Parks & Recreation: Park Pobedy.

Moscow is one of the biggest cities in the world, and it is known for its pompous architecture and great boulevards. Many of the concrete structures are a reminder of past times which are still vivid in the people’s hearts, minds, and memories. One example of such a structure or area is Park Pobedy, a grand park located in the (South-)Western corner of Moscow.

Park Pobedy, or Парк Победы, was constructed in honour of the country’s victory in World War II or, as the Russians remember it, Great Patriotic War. It’s also where the name comes from – Pobeda meaning victory, so it’s the Park of Victory. It is actually a vast memorial complex that includes many monuments, fountains, museums, and a church, synagogue, and mosque. Every year on May 9, Russia celebrates Victory Day in which this park becomes the centre of celebrations.

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The park at Poklonnaya Hill is set as a reminder that Russia and its citizen suffered a great deal during the war. The area actually used to be the tallest point of Moscow and was an open-air museum to remind of Russia’s victory over Napoleon. The hill was leveled down to the ground in 1987 and has been gradually turned into the war memorial it is today.

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Right at the entrance to the park there is a long promenade that gives a great view over the area and the surrounding city. This big road lined with fountains leads to the obelisk, a war memorial museum and an exhibition of tanks, war planes, and other weaponry. The park ends into a forest.

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The park was carefully constructed, and certain numbers were kept in mind when planning it. For example, the central avenue, the “Years of War”, has five terraces which links to the five years of conflict. A total of 1,418 fountains can be found there – one for every day. The memorial chapel, mosque, and synagogue are for the different religions of the fallen soldiers. The height of the obelisk with a statue of Nike, the Greek goddess of Victory, represents every day of Russia’s participation in WWII (141.8 metres, 10 cm for a day). In 2005, 15 pompous bronze columns that symbolise the main fronts and navies of the Red Army were added.

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What I especially liked about this park is that it is such a huge “empty” space within such a big city. It is such an interesting feeling that you get when walking around in such a massive park surrounded by skyscrapers. It is a mix of feeling secluded from everything but also being in the middle of a huge town.


The Museum of the Great Patriotic War is open TUE, WED, SUN 10:00–20:00 & THU, FRU, SAT 10:00–20:50. The entrance ticket for the museum is 300 rubles (4.30€ or 5.05 USD), or for the whole exhibition area 400 rubles (5.74€ or 6.73USD). The park area is free.

What to do in winter: ice skating!

Do you remember the time when you first stood on ice skates? Mine was when I was very young. Growing up on the countryside with a lot of space around the house we had our own small ice skating rink. I assume it was thanks to my brother and my dad; and yes, rink is too fancy a word. We (they?) just poured some water on an empty spot next to the house. Not big and far from perfect – it even had a small gap because of a mortar joint or something like that where we had to be really careful not to fall. Even ‘owning’ our own skating ground did not mean I was any good at it, but I enjoyed it at that time. Still, in my teens I hardly ever went on the ice, only when our gym teacher made us go. And only once during my student time in Vienna did I manage to go on the beautiful Eistraum in front of the city hall.

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Maslenitsa: Butter Week in Russia.

Last week was Масленица (Maslenitsa), also known as ‘Butter Week’. This is a week at the end of winter in which people celebrate the last week before the ‘Great Fast’ (the fasting period before Eastern). Believers of the orthodox religion fast for 8 weeks before Eastern, and as the dates for Eastern are not always the same, the week of Maslenitsa is always a different one. This year it started on February 20, lasting a full week.

Despite being celebrated as a Christian tradition nowadays, Maslenitsa originates from a Pagan tradition, making it probably the oldest Slavic tradition. The end of winter is being celebrated, and as meat is already ‘forbidden’ in this week because of the fasting period, eggs, milk, cheese, and other dairy products are very important during Maslenitsa, hence the name ‘Butter Week’ or also ‘Crepe week’. One of the most typical types of food for this week are bliny – pancakes made out of butter, eggs and milk.

During Maslenitsa every day has its own meaning and tradition. On Monday, the Welcoming day, people make the straw-stuffed figure of Winter, dressed in old women’s clothing, which is called Maslenitsa. The rest of the week is full of playing games, dressing up in carnival costumes, meeting mother-in-laws, and just eating a lot of pancakes.  However, Sunday is the most important day during Maslenitsa – the Sunday of Forgiveness. People ask each other for forgiveness and burn the previously made straw figure in a bonfire, the ashes are then buried to fertilize the crops. The end of Maslenitsa is the following Monday – the Clean Monday, which is the first day of the Great Lent and the day for cleaning all of the mess from the previous week.

A good Russian friend of mine summarised Maslenitsa in very simple words “Russians cook pancakes and eat it all day long”. I am not religious but as a big fan of pancakes I found this week to be the perfect ‘excuse’ for making some just for me and have a little Maslenitsa myself. Funnily, in the past week I got to enjoy pancakes four times in total unintentionally, so it was a true Pancakes week for me.

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Pancakes with a great view!!

Pancakes are also very common for Austria, but we make them thinner and call them ‘Palatschinken’. When I was younger my grandma used to make them quite often, filled with a thin layer of any jam that we had at home and sprinkled with powdered sugar.

Years later I have already found my own ‘perfect’ recipe how I like pancakes the best. I usually always have ripe bananas at home, as well as almond milk and oats. So it happens to be a vegan recipe that is very simple, you don’t have to weigh anything. Of course you can also use an egg instead of the banana but I just prefer the sweet taste that the banana gives the pancakes.

The recipe is very simple:

  • 1 mug of oats
  • 1 mug of almond or oat milk
  • 1 ripe banana
  • a pinch of of salt, cinnamon and grated nutmeg

Put everything in a blender until you have a nice smooth dough. Heat some vegetable or coconut oil in a pan to medium heat. With a ladle scoop some of the dough into the pan to make some nice golden brown pancakes.

I usually just put maple sirup, sliced bananas, or any other fruits that I have at home (especially berries are very delicious with it), or also just jam on top of the pancakes to make them even tastier.

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It is a super easy, very delicious and not time consuming recipe! Perfect for a little Maslenitsa celebration ;)

University in Moscow

When travelling I like to visit university buildings as they are usually among the oldest buildings of the town and therefore quite impressive. Being a student myself it is always interesting to see other facilities and how well-equipped or not so well-equipped educational buildings in other countries are. As I was taking part in a student exchange in Moscow, I got to see this up close on a daily basis!

Apparently, there are almost 900 universities in Russia, and Moscow is the educational centre of the country, which has been like that since the USSR. There are more than 200 institutes of higher education and 60 state universities and 90 colleges. Most of them are centred around one specific field (i.e. aviation, economics, medicine) and only some of them have a wide-spectrum, such as the State University of Moscow. Russian universities are (mostly?) tuition based, which depends on the subject studied. It starts from 64,000 roubles a year (around 1,000 EUR) to 344,000 roubles a year (5,400 EUR) for the most prestigious universities.

Most of the universities also offer dorms for their students on their campus or near the universities at a relatively or very low price in comparison to the rent of a standard apartment in the city. Another great advantage of the universities in Russia is that they typically have their own sports facilities in order for the students to participate in uni sports teams or  just to work out.

The beautiful one

The Lomonosov Moscow State University – short MSU (or in Russian МГУ because of Московский государственный университет имени М. В. Ломоносова) – is one of the most impressive buildings that I saw in Moscow or even in Russia. The university itself was founded in 1755 by Mikhail Lomonossov, hence the name which the university received in 1940. It offers a wide-spectrum of programmes, so it is not centralised around one specific field.

The main building of the university was designed by the famous Lev Rudner, erected in the 1950s. Not only is it supposedly the tallest educational building in the world, but also the highest one of the famous seven Stalinist skyscrapers of Moscow. Apparently, inside the building there are a total of 33 kilometres of corridors and 5,000 rooms – quite impressive and a lot to walk if you’re an unlucky student. The university itself is home to around 47,000 students.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to just go inside the building as you have to work there, be a student, or have a special entry card, as security in such buildings is taken really seriously. So I only got to see it from the outside which was still worth the time it took to get there. I had to take the red line on the metro to the station ‘Universitet’ and then walk for another 15 minutes in order to reach the main building.

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My host university

My host university from my semester abroad was, however, not the grand State University but the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics, short PRUE (Российский экономический университет имени Г.В. Плеханова). It is also one of the public universities of Moscow, and opposed to the MSU the university is one with a narrow specialisation, as the name already tells. The university’s foundation dates back to 1907, so it is not as old as MSU, but it was the first finance-specialised college in the Russian Empire. In the course of the Soviet era, PRUE became bigger and recognised as one of Russia’s most prestigious universities.  PRUE even has its own TV channel which is called ‘Plekhanov TV’!

Plekhanov university has around 14,000 students – not a lot in comparison with the State university – but the building/campus is rather small and the university is specialised. Also, in my opinion the location of PRUE is much better. The university has 8 buildings which are right next to each other, and it is situated in the city center and only two metro stations away from the Red Square. So I could not have been more lucky with its location as I wanted to see as much possible from Moscow without having the need to spend a lot of time on public transport.

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I must say that I was not very impressed by the university building itself, but I was being spoiled with mostly attending ‘brand-new built’ universities so far, and it unfortunately did not have the charm of the ancient universities such as the MSU. Nonetheless, it is the inside that counts, right? When entering the main building (which is building number 3 funnily) you are first greeted by safety gates and columns with mirrors, so students can make themselves pretty for classes I assume ;) Right next to the entrance is a small memorial with an ‘eternal flame’ which can be found on so many places throughout Russia. In general, the building is not bad for a university, but also not impressive in my eyes. I also think that the interior – especially some of the old and very very very uncomfortable wood benches – should be replaced.

University Life

In general, university life in Russia is similar to other universities in Europe, as we had lectures and seminars, presentations, group works, tests and exams. However, in my opinion the academic level is still lacking behind in comparison to the universities that I have attended so far in Western Europe. The system for graduates at PRUE was slightly different as master students only had classes in the evening (Russians usually work full-time during the day) and there is no mandatory attendance (but it helps getting a better grade sometimes).

What I especially liked:

  • My programme coordinator / my programme in general. The people responsible for my programme and us international graduates seemed to be very laissez faire in comparison to the bachelor student’s coordinator. We had more freedom in terms of negotiating certain administrative things and my coordinator even made the schedule in accordance with my wishes of doing additional courses to get more credits. At other universities abroad something like that would have never been possible and I wouldn’t even have dared asking that.
  • Location. My university & the dorm were situated right next to one and very near to another metro station, so travelling was very easy and comfortable for us. Plus, there were many supermarkets, restaurants and bars nearby.
  • The Buddy system. I already touched upon it in this blogpost in which I explained that some Russian PRUE students take responsibility for us internationals and take us places, help us out when needed, and just try to make the best out of our stay. With them we got to see cool places in the city and watch ballets and musical for almost free. Plus, in the end some of us became friends as well!
  • Nothing is set in stone. Just one example: even though we were supposed to have one presentation, a test and en exam in a course that we weren’t even able to attend, it turned out that we only had to listen to a few presentations and do a short test on principles of management. I’m not complaining. Also, I was lacking a few credits (as I couldn’t take one course) they just fixed it for me.

 

What I especially did not like:

  • The complex university building. I never got the knack out of it in which direction inside the main building I have to go in order to get to the room that I had been going to for weeks. Of course I remembered which floor to get on (most of the times) but I could never recall if I should turn left or right. Plus, come on, where were the toilets? There was none for women on the fourth floor, there was one on the third (or was it on the fifth?) that was always locked, and one did not have a sign. Or am I mixing it all up now? See, I am still confused with the stupid building and yes, I know, it is probably just my own fault and the poor university cannot take responsibility for stupid people like me.
  • Bureaucracy. A major downside of Russian universities that we exchange students experienced was the immense bureaucracy of the country / university. Getting something done like getting a signature, extending our visa, or even paying for the dorm could take hours, days, weeks or even months! I ended up not applying for the ‘social card’ which is a metro card for a very cheap price for students as my peers only got theirs at the beginning of/mid-December and I was about to leave by then already.
  • Nothing is set in stone. Up until one week before the end of one course no one knew how we would get our grades – not even the professor as someone else was giving instructions to him but they neglected to do that in a timely manner. So one week before the last class we got the news that we had to write a group paper and prepare for a presentation plus something like an oral exam/questioning thing. Fun times.

 

There are lots of other things that I liked and disliked but I just picked the ones that stick out in my head the most. I met great people, and I had a few really interesting courses with interesting professors. I also had courses that I did not like, professors that obviously had no idea what they were talking about or who did not once accept a different opinion on a subject. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t want to miss it for the world. For me, a study exchange should never only be about the academic side of it but more about experiencing and getting to know another country and culture and the people who live there!

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Christmas feeling in Moscow.

Christmas and especially the advent season has become my favourite time of the year. So I was really looking forward to experiencing this in Moscow.

Russians do not celebrate Christmas on the 24th or 25th of December but on January 6th and 7th. This is due to their Orthodox religion and the Julian calendar. Religious people start a fasting period 40 days before Christmas in which they don’t consume any animal products such as meat, eggs or dairy products.

Novy God (Новый Год) – New Year – is the New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day celebration, which represents the start of their Christmas celebrations. January 1st involves a lot of joyous entertainment, fireworks, large meals and other festivities. It combines secular traditions with the Christian Orthodox Christmastide customs. Russians usually take the week between New Year and Christmas off – which they call the Новогодние каникулы “New Year’s holidays”.

Grandfather Frost – Дед Мороз / Ded Moroz – is their version of Santa; he brings the presents to children on New Year’s morning. He is accompanied by Snegurochka (Снегурочка), who is his granddaughter and helper. As opposed to wearing robes in red, they wear blue and silver. As a result of the Russian Revolution, Christmas traditions were discouraged due to being ‘bourgeois and religious’. Even Ded Moroz was considered to be evil. Regardless of that, Ded Moroz took his form during the Soviet era and became the main symbol of the New Year’s holiday which replaced Christmas.

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Even though Christmas is celebrated later and not in December, Moscow started to look very Christmassy very early on. Especially the shopping centres were full of decorations. Everything was very pompous and full of Christmas knick-knack. The early fall of snow at the end of October was the icing on the cake. It made everything look like a winter wonderland and was perfect for the season. I am not used to having this much snow so early and for such a long time (we had snow almost throughout November and December).

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Red Square Christmas market during the day

The most beautiful and most christmassy place in Moscow was definitely the Red Square. In mid-November they started setting up the market and a small ice rink. The market offered the usual touristy stuff such as matryoshkas, but they also had food such as blinys and mulled wine there. Oh and they also had a few other attractions such as a merry-go-round. My sister and I insisted on going on one during the day, and together with Madlene I tried another one in the evening. Very exciting!

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Saying goodbye in the evening

As I wasn’t spending Christmas in Moscow my friends and I decided to go to the Red Square shortly before I left the country. Even though I had the flu we spent a few hours enjoying the beautiful lights and Christmas decorations.

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Bliny in the making

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Exploring Russian cuisine.

I have always been warned that I will be having a hard time finding vegetarian or vegan dishes, especially traditional / local food. As I have travelled to Russia before I knew that it might be tricky sometimes but having a sweet tooth anyways made it a lot easier for me to find dishes that I liked.

In the past four month I was able to try various local dishes in various restaurants not only in Moscow but also in the cities that I’ve travelled to. As a food enthusiast I am always open to try new dishes. However, being a vegetarian has it made a bit difficult sometimes but I never went hungry. Except that one time. But that was just an unfortunate event. So in my opinion there are several places that one should definitely check out if they are vegetarian or vegan, or just want something without meat or fish.

Favourite local food

Blinchiki

Bliny – or блинчики (blinchiki) in Russian – are thin pancakes made from buckwheat flour. They can be served savory or sweet, with sour cream, butter, or even caviar.

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Varenyky

Varenyky – which are also known as pierogi – are filled dumplings. Inside the wrapping dough pockets there is either a savory or a sweet filling. I usually had them with a potato filling and Smetana (sour cream) served on the side.

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Pelmeny

Pelmeny – пельме́ни – are dumplings that are usually filled with minced meat and made out of a thin, unleavened dough. These dumplings seemed to be the most popular ones among us foreign students as you could buy them everywhere. Some could eat them every day. Even twice per day. But I won’t say any names on here. It wasn’t me.

Khachapuri

This traditional Georgian dish is a bread that is filled with cheese in the middle. It comes in various shapes and sometimes contains eggs and other ingredients.

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Syrniki

Cы́рники are fried quark pancakes that are usually eaten with sour cream, jam, or honey. I’ve got to know them on my first stay in Russia a few years ago when our host grandmother made them for us. Since then I have even tried them a few times myself but I still haven’t perfected them. Syrniki are my go-to dish in a restaurant where I don’t want to ask too many questions about ingredients and such or when I am just in the mood for something small.

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Another thing that no one should miss out on doing is getting ice cream at the GUM – the department store on the red square. It is the most legendary Soviet ice cream that comes in various flavours and is served in a waffle cone. It is sold inside the GUM at various ice cream counters year round.

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Favourite Restaurants and Bars

Cafe Sok -Кафе СОК

Cafe Sok is not only a café but they also offer a wide variety of Russian, Georgian, Indian, and Italian dishes. All of them are vegetarian and some are even vegan. It is located opposite of the famous Tretyakov Gallery, more or less in the centre of Moscow.

This restaurant has become my favourite place as every dish that I have tried so far turned out to be delicious, the food arrangement was perfect as well, and the staff has always been very accommodating and helpful. When my boyfriend was visiting we even saw part of a wedding dinner there, so we could see some traditional stuff there as well.

In Cafe Sok I was also able to try Borscht, the famous beetroot soup that is popular in various Eastern European cuisines. As soups in Russia usually either contain meat or are made from a meat stock, I can never just order soup in ‘normal’ restaurants (or at least I don’t trust to). I’ve become a beetroot fan so I recommend everyone to try this soup at least once.

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Phala

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Borscht

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Vareniki with potatoes and mushrooms

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Raw cakes with figs

Jagannath

Кафе «Джаганнат» – Jagannath – is a vegetarian restaurant/buffet in the centre of Moscow. It exudes a somewhat hippy style due to the interior design and the music that is played there.

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Jamie’s Italian

Right next to the Red Square is the location of one of Jamie Oliver’s restaurants – Jamie’s Italian.

City Space Bar

The bar is located inside the Swissotel on the 34th floor. The City Space Bar is one of the highest bars in Moscow and from up there you have a beautiful panoramic view over the city. Even though that the drinks are a bit pricy it is very stylish and fancy there, and the view is really amazing!

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Cafe Pushkin

The Café Pushkin is actually not a café but a five-star restaurant, that is open 24 hours a day. The waiters speak very good English and the service is excellent. The restaurant is located on Tverskoy Boulevard and serves historic fare of Russian nobility. Everything inside looks really fancy, the waiters are educated in the perfect manner. Prices are slightly high, but it’s definitely worth the location and the food and drinks.

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Coffee House culture in Moscow

Coffee Shop Company

There are quite a lot of coffee places in Moscow, and it is even possible to find some Viennese among them. The Coffee Shop Company chain is one perfect example for that. Regarding the prices, it has a level of around Starbucks, and the choices are relatively similar as well. But it is Austrian! They even offer Sacher Torte there. It is possible to find them all over Moscow (and in other cities of Russia as well), and there is one right next to my university.

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Schokoladnitsa

The Шоколадница is one of the biggest and most famous coffee shop chains in Russia. The price is very good in there, and they have a variety of drinks and dishes to choose from. You can even order a cup of pure melted chocolate. Very delicious but very heavy!

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Coffee House

Кофе Хауз is yet another Russian coffee shop chain. Prices are very low, they have a good variety of cake and the cafés are also located all over town. There is also one located near where I was living and it used to be the place that we sometimes went to for having a birthday cake. However, the staff is very slow to respond and sometimes forgets half of the order. The cakes are delicious nevertheless!

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Foodwise there is a lot to explore in Russia, even if you don’t eat meat. It is true, sometimes it is a bit more work or effort – you always need to double or triple check and ask the waiter for specifics.

 

East meets West: Kazan.

A while ago when doing research about potential travel destinations within Russia I came across Kazan. I haven’t really heard much about the city before, I only knew that it was one of the megapolises of Russia. A quick google search told me that the architecture was supposed to be different from other Russian cities so of course I was hooked immediately and the decision was made to go there at some point. Some friends were easily convinced to tag along, so my old travel pal Madlene and I abandoned our former travel group members Frederik and Marcel and got us a new crew. Together with Monika, Viktoria, Daan and Ghezal we spent a weekend in Kazan.

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Part of the new crew

Kazan

Kazan is the capital and the largest city of the Republic of Tatarstan. With a population of around 1.14 million people it is also the eighth largest one in Russia. The city lies at the confluence of the Volga and the Kazanka River. The most special aspect of Kazan is the mix between East and West / Muslim and Orthodox. Apparently it is also one of the most tourist-friendly cities of Russia. Yay!

People are proud of their culture and try to preserve it, which can also be seen on state level. Tatar language is official – students must learn it at school. Signs are written both in Russian and Tatar. In that sense it is not a typical Russian city which makes it even more interesting. In 2009 Kazan got the right to brand the city as the ‘Third Capital’ of Russia. The city has a rich industrial side, and is a cultural and educational centre. Kazan federal university for example is the oldest university in Russia.

Due to its continental and far inland position, Kazan has a humid continental climate which includes long, cold winters (it’s even colder than in some areas further west in Europe, eg Moscow). In December the average low is -11.4°C and the record low is -42.9°C. Freaking cold!

Exploring the city

While driving from the airport to our hostel we already passed many beautiful buildings that gave us a first impression of the city. Even though our cab ride was ridiculously overpriced (for Russia at least) our driver was very nice and tried to explain most of the buidlings and told us interesting things of the city. Some we understood and some we didn’t, but Google our friend and helper filled the gaps. The thing that sticked out the most were all the sports related buildings in the outskirts of the city. We learned that in 2013 the Summer Universiade – an international multi-sport event for university athletes – was held there (also referred to as World University Games, or World Student Games). It is the largest multi-sport event in the world apart from the Olympic Games. Apparently it was the most northern held Summer Universiade thus far. Also, in 2009 the city was chosen as the ‘Sports capital of Russia’.

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First look at the Kremlin

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Our first expedition in the city lead us to a viewing platform on the other side of the river on which the Kazan Family Center is located. This tower has the shape of a huge cauldron and is a place for weddings. Unfortunately, the viewing platform on the tower itself is closed in the winter season. We had a nice view over the city nevertheless.

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Within the Kazan Kremlin walls

As in many other cities in Russia there is also a Kremlin (or in Tatar kirman) in Kazan which was declared a World Heritage Site in 2000. The skyline of the city is dominated by its beautiful fortress. Inside the white walls of the citadel there are various major monuments such as the Annunciation Cathedral, the leaning Soyembika Tower, or the Qol-Şarif mosque. Also, the central government of the republic is located within the walls. The kremlin is located on a relatively high point of Kazan so we also had a very nice view over the city and the frozen river.

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The Mosque Qol-Şarif

The Qol-Şarif mosque is the biggest mosque in Europe. Before Kazan was conquered by Ivan the Terrible in 1552, there used to be a white mosque with blue domes and minarets, and it used to be the capital of the Kazan Khanate. In the years after that the native population, Tatars, were massacred or forcibly christianized. In 2005 the mosque was rebuilt in honor of the Kazan’s Millenium Jubilee (yes, apparently the city is one of the oldest ones in Russia). It represents a new symbol of Kazan and Tatarstan – ‘a bridge connecting the past and future’. The mosque got its name to honour the imam who was killed by Ivan the Terrible’s troops in 1552 while trying to protect the city.

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Annunciation Cathedral

The cathedral inside the Kremlin was built in 1561-62 and is the only 16th-century Russian church to have six columns and five domes. Interesting fact, right?

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The Ministry of Agriculture

The building of the Ministry of Agriculture is a magnificent work of architecture. Very eclectic with a beautiful massive wrought-iron tree in the centre of the building. The building is located across from the Kremlin, so it can already be spotted from within the Kremlin walls.

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Group picture!

Tatar Food

Unfortunately, I cannot tell much about Tatar Food as most of it contains meat. However, I tried soft manti dumplings filled with pumpkins and something else that I can’t remember at the Dom Tatarskoy Kulinarii (House of Tartar Cuisine) where we were able to listen to local live music for some time. We also tried chack-chack – a pastry coated in honeyed sugar syrup – at the Tatarskaya Usadba (Tartar estate). I did not really like the dessert, the place was very nice though and the waiter was very good at English, which is a rarity sometimes.

Christmas Feeling in Kazan 

Kazan was covered in snow and it was freezingly cold. Some streets were covered in ice which made it really tricky to walk without slipping. Nonetheless, the city was magical as parts of it were illuminated in fairy lights. There was even an ice skating rink on next to the river and it was the most beautiful one I’ve seen so far in Russia. Christmas was all around us and we even had a cup of hot cider in a cute little café near the ice rink.

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Kazan was a lovely city despite the harsh wind and the freezing temperatures. We explored as much as we could while trying to stay as warm as we could by spending a lot of time inside restaurants and cafes, or taking an uber from A to B.

The Kremlin of Kazan makes a strong statement by having a (orthodox) church next to a mosque. It shows that is possible to live peacefully next to each other despite representing different religions. It was my first time ever inside a mosque and it was really interesting to see it and learn more about it.

In the north of Russia: Murmansk.

A few months ago I was thinking about which places I could go visit while staying in Russia. One of the first cities that came to my mind was Murmansk. I can’t even give a reason for that but I have always had the urge to go there. My travel partners from Nizhny Novgorod were (more or less) easily convinced and the flights to Murmansk from Moscow were relatively cheap as well. So Madlene, Marcel, Frederik & I spent an adventurous weekend in the city far up north without doing much research beforehand.

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The City Murmansk

Murmansk is located in the northwest part of Russia on the Kola Bay, which is an inlet of the Barents Sea on the northern shore of the Kola Peninsula. The city is located on an extreme-northern latitude just 2° north of the Arctic Circle. It is very close to Norway and Finland – it is possible to reach both countries within a short time. The city’s name is derived from ‘Murman Coast’, and Murman is an old Russian term for Norwegians. With a population of around 307,000 Murmansk is by far the biggest Arctic city (followed by Norilsk in Russia with 175,000 and Tromsø in Norway with 71,590).

Despite being located in such an extreme Northern part, the city/region enjoys some benefits that other northern cities for example in Siberia lack. The Murmansk region has highway and railway access to the rest of Europe, as well as the northernmost trolleybus system on Earth. Comparatively warm Gulf Stream waters keep the city’s port ice-free even in winter.

Murmansk was the last city that was founded in the Russian Empire in 1916. Due to the outbreak of WWI Russia was in need of military supplies so Russia extended the railway system in order to reach the ice-free location on the Murman coast. In WW II Murmansk served as a port for arctic convoys, and afterwards it became the most important submarine base of the Soviet Union.

The climate of the region is subarctic with long & cold winters, and short but mild summers. The mean monthly sunshine hours of November are 6 and in December 0. As we were travelling at the end of November, we had around 3 – 4 hours of daylight and temperatures around -10° C.

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sunrise or sunset?!


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at the airport


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Anatoly Bredov monument

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Bandy, a sport similar to ice hockey where a ball is used instead of the puck, is very popular in Murmansk. We came across the city’s home arena which apparently has an audience capacity of 5,000. Only three places have representation in the female Bandy league, and Murmansk is one of them.

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Bandy arena ‘Stadium Stroitel’

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Murmansk railway station

Port of Murmansk

It was a must for us to go see the docks as the port is the raison d’être of the city.

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Lenin Icebreaker

In the port of Murmansk is the Soviet nuclear-powered icebreaker Lenin (Ленин) which was launched in 1957. It was the world’s first nuclear-powered surface ship. After the decommission in 1989 the ship was converted into a museum.

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Alyosha and the view over the city

From the city centre we could see a huge monument on a hill a bit outside of the city centre. It is the second of the two main attractions of Murmansk so we had to go there and see it with our own eyes. Also, we thought that we might be able to have a great view over the city, which was true. Off we went with a taxi to go there as it would have taken us forever to go there by foot.

The Defenders of the Soviet Arctic during the Great Patriotic War is the official name of the monument, but it is commonly called Alyosha (‘Алёша’). The statue was erected in 1974, is 33.5 metres tall, which makes it the second tallest statue of Russia. Alyosha is dedicated to Soviet soldiers, sailors, and airmen of World War II.

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Hunting the Northern Lights

Murmansk is supposedly a prime spot for watching the Northern Lights. Not Murmansk directly, as a city is hardly ever the best place for spotting them, but the region around the city. Of course we had to try as well but unfortunately we picked the wrong weekend for doing so. Nevertheless, we were still able to see parts of the Murmansk area, we got to listen to very interesting stories about the city and Russia in general, plus we went on a hike at 4 in the morning in order to have a great view over the city. Who else can say that?! Oh, and we played around with Light Painting.

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The world’s…

… northernmost McDonalds in the world. 

On our first day we wanted to bridge the annoying time between lunch and dinner (we missed lunch as we were on the plane at that time) and decided to still our hunger with a quick snack. At that time we weren’t even aware of the fact that we were sitting and eating at the northernmost McDonalds in the world (even though they had a sign for that).

…northernmost trolleybus route in the world. 

According to several sources, Murmansk has the northernmost trolleybus route of the world. Frederik and I decided to stay in bed instead (and not get up earlier before going to the airport) so we did not travel with one of them, but Madlene and Marcel did. Good for them.

… tallest building above the Artic Circle.

The Hotel Arctic which is known as Azimut Hotel Murmansk is the tallest building above the Artic Circle. It was opened in 1984. We’ve been there every day as we had to ask a few questions at their reception, ate in the restaurant Arktika once, and cleaned our shoes with their shoeshine machine.

…first nuclear-powered surface ship

We couldn’t help ourselves but we just had to go inside the ship even though we had to wait for an hour to make the tour which was of course held in Russian.

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agree to disagree on that one…

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Murmansk is probably the most northern part of the world that I will ever travel to (even though I still kinda want to go to Svalbard). Seeing another interesting part of Russia that is so different from the parts that I have already seen was a great experience that I wouldn’t want to miss. We’ve spent some great 2-3 days there, we enjoyed meals in exclusive restaurants (we didn’t do that on purpose…) that were still cheap in comparison to our home countries. We were even lucky enough to see the sun on all three days. The weather was perfect during the day. Even during the night it was warmer than I’d expected it to be (still cold though!). The best thing about the city though is that it is full of beautiful huskies!! ❤️

Exploring the Golden Ring: Rostov.

The Golden Ring near Moscow has several beautiful cities to offer. Their importance in history has made me want to explore not only Yaroslavl but also a small town nearby: Rostov.

Rostov (Ростов) is one of the oldest towns in the country with a population of around 31,000 people. The city lies on the shores of the Lake Nero. The city’s official name is Rostov, but to Russians it is also known as Rostov Veliky (to not mix it up with Rostov-on-Don). It is located around 200 kilometres northeast of Moscow, and it is quite easy to reach the city by train from there.

First people settled down at the place from 4,000 BC. Finn-Ugors people were living there until the 11th century, and the city of Rostov was founded by them. Officially it is known since the 9th century, making it one of Russia’s oldest towns. In the 13th century Rostov was one of the 5 biggest towns of Russia. Its importance was based on the fact that people living in the town were educated and worked very hard to make the town even better. The city’s political and cultural growth, however, came to an end with the Tartar invasion as many people were killed, the town was ransacked and partly destroyed. Nowadays Rostov is quite a small town with old buildings and a Kremlin.

When my boyfriend was visiting me, we spent a few days in Yaroslavl, and on our way back to Moscow we thought it might be a good idea to make a quick stop in Rostov. We took an Elektrichka (a local train) as it was the easiest and probably cheapest way even though it took some time (despite being really close to Yaroslavl) and it was also very cold inside the train. Nevertheless, we made it safely to Rostov. Some other passengers unfortunately already really hurt themselves when leaving the train by slipping on the ice. A very warm welcome to the city I must say!

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We made some great feline and canine friends in the city. At the train station we met a lovely white cat that was living at the station. At least we assumed that she was as every employee greeted her like an old pal. Also, we met quite a lot of stray dogs, and one of them started following us as he saw us eating something. He followed us from the train station to the city centre, which was almost an half hour walk.

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Our first view at the Kremlin / church

Lake Nero

After reaching the city centre we decided that we first wanted to walk around for a bit and not go directly into the Kremlin. Our route lead us to the shores of the lake. The Nero lake (Не́ро) is shallow, with an area of around 55 km². Apparently, it is around 500,000 years old, which makes it one of the pre-ice age lakes in Russia. It was very nice to walk there, as there were no people or cars on the streets. Some of the buildings next to the lake looked deserted. However, there were some fancy mansions next to half-collapsed buildings in which there were still people living.

At the end of the road that lead along the lake we could spot another monastery. Due to the ice and snow it took us such a long time to gain ground so we decided to skip this monastery as we just would not have time for it.

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Near the Kremlin there was also a souvenir market and as it was the weekend it happened to be open so we had a quick look at it. It was kinda really sad as no other people were there but we also did not want to buy anything from there.

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The Kremlin

The main sight of the city is of course the fortress with its Assumption Cathedral, which dates back to the mid-16th century. When visiting the Kremlin we even heard them as it was exactly 12 o’clock. There are several other churches within the walls, also tower bells, numerous palaces, and belfries. The bells rank among the largest and most famous ones in Russia, and everyone has its own name.

In order to see the whole area you need to pay a small entrance fee (I think it was 50 rubles). There is also the possibility to go inside some of the churches and museums there, but we decided not to do that. The area and the gardens were enough for us.

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So far, Rostov is the smallest city that I’ve visited in Russia. It was really interesting as it was so extremely rural. The city was covered in snow (and ice and some dirt) which transformed it into a winter wonderland. True, there is not much to do or see in the town, but it is perfect for spending half a day there just as we did.

 

Parks and Recreation: Gorky Park

A park in walking distance from my current place in Moscow is Gorky Park (officially Gorky Central Park of Culture and Leisure / Центральный парк культуры и отдыха имени Горького / Tsentralny park kultury i otdykha imeni Gorkogo). The park got its name from the Russian and Soviet writer Maxim Gorky (1868 – 1936), a founder of the socialist realism literary method (whatever that is…) and a political activist.

Opened in 1928 and the first of such kind back then, the park stretches along the bangs of the Moscow river with an area of 300 hectres. It is divided into two parts – the first one more dedicated to entertaining kids with funfair rides and such things. It is also possible to rent boats or horses. During summer there is a ‘beach’ area that is also an open air club in the evenings, and in winter part of this area becomes a vast skating rink. The other part of the park is more restrained and consists of formal gardens and woodlands. It is also home to some old buildings that date back to the 18th/19th century.

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Ministry of Defence

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Pushkinskiy most (bridge)

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Snowy park landscape

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The thing I like most about this park is that it stretches along the Moscow river and you see grand buildings on the other side of the river. Also, the bridges over the Moscow are beautiful and nice to look at. The park has plenty to offer for everyone, regardless of the seasons. Obviously, the pictures from above are more than a few weeks old, and the park is wrapped in snow (more or less). I can’t wait to go there and try myself at ice skating there.