Yet another journey across Russia has us arriving in the dark with the presumption that the directions provided by the hostel meant we were easily able to grab a bus from the train station to the Kremlin up town. Wrong. Walking around in circles we eventually realise the buses depart on a parallel street, not directly opposite the station.
The hostels are just getting better and better the further in to Russia. Smile Hostel is legit, it has the location, staff, kitchen, showers, social area and beds that give it a big thumbs up from many a traveller. A charging point and personal light with a privacy curtain on each dorm bed puts you in a cocoon of unsociable bliss allowing one to shut oneself out from the most annoying roommates (earplugs still required). Located on the pedestrianised Bolshaya Pokrovskaya smack bang in the centre of the action you’ve got the Kremlin on one end with a kilometre of entertainment stretching out the other way.
Leaving Sarah to recover a little from a broken toe injury Matt’s off to explore the city. This city, like many other across Russia, has a ridiculous amount of bronze statues that we’re sure sees a nice chunk the Treasury’s wealth bolted to the pavements of each town. From the couple from the 1800′s holding hands, the little boy playing violin, the Kazakh warrior with his huge moustache, the mail courier with his bike to the man taking your photo, Nizhny has it bronzed.
The main building of note on Bolshaya Pokrovskaya is the listed Central Bank building. Taking a left here Matt’s on the hunt for some street art by a certain local artist Nikita Nomerz. Nikita’s art is unique in the way he uses old and derelict buildings and with an ingenious mind uses a deft stroke to breathe life back into them.Walking to the two closest locations there’s disappointment when he’s confronted with two building sites and no artwork. Unable to find the first two murals it’s a stroll down the congested Ilyinskaya Street past the green domed Church of the Assumption, framed with frost covered trees against the clear blue sky.
Down the slippery stairs of the Church of Our Lady of Kazan Matt finally makes it down to the River Volga without incident though the cold has become too much for the day. Knowing that he’s around the corner from a craft beer place it takes a while to find the correct courtyard that Hophead is located in (duck under the arch at number 8 Rozhdestvenskaya Street). Barely past opening time Sahsa the owner is still stocking shelves and preparing for the after work trade. A fine selection of beers it’s the Wee Strong Scotch Ale from Bakunin Beer Café in Saint Petersburg that’s the standout here. Talking with broken Russian, English and the assistance of a translator app we manage to have a great conversation that leads us to the recent passing of David Bowie and the listening of his new album Blackstar, released only days before his departure to the stars.
Day two Sarah again ditched Matt for the day and probably for the best. Heading past the Kremlin the long impressive stairs of Chkalov, with a statue of him facing the city on top, is best walked down and not up. For pretty much all of us not from Russia Valrey Chkalov was the first person to fly over the North Pole by completing a flight from Moscow to Vancouver, Washington in 1937.
Hanging a left at the Boat Geroy (surprisingly not in bronze!) monument on the river bank it’s a long walk around to the abandoned silos marking the end of the footpaths and the beginning of the trudging. A three kilometre walk through snow and a psychotic dog or two to hopefully find another of Nikita Nomerz’s art pieces was probably best missed with a broken toe but left Matt stoked that this mission came to fruition. The Big Brother piece was more than worth the wet boots, cold fingers that wouldn’t compute and a close brush with rabies from the mutt dogs.
Walking back along Ilyinskaya Street where the old wooden houses hold onto the last remaining strength the old timers can afford, a flashy black Mercedes 4WD suddenly pulls into a driveway cutting Matt off from travelling any further.
The tinted window slowly rolls down and he’s expecting a Kalashnikov to be jammed into his face. Lucky for him he’s greeted with smiles and an extended hand as two blokes with the thickest of mono brows enquire where he’s from. Matt barely manages to spit out ‘Australia’ in response as a wave of relief transcends over him as he’s sure he’s dodged the KGB/Mafia bullet.
In need of refreshment and to calm the nerves a little Bukowski Bar just happens to be a couple of hundred metres down the road, also being on the way home (noticing a theme here?). Another small craft beer bar down one side you’ll find taps from which you can order a pint to drink in or fill plastic bottles for take away. The two friends who own the bar tell of how they had to buy the toilet from the florist next door in order to be able to open what was originally a bottle shop as a bar.
Back at the hostel the Russian crew staying here aren’t like those in Moscow being very sociable in conversation and sharing both food and drink. Trust us, Smile Hostel is where it’s at. For those of you that don’t want to make the walk out to Hop Head or Bukowski then just a hop, skip and a jump from the hostel takes you to Ale Capone. Differing from the normal small enclosed space of Nizhny’s other craft beer bars this one is a lot larger and lacks the intimate vibe. This and the lacklustre craft beers on offer makes us recommend you to skip this place.
With one day left Sarah’s toe is back to normal so we explore the Kremlin. Whilst the views from here down to the River Volga below are grand the Kremlin itself lacks much to see. There’s mainly military equipment everywhere so we’re done within the hour. Looking for a bite to eat we head back to Bolshaya Pokrovskaya and the top floor Biblioteca Cafe for a brilliant lunch. The picante chicken salad, complete with fresh cilantro and sour cream, is a generous portion, the pumpkin soup is tasy and warming and you’ll even find a ‘sanctions version’ cheese platter on offer. Russia banned the import of European food following sanctions over the situation in the Ukraine, though it has resulted in a revival of some local cheeses. There’s a great selection of hot drinks on offer here too, the ‘Eight Treasures’ green tea is a winner.
Back along the waterfront the preparations are under way for the 2018 FIFA World Cup and there is a buzz with the locals. Heading to one last church this one is built in similar style to that of St Basil’s in Moscow. The Church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary (always long winded names) is smaller in size though perched on the side of a hill overlooking the Volga River it certainly has an impressive location. Inside the alter has the most gold leaf decoration we’ve seen in Russia and again summons the question of expenditure of money.
Walking back up the slope to the upper part of town there’s a bunch of snowboarding jumps built in to the hill and a bunch of geared up young punks are hiking their boards to the top to give this urban course with a view a go. Completing the loop back to the Smile Hostel it’s again the all too familiar waiting game as we watch the clock countdown to the overnight train to take us further east to the Tartar city of Kazan.
Tips for Nizhny Novgorod
- Catching the bus from the train station walk across the road, through the square with the McDonalds on it and cross another road and there are many local buses stopping. Numbers 2, 4, 19, 34, 38, 40 and 61 will all take you to the Kremlin. Super easy.
- If you’re into street art definitely try to hunt out some of Nikita Nomerz’s current work.
- The SPAR super market on Dobrolyubova St 9, is the biggest that we found and has a great deli counter for a cheap healthy lunch on the run.
- The Tourist office is on Nizhnevolzhskaya Nab. across the road from the boat terminal.