Staritsa, in the Heart of Russia

By Daniel Brooks

Anyone in Russia for almost any length of time will eventually learn about the mystique of a dacha. It’s more than a cabin in the great beyond. It’s a connection to what we like to believe Russia once was, older and more romantic. The dacha should be old and new. That’s how my family sees our dacha. It’s also how we feel about Staritsa, the closest town to our village.  It is a place that has its own special, Russian feel.

When my wife set out to find a dacha back in 2012, we mostly went northwest of the city on the M-9, otherwise known as the Novaya Riga highway. Every trip shopping for a dacha took us farther and farther away from the big city. Almost instinctively, we were looking for something with as few traces of the big metropolis as possible.

At one point, we answered an ad about a plot of land near a town called Staritsa, a place I had never heard of, in a small village called Svistunovo. It was a bit far, about two and a half hours from the MKAD but we thought, it’s in the right direction so why not?

We felt an affinity for Starista the first moment we drove into this small town of about 10,000 souls. Staritsa is Northwest of Moscow, halfway between Tver and Rzhev on the Volga river. The city is divided by the river in two parts. The side of town closer to Tver has the Holy Assumption Monastery. It had its beginnings in the 12th century, making it one of the oldest in Russia. It was rebuilt down through the ages and is now completely restored.  The monastery’s white walls look out over a grassy bank leading down to the Volga, making it seem timeless, as it must have looked in bygone days. This remains the most impressive thing to see in Staritsa, if not in all of Tver Oblast.

Staritsa has a long history. It was founded in 1267 and was originally called Gorodok, meaning little town. It was renamed Staritsa in the 14th century.  Staritsa was a favorite of Ivan III, the tsar who is named the ‘gatherer of Russian lands’ by many Russians. Otherwise he is known as Ivan the Terrible. Staritsa was a favourite resident of Tsar Ivan III in the 16th century during the Livonian wars and after his death, Staritsa was passed on to his son, Andrey. This was the heyday of Staritsa, in part become the area became wealthy exporting limestone to Moscow extracted from the banks of the Volga (making caves). Some of the former glory is still there, although many of the buildings and historical sites stand waiting to be restored. Someday, they will be. As the Russians say, hope dies last.

In the old days, a ferry led to the other side of town across the river. Now it can be crossed by a bridge to the side of Staritsa closer to Rzhev.  The main road goes past pre-revolutionary store fronts and what were once respectable mansions. Many of the buildings cry out for restoration. In some parts of the city and on the embankment, a few the old buildings have in fact been fixed up but not many. While it is another city in Russia that is waiting to be made into a place everyone will want to visit, today it looks genuine and untouched. That, at least, is how we felt about Staritsa when we first visited it. We thought, city people will come here eventually in droves.  So far, no droves have arrived but the tide has turned. Things are picking up in Staritsa.

After our first visit to Staritsa, my wife and I bought that dacha in Svistunovo, about a 15-minute drive from Staritsa. Our village, like Staritsa, has a main road with old dachas, some in need of repair. It’s close to both the Volga and the road leading to Tver, important because maintaining roads in Russia is no small task. That’s why it’s best to live in a Russian village without a long one. When we moved into Svistunovo, the road was as bad as any road could be. We’ve since gotten it fixed and are proud of having a flat, one lane gravel road. Importantly, it still looks like a road that belongs in a village. No asphalt just yet. Lately the main road to Tver has been getting a new coat of asphalt as well. We like to think we were the first ants that started something building something small, after which many other ants followed along building bigger stuff.

Since we first came to Staritsa about five years ago, things have changed. An ex-fighter pilot bought a small airport 10 kilometers from Staritsa and offers parachuting, rides on small aircraft and gliding. In the summer, we watched a parachuting championship for the elderly, an astonishing sight as people in their 60’s and 70’s who should have known better, did pinpoint parachute landings after jumping out of an oversized Soviet era biplane.  Another business nearby offers rides in summer and winter behind sled dogs. The dogs get very excited. Tours are on offer of one of the many caves along the banks of the Volga, led by an expert. Those interested in geology and bats should not miss these caves. A pizza restaurant has opened up; the food isn’t half bad. Suddenly, as Staritsa has been discovered by small business owners and entrepreneurs from the big city, offering things to do and along the way, visitors to the area have begun to discover Staritsa as well. Links are below.

When the Russian economy again underwent a crisis in 2013, my wife and I felt like our village was a great place to offer camping. Our thinking was that folks would want to go on vacation in their own country, now that the rouble has lost half of its value. We soon realized the best way to go about it was to buy land in our own village and offer cabins for rent, something like smaller versions of our own dacha. We now have five cabins set up and own about 6 hectares of land both in and next to Svistunovo. It’s our camping hobby and labour of love, named Camping Svistunovo. Each cabin can house two people comfortably, three if one is willing to sleep on a fold out cot, and has a full kitchen with dishes from a certain Swedish owned retail outlet whose name I won’t mention. We added a small sauna. Strangely, business is best for the sauna when the weather is at its warmest in summer. We’ve joined the hotel in town, dog sled providers, airport, cave tours and pizza outlet as one of the growing number of attractions in Staritsa. Every summer we get more and more guests, mostly active people of all ages. Many come with children and dogs, both of which we welcome. Each guest is given a list of things to do in Staritsa and some go forth and enjoy themselves. We also point out that the Volga is nearby and so is a forest across the road, full of things that Russians crave like mushrooms and extremely small strawberries. Some visit the other sites but the key attraction seems to be sitting outside and doing very little. That I suppose is what vacation should be all about.

Driving to Staritsa is an important reason for going there. The Nova Riga, along with many highways leading out of Russia, has been repaved. Your GPS navigator will take you on the fastest road to Staritsa through a small town called Lotoshina. The landscape frees itself from Moscow and the road goes through wide open fields, interspersed by dense forests. The roads are never clogged by much traffic. The big city drops back and goes away in front of your eyes. Moscow is far away; it feels like another land. Perhaps it is. Moscow isn’t really Russia. Staritsa, on the other hand, is.

Daniel Brooks has specialized in the Russian coffee market since 1995. He was GM Tchibo beginning in 1995, and was CEO at Tata in from 2009-2012. Since 2012 Daniel has been involved in coffee and tea projects in Russia on behalf of May Foods, United Coffee Company (Holland), teapigs (UK) and others. Currently Daniel represents Dr. Suwelack GmbH, a coffee producer based in Germany and has developed his own coffee brand called U&Me.  He is also an avid Russophile, having studied Russia and Russian since a tender age.