Sunday, 27 November 2011

Episode 18 (final part): Veliki Novgorod or Novgorod the Great (in both senses)

final part of my travels chaps, thanks for reading all the way!

We confused the hell out of the compartment conductor by doing an Andrei impression when he asked us if we were British:
“Dah! Koneshhnoh!” we groaned in unison causing the poor man to stare perplexingly at us.
After face-palming our idiocy, we settled down for the night train from Moscow to Veliki Novgorod and tried to get some sleep. We were on our way to one of the major, ancient cities of Russia and a place of learning and religious mysticism. We slept not really knowing what to expect. The strangely negative Lonely Planet section described it as “a bit of a backwater” and out initial impressions upon arrival at pitch-black 6am were equally as frosty.
The Old Kremlin of Novgorod

We didn’t know if we should check-in at our hostel or hit a cafe and turn up in daylight.  We stumbled, sleepily and weighed-down into the 24 hour cafe at the station and immediately froze in terror. Despite the bizarre hour, the place was packed and stacked with kebab-eating, drunk Russian men who, with gaping jaws looked at us through the sizzling heat of a grill. Silence descended menacingly over the plastic table tops. The smell of greasy meat seemed to be say “ooh foreign tourists, maybe we could relieve these good people of their bags and wallets.” We backed out sharpish and tumbled into a taxi.

Arriving at our hotel, we were confronted by another drunken group of men, this time arguing with the reception staff.  After attracting a lot of attention from them with our accents we eventually procured our key and locked ourselves in for a four hour nap, finally safe from the drunken denizens of Novgorod.
We awoke and realised how small the town was instantly: we could walk to the historical centre in 10 minutes.  After fortifying ourselves in a cafe that played some awesome 80’s music (well I like Laura Brannigan – google “self control” TUNE!) we stood awe struck looking at the beautiful kremlin that is the main attraction of the town. It easily gives the red Kremlin of Moscow a run for its money and houses the beautiful Cathedrals and churches of the ancient city. We wondered around inside a few of these and received an impromptu religious lecture from a very friendly, slightly crazy curator. Our Russian-university, student cards were incredibly handy in this town as they guaranteed us free entry to everything. We then visited the 

Cathedral of St Sophia and saw the monument to one thousand years of the Russian people – a beautiful giant, ceremonial bell (see right) with intricate carvings of scenes from Russian history.

After taking in our fill of culture we collapsed in a local bakery/cafe where we sampled some of the most affordable and tasty Russian pastries of all time. We loved it so much that we figured we’d use it as a base for the next and final day, when we would have to be up until 2am to catch our final train. The rest of the day was spent looking for places near the train station that were open long enough to crash in until we could board the train. We discovered a brilliant little restaurant and the local cinema which, to our blessing, had an odd 11 30 pm showing of the new “Tin Tin” film that ended 30 mins before our train was due to leave!
Me on the river
We think there was a rodent in our room, but nonetheless slept well.  On our last day we wondered the lovely, clean and cultured town once more and went to see the famous “birch-wood manuscripts” – some of the earliest examples of Russian writing. Reading the modern Russian translations we inferred that several of them were cooking recipes and many were humorous letters from different people to one another. They all began with the same phrase “Poklon ot” which roughly translates as something like “With bows of respect from...” so we figured they were kind of like a greetings cards from medieval Russia!

Staring madly at my Grape Gateaux
Eventually the evening came and we had a slap-up meal in the same restaurant as the first night as it was near the cinema and we had all of our heavy luggage with us. As a treat, we hit a really pricey cafe for last-night desserts (see picture) and found that we had a whole cinema to ourselves to enjoy “Tin Tin”. This was the best, most eccentric way to end the trip and after boarding the train at 2am we soon drifted off and woke up again in Petrozavodsk, refreshed from the road and reminded of how much we love studying this wonderful, diverse country and rich culture.

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