Veliky Novgorod is the oldest town in Russia, founded in 862 and for a long while the economic center of the what is now western Russia. It was also one of the few towns to escape the wrath of Chingis Khan, the marshy surrounds providing a natural barrier that proved more effective against the golden horde than most other defenses. Veliky Novgorod is commonly shortened to Novgorod, which is also the name of this oblast (like a state, province or prefecture). The town sits on the gentle Volkhov River and is a welcoming, relaxing place with some of the oldest buildings around, both thanks to its age and the fact that the mongols were unable to raze here as they did nearly everywhere else.
The town’s Kremlin is perhaps the oldest in Russia and is one of the main attractions here. This place mirrors its town, and has a much more open and less efficiently planned feel than its cousins in Moscow or Kazan. There is a wide red brick wall around the large Kremlin and the interior is predominantly green space with some prominent buildings placed centrally and towards the north of the enclosed space. While the buildings are nice, this place is all about the feel of the whole rather than any individual structure.
St. Anthony’s Stratalites Cathedral is a small, quaint 12th century church that seems slightly out of place alongside the other larger buildings – and there is good reason for this as it actually used to be part of a much larger cathedral, the rest of which burned to the ground. There are some remaining frescos on the walls and ceiling that are definitely worth a look.
The Cathedral of St. Sophia finished in 1050 is the main cathedral in the Kremlin, though the exterior is of rather bland whitewashed walls that are heavily fortified to withstand attack. The paintings inside are in pastels, not bold in color or style, which was much different from frescos we’d seen in other parts of Russia to this point in our trip. The nearby blocky belfry displayed large iron bells from various time parts of Velicky Novgorod’s history.
The Millennium of Russia Monument is a massive 16m tall sculpture in the center of the kremlin that was presented to the city in 1862 on the 1000 year anniversary of its founding. The people on the sculpture are Russian historical figures ranging from princes to military heroes to writers.
Novgorod State United Museum was a highlight of the visit to Veliky Novogorod as it contained the most comprehensive collection of chronologically organized icons and we were able to really get a feel of how styles changed with time and varied between different parts of Russia – so much so that later in our trip we could, with relative accuracy, guess the age and location of origin of many icon we would see in other museums and cathedrals.
The first floor of the museum was mildly interesting and included information and artifacts relating to local history, though all information was in Russian so we weren’t able to fully learn about its contents. The second floor contained the aforementioned icon display, many original works taked from cathedrals we had previously visited in other parts of Russia or would later visit in Veliky Novgorod, Yaroslavl, Vladimir, Suzdal and Nizhny Novgorod. Most interestingly, these works were organized in chronological order from the 1000s and were accompanied by informative english language placards which described emerging artistic trends in icon painting from each era.
The vacated and locked Church of Sts Peter and Paul in Kozhevniki from the 1400s was located near the hotel, and it was an building of great character that sat in a beautifully green grassy field on its own, nearly forgotten except for the subdivisions being erected behind it. It was like an afterthoughts in this town, but was a wonderfully attractive building and had contributed many icons to the Novgorod State Museum. Its beautiful brick exterior also had a few surviving paintings in alcoves on the outer walls. We also viewed The Cathedral of the Intercession Our Lady and the Church of St Simeon which are nearby but are less interesting.
Across the river from the kremlin was the old merchant trade area. The old archway still remains with many churches. The most well known one, St. Nicholas Cathedral was closed for restoration when we visited. There were about half a dozen churches in the area all dating to around the 12th to 14th century.
The Church of our Lady of the Sign and The Church of Transfiguration are further from the Volkhov, sit accross the street from each other in an older residential area of town and were both highlights of our visit to Veliky Novgorod. The Lady of the Sign was a bit dilapidated on the exterior but was still loaded with character, and the interior was a large open room covered with original frescos and which has reknowned acoustics and still host some musical performances. It lacked the restored and refined commercialized face that the many other churches seem to have, and we were happy with that. We had the church to ourselves except for the older lady at the door, so it was a pleasant experience and we took our time here inspecting the many paintings and listening to our every sound resonate in this space.
Across the street at the Church of Transfiguration from the 1300s, there were preserved frescos from the Greek artist Theophanes, who is a legend in this world and is likely one of the most influential icon painters to have come to Russia. The frescos were displayed well on the restored walls and the church itself had a rustic open quality to it.
Other churches we viewed: The Parish of St. Apostles Peter and Paul was a neat looking building as was The Church of St. Theodore Stratalites from the 12th and 17th centuries. They reminded us of rural country wooden structures. The Cathedral of Sts Boris and Gleb in Plotniki from the 16th century was across the river from our hotel and while it had great silver domes that reflected the early sunlight and night moonlight fantastically, its inside was fully renovated and even had neon signs in the chapel area… ugh.