I was in the Kazan area for a business trip and briefly had some time to do a little sightseeing. A guided tour took us to the Kazan kremlin (kremlin denotes “fortress”), to a very picturesque monastery at Raifa, and the historical island of Sviyazhsk. Sviyazhsk and Raifa are just outside Kazan, which is the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan.
Raifa is the site of a Russian Orthodox monastery that dates to the year 1613. The buildings and grounds are fairytale-like in their beauty. However, during the Soviet era, the monks were expelled and Raifa was turned into a prison for political and other prisoners (aka a Gulag). During this time, monks and parishioners secretly continued to congregate and worship at Raifa until 1930. In that year, the Soviets rounded up six monks and two parishioners and executed them. Others were imprisoned in labor camps. Needless to say, Raifa fell into severe disrepair. Some of the structures were all but gutted.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the monastery was returned to the Diocese, and Raifa has been restored to its former beauty. The photo above will give you an idea of Raifa’s charm. Raifa also has the tiniest church in Russia, although this is closed to the public. Open to the public, however, is a natural spring which is very popular and said to have healing properties. On the day of our visit, people were bringing several jugs to collect water.
The Raifa monastery is also located next to a very pretty lake and inside a stunning, protected pine forest. The drive to Raifa is very well-worth, taking less than an hour from Kazan. If you’re hungry, there are a number of food stalls at the monastery’s entrance and restaurants on the road to Kazan.
Earlier during the day, we visited the kremlin of Kazan. This is a sprawling complex that is still in active use by the government of the Republic of Tatarstan. The entrance to the kremlin is underneath the famous clock tower.
Passing under the clock tower, the stunning Kul Sharif Mosque dominates the interior space of the kremlin. The mosque is actually relatively new, with construction finished in 2005. The Kul Sharif Mosque is one of the largest in Europe. It can hold 6,000 worshippers within its walls. The mosque is a striking rebuke to the widespread destruction of religious structures that occurred in the Soviet era.
The kremlin in Kazan is a massive complex with numerous historical buildings including a cannon factory dating to the era of Peter the Great, the classic 16th century Annunciation Cathedral, the iconic, leaning Soyembika Tower, a beautiful garden, a large museum, and many other attractive buildings. A person can easily spend half a day exploring this area.
Sviyazhsk is an hour outside of Kazan. Formerly an island fortress at the intersection of the Volga and Sviyaga Rivers, a roadway now connects the island to the mainland. The monastery at Sviyazhsk is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the entire island is extremely picturesque and provides fantastic, elevated views of the surrounding river. There were several classic orthodox churches, a beautiful walled monastery, and very pretty brick houses and other buildings. Near the center of town were some cool marketplaces selling Russian treats and knick knacks. One place sells an unique tasting non-alcoholic, grain-based fizzy drink that was kind of like a champaign crossed with root beer. Very refreshing.
My suggestion is to get there early because Sviyazhsk is very popular with tourists. Parking at the large parking lot can be problematic if you arrive late, though there’s always space along the roadway. All in all, this is a very nice side trip from Kazan that showcases a fascinating showcase of Russian and Tatar heritage.
Bottom line, Raifa and Sviyazhsk are quite close to Kazan and are must-see day trips if you have interest in the history, architecture and culture of the region. It’s worth spending some time in Kazan, also. Kazan is a very beautiful city with a rich heritage, and I look forward to returning to explore more of the city. I think 2-3 days in Kazan are necessary to see its highlights including the kremlin, museums and other areas such as its pedestrian-friendly main street. Raifa and Sviyazhsk each make great day-trips from the city.