning peak hour. With our backpacks filled with bento boxes, we head for our train to Kamakura. Only after leaving Yokohama station there are finally enough seats for all passengers. Although Yokohama is a city of more than 3.7 million inhabitants, it feels like we never left the never-ending suburbs of Tokyo. Only after a while the cityscape is finally replaced with a more rural setting. When we get off at Kita-Kamakura station the speed of life seems to have slowed down a couple of gears.

Engaku-ji

Even though it’s September, Kamakura is still lushly green and tropically hot. Luckily the omnipresent trees provide sufficient shade. As we climb the stairs towards Engaku-ji, it’s clear that our bodies have yet to adjust to the climate. The advantage of rising early is made clear again when we reach the entrance of the complex and are admitted as the first visitors of the day. This gives us the opportunity to enjoy the place in silence and contemplation.

Sanmon
Sanmon Engaku-ji

Engaku-ji was built in 1282 in honour of the victims of the two Mongolian invasions some time earlier. It lies beautifully on the slope of a hill surrounded by ancient cedar trees. The first building we pass is the Sanmon, the big entrance gate. The rest of the buildings lay scattered around the hill, housing relics, hidden gardens and ponds. On our way out, we climb some steep stairs to the highest point to look at Ōgane, the biggest bell in Kamakura and a national treasure. The bell is 2.5 meters tall and more than 700 years old. Through the overgrowth, we have a nice view of the surrounding area and the neighbouring temple.

Daibutsu hiking trail

We skip the neighbouring temple and start our hike on the Daibutsu hiking trail to Hase and the giant Buddha statue. The paths are mostly well kept, but it’s still advisable to wear good hiking shoes. The path starts out as a road but quickly turns into an unpaved path going ever steeper upwards and through thick groves of trees and bushes. It’s hard work in the head and humidity, but overcoming this now will hasten our adjustment to the tropical circumstances.

Kuzuharaoka

As we reach the top of the first hill we come upon Kuzuharaoka shrine. Our first Shinto shrine of the day. Pictures explain us how to wash our hands before approaching the shrine and how to pay our proper respects. The turtles swimming in a little pond, a bench and a soda machine make this a good place for our first break to regain our breath.

Zeniarai Benzaiten

Reenergized, we continue our walk, but only for a short time. Because we have already arrived at our next stop. Hidden behind a small long tunnel lies Zeniarai Benzaiten, one of the most charming Shinto shrines. The shrine lies in pit-like area surrounded by natural walls on all sides with a waterfall flowing into a pond. The main attraction is a cave with a little stream inside. This is the shrine of Zeniarai Benzaiten, the money washing goddess of luck and fortune. It is said that all money which is washed in the stream will be doubled. We’re always in need of some extra pocket money, so we put our bills and coins in a basket and wash them copying the ritual from the Japanese.

Sasuke Inari shrine

Satisfied with this turn of our fortune, we leave via the back exit to visit another Shinto shrine. After some steep climbing, we come upon a path of red torii and banners which guide us ever upwards toward Sasuke Inari shrine. This is also the site of the hidden village of Kamakura, from where the predecessors of the Ninjas worked to eliminate the enemies of the Kamakura Shogunate.

Sasuke Inari shrine
Sasuke Inari shrine

Inari is the ‘kami’ of foxes, rice and agriculture. Which is made obvious since we’re surrounded by thousands of little statues of white foxes. Many of them covered in moss. Because this shrine is off the beaten path it retains its reclusive nature and feels in touch with its natural surroundings. We continue into the dark forest and further up the hill on our way to the Daibutsu. As we clear the forest and the hill we have a splendid view of the sea in the distance and know that our destination lies somewhere in-between.

As we say goodbye to the forest, we walk toward the rural town of Hase. Coming from the opposite direction than most tourist, we are harshly reminded of the fact that we’re not alone in wanting to see the Buddha as we come upon the stream of tourist making their way to the entrance.

Kamakura Daibutsu

Daibutsu
Kamakura Daibutsu

As we enter the Kōtoku-in temple complex, we already see the grand Buddha in the distance. Work on the construction of the statue known as Kamakura Daibutsu began in 1252 and has since been repaired many times. It has been hit by Typhoons, earthquakes, fire and tsunami’s, but it still survives. It’s slightly smaller than the Daibutsu in Nara, but it packs more of a visual punch. Mainly because it’s out in the open and visible from all sides. There is no temple building surrounding it since they kept being destroyed and thereby damaging and endangering the statue itself.

Hase-dera

On our way to the train station of Hase, we visit Hase-dera, another temple complex with a big statue. This temple is known for its biggest wooden Kannon statue. Legend tells that it was carved in the original town of Hase near Nara, together with another statue from the same tree. The statue was then pushed into the sea and washed ashore here. After which a temple was built on that site to house the statue. The main building is on a platform overlooking Kamakura and its bay.

Hase-dera
Hase-dera

After our fair share of walking, we took the train from Hase station back to the central station of Kamakura to make our way to Hachimangū from there. Next to the main approach of the temple is Komachi street, lined with shops and eateries, so we took that street instead to enjoy some local ice-cream.

Tsurugaoka Hachimangū

Tsurugaoka Hachimangū is the Miamoto’s clan guardian shrine and dates back to 1063. As we walk in we cross Genpei pond, filled with water lilies. It’s a favourite spot for romantic pictures. The complex also houses the Kamakura Museum of National Treasures which has some altering National treasures from its collection on display.

Kenchō-ji

Zen garden
Kenchō-ji

We take the side exit towards Kenchō-ji, our last temple of the day. Kenchō-ji is the headquarter of the Buddhist Rinzai sect and the oldest Zen training monastery in Japan. There are several nice buildings in the complex. We go into the Hōjō hall and walk the outer balconies on our socks. This brings us to the backend Zen garden, the oldest remaining in Japan. At the far end of the complex lies Hansōbō, a gold guilded shrine. This is a nice place to end this busy temple and shrine tour.

As we walk back towards the station we are joined by hundreds of uniformed Japanese high school students who have also finished their day. Time for us to get back to Tokyo! Read the rest of our series for more tips on what to do in Tokyo.

Kamakura day trip
Shrine

Religious Japan

There are two big religious traditions in Japan, Shintoism and Buddhism. Shinto is Japan’s traditional religion. Buddhism came to Japan in the 6th century from Korea. A majority of the Japanese doesn’t belong to any of the organised versions of these religions. But over 80% do partake in religious traditions and ceremonies. Travelling to Koyasan provides a better understanding of the organised side of religion in Japan. Walking the Kumano Kodo is a more individual experience.

Koyasan

Koyasan is the center of Shingon Buddhism. Kobo Daishi introduced this Buddhist sect in 805. In 826, Kobo Daishi started to build his temple headquarters in Koyasan. Since then the mountain has been filled with temples. This makes Koyasan the ideal place to sleep in a temple and experience the morning rituals of the monks.

Travelling to Koyasan

While travelling from Osaka to Koyasan, the landscape slowly transforms around us. From the urban and suburban sprawls of Osaka, to the surrounding country side with its rice fields. In turn the flat landscape is almost instantly replaced, this time by the rising hills and mountains. The train crosses rivers and gorges and starts to climb more and more until we arrive at Gokuraku-bashi. Koyasan is now a dramatic climb by cable car away. The climb provides ever wider vistas of the surrounding area. Then the trees start closing us in and we have arrived at the mountain.

A bus brings us to the temples in the town. The temples lay scattered along the main road through the village. Staying the night in one of them is a great way to explore the religious side of Japan. The young Buddhist monks in training will tend to our needs. They are quite well versed in English and willing to converse about their training and Buddhism in general. As we settle into our room, the young monk serves our tea. We enjoy it with open screen doors looking out over the inner garden.

Okunoin cemetery

Our temple is at the edge of the town and a short walk away from Okunoin cemetery. As we walk along the path the sun rays shine through the forest roof lighting singular tombstones. Moss covers most tombstones which enhances the ancient feeling of the place. Silently we make our way to the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi.

It’s said that Kobo Daishi is in eternal meditation in this place. He will return as Miroku, the Future Buddha at which time he will lead the faithful to salvation. This is the reason why this is the biggest cemetery in Japan. As we make our way back to our temple, we marvel at all the different tombstones. Some are for people others are for entire companies. Those tombstones are in the shape of the logo or product of the company, for example a big rocket.

Temple lodging
Diner in a temple

Back in the temple, we’re served a great vegan meal, tofu has never tasted this good before. It’s a good opportunity to taste some completely different flavours since the meal is also prepared without garlic. After dinner, we head back to Okunoin cemetery to experience it in the darkness. Lanterns light the path and the tombstones closest to it. The eerie silence combined with the darkness makes the place far spookier than during the day. You can go on a guided tour, which gives more information about the different tombstones and myths surrounding the cemetery. But it takes away from the solemn feeling when exploring on your own.

Konpon Daitō
Konpon Daitō

Morning ceremony

At six a.m., we join the monks in their morning ceremony together with the other guests. The head monk leads us in prayer. A younger monk plays the drum and cymbals to guide the prayer and help us reach a trance-like state. At the end, the head monk asks us to light some incense and ring a bell to honour our ancestors. After the ceremony, he guides us to another part of the temple for a fire ceremony. This purification ritual is more spectacular and explains why many temples have burned down. Our stay in the temple ends with a vegan breakfast and we head to the centre of town to visit the main temple complexes. We head up to the top of the mountain to get some spectacular views. We see the sea in the distance and say our goodbyes to this special place.

Kumano Kodo

A good starting base for the Kumano Kodo is Tanabe at the coast. This sleepy provincial town has affordable accommodation and plenty of good food options. Buses leave from the JR station to different stages of the walking route.

Walking in the rain

If you are pressed for time and have only a day to walk, Yunomine Onsen is a great place to start your walk from. It has the only UNESCO World Heritage onsen. Get a ticket at the nearby shop if you want to take a unique soak in this natural hot spring.

Our walk

Our walk started across the road and immediately devolved into a steep climb. We were there when the front of a tropical storm was passing the peninsula, so the paths turned into rivers and the views were misty and moody. The forest was alive with amphibious lifeforms. Hundreds of tiny land crabs were crawling on the ground and frogs were jumping around. Soon we were completely soaked, our shoes splashing with every step. Suddenly a giant toad blocked our path. It’s these kinds of meetings that gives understanding to the origins of fairy tales and fables.

Tim on trail
Hiking in the rain

We continued climbing the hills through the dark forest and felt the silence and emptiness around us. It’s at these moments that you can easily imagine a world without men. Which in turn gives a certain perspective to man’s place in the universe. As we came upon the main route, the path became wider and the forest receded and made place for some open spaces. The cloudy misty views over the hilltops and the valleys made us appreciate skies which aren’t clear blue all the time. After a good day’s walk, we reached Kumano Hongu Taisha. This is one of the three Kumano Grand Shrines and the end of our little pilgrimage.

Hongu Taisha
Hongu Taisha

Hongu Taisha

Cliches like “it’s the route, not the destination” come to mind when talking about travel. Kumano Hongu Taisha isn’t an impressive complex. But getting there with all the other pilgrims still provided us with a human connection and a sense of achievement. So, in the end there certainly is value in the destination.

Religious Jaopan