Stepping off the train our first impression of Veliky Novgorod, once known as Novgorod the Great, is snow and lots of it. Large perfectly formed snowflakes fall from the sky as we trudge the 3km across town to the Yaroslav Hostel. Having booked beds in a 12 bed dorm we were a little surprised to arrive and realise the images on Hostelworld.com did not even closely match what we were seeing.
Shown to a pokey little twin room we attempted to converse with the Russian speaking receptionist that we’d booked the dorm. Eventually understanding we were shown the dorm room which contained nothing but empty bunk frames. With a booking in hand we were not happy to pay extra for a private room so were given two beds in a shared room consisting of one occupied double, one single and two folding camp beds. Hmmm, not the best of first impressions. Things didn’t improve when we tried to make lunch in the ‘fully equipped’ kitchen and couldn’t even get our hands on a knife.
Heading out to check out the sights we first took a stroll through the snow filled churches of Yaroslav’s Courtyard right beside the hostel. This old market area and court has been around since the 9th century, even seeing accused witches burnt at the stake in the 13th century. The closely packed series of beautiful cream churches blend wonderfully with the snow and the crumbling brick Church of St. Paraskeva Piatnitsa has some wonderful frescoes inside (though you’ll have to pay to enter). Veliky Novgorod was once one of Europe’s largest cities with a trading network stretching all the way to the Nordics linking the Baltics to Byzantium.
Church of St. Paraskeva (1207), Yaroslav’s Courtyard
With temperatures settling below -20 degrees we made our way across the Kremlevskiy Bridge with the frozen Volkhov River below. Ice fisherman perched on stools fish from holes cut in the ice and the Frigate Flagman floating restaurant appears frozen in place. On the opposite bank crazy Russian men are alternating between time in a riverside wooden sauna and a plunge in another hole cut into the ice.
From the bridge you get a great glimpse of the Kremlin walls and towers, with it’s church spires protruding from within. Children and adults alike take turns sliding down the steeped embankment beneath the walls on small plastic sleds and adults attempt to impress each other by remaining upright while sliding down the sloped bridge. On the far bank we stroll through the snow covered Kremlyovskiy Park making our way to the Christmas Markets setup outside the Kremlin. You can pick up some great souvenirs including Matryoshka ‘Russian’ dolls, long woollen socks and wooden crafts.
Making our way back through the Kremlin entrance we pass the Monument of the Millennium of Russia, depicting 1862 famous Russian’s from Tsars and Patriarchs to cultural figures (on opposite sides of course, can’t have royalty mingling with the commoners). The main event in the Kremlin is the Cathedral of Saint Sophia. With it’s gold and silver domes set against the grey skies it’s reportedly the oldest still functioning building in Russia. The interior is dark and gloomy at first but take some time to look around and the paintings and bright coffins tucked into the naves become a complete contrast to the plain exterior. A bell tower nearby now exhibits a collection of 14 bells, one weighing 320kg, as the Cathedral bells were once able to be heard up to 50 miles away.
Exiting out the opposite gate we cross the footbridge where you get a great view back onto the archways of the old market place and Yaroslav’s Courtyard area we explored earlier in the day.
The following day we’re greeted by deceiving blue skies. With the temperature again below -20 degrees all of the moisture in the air has frozen into beautiful floating crystals making us feel like we were in a fairytale. Until we realised it was still -20 degrees. From just opposite the Tourist Information office we catch the 7 or 7A bus along with several other tourists to the Museum of Wooden Architecture just outside of town (you can also catch it from the Central Railway Station). The fresh snow on the ground adds a hint of romance to the ornate dark wood churches from the 1930’s.
With freezing fingers and toes we thaw out in the small gift shop before catching the bus back to town and making our way to Malinovka Restaurant (address Germana, 1). A quaint, warm and cosy little restaurant they serve up hearty Ukrainian food (and vodka!) with a smile, guaranteed to help you defrost. Opting for some hot and hearty meat and potato dishes garnished with onions and dill neither of us were disappointed and a single shot of honey chill vodka was just the trick to keep us warm for the walk home.
Not keen on the 3km hike back to the train station in the cold dark evening we took the bus and joined a packed crowd at McDonalds next door to waste a few hours. Over a 20 pack of chicken nuggets for just USD$4 we watch people come in to watch movies on their laptops, eat their own food and sit across the table from each other never lifting their eyes from their phones. Heading over to the station we sit in the tiny waiting room with nowhere near enough seating in the path of freezing winds that breeze through the doors. For a country that relies so heavily on train travel some of the waiting rooms are crap. Soon it was time to join the throng of people packing the freezing platform to bundle into the steaming hot train for the overnight trip to Russia’s famous capital, Moscow.
Thanks for reading, if you want to check out more pics of our time in Russia click any of the images above and head to our Flickr page.
Tips for Veliky Novgorod
- There are several trains a day from Saint Petersburg to Veliky, mostly in the morning. Tickets costs around RUB400 for the fast commuter train. You can check the timetable online in English at RZD.
- While Yaroslav Hostel is the cheapest accommodation in town, don’t expect what you see on their website. The place appears to have changed owners but the images have not been updated to reflect the changes made ie. no curtains, no bright colourful couches in the kitchen, no green cupboards in the kitchen and definitely no lockers in the dorm rooms. Nobody cleaned the entire three days we were there and the sheets on the other beds in our room weren’t even changed between guests. In fact the only part of the hostel which remotely matches the images on the website is the bathrooms which seem to have escaped unchanged.
- A very informative Tourist Information office can be found at Sennaya Sq. 5. We found there was always a member of staff who spoke English.
- There is a large restaurant and bar serving gluhwein, cocktails, beer and a buffet lunch opposite the entrance to the Wooden Archtitecture Museum. The buffet costs around USD$10.
- Book your tickets the day before for the overnight train to Moscow, especially if you want 1st or 2nd class cabins. We opted for Plaztkart or 3rd class as it’s not as stuffy and sweaty and if you get a top and bottom bed you can secure valuables in a safe box beneath the lower bunk.