Our first trip to Europe was a whirlwind, 14-day, 6-country Eurail Pass-stoked attempt to see and do everything. Those were the days of boundless energy, endless curiosity, limited time, and scarce funds.
We were mere travel sprouts, and even at our tender ages, the pace almost killed us. But we learned a valuable lesson: the human brain, as well as the human body, can only absorb and appreciate so much – in future trips, our mantra must be quality over quantity.
Back at my desk in a post-trip haze, I particularly remember thinking that if you’ve seen one famous cathedral, you’ve seen them all. And in fact, I’ve read this opinion from a few other travel bloggers. Well for the past few years we’ve been focusing our travels on Eastern Europe, where Orthodox Churches are much more common, and after 15 countries, it would be tempting perhaps to make the same generality. But to this statement, I say: Not so fast!
Case in point: The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria and the cathedral in Tallinn, Estonia, with the exact same name.
Alexander Nevsky was the 13th Century warrior prince who led the Russian army which defeated German and Swedish invaders, and for his achievements he was canonized a saint. Both of these churches, named in his honor, are Eastern Orthodox Cathedrals built at about the same time, and only 1200 miles separates them. But it only takes a glance to see that their architectural styles are worlds apart.
In 1900, when Tallinn’s Nevsky Cathedral was built, Estonia was a part of pre-communist Russia, and was only 500 miles from Moscow. Given the geographical and historical setting, it comes as no surprise that this stunning, intricately detailed, and pristinely restored church would be in the Russian Revival style. Czar Alexander III was attempting to strong-arm the Estonians, and he would have it no other way.
The massive, gold-domed Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, also built at the turn of the century, was in memory of the 200,000 Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian and Bulgarian soldiers, who died freeing Bulgaria from rule by the Ottoman Turks.
Given its close proximity to Byzantium, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and what would later become Constantinople, the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church, it’s only natural that the designers would gain inspiration from early Orthodox churches: the Neo-Byzantine style.
Like the Tallinn cathedral, Sofia’s church is also impressive and attractive, but for very different reasons. It’s one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world, and its complex, multi-domed, stacked-colonnade design makes a grand statement. Bulgarians struggled for decades to rid themselves of Turkish rule and after winning their war of independence they wanted a church which represented this achievement.
If my travels have taught me one thing, it’s that truly appreciating a country’s art, architecture, food, and most other aspects of its culture is greatly enhanced by some knowledge of its history.
So in retrospect, our hectic and exhausting first trip to Europe trip was actually valuable. I now realize that my “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all” attitude was a product of my own naiveté. Slowing down, paying more attention, and learning a bit of history would have made all the difference. Live and learn.
James & Terri
1. Kabelleger / David Gubler via Wikimedia Commons
Both beautiful in their very different styles. I felt that way with temples in Bangkok, but I’ll make sure I pay closer attention to their stories if I’m lucky enough to go back.
Good point about Buddhist temples Fi. There are tons of temples in Bangkok (and everywhere else in Thailand), each more colorful and complex than the last one. It would indeed be easy to get overload, and takes pacing to truly appreciate the details. And there are always lots and lots of details. ~James
Great point James and Terri. I’ve heard the phrase “Churched out” and one person I know commented that the Mayan ruins were “all the same…” As you’ve so beautifully pointed out there are so many unique things to see that the fault to appreciate them lies with the traveler rather than the place. Anita
Well said Anita. Meso-American ruins are an excellent example of the need to know some history. Even the best of the ruins have suffered from harsh conditions and the hands of time, and to be appreciated you have to know some of the back story. My first trip outside the US was to Belize, and I was smitten with the ruins there. Then I came back to the States and read every book I could find. Luckily, I was able to go back a few months later and could begin to understand what it all meant. ~James
I can certainly identify with your opening statements about boundless energy and few funds in our youthful travel days. We trekked through Europe using Fodor’s Europe on Five Dollars a Day suggestions while toting hand-held suitcases. (No backpacks then!) but even though you can have cathedral overload, we still bop in just to see more of what we love about them: stained glass, votives, pews, icons, and domes. They just don’t build ’em like they used to!!!
Careful there Rusha, you’re dating yourself . 😊 These days you’re lucky to get a cup of coffee for 5 bucks. I remember being churched out a few times, but having said that, my favorite will always be Saint Chapelle in Paris. It’s beyond breathtaking. Have a favorite? ~ James
Loved seeing Saint Chapelle, but two years ago in Boston we visited Old North Church. Maybe it was the history, the simplicity of style, or just being in Boston — whatever it was, I stayed a bit longer than usual enjoying the quiet!
We are in the process of planning an European adventure this spring… We agree with the lack of youthful energy, however I just know we will try to do and see too much!!! So looking forward to Saint Chapelle, Notre Dame and the Chartres Cathedral…hubby is a stained glass fanatic and I love researching the history of these magnificent places !!
Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. It sounds like you’ll hit the holy trinity of stained glass windows. These three cathedrals will provide all the a cross-section of stained glass at its best. San Chapelle remains my favorite, because what it lacks in size, it makes up for in color and light. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but you’ll be amazed at the difference between where you enter and what you see later. Have a great trip. ~James
Love the architecture of both. Unbelievable workmanship from the ground up. Wonderfully pleasing to the eyes. What wonders might surprise a traveler inside? Wonderful photos. Thanks so much. Illuminating post. 😀
Tess, my experience with Orthodox cathedrals is that they can be just as colorful inside as out. Even cathedrals from the Middle Ages aren’t afraid to use incredible color and detail on the inside. Check out this church in Helsinki:
Thank you, James. You are so right. Inside AND out. Boggles the mind the pride of workmanship, time, and respect for the work.
We found that too James & Terri. Until you come to that realization -“you can never see it all” you won’t remember much if you try to do that. There is just so much to see and do that one has to be selective and take the time for these experiences to sink in.
Leslie, for a number of years our philosophy has been that we see what we see, and we don’t get too upset if we miss something. Appreciating what we see is much more important than completing a tourist punch list.
You actually see and remember much more that way.
One could say the same of the many churches and cathedrals here in Spain, but I find they each have their own personality and uniqueness. I have still not grown tired of visiting them.
Darlene, I’m not a religious person, but I always find that whether it’s a Christian or Orthodox church, or a Buddhist temple, all are peaceful places to find a few moments of quiet and reflection. Usually, for me as a weary tourist, they’re a wonderful place to have a seat, look around, and appreciate the details of the building and faith. So I’d have to say that I haven’t grown tired of visiting either. ~James
Totally agree with the sentiment to slow down and enjoy each experience for its own rewards. Our own example was a “castle” trip to Scotland which we need to repeat to gain a true appreciation for the rich history and unique character of each. All part of the learning process. Thanks for the interesting post. Tim
Tim, as you say, every castle in the UK has a long and interesting history, and because they’re in all states of preservation, it’s almost mandatory to know what happened in their past to be able to truly appreciate their historical significance. I also find it particularly helpful to do a bit of post-visit research to find photos or artistic illustrations of what the intact buildings actually looked like. ~James
Interesting comparisons and brilliant lesson in really seeing and researching the history that abounds. Love this!
Thanks Martha. After our time in Eastern Europe, we’ve seen lots of Orthodox cathedrals. And the variety of architectural styles, and their beautiful colors are amazing. The Tallinn church is one of my favorites. ~James
Beautiful photos. I think one of the most interesting comparisons is that the farther south the church, the more it resembles a mosque! Sort of makes all our differences based on religion not so different. Cheers – Susan
Susan, much Byzantine architecture was inspired by the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. You probably know that the building started life as a Christian Church, and is now a Mosque. This part of the world is truly a mixing pot of cultures. ~James
I love both of these cathedrals. Great idea to feature them in the same post 😀
Thanks for the comment Suvi and for dropping by the blog. A few years ago we did a post on another Orthodox Cathedral that you may recognize. It’s your very own Uspenski, right there in Helsinki:
Many years ago there was a comedy called ‘If it’s Tuesday it must be Belgium’ about a European bus tour…I’ve tried never to travel like that! It’s so true that if you know the history of a place it makes all the difference.
Like you, we’ve never been into organized tours (or cruises). We prefer to plan our trips and schedules. Sometimes, if an attraction is particularly difficult to get to on public transport, we might take a tour, but it’s usually just for the transport and we minimize the “guided” part of the tour. To each his own, but this has always worked best for us. ~James
One cathedral at a time for me. Even then I get sensory overload pretty quick so I usually visit more than once to try to see everything.
That’s the perfect solution Marie. Appreciate WHAT you see, not HOW MUCH you see. ~James
Great Pictures! It must have been one hell of a great trip!!
Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. We’ve focused our travel on Eastern Europe for the past few years, and it has been fun and educational. ~James
Great post. I think the layers of built environment & history in Europe can feel overwhelming so just taking small chunks is good advice for we Australian travellers.
Thanks Chas. We learned years ago that trying to see it all leads to fatigue and glossing over important details. And we recognized that to appreciate long-term travel our motto had to be quality over quantity. We see what we see and try to truly appreciate it, and don’t worry about the rest. It’s kept us going for a lot of years. ~James
Hi James It’s such a good way to go. We were lucky enough to live in Europe for a while and could just take a small bite of a location and soak it up each holiday.
I agree Chas. We lived in London for 3 years and luckily, my job as well as Terri’s took us to Europe often. So we did lots of long weekends, which are perfect. And I agree with your assessment. Anyone who has the chance to live in Europe is lucky. ~James
I agree wholeheartedly with your mantra of slowing down, learning some history, and immersing yourself fully in a place. I learned that from living and working abroad. Doing so is such a different experience than breezing through a place on a quick tour where you try to squeeze everything in. I also try to read fiction set in destinations where I’m heading. That adds a personal understanding of lives set in those places. Thanks for sharing about these gorgeous churches in an area I’ve never explored. 🙂
Cathy, this less is more idea sounds like common sense, but I suspect that some people never learn it. I know that in our case, when we only had a few weeks of vacation and were traveling, it was hard to say: “OMG, we’re in Paris and didn’t see X or Y.” And this lead to exhausting trips that weren’t nearly as rewarding. It took a few years and a gradual change in attitude to get to where we are today – an honestly – it also took having lots more time to travel. ~James