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.

architecture · on USSR / Russia · travel

Crimea in May: Simferopol and the End of Journey

Simferopol

The Crimean saga is coming to its end with this post. After spending the morning in the Demerdji valley and then most of the day in the touristy Alushta, I suddenly found myself in a big city and that was a bit disorienting at first. Where’s the beautiful nature, where’s the sea and the mountains, I was asking myself? Simferopol, the capital city of Crimea, was gradually preparing me for my coming back to St Petersburg.

Sudak

Simferopol did not leave almost any impression, I’m afraid. The time I spent there apart from using it as a transport hub (airport, trolleys, buses) was too short – in fact, just an overnight stay in a central hostel. However, I did manage to sample some local food there. You see, on my way from the trolley stop to the hostel, I was passing through a market where I couldn’t resist buying veggies and fruit, and was also given some fresh Crimean strawberries (omg, in May! we had them in July-August this year) for free. When I finally arrived at the hostel, I was loaded with a bit too much food for a dinner for one, not mentioning the rest of the things I accumulated throughout my journey. Here’s what I saw from the hostel’s entrance, from the second floor of a small building hidden in between a noisy square and a pedestrian district:

Simferopol

And inside the courtyard there was an old Zhiguli (aka Lada) car with famous musicians painted on its sides (see Vladimir Vysotsky on the right):

Simferopol

Find two cats:

Simferopol

Fancy entering?

Simferopol

Some sort of a constructivist building right in the courtyard of my hostel:

Simferopol

My hostel was behind this bank. I noticed that its corner balcony is now touching the ground – the building either sank over the years or they put too much asphalt layers on this street:

Simferopol

On my last morning in Crimea I took a short stroll around my hostel to get at least some more glances of the city. I woke up quite early so I had a few hours before getting on yet another trolley to the airport. Oh the trolleys of Crimea, you deserve to be praised! If you are super patient and are on a lazy trip, you might want to try to experience the entire trolley bus from Yalta to Simferopol, some 84 km (the longest trolley route in the world!) and 3.5 hours of sea and land to be enjoyed from your window. (I suppose though these cords in the picture below used to power trams)

Simferopol

Walking the narrow streets of the old center in the sunny morning, I though that Simferopol reminded me of Samara for some reason. Probably because it’s a warm place with low-rise houses (in the center). But then it can apply to many other cities I’ve visited…

Simferopol

The pedestrian Pushkina street and the district around it look like an oasis in the noisy and rather faceless (mid to late Soviet) Simferopol. Spotted some nice details on my way:

Simferopol

Traces of neoclassicism, as we know it in St Petersburg:

Simferopol

As far as I remember, one of the state theater buildings, under renovation:

Simferopol

Sorry, but no matter how hard you try, you just can’t fit an AC into the balcony of a neoclassical building:

Simferopol

Found several replicas of this facade with flat pillars all over the place:

Simferopol

Some local cat-art and irises in full blossom like in Nikitsky Botanical Garden:

Simferopol

Where do all these wires run?

Simferopol

Couldn’t resist the aroma of freshly baked bread and buns from one of the local bakeries – and came out with this all-Russia favourite, Moskovskaya plushka (Moscow bun), a rich dough bun twisted in a shape of a heart and generously sprinkled with sugar. It can be found all across the country – and thus I can survive almost everywhere 🙂

Simferopol

Some Soviet mosaic apparently depicting the history of Crimea as an all-USSR zdravnitsa, or a health resort:

Simferopol

And to compliment the picture – a Stalinist cinema hall, now in disuse:

Simferopol
To the unknown guy who stayed at the same hostel with me and all of a sudden gave me this rose:

Simferopol

Goodbye Crimea – dosvidaniya!

Simferopol

When I got back home I spread the map of Crimea on my table and places some memorabilia on the places I visited. Many many more places yet to be seen – and I hope to see you soon, Crimea.

Simferopol

Here are some of the memorabilia recordings from my trip:

Vorontsov Park
Black Sea
Demerdji cows
Demerdji morning

Sevastopol

It all started in Sevastopol with some Crimean ice-cream (stakanchik or vanilla ice cream in a waffle cup) with Lastochkino gnezdo picture and a guide book which I carried along but did not really use. And see where it took me? Crimea in May series:

Crimea in May: Vorontsov Palace and Park

Crimea in May: Ghost Soviet Sanatorium

Crimea in May: Ai-Petri, Swallows Nest, Livadia

Crimea in May: Nikitsky Botanical Garden and Massandra

Crimea in May: Sevastopol (and the Poppies)

Crimea in May: Chufut-Kale, Bakhchisarai and Inkerman

Crimea in May: Fiolent, Balaklava and Chersonesus

Crimea in May: Simeiz and Yalta, or a Study in Blue

Crimea in May: Demerdji and Valley of Ghosts

Crimea in May: Sudak Fortress

Crimea in May: Funa Fortress and Alushta

This post goes to the Travel collection.

G.