Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Candlelit Cathedral (St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria)

I have seen a lot of churches and cathedrals. A lot. But none of them looked like the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. 

Located in central Sofia, this cathedral is not only one of the most revered orthodox cathedrals in Bulgaria, but in the entire region. In fact, there is only one church that is larger in the entire balkan peninsula. This is not entirely surprising - the church is nearly 35,000 square feet and, at its peak, can hold a cool ten thousand people. 

For me, the most striking feature of the cathedral was the large golden central dome. We were lucky, when we arrived the sky was bluer than I could have imagined, and the sun's powerful rays brought the golden dome to life. In juxtaposition with the soft white painted exterior and the light pastel green of the cathedral's other domes, the gold was impossible to miss. It gleamed, as gold is wont to do. 

Originally, I had thought the clear blue sky was a blessing, and it was, but in my research I came across a photo that led me to believe that the presence of clouds is capable of adding a dramatic touch to the scene. The overall conclusion? No weather is really going to be enough to ruin the majesty of this church. 

The large open expanse of the interior was not entirely what I expected, but this is likely because my expectations were misplaced. I am more used to the somewhat sterile, symmetric orderliness of catholic cathedrals, but the focus in this orthodox masterpiece seemed to be on the lack of these very things. I wandered from mural to mural in the dimly lit setting, re-configuring my expectations. 

I loved the way that light entered the cathedral. The stained glass windows let in only the light they wanted to, which was, appropriately, the perfect amount. I was awestruck by the enormous candlelit chandeliers in the middle of the room, their light flickering off the nearby walls. The floor was an example of the subtle splendour of marble, and the ceiling contained a fresco of absolutely epic proportions. The cathedral was actually only built at the beginning of the 20th century, but, for one reason or another, it felt much older.  

When I wrote about the Rila Monastery, I spoke about the fact that Bulgaria was full of surprises for me because, well, I simply did not know what to expect. There is a certain beauty (and ease) in doing little to no research until you arrive in a destination, a beauty I rarely experience as I often research quite a bit, doting on the possibilities of upcoming adventures. In this case, I was able to turn the corner and...BOOM, the enormity of the structure (and the moment) struck me like a ton of bricks. 

I've come to the realization that places I have visited that are draped in religious symbolism and built as religious symbols feel special because of the care, effort, and emotion that they were built with. They are built as a flagship of faith, and, thus, rarely spare any expense - sometimes taking decades (or the better part of a century) to build. The finite details are all there. I saw this with the White Temple in Chiang Rai, the mosques in Brunei Darussulam, recently with the Rila Monastery, and dozens and dozens of other places that I haven't had the chance to write about. And there's a continuity in arriving in a new city, and going through the comfortable motions of visiting its prominent mosques, temples, churches, shrines, or cathedrals - a continuity I very much enjoy. In general, there is a continuity in an approach to travel, a method of one's own.  

Hm. That last sentence gets me thinking...

My "travelling self" has evolved over the years. Years ago I used to rush through cities, checking off the cities's sights at a torrential pace, and now I take the time to let things soak in a little more. Instead of trying to see 3 cities in a week, in constant motion, I now am more inclined to plan nothing at all, and stay in a city or destination for as long as it captures my interest. And, that way, I take the time to enjoy the small things without a sense of rush, and enjoy that beer or coffee on the main street (or not so main street), an experience which can often be more revealing about a city or culture than a tourist attraction ever could be. 

I've come to the understanding that I will never see all that I want to see of the world in one lifetime, but, it is enough to embrace the notion that through experience and travel, I can come to know a little more about the world (and myself) than I did yesterday.  


  1. Very Nice article, I like the way you presented this post..and great spiritual images.

  2. I'm happy you enjoyed it. Thanks for taking a moment to give some feedback, it's much appreciated.