Rostov-on-Don – Gateway to the Caucasus
Several cities in southern Russia describe themselves as being the gateway to the Caucasus although it’s Rostov-on-Don which can probably lay the greatest claim. You only have to pop into the bus station and take a glance at the departures board to see plenty on non-Russian-sounding place names which Muscovites view as practically being in a foreign country. Yet Rostov (as locals prefer to call it) itself is very Russian and is one of the country’s more attractive ‘millionnik’ places to visit. It’s a worthy choice for a weekend away in a warmer climate, even if only slightly. Its full name in Russian is Rostov-na-Donu; be sure the stress the final ‘u’!
After having been selected as one of the cities to host the 2018 World Cup, Rostov has been enjoying something of a makeover, which includes (not surprisingly) the building of a new football stadium. The city’s top side, FC Rostov finished second in the 2015-6 Russian league, enough to qualify for the UEFA Champions League for the first time, even beating giants Bayern Munich 3-2. FC Rostov currently play at a stadium called Olimp-2, but with a capacity of only 15,800 is far too small, hence the current construction of the Rostov Arena. The Arena will host four group games plus one second round match, will seat 45,000 spectators and interestingly is being built on the southern banks of the Don river, whereas Rostov itself it mostly situated on the northern side.
Local authorities hope that this will help to develop a new part of town, as should a brand new airport, which is scheduled to open sometime in 2017. Additionally, the promenade along the river is enjoying a mini construction boom, with new hotels and restaurants springing up although we are sure that it’ll look infinitely better once it’s finished.
Hardly surprisingly, it’s the river Don which is Rostov’s main feature. Its source is almost 2,000 kilometres north, in the Tulskaya oblast and it’s at its widest once it reaches Rostov before emptying into the sea of Azov. Join the locals for walks along the river’s banks before heading into the centre where the real action is. There is a fairly steep slope upwards from the Don but Rostov’s main streets conveniently run parallel to the river allowing for easy strolling, and be sure to visit a revamped Gorky Park. You won’t fail to notice that Rostov is one of Russia’s wealthier spots, given the number of top-end shopping outlets – the city has experienced considerable economic growth in recently years, and this is also reflected in a higher-than-usual assortment of luxury apartment blocks and upscale eateries, particularly in the downtown area. Whilst Rostov has enough to keep you occupied for a day or two, it can hardly be said to be over-burdened with must-see sights but is an extremely handy staging post for half-day trips, the star of which is a 45-minute drive east out to Starocherkasskaya.
The Resurrection (Voskresensky) Cathedral, completed in 1719 can be seen from miles away as you approach the town – it’s pretty flat in these parts, is the best place to kick off a walk around the dozens of noteworthy cultural historical sights. Whilst time seems to have passed much of the place by, there are a few restaurants, cafes and mini-souvenir shops but unless you have your own car, you’ll need a cab to reach Starocherkasskaya. Expect to pay around RUR1,500 one way, and either ask the driver to wait for you or take his number and call him to drive you back to Rostov as you won’t find any transport locally.
A journey of similar distance but in completely the opposite direction is Azov, which on the surface is a fairly non-descript mid-sized town on the banks of the (yes, you guessed it) sea of Azov. Its main feature is the Azov fortress which is currently being restored but can be explored and offers pleasant views out to sea. Cheapskates can catch a bus which takes around an hour but costs less than RUR100 each way and are frequent. There is a train station but it was closed when we visited.
Rostov’s best example of a boutique hotel is called ‘Izvolte’, on ul. Suvorova 25; centrally located, friendly and with beautifully designed rooms on an old-fashioned style. You’ll pay around 5,000 roubles for a double room but that includes a generous breakfast and use of the hotel spa. www.izvolte.com
Cabs from the airport to the city centre cost RUR350 (the rate is fixed – there’s a booth as you exit the airport; ignore the jokers saying “taxi, taxi”).
There are numerous flights from all three of Moscow’s main airports to Rostov-on-Don (ROV), taking just over an hour and a half. Due to competition on this route, return fares can be had for as little as 5,000 roubles but 8,000 roubles is the norm for busier periods. Trains take almost a day, in case you’re not in a hurry.