Russia’s Williamsburg. Novgorod! (25 June)

Well it’s like Williamsburg, but it’s also kind of like Boston, maybe a cross between the two. Much smaller than Boston, much bigger than the Burg, but similar stories of creation, importance, churches and monuments to what once was, and like Williamsburg, a city that history eventually left behind. until tourism raised it from the dead.

Anyways, that’s not that important. The whole group of us took a bus trip to this historical city (a few hours due south of St. Petersburg). Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that driving down a highway in Russia is like driving on a dirt road in northern New England, but it’s quite possible the 11 of us got shaken baby syndrome driving on the main highway between St. Petersburg and Moscow (which goes through Novgorod).

Our German van struggled with the tough Russian road all the way from St. Petersburg to Novgorod and back :)

I suppose the bus was more of a van, and vans seem to be built without a suspension, and they do have winter for 11 months a year, so I guess I can’t be too critical, but man that was a bumpy road.

Speaking of bumpy roads, we took a pit stop at a “rest area” just off the highway. Half of us stumbled off the bus from a bouncing slumber looking for a bathroom in this highway side bar (seriously, it was a bar). They told us the bathroom was around back. Oh, ok so it’s one of those separated bathrooms that’s a little dirty but ok that’s fine. So i open the door and what do I see before me? A 1 meter square room with a jagged hole in the ground. I literally laughed out loud. Furthermore, the room was thickly saturated with the taste of… well you know what. After we emerged from the bathroom, our professor says “Well, this isn’t Kansas anymore.”

Sometimes being in Russia makes me appreciate the little things in life, and reminds me what I take for granted in the USA. Things like the above example, or the challenge of simply ordering food at a restaurant, finding a place to wash your clothes, feebly trying to understand what my host mom “babooshka” is saying to me until she eventually just smiles and bonks me on the head for not understanding, eating salads doused with mayonnaise instead of vinaigrette, or understanding about 10% of the mass media I see or 1% of the conversations I overhear, remind me of just how easy life is in the good ol’ USA.

Back to Novgorod. Novgorod is considered to be the place where the Russian state was born (You could argue it was Kiev, but the Russians consider it to be Novgorod). It was founded in the 8th or 9th century and was one of the most prosperous cities in Europe in the Medieval period and was larger than London and Paris at one point. It survived the mongol hordes by paying tribute and ran a very profitable trading business with a surprisingly democratic government system until it was overtaken in importance by Moscow and incorporated into the Muscovite Rus by Ivan the Great in 1478.

We got our tourist on by visiting a monastery with some beautiful modest looking orthodox churches, and an open air wooden architecture museum recreating the homes Russian people lived in back in the good old days of 1299 (i even tied my jacket around my waste for effect) and we all walked and clicked off pictures and listened to our very nice tour guide tell us about Russian life and history. Her name was Galya and she was a very nice lady.

Then we ate a hardy Russian lunch in a very not Russian touristy hotel restaurant. For some reason the place was deserted, but it seemed pretty classy. I had more pieces of silverware than I knew what to do with. Me, being a barbarian from rural America, ate my mayonaisse salad with my large soup spoon (it’s hard to make the right choice when you have 6 pieces of silver to choose from!) Then my hardy plate of “borsch” with the same spoon. The desert was a little disappointing (mini custard pie) but the main course was great. Nice big cutlet of meat and fries. My kind of meal.

After lunch we went to the Novgorod kremlin. If you’re like I was about a year ago, you probably thought the Kremlin was in Moscow. Well, you were right. Except there is a kremlin (which is a word for fortress) in just about every Russian city. There we saw the oldest russian church, the St. Sophia Cathedral (built between 1045 and 1050) and the monument to the millennium of Russia’s founding. A very impressive monument that somehow survived the German occupation in 1941-1944 and represents the greatest men (and 1 woman!) who could be considered the founding fathers of Russia, or played an instrumental part in Russia’s history.

Interesting note. People in Russia like getting married. I’m guessing since it snows from October to April the wedding season is short. We saw at least half a dozen wedding parties marauding around Novgorod. Another note, despite being an old historical city, Novgorod was pretty lively this Saturday afternoon. There was a party boat floating down the river, a volleyball and paintball tournament on the river beach along with many sunbathers, hordes of tourists, and on the other side of the Kremlin a dance performance for some event or other. Pop music boomed from multiple locations. Russians sure do take advantage of their short summer.

Somehow this post got way too long. I wish I could write 900 words of an essay this fast. In short: Novgorod was cool, Russia ain’t America, It’s history is long, orthodox, and bloody, and I could write about it forever. Novgorod may be quite touristy, like Williamsburg, but not excessively so, and it still retains the charm and atmosphere of a real town. Definitely a place worth visiting if you ever come to Russia

Just make sure to bring a helmet for the bus 🙂

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