Thursday 21st July 2011
Lake Onega is the second largest lake in Europe and its shape is said to resemble a clawed lobster. The lake contains over 1300 islands, one of which is Kizhi. It took us some hours the cross this inland sea, passing various river cruise ships and two speeding hydrofoils.
Eventually, we spotted a small wooden church on a nearby island. We were approaching Kizhi! For the first time, two house pennants were flown from the flagstaff at the bow, representing the partners – the red Vodohod flag above the blue AMA Waterways flag. As we approached the landing stage the outline of the very improbable Transfiguration Cathedral came into view. And so did three river cruisers, all similar to our ship, moored three abreast at the single landing pontoon. Once again, I realised that this wasn’t likely to be a quiet, spiritual experience.
Getting ashore here proved more of an ordeal than anywhere else on the trip. A number of mooring lines were run across to the outermost ship of the three, but the captain was dissatisfied with one wire rope which had been run on a long diagonal between the ships and the two crews had to re-position it. Meanwhile, our passengers were waiting to get off. The reception area on the main deck was crammed, with overflows sitting on the stairs up to the next deck above and the one above that. Eventually people began to move out and at last I was able to descend to the main deck, exchange my credit card sized electronic Room Key for a Boarding Pass, and step across to the next ship.
The next ship to us was the ‘Mikhail Tanich’. I didn’t know that at the time, because the ship’s name only seemed to appear in Cyrillic characters. On my return to our ship, I asked our cruise staff to translate. They said he was a popular songwriter and musician, now fairly old (in fact, he died in 2008, according to the photograph of him displayed on the ship named after him). Having walked through their reception area, we crossed to the reception area of the ‘Ivan Bunin’ (a poet and writer, he was the first Russian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature - see Wikipedia), then the reception area of the ‘Leo Tolstoy’ (writer of novels such as 'War and Peace' and 'Anna Karenina' who, in later life became a moral thinker and social reformer - see Wikipedia). Finally, we reached the landing stage. Looking back, I was horrified to see a fifth ship approaching the landing stage, but I didn’t see what happened to that. Some of our guides were waiting on the landing stage but, because of the crush, some had moved further onto the island so there was reasonable chaos before we were sorted into groups and passed through the entrance gate to ‘Kizhi Federal Open Air Museum of Cultural History and Architecture’.
I learned that “The Kizhi Architectural Ensemble is a UNESCO World-Heritage listed site”. The Transubstantiation Cathedral of wooden construction built here in 1714 is regarded as the star attraction. You can only view it from outside while restoration work is being carried out. Apparently this work has already been in progress for a number of years. An unsightly steel ‘corset’ has been erected around the outside to stop the building from collapsing – it wasn’t clear whether this was an interim stage or the permanent solution. But the 22 fairytale domes still give the building a remarkable appearance. In addition to this remarkable survivor, a number of wooden buildings typical of the region have been re-erected on Kizhi to form an open-air museum of wooden architecture. Materials used are mainly pine and, for roof shingles, aspen. Although these species were used for their long life, quite a lot of new material has been added during restoration. We only looked at the buildings at one end of the island adjacent to the landing stage but there are more buildings spread over the other end of the island which would require more time to explore.
Apart from the 190 of my ship’s visitors, we were sharing the island with all the visitors from the other ships, so it was quite hard to take a picture which didn’t include other people. In a not altogether successful attempt to avoid congestion, our guide changed the order in which we viewed the buildings but we still had to stand around waiting for previous parties to move on.
The house of the peasant Oshevney dating from 1876 was re-erected on the island in the 1950s. Each room had been been furnished to illustrate the way of life of the people, but if our guide spent too long explaining, then one of the museum attendants would shoo us all into the next room. The house is complete with a separate barn and bathhouse. Many of the exhibits, like the tiny 18th century Chapel of the Archangel Michael (where a bellringer in the tiny belfry played a tune by pulling strings, as we’d seen demonstrated in Yaroslavl), the Church of the Intercession and an odd-looking wooden windmill could only be viewed from outside.
However, we went inside the 18th century Church of the Intercession, dwarfed by its near neighbour the Transubstantiation Cathedral. This building is also a ‘native’ of the island, being used for services until 1937 and, since 1994, functioning again as a church.
Near the Transubstantiation Cathedral, I noticed a second small landing stage with an awful modern roof which I guessed was for arriving VIPs. When I visited, a Fire Boat was moored there. Fire is a particular hazard for a wooden museum: the Transubstantiation Cathedral has a Fire Main run around the outside.
By this time, the island was noticeably quieter as some of the ships had departed. We returned to our ship and enjoyed dinner as we re-traced our route and sailed south-east back across Lake Onega.
Kizhi has its own website. The English homepage is here.
My pictures of Kizhi Island are here.