Cities and Towns in Europe
Brasov is a beautiful historical town surrounded by steep mountains on three sides. Its groomed old quarter attracts pretty much any tourist that comes to Romania, and the city even sports a Hollywood-style sign up on one of the mountain slopes. Nevertheless, it is still a lovely city to stroll around in and take day tours, like one to "Dracula's castle" in Bran.
Bucharest is Romania's buzzing capital with more than 2.1 million inhabitants. The streets are choked with traffic and sidewalks are patrolled by stray dogs, but it still is a fascinating place. One part was totally redone by dictator Ceaușescu inspired by North Korea's capital Pyongyang, and is an architectonic masterpiece in neo-Stalinistic city design that only dictators can come up with. The crown jewel from that period is of course the Palace of Parliament, the second largest building in world only beaten by the Pentagon, USA. Another part of Bucharest, and probably more enjoyable, is the historical part, the one that Ceausescu didn't managed to demolish. Here you fine grand old buildings, big squares, manicured parks, interesting museums and flashy shopping streets - along with cafes, bars and surprisingly many pizzerias.
Irkutsk is the mandatory stop on the Trans-Siberian journey if you want to go to the gorgeous Baikal lake. During the colonization of Siberia, it played an important role as an administrative centre, which still today gives the otherwise pleasant town a bit of a wild-east edge. There several colourful Orthodox churches and some residential quarters are still made up by wobbling old wooden houses with windows at curb level. Down at the lively market area, there are a lot of food stores (think smoked fish) and fur shops, along with street vendors and tough looking men in camouflage clothes hanging around - probably just like during the Siberian gold rush.
Kaliningrad is the capital of the Russian exclave of the same name, Kaliningrad Oblast. Pre Soviet times, it was known as Königsberg, a cultural and elegant university city, home to several famous mathematician (Euler, Goldbach, and Hilbert) and other famous scholars, like Kant. During World World II, the city was heavily bombed, not leaving many surviving buildings. After Königsberg became a part of the Soviet Union, it changed name to Kaliningrad and was transformed into a classic drab Soviet city with bleak apartments blocks and bombastic monuments. Luckily, in some residential areas, a few old German houses were left untouched, along with the many parks and ponds, all of which give the city some grace. But Kaliningrad isn't very appealing at first sight. The handful of architectural masterpieces from the Königsberg era are drowning in the sea of shabby Soviet-era concrete and modern buildings in glass and steel. But the brand new cathedral (of Christ the Saviour) on the main square is impressive and a step out of the dark shadow of the Eastern Bloc.
A mosque next to a cathedral in a kremlin at the end of a street lined by Tsarist-era buildings with grey Soviet high rise on the horizon? There’s only one city it can be – Kazan, the capital of Russia’s Tatarstan Republic and once the centre of the ancient state of Volga Bulgaria. Later it was ransacked by the Mongols then once again by Ivan the Terrible when he claimed it finally for Russia. The city has been an important, valued stronghold for whichever civilization has held sway over the Volga region throughout its long, turbulent history. And it still is – St. Basil’s Cathedral on Moscow’s Red Square, one of Russia’s most famous landmarks, was built to celebrate the capture of Kazan. Alumni of Kazan University, Russia’s third oldest, include Tolstoy and Lenin. Today the city is a mix of new and old, of post-Soviet, Soviet, Tsarist and pre-Tsarist. The population is half Muslim Tatar and half ethnic Russian. Throughout Tatarstan, beautiful Tsarist architecture can be found a stone’s throw from ruins of Volga Bulgaria, while street signs are bilingual in Russian and Tartar.
Over 8,500 kilometres from Moscow and just 30 from China, the Far East's second largest city feels surprisingly cosmopolitan. Though cold in winter, in summer an explosion of greenery fills the city's streets and parks, street cafes open up and locals hang out on the beach or stroll along the banks of the Amur. Forts were first built here in the 1650s by Cossacks intent on exacting fur tribute from the natives. They were destroyed fairly quickly though by the local Nanai people, the Koreans and the Chinese, the area becoming a part of China for well over a century and a half. Only in the second half of the nineteenth century did the area fall back into Russian hands and Khabarovsk was gradually built up. Beautiful old buildings remain from the early days but the more recent architects and planners at work in Khabarovsk have also done well at keeping the centre looking fairly classical. Nearby villages of the indigenous Nanai people can be visited, including Sikhachi-Alyan which has ancient petroglyphs, but they are now fairly "Russified" compared to some other Siberian peoples.
The BAM's biggest and prettiest town, Komsomolsk-Na-Amure is only eleven hours from the railway's terminus on the Pacific coast (and the ferry to Sakhalin island) or six from Khabarovsk on the Trans-Siberian Railway. It was named after volunteers from the Komsomol youth organization but was actually mostly built by Gulag concentration camp victims. Women from all over the Soviet Union were then sent out to populate the previously all-male city. Unusually for a Stalin-built town, particularly for a BAM town, its centre has pretty, modestly colourful buildings built in the Tsarist style, some wide avenues, strollable river banks, outdoor cafes and even a beach. Not far out of town there are impressive mountains with trekking, rafting and skiing possibilities. There are also some villages of the indigenous Nanai people in the area, although most of what remains of their pre-Russian culture is limited to museum displays.
A working class city if there ever was one. Murmansk is rough around the edges, with a no-nonsense character and a population toughened by the arctic Russian winters, the heavy industries and the gritty port. It is not pretty, but it's fascinating to spend a few days soaking up the city's atmosphere. One of the best ways to do so is by joining the Walruses, Murmansk's ice swimmers, on one of their daily plunges into Semenovskoye Lake. More traditional sights include the museum-cum-relic Lenin, the Soviet Union's first nuclear-powered icebreaker, and the Alesha, a 30 metre statue commemorate the Soviet defence of the Arctic during World War II; and the Museum of the Northern Fleet. Nightlife and be found in the new House of Culture, while most other places are limited to heavy drinking of vodka. If the harshness of the city get to you, Murmansk is also the obvious base for visiting the Kola Peninsula.
Traveling for hours or even days along Eastern Siberia's BAM railway through endless taiga forests, towering snow-streaked mountains, following the white waters of rivers crashing over lethal looking rapids with chunks of ice the size of houses still melting near their banks, it can be quite a shock when all of a sudden the pristine, primordial, middle-of-nowhere nature disappears to be replaced by somewhere like Novy Urgal. Founded in 1974 mostly by people from Ukraine and the Baltics and with a population of around 6,000, its peeling paint, crumbling walls and lack of any new buildings give the impression that the town has gone into decay somewhat. And, given the fact that itâ€™s the biggest settlement for 14 hours in one direction and 24 in the other, there's not really anyone around to do anything about it. Novy Urgal is probably not the sort of place your average tourist will be keen to visit, but for those fascinated by the BAM, the Soviet Union or the Russian Far East in general it makes for an interesting stop.
If visiting Pereslavl-Zalessky try to set aside a couple of days for on foot exploration of this quietly beautiful 12th-century gem of a provincial town which, perhaps as a result of being bypassed by the train line, has been spared heavy development and has preserved a charming rural atmosphere that makes for a pleasant escape from Moscow. At the same time an impressive number of monasteries, churches and cathedrals ranging from the quaintly pretty to the simply jaw-dropping, the oldest of which was built in 1152, hint at Pereslavl’s former glory as a major centre of culture. As well as these main sites, hidden gems constantly pop up to surprise the visitor who takes the time to explore Perevslavl’s network of dirt lanes lined by log cabins with traditional carved window frames. In summer, camping on the shores of pretty Lake Pleshcheevo is popular.