Veliky Novgorod (Novgorod the Great) touts itself as the birthplace of Russia and oldest city in the country, as well the cradle of Russian democracy and the medieval center of trade and crafts.
For a town of over two hundred thousand people, it feels incredibly small. I arrived on a bus from St. Petersburg near lunchtime and initially wondered if I was in the right place. As it turned out, my hotel (one of just a few in town) was just a ten minute walk from the bus station, straight along a tree-lined street that appeared to be the busiest in the city (and that wasn’t saying much).
Another five minutes from my hotel and I was at the Kremlin – a stone fortress that was first mentioned as early as 1044 and was rebuilt by Ivan the Third in the late 15th century. As I walked through the Kremlin gate, I was completely alone. There was not another person anywhere to be found. The word that kept running through my head to describe this ancient town was sleepy.
But sleepy isn’t necessarily a bad thing. On a three day stop heading from St. Petersburg to Moscow, it provided some much-needed peace and quiet and rest. I didn’t see much that first afternoon, just walked around to get my bearings and found a local grocery store. The next day I woke up to bright sunshine and took advantage to head out early to explore more in-depth.
Despite its small size, Novgorod actually has a very helpful tourist office just outside of the Kremlin, so I stopped there to get a map and plan my route. Only then did I discover that many of Novgorod’s museums were closed not just on Mondays (as is typical in many places), but also on Tuesdays. Luckily, the best viewpoint in the city, the Kokuy Tower (one of the nine Kremlin towers still standing), was open, so I climbed that and took pictures of the surrounding area.
Then, I stopped into the St. Sophia Cathedral, which dates back to the 9th century before heading across the Volkhov River to visit Novgorod’s other center, Yaroslav’s Courtyard and Former Marketplace. This was the center of commerce back in the day, but now most of what remains are a series of small churches dating back centuries.
My final day in Novgorod was a Wednesday so I was able to visit the Novgorod State United Museum (i.e., the town history museum) before I left. Although there were no explanations in English and I was battling a bad cough (I was half afraid the might kick me out for coughing too loudly!), I found it fairly interesting, with exhibits tracing the area’s history from ancient times to the present. Displays included ancient Russian musical instruments, manuscripts, tools and a variety of religious icons from the 11th-15th centuries.
And then Wednesday night, I boarded an overnight train to Moscow, saying goodbye to sleepy little Novgorod.