Well, you can imagine I didn’t go to visit it intentionally – it was the bonus of my trip to Saint Petersburg and I found it worth writing about, because it gave me a different perspective of Russia outside of the luxury expensive cities I’ve only visited until then.
I thought I knew a few things about Russia, I’ve visited Moscow many times and read quite some Russian novels, but I have completely missed on the chapter about Veliky Novgorod. The visit was suggested by our extremely kind airbnb hosts in Saint Petersburg. I asked them for tips on where to go and things to see off the beaten path. Being born and breed in Eastern Europe I was very impressed with St. Petersburg – frankly it has nothing to do with Eastern Europe at all – it’s a rather European city, but I wanted to show my French boyfriend also another side of Russia – the countryside the small villages, the poorer part and the communistic heritage in a way.
So, when we heard about Velikiy Novgorod I thought that this is my chance and we immediately jumped on the adventure.
How to Get There?
It takes 2 hours by train from Saint Petersburg, that is if you manage to catch the modern train very early in the morning. Make no mistake – the modern train is not a fast train as we know it, it is just not as slow as the other alternative, so lower down the expectations!
Our Russian hosts helped us to buy tickets for it online, but we missed it for 5 minutes (it was at 7am). As you may know administrative staff in Russia rarely speaks English or any foreign language for that matter. It’s still a mystery for me how I somehow managed with my very poor Russian to have 70% of our ticket price refunded and to buy tickets for the next train, which luckily was only an hour later.
Strangely the tickets for the regular train we bought were around 13 USD and the tickets for the text one (which Russians call Elektrichka) and which is much slower and less convenient costs 17 USD. C’est la vie! We’re in for the experience, we thought.
If you haven’t travelled much around Eastern Europe you’re gonna love the Elektrichka train! It’s exotic in its own way – cold, uncomfortable and slow! If you have lived anywhere in Eastern Europe as it was in my case, you’re gonna love the Elektrichka, too, because it sends you right back to your childhood – cold, uncomfortable and slow! Well, it is manageable and actually it is a great experience, because it passes through many villages and small towns – the typical Russian countryside places we were looking for. And yes, it seems like it stops at every single station that exists on its way and that’s why it takes nearly 4 hours for a distance of only 180km.
We were there in the beginning of October, so it was already quite cold, but very beautiful with the colourful autumn leaves. The passengers inside the Elektrichka train were regular people going to their village to visit relatives or to their country house. There are people selling unimaginable items inside and when I say selling, I mean standing at the front of each carriage and doing a full 40min teleshop type of demonstration – one of the most entertaining live shows I’ve seen in a while!
By the way Veliky Novgorod is situated at the highway that is connecting St. Petersburg and Moscow, so it is also a stop to consider if you are on a road trip. There are regular bus connections as well, which for some reason our Russian hosts did not recommend.
Things to See
Turns out there are lots and lots of things to see in this small town, not surprising given the fact that it was Russia’s capital back in the 9th century.
First of all there is a copy of Kremlin, known as the Kremlin of Novgorod or simply Detinets as the locals call it. It looks exactly like the Kremlin in Moscow – it is huge and beautiful with its red walls and towers and it also contains the oldest palace in Russia. Of course, there is a museum inside it, which I enjoyed quite a lot.
There is a large variety of medieval monuments in Veliky Novgorod, but the most famous one of them all is for sure the St. Sophia Cathedral. It is inside of the Kremlin Complex and you can’t miss it, because its silver and golden tops are visible from almost every part of the town.
Just in front of the cathedral there is a beautiful bronze monument called the Millennium of Russia, which was erected in the mid 19th century and apparently represents the starting point of Russian statehood.
There are many many beautiful churches to see outside of the Kremlin wall. We took a long walk, crossed a pedestrian bridge from which you can enjoy a very pleasant view over Kremlin and some of the churches.
In the middle of the park next to Kremlin, there is a two storey house, which turned out to be a very creative souvenir shop. It was a great place to stop and warm ourselves a little bit and enjoy some extraordinary hand-made souvenirs and pieces of art.
The Highlight of the Day
It’s a universal travellers’ rule that the best things you get to see and experience are those off the beaten path. Veliky Novgorod made no exception. Luckily, our local hosts advised us to visit this place, which we didn’t find neither on wikipedia nor in the traveler reviews.
I’m talking about the Museum of the Traditional Russian Village or in Russian something like Muzei Derevnya. To get there you have take the local bus for about 20-30min. We took the bus directly from the train station – this museum was the first thing we visited when we arrived. We were afraid not to miss it and didn’t know at what time it closes. I don’t remember the number of the bus we took, but there is not a lot of choice since the town is small – just ask someone for the Museum and they will tell you.
It’s an open air museum, showing the beauty and diversity of the Traditional Russian rural architecture. You have the feeling that you are actually walking through an old Russian village – beautiful wooden houses, plenty of photo opportunities. You can enter inside most of the houses and see the furniture, the cooking tools and other traditional objects inside.
We were lucky for many reasons. When we arrived there the weather was nice, which I guess does not happen very often in October, but in addition to that there was some kind a celebration of the cabbage (the season of the cabbage). Cabbage is widely used in Russian cuisine and a main ingredient of many traditional Russian dishes. There were lots of young and older ladies dressed in typical Russian folklore wear, singing songs and cooking cabbage on site and giving full hot meals away for the visitors. They were playing different games, dancing and laughing, telling stories for those that can understand them in Russian. The atmosphere was very lively and I believe this contributed a lot to our impression of the town and especially of this outdoor museum.
Bonus tip: When your feet get tired or you just want to warm yourself up before you continue your walk, don’t forget to take a cup of “sbiten” – a traditional hot drink based on honey and different herbs. It’s really helping if you feel a bit sick (which I was) or if you just want to enjoy a great cozy and sweet Russian drink instead of the regular tea we are used to taking.
On the way back we managed to catch the regular train, which unlike the Elektrichka was very comfortable and fast, so we arrived back in St. Pete just on time for some drinks and good music