Cities and Towns in Europe
This rough-around-the-edges Soviet town on the beautiful, little visited northern shore of Lake Baikal was built from scratch in the 1970s during the construction of the BAM railway. At first BAM workers who arrived from all over the Soviet Union lived in tents in the forest, then small cabins, then, after many years, apartments. Now the grey concrete of the centre contrasts the wooden bungalows of the outskirts, the BAM worker monuments pay homage to the Soviets while the holy spots like the one in the photo above remind one of the area's indigenous Buryat people, and the grimness of the town itself is starkly juxtaposed against the jaw-dropping natural beauty that surrounds it. There is a hostel in town with English speaking staff and it’s possible to organize driving or skiing on the frozen lake in winter, and trekking, boat trips, wind surfing and water skiing in summer. Alternatively you can explore the surrounding area on your own. Locals are very surprised to see foreigners, very hospitable and very proud of local history and their work on the BAM.
Ever since it was first mentioned in the year 863, Smolensk, sitting on key East-West and North-South trade routes, has been fought over time and time again. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that much of what remains, though extremely impressive, is in fact reconstruction. Nevertheless, the red towers of the old city walls and the simply jaw-dropping Assumption Cathedral would make it a mistake not to stop here if entering Russia from Belarus or vice versa. Heading uphill towards the town centre from the grim train station area will take you into pleasanter parts of town and past a lovely view of the city walls across the River Dnepr. Continuing further up the hill brings you to the town centre and peaceful Glinka Garden. Smolensk was the birthplace of Russian concert music in the 19th Century and opposite the Glinka Garden stands the appealing old Concert Hall. Plenty of concerts are played here to this day, often using balalaikas instead of violins, and an annual music festival is held.
Russia's second largest city and former capital was founded in 1703 in the middle of a swamp, tens of thousands of conscripted serfs dying during its construction. In the calm and relatively traffic-free centre, built around an intricate web of canals, much of the old, beautiful Tsarist architecture has been preserved although often in a slightly dilapidated state. A number of enormous cathedrals and churches built in a dazzlingly varied array of styles simply take your breath away. Major attractions include the Hermitage, the world's largest art museum and several palaces and castles outside the city. In remoter parts of Leningradskaya Oblast, the province in which St Petersburg is found, the grandeur of the city is almost unimaginable. Here people live in tiny villages of log cabins only accessible by hours of driving down dirt tracks and waiting for ferries to cross bridgeless rivers. Villages like Gimreka and Shchelyeyki have incredibly beautiful, centuries-old log churches while the one in Rodionovo, built in 1493, is one of the oldest wooden buildings in Russia.
As old as Moscow itself and once the seat of an independent princedom on the northern reaches of the River Volga, Uglich went into decline in the 17th Century to become what it is today: a small, tranquil provincial backwater of 34,000. Nevertheless, it remains dotted with beautiful historical architecture, in particular churches and monasteries whose magnificence contrasts starkly with the dinginess of some of the town’s backstreets which are often unpaved and lined with crumbling concrete apartment blocks or wooden cottages. The modest but beautiful kremlin is on the waterfront and a lovely view of it from the water can be had by taking an inexpensive boat trip or hiring your own rowing boat from Victory Park.
Either the end, or even better, the start of the Trans-Siberian railway, 9288 km from Moscow. This harbour town is beautifully set along a peninsula separating Golden Horn Bay from the Amursky Golf. It is the base for Russia's Pacific fleet which gives the town a real navy feel, with a fort and a submarine museum inside a docked submarine. There is even a city beach, which must be quite a sight on one of the few hot summer days. If you are planning on going east, it's possible to take the ferry to both Japan and South Korea.
Russia's fourth largest city is located just to the east of the Europe/Asia border. The reason most tourists come here is either as a pleasant place to make a stop and explore on a break from the long Trans Siberian Railway or, for the Russian history buffs, as the site of the execution of the last Tsar and his family after the Russian Revolution. The enormous Cathedral of the Blood has been built on the site of the house where they were shot and out of town at Ganina Yama the Monastery of the Holy Martyr stands on their burial site. Other attractions around Yekaterinburg include the Shirokorechinskoe mafia cemetery, the small historical town of Nevyansk, the Old Believer village of Byngi and several ski resorts and cross-country skiing trails.
The capital of the former Yugoslavia became the capital of Serbia after the breakup. It has been attacked so many times through history, that locals claim it is the most destroyed city in the world. During the Kosovo War in the late 90's, Belgrade got again heavily damaged, this time by NATO bombings. So it is understandable, that the war torn city is bit of a mess today. Exquisite churches and rich architectures are mixed with gritty looking apartment blocks build in the most unappealing Soviet-style. So even that Belgrade is a bit bleak compared to some of Eastern European grand capitals like Prague and Budapest, it is considered one of the best places to have a night out - things get crazy here.
Bratislava is one of those European capitals that doesn't get a lot of attention. And no wonder, it lies only 64km from grandiose Vienna and 320km from ever-so-lovely Prague. The Old Town is tiny and doesn't match those of its neighbor - but sure, it is pretty and chanting with the maze-like alleyways. The city outside Old Town is also tiny and rather dull. It all seems that Bratislava has missed a beat or two on the catching-up-wave since the fall of the Iron Curtain, but that is exactly the reason why to visit Bratislava - to see a city that wasn't hit by the post-communism boom.
Cute little Ljubljana is one of those places you can only like. Ljubljanica river flows through the city center. It is the focal point of the attractive old town and you will find yourself strolling up and down the riverfront more than you care to count. You will encounter charming old houses, winding streets and endless rows of cafes, bars and restaurants with outdoor seating which gives Ljubljana the life and buzz that it is so beloved for. There are no must-see sights besides the ancient, but neatly done-up, castle on top of the hill - and even that one is not a must-see. Ljubljana is not a city to be seen, but a city to be enjoyed.
Piran is Slovenia's charming harbour town on the Adriatic Sea coast. It spreads out to both sides of the small marina along the lovely promenade, which is often crammed with tanned bodies soaking up the sun. The town itself is rather cute with the pastel coloured houses and, though it is touristic, it is nothing compared to the other medieval towns like Dubrovnik further south.