To tell the truth, I’ve been wanting to go to Pskov for a long time. I'm a medieval historian, specialising in Western Europe, so it was a shame for me to have visited all the Golden Ring sites without having been to the north-west of Russia. This is a region which is closely associated with the Hanseatic League, which fought and traded with the crusaders and which resisted foreign invasions on several occasions, albeit with mixed results.
I drove a brand new Hyundai Solaris through the Pskov Region. It had been modified a lot from the first generation model, as the local roads aren't really suitable for a sedan. These potholes are best navigated in a four-by-four, but my 1.2 litre friend was still up to the task.
The route from St. Petersburg to Pskov passes through a series of small towns where the speed limit is 80 kilometres per hour. It's tough to adjust to after the Moscow suburbs where you can drive 110 km/h on good roads. On the other hand, a leisurely pace allows you to look around and even notice storks’ nests on rooftops and poles. It's a surprising, unusual view for Moscow, perhaps with the exception of its western regions.
Stronghold of the Republic
We arrived at Pskov at dusk and barely had time to see the Kremlin. A cold winter’s evening isn't the best time for a walk, but thick walls of the fortress, reconstructed by archaeologists after excavation, are very impressive. The first settlement on the site of the Pskov Kremlin or Krom, as the residents called it, appeared somewhere in the 6th century AD, according to excavations. Five centuries later, there was already a fortress, and in the 14th century, the Krom became the heart of the Pskov Republic. It was one of three Russian veche (popular assembly) republics, along with Novgorodskaya and Vyatskaya.
This alone is reason enough to visit Pskov. To touch the ancient history of the land, which remained part of the all-Russian space but went its own way during the feudal fragmentation. It was clear that sooner or later the republic of Pskov, as well as the others, would have to abandon their pride and bow to the victor in the struggle for supremacy.
This is what happened in 1510. After that, Pskov became part of a unified Russian state, one of the key defensive points of the Russian north-west.
The army of Stefan Batory was repelled by the walls of Pskov: the town and the garrison withstood a six-month siege and more than 30 attacks, forcing the Polish-Lithuanian King to eventually negotiate with Ivan the Terrible. In 1615, three years after the end of the Time of Troubles, the city withheld the attack of Swedish troops of Gustav Adolf. Almost a hundred years later, in the winter of 1701, the army of Peter I, which had been broken at Narva, moved to Pskov. It was in Pskov, that the future emperor gathered a new army, waiting for the mighty forces of Charles XII to attack. After the reconquest of the Baltic, the town hibernated in a long, peaceful sleep until 1917, when it was awakened by the firing of German guns.
All of Pskov's long history is in its architecture, in its many white stone palaces and monasteries. Frescoes from before the Mongol period are preserved at one of them, Mirozhsky Monastery. There is a common saying, "the city stones breathe its history." To hear the breath of Pskov, you need to go to the ancient Holy Trinity Cathedral, the heart of the Pskov Kremlin.
The temple has been rebuilt several times, but you should go there to see the huge, ceiling-high, gilded wooden iconostasis and the tomb of St. Prince Dovmont. He was Lithuanian, but fled to Pskov, which became his new home that he defended against aggressors.
Pskov is both a small regional centre and a huge open-air museum with hundreds of historical monuments. It's good to visit at least for a week in the summer to wander around the city, to stand on its ancient stones and breathe in the history which permeates the air. Be sure to try the famous Pskov smelt, a local fish specialty.
Tales of the Crypt Keepers
My main discovery on the second day was the Pskovo-Pechersky Dormition Monastery. It's so close to Estonian border that domestic mobile operators get confused and congratulate customers on their arrival to Estonia.
Cave monasteries always make a strong impression, even on an experienced traveller. It's hard to imagine a place which would more closely resemble the early Christian catacomb churches and underground necropolis. There is sand under your feet and seemingly endless white walls in the dark, where candle light sporadically illuminates plaques covered in Old Church Slavonic script. Members of many noble families, who wanted to find eternal peace in the dark, sacred dungeon corridors, were laid to rest there.
You can speak about the Pskovo-Pechersky Dormition Monastery forever, but it’s best to leave it to the monk-guides who know every stone there. Everyone finds something in the "caves created by God", as they are officially called.
For some, it's an Orthodox monastery which is amazing in its beauty. For some, as one old lady put it, it's "a place of power."
For some it's an architectural monument. Whichever reason speaks to you, come, and you won't regret it. Try walking the bloody path along which Tsar Ivan the Terrible carried the headless body of the abbot Cornelius. He was a local separatist Baptist, who later became a martyr saint.
Another discovery of mine was a visit to Mikhaylovskoye. When I read and memorised Pushkin's poetry at school, I imagined everything fuzzily, without depth, without having seen the places with my own eyes. Back then, if somebody had taken me to Mikhaylovskoye, everything would have been different.
It was wonderful there. We were lucky to come during the low season, as there was no one at the museum, except for us and a guide. It's a strange feeling to listen to poems, which you’ve known since childhood, and to see a live illustration of them. If your children have trouble with Pushkin's poems at school, then take them to Mikhaylovskoye.
Let them walk through his house, see the lodges of his servants and the lanes where the poet walked with Anna Kern, then visit the simple tombs of Pushkin and his relatives at Svyatogorsky monastery. After that you and your children will read Pushkin's lines differently, trust me.
Ice Below Us, Sky Above
I devoted my third and final day to visiting the northern section of Lake Peipus, known as Lake Chud, eating quality local bream and checking out a reconstruction of the Battle on the Ice.
Of course, you can hardly call the reconstruction a battle. Members of one of the two Pskov clubs gave a demonstration of sword fighting for the reporters, gave them weapons to hold, and posed lazily in the snow for the amusement of tourists. But in the end, the show was fine. The role players answered our questions clearly and concisely.
In my opinion, historical reconstruction is one of the most interesting and useful pastimes for young people. It helps them to blow off steam, whilst also learning about their history. It’s an activity where every penny spent will turn a profit. Teenagers might decide not to spend time on the streets looking for drugs, but will be carried away and proud of their homeland's history instead. In the Pskov region, history enthusiasts hold a festival dedicated to the battle every summer, but it's still not enough.
Seven Bends in a Verst
Although we managed to avoid running into any idiots in Pskov, we had plenty of the second type of traditional Russian trouble. Stunningly beautiful locations, but with a lot of really bad roads, littered potholes, which were filled with gravel – even in Pskov. If I were an elderly European, I wouldn’t want to go there in a good car, used to good roads.
There aren't many foreign tourists in the Pskov region, but it's not just because of the roads. Although the region is located on the border with the EU, it’s not easy for a European to visit Pskov. There is a tourist information site for the Pskov region with quite lot of information, but it's still unfinished.
The site works fine in English and German, but if you try to book a hotel, it will show up in Cyrillic. Foreigners are having a hard time trying to guess which of the drop down menus is for the number of guests, and which is the number of nights. After that, there is an additional pop-up window with strange Russian letters to confirm the selection. Moreover, each version of the site has a life of its own. There is a different set of menus everywhere, so guessing by comparison doesn't work. In the German version, for example, there is no list of hotels at all, and the map of the area is in Russian, while in the English version it's in Latin alphabet. All these little things ruin everything.
In the end, I decided to go back to Pskov in the summer. There’s so much else to see – the ancient Izborsk fortress, Gdov and Porkhov, Nikandrovsky and Mirozhsky monasteries, the famous chain bridges in Ostrov. Why don’t you come too? Maybe we’ll see each other in Pskov!