Take a step back in time. Where to go and what to see in Sviyazhsk

5 june 2018
The island town of Sviyazhsk, surrounded by Russia’s main river — the Volga, has always been an object of interest for historians and travelers. The surviving churches and monasteries have withstood the test of time — 500 years to be exact, and the main squares of the city are essentially full-fledged museums of medieval every day life. Do not miss a trip to Sviyazhsk, and right here, be sure to find out what to do on the island where history lives on

Author — Lola Malova

75,000
people

built the Sviyazhsk Fortress

The Fortress-City of the times of Ivan the Terrible

Sviyazhsk stands right on the waters where the rivers Sviyaga and Schuka merge into the great and mighty Volga. On the small island located 58 kilometres from Kazan, you won’t see large crowds of locals (the population here is 250 people) or run into any traffic jams. Marvel at the silent beauty of Tatarstan all around, and be occasionally interrupted by the chirping of birds, the wind breeze and the crashing of waves against the shores. This nice little town is a big source of history. Sviyazhsk, built by Ivan the Terrible as a fortress for an offensive against Kazan, survived several disasters - it has been a quiet monastery city, it has been looted, and even partly destroyed. In 1956 Sviyazhsk was recognized as a monument of Russian history and culture. Today, the temples and wooden buildings of the island town are being carefully restored, so most of the buildings you’ll see look the same as they did centuries ago.

The peaceful and secluded town comes alive during holidays and festivals. It often hosts medieval themed folk festivals and traditional Russian tea-parties, theatre workshops and music festivals, so the town is quite often filled with artisans and folklorists in old-Russian clothing.

Getting there

Sviyazhsk is a popular destination for tourists, so it’s fairly easy to find your way from Kazan. Water transport makes regular trips between the Kazan river port and the island. The journey takes about two hours, and tickets are sold at the port ticket office. A slightly more complicated and time-consuming way to get there is by train. Trains leave from the central railway station and arrive at ‘Sviyazhsk’ station from which you will need to find transport to the island town 14 kilometres away. The fastest way to get to the island is by car – the 1 hour journey in a taxi from Kazan costs about 750 roubles one way.

Where to stay

If you plan on spending longer than a couple of hours in Sviyazhsk, consider staying here for the night. The ‘Sviyaga’ hotel contains 10 rooms with a satellite TV, refrigerator and other amenities on each floor. An overnight stay here costs between 1,000-1,500 roubles. Accommodation in the ‘Merchant F. T. Kamenev House’ will cost around 3,000-4,000 roubles per night. Each room has its own bathroom, TV and refrigerator, as well as parking spaces in the courtyard. The most affordable option is the ‘Dom Palomnika’ mini-hotel with multi-bed rooms. They have 54 beds in total – a bed in the economy room costs about 300 roubles, or a bed in a 10-bed room is about 1,000 roubles. The mini-hotel has internet, a bathroom, and an on-site cafe. And if you decide to stay at the ‘Postoyalom Dvore’ on Uspenskaya street, you will find yourself right in the centre of all events of the island town. One night here costs about 3,000-4,000 roubles.

What to see and where to go

A walk through Sviyazhsk begins with the purchase of a ticket (510 roubles for adults and 330 roubles for students, pensioners and children). This ticket also allows you to visit the permanent exhibitions and Sviyazhsk museums. Having overcome the 120-step staircase leading up to the island, you will find yourself overlooking a spectacular view of Sviyaga and the nearby surroundings, before you head off to explore the island town.

The first stop, will most likely be the snow-white complex of the UNESCO World Heritage Site: the Assumption Bogoroditsky Monastery. Behind the heavy wooden gates you’ll find the buildings of the Archimandrite Corps, the monastic school, the church of St Herman, St Nicholas Church and the Assumption Cathedral. Almost all of these are closed for visitors, and some of them - for example, the Assumption Church - are being reconstructed. In any case, the monastery complex is a historical and architectural landmark, which you will just want to take away in photos.

Opposite the complex, you’ll find ‘Konniy Dvor’ where you can take a ride on horseback or in a carriage, and find handmade souvenirs and workshops of local craftsmen. Don’t miss the ‘Traktir’ restaurant decorated in old Russian style covered in painted khokhloma patterns. In the menu here you will find dishes of Russian, European and Tatar cuisines. We strongly recommend that you try their famous Sviyazhsk fish soup, which is prepared from locally caught fish.

The Museum of Sviyazhsk History stores rare archaeological finds such as fragments of gravestones and household utensils of the island's past inhabitants, mock-up layouts and reconstructed interiors of rooms of local civil servants and clerics. Visitors can sit behind a 19th century desk, and see a wax figure of Ivan the Terrible, as well as original documents, books and icons of the 19th-20th centuries. The museum building was once an orphanage between 1920-1930s, an NKVD prison between 1941-1948, and a boarding school between 1949-2009.

All over the island you’ll see not only cathedrals, but also ruins. Many ancient temples - the Nativity Cathedral, the Annunciation Church, St Sophia Church and St Nicholas Church were all destroyed in the last century. During the reconstruction of Sviyazhsk, the ruins were deliberately left without restoration, so that the travelers can feel as close as possible to the island's history.

Near the museum, there is another Orthodox shrine - the complex of the Ioanno-Predtechensky Monastery with its famous ‘All the Sorrowful Joy’ cathedral. The temple is 32 metres high, resembling a multi-tiered tower, the walls colourfully decorated inside. To see the magnificence of the domed ceiling once you’re inside, just look up. The walls - from the floor to the ceiling are decorated with paintings of faces of Saints. For 100 years, the interior of the cathedral has remained unchanged, and the acoustics are still magnificent to this day. Church services are regularly held, and relics, icons and other shrines are also stored here. Next to the cathedral, you’ll find the Trinity Church, which has become a model of medieval wooden architecture, the stone Sergius Church and brotherly corps.

To experience the true atmosphere of the Middle Ages, go to ‘Leniviy Torzhok’ next to Rozhdestvenskaya Square. Here you will find a place that specializes in historical reenactments, where you can catch a glimpse of sword fighting between knights in armour. With their help, you can learn to shoot a bow and arrow, sword fight with foam rubber swords or throw a medieval spear. In the craft workshops, potters, tanners and blacksmiths will show you their goods and even let you make your own. Right behind the entrance to the site, you’ll find stands that sell magnets, jewelry, wooden hand-made crafts and tableware as well as traditional Tatar treats such as horse meat and chak-chak. Here you can also try pancakes, buns, and meat cooked over a fire, or try the famous Sviyazhsk mead.

Where to eat lunch

In the ‘Buyan’ cafe on Rozhdestvenskaya Square, you’ll find simple homemade dishes - from solyanka soup to pancakes with cottage cheese. We recommend trying the Sviyazhsk fish soup and pikelets with condensed milk. A lunch special here will cost about 350 roubles. In St Sergius Church on the territory of the Ioanno-Predtechensky Monastery, the ‘Monastyrskaya Trapeznaya’ has an ascetic interior, long tables and wooden benches. The only meat you’ll find on the menu here comes in the form of Russian fish dishes. The average bill is about 300 roubles. Another place – ‘Rybatskogo Podvorya’ on the Sviyaga embankment has been themed to resemble a fisherman's house, and in summer, you’ll be able to dine on the summer verandah overlooking a panoramic view of the river. The restaurant prepares traditional Russian dishes based on recipes from a 1902 cookbook. The average cost of lunch here is 350 roubles.

Today, Sviyazhsk attracts travelers from all over the world - a temple witness of five centuries of historical events. Contrary to the once existing risk of extinction, the island continues to live and develop. New houses are built here, festivals take place, cafes and souvenir shops are open, and local residents preserve the unique atmosphere of the island town, which has become a true time machine.

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