Road Trips

Hugh Gatenby

Now that the lockdown is over in Moscow (if that is where you are) and we are officially allowed to go outside, perhaps you might want to travel further afield, whilst the ’summer’ lasts. Hugh Gatenby has put together a few recommendations for road trips. As usual, he has illustrated his text with delightful drawings. Enjoy! (Editor)   

My friend once asked me, and it’s a question I get frequently asked in Russia, as to whether the small town where I live in England was near London. I answered that it was quite far from London, 100 statue miles, according to sign in the town square – 165 kilometres. “Da?”, she snorted. “Ryadushkom!”. Meaning “next door”, in Russian. 

My friend’s attitude to distance-travel is not unusual. In the vast and wondrous land that is Russia (11 time zones, at the last count) – everywhere is “ryadushkom“. So when I baulked at travelling, at least by car, to other faraway places, I always got the same flat, brook-no-argument, reply. Pskov, 600 kilomtres – ryadushkom. St Petersburg, 700 kilometres – also ryadushkom. Archangelsk, 1,250 kilometres? “Vsyo ryadushkom!” – everything is next door, apparently.

The upshot of these discussions was a lot of time spent behind the wheel of a big Mazda, and seeing places – cities, towns, villages and countryside – of beauty and genuine magic. Plus, as always in Russia, some interesting meetings along the way. 

So below is a collection of impressions of just three of these places; pen-portraits – and some sketches.

Most beautiful city. 

Pskov is a city of bleached-white churches and monasteries.

Not St Petersburg, no. Of course, the European ‘Venice of the North’ is absolutely stunning, but my vote goes to Pskov. The latter is an ancient, Russian city-citadel of fine buildings and bleached-white churches, situated on green bluffs of the Velikaya (“great”) river. With its cafes and local shops, life there seems to go on at the same pace as the lazy river, and there is something strangely Mediterranean about a city so close to the Baltic sea. A place to linger.

Most Russian city

A hard one, that. What constitutes ‘Russian-ness’? Kostroma, another ancient fortress-town on the massive Volga river (a good start) combines eclectic mixes of Russian medieval architecture, with its still extant monasteries, with streets of pre-revolutionary and Soviet buildings. 

Pride of place for sheer wackiness goes to a stone fire-watch tower, looming over the town square, set atop of a colonnaded Greek temple-like building. The centrepiece of the town square is a giant monument to Ivan Susanin, a 17th century Russian national hero, a legendary figure who led an army of Poles, who were seeking to kill the young Tsar, into nearby marshes – where all were drowned. Our subversive car satnav – we have named Ivan Susanin in his honour. 

It was in Kolomna, that most Russian of cities, that I met a Yorkshireman, a Russian citizen, who ran an English goods and souvenir shop, fronted by a smiling sixtie-era poster of the Queen beckoning you inside. It was called, in Russian, “A Little Corner of England”. Well, quite.

Most impressive city.

No question about that. Archangelsk, a windswept northern redoubt on the shores of the White Sea (still frozen in April) exudes a gritty toughness, both in its buildings and its people – many of whom still live in big, wooden two-storey ‘barrack’ houses. Initially a trading settlement where English ships bearing goods, at the time of Elizabeth I, made their slow river-route down to Moscow – it is now a modern port. With its potholed roads, it has a pioneer-town edge to it; you’d need to be tough just to survive the vagaries of its climate. Not for the faint-hearted, Archangelsk.”

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