My holiday was basically an 11-day road trip in the north of Russia, with a friend who conveniently owns a car and enjoys driving. My original plan had been a week in St Petersburg but with an extra week to play with we had all kinds of ideas where to go – for a while Dagestan was on the table (to see the Caspian Sea), and I was leaning towards driving to the northern coast, either Arkhangelsk (bad roads) or Murmansk (good roads).
We left it open and flexible, but knew that we would be starting at Veliky Novgorod, which is south of St Petersburg, as it made more sense going there first than doubling back on ourselves to see this historic old city.
I flew in to Sheremetova airport and we immediately started driving – this vacation would be punctuated by many 5, 6 or 7-hour drives. We drove straight through two cities that caught my interest and I would have liked to have stopped and explored if we had more time – these were Klin, the home of Tchaikovsky – and Tver, the main city of an ancient Principality. The Tver Oblast (region) was the only oblast we passed through other than Moscow and Novgorod Oblasts on this stage of the journey. The roads were good and the traffic was smooth.
Veliky Novgorod is one of the oldest cities in Russia and was the focal city of the Grand Duchy of Novgorod, one of the antecedent states of the Russian Empire. It has some of the oldest fortifications in Russia and has a long and eventful history. Much of the city looks just like any other Russian city – modern in the 20th century sense, with big Soviet block buildings, but in the central district, on the banks of the river Volkhov, stands the Kremlin and several cathedrals going back centuries.
We happened to be there on May Day, which in Russia is the Day of Workers and a public holiday. There was a festival there, which appeared to be some kind of multi-party political rally. There was a parade of military vehicles and motorcyclists.
Another association of the city is the composer Rachmaninoff, there is a large statue of him outside the Kremlin.
On our way out of the city we tried to get to Rurik’s Fortress, a fortification built, according to legend, by Russia’s first Tsar, Rurik, but certainly very old whoever built it. Unfortunately the road to it was flooded – crossable in heavy boots, perhaps but not something you wanted to risk ahead of a long car journey. As it happens that was only the first of our road problems that day. We drove into a traffic jam on the main road to St Petersburg, and when a driver coming the other way told us just how long the jam was (after we had already been waiting almost 2 hours) we decided to try another route. This route was clearer but more representative of the reputation of Russian roads – short areas of tarmac, long stretches of rough concrete, and then miles and miles and miles of uneven mud and dirt. We got to our destination, but thoroughly shaken, spattered with mud and very weary after such a long, difficult drive.