Russian tourist gems discovered by... Russians (in summer 2020)

Oleg Krasnov, Alexandra Guzeva, Vsevolod Pulya
The pandemic and closed borders recalibrated countless travel plans this summer. For Russians, however, it became an opportunity to see their own vast and underexplored country. Russia Beyond editors talk about their eye-opening experiences.

Pushkin Hills, Alexandra Guzeva

This year I was finally able to realize a long-planned journey — to the Pushkin Hills in Pskov Region. It was here, at the Mikhaylovskoye Estate, that the great, exiled Russian poet Alexander Pushkin strolled and wrote his main works.

The surrounding nature is an attraction in itself. The open space — the so-called Pskov expanses — is mind-blowing. Picture-perfect ponds, rivers, and meadows, dotted with scenic haystacks, stretch out in all directions. A delight for a city dweller, and pure photo candy.

Not wanting to go by public transport, we made a road trip from Moscow via Valdai, Veliky Novgorod, and Pskov — cities that are always a pleasure to visit. 

READ MORE: 5 reasons to visit the Pushkin Hills 

Karelia, Anna Sorokina

I’d been planning a trip to Karelia for ages, enticed by the blue lakes and forests quilted with soft green moss. It was my dream to hike through mountain parks strewn with huge boulders.

I usually prefer to get to my destination by car or plane, but this time I opted for the train. First, I had a 30 percent discount on all tickets because it was my birthday. And second, I wanted to ride the new retro-style Ruskeala Express. This is the only regular train so far to be fitted with new couchette carriages, which are way cooler than a compartment (each has curtains, sockets, and lamps). What’s more, it goes direct to Ruskeala Mountain Park, where you can go for walks through the former marble quarries.

In Karelia, it turned out that there is no public transport to the most famous sights like the Kivach Falls and the Girvas Volcano. Instead, I had to spend time on buses as part of excursion groups. Next time won’t be my birthday so I’ll definitely come by car — I plan to return and visit the Kizhi and Valaam islands.

READ MORE:  10 most beautiful places in Karelia

Sestroretsk, Maria Afonina

During the dog days of August, I was lucky enough to be in Sestroretsk, a small resort town on the shores of the Gulf of Finland to the north-west of St Petersburg. We reached it in half an hour by car, although another option would have been by electric train from Finland Station (less than an hour’s journey time).

The city is renowned for its sand dunes, leisurely walks knee-deep through the water, and small purple dots on the fingertips from picking and eating fresh blueberries. There’s also the scent of spruce and pine, and the slight dizziness of gazing at the sky through the tall oaks planted by Peter the Great himself 300 years ago in Dubki Park.

We were recommended to try the local mineral water and take a course of mud therapy at the local sanatorium, but let’s save that for next time. 

Plyos, Natalia Suslina

To be honest, this wasn’t my first visit to Plyos. The effects of the pandemic were plain to see, with this summer’s tourist numbers seriously down. Despite being a popular weekend route for Moscow, Ivanovo, and Yaroslavl residents, Plyos retains the distinctive atmosphere of an old Russian dacha.

On hot days, brave souls can take a dip in the Volga on the numerous local beaches (the water is still very cold). And the evening can be spent pleasantly sipping tea from a samovar on a veranda overlooking the river, or climbing the hill beloved of artist Isaac Levitan, from where a magnificent view opens up of the city, the winding Volga, and the setting sun. The sunsets in Plyos are especially beautiful in mid-late June, when the sun seems to hang in the sky forever.

You can stroll through the deserted streets, inspect the carved facades of the village houses, walk along the embankment of the Shokhonka River, and find the real-life footbridges depicted by Levitan in his painting Silent Abode. Another leisure activity is to take a boat along the Volga, and admire Plyos from the water.

For me, going to Plyos is always an opportunity to slow down and soak up the peaceful, rural lifestyle. It turns out that you can recharge your inner batteries just as effectively in Russia as in Bali or India.

READ MORE: What to see in Plyos, the town of artists on the picturesque Volga bank 

Samara, Georgy Manaev

The “Russian Chicago” is what Samara was nicknamed in the late 19th century during the years of rapid economic development. From 1866 to 1896, journalist and businessman Pyotr Alabin lived here and attracted vast amounts of investments into the city. An iron foundry, an oil mill, a printing house, a meteorological station, a municipal water supply system, a theater, a steam flour mill, and a candy factory all began operating here. Samara also got its first gas-lit street lighting and telephone exchange. Like in the real Chicago, the boom attracted its fair share of crime. Plus it became a place of exile for political prisoners.

Here and across the Volga Region, Vladimir Lenin and his elder sister Anna carried out revolutionary activities. And where the railway and water trade routes intersected, there were always gangs of thieves and speculators — a busy time for local police, that’s for sure. The city is also home to the famous Von Wakano brewery (1881), known throughout Russia for its beer, now produced under the Zhigulevskoye brand.

During WWII, Samara hosted the evacuated Soviet government and other state bodies. A bunker intended for Stalin survives to this day, and the historic buildings of the old center are adorned with plaques marking which ministries and foreign embassies occupied them in those years.

Samara’s history is older than Moscow’s, and most likely Russia’s as well. The name “Samarcha” is found in European chronicles: “Samarkha <…> in Scythia <…> is under the joint rule of [two] kings: one of them is a pagan, the other a Christian.” Historians claim that the city already existed in the 9-10th centuries, when the Khazar Khaganate, an ancient Judeo-Christian state, governed these lands.

The local beach is a veritable paradise of Russian Zen. There on the Volga banks, accessible from any part of the city center, you can sit for hours, plunge into the water and return to the golden sandy beach, whose purity is the pride of the locals. Sand for the beach is obtained from the bottom of the Volga, then sifted and cleaned, and gets replaced annually. Ten minutes by boat, and you’re on the other side, relishing the amazing panorama of the city.

And just a couple of hours away lies the Zhiguli Sea, the second largest freshwater reservoir in the world. Incidentally, the Zhiguli Mountains are the world’s youngest. The nature here is simply stunning, imbued with a calm intensity whatever the season. And the locals make maximum use of it: whereas in summer the whole of Samara relaxes on the beach, in winter people ski and sledge along the ice-covered river. 

READ MORE: What to do in Samara

Priozersk, Sasha Ismailova

Karelia always seemed rather inaccessible to me. As if anyone who ventured there would have to sleep in the untamed forest on wet moss and snags, fight wild animals, and eat cloudberries simply to survive.

In practice, it was all rather different (although you can sleep in the forest and eat cloudberries if that’s your thing): great roads, Scandinavian landscapes, local delicacies and, of course, Lake Ladoga!

Priozersk is home to the largest lake in Europe (and the second largest in Russia after Baikal), which can be admired from the spacious sandy beach. I suspect that had I arrived a week earlier, when it was hot, I could have swum in the clear, transparent water. But even without that, there’s no shortage of things to do: take a boat, with or without a motor, go fishing, ride a SUP, or hire a bike and cycle along the lake.

On the way to Sortavala, the car radio starts picking up Finnish stations. It’s hard to miss the Ruskeala Falls. Although the signposts are small, the noise from the depths of the forest is intense. Local guides proudly state that this is the location of the classic Soviet war film The Dawns Here Are Quiet.

After a stroll along the hanging bridges spanning the streams and waterfalls, a Karelian kalitka (a pie made of rye dough stuffed with cowberries or potato) and sweet bilberry juice are just what the doctor ordered. 

Kaliningrad city and region, Aizhan Kazak

I went to Kaliningrad Region for the sea breeze, sand, and beer. That’s my perfect vacation right there. In five days, I managed to take in Kaliningrad itself, Yantarny, and Zelenogradsk.

I'll be honest: Kaliningrad turned out to be incredibly small — doable on foot in a day. It's a city of cars with stinky gasoline engines (yikes) and public transport. You can pay by card on the latter, which I really liked, since I’m a millennial snowflake and rarely carry cash in my micro-wallet.

Architecturally, the city is nothing to write home about. I love beautiful cities soaked in history, where every step is a journey into the past. But the historical part of Kaliningrad was destroyed in 1945, and today’s city center is more a monument to the communist era (which some might like, admittedly). But I wanted to avoid Soviet-style apartment blocks, I’ve had my fill of them in Moscow. For others not keen on gray rectangles instead of buildings, I recommend the Amalienau district. It’s like a private suburb, green and pleasant, and a taxi from there to the Yeltsin Bar in the center takes 10 minutes and costs 100 rubles.

But I came for the sea and liked what I saw. In Yantarny, the beach was awarded a Blue Flag (which means a thumbs-up). The water is clean and cool, but don’t let that stop you. The temperature isn’t a problem, but the strong waves and currents are. They were responsible for sweeping my boyfriend’s glasses clean off his nose, never to be found again. So my tip of the day is to remove your specs before wading into the sea.

Zelenogradsk conquered my heart even more. It’s a city of cats, which the local administration has turned into a brand without too much gimmickry. Cats are everywhere, and it’s clear they feel at home here. The war mostly bypassed the city, so it has retained its historical look. The sea is cooler than in Yantarny, but much calmer. Strolling around, I unexpectedly stumbled upon a nudist beach (near the Curonian Spit, for those interested), and giggled like a teenager.

If another virus disrupts my travel plans next summer too, I’ll go again to Zelenogradsk. It’s elegant, tasteful, feline, and you can splash in the sea. In a word, perfect.

READ MORE: 10 most BEAUTIFUL buildings & sites in Kaliningrad

Rzhev, Vsevolod Pulya

As soon as I saw the Rzhev Memorial to the Soviet Soldier, I understood straight away that it was the place for me. The sight of a bronze soldier morphing into a flock of birds over green fields evoked childhood memories of Soviet war films.

The memorial was completed only in late April 2020 to mark the 75th anniversary of Victory in WWII. But due to all the coronavirus restrictions, I only made it there in July. 200km along the highway from Moscow, the 25-meter soldier with bowed head emerges from beyond the horizon.

It was the right decision to go there on a weekday—friends said that on the weekend they couldn’t find a place in the huge parking lot across the street from the memorial. But even on a weekday, there was a crowd of people. But that didn’t stop me getting there.

The monument is bathed in calm, the air is dense but transparent, and the soft music makes you want to speak in similarly hushed tones. You don’t feel the presence of others in such an atmosphere, like inside a church.

Wherever you look, green fields and hills abound. Hard to believe that here, in this tranquil setting, fierce battles raged around Rzhev in 1942-43. It was here too that the Germans were forced onto the retreat for the first time. But they sank their teeth into this earth, dug hundreds of trenches and anti-tank ditches, and waged trench warfare for months. The Red Army’s final victory in these clashes had an indirect impact on the outcome of both the Battle of Stalingrad and the Battle of Kursk.

Today, there are neat flower beds decorated with marble chips, the figure of the soldier turning into a flock of birds, and the names of 17,000 fallen heroes on artificially rusted metal panels.

All in all, it’s very different from usual Soviet and Russian military monuments. The Rzhev Memorial is not about heroic deeds, not about sacrifice, not about death and agony. But about us, our life, our peace. You leave here not with heavy thoughts about the sufferings of your ancestors, but with bright optimism for the future of your descendants. 

Kalyazin, Oleg Krasnov

This tiny town of just 12,000 inhabitants on the banks of the Volga in Tver Region is one of the most photogenic places in the whole of Russia. Imagine, just a hundred meters from Russia’s main waterway lies a miniscule island, no more than twenty meters in diameter, from where, as if drawn by the hand of a surrealist, an old bell tower rises up. For fans of Russian folk tales, where things are prone to magically appear from under the waves, it’s bound to set the imagination whirling.

It’s three hours here from Moscow by car. Were it not for the pandemic and my friend who bought a summer cottage nearby, instead of being here in person, I’d just be gazing meditatively at online photos of the place. But despite coming here along what probably isn’t the best road in the world, I had no regrets, especially having swapped the car for a rented boat on which to circle the island and climb ashore. An incredible feeling!

Kalyazin, which dates back to the 12th century, unfortunately lost virtually all its medieval and classicist architecture during the Soviet years. In 1939-40, it was decided to flood the old part during the construction of the Uglich hydroelectric power plant.

That is how the famous Trinity Makaryev Monastery, where Russian tsars made pilgrimages, and the St. Nicholas Cathedral, whose bell tower is today visible from the shore, ended up underwater. It used to be possible to climb up it, since the flooded building was abandoned. But a few years ago, the decision was taken to restore it, and the early 19th-century façade was given a makeover, replete with new bells, so now on major church holidays one can meditate by the riverside to the sound of mystical, seemingly otherworldly chimes.

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