YAROSLAVL — Whether they realize it or not, anyone who has spent more than a few hours in Russia has glimpsed some of the sites of Yaroslavl. The luridly turquoise 1,000 ruble bank note features both ancient and modern vistas of the city, with the 17th-century, 15 onion-domed St. John the Baptist Church on one side and new 1990s buildings on the other.
The bank note also features the Yaroslavl crest — on a glowing purple or green background depending on the age of your note — that famously shows a bear on its hind legs with a halberd slung casually over one shoulder.
The almost certainly apocryphal legend behind the city’s adoption of the bear and ax symbol relates to its founding by Yaroslav the Wise in 1010. Intrigued by the trading potential of the site where the Kotorosl River flows into the Volga, the Kievan prince was exploring the area when angry locals set a sacred bear on him. Accosted by the beast in all its ferocity, Yaroslav the Wise casually disposed of it and its unwelcome attentions with his halberd, deciding subsequently to found a city in commemoration.
A thousand and one years after Yaroslavl’s supposed tussle with the four-legged carnivore, the site where the city originally sprang up on a tongue of land that licks out into the Kotorosl and Volga rivers has been transformed — with the financial assistance of state gas monopoly Gazprom — into a flower-filled park complete with music and “dancing” fountains.
The area — known as Strelka — is packed on summer evenings with young couples, the elderly and tourists, who stroll up to a monument unveiled as part of the city’s millennial celebrations and then back along the Volga embankment. Children, their feet a blur, weave around the walkers in pedal-driven cars.
Like other cities that have received significant federal investment for a historic anniversary, Yaroslavl underwent a face-lift as a part of its 1,000-year celebrations in 2010. About 30 billion rubles ($1 billion) was channeled to the city, and the state commission on preparations for the event was chaired by President Dmitry Medvedev.
Major projects completed in time for the anniversary included improvements to a new bridge over the Volga, the complete rebuilding of the Cathedral of the Assumption dynamited in 1937, the reconstruction of the Volga embankment and the opening of a zoo. Zurab Tsereteli, the favorite sculptor of former Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, even donated a 3-meter-tall metal bear to mark the occasion.
But Yaroslavl has more to offer than shiny new walkways, a Tsereteli sculpture and a motley collection of caged animals filched from the African savannah. The city’s center was granted world heritage status by UNESCO in 2005, and there are dozens of beautiful churches from the 16th and 17th centuries. During that period Yaroslavl was Russia’s second city, and its merchants who had grown fat on profitable Volga trade financed religious artistry of the highest quality.
Yaroslavl’s commercial status as the biggest port on the Volga lasted until 1937, when the Moscow-Volga canal was completed, allowing river traffic to proceed directly to the capital.
Church architecture and an important historical role have also earned Yaroslavl pride of place on the Golden Ring — the tourist route around the old cities of Russia’s heartland. For a casual visitor, this status manifests itself in gaggles of Central European tourists earnestly following their guides around the city center and the waiting queues of coaches. Half of all tourists arriving in the city are non-Russian citizens.
Yaroslavl has also been under the national and international spotlight in recent years thanks to the Global Policy Forum — a major set-piece international conference held in September — that has been driven by Medvedev. Although the event is a huge public relations opportunity for the city, it is organized by Moscow and heavy security keeps ordinary citizens far away from guests.
What to see if you have two hours
Yaroslavl’s rich history should be the priority for any time-strapped visitor. Start a visit by entering the Spaso-Preobrazhensky Monastery with its thick white walls and spiked golden balls. The monastery was the site of the first higher education institute in Russia, and Ivan the Terrible took refuge behind its walls from the Mongols when they threatened Moscow. Entrance to the monastery is ticketed with separate fees applying to all the attractions within. One of the most worthwhile things to do in the religious complex is climb the six-story belfry that offers panoramic views over the city.
Just outside the monastery’s entrance is a statue of Yaroslav the Wise that stares in the direction of Moscow and was inaugurated by Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine in 1993.
A short walk along the city’s colonnaded trade rows, down one of the pedestrianized shopping streets and past the regional government building will bring you out onto Sovietskaya Ploshchad and the green-domed Church of Elijah the Prophet. The asphalt square hosts Yaroslavl’s parades, and the only traffic permitted on it on nonfestival days are speeding local government cars. Inside the church are well-preserved 17th-century frescoes.
A whistle-stop tour can be concluded by wandering down to the city’s long Volga embankment and the so-called Strelka where Yaroslavl’s two rivers meet.
What to do if you have two days
There are enough churches in Yaroslavl to keep an enthusiast occupied for a long time. But for the less-dedicated, highlights include the 17th-century red-brick Church of St. John the Baptist on the western bank of the Kotorosl, the traffic-surrounded Church of the Epiphany opposite the statue of Yaroslav the Wise with its beautiful ceramic tile work, and the Church of St. Nicholas Nadein on the bank of the Volga that boasts yet more impressive frescoes.
A way to see a more quirky side of the city is to get in touch with Our Unknown Country ( +7 4852-74-54-66; firstname.lastname@example.org; kommunalka.a-prohorov.ru), a group that runs tours of the city’s communal apartments. The tours come complete with real-life stories from Soviet-era occupants about “family secrets, horrible crimes, merry shared holidays, scandals and squabbles, and the details of everyday life — in short, a cocktail of memories,” according to the web site of the group, created by Alexander Prokhorov, who teaches economics at Yaroslavl State University.
Other attractions include the Museum of the History of Yaroslavl (17/1 Volzhskaya Naberezhnaya; +7 4852-30-41-75) and the Yaroslavl Art Museum (23 Volzhskaya Naberezhnaya; +7 4852-30-35-04).
Yaroslavl is also a convenient base for exploring some of the other Golden Ring cities east of Moscow — particularly Pereslavl Zalessky, Rostov Veliky, Uglich and Kostroma. All can be reached easily by train, bus and car from Yaroslavl. Uglich and Kostroma can also be reached by boat.
What to do with the family
For children chafing at the bit of museums and religious architecture, the Yaroslavl Zoo (137 Prospekt Shevelukha; +7 4852-71-01-91; yaroslavlzoo.ru) has everything from bears and zebras to flamingos. The zoo claims it was visited by 30,000 people in the first month after its opening in 2010.
Families would enjoy the city’s new planetarium (3 Ulitsa Tchaikovskogo; +7 4852-72-93-61), which is named after Valentina Tereshkova, a Yaroslavl native and the first woman to go into space. The city’s old planetarium is being converted into a church.
Time can also be whiled away at the city’s amusement park, with its aging rides and refreshment stands reached by a pedestrian bridge onto a small island alongside Strelka or, during hot weather, on the sandy river shores behind the Spaso-Preobrazhensky Monastery where various forms of water sports can be tried out.
Yaroslavl is home to Russia’s oldest theater, founded in 1750 and called the Volkov Drama Theater (1 Ploshchad Volkova; +7 4582-72-91-22; volkovteatr.ru). Its stage saw the first Russian production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and, though its neoclassical yellow-and-white facades are crumbling slightly, it still hosts an eclectic repertoire of plays with local and touring performers.
If dramatic spectacle is not for you, the Med nightclub (Ulitsa Podzelenye; +7 4852-72-88-99; mednightclub.com) is one of the most self-consciously cool places in town — and has prices to match. Located close to Strelka, you can order drinks and food electronically via your table.
More cheap and cheerful, but also widely frequented, is Club Joy Party (2 Volzhskaya Naberezhnaya; +7 4852-30-33-33; joyparty.ru).
Where to eat
If you’re looking for the bizarre, the Texas Country Cafe (26 Prospekt Tolbukhina; +7 4582-48-67-48; www.texas76.ru) is a must. Waiting staff will serve you classic Russian dishes of borsch and plates of pickles dressed in Wild West outfits and cowboy hats. A meal for one without alcohol will come to about 1,000 rubles. Despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that the last Saturday of every month sees a cowboy-themed party, Texas is also popular with regional politicians and their visiting guests.
Another kitsch spot, this time closer to the city center and popular with tourists, is Ioann Vasilyevich (34 Revolyutsionnaya Ulitsa; +7 4852-91-47-07; ivyar.ru). Located next to the Marilyn Monroe hairdressers, it serves traditional Russian dishes in a stylish modern decor at about the same prices as Texas.
For something cheaper and more informal, try the Premiera Cafe (5 Pervomaisky Bulvar, +7 4852-72-86-01) tucked behind the Volkov Drama Theater. An average meal for one will cost 300 to 400 rubles and the cafe has free Wi-Fi.
Where to stay
The Ring Premier Hotel (5 Pervomaisky Bulvar, +7 4852-72-86-01, ringhotel.ru) is one of the most luxurious hotels in town, popular with business visitors and near the historical city center. Standard rooms start at about 4,000 rubles a night. For foreign visitors missing home comforts, there is a McDonald’s and Irish bar close by.
Another common choice amongst business travelers is the Yubileinaya Hotel (26 Kotoroslnaya Naberezhnaya, +7 4852-72-65-65, www.yubil.yar.ru) that overlooks the Kotorosl River. Rooms start at 3,250 rubles a night.
Yaroslavl has significant sporting traditions that might strike a chord with locals. The Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team has three Russian ice hockey championship titles under its belt, and the Shinnik Yaroslavl football club plays in the country’s first division. Horse riding is also popular in the region, and the city is scheduled to be one of the host venues for the 2018 football World Cup.
If sport fails, you are likely to be able to share a moan with locals about the disruption to city life during Medvedev’s flagship September forum. Or ask about their experience during the 1,000-year anniversary celebrations in 2010.
How to get there
Yaroslavl is located 250 kilometers northeast of Moscow and is most easily reached by road or train from the capital. There are dozens of trains leaving Moscow for Yaroslavl every day because the city is on the main rail lines going east and north. The journey takes three to four hours, and a round-trip ticket will set you back 800 rubles or more. Of Yaroslavl’s two stations, the Yaroslavl Central offers the most convenient access to the city center, and most intercity trains stop here.
Yaroslavl’s main airport, Tunoshna ( +7 4852-43-18-09, tunoshna.com) primarily focuses on cargo but also runs two daily commercial flights to Moscow’s Domodedovo, and one to St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo. The one-hour Moscow flights are operated by Air Management Group on an eight-seat, single-engine Pilatus PC-12. Tickets cannot be booked online, but through a list of agents on the Tunoshna web site. A one-way ticket costs 3,000 rubles.
The ideal way to reach Yaroslavl is by boat. Waterways connect Yaroslavl with Moscow (1 1/2 days sailing), St. Petersburg, Kazan and Nizhny Novgorod. Cruises, lasting eight to 15 days, can even take in Astrakhan, where the Volga enters the Caspian Sea.
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