Novgorod: The Kremlin, the Churches, the Cafe



September 13, 2011

What a surprise!  Flapjacks!  Yes, Flapjacks! 

The word “Flapjacks” printed, oh so neatly, on one of those little white cards on the breakfast buffet table.  I haven’t seen or heard the word “flapjacks” in many, many years.   Have you?

 The traditional buffet breakfast at the Hotel Volkhov:  cereals, omelet, rice, macaroni and vegetables, fish stew, boiled eggs, tempting cakes, fresh fruit, tea (black and green), brewed coffee and flapjacks, or pancakes. 

The Russians are crazy for pancakes in all shapes and sizes.  This morning they are small, thick and properly grilled.  Topped with a spoonful of real blueberry jam and a dollop of heavy sour cream … Aunt Jemima, you have some serious competition.

Kremlin” is a Russian word we all know.  When we hear “the Kremlin” we think of the mysterious government bureaucracy hidden behind impenetrable and forbidding walls in Moscow.  In fact, the word “kremlin” simply means fortress.  Many cities still boast their own kremlin with their ancient battlements and watchtowers that protected palaces and churches.

I must admit I felt a bit giddy as I approached the Novgorod Kremlin.  At one moment I was strolling across a park in this quiet town.  The next moment I was crossing a small footbridge and approaching the high brick walls.  To my left and right was a wide ditch.  I thought, “This must be the moat that protected the fort.  I am in the midst of medieval history.”  I don’t know why, but I just felt so excited.  

(Later I found a wall poster and map that indicated that Novgorod was an important 15th-16th Century trading post on the eastern edge of the Germanic-Baltic mercantile association called the Hanseatic League.  Eventually, Novograd was eclipsed by Saint Petersburg that is only 160k, 100 mi to the north.)

The focal point of the Novgorod Kremlin is the exquisite Byzantine style Cathedral of St Sophia.  Built in the Eleventh Century, the outer doors have bronze castings dating from the 14th Century.  The somber interior also has 14C icons that reminded me of images I saw in the Chora Church in Istanbul.

With its typically Russian onion domes, the cathedral is once again a working church.  I found a quiet corner and listened to the gentle, melodious and harmonious responsive singing of the priests and a choir of local women.  Their a cappella prayers filled every chapel, alcove and tower.

According to my guidebook, the nearby Millennium of Russia Monument is 16m (52 ft) high and weighs 300 tons.  It was unveiled in 1862 on the 1000th anniversary of the Varangian Prince Rurik’s arrival.  The monument depicts a who’s who of Russian history over the last millennium with 127 figures: rulers, statesmen, artists and scholars.  The women at the top are Mother Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church. *

The Novgorod Kremlin sits above the placid Volkhov River.  After I exchanged pleasantries with a few members of the inexorable Asian tour group (this one from Hong Kong), I crossed the footbridge over the river to the old market district called Yaroslav’s Court.  And speaking of churches, until today, I haven’t seen a town with so many churches since my last trip to Central Florida.

 I crisscrossed the streets and found the Court Cathedral of St Nicholas (multi-curved roof with black domes - 12th Century); the Church of the Transfiguration of Our Savior (a small church with white exterior walls with simple decoration and a black onion dome - 14th Century); and the Cathedral of our Lady of the Sign (multi-storied church with five gray domes -17th Century).  And then I found a café called Dom Berga - Berg’s House - for a well-deserved lunch.

I decided on soup (borsch) and salad (salad).  The warm soup was thick with carrots, onions, beans, and parsley and topped with a dollop of sour cream.   The bean salad also had onions and shaved carrots, and on top, a dollop ….  My plum tart desert, sprinkled with powdered sugar, was made from that crisp cookie dough my Czech grandmother prepared.   The Café Americano was excellent.

Even though it began to rain while I was strolling along the river after my late afternoon lunch, my day in Novgorod had a perfect ending – the icing on the cake.  I approached a man and said “taxi” (the Russian word for taxi). (The guidebook says that for a small fee, anyone will be a taxi.)  He agreed to drive me back to my hotel.   On the way we chatted a bit – as much as my non-existent Russian and his little English allowed.  He was from Azerbaijan in the Caucasus.  He was delighted to hear I was from America.  And despite my protestations, he absolutely refused any payment.   

*Russia.  Lonely Planet Publications. Pty Ltd. 2009.  Pg 346.

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