Saint Isaac’s Cathedral (Isaakievskiy Sobor) is plonked like a jewel in the crown of St. Petersburg’s many mesmeric monuments. The country’s largest orthodox basilica, it has a past dominated by historical events as well as fleeting fancies.
It is gigantic (accommodating 14,000 worshippers), neo-classic (expressing a Russian-Byzantine formula) and gloriously gilded (with a glistening 100m high gold-plated dome).
Ordered by Tsar Alexander I and commissioned to the French architect Auguste de Montferrand, it was visited by millions of St Petersburg worshippers before being abandoned under the Soviet government and renamed the ‘Museum of Atheism’. Only last year (January 2017) did the city’s governor announce that it would be transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church.
It remains a classic example of Russia’s ability to lob yet another jaw-dropping, grandstanding cultural venue, to delight even the weariest of over-churched visitors.
It is one of my favourites, as much for its size and stature, as for its beautiful interior, which took forty years to build, stretching from 104m to 91m. The high dome ceiling, enormous chandeliers, iconic frescos and pink, rose and sky-blue wall designs inspire silent awe.
The exterior is adorned with 112 red hewn granite columns, each erected as a single block. The rotunda upper dome area, accessible to visitors, offers some of the most magnificent city views.
It is also a typical example of a world class exhibit that very few outsiders really appreciate. Which to a certain degree is not surprising, as selling Russia as tourist destination has been a tough gig recently, with security fears stoked by negative foreign policy stories.
This week, for example, I too have been aware that the world’s attitude towards Russia has been mixed. I am excited to have received confirmation of my Russian FIFA 2018 World Cup match tickets, but appalled at reports of Russia’s suspected link to the use of a nerve agent in the centre of Salisbury, Wiltshire.
However, I do believe that now is a terrific time for tourists to visit the country. In addition to crashing in on what will be another multi-national World Cup party, you can visit some of Europe’s most outstanding cultural sites without the usual World Heritage Site hauls.
You will have a job fitting in all there is to see, no matter how much time you allocate to sightseeing. I have expounded on the merits of other St Petersburg sites in previous blogs – Church of Spilled Blood, Peter and Paul Fortress, Hermitage Museum & Palace Square, Catherine Palace – but make sure you do reserve the time to visit St Isaac’s Cathedral – the fourth largest domed cathedral in the world.