Although the receptionist gave us a friendly smile, we already knew where we were. In an old Soviet hotel. During our trip through Russia we had seen a lot of these grey sleeping factories. I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’s clean and decent, but it isn’t very cosy. We were given a room on the fourth floor and so we took the elevator. Or should I say, pushed ourselves into the elevator. The area was probably about two by one meter. Pretty difficult if you have two large suitcases. The elevator turned out to be a sign for the use of space in this hotel. The hotel room was more a walk-in closet than a real room. I didn’t even bother to take a picture of the room. We threw our suitcases on the bed (where else?) and decided the room could wait. Let’s go into the city. Back in the elevator we looked at each other and laughed. Those old Soviet hotels are actually pretty funny.
These were our very first moments arriving in one of the oldest cities of Russia: Veliky Novgorod. Ironically this name means ‘Great New City’, except there’s nothing great or new about it. With a population of more than 200.000 inhabitants this city is one of the smaller cities in west Russia. The history of Veliky Novgorod goes all the way back to the year 859 (according to the chronicles) which makes this city older than Prague. Veliky Novgorod used to be a wealthy trade city that was part of the Hanseatic league. The strategic location on the river Volkhov gave this city a powerful economic position. Moreover, this city wasn’t part of the Mongol domination in the fourteenth and fifteenth century and so it has kept its old character. The historical centre is full with old monuments. In this article I will tell you about my favorites. Let the parade of onion domes begin!
The heart of the city: the Kremlin
In Veliky Novgorod (often shortened to Novgorod) you’ll find the oldest Kremlin in Russia. The fortification is built in the eleventh century and was then called ‘Detinets’. Striking is the long fortress wall that crawls its way along the citadel. The wall itself is about one and a half kilometer long! The Kremlin is the pride of Russia and is even portrayed on the reverse side of the banknote of 5 rubles. On the other side of this banknote you’ll see the Saint Sophia Cathedral which you can find inside the walls of the Kremlin. This church is about nine hundred years old and is therefore one of the oldest cathedrals in Russia. I loved this church, especially because of the silver domes which I hadn’t seen so much despite my long journey through Russia. Also inside the walls (and on the banknote) is the black monument ‘Millenium of Russia’. The shape reminded me of the clock bell I saw in the Kremlin of Moscow, but in Novgorod they did something else with it. The outside is decorated with famous historical figures that have played an important role in Russia between the ninth and the nineteenth century. From Rurik and prince Vladimir to tsar Ivan the Terrible and Catherine the Great. You can see them all here. It’s a bit chauvinistic, but also pretty interesting to see if you’re into Russian history.
Yaroslav Court, the old merchant centre
On the other side of the Kremlin you’ll find the banks of the river Volkhov. The river divides Novgorod into two sides: the side of Sophia (with the St. Sophia cathedral and the Kremlin) and the trade side. You can reach this last-mentioned side by crossing the high pedestrian bridge over the Volkhov. The trade side is the place where prince Yaroslav the Wise built his wooden palace. Yaroslav is one of the best-remembered rulers of Novgorod, because he has written the first code of law of Russia. That’s why this part of the centre is also called ‘Yaroslav Court’. Yaroslav’s palace didn’t survive it into the 21st century, but other parts did. Take for instance the White Arcade of the Trade Yard. This used to be the busiest place of Novgorod and functioned as a trading centre for merchants from the Hanseatic League. Behind the arcade there is a little green park with six churches originating from the twelfth to the sixteenth century, each with their own shapes and colors. The churches are almost built right next to each other and are symbol for the power and wealth this area used to have. My favorite was the Church of St. Paraskevi, because of its striking combination of a white roof and brick walls.
The oldest male monastery of Russia: St. George monastery
If you follow the river Volkhov further south, you’ll find the St. George monastery. This is one of the oldest acting male monasteries in Russia and is built in the twelfth century. The monastery isn’t that well-known among tourists and that’s why it is the perfect opportunity to get a glimpse of the Russian orthodox life. The reason why I liked this monastery so much is the cute little church at the corner wall: the Church of the Exaltation of the Cross. The domes of the church have a striking blue color and they are decorated with tiny golden stars. It looked like a setting straight out of Disney World. A little outside the walls I also witnessed an interesting orthodox ritual: the blessing of a car. The priest sprinkled water on the doors and seats in order to wish the passengers a good journey. I find it always interesting to see these local rituals.
Novgorod is a beautiful old city and a perfect stop on your way from Moscow to Saint Petersburg (or the other way around). In Saint Petersburg there are also a few buses heading into the direction of Novgorod (travel time 4 hours). In one day time you could get a good impression of the Novgorod city centre and its long history.
Are you also a fan of old cities like Novgorod?