Tourists are like sheep. They all tend to flock towards the same overcrowded destinations. The miles of rolling unspoilt countryside around the town of Kaluga are close to Moscow and yet wonderfully off the beaten track. They are freckled with ancient monasteries, aristocratic estates, museums and even safari parks. At Ethnomir, you can sleep in a yurt or tepee, surrounded by a sea of grass; in Park Ptits ("Bird Park") you can see parrots and peacocks, owls and hawks; in Borovsk and Kaluga you can visit the modest cottages where reclusive cosmonautics pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky formulated the revolutionary theories that would carry human beings into space. Here are some of the highlights that are closest to the Moscow edge of the region. Borovsk
Less than 100 kilometres southwest - or two hours' travel from Moscow - is the small, hilltop town of Borovsk. There are great views across the valley from the town centre, and wooden houses line the streets down to the River Protva. There is a miniature version of Moscow's Monument to the Conquerors of Space in honour of Tsiolkovsky, who worked in the town as a maths teacher for 14 years while he began the research that led to his "rocket equation". To add to the town's quaintness, a local artist, Vladimir Ovchinnikov, has covered almost every available wall with paintings.
Borovsk has several churches, but the highlight is the Svyato-Pafnutev Borovsky Monastery on the outskirts of town. The Tatar Saint Pafnuty founded it in the 15th century, and it has since survived attacks by Polish, French and German forces. The current buildings date mostly from the 16th and 17th centuries and include fortified walls built by master stone masons and a tall bell tower decorated with cherub-pattern tiles by imperial ceramicist Stepan Polubes. The main Nativity Cathedral with its flaking frescoes is being restored and the only generally accessible church is the modest St. Elijah in the far corner, but the gardens are lovely and the sacred atmosphere is powerful. Families queue near the monastic bakery to ask the abbot's advice, and swifts wheel overhead.
Located in the appropriately named village of Voroby ("sparrow"), this park on the banks of the Istra River opened in 2005, but the impressive collection of native and domestic birds was started 30 years ago. Here you can see everything from tiny finches to lumbering ostriches. There are animals too, including acrobatic gibbons, cages of wild cats and a small farm. Across a dramatic swinging bridge, you can find a paint-balling centre or follow an eco-trail. The park costs 200 roubles for adults and 50 roubles for children.
Founded in 1412, this little town's fame comes from the battle against Napoleon's army that took place here in 1812. Although the French captured the town, they lost nearly 6,000 soldiers, which later proved a decisive disadvantage. There is a monument with cannons and a memorial chapel, which contains a diorama showing the battle around the convent. The real gem is the Black Island Convent itself, beautifully situated on a cliff above the Luzha River. The gate still has bullet holes from the assault by Napoleon's army, but most of the buildings are immaculately restored and a new cathedral was built in 1843 to commemorate the battle. The convent houses an orphanage for girls, who can be seen working in the flower and vegetable gardens, and there is a spring, down the steps on the right.
Pushkin's wife, Natalya Goncharova, grew up in this idyllic village, famous for its fancy paper mills. The Goncharov family lived in a large 18th-century mansion, and its restored interiors have been made into a museum, which inevitably ends up being at least as much about the famous poet as the family he married into.
This town, founded in the 13th century, is famous for its connection with two aristocratic families, the Streshnevos and the Lopukhins, whose daughters married into the Romanov dynasty. The Lopukhin family estate, 3 kilometres out of town in the village of Serebryano ("Silver") has disappeared, but there is still a picturesque convent. On the site of the mansion, Alevtina Gavrilyuk has built a new house with a garden, a paddock full of farm animals and a shed surreally full of bears and camels (see places to stay). The monastery of St. George near Meshovsk presents a contrasting picture, half ruined and half restored, and the priest talks enthusiastically about the monastery's "resurrection".
Capital of the region, Kaluga spreads along the hills beside the wide Oka River, its skyline punctuated with churches and monuments. The chief attraction is the Tsiolkovsky Space Museum, opened in 1967 in a purpose-built complex on the edge of the valley. Original rockets and satellites form an impressive display, even though the museum is undergoing partial renovation. The city also boasts Russia's oldest theatre, a Roman-style aqueduct and a huge war memorial. The real joy of this region, however, is the open country that surrounds these landmarks, rolling into a blue distance that crowded city dwellers dream of. There are new developments aiming to take advantage of precisely these natural resources. In the fields of eco- and agro-tourism, says the region's tourism minister Alexei Nikotenko, "we are pioneers".
How to get there
Borovsk, Plotnyany Zavod and Kaluga lie along the Kievskaya Shosse while the Bird Park and Maloyaroslavets are close to the Kaluzhskoye Shosse. It's easier if you have your own car, but most places are reachable by public transport. You can get to many of them by train from Kievsky Station. For Borovsk, take a marshrutka from Balabanovo.
A taxi from the same station (about 250 roubles) is the easiest way to reach the Bird Park.
Ethnomir runs a free shuttle bus from Borovsk. Meshovsk is also served by infrequent buses from Tyoply Stan metro.
Where to eat and sleep
To enjoy the countryside close up, you could stay in one of the yurts, tepees or cottages at Ethnomir, an ambitious but only half complete project near Borovsk. Yurts start from 1,000 roubles per person per night. www.ethnomir.ru
Even deeper into the countryside, near the town of Medin, the Lesny Ugodya Safari Park has log cabins, starting from around 2,000 roubles for a double room. The complex is at the end of an 8-kilometre dirt track, a long way out of town, making it tricky to get to, but it's worth it. True, the metal Sports' Hall near reception is a bit of an eyesore, the food is only mediocre and the rabbit pens are a bit whiffy, but the lake in the morning light and the deer wandering across the grass make up for it. There is even a series of small swimming pools and numerous activities on offer. For a family adventure, this place alone could be worth the trip. www.vlesu.ru
In Park Ptits or Bird Park, you can have an adequate lunch at Café Pelican. One of their specialities is supposed to be an ostrich egg omelette that can feed a whole family. They also have seven wooden cottages available with rooms from 3,000 roubles a night. www.birdspark.ru
In Serebryano Village, you can eat or sleep (1,300 per room per night) in Alevtina Gavrilyuk's house. It's essential to book in advance (720-8989). She insists that her house is not a restaurant and that she simply cooks what she would cook for her family. The food is superb and - very unusually - sourced as much as possible from local ingredients: tender shashlyk from her own pigs, home made fruit drinks and tomatoes grown in the greenhouse.