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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Spend a Night at the Monastery

PECHORY -- One day 540 years ago, a Russian peasant named Selisha shouldered his axe and took his son on a hike into the valley for firewood.

The valley, then as today, was a cool and pleasant place, with a reputation for holiness. It was said singing angels flitted among the trees, and peasants like Selisha would come to the wooded copses to pray and to drink from the clear creek.

So when Selisha and his son felled their tree, and it crashed into the forked crotch of a second tree, tearing it out at the roots and revealing a sandy floored cave, many saw it as a sign from God. The caves enhanced the valley's considerable fame, and soon a church was being built above them.

Today that church has grown into the Pechory Monastery, a fiefdom of Russian Orthodoxy on the border with Lutheran Estonia and -- even by the high standards of Russia -- a collection of beautiful churches. Each year, thousands of pilgrims and tourists visit Pechory, a sleepy town of 12,000 about 90 minutes by bus from Pskov. They come to see and pay their respects to one of Russia's oldest functioning churches (in 521 years it has never closed) and to tour the sandy catacombs.

Visitors discouraged by the drab Planeta Hotel (12,000 rubles a night) can try to spend a night in the monastery itself, in an empty monk's cell. The only difference between the monk's cell and the Planeta is that fussy sleepers may be kept awake at the monastery by soft church bells ringing every 15 minutes, while at the Planeta fussy sleepers will be kept awake by everything from drunken brawls to snoring neighbors three rooms down.

A flood of tourists descended on Pechory in the 1980s, when glasnost revived interest in the long-forbidden church, but their number has dwindled because would-be pilgrims now can rarely afford to travel. In the peak year of 1985, the monastery attracted 216,000 tourists, although, as Deputy Mayor Vitaly Kustov noted, most were pilgrims determined to live modestly and so they brought the town little economic benefit. Last year the number of tourists had declined to about 9,000.

"But Pechory has a great future as a resort region," Kustov said. "There's not only our monastery, which is a great historical treasure set in a valley that, even today, many consider to be a place of magic and holiness. There are our lakes and our forests, wonderful places for camping and hiking."

A 20-kilometer bus or taxi ride away is the Izborskaya Fortress, one of Russia's first Western border posts. The tower and stone walls are more than 1,100 years old. Nearby is a fine work of pre-industrial age engineering, the Smolenskiye Locks.

The monastery, however, is Pechory's pride. Entering the gate set in white, thick walls, visitors meander through an icon-lined tunnel and down a cobblestone road into the valley and the monastery's heart: about a dozen buildings -- many of them onion-domed churches -- arranged around a town-squarish courtyard of gardens, trees and a well of sweet water.

Those wishing to spend the night in the monastery should ask for the dezhurnaya monk, or duty officer, who is usually at a booth in the square's entrance. He will know whether there is room. If not, try the Planeta, or one of a dozen private homes posted just inside the monastery's gate where "pilgrims" can put up.

During the day, a tour of the caves led by one of the monks is a must. The caves are cool and damp -- even on a hot summer day the temperature never climbs above five degrees Celsius. The monks will lead visitors (and, for a $20 "contribution," foreign journalists) by candlelight down sandstone corridors past more than 10,000 coffins, many of them in mass graves hidden behind large metal doors disguised as icons. There is no odor; the cool, humid air allows the bodies to decompose with dignity.

Lying in a hero's place of honor are Ivan and Maria, two Muscovites who founded the monastery in 1473. The two changed their names to Ioann and Vasa, shaved their heads and traded in their marriage for a new life as brother and sister.