Night Train to Novgorod Spend the longest day in Russia’s oldest city, 500km north of Moscow
Start and end: Veliky Novgorod Railway Station Distance: about 5km,with several possible extensions Logistics: The night train leaves Leningradsky Vokzal at 9.50pm and costs 1500 roubles for a bed in a four-bedded coupe. Advance booking is recommended.
Take the night train to the ancient city of Veliky Novogorod in winter and you arrive in darkness. If you go there at this time of year, the sun will already have risen well above the 15th-century walls and you can enjoy the long summer evenings of the famous “white nights” before catching the night train home again. Here are some of the many attractions eight hours down the railway line to St Petersburg. From the new, medieval-style train station, walk past the bust of Alexander Nevsky, cross the road and head straight along wide Karl Marx Prospect towards the distant red brick fortifications. When you reach a small park, skirt right round the cinema and continue along Chudintseva Ulitsa, noting Coffee Land at number 8 for a possible pit-stop later (it opens at 10am and the food is excellent). The neo-classical building, on the right before you reach the kremlin, is the Art Gallery (1) with a fine selection of Russian masterpieces, including atmospheric forests from Shishkin and Levitan and engaging portraits by Serov and Makovsky. It opens at 10am (not Monday). Behind the Art museum, the red log cabin tourist office (open from 9.30am) has an excellent free guide in English and Russian. You can visit their website at www.visitnovgorod.com Go on through the gates of the Detinets, as the kremlin is known here, which open at 6am. The huge bell-shaped monument (2) is a memorial to 1000 years of Russian history. To the left, the beautiful St Sophia Cathedral, with its gold and silver domes, gleams in the morning sunshine. Prince Vladimir built this majestic church in 1045 and the frescoes and icons are almost as old. You can visit them from 8am.The miracle-working 12th-century Icon of the Sign has a scar over the eye where an enemy arrow is supposed to have hit it, plunging the besieging army in darkness.
The tiered bell tower, next to the cathedral, has an exhibition of ancient bells and a viewing platform. On the other side of the monument, the lion-guarded doors of the history museum open at 10am (not Tuesdays) to reveal countless rooms of archaeological treasures, birch bark letters and glowing red and gold icons. Leaving through the gates on the far side, make a detour to the boat pier (3) to see if there are any trips planned for the day. An hour’s cruise south along the Volkhov River to the oceanic Lake Ilmen is a definite highlight of summer in Novgorod. It costs 300 roubles and there are views of the museum of wooden architecture, St George’s monastery and the ruined church on Rurik’s hill fort, where the city first began.
Cross the footbridge onto the ‘trade side’ of the river, admiring the arcade known as Yaroslav’s court (4), with another great collection of buildings behind it. Turning right after the bridge, you pass monuments unveiled for the city’s 1150th anniversary last year. There are various exhibitions inside the churches, including a display of decorative tiles inside the Nikolsky Cathedral (5).
Behind the complex, Bolshaya Moskovskaya Ulitsa is lined with 19th century merchants houses. You can detour along Ilinska Ulitsa to reach two splendid churches on the grassy green at the end of the road. The 17th-century Cathedral of the Sign (6) is painted inside and out with vibrant frescoes, but the real gem is the beautiful 14th-century Transfiguration (open 10-5, Weds-Sun). Fragments of wall paintings by the legendary ‘Theophanes the Greek’ are still visible on the restored walls of the cavernous interior.
Returning to Bolshaya Moskovskaya Ulitsa, turn right to reach a road bridge, passing churches dedicated to Saints Clement and Dmitry with a bell tower in between them. You can go on along this side of the river. A grassy embankment leads to picturesque waterside churches and another monument to Alexander Nevsky (7). For an even longer detour, you can continue beyond this, through a park and round the fancy Beresta Palace hotel, to reach the atmospheric Antoniev Monastery (8), including a characteristic 12th-century church. There are a couple of summer cafes on the bank here, with views across the water. It’s a long way back into town so it might be best to get a bus or taxi. The 12 or 13 buses go from near the park.
Back on the Nevsky embankment, cross over the road bridge for a new panorama along the river. On the far side, you can wander left into the Kremlin gardens. Alternatively, head right along Ulitsa Velikaya towards the Zverin Monastery. If you need a change from old churches, try Greensleeves Irish Pub (great Guinness and garlic grenki) at number five or the fancy bar on the boat behind the hideous Dostoevsky Theatre. If you’re keen not to miss anything, you might want to wait and have drinks on the way back to the station instead. The 15th century red brick church of St Peter and St Paul stands just right of the road and is open in the summer until 4pm. Beyond it, the church of St Simeon (9) is painted inside with vibrant frescoes. The evening light on the river and the ancient churches will last well after 9.20pm when the night train heads back to Moscow, and you can watch the midnight sunset over the forests from the window.
Landmark of the week – Monument to the Millenium of Russia, 1862. Prince Rurik’s arrival in Novgorod in 862 was long taken to symbolise the birth of Russia as we know it. To celebrate the event and the thousand years of history that came after it, Tsar Alexander II unveiled this massive bronze sculpture. The kneeling woman on top is Russia herself, being blessed by the angel of Orthodoxy. Princes and Tsars from Rurik to Peter the Great take up war-like stances on the next level, while the third rung represents painters, poets and scholars.