As I mentioned in my last blog post, at the weekend I went to Kazan, 13 hours on the train to the south-east of Moscow. Kazan is the capital of Tartarstan, and wasn't conquered by Moscow until the 1500s, when Ivan the Terrible conquered the Tartars (St Basil's Cathedral was built to commemorate its fall). It is the largest Muslim region in Russia, and has its own language, Tartar, which is widely spoken and used on signs*. Historically poor, Kazan is being done up as a result of an oil bonanza - but I've since learned that Tartarstan is apparently investing heavily in alternative energy to attempt to diversify its economy - watch this space. The result of all this is that it feels a lot different to other Russian cities, and since I've more or less reached my tolerance for Russian churches, it made a nice change.
We got there at about 8:30am, and stepped out into the snow. For whatever reason, Kazan is significantly colder than Moscow, and the temperature was around -5. It then got colder through the day, so including wind chill, it's fair to say it was nippy. This had benefits though - not just the snow, but also the ice on the river. Leaving our hostel and walking into town, we saw people standing on the ice and fishing - so we scrambled down to the river, and stepped gingerly onto the ice. Possibly stupid - the ice was a bit slushy - but not something I've ever done before and very exciting!
We then made our way to the Kremlin, a world heritage site containing, among other things, a mosque (recently restored) and the Ivan the Terrible tower. In the snow, it was fairy-tale beautiful, so we climbed up to it and walked in to look around the mosque, clambering around the walls of the kremlin at the same time. I could have looked at it for hours, but it was freezing, so after a quick tour, we went to find a some lunch. And how we succeeded - we found a place called 'cafe de Paris', staffed by someone who spoke great English thanks to a stint in Birmingham, was friendly and welcoming (unusual for Russia...) and served great pumpkin soup and an amazing aubergine gratin. The only disappointment was being too full to eat dessert - but we determined to come back for dinner. I'd tell you all to go, but sadly he's having to shut down - the citizens of Kazan clearly don't realise what they're missing!
Fed and watered, we headed out into the cold again, walking round to see the lake (covered in ice) and the market. The market mainly sold food downstairs - a couple of us got a bit over-excited by the relatively cheap jars of passata, and bought some back to Moscow to facilitate tomato-based cooking - but upstairs was what I can only describe as the Russian version of T.K.Maxx. Win! Even better, it was 2 for 3! I was desperately trying not to go mad (I already have far too many clothes, and I need to transport everything back to the UK in a fortnight), but did end up with a shirt and a cardigan, but the others did pretty well, and by judiciously combining our items to maximise the value of the freebies, we all got quite a lot off, and left feeling pretty pleased with ourselves! Emma was particularly excited, having acquired a jumper with squirrels on it to remind us of the previous day's taxidermy!
Next stop, dinner. We found a bar covered with fairy lights and playing an epic soundtrack, and took ourselves in. The cheap cocktails were disappointing, but the wine was still about a fifth of the price it would be in Moscow, so we were still pretty pleased with ourselves, and the place was nice enough, albeit filled with underage drinkers and a big fat man who repeatedly came up to us and asked to 'get to know us' while we yelled at him to go away and asked the manager to chase him off. Disappointingly though, Cafe de Paris was having a salsa evening... so no apple pie for us! Foiled, we turned back to another cafe, where we had lovely tea and tirimisu, before getting a gypsy cab back to the hostel.
Next day, we got up and headed back into town through thick, driving snow, to see the Ivan the Terrible tower. It's called that because of a local legend that Ivan the Terrible insisted on marrying a local princess. Horrified, she demanded he build her the world's tallest tower, then flung herself from the top of it. Sadly the story is apparently not true, but the tower still stands, slightly crooked, above the Kremlin. Next, we completed our tour of the major sights by visiting the Cathedral of Peter and Paul - complete with balcony for views over Kazan's rooves. It was interesting enough, but basically just another Russian church, so we kept the visit short before going off to find food. Distressingly, Cafe de Paris was closed, so our attempt to get some apple pie was foiled again, and we ended up in an English pub.
We then headed back to the hostel, via some very dangerous statues of Lenin. It turns out that when you try to climb on marble to take comedy pictures, it's a bit slippy and you fall over and get massive bruises. So don't do that. We also stopped in at an art exhibition, which seemed to be mainly filled with angry cartoons, but also had a band, some poetry reading (one anti-government poem, which I found interesting) and a really cool installation with glass bottles that made different tones when you hit them with a pen. We enjoyed that a lot.
Hurrying out of the building where the exhibition was being held, we went back to the hostel, grabbed our stuff, and headed for the train. Sadly, just as hot as the day before, but despite the sleepless night, it was a lovely weekend. Kazan feels very different to Moscow - much smaller and more relaxed, culturally different, and with enough to keep you busy for a weekend but not so much that you need much longer. Highly recommend it to anyone wanting a weekend break outside Moscow.
* It also had local food specialities, which don't include Tartar Sauce - that was invented in France, and named after the Tartars because, allegedly, both are a bit rough.