architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · travel

Kargopol, a Gem of the Russian North

Kargopol

There are places that hold a special place in your heart even if you only spent a few days there. And not in a small part this is due to the people you meet there. Last July I visited a place like this in Arkhangelsk Region. Kargopol, an ancient northern Russian town located on the Onega River, had never actually been on my travelling list.

Kargopol

But it so happened that through some long (and I really mean that)-distance volunteering work I got attached to this place in such a way that I accepted the invitation and after some 15 rainy hours spent on the St Petersburg-Arkhangelsk train and an extremely bumpy ride (there are hardly any good “local” roads outside St Pete or Moscow) finally got there. Our first day was dedicated to exchanging news and life stories – which resulted in me almost losing my voice for several days.

Kargopol

The following day I actually visited the place I have been volunteering for and had first to overcome my fears about not being able to in fact. One thing to help people in need – coming in person to this place is the other. I was not sure I would be able to let go of all that squeamishness and just be human. It turned out right, although I was pretty drained after this visit and had just a tiny bit of my mental powers to enjoy the historical center of the town with its churches and museums (these are very often two-in-one in Russia).

Kargopol

Kargopol occupies the area where people lived already in the 4th millennium BC, although it is officially considered to be founded in 1380, being the year when it was first mentioned in writing. Its name is a bit of a riddle, containing parts that refer to both its Finno-Ugric past and the later Russification. And while “pol(e)” (field) is pretty obvious, the first part is translated either as a “crow” or a “bear”, depending on the version you stick to.

Kargopol

There’s an earth mound right next to the local bus station from where I took the photo above that testifies to the times when Kargopol was colonized by the people from Novgorod the Great. The town used to be quite an important trading center in the 16th century as it had the right to trade… salt which was quite a luxury back then and not all the cities were granted the right to do so, forcing them to actually come and buy their “white death” (or is it only said about sugar?) in Kargopol.

Kargopol

But with all its rights and privileges, Kargopol was also a place of exile – tsars would send their unwanted relatives or favourites there, while the sign on the house above tells us that a certain Ivan Bolotnikov (known to all us in Russia from the school history books) who was a leader of a popular uprising in 1606-07 was executed here as well. The wooden sign reminds us that the street was previously called Potanikha instead of Bolotnikov Street (renamed in the Soviet era when Bolotnikov Rebellion was especially celebrated). A curious thing to note about this building in the photo is that the double windows are quite lazily insulated with some moss – to keep the warmth in between the frames.

Kargopol

This 18th century bell-tower is there to remind us of a devastating fire that left the entire town in ruins in 1765 and made Catherine the Great (see her letters above the arch) rebuilt it according to a so-called “regular plan” – the one that was later applied to many cities including St Petersburg. This is how Kargopol became one of the first cities in the Russian Empire to follow this new plan.

Kargopol

But its main purpose now is to serve as an observation tower – one of the things I really appreciate, especially when there IS what to see from up there 🙂 One of the (relevantly) recent experiences that I enjoyed was an ex-monastery tower in Staraya Russa. Which makes me think I still have plenty of my travels to tell…

Kargopol

The church with green cupolas is a weird combination of baroque and whitewashed-wall architecture – I would never have thought that it was built in the middle of the 18th century! And this one with the shiny black cupolas was build 200 years earlier, in the mid-16th century, and over the years it has sunk  almost 100 cm into the ground! The crazy buttresses made of stones and planks of wood were added to support the structure after the already mentioned fire of 1765. But the main attraction of this church is actually a collection of the so-called “heavens” or “skies” (nebesa in Russian), painted wooden ceilings characteristic of the Russian North. Gathered all over the region, they are exhibited in this church just propped against the walls.

Kargopol

Walking back from the main square to my friend’s place (after visiting a local history museum also housed in a church), I noticed a house with super dusty windows and some traditional clay Kargopol toys displayed in two of them. These toys might as well be taken for the more popular Dymkovo toys but are less flashy and I would say more authentic in a way. They say that those who used to make them in the old days would do so in the winter as during the rest of the year they were busy cultivating their land and harvesting.

Kargopol

The toy is considered one of the symbols of the town (and the area) and is featured on, for instance, the local foods such as pryanik and kefir. However, there are very few foods made locally here as the agriculture collapsed with the break of the USSR and due to the remoteness of the area aggravated by the lack of proper roads makes it hard for anything to develop here – including tourism. Speaking of which, here’s what you can find here, just a few steps away from the central square:

Kargopol

This delicate intricate beauty in the traditional “uzorochye” (literally “abundance of ornaments”) style is a 17th century church and the one to the right (below) is another church, once adorned with five cupolas but now reduced to just one.

Kargopol

They are both situated on the old market square – here pictured during the annual festival dedicated to the start of the mowing season and the Kupala Night that falls on the 7th of July. I was lucky enough to arrive just in time for the festivities which included a mowing competition among teams representing various villages, a market day and a real Kupala Night with a fire show, khorovod (round dances) and music.

Kargopol

The competition included mowing a designated plot and building a haystack with a “twist”. There were also traditional chastushki (funny and often ironic short songs that rather resemble short poems) performed by the competitors themselves. And these girls (below) were preparing some treats for the participants.

Kargopol

These ladies just rocked! They were I think the first to finish their “creation” and then they sang just like real stars! Here pictured against the 17th century church with silver cupolas as the background. I really enjoyed the festival, although we missed the first part, the actual mowing, as it started quite early. And I think people around me were enjoying it as well, sincerely, you know, as mowing remains a part of their daily life, actually, since many of the locals live in their own houses in Kargopol or nearby villages.

Kargopol

I was actually also clad in a traditional sarafan that my host made – although contrary to the people participating in the contest I felt very much an impostor 🙂 Moving further towards the “private” residential area of the town where people live in their own (or semi-detached) houses, I came about this apparently old but dying wooden building – this used to be shared by several families.

Kargopol

When everyone was having a nap, I wandered about a bit and was granted with this wonderful view over the town and the Onega River. Kargopol is like this, there are almost no buildings taller than say three floors (they stick to this rule deliberately) and there’s just ONE bus that makes a stop at the local bus station before moving on to the other side of the river when everyone gets off the bus (even if their journey is not over yet) and the driver with the conductor go inside the station building to have some tea. I think that took them about 10 minutes – nobody complained as this is an established “rule”. Not joking!

Kargopol

I enjoyed the view for quite a while, spellbound by the great weather, the atmosphere, the people and the silence which was broken only by a small motor boat moving along the river. There is also lake Lacha nearby, the largest in the region, but we didn’t manage to go there. With all the guests at my hosts’ place and the festival, I only managed to see a tiny bit of the town actually, so many things were left for the next time. I hope to have a walk around it myself too, like I did in that part of the town where my host lives.

Kargopol

That evening there was also the big party, the Kupala Night itself, originally dedicated to the summer solstice (falling on the 24th of June according to the old, Julian calendar) but now mostly celebrating just the summer, I guess. Already on the first day I noticed these wooden figures in the Onega River that were still being constructed. The locals told us these were created for the famous fire show that we were about to witness soon. The figures were also symbolic, some taken from the local fokllore, some representing the traditional Kargopol toys. The big night finally came and I have to admit, I’ve never experienced anything of the kind – the atmosphere of the festival was very far from what I’m used to and I would definitely like to attend it again if I can.

Kargopol

There was also a sort of catwalk with super tall girls demonstrating tradition-inspired costumes, a “skovorodka” (literally “frying pan”) or a dance “floor” with the 1980s music performed live by a biology teacher and his band (well, he’d better stick to biology, if you ask me!), lots of food being cooked and not so much of alcohol around as I would expect (which, I guess, was banned). After that there was some dancing in circles choreographed by a team from Petrozavodsk, which I did join. The culmination of the night was the fire show to the live music by a local musician. Although we were already quite tired and feeling cold, we did watch the first figures to burn (which they did excruciatingly slowly!) and, to tell you the truth, felt some kind of regret that they did burn these structures down.

Kargopol

Next day people from various local communities organized a festival/market showcasing their products and most notably traditions. Of course, there was a much less authentic (and exciting for me) part to this event, though moved away from the main square, where you could get some fast food and completely not local goods and stuff, which people seemed to enjoy a lot, in fact. The thing is, those living in the big cities are spoilt with all the junk stuff to the point they get enough of it, longing for something truly traditional, authentic, ethnic, organic etc etc while in the regions people regard the former as something genuinely entertaining and take the latter for granted.

Kargopol

I guess for me there was much more interest in the traditional part as that is what is missing from my life in the city and I feel only a very distant connection to it. Anyway, pictured below is the same lady who was so active mowing in the early morning, now busy heating water in the samovar. What a stamina she has!

Kargopol

People were selling homemade pies, smoked fish and sweet stuff. But as we ate quite a lot of our own freshly baked sweet and savory pies in the morning (see further), I didn’t sample anything there, just wandered along the aisles, dissuading myself from buying all those baskets, boxes and the like that were on offer.

Kargopol

As I had a train to catch later that day, I couldn’t enjoy the festival and the market as much as I wished to. There was also a singing and dancing competition which I had to ignore in order to see at least some of the things I was indeed interested in. I made some last-minute souvenir shopping, buying a tall box made from birch bark, decorated with the beautiful red and black Mezen patterns, traditional painting style from Arkhangelsk Region.

Kargopol

Earlier that day there was a real treat for me by my host’s sister: she cooked the traditional shangi pies with mashed potatoes (there should have been also some smetana or sour cream on top but the Russian stove my hosts have at home – see above – was piping hot and we had to skip that part) and some qutab-like pies with berries. The funny part about the master-class was when the hosts’ cat (who hissed at me like a real snake and snapped at my face) obviously curious and at the same time pretty nervous with all those people occupying its home (there was quite a few of us there) take a stroll right over the rolled-out circles of dough ready to be filled in and baked. We didn’t mind though 🙂

Kargopol

There was also a very hot banya with veniki (banya whisks from birch branches and leaves) from where I just had to flee as I can hardly stand such heat (and had to stand next to the window for half an hour to come back to life), there was marveling at how little I know about life outside big cities, there was walking with the dog in the nearby forest, there was a ton of new people I met and tons of stories I heard, there was a torrential rain and birds singing in the early morning, there were many things I noticed about myself. And there was some cooking on my part as well, mostly improvising with the ingredients that were available. Here’re some sugar knots and a berry pie in the morning light.

Kargopol

On the train I met a woman from Moscow who comes to the festival every year. Although she seemed to have traveled all over the area and learnt a lot, she made me think that you can only learn as much about the traditions and the life in the region as you see and are shown, whereas the true life is what you can only experience if you live there yourself. The next morning, I was already in the hustling and bustling, insatiably commercial Moscow – not the best place to go after such a getaway and a soulful, meaningful journey. One to remember, for sure.

Filed under the Russian Travels collection.

G.

architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · travel

Mozhaysk, or How to Get There and Back Against All Odds

Mozhaysk

A year ago Mozhaysk was on my to-visit-list as a B-side to Vyazma, an old town in Smolensk region. But I failed to get there – missed the train and had to rethink my trip, instead going to Moscow first. In our digital era, it’s easy to rebook your (overnight) train in a slightly different direction while still stuck in a traffic jam on your way to the railway station. So, once in Moscow, I ended up taking a fast suburban train to Mozhaysk (in the Moscow region) straight away as it was closer than Vyazma – just an hour ride from Belorussky Railway Station.

Mozhaysk

Mozhaysk is an old town and it does look old – but not like Kolomna, this is a rather different type of being old, run-down or unkempt would be more appropriate. It’s also situated some 100 km from the capital but how much less pampered it is! When you get there you understand that being close to Moscow is not always to your benefit if you’re a small town. However, they say Mozhaysk district is one of the least polluted in the region.

Mozhaysk

Autumn and decadence go hand in hand – and Mozhaysk just excels in the latter! How about this half-sunk house somewhere along one of the main roads (there was a hand-made – and rather poorly at that – sign further along the same road and same fence which advertised haircuts at just 200 roubles – the most glamorous spot for an ad of a beauty salon!):

Mozhaysk

And somewhat more colourful (and alive) colleagues spotted in various corners of the town:

Mozhaysk

Actually, Mozhaysk is pretty prolific in all kinds of wooden ornaments and wooden houses in general. For how long – I don’t know but at least now there’s plenty of them yet not covered in sheets of metal or simply destroyed.

Mozhaysk

For some reason, I’m partial to faded blue:

Mozhaysk

Having crossed the town up to the other side of the river to a Second World War memorial, I crossed the river back and continued on towards Luzhetsky monastery. I was blessed with weather that day. A propos, a sign in the monastery said: Walking on grass is not (literally) blessed 🙂

Mozhaysk

Luzhetsky monastery is there since the early 15th century and looks pretty much like a mini-Kremlin with whitewashed walls. And guess what? There used to be 18 (!) Medieval monasteries in the town, but only this one remains.

Mozhaysk

It sits on top of the hill where the river bends.

Mozhaysk

It had just a few visitors beside me that morning, which is actually a somewhat general feeling that I had in Mozhaysk – where are all its people?

Mozhaysk

Inside, just some fragments of wall paintings, outside, still visible the spot where an overhead icon once was:

Mozhaysk

The renovated old-Moscow-style bell tower looks perfect in its whiteness though:

Mozhaysk

Cats do like fences. Top of fences:

Mozhaysk

Walking back to the center (or so it seemed) of the town I came across this 16th century church standing side by side with a 19th century one, called Yakimanskaya church (Joachim + Anna). This buttress looks just like a nose!

Mozhaysk

Inside the 19th century church, a relic of the past – including the pre-1917 spelling:

Mozhaysk

And then I finally got to the main “attraction” of the town which I somehow left for the dessert so to speak, the early 19th century Nikolsky Cathedral that is perched up high on a former Kremlin hill.

Mozhaysk

I took numerous pictures of the cathedral from several points and it looks pretty amazing from just standing next to it too. I mean, it’s impressive in a way that it’s so out of place in this small town, so grand and sophisticated. I would rather expect a Moscow-style church there but not a pseudo-gothic one.

Mozhaysk

I must say a hundred years ago it looked somewhat less gothic, see Prokudin-Gorsky’s coloured picture – too bright! To the right on the picture below is the old-Nikolsky Cathedral, dating back to 14th century. They do look weird together, surrounded by flower beds, local cats and some junk as if it was someone’s backyard and not the main sight of the town. There’s also an eery-looking pond with a grate (I guess a leftover from the times there was a park there in the Soviet times) and a monument to those who fought and died there in 1941-42. They say there was a knitting mill inside the cathedral as well.

Mozhaysk

Well, I guess Mozhaysk is just a special one, rusty-dusty but authentic. It’s a pity I found no local foods/goods whatsoever though. Besides, my adventures did not end with just getting there. On my way back I managed to miss my train back to Moscow by a mere second (or so it seemed), so had to go shopping instead while waiting for the next one – which I was very eager not to miss as well!

Vyazma, I promise, I will get to you eventually.

Filed under the Travel series.

G.

architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · travel

Kolomna, a Picture-Perfect Old Russian Town

Kolomna

Ah, Kolomna, such a picture-perfect 12th century Russian town! If ever you get to Russia and have very limited time, be sure to visit Kolomna, just some 100 km away from Moscow. It will give you a comprehensive and eye-pleasing picture of what “traditional Russian” looks like – and all that easily accessible on foot. Here it comes.

I was in Kolomna last October and was really blessed with fine weather. So the picture got indeed perfect. There’s a fast train leaving for Kolomna from Moscow’s no less toy-like Kazan(sky) Railway Station. The city center is within a relatively short walk from the local railway station, although there’s a tram going straight from where the Moscow train arrives.

I preferred “my two” as we say in Russia though, walking through meandering streets of this pretty low-rising town. Which is exactly what I like. Rejoice you, my fellow old-schoolers!

Kolomna

Kolomna was by the way one of those “closed” cities of the USSR – up until 1994. I wonder whether it actually helped it in a way, preserving it in a more or less authentic state. Now, however, it is a very touristy place and as far as I am concerned, bears no resemblance with a closed city at all.   

Kolomna

The only problem with Kolomna is that it’s very touristy and demonstrates a rather distinct “Moscow (posh) polish” in its city center which is inevitable when you’re so close to the capital. And as a result of this proximity of the ever-powerful Moscow, the once powerful Kolomna is now just a touristy town trying to keep up with its big brother and meet the demand from the incoming avalanches of tourists. So expect a number of Moscow-style coffee places and stuff. Back-to-back with perfectly run-down provincial corners which proved to me that “not everything is lost” here.

Kolomna

Also, the town is quite small, so in just about an hour or so I was somewhat anxious to get out as I felt I was going in circles more or less around the same place. However, deciding against catching the next train I wandered off the center along the river, just to check out the local life – which proved to be a good idea in the end.

The entrance to the Kolomna Kremlin is through the 16th century Pyatnitskye gates with the inevitable shop selling Kolomna kalach (see the sign to the right above), a typical Russian purse-shaped bread made with a handle so that you could eat it with comfort 🙂 A bit like with Cornish pies, people would discard the “dirty” handle although I wouldn’t do it if I were you! Not that it was particularly delicious. I did once try baking some kalach, and it was thicker in texture than in this touristy spot. However, they also offer to visit their bakery and see how the famous Kolomna kalach is made – to be later sampled with the local medovukha or something like this.

There was definitely something “cooking” in the “upstairs” kitchen that day, look at that thing in the sky!

Kolomna

By the way, there’s a regular school right in the middle of the Kremlin territory, next to the cathedral. And a monastery with a bunch of guys routinely begging for money at the entrance (which normally make me hesitant to go inside as I do not give alms as a rule). There were some locals riding their bikes across the Sobornaya (Cathedral) square which looks like some open-air museum with its “collection” of quite a number of churches in various styles. Churches with white (and not necessarily all that white) washed walls are my favourite.

Kolomna

Then I took a stride along the street leading to the impressive wall(s) of the Kolomna Kremlin that are still towering over the part of the town that lies beneath it. There’s also a super modern-looking sports center close by which is a bit out of place there. The cool thing about the town is that it’s not flat which for a St Petersburg native is an attraction in itself.

Kolomna

Just a random woman walking across the street dressed in the 19th century attire. Well, I guess she was going home on her lunch break from the nearby typical Kolomna delicatessen shop/museum. The ornate church in the background (also see the first image of this post) is one of the oldest in the town, now belonging to the Old-Rite Church.

Kolomna

Talking about the traditional Kolomna delicacies, I did buy quite an array of sweet stuff there. As far as I remember, I was in Kolomna on a quiet Monday morning, right after some kind of an autumn festival there. Shops were still decorated for the weekend and were obviously less crowded. I bought some pastila, a cross between fruit leather and marhsmallow, traditionally made with sourish Antonovka apples though a variety of other flavours is also available. Also was tempted to buy some hand-crafted pasta which was a bit like what my Belorussian Granny used to make (minus pepper). 

Kolomna

There are a number of such renovated/reconstructed shops-museums selling all kind of (mostly) sweet stuff, offering visits to their production sites located just behind their counters. Another typical thing to bring back as a souvenir is local soap the production of which was also revived by some enthusiasts. Elsewhere in the town, that’s what usually catches my eye the most:

Kolomna

Autumn in full swing, perfect companion of some local decadence:

Kolomna

This “dancing” house served as a background picture for my phone for a while:

Kolomna

Just loved it:

Kolomna

A local picture-perfect cat – the only thing missing was a picture-perfect kupchikha (merchant’s wife) unhurriedly drinking tea with pastila (I’m referring to the iconic painting by Kustodiev). Who knows, there might be one just behind the wooden fence! 

Filed under the Travel series.

G.

architecture · no recipe · St Petersburg · travel

Bogoslovka, Osinovets Lighthouse and the Road of Life

Bogoslovka, Osinovets Lighthouse and the Road of Life

There are some summer memories leftover from 2017. On a surprisingly sunny day in August we travelled out of St Petersburg into the (Leningrad) region to see Bogoslovka on the Neva river, and Osinovets and the Road of Life Museum on the Ladoga Lake.

Bogoslovka

First stop on our way was Bogoslovka, a sort of an open-air ethno-park where they reconstruct traditional wooden buildings of the Russian North-West region. These buildings are copies and had to be painstakingly recreated as none of them was lucky enough to survive till our days.

Bogoslovka

The central piece of Bogoslovka, the Church of Intercession of the Holy Virgin which – they say – was once designed by Peter the Great himself in 1708. After some 250 years it was lost in a fire but never recreated on the spot. So the enthusiasts of Bogoslovka did it here, on the south-east outskirts of the city.

Bogoslovka

The church is open not only as a museum but also as a functioning church. When we were there, they were baptizing a child or something. The church is immense! You can’t really take it in in one go – so many onion domes and kokoshniks (these wooden arches recalling the traditional Russian headdress), rising up to the sky, a real wooden skyscraper of a church!

Bogoslovka

There was so much sun that day (of otherwise pretty moody summer) that my photos seem to be overexposed. Here is another building, as far as I remember of a wealthy peasant. I guess they use it as a guesthouse.

Bogoslovka

I had to find points in the shade from where I could at least observe the buildings without constantly straining my eyes. Can’t believe St Petersburg summer can be that sunny sometimes! Well, once a year 🙂 Here’s a tiny church from the Arkhangelsk region and that huge peasant’s house in the background:

Bogoslovka

And a free-standing bell-tower:

Bogoslovka, Osinovets Lighthouse and the Road of Life

There was also a sort of a Russian crafts village but it was closed. There seems to be some more (re)construction going on there (as well as on their website) so some time soon there might be more copies of the wooden architecture from the region there. I like such open-air museums where they either move the original wooden buildings to or recreate them, like the one in Novgorod the Great or Suzdal. Have not been to the Kizhi open air museum yet, they say it’s the best.

Bogoslovka, Osinovets Lighthouse and the Road of Life

To get to the two other places we visited that same day we continued our way along the right side of the Neva river away from the city towards the Ladoga Lake. Both places are connected with the Siege of Leningrad during the Second World War.

Road of Life

This monument belongs to a whole ‘belt’ of them, commemorating important places which played their part in the lifting of the Siege of Leningrad in January 1944. This used to be the front line of the defense of the city and you can imagine how fierce the battles were here.

Road of Life

This one is very much in the 1960s war-memorial style, and I think it’s rather powerful. The pyramid is placed on the top of an artificial hill (hence the name, Hill of Glory, or Nameless Height), right at a spot on the Neva river aka Ivanovo rapids where its flow is the most challenging: too shallow, too straight with the maximum speed. Nowadays it’s not that dangerous as they’ve performed a number of tricks which made it deeper, wider and less fast.

Road of Life

Further we moved along the Neva river and came to the spot where the ring stifling the city was kept from becoming complete. This spot on the western coast of the Ladoga Lake connected the besieged city with the rest of the world. The lake played the crucial role in the survival of Leningrad during the Siege: it was the city’s Road of Life, providing it with food, transporting people to the mainland.

Osinovets Lighthouse

Next we moved on to the Osinovets lighthouse on the Ladoga Lake, a contemporary of some of my most favourite buildings in St Petersburg. Built in 1905-1910, this 70 meter lighthouse is there to pinpoint the entrance to the Shlisselburg bay, where the river Neva takes its source from Ladoga.

Osinovets Lighthouse

It also played its role in the Siege, being an important landmark for those navigating along the Road of Life, under the heavy bombardments of the Nazis.

Osinovets Lighthouse

We walked along the artificial bar into the Ladoga. Looking back at the Lighthouse where the St Petersburg people come to have some (noisy) rest, it all seemed so peaceful and quiet. With only the waves and the wind and an occasional boat disturbing the silence.

Osinovets Lighthouse

I think I liked this spot most of all.

Osinovets Lighthouse

A few hundred meters away from Osinovets is a recently renovated museum of the Road of Life. I am not a fan of war museums although I do understand their importance. This one surprised me as being very much un-dusty compared to most of the war museums I’ve visited so far.

Road of Life

But you feel really really small, uneasy and scared of course while walking along the Ladoga Lake with all those guns and boats and aircrafts behind you. They also play some sort of bird sounds (very loud and disturbing) to keep the real birds away from their exhibits (and the glass walls as far as I can understand). Well, a war museum is a war museum, no fluffy staff there.

Road of Life

In one of the hangars they have some of those vehicles which helped transport so many goods and people to and from the mainland during the winter months of the Siege. The dark one is the famous polutorka which was one of the workhorses of the Road of Life, many of them unfortunately never made it to the land. The museum was about to close down for the day so we had to leave.

Road of Life

Then we had our lunch in a small cafe kept by Armenians where we could admire Ladoga from if not for the loud music outside which kept us inside 🙂 Oh yes, I also had my first swim in the Ladoga Lake that day – shallow and cold, but very refreshing. Such a fine day!

Road of Life

This post goes to the St Petersburg collection.

G.

architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · travel

Back to 19th Century in Vitebsk, Chagall’s Birthplace

Vitebsk

I arrived in Vitebsk from Polotsk on board of a ‘business-class’ high-speed train in just 1.5 hours. Together with 3 babushkas who quite confidently enjoyed their ride. Vitebsk is Belarus’ second oldest city, founded by Princess of Kiev in 974 as the legend goes. Vitebsk is now more known as a birthplace of Marc Chagall whose figure haunts the city.

Vitebsk

Marc Chagall’s house is very close to the railway station so I headed there straight away. It was Monday and the museum was closed, so I just wandered a bit in the neighbourhood. It was all about small buildings, industrial sites and very few people.

Vitebsk

Not only the street with Chagall’s home is decorated with murals and his quotes – I spotted many of them all over the city. I’m not a fan and I really know little about him and his art but I think it somehow fits this city to have an artist who had such a connection to it. Chagall would go on painting his native Vitebsk up until his death.

Vitebsk

This quote about ‘homeland in his soul’ is right next to his house, and here it is:

Vitebsk

Same street:

Vitebsk

A nearby street:

Vitebsk

There were quite a few red brick houses in that district, only one of them completely ruined and graffiti-ed – but the rest faithfully serving their inhabitants.

Vitebsk

A local Beatles club where they throw dance parties and watch old movies. Was thinking of going there at first but that night they were having a party for ‘those above…’ which usually means a certain age which I don’t belong to yet.

Vitebsk

Can you spot a lamp in the left-hand window?

Vitebsk

Crossing the Western Dvina river towards the city center:

Vitebsk

In Vitebsk I could feel the winter is coming. After such a springtime day in Polotsk this came as an unpleasant surprise particularly because I was expecting a much finer day judging by the forecast. But the mist was so heavy in the first part of the day that when the sun finally did come out for a brief moment, I had to hurry up to retake most of the photos before it disappeared again.

Vitebsk

From the hill with the Assumption Cathedral one can enjoy the view over the city. The city which in its historical center one feels as if being suddenly transported to the Alexander Pushkin times, to the early 19th century!

Vitebsk

And those 1-2 storey buildings seem to be preserved in a pretty authentic state, not like in St Petersburg where quite a few of these were either upgraded with an extra floor or two, or ‘sank’ into the ground up to the balcony because the ‘cultural level’ grew fast.

Vitebsk

Judging by the plate, this house is here since late 18th century:

Vitebsk

I had my breakfast in the mid of the misty Vitebsk, accompanied by the pigeons:

Vitebsk

Can’t make out if this pigeon here is real or painted? 🙂

Vitebsk

I didn’t expect any museum to be open but turns out the other ‘museum’ of Chagall (or rather gallery – they call themselves Chagall’s Art Center) was working that Monday. They only had one floor of his drawings while at the second floor there were curious posters by Polish artist Ryszard Kaja.

Vitebsk

Then I came up to the Victory Square with this impressive 1970s monument.

Vitebsk

Just a few meters away is a street named after Chagall, with yet another of his quotes:

Vitebsk

And in the inner yard there’s this mural with the iconic ‘eternal student’ of the Soviet cinema – Alexander Demyanenko.

Vitebsk

Ah yes, I forgot to mention that I couldn’t resist the temptation to enter into a real relic from the past that you can hardly find in Russia now – Univermag (“universal store”), the central department store of Vitebsk with – literally – rows of clocks, kitchen utensils and crystalware, and flocks of very serious-looking customers. I was enjoying it immensely but just couldn’t take photos as nobody else would understand – they were enjoying it in a slightly different way 🙂

Vitebsk

Later, in my attempt to find nice postcards, sweet buns (for some reason I was sure I would find them) and some gostintsy (souvenirs) I also wandered way into the faceless districts with all kinds of Soviet houses from various epochs.Ah yes, I also saw this picturesque heap right in front of the local police station in the center:

Vitebsk

And then suddenly there was sun! So I hurried back.

Vitebsk

Oh those balconies!

Vitebsk

The center of Vitebsk is lovely although really small.

Vitebsk

As in many small European cities, if you have ‘too much’ time you end up making circles round the same place:

Vitebsk

Above – ex-town hall, now a local history museum which was unfortunately closed. Below – yet another baroque cathedral, looking pretty much like the St Sophia Cathedral in Polotsk – though less elegant.

Vitebsk
All of a sudden there was this nice evening:

Vitebsk

It’s a pity the sun was about to set.

Vitebsk

The pail and the kettle are there for a reason – they attract people to a local art gallery.

Vitebsk

A glance back at the Assumption Cathedral and the Vitba river which gave its name to the city.

Vitebsk

Trying to get rid of the remaining Belorussian rubles, I visited quite a few of shops in the railway station district. As a result, I brought back gostintsy – some of the goods that Belarus is famous for (at least, in Russia): potato chips (made with salt and sunflower oil, no preservatives), cheese, sausages, sweets and beauty products. Belarus is also providing us with textile, bed linen and… tractors :). By the way I did find some postcards in the end, three of them were particularly interesting, depicting the best known trademarks of Belarus – tractor, condensed milk and a huge truck.

Vitebsk

Belarus products for us I suppose mean something like ‘traditional quality for less money’. And theirs is quite an established brand in Russia, we have many outlets selling their dairy and meat products all over the country. Pictured above – bitter chocolate (which was a little bit too much with 90% cocoa) and that panforte or gingerbread they seem to be particularly fond of and that I sampled already in Smolensk. Pictured below: potato chips and condensed milk in a traditional blue can.

Vitebsk

It’s not my first time in Belarus, as my father’s mother was born and lived there. I was in Minsk, Baranovichi and Orsha. But this time the journey was a solitary one and I had more time (and more occasions) to think of this country from a traveller’s point of view. So, my overall impression of Belarus and its people:

From what I’ve seen, Belorussians are open and uncomplicated. Family is very important to them, relatives seem to be closer to each other – at least in terms of sharing thoughts, problems, i.e. living a more communal life. As a whole, it looks as if the nation has been (or is being?) calmed down and reassured by the state and habituated to a good steady moderately-consumerist life. Although they are not wealthy, they are not demanding either. Yes, I saw quite a few drunk people, some of them were openly drinking vodka in the morning enjoying the view over the river right in the center of the city. It is obvious that the level of income is pretty low but these guys are not used to luxury – and their notion of it might be quite ridiculous from a European point of view. By the way, November 7th, commemorating the October revolution, is still a national holiday in Belarus while in Russia it has been replaced with the amorphous ‘Unity Day’ on November 4th.

I came back home in a formerly trendy but now rather run down Zvyazda (or Zvezda, Star) Minsk – St Petersburg train, through the Art Nouveau gates of my city – Vitebsky Railway Station. Now its name makes more geographical sense to me than it did before!

This post goes to the Belarus section of my Travel series.

G.

architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · travel

Relaxed in Polotsk, the Oldest City of Belarus

Polotsk

After a somewhat grayish walk in Smolensk, a sudden journey into spring in Polotsk, Belarus, was like transporting myself to a whole new world. I arrived in Polotsk very early taking a night train called Dvina that looked very old-fashioned with its branded blue curtains and thick linen. The hostel where I stayed was one of the best in terms of quality and price, very close to the railway station and at the same time in a walking distance from the center. Well, Polotsk is no metropolis but it’s Belarus’ oldest city.

Polotsk

My first photos in Polotsk were that of a red-brick house which might have been painted over once. I found it in a backyard of a street full of low-rise buildings on my way to the center. While descending to the Western Dvina river, a heard a church service (it was Sunday) in this early 20th century church. There was such a crowd of people there I couldn’t get in and so took a photo of the sky instead:

Polotsk

Then, following the Francysk Skaryna avenue (the nation’s first printer who printed the Bible in Old Belorussian in early 16th century) I came across this Soviet era relic, indicating that this very residential house is officially a House of Exemplary Sanitary Order and High Household Culture (rough translation).  See, they didn’t paint it over, so I guess it is still true!

Polotsk

And then I left the avenue and started walking along the river. It was such a fine morning, looking more like spring than anything else! I saw a lady carrying twigs probably for some handicraft and a couple of dog people.

Polotsk

Warm sun:

Polotsk

An angler:

Polotsk

Village:

Polotsk

I could hear cock crowing somewhere on the other side of Dvina. And there was this cat enjoying the sun together with me.

Polotsk

Moving closer to the center:

Polotsk

Polotsk is celebrating its 1155 years this year. Wow. And it’s not that it was founded in 862, it’s just that it was mentioned in the chronicles under this year. Some archaeological findings say it was there already in the 8th century.

Polotsk

Now Polotsk is a mixture of a village and a low-rise town, with specimens of many eras, which I really liked. Don’t expect much from it though, it’s small though sprawling quite extensively (no wonder here as most of its buildings are one or two-story).

Polotsk

A huge abandoned ‘palace’:

Polotsk

I was a bit mislead by the name of the street running behind this building, called Castle Street. The only thing left from the Castle times is this mound that they used to built a stadium in the 60s.

Polotsk
The Polotsk University is also an example of recycling – it now occupies an ex Jesuit College.

Polotsk

And here’s one of the most beautiful sights of Polotsk – the hill with the St Sophia Cathedral:

Polotsk

The cathedral was first built in the 11th century, then demolished and rebuilt in baroque style in the 18th century. It’s elegant, carefully measured in every detail and architecturally interesting from any angle, it seems.

Polotsk

It also reflects the sun and serves as a sort of a lighthouse or a mirror with its facade turned to the river.

Polotsk

Of course the original 11th century cathedral looked nowhere close to this one, instead it resembled the St Sophia Cathedrals of Kiev and Novgorod the Great – round and Byzantine-like. The stones that remain from the early church are now on display at the base of the walls:

Polotsk
A very touristy point:

Polotsk

And here’s a part I liked a lot – a bridge hanging over the Polota river – which actually gave the city its name.

Polotsk

Here’s what you find across the river:

Polotsk
A true village:

Polotsk

With the signs of civilization:

Polotsk
Looking from the hill over the city lying below:

Polotsk

As I realized I had seen almost everything in the city center by that moment, I decided to walk to the convent founded by Euphrosyne of Polotsk, one of the most loved saints of Belarus and one of  the country’s patron saints too. She was a daughter of a noble family but ran away from it all and became a nun, copying books and helping the poor.

Polotsk

The convent is located outside of the city but you can reach it on foot taking a rather dusty road.

Polotsk

The monastery was full of people and the smell of freshly baked buns was coming from a local bakery.

Polotsk

This small church above is actually the one that is still preserved from the Euphrosyne times, i.e. the 12th century. It was later restyled (which is a bit misleading) but the frescoes ones sees inside give away the long history of the place. Here is the church’s shadow on the late 19th century neo-Byzantine cathedral.

Polotsk

Outside of the monastery, one of the most photographed spots 🙂

Polotsk
Yes, this is Polotsk too, where else would you find Vegas and Pharaoh in one place:

Polotsk

Coming back to the hostel, I passed by the 1952 railway station:

Polotsk

And then peeped in the local market which is a stone’s throw away from my hostel:

Polotsk

An array of handmade stockings:

Polotsk

A boy’s corner:

Polotsk

And an apple corner:

Polotsk

After a short rest for lunch at the hostel I continued my walk in the city.

Polotsk

The central hotel called Dvina in the pompous Stalinist style:

Polotsk

Did you know that the geographical center of Europe is in Polotsk? It’s of course contested by other places but why not Polotsk.

Polotsk

(Spot the traditional kerchiefs in the background)

Polotsk

Midpoint of Europe or nit, Polotsk is wonderfully provincial and decadent.

Polotsk

Zoom in: they put new plastic windows in this tattered house:

Polotsk

A mural on the same street telling the story of Polotsk, located on the trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks.

Polotsk

My next stop (I was already making yet another circle around the city) was at the local history museum. And a very dusty local history museum it is, housed in a recycled late 19th century Lutheran church. By the way, one of city’s museums (that of natural history) is located in a former water tower.

Polotsk

Miraculously I was not the only visitor of this museum that day. There was one exhibition I particularly liked – although it seems it was even dustier than the rest – representing a traditional wooden house interior. I also paid to see a room they opened for me dedicated to the 100 years of the revolution only to find some (dusty) Soviet exhibits once removed from the museum’s permanent exhibition and now nonchalantly restored.

Polotsk

And yes, although they speak Russian there – never heard anyone speaking Belorussian throughout my journey – it turns out they use their official language in social ads, on state billboards and… on tags in museums 🙂 No English either. Had to ‘secretly’ overhear the excursion (obviously in Russian) and did my best to understand the Belorussian. Having inhaled quite a mass of dust, I continued my walk towards the cathedral when I realized they were having an organ concert that day. Too late, all the tickets were sold and so I just relaxed in the rays of the setting sun.

Polotsk

Such a fine day!

Polotsk

Western Dvina:

Polotsk

Creamy facade of the St Sophia Cathedral:

Polotsk

So, Polotsk did pass my test: it’s small, there are old buildings all over it, a river (even two) and hilly places, a local history museum, a market, postcards (which I failed to buy as I didn’t have Belorussian rubles yet – and by the way after the denomination they do look very much like euro, both coins and notes, see here), there’s a nice hostel to stay overnight and also a natural reserve nearby which I wish I could visit. Like Smolensk, Polotsk had its fine moments, used to belong to various nations, was occupied during the Second World War and is now a tourist attraction. But unlike Smolensk it has a much more humane face, so to speak (at least they don’t fine you for crossing the street in the wrong place). Or was it – again – just the weather? 🙂

This post goes to my Travel series.

G.

architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · travel

Delinquent in Smolensk, A City on the Border

Polotsk

A super slow train took me to Smolensk overnight and well into the next day. The day was not a particularly fine one in terms of weather. But that of course was not the reason why I was delinquent in Smolensk. Let me keep the suspense for a little bit more till we get to that point while travelling across the city. For some time now I have been meaning to visit this city on the border with Belarus, one of the oldest in Russia and constantly popping up here and there in the tormented Russian history. First mentioned in the chronicles in the year of 863, it did not preserve much since that time, as you can imagine.

Polotsk

However, Smolensk does have a certain frontier atmosphere, testifying of all the various influences it has experienced throughout the years (Lithuania, Poland…). Its position on the Dnieper river, an important waterway of the trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks, has brought wealth and fame but also attracted too much attention from those who craved to get hold of both.

Polotsk

The first sight you catch when you arrive (not counting the railway station itself) are the two oldest churches of the city, Peter and Paul (12th century! on the left in the photo above and below) and St Barbara (16th; to the right), standing almost side by side and pretty far off the center and the walls of the fortress surrounding it. Just like Novgorod the Great, the Tatar-Mongol yoke did not destroy Smolensk (although Napoleon and Hitler were more successful) and so it boasts some of those pre-Mongol churches hardly to be found anywhere else in Russia.

Polotsk
After a short pause at a very Spartan motel (see below) I put my hat on together with the hood to make it across the Dnieper river. Dnieper has always been in my mind going side by side Ukraine and Kiev in particular. But then some Russians are not sure if Smolensk is in their city either… So, to cut this long story short, Dnieper takes its source in the Smolensk region and then flows across Belarus and Ukraine into the Black Sea. And here it is in its very beginning:

Polotsk

Just noticed the crazy bushes along the Dnieper river embankment that recklessly decide to blossom in snowy hazy November. And here’s a part of the renovated fortification wall that used to surround a really vast chunk of the city. I took this wall as a guideline for my itinerary throughout Smolensk and so followed it from the North clockwise.

Polotsk

The walls were constructed by the same architect who created those of the so called White Town in Moscow earlier in the 16th century. Only this time Fedor Kon’ thought bigger and taller, with much more towers, thus creating a real fortress around the town (which it really is compared to smaller Moscow Kremlin)

Polotsk

And here’s the weirdest part of the north wall – the classicist Dnieper Gates flanked by two bell towers on both sides, literally growing from the 16th century wall. The gates now house a church school.

Polotsk

It looks like this from the other side:

Polotsk

Following the northern wall clockwise I came to this hilly part of Smolensk looking pretty much like a village, with a typical rural shop where you can normally find almost everything you need.

Polotsk

Smolensk Village

Polotsk

View over the Sobornaya Gorka, a hill with the Assumption Cathedral. Right underneath me was a man lying apparently breathless and / or drunk beyond repair. On a deserted street below a couple was waiting for the emergency car to come. I didn’t see what happened next.

Polotsk

Out of 38 original towers only 17 have survived; this one is in the South-East part of the wall:

Polotsk

And here you can illegally climb the ruined stairs and get a view over both sides of the wall – illegally, too. But no one cares.

Polotsk

Avraamiev Monastery (founded in early 13th century, rebuilt in stone in the 18th)

Polotsk

Moving further – Nikolskaya tower

Polotsk

With a drive-through arch:

Polotsk

And a gorgeously Soviet store selling sports goods and clothes. By the time they realized it was time to renew the shop window design, it has suddenly come back into fashion again (the black & white posters are there for a very very long time):

Polotsk

Some Stalinist architecture, ship-shape:

Polotsk

A door leading into a 1930s Gosbank (State Bank) building – still used as a bank premises:

Polotsk

One of the most recognizable buildings in Smolensk – the 1930s constructivist ‘House with Lions’ as it is known here. What a combination! A lady waited patiently while I was taking this photo and then entered – too fast for me to follow in her steps and see what Smolensk avantgarde looks like.

Polotsk

Moving along a rather long Kommunisticheskaya (Communist) Street, which changed names at least 6 times across the centuries, including Bolshaya Dvoryanskaya (Nobleman) vs Bolshaya Proletarskaya (Proletarian), Sotsialisticheskaya (Socialist) and Stalina (Stalin). That street was not the lucky one for me – as we will see later. This is a local arts school in a neo-Russian style red brick building:

Polotsk

An early 17th century Gromovaya (Thunder) Tower and a monument to Fedor Kon’, the architect.

Polotsk

Moving further along the South-Western wall:

Smolensk

And looking back:

Smolensk

When I realized I’d seen most of the sights located in the center, I decided to move back and explore the old merchant mansions along Bolshaya Sovetskaya. Little did I know that after passing along this Fine Arts Museum on the same Kommunisticheskaya street I would get too distracted by a Stalinist building on the right and a neo-Russian on the left plus a 16th century wall lurking somewhere over there that I would nonchalantly cross the street where it was not supposed to and… bump into a policeman. So here we go, my first fine and about 20 minutes of the precious daylight wasted while another policeman was taking down my name etc and telling me stories about St Petersburg – veeeery slowly. No, they were not impressed that I was a tourist from another city and the fact that it was a state holiday did not make them drop the whole thing either. Delinquent!

Smolensk

Did you know that if you pay your fine within a short period in Russia (and you can make it online too) you only pay 50% of it? Well, I did 🙂

Smolensk

The 17-18th century Assumption Cathedral, all gold inside. My last shot in Smolensk after which I crossed Dnieper once again to the railway station district to wait for my late night train that would take me across the border to Belarus. I didn’t manage to sample anything particularly remarkable in Smolensk (only gobbled down something quite similar to panforte – but it was imported from Minsk), nor did I get any postcards. No local market either. Hm, seems like Smolensk did not pass my test! Or was it just the weather with wind and snow right into my face?

Not recommended in Smolensk: The city has a very scarce selection of accommodation options. So much so that you either end up in an overpriced ‘euro-standard’ hotel or in a very dilapidated motel-like place (which I did). Unless you have your train to catch the same night (and IN the night too), do not choose Mini-Hotel na Avtovokzale. It is very convenient for those travelling by train or bus but definitely to be avoided if you care about your own self.

This post goes to my Travel series.

G.