Novgorod, Russia

Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
Trip End Aug 10, 2007

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Flag of Russia  , Novgorod,
Thursday, April 26, 2007

I joined my Dragoman tour group at a different hotel for my last three days in Saint Petersburg.  Twenty-two passengers, two drivers, and a local guide are going to make for one really crowded truck these next eleven weeks.  Most are interpid travelers who have been around the world a time or seven, and our conversations usually start with, "when I was in New Guinea/trekking across Borneo/crossing the Algerian Sahara/climbing Mount Neverland in Shangrila", etc. 

Since this is an "exploratory" trip that's never been done before, we have no fixed itinerary or reservations beyond Moscow and are just going to be "winging it".  We can actually camp anywhere in Russia, unless there's a sign that says not to (which our guide would presumably be able to read).  There's some uncertainty about what Mongolia holds many weeks ahead in a land where finding food might mean buying a reindeer or a goat from nomads we encounter along the way; this could be one of those "starvation vacations".

You might expect there'd be a nice expressway linking Russia's two largest cities, but you'd be wrong.  In reality, for most of its distance between Saint Petersburg and Moscow the main highway is an undivided two lane road lined by small houses and numerous traffic lights in towns that create major traffic jams.  The Russian countryside is somewhat depressing with lots of tiny, rustic wooden houses that would actually be very cute if they received a nice coat of fresh paint.  The physical remains of the Soviet era dominate the larger towns.  The huge industrial plants spewing pollutants and drab, utilitarian housing projects should scream out to all architects and planners, "don't build ugly things, because we'll be stuck with them for a very long time".

Novgorod is Russia's oldest city and its founding in 859 is considered to be the beginning of the Russian state.  Thus, the town has great meaning for Russians and is one of those historic places (like Samarkand, Timbuktu, Isfahan, Luxor, Cuzco, Lhasa, Kashgar) that you may read about ahead of time and envision a beautiful and exotic crossroad of cultures.  As such Novgorod was a bit of a disappointment.  There's an old Kremlin with several notable monuments including the oldest church in Russia (Saint Sophia's Cathedral) and a nineteeth century monument commemorating Russia's millenium.  Beyond the Kremlin there are numerous old churches in the austere Novgorod style scattered around a town that's entirely modern because it was almost entirely leveled during WWII.  The Yurev Monastery and a Museum of Wooden Architecture on the outskirts were quite interesting.

Deep in the heart of real Russia, I thought I'd try some of the authentic Russian cuisine I passed on while in the big city.  In search of traditional Russian food we all went to a restaurant named Destinets located in the walls and one of the towers of the Novgorod Kremlin.  Solyanka is a very traditional Russian meat or fish soup with chopped pickles and other vegetables, but the one I tried here was made with an interesting mix of veal kidney and smoked sturgeon.  I followed this with an appetizer translated as "Furry Herring", herring slices covered with a salad of shredded potatoes, carrots, beets, and dill.  My main course was "Chicken Po-Preobradzhensky", which turned out to be a small pot/casserole of chicken livers, mushrooms, and potatoes in a mayonaiselike sour cream sauce.  It all definitely beat the standard "kotlety" of mystery meat I've been encountering since I entered Russia.

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