What do you do in Russia when you have lived in Moscow for almost 4 years, and have only scratched the surface of the largest country in the world, in terms of viewing for oneself the sheer majesty in geographical splendour, architecture and culture? Where does one begin? That is a challenge in itself when you are confronted with such a sheer diversification of national locations to choose from.
I’m now fortunate to have a rich resource of Russian nationals as friends and clients to ask such a pertinent question as to which city in Russia is worthy of a visit, outside the usual tourist destinations of St Petersburg, Volgograd, Sochi and now even The Crimea etc. A particular friend I chose to ask this question to was Ekaterina due to her embedded knowledge of Russian cities. Having been a Sales Director for an International Pharmaceutical company here, she was well versed with a whole host of insights regarding cities the length and breadth of Russia. The question was asked: ‘Which city in Russia would you recommend to visit outside the norm that is beautiful but enlightening and insightful and would give me an alternative experience of a Russian city?’ The answer was Astrakhan, a wonderful city to visit, which is both beautiful and a warm most of the year, being positioned on the coast at the tip of the north of the Caspian Sea. So Astrakhan it was then…Astrakhan sits astride the Volga River on the tip of the north of the Caspian Sea and is Russia’s face on that multinational body of water. The city is famous for the Astrakhan Kremlin, an expansive fortress built in the 1500s. Its grounds are home to several Russian Orthodox churches, including the five-domed Assumption Cathedral. The Museum of Military Glory displays weapons and artefacts from war. The Astrakhan Drama Theatre stages Russian and Shakespearean classics in an opulent, 1880s auditorium.
The city reflects much of the region’s cultural and religious diversity. There are large communities of Kazakhs and Azeris, as well as Islamic Tatars. While many visitors use Astrakhan mainly as a jumping-off point for the Volga Delta, the city merits a day or two of exploration in its own right. I found it calm and peaceful, away from the hustle and bustle and relentless fast-moving pace of Moscow. The taxi drivers and locals were keen to engage in conversation with a British native speaker and the question was consistently and duly asked: ‘What has brought an English man to Astrakhan?’ I engaged them of course with my own question: ‘Why should you be surprised?, you live in a wonderful city, what could be more relaxing to come to a place with such fine architecture, blessed with the calming Caspian Sea and labyrinth of waterways and rivers to discover. Aren’t your water melons, caviar and fish the finest in Russia – so what’s not to want to come to see with my own eyes?’
The surprise then is not that an Englishman had chosen to visit Astrakhan as a location to visit, but that when I discussed the city that I intended to visit (and even after my return) I found that there were many Russians who had not heard of the place let alone given any thought to visiting the city. And there goes the age-old problem of a country (and region –the CIS) of lacking in any proactive marketing to attract tourists and visitors to its city and region. The World Cup has come and gone, and for Russia, so has the global world audience.
So, each day I set off to experience this delightful place. There’s a long, handsome riverfront that’s ideal for evening strolls as the sun sets across the river. The striking white Kremlin, a symbol of Russian dominance since the 16th century, holds two beautiful churches and several museums. Across the canal, north of the Kremlin, the stone mansions and churches of the European and Christian centre give way to Tatar and Persian sloboda (suburbs) with their wooden cottages, mosques and quaint courtyards, where garlands of drying vobla fish flutter in the breeze. Ohhh, and the Black Caviar that’s as one local reminded me “тоже неплохо” – Not bad also……