Nine Wonders of the Russian North

PHOTO by Krivosheina Maria / Wikicommons
The Russian North is a phenomenon which you simply cannot experience anywhere else on the planet

It has ancient fortress monasteries, wooden churches and sketes on remote islands, where monks lived for centuries. It has nature that is indescribable in its serenity and splendour – mirror-like, tranquil lakes with an eerie fog at dawn, turbulent rivers, perfect for rafting in the summer, and taiga forests, a place for berry and mushroom foraging, hunting and long hiking trips. The North has it all. Even if it’s just once in your life, you have to visit this place. Rambler.Travel brings you the nine must-see places in this region.

Novgorod Kremlin, Veliky Novgorod

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One of the first stone buildings ever built in the Ancient Rus, and the oldest Russian kremlin (a fortified central compound in a historic Russian city), the Novgorod Kremlin, also known as Detinets, is perfectly preserved to this day – its stones positively ooze history. The walls run to a total length of about 1,500 metres and nine of the Kremlin's towers are still standing, the tallest of which is called Kokui.

The fortress contains almost two dozen assorted architectural heritage sites, the most well-known one is, of course, the Cathedral of St. Sophia (the Holy Wisdom of God). In the olden times the people gathered outside it for veche – a popular assembly. The Novgorod Kremlin is also home to the Monument to the Thousand Years of Russia erected in 1862, the Sofia belfry, the Eternal Flame memorial, the Palace of Facets and many more.

Ruskeala Mountain Park, Karelia

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Walking through Russkeala is a dreamlike, phantasmagorical experience – giant marble basins of crystal-clear water with a turquoise tint, awe-inspiring landscapes and an eerie, almost mystical atmosphere – the heart of Karelia attracts not just tourists, but cinematographers as well. The 2010 fantasy thriller Dark World was filmed right here.

The park’s main attraction is the marble quarry, which stretches out over half a kilometre. For several centuries it was used to mine the valuable white Ruskeala marble, which was used for both the Kazan and Saint Isaac's Cathedrals in St. Petersburg.

In the 20th century the quarry was flooded and the abandoned mines are now submerged caverns, frequented by divers in the summertime. The area surrounding the quarry has maintained trails and observation decks. The Ruskeala falls are close by, a wondrous cascading water feature, which was one of the locations for the famous Soviet movie The Dawns Here Are Quiet.

Solovetsky Kremlin, Solovetsky Islands

The Solovetsky Kremlin is the heart of Solovetsky Monastery, its core. It’s no surprise then that this fortress is the first thing both pilgrims and tourists see when they arrive here. The word ‘kremlin’ in its name is for good reason: the monastery really was a fortress, with huge walls built in the late 16th century. This fort was not just sheltering a religious commune, it also protected the population - the whole country, in fact. Back then, Novgorod was a border city, and it was the first line of defence against foreign aggressors in the region. In fact, it’s one of the most northern fortified structures built in the middle ages. The construction is really quite impressive: the walls were built out of gigantic boulders, weighing several tonnes each.

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Solovetsky Kremlin’s main landmark is the Cathedral of the Holy Transfiguration (Spaso- Preobrazhensky Cathedral), built under Hegumen Philip (the equivalent of an abbott), who later became Metropolitan of Moscow. The kremlin also houses a number of religious buildings constructed at later dates, such as the Church of St. Nicholas and Church of St. Philip, Metropolitan of Moscow.

Spaso-Preobrazhensky Monastery, Valaam archipelago

The famous Spaso-Preobrazhensky Monastery located on the vast Lake Ladoga is another landmark of the Russian North. Each year thousands of Orthodox pilgrims flock here. The monastery’s heart is the Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral, found on the main island of the archipelago. It’s also the largest and grandest building here. Inside are the miracle-working icons and a sanctuary with relics of Sts. Sergius and Herman, the founders of the Valaam convent, which is the travellers' hallowed goal of pilgrimage. The cathedral also has a restored mural of Christ, the Mother of God and the righteous. Other islands of the Valaam archipelago contain the isolated dwellings of hermit monks, called sketes, which are all considered part of the monastery: Gethsemane, Resurrection, Konevets, All Saints, Smolensky and St Vladimir's.

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Kenozersky National Park, Arkhangelsk region

Kenozersky National Park, also known as Kinozerye, is the jewel of Arkhangelsk region. Bloggers and regular tourists alike describe this area as a wondrous land with immense fields of flowers, scattered with wooden chapels, dark peaty lakes reflecting the cloudy skies above, and trails cutting through the countryside, with sparse trees littered across the countryside. If you plan a trip to Kenozersky National Park, make sure to spend at least a few days here. It’s not just about the nature, either, although the regions dawns, dusks and foggy mornings are excellent for all your photographic needs. Attractions include the forge and other craft workshops, as well as ethnographic villages dedicated to recreating the rustic life of days of yore. The majority of the historic buildings are located in the north of the park. The southern part is mostly floodplains, swamps, small lakes and northern foliage.

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Vottovaara Mountain, Karelia

The mysterious Vottovaara Mountain in Karelia is sometimes called the Stonehenge of Russia. Archeologists flock here for the stone puzzles, while those with an affinity for the occult enjoy the atmosphere of mysticism and the paranormal infamy of this place. Tourists come here for the boulders and stones, which are arranged in particular figures, known to locals as Seida or Seid (Seita in Finnish). The top of the mountain has several of these boulders, placed on top of smaller stones. Scholars do not have a single accepted theory about where these megaliths came from, but the most commonly accepted idea is that the mountain once served as the site of occult rituals, including sacrificial offerings.

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It's no wonder that today Vottovaara attracts hordes of seers, warlocks, witches and other mystics from all across Russia. They say that sometimes the aura here clashes with technology, preventing cameras from working and making watches stop. You can test it out yourself: just climb to the top of Vottovaara and see how your gadgets operate.

Pskov Krom, Pskov

Another northern fortress, rivalling the Novgorod Detinets in size and impressiveness, is the Pskov Krom (Kremlin). The first wooden fort was built here in the 13th century, but it was rebuilt in stone two centuries later. Saying that Pskov Krom was well-constructed would be selling it short. It was besieged over a hundred times, almost never successfully. Both the architecture of the kremlin and its location worked together to protect the residents of Pskov: it’s located on a cape at the confluence of two rivers. The Trinity(Troitski) Gates and Tower remain intact to this day, along with the walls and the Trinity Cathedral, which is considered to be the main shrine of the Pskov region. Tourists are offered tours by guides showing what it was like to live in ancient Krom, taking visitors through the locations of veche, weaponary stores and traps for unwelcome attackers.

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Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery, Vologda region

This monastery was founded in 1397 by Saints Cyril and Therapont on the shores of Lake Siverskoye. It was not only the religious centre of the region, but a political hub too. The monastery was a key destination for trade routes connecting Arkhangelsk with the South. High-ranking nobles were exiled here and Ivan the Terrible considered this to be his home monastery and granted it the tsar’s protection. If you plan on visiting here, make sure to take a stroll through the Dormition Cathedral with its unique iconostasis, which survived the dark events of the 20th century; its fortress walls which repelled aggressors during the Time of Troubles (Smuta) and its several picturesque ancient churches. Believers can also see the relics of St. Cyril (Kirill) of Beloozero.

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Valdaysky National Park, Novgorod region

Here, in the Novgorod region, you can experience the full beauty of Valdai Hills – enough to last a lifetime. This was one of the favourite getaway locations for Russian classical authors, like Alexander Pushkin and Leo Tolstoy. The area is rich with history, from ancient times and pre-Christian settlements to Orthodox churches and nobility estates. But nature itself is why you should come here – solitude like this is rarely found anywhere else. There are excellent opportunities for bird and animal watching, as a lot of endangered species call these hills their home.

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Valdai tourism is on the rise, and Valdaysky National Park is one of the prime destinations of the region. It has several guesthouses, an hotel and lots of tourist programmes available – both hiking and bus tours. Kids are catered for too, with several edutainment options available.