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
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.
Novgorod, however, has a lot more to recommend it than a
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
"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
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]