I will never forget Kizhi Island, located in massive Onega Lake, Europe’s second largest. This is Taiga territory at its best, an ocean of trees second in biomass only to, well, the ocean. All we did was bike around wooden beauties and green pastures under a blue sky. We couldn’t believe the atmosphere and the plethora of colors. Luckily for us, we managed to escape the masses and be one with nature. After traveling around Russia for two months, we realized that the entire country is blessed with outstanding nature and architecture. However, to us, Kizhi Island is truly special. A place you must visit!
Karelia is a region in Northern Europe that stretches from Russia to Finland. Russian Karelia is additionally divided into the Republic of Karelia and the Karelian Isthmus (where Vyborg is located). The Republic of Karelia is one of Russia’s 22 republics, an entity with its own constitution and official language – Karelian. This vast territory encompasses endless untouched forests and more than 50000 lakes, including Europe’s biggest two, Ladoga and Onega. Onega Lake is home to 1650 islands and islets. Among them the most famous one: Kizhi.
How to get to Kizhi
The island is accessible by boat from the city of Petrozavodsk, where we stopped on our way back to St. Petersburg from Solovetsky Islands. The night train leaves from Kem, across Solovetsky Islands, and takes almost 8 hours. On the other hand, it took us just 5 hours to reach St. Petersburg from Petrozavodsk on a fast train. We bought the tickets from the Russian Railways official site and enjoyed the journey. Both journeys offer views that will redefine your concept of nature. You won’t be able to close your eyes, delighted by the beauty of our planet. Be sure to grab a window seat. That’s all you need. Trains in Russia are reliable, safe and comfortable and the Russians great travel companions: warm, quiet people that do get nature.
The capital of Karelia, Petrozavodsk, is a relatively young city, founded in early 18th Century. It is a pretty neoclassical city with plenty of charming squares and buildings from 19th and 20th Centuries. Surprisingly for a rather smallish city, there are many museums, galleries and theatres. And plenty of beautiful green areas. Strolling around the promenade by the Onega Lake you’ll see some cool wooden houses, enjoy great views and meet bunch of locals; it’s their favorite place to hang out.
Boat trip to Kizhi
Several modern hydrofoil boats operate tours to Kizhi Island every day from June to August. The boat travels through beautiful scenery. The second part of the journey is especially dramatic. The boat glides through labyrinths of flat islands, covered with pine, fir and birch trees. Though most are uninhabited, a couple of islands do have villages. Colors here are special. I had never seen before so many different shades of blues, greens and browns. Overjoyed we admired everything in silence.
The boat ride takes an hour and fifteen minutes. The first things you’ll notice are three wooden structures that appear to be rising from the water: Kizhi Pogost. Unesco included this two churches and a bell tower in its World Heritage Site list. The Transfiguration Church was closed when we visited, but we did admire the interior of the Intercession Church. We also climbed the Bell tower where we enjoyed some outstanding views.
The Transfiguration Church was built using only axes and chisels, without a single nail or metal part. According to legend, Carpenter Nester built it. After finishing the church he threw his axe in the lake and said: “This church was built by master Nester; there is no such church in the world, nor will there be one!” He might have been a bit egocentric, but entirely right he was. The church is quite unique! It is generally accepted though, that unknown folk artists in the 17th Century built the complex. Every single dome is sublime. The 35 meter tall Transfiguration has 22 domes while the 27 meters tall Intercession church has 9.
The strange thing about Kizhi Pogost is that it was built on one of the smallest islands, sparsely inhabited by peasants and only later by blacksmiths. The island was mostly abandoned in the mid 20th Century. At the same time many historical wooden buildings were brought from all over Karelia to guarantee their preservation. Among these, 5 small chapels stand out: the Three Saints Chapel close to the northern tip, the Chapel of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Chapel of the Miraculous Savior (from Vigovo village) and the Chapel of Peter and Paul in the center, and the Chapel of Archangel Michael (from Lelikozero village) near the southern tip.
What to do on the island
Once on the island you’ll have 4 hours to wonder around. The boats arrive roughly 1 km north of the Pogost close to a nice coffeehouse next to the pier. After you pass the coffeehouse you’ll see a ticket booth where you have to pay the entrance fee. To our great amazement they rented bicycles! A small but very clever move: escape the crowds by taking the opposite direction. Most people follow the organized tour directly to the Pogost. We hopped on our bikes and left for the north. We visited the chapels, two villages and enjoyed outstanding views almost entirely on our own. By the end of the day, when crowds move to the north, we strolled relaxed about Kizhi Pogost.
Where to stay – Petrozavodsk
We wanted to treat ourselves with a little luxury. Petrozavodsk has two interesting options, Piter Inn next to the train station and Hotel Karelia in front of the lake. Since we are obsessed with views it was an easy choice. The train arrived pretty early, so we headed to the hotel’s spa to wait for our room. As usual in Russia, we got the top floor room we asked for (Russians are very professional). The room was comfortable, cozy, and yes, the views didn’t disappoint. The hotel’s restaurant has great food too. Plus as a hotel guest you get a 20% off the boat tour to Kizhi Island!!
If you are into a more exotic experience you can stay in a couple of places just across Kizhi Island. The tiny village of Yersenevo has two guesthouses: Kizhanin and Kizhi Grace. Supposedly there is a small pier next to the village with boats to the island. South of Kizhi, on the Big Klimetsky Island (Большой Климецкий) there are two other guesthouses: V Seredke and Holiday home on Vorobi. We can’t guarantee you’ll find organized boat transfers to Kizhi though, so you might have to manage on your own. The best thing to do is to contact the guesthouse in advance. Remember, Russians will do their best to accommodate your needs.