An overnight trip by boat from St. Petersburg delivers you out of the bustle of the city and into the Republic of Karelia. The republic is one of the 88 federal subjects of the Russian Federation and though its language is Russian, it has close cultural ties to its neighbor, Finland. One of its most tranquil and beautiful settings is Valaam, a cluster of island jewels in the northwestern part of Lake Ladoga, Europe's largest freshwater lake, which is completely frozen over in winter. The southern part of the lake borders Russia. The archipelago consists of Valaam Island and about 50 other isles.
Valaam Island is the site of an ancient monastery said to have been started by Saints Sergey and German, missionaries who came to the region (probably from Greece) sometime in the second half of the 10th century—perhaps even before the "official" conversion of the land of the Rus' to Christianity. The next 1,000 years are a sorry story of Valaam and its monks battling to survive a regular series of catastrophes—including plague, fire, invasion, and pillage—only to bounce back and build (and rebuild) Valaam's religious buildings and way of life. In 1611 the monastery was attacked and razed by the Swedes; it languished for a century until Peter the Great ordered it rebuilt in 1715. Valaam was also to pass into the hands of Finland on more than one occasion, the longest period being from the end of World War I to 1940. After World War II, during which the islands were evacuated and then occupied by Finnish and German troops, the monasteries fell into almost total disrepair, and it was only in 1989 that monks returned to Valaam.
A guided tour of Valaam takes about six hours, although with a break for lunch this is not at all as arduous as it might sound. You can also buy a map of the island (easy to find at any of the many tourist shops here) and strike out on your own. But the tour guides, most of whom live on the island throughout the summer, have an enormous amount of interesting information to impart about Valaam (most, however, don't speak English). The guides also know where the best shady spots to sit and relax are, and while you catch your breath they will tell you everything about Valaam's history, prehistory, wildlife, geology and geography, religious life, and gradual renaissance as a monastic center. The island's beauty has also inspired the work of many Russian and foreign artists, composers, and writers; the second movement of Tchaikovsky's First Symphony is said to be a musical portrait of the island, and you will hear it played over loudspeakers as your ferry departs.
Most tours to Valaam spend the first half day on a small selection of the skity, a monastery in seclusion. Only four skity are currently used as places of worship, and some of them are in the archipelago's most remote areas. Closest to where the ferries dock is the Voskresensky (Resurrection) Monastery, consecrated in 1906. In the upper church, you can hear a performance of Russian liturgical music (for an extra 20R) performed by a rather good male quartet. Another monastery within easy walking distance is the Getsemanskii (Gethsemene) monastyr consisting of a wooden chapel and church built in a typically Russian style, and monastic cells, which are inaccessible to the public. The squat construction next door is a hostel for pilgrims, some of whom you may see draped in long robes on your walk.
After lunch, buy a ticket (100R for a round-trip ticket) for the ferry that will take you to the 14th-century Spaso-Preobrazhensky Valaamskii (Transfiguration of the Savior) Monastyr, the heart of the island's religious life. You can walk the 6 km (4 mi) from the harbor in either direction, but if you choose to walk back from the monastery, make sure you give yourself enough time to catch the ferry back to St. Petersburg (about 1¼ hours should be enough time to walk back). As you reach the monastery, you'll see tourist stands and beer kiosks—something about which the monks themselves have mixed feelings. The walk up the hill past the bric-a-brac, however, is well worth it, as you reach the splendid Valaamskii Monastyr cathedral (under ongoing restoration). The cathedral's lower floor is the Church of St. Sergius and St. German, finished in 1892, and is in the best condition. It's a living place of worship, as you'll see from the reverence of visitors before the large icon depicting Sergey and German kneeling before Christ. The upper Church of the Transfiguration of the Savior, consecrated in 1896, is still in a terrible state, although the cavernous interior, crumbling iconostasis, and remaining frescoes are still impressive in their own right.
Although drinking and smoking are freely permitted in most areas of the island, you'll be asked to refrain while on the territory of the monasteries. Visitors are also required to observe the dress code on the grounds of the cathedral: women must wear a long skirt and cover their heads (scarves and inelegant black aprons are provided at the entrance for those who need appropriate garb), and men must leave their heads uncovered and wear long trousers—shorts are strictly forbidden.
You can only visit Valaam from June through September, when the waterway along the Neva River and Lake Ladoga is open. Note that the level of luxury on the 10-hour ferry journey to Valaam is not high. Nevertheless, you'll be witnessing a real throwback to the Soviet era. The rooms are clean, if spartan, and are perfectly manageable for two nights' sleep. In any case, you can spend much of the journey sitting on the sundeck; watch the industrial south of St. Petersburg give way to the rural setting of the lower Neva, before the ancient fort of Petrakrepost ghosts past on your right as the ferry sails into Lake Ladoga. The return journey is just as magical, as the golden spires and cupolas of the monasteries poke out of the tree line and glint in the setting sun.
One crucial piece of advice is to take some food with you for your trip to Valaam. Although three meals are included in the price of most tours, they are best avoided. Instead, pack some sandwiches, fresh fruit, and perhaps some wine. You might want to poke your head into the incredibly Soviet bar on the island, but you are unlikely to want to linger. www.valaam.ru.
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