Two ancient cities reveal roots of Russian life

Europe editor Dinah A. Spritzer recently visited Staraya Ladoga and Novgorod, Russia with St. Petersburg Travel and delegates of the Baltic Sea Tourism Commission. Her report follows:

STARAYA LADOGA, Russia -- A modest fortress, a wooden cottage and a Byzantine church mark one of this country's best-kept travel secrets: the legendary birthplace of Slavic Russia.

Far removed from any tour brochure itinerary, this humble collection of buildings, two-and-a-half hours southeast of St. Petersburg, is worthy of a day's excursion for the insight it offers into Russian life, past and present.

Visitors to the 15th century fortress of Staraya Ladoga are greeted by folkloric performers dressed in floral scarves and red pantaloons, which contrast with the somber ruins where they dance and sing. An elaborate diorama inside the fortress illustrates what it would have looked like when occupied, complete with military personnel, craftsmen and merchants in the midst of trade.

An archaeologist-in-training doubled as the museum's guide and curator. He proudly pointed to everyday objects on display -- tools, cooking implements and rustic jewelry -- that he said were found during excavations beneath the fortress. "These artifacts go back to 4000 B.C. and are some of the oldest objects to have been found in this part of Russia," he said.

Staraya Ladoga is a treasure trove of even more archaeological finds, he said, but there was no money available to fund a dig. This didn't stop our guide from spending weeks in the nearby forest looking for evidence of ancient Russia. "We have to keep up the importance of these discoveries here even it seems that right now, no one else cares," he said.

The fortress is the cornerstone of what some believe to be the oldest town in Russia

Staraya Ladoga was founded in 753 by Swedish Vikings from Birka, now famous in its own right as a Viking archaeological site. It had been considered a Scandinavian settlement, but recent excavations revealed that Slavic tribes took root here in the middle of the 8th century and probably mixed with the Vikings, becoming part of the Russ tribe. The Russ created the boundaries of modern Russia and dominated the region for several centuries.

After St. Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great in the 18th century, the population moved closer to the city, and Staraya Ladoga declined. Today, its population is 3,000.

The fortress visit was enlivened by a box lunch of sandwiches and several rounds of vodka -- an ancient tradition that is good for warming up contemporary visitors. We were also treated to a violin recital in the adjacent St. George's Church on Lake Ladoga. The church was built in the 1180s and is filled with faded frescoes. The church's onion-shaped domes are a familiar sight to tourists in Russia, but the curved lines of St. are unique to the region and are representative of what locals call the "Ladoga style."

The 15th century wooden cottage on the lake's shore houses Viking weapons and a souvenir shop. Gifts include such novelty items as door knockers in the image of Odin, the supreme Viking god. As our day went on uninterrupted by other tourist groups, our guide noted, "It was never in the political interests of the powers that be to bring tourists here. They [the government] always preferred Novgorod as the stopping point between Moscow and St. Petersburg."

Novgorod, however, has a lot more to recommend it than a convenient location.

Despite the fact that the city's dozens of medieval churches are in various states of decay and renovation, Novgorod's wealth of icons, frescoes and shiny cupolas are bound to satisfy the appetite of any Russophile.

Novgorod, about a three hours' drive south of St. Petersburg, was founded in 859 and was the first capital of the Russian state, Prince Oleg's Rus. At their zenith in the Middle Ages, the leaders of Novgorod controlled much of European Russia.

But the city's proud residents were a victim of their own success; the majority were executed by Ivan the Terrible in 1570 because he felt threatened by their power.

Our first stop was the 12th century Cathedral of St. Nicholas, which is under a $1.5 million renovation thanks to a Baltic tourism organization that takes its name from the medieval Hanseatic League. The church, like most of the historical buildings of Novgorod, has gold cupolas in the shape of a medieval Russian helmet, according to our guide.

"Medieval Russian law stated that only churches could be built in stone.

"As merchants in Novgorod realized that this was the strongest building material available, they tried to fool the governors and built their stone warehouses in the shape of churches. The domes proved much better than roofs at protecting the warehouses from harsh winters," the guide said.

Hence, there are 30 "churches" in Novgorod, concentrated in the kremlin, the ancient Russian word for citadel; in the city's former marketplace, and in a pretty, tree-lined area called Yaroslavl's Yard.

The city's most important church in terms of history and physical magnificence is the four-domed St. Sophia, built in the 11th century. St. Sophia is famous for its ancient frescoes, which completely cover its interior, including a rare portrait of the Byzantine emperor Constantine and his mother, Helen. Another St. Sophia marvel is its copper gates, engraved in detail with warriors, dignitaries and animals. The gates were crafted in Byzantium and Magdeburg, Germany.

The Novgorod Museum, showcasing Russian art from the 11th to the 14th century, holds the third-most-important icon collection in the country, after Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery and Russian Museum. Our guide explained that the rules for icon painting in Russia were very strict, which is why many of the faces in the 600 icons here looked identical, even though they were painted by different artists in different centuries.

More modern creations, such as 100-year-old frescoes in a Baroque style, brightened the interiors of the 12th century St. Antony's Monastery and the Cathedral of the Nativity of Our Lady, where choral concerts are performed regularly.

After touring so many monuments, my group was invigorated by a night of reveling at Detinet, a restaurant decorated in medieval Russian style that once hosted parties of warriors before they went off to face the enemy in battle.

Our greatest challenge, however, was finishing up massive servings of fish soup, stuffed meats and locally made liquors while memorizing verses of baffling Russian party songs.

Such sybaritic indulgences for visitors, like the centuries-old frescoes and cupolas, remain a constant here, even as Novgorod and the rest of Russia struggle with turbulent times.

U.S. Operators to the region include General Tours, (800) 221-2216, and Uniontours, (800) 451-9511. In Russia, St. Petersburg Travel can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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