Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Novgorod Day 1: Kremlin and surrounds

Novgorod - "New City" - was new around 859 when it was first referenced in writing. It has a fascinating history unique in Russia as a prosperous republic founded by merchants rather than princes. You can read some snippets here (longer) and here (more abbreviated). A significant degree of its prosperity came from cleverly charging fees for anyone wanting to pass its waterways at a time when river travel was the exclusive way to get around - it is situated where 51 rivers flow into Lake Illman and one river - the Volkhov - flows out.

We drove out Saturday morning, not oppressively early as our tour guide, Natasha*, was meeting us at 2:00pm. A mere 130 miles from Petersburg, we took a solid 3.5 hours to arrive. Terry likes to blame the 3 stops but one of them was only long enough for me to exit the car, look at the busload of passengers waiting for the toilets, and get back in. Traffic and poor roads, I say.

We stayed at the Hotel Volkhov. The Spartan rooms were sufficient for our needs, my only complaint being the lack of room darkening shades in a city that has White Nights. The kids couldn't fall asleep until two hours after being put down to sleep. Otherwise, the place couldn't be more accommodating, having the baby cot in our room within 1/2 hour of our arrival and responding to all our requests promptly. It was a bonus that if not every member of staff spoke English, enough did that we could always find someone who could understand us.  Because of our later than expected arrival, we only had time to grab a quick meal at the hotel before embarking on our tour. The meals were tasty if unique but the garniri were barely edible. Even the kids wouldn't eat the French fries.

Our first day the tour guide took us through the Kremlin, St Sophia's Cathedral, and Yaroslavl's Court. Apparently, St Sophia was meant to be reminiscent of Hagia Sophia in that it was originally dedicated to Holy Wisdom and not some human/saint named Sophia.

Terry and I traded off managing the kids and actually paying attention to Natasha, and it worked pretty well. The Kremlin consists of lots of green space and several buildings, so the kids were able to pick dandelions and run races and there were even points where we were both able to turn our ears to Natasha even as our eyes followed the kids. You can see them above playing in front of the "Monument to the Millennium of Russian Statehood" with St Sophia in the background.

 One tidbit I particularly liked: when alternatives to wood appeared on the "building materials" front, the Church got first say and decided only churches and holy buildings could use stone or brick. Merchants eager to protect their goods from fire ended up adding chapels to their warehouses, there are 7 surviving such buildings on the other side of the river (by Yaroslavl's Court). The tour ended for the day right by Na Torgu souvenir shop, apparently a Novgorod institution and highly recommended to us. I admit I was first overwhelmed by all the unique stuff, after so many matroshkas, Faberge egg replicas and amber jewelry it was like a breath of fresh air. In the end Terry and I couldn't agree on anything so I only got a cheesy spoon rest for the kitchen as I have been whining for one since ours broke a few years ago.

That night we ate at Cafe Le Chocolat, conveniently one block from the hotel and also recommended to us.  Our friends from the Consulate, who were also on this expedition with us, came later and it seems all the good customer service karma got spent on us. They were prompt and informative (getting a bit busy, they didn't get the kids' food out right away but did keep us apprised). In fact, even considering getting the kids' food out first was an impressive move. When Alex spilled her full glass of milk on the table, they appeared and got a clean tablecloth even though we assured them it wasn't a problem for us. Terry's pork loin was tasty (he reports) and my fish, while bland on its own, was just right when topped with the seasoned tomato and cheese that came with it. The kids' chicken nuggets were trying to be too fancy and the kids wouldn't go near it. At least it came with fries.

* Natasha was recommended to us by two different sources and in my opinion did an exceptional job of sharing interesting information, giving us the history and the lay of the land, encouraging questions and even engaging the children. I can't recommend her highly enough.

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