Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Great Novgorod

I had decided to spent one night in Veliky Novgorod on my way to Saint Petersburg, in order to experience a piece of Russia less frequented on the typical tourist circuit. I accomplished this task with flying colors, I must say.

I found may way to the Hotel Kruis* and was told via perturbed gestures that I could not enter my room until 10am. I was directed to what I was assured was the only internet cafe in town that was open at the ungodly hour of 7am, "Kafe Luxe," and told curtly to return at the proper time. I trudged through the silent, misty morning until I crossed paths with a drunken couple stumbling out of a building from which thumping bass, black lights and swirling disco ball reflections were streaming. I glanced at the sign and was horrified to see that I had apparently arrived at my destination, God help me. I peeked in the door: abandoned. I sat down hesitantly, and instantly the music stopped, normal radiant lightbulbs were re-employed, the curtains opened, and the sweetest waitress in the entire country appeared, beaming at me. We used only the friendliest of sign language and Russian vocabulary strung together into a beautiful chain of makeshift communication, and within moments she proudly placed this selection of breakfast items before me, chirping "Priatna appetita!" as she skipped over to a neighboring table to eat her own identical meal.

(Breakfast always best with a good dose of Chekhov. Yes, there are peas with my eggs.)

I was so pleased with that experience that I had the energy to visit the main sights of the town as its inhabitants were slowly waking up. Novgorod is known as one of the very oldest cities in Russia, with a walled, moated enclosure called "The Kremlin" at its heart. Inside is beautiful manicured lawns and parks, lovely statuesque 17th and 18th century municipal buildings, a huge bronze statue commemorating Russia's 1,000th birthday**, and the oldest church in the whole country. Crossing a bridge over the Volkhov river, one can meander through a menagerie of ancient Orthdodox churches of varying age and size. I am certain one could potentially do other things as well, but I am not sure what they are.

(The Kremlin, protecting Russia's oldest church)

After seeing so many religious sites so closely situated to one another, I suddenly needed a nap.

I am sure the Hotel Kruis is haunted, but I got a relatively clean room to myself for 400 rubles, so what are a few troubled supernatural presences in the grand scheme of things, really? In the afternoon*** I took a public bus south of town to a truly unique and amazing place, the "Open Air Museum of Popular Wooden Architecture 'Vitoslavitsky.'" I got a chance to really enjoy some Russian countryside, which is just as underrated as its food, if not more so. As I had no idea where I was exactly, after what I felt was a sufficient amount of time I pulled on the sleeve of the sweet old woman taking bus fares and started to read the Russian letters that apparently when said quickly in succession described my destination, because she immediately yelled at the driver and shooed me gently off the moving-only-slowly-at-that-moment vehicle, at the gate of the park.

Now, having seen the sights of Red Square and The Hermitage, I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that Vitoslavitsky was by far the most charming, awe-inspiring, and enjoyable Russian tourist attraction that I have ever seen. Set in a breathtaking wood on the edge of Lake Myachino, the "museum" is really a collection of brilliant Russian folk architecture from the 16th to 19th centuries. The enormous houses and churches therein are all have fantastic, whimsical designs, beautiful carved details, and some are even open to tour the recreated interiors. Wandering about, I caught glimpses of stout women in period dress sweeping their porches or carrying baskets to and fro, and atone point I even saw a fox, which delighted me more than I probably should admit. These pictures really cannot do it justice, but hopefully they will convince you to visit, should you be in the area.

(O Glory! O Rapture!)

(Taken just after seeing my pet fox)

Why they would ever stop building houses in this way, other than the terrible fires that constantly ravaged Moscow when it was built solely of wood, I will never know.

I was told that walking just a kilometer or so in one direction from Vitoslavitsky would take me to a working monastery who's name escapes me at the moment. It is actually irrelevant to my experience though because I obviously walked in the totally wrong direction and ended up exploring an abandoned Orthodox church surrounded on all sides by a peculiar cemetery. Each family plot was fenced off and had a small wooden picnic table and benches, and each grave was marked with crosses with photos or engravings of the faces of the dead, and most were decorated with huge amount of artificial flowers. The effect was charming and yet erie, all the more so as I slowly came to terms with the fact that I was utterly lost.


*A hotel/hostel hybrid in a five-story grey block building that I was quite sure was abandoned at first, but upon entering was dazzled by a lobby so reflective that it made me wonder which was was up. They have no website, do not respond to email, and their staff speaks only Russian, but they are a part of the Hostelling International network somehow!

**Oh, to have seen that birthday cake! Ha! Ha!

***Which in this part of the world lasts for approximately eight to ten languorous hours.

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