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