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 šŸ™‚ 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 sunkĀ Ā 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 šŸ™‚ 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.Ā 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 šŸ™‚

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

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.Ā 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 theĀ 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 andĀ taller, with muchĀ 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 šŸ™‚

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 šŸ™‚

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 andĀ Park

Crimea in May: Ghost SovietĀ Sanatorium

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

Crimea in May: Nikitsky Botanical Garden andĀ Massandra

Crimea in May: Sevastopol (and theĀ Poppies)

Crimea in May: Chufut-Kale, Bakhchisarai andĀ Inkerman

Crimea in May: Fiolent, Balaklava andĀ Chersonesus

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

Crimea in May: Demerdji and Valley ofĀ Ghosts

Crimea in May: SudakĀ Fortress

Crimea in May: Funa Fortress andĀ Alushta

This post goes to the Travel collection.

G.

architecture · on USSR / Russia · travel

Crimea in May: Funa Fortress and Alushta

Funa Fortress, Alushta

Next morning was my last one in Demerdji so I decided to take a less adrenalin-packed walk in the valley, towards the Funa Fortress. First thing I saw in the fields was a white horse with its baby lying flat on the grass.

Funa Fortress, Alushta

Meanwhile to the right:

Funa Fortress, Alushta

Although I arrived pretty early at Funa, the guarding lady (and her son who must be a super lucky one to have a fortress all to his own!) took notice of me approaching and, well, sold me a ticket šŸ™‚

Funa Fortress, Alushta

Many many years ago the Demerdji mountains were called Founa, from the Greek ‘smoky’. What is now called Funa is a ruined medieval fortress which was built to counterpose a Genoese fortress down in Alushta. Here’s a 15th century stone with some inscriptions – a sort of a commemoration plaque:

Funa Fortress, Alushta

The day was really sunny and regardless of the wind you could almost imagine it was summer- well, at least the best St Petersburg summer days this year were pretty much the same.

Funa Fortress, Alushta

With the weather we are having now in St Petersburg it is even more difficult to believe I was there in this sunny place – and that there are these sunny places in the world šŸ™‚

Funa Fortress, Alushta

Can I just stay there?

Funa Fortress, Alushta

A tiny bit of decadence amidst the ruins:

Funa Fortress, Alushta

Those Funa people did choose quite a place indeed.

Funa Fortress, Alushta

A nice place!

Funa Fortress, Alushta

How many more views did I take?

Funa Fortress, Alushta

On my way back I revisited the Valley of Ghosts to see the supposed oak tree featured in Kavkazskaya Plennitsa movie. Well, who knows. There’s also a stone that they say featured in the film but others say it did not. A fine candidate to be that-very-stone from the movie was found some meters away from the official entrance to the valley:

Funa Fortress, Alushta

The trees in blossom reminded me we were still in May:

Funa Fortress, Alushta

Such a combination of delicate flowers and rough rocks!

Funa Fortress, Alushta

Although this tree looked almost autumn-like:

Funa Fortress, Alushta

Can I join you?

Funa Fortress, Alushta

The ghosts:

Funa Fortress, Alushta

The Head of Catherine and the eeeh that thing of Peter the Great in one shot:

Funa Fortress, Alushta

I was so reluctant to leave!

Funa Fortress, Alushta

Luchistoye said its good-bye to me with some deliciously decadent view:

Funa Fortress, Alushta

Some local creations were waiting for me down at the bus stop where I managed to buy bags of herbal tea collected right there up in the Demerdji mountains. Still drinking the Crimean spring šŸ™‚

Funa Fortress, Alushta

First thing I did once I arrived in Alushta (at first I even wanted to take a path that arguably goes through some park and a zoo down to Alushta) was visiting the local market. Finally. Saw many types of honey – from coriander, mountain linden and with an array of nuts. There I bought some mixed spices and more tea. And these Yalta onion bulbs were huuuuge (see potatoes in the background for comparison)! The seller said he used to send them to some restaurant in Moscow. Can imagine the prices should have at least doubled after reaching the capital.

Funa Fortress, Alushta

Alushta reminded me of Yalta indeed. Although it’s a much smaller city and much less famous. Its name is of course of a Greek origin, though there are at least two versions as to what it might mean – either ‘unwashed’ or ‘chain’.

Funa Fortress, Alushta

I did quite a lot of things in Alushta that I did not do during the rest of my journey like buying souvenirs (which I normally do not do) – sugarless sweet treats, natural oils, lavender sachets etc. Another thing was posting all the cards and letters from this old-school post office right at the seaside. Most Russian post offices in St Petersburg are now upgraded and do not have all these old signs.

Funa Fortress, Alushta

Alushta is a resort town since the very beginning of the 20th century. As I normally try to avoid tourist traps (and still tend to at least pass them by in the end), I decided to walk straight to the Professorsky ugolok (Professors’ Corner), a quasi suburb of the town where there are some dachas left.

Funa Fortress, Alushta

On my way there I was soaking in the blue colours:

Funa Fortress, Alushta
No Smoking at the beach!

Funa Fortress, Alushta

One of the local seaside mansions:

Funa Fortress, Alushta

I knew there was a house somewhere over there, where the Russian emigre writer Ivan Shmelyov lived, so I walked and walked along the shore, coming across this Kyiv sanatorium on my way:

Funa Fortress, Alushta

When I climbed up there to the museum (which actually was just a house he only visited but not lived in – the real one is owned by someone unwilling to cede it to the museum), little did I wait for a concert, public reading, a free excursion and… tea with cookies under a gorgeous tree! If you know Russian, I strongly advise you to read his Leto Gospodne, it’s such a nostalgic book he wrote in emigration, and there are quite a few references to the long gone food they used to have back in the per-revolutionary Russia.

Funa Fortress, Alushta

Turns out that was a Museum Day, a sort of Heritage Days they have in France. And it has made my day.

Funa Fortress, Alushta

And here is the gorgeous tree:

Funa Fortress, Alushta

Down at the seaside I fed sunflower seeds to local pigeons and enjoyed some more of the Black sea and the sun.

Funa Fortress, Alushta

I didn’t go swimming though as it was pretty windy.

Funa Fortress, Alushta

There was a certain feeling of my journey coming to its end.

Funa Fortress, Alushta

Alushta is not only tourists. There are some locals at the seaside too:

Funa Fortress, Alushta

More locals:

Funa Fortress, Alushta

And the cat lady:

Funa Fortress, Alushta

Walking back to Alushta bus station I spotted some decadence:

Funa Fortress, Alushta

Crimea is still a mine of relics of the past that are there just because no one ever thought they shouldn’t be. But these signs are gradually going away.

Funa Fortress, Alushta

That was my third trip with the Crimean long-distance trolleys – I was going to Simferopol for my last night of this trip. And here’s a fine specimen to my collection of Crimean bus / trolley stops:

Funa Fortress, Alushta

Should have been pretty(ier) when it was just made – with this sort of lace in the background.

Funa Fortress, Alushta

Somewhere in between Alushta and Luchistoye I could see the rocks and the mountains, saying good-bye to them. I really did enjoy this part of my trip – the mountains have mesmerized me probably even more so than the sea.

How to get there:

Alushta can be reached from the major cities by bus or by trolley from Yalta or Simferopol. Funa fortress is best reached from Luchistoye.

Crimea in May series:

Crimea in May: SudakĀ Fortress

Crimea in May: Demerdji and Valley ofĀ Ghosts

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

Crimea in May: Fiolent, Balaklava andĀ Chersonesus

Crimea in May: Chufut-Kale, Bakhchisarai andĀ Inkerman

Crimea in May: Vorontsov Palace andĀ Park

Crimea in May: Ghost SovietĀ Sanatorium

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

Crimea in May: Nikitsky Botanical Garden andĀ Massandra

Crimea in May: Sevastopol (and theĀ Poppies)

This post goes to the Travel collection.

G.

architecture · on USSR / Russia · travel

Crimea in May: Sudak Fortress

Sudak

The morning after crazy hiking in Demerdji was peaceful and my breakfast in Luchistoye was accompanied by an endless view and a gang of cats and a dog with oversized front teeth šŸ™‚ I was planning to go to the medieval fortress of Sudak along the coastal road that day.

Sudak

Luchistoye is disarmingly-charmingly decadent:

Sudak

I wish I had the opportunity to get out of the bus almost at each bus stop on the YuBK (Crimean Southern Coast), it’s such a treasure trove of the Soviet creativity. Most of them are decorated with mosaics and some of them have weird shapes, imitating waves or caves or what not.

Sudak

I’m not sure why I was so eager to visit the fortress but I chose it over other possible destinations – which were quite far off too. We are not looking for easy ways, you know.

Sudak

Gosh, was that a long trip in a hot bus! And such a bumpy road with such short stops at various settlements that we were not allowed even to open the door to let some air in. In a way I was still getting over my adventures in the Demerdji mountains the day before, with my hands aching and itching with all the cuts and thorns still inside, so you can imagine my state when I finally arrived in Sudak – first though, I had to take yet another local bus to the fortress.

Sudak

The street is called Genoa Fortress and the visit to the fortress starts here – complimented with a guy making money taking photos of the tourists with his monkey. When I said no and added that the animal must be suffering, he fired back on me saying that I was wearing leather sandals…

Sudak

When I entered the fortress it was very hot – and there are no trees to hide from the sun. Just an open space with a guy cutting the grass on the slope of the hill. No monkeys inside the fortress.

Sudak

The view from the top of the fortress over the outskirts of Sudak:

Sudak

I took innumerate photos of the fortress, I must admit it’s impressive.

Sudak

There are several versions as to why Sudak is called so, each referring to a different language. The fortress has been there since 6th century but it’s mostly known inĀ  its 14th century edition – the so called Genoa Fortress, built by the Genoese people. It looks like Chinese wall from this point of view:

Sudak

The watchtower and the view from the wall looking over the Black sea:

Sudak

And down there I saw the beach and with it in my mind continued the visit:

Sudak

The walls:

Sudak

The view from one of the towers – there was some wind too:

Sudak

And the view through a crack in the wall:

Sudak

As is the case with many locations in Crimea, this fortress has starred in many films – from Othello (1955) to Master and Margarita TV series some 50 years later.

Sudak

A lonely tower with the church of Twelve Apostles outside of the fortress walls:

Sudak

This recycling of ancient stones reminded me of the Eptapirgo fortress and ex-prison in Thessaloniki.

Sudak

The remains of the earlier walls:

Sudak

And some later additions:

Sudak

It’s a pity the road to and from Sudak is so long – I was so close to beautiful Novy Svet, one of the spots I originally wanted to go to but then opted for less far away places. They shot the romantic comedy Three + Two there and most of the exhibits in the Sudak archeological museum were from Novy Svet.

Sudak

Open-air museum:

Sudak

There’s also a small museum inside the Mosque with various finds from the early days of Sudak. There’s a bored but very helpful guy in there ready to give you some tips on where to move next and how. And he doesn’t ask you if your shoes are made from leather or not.

Sudak

In the museum:

Sudak

Outer walls:

Sudak

Walking towards the beach (with the heat that was on I was much less interested in the city itself) I spotted this small oasis right outside the walls (many fortresses I’ve visited still preserve a settlement right down there under the walls):

Sudak

And then I went swimming – the first of three times this summer of 2017 – together with loads of jellyfish (they were not stingy, just not particularly pleasant to be swimming in) and a very few other crazy people on the beach that day.

Sudak

Those who did not go for a swim that day were making this:

Sudak

I got back to Simferopol when the sun was going to set. I had to wait for the next trolley and got off at Luchistoye stop when it was already dark. While I was bravely walking (read: running) alone the lonely road that goes up to Luchistoye (via another settlement called Lavanda) I couldn’t see anything around, including my legs šŸ™‚ Running blind I was. The battery in my music player died and the only thing I had to cheer myself up (not that it was particularly horrid, it was just too deserted! Although I must admit the sensation was pretty unique) were a couple of Pink Floyd songs on my phone. When I realized that the 4.3 km of the winding road just wouldn’t finish, I had to call the proprietor who found me somewhere quite close to Lyuchistoye in pitch darkness and fetched me to the coziness of Demerdji House in his car.

How to get there:

First, I took a marshrutka to the Alushta bus station – at one of its stops there was a cow queuing for the bus. Not kidding! Well, it looked like this šŸ™‚

Sudak

Then our bus was at the brink of dying, the driver courageously resuscitated it from time to time and we did make it to the station after all. There however I failed to find any bus going towards Sudak and had to hop on the famous Alushta – Simferopol trolley instead. Then a few minutes at the super busy Simferopol bus station and off we go to Sudak. The road is more tiresome than it is long, with some turns and bumps (although much less so than if you take the lower – coastal – road which looks sort of shorter but definitely much more difficult and even dangerous). From the bus station in Sudak take a local bus that goes to the fortress (the same one can also take you to Novy Svet as far as I understood).

Crimea in May series:

Crimea in May: Demerdji and Valley ofĀ Ghosts

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

Crimea in May: Fiolent, Balaklava andĀ Chersonesus

Crimea in May: Chufut-Kale, Bakhchisarai andĀ Inkerman

Crimea in May: Vorontsov Palace andĀ Park

Crimea in May: Ghost SovietĀ Sanatorium

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

Crimea in May: Nikitsky Botanical Garden andĀ Massandra

Crimea in May: Sevastopol (and theĀ Poppies)

This post goes to the Travel collection.

G.

on USSR / Russia · travel

Crimea in May: Demerdji and Valley of Ghosts

Demerdji

And now on to the Swiss part of my Crimean journey. This day I spent in Demerdji mountains was probably the most adrenalin-driven one, a bit controversial one too but definitely very exciting!

Demerdji

Remember I told you that Crimea reminded me of some European landmarks that – for the lack of anything else to refer to – I couldn’t stop comparing to what I saw. In Luchistoye at the feet of Demerdji mountains where I headed off for my last 3rd of the journey I was constantly wondering whether they just accidentally sold me a ticket to Switzerland instead. In some ways I also recalled Zlatoust in the Urals and Stolby park near Krasnoyarsk. Well, you see, I have never been to proper mountains!

Demerdji

When I was planning my journey I got stuck choosing my final destination as I didn’t want to stay in a over touristy place on the coast but at the same time had no idea where else to go. So accidentally, while searching booking.com for accommodation, I opened the map with all the available hotels and started clicking on anything that was a bit off the beaten track. And this is how I found Luchistoye (beamy, radiant), a small settlement close to Alushta, which is another resort on the Black sea coast.

Demerdji

I stayed two nights at Demerdji House, a sort of a guesthouse with an amazing view over the sea, and the mountains, funny animals that will follow you everywhere (I loved the dog with sticking teeth that looked like a kind ever-hungry zombie) and unforgettable sunrises and sunsets, but rather basic facilities. It was not that 5-star place I stayed in Alupka but you just can’t beat the magic of the nature around you: the birds at about 4 o’clock in the morning, the clouds moving above the mountain tops… Particularly if the first thing you do when you arrive at Luchistoye is buying freshly made cheese and a woman who kindly guides you to the hotel from the bus stop offers you home-made cottage cheese!

Demerdji

The only thing I knew before arriving there is that the place right next to Luchistoye is called Dolina Privideny (Valley of Ghosts) and it is featured in a number of Soviet movies, including the ever-popular 1967 comedy Kavkazskaya Plennitsa (translated as Kidnapping, Caucasian Style). I also read in a book back in Sevastopol the legend about this mountain’s name – Smith’s Mountain from the Crimean Tatar language.

Demerdji

So off I went towards the Valley – or so I hoped cause there were no signs – I could have accepted an offer from a local who said gong into the mountains was not good for a girl travelling alone, of course, but I stubbornly continued my walk alone. My company were the horses and the cows who actually chased me off the road (as an urban girl I’m a bit cautious when it comes to meeting big animals freely grazing on a deserted road).

Demerdji

The landscape was just breathtaking (wait, more is coming!) – with the view over Chatyr-Dag mountains, the Black sea with Alushta and the South Demerdji mountains. I have never walked anywhere in the Alps (although we crossed them on our way from Strasbourg to Venice once) but I imagine it should look like this there:

Demerdji

… And then there were suddenly three of us, climbing recklessly for the want of a harsher word straight to the top almost upright, without any idea of what was waiting us ahead, ignoring completely (because not aware of) the official track, so much easier, so much less dangerous and – not free of charge as it turned out later. Some 30 minutes later, with blood, sweat and almost tears, and some amount of nerves completely gone that will never resuscitate, we saw this:

Demerdji

I want to thank those two crazy adventure-seeking Olga and Kirill from the Artek young pioneer camp (they worked there as group leaders, sort of animators for kids) who accidentally – though nothis is accidental in our life – came to Demerdji that day when they had their rare rest, at the very moment I got there. I really just abandoned all my common sense and decided to go with them when we met each other somewhere near the mountain, all three uncertain as to how to ‘attack’ it. The kids (well, actually they were just about 5 years younger than me) were obviously better trained and at least better dressed for such wild climbing but at that moment I didn’t really use my brain.

Demerdji

I don’t know how these two didn’t throw me off the cliff cause I was repeating ‘Oh no no no, I’m not going there, I’m turning back!’ like every 2 seconds. Olga and Kirill got me even more nervous when they starting making photos on top of slanting rocks and asking me to take their photos as their camera died. Thanks God, only their camera did, Gosh, I was so nervous up there!

Demerdji

We started climbing at about 4 pm and by the time we got to the top it was windy as hell, pretty cold but sometimes sunny (though definitely less cold than on top of Ai-Petri!). The views were fantastic. If I were in a less agitated and nervous state, I might have made more photos and taken in the beauty calmly and with dignity. But these views are certainly engraved in my brain (which I tend to use a bit irregularly) forever.

Demerdji

My hands got so scratched and pierced with all sorts of wild thorns all over as I was desperately holding on to just about anything that I could grab hold of around me, that the next day they hurt all over and I poured iodine on them, my poor hands! My up to that moment new leather shoes still bear the traces of that adventure šŸ™‚

Demerdji

We survived somehow on oat cookies that I bought in a local shop and took with me. Probably the most suitable kind of food for compulsive eating when you are super shaky. Nutritious too.

Demerdji

The phallic looking rocks are sometimes compared to animals, people or ghosts depending on what they appear to be from afar (or maybe in the dark too). The rock formation in the photo below is called Golova Ekateriny (the Head of Catherine, that is Catherine the Great) and the one which is particularly phallic and stands out of the (phallic) crowd (see above) is called… well, penis of Peter the Great, respectively (not so respectfully though).

Demerdji

The photo above shows roughly our crazy way up to the Head of Catherine. Which in the end we never reached as it is in an even crazier spot and we left it behind.

Demerdji

And then we saw these crazy (everything that day was crazy!) horses grazing up there peacefully where we just got after hurting our hands and killing nerves (which applies mostly to me), as if they are somewhere on a plain at the sea level! I wish I had a) their climbing abilities, and b) their astonishing tranquility!

Demerdji

By the time we got to the very top (where these kids also climbed up a stone with a beacon on it) I was less shaky and frantically thinking of ways how to avoid descending using the same route.

Demerdji

Thanks God we found a real track that was much less crazy and so I was even capable of asking my crazy companions all sorts of questions about their life at Artek.

Demerdji

The camp is all-year-round and employs many mostly young people to cater for the kids. Since its inception in the 1920s Artek has been a camp for the elite – either those who got there because they were kids of some upper nomenklatura or because they were super bright and had shown some particular zeal in ‘building communism’.Ā  Seems like now its a place for the same two categories – you either have parents who know the right people or you are super bright.

Demerdji

On our way back we saw the horses again:

Demerdji

Olga ventured out to touch the baby horse but when we saw that the other horses sort of moved towards us, it made us a bit uneasy and we speedily retired šŸ™‚ Anyway, the sun was obviously not going to stay there for long and these two had yet a rather long way back to Artek, where they were about to start their work day quite early.

Demerdji

By the time we got to the gates from where more thoughtful and sober citizens start their walk (as it resembles walking more than climbing) towards the top, the sun was already low, illuminating only the top of the rocks. Oh my God, we were up there!

Demerdji

What a day to remember! You might not believe it, but it was actually quite disturbing for me to recall this day for quite a bit of time. It really was controversially exciting!

Demerdji

No need to tell you how particularly excited I got when we were down there, buying cookies for the kids’ journey back to Artek in a local shop just some 1.5 hours after we first met. Probably the most crazy 1.5 h of my life!

Demerdji

When I went back the road up to my room (thanks God, no hands required, just walking up a hill), the cows were turning back from pastures. Was good to see them!

Demerdji

The sunset was amazing. As was the fresh cottage cheese (tvorog) that I had for dinner. I think I was still abit shaky when I went to bed that night.

Demerdji

P.S. No poppies or palaces in this post!

P.P.S. Middle of September and I’m still writing about May! There are 2-3 posts left from my Crimean trip yet.

How to get there:

Take a bus to Alushta bus station, then catch marshrutka that goes to Luchistoye (bus stop is outside the station on the road to Simferopol; this marshrutka circulates only a couple of times a day) or take the trolley to Simferopol from the same stop and get off at Luchistoye stop (from where you will have to walk quite a bit). When you get to Luchistoye, walk up Gornaya street to the tourist base and then walk towards the Valley of Ghosts from where you can start ascending the mountain. There are locals who will be glad to take you up there in a jeep or guide you; you can also ask at the tourist base for horse walks, etc etc.

Crimea in May series:

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

Crimea in May: Fiolent, Balaklava andĀ Chersonesus

Crimea in May: Chufut-Kale, Bakhchisarai andĀ Inkerman

Crimea in May: Vorontsov Palace andĀ Park

Crimea in May: Ghost SovietĀ Sanatorium

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

Crimea in May: Nikitsky Botanical Garden andĀ Massandra

Crimea in May: Sevastopol (and theĀ Poppies)

This post goes to the Travel collection.

G.

architecture · on USSR / Russia · travel

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

Simeiz, Yalta

When I was in Alupka a family staying at the same hotel told me about Simeiz, a resort town well worth visiting. So I made a mental note that I should visit it, particularly after passing an impressive rock several times right above this town and snatching a view of a strange platform stuck in the sea somewhere close by. I just had to go investigate into the matter myself.

Simeiz, Yalta

Do you see the platform to the right? That’s it. And the rock close to it is the beautiful rock with a beautiful name Diva, a piece of the bigger mount called Koshka or Cat in Russian but that’s false etymology as its original Crimean Tatar name Qoş qaya (double rock) just happens to sound like ‘koshka‘.

Simeiz, Yalta

I thought it was a sort of an oil platform (which was partially true as they recycled some old oil drilling sections), turns out that is a dying (but still functioning) marine research platform that they started building just before the collapse of the USSR (its second – later – part got fatally damaged in a storm and thus never finished) and that is rusting away now.

Simeiz, Yalta

It seems like Crimea was pretty loved by scientists, and not just for being a resort šŸ™‚ It was an important field for all sorts of observations and experiments, thanks to its nature, its climate and atmosphere. But these unique round pools for simulating storms (sad photos here), observatories and absolutely sci-fi-looking heliostations with huge mirror reflectors (decadent photos here) and what not are in a rather sad condition now. More decadent photos of the platform (also from the platform) here.

Simeiz, Yalta

Crimea is my love too.

Simeiz, Yalta

Another Koshka:

Simeiz, Yalta

Never thought that a rock can be beautiful!

Simeiz, Yalta

Turns out they filmed some episodes of the much-loved (and super romantic) 1960s movie Chelovek-Amfibia (Amphibian Man) here, in Crimea, making as if it were in Argentina šŸ™‚

Simeiz, Yalta

The observation platform on top seems like a popular spot for not only all those mesmerized tourists but also crazy divers. When I typed this rock in youtube search it returned more ‘suicide jumps’ videos then anything else.

Simeiz, Yalta

oh those blue colours, so peaceful

Simeiz, Yalta

The sea + limestone combination is beautiful.

Simeiz, Yalta

Crimean mountains hanging above Simeiz were obscured by clouds:

Simeiz, Yalta

doesn’t this look like Gondor?

Simeiz, Yalta

As an information board tells you, Diva has some rare Crimean plants growing on it that I couldn’t identify but let’s say these were the ones šŸ™‚ The entire Koshka is a natural landmark since 1984.

Simeiz, Yalta

I definitely enjoyed the view in Simeiz better than in Fiolent – the fallen horizon in most of my sea photos only confirms the fact that the blue colours of the sea and the sky are almost blending one into another.

Simeiz, Yalta

I haven’t yet told you anything about Simeiz itself (its name has Greek origins). Well, it is small and typically… weird, as a Soviet resort can be. It has a statue of Lenin placed right there on top above the city and an alley of white fake Greek /Roman sculptures running between the rock and a fountain šŸ™‚

Simeiz, Yalta
The ex-dachas of the riches turned into residential houses and sanatoriums have lost their original design but certainly gained in… eccentricity:

Simeiz, Yalta

Simeiz was a popular resort before the revolution and its pre-Soviet remains are quite curious – if not sad in their current state. My father was there back in October 2014 and he says the reconstruction works have not progressed at all. This Villa Ksenia for example – as the document pinned to its walls claims – was supposed to be fully renovated by March 31st, 2017. I was there on May 15th…

Simeiz, Yalta

Spot the cat:

Simeiz, Yalta

Once I realized I’ve had enough of the decadence (it’s a pity I didn’t mount Koshka where they have some really old ruins), I ate my ice-cream and left Simeiz, taking a marshrutka to Yalta.

Ai-Petri, Swallows Nest, Livadia

Yalta. For me this name has long sounded like something from the 60s Soviet movies or from the history books (remember the Yalta Conference?) or Master and Margarita. Somewhere on the Black sea, obviously a warm place. Name of non-Slavic origin (from the Greek ‘coast’, as I found out later). That’s it.

Ai-Petri, Swallows Nest, Livadia

During my May journey in Crimea, I mostly used Yalta as a transport hub and crossed the city several times. But only on one occasion did I actually descend to its center from the bus station – on the day I went to Simeiz.

Simeiz, Yalta

The legend has it that Greeks were sailing in a storm and got pretty desperate when suddenly the mist disappeared and they saw the shores – yalos in Greek – which they happily shouted at the top of their voices and thus the city they founded got named Yalta.

Simeiz, Yalta

Once you leave the busy embankment with too many tourist traps on the way, and move towards its center, the old Yalta is revealed to you – it looks like this:

Simeiz, Yalta

and this

Simeiz, Yalta

for some reason I imagine Odessa should look pretty similar to old Yalta

Simeiz, Yalta

Turns out this Vodopadnaya river is a continuation of the Uchan-Su waterfalls that I saw during my Ai-Petri adventures:

Simeiz, Yalta

I don’t have much to tell you about Yalta as I didn’t really like it – way too big and busy to be of my kind. The decadent houses and the city’s layout along the slopes of the hills do attract me but I’d rather spend time visiting some smaller places along the Southern Coast of Crimea. Which I did.

How to get there:

Yalta is easily accessible from Sevastopol and Simferopol (you can try out the famous Yalta trolley for that – will tell you about it in my future posts). Do visit Massandra and Nikitsky Botanical Garden when in Yalta. Simeiz is on the way fromĀ Sevastopol to Yalta and can also be reached from the Yalta bus station. Don’t miss your stop!

Crimea in May series:

Crimea in May: Fiolent, Balaklava andĀ Chersonesus

Crimea in May: Chufut-Kale, Bakhchisarai andĀ Inkerman

Crimea in May: Vorontsov Palace andĀ Park

Crimea in May: Ghost SovietĀ Sanatorium

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

Crimea in May: Nikitsky Botanical Garden andĀ Massandra

Crimea in May: Sevastopol (and theĀ Poppies)

This post goes to the Travel collection.

G.