Torzhok: Ancient Crossroads Between Moscow and St. Petersburg

Russia seems to have a never-ending supply of historical cities. And if you’ve lived in Russia for 22 years, like me, you might start getting a little cocky thinking you know all of the historical and even lesser-known cities such as Kostroma, Petrozavodsk, or Vyborg. So, when my Russian friend Zhenya suggested we visit Torzhok with our Russian-language YouTube channel, I wasn’t just surprised, I honestly had no idea what he was talking about, but we quickly agreed to make the trip.

Torzhok is conveniently located halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg. This was doubly convenient in our situation as I am in Moscow and Zhenya hails from St. Petersburg. You can travel to Torzhok by train from Moscow via Tver, for less than 1000 rubles. There is a direct overnight train from St. Petersburg. And, of course, travel by car has become much easier to Torzhok from either city with the new Moscow-St. Petersburg superhighway.

The Tvertsiy River courses through the heart of the ancient city of Torzhok

Torzhok was first mentioned in an ancient chronicle in 1139 as “Novy Torg”, which means “New Trade”. It was a commanding point on a trade route to Novgorod. And although it once held a key position in trade, it now has the feel of a sleepy provincial town that has been left to remember its rich history.

A birds-eye view of the Boris and Gleb Monastery that overlooks Torzhok from a hilltop.

I understand there is a Shell oil refinery on the edge of town that perhaps keeps the local economy alive, but when in the city there is only a very real sense of history.

Of course, Moscow and St. Petersburg are cities that have invested massive resources into renovating their historical architecture, and rightly so. But sometimes, the feeling is that the renovation has been done so well, that the feeling of history is lost. And this is what I loved about Torzhok most: They are renovating, but there is much work to do, and this is a chance to not just see, but feel the history.

Zhenya and I met a church photographer who argues that renovations must be done using ancient tools, rather than modern construction methods. An interesting point.

If you’ve been to both Moscow and St. Petersburg and are looking for a short getaway nearby, or on your trip between the two major cities, Torzhok is definitely worth stopping overnight and for a day. Or you can do what I did, and meet your friend from the other city at what is roughly the halfway point.

Trying out some of the local cuisine at the “Onyx” restaurant, with our guide Sergei

If you’re looking for a guided trip, check out this site. We weren’t able to work out our schedule to make it to any of their events, but they recommended Sergei to be our guide, and he was fantastic.

A local man presumably enjoying the weather and the fact that he is avoiding the hustle and bustle of Moscow

I would be interested to hear what other less-famous and historical gems are worth visiting in Moscow? Please comment with your ideas.

And here is the Russian-language video version of our visit to Torzhok. Enjoy.

Vyborg: Where Russia Really Meets Europe

I have heard that St. Petersburg is Russia’s most European city or that Moscow is Russia’s most Western city.  Both are absolutely fantastic cities, but what if you are looking for a slower pace over a weekend?  A city for tourists, that isn’t overrun by tourists… at least for now.

If you are driving to or from Finland or if you are in St. Petersburg and feel you have seen all of the sites and are looking for a change of pace, I highly recommend a day or two in the ancient city of Vyborg.

Tracing its roots back to the 13th century, Vyborg was at one time ruled by the Swedes, then was a part of Finland, as a largely autonomous area of the Russian empire.  Following the Soviet Revolution of 1917, Finland declared independence, together with Vyborg.  During the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland, Vyborg became a part of the Soviet Union, and then Russia, after the fall of the Soviet Union.

This certainly isn’t a history blog.  But the broad and rich history of the city, boiled down to one paragraph above, has left its indelible fingerprint on Vyborg today, making it one of the most unique cities, and yes the most European city, I have visited in Russia.

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Standing in front of the Vyborg castle while shooting a video blog

There are the narrow cobblestone streets of Vyborg, the heavy influence of Finnish architecture, and the only medieval castle in Russia.  You might be mildly surprised, as I was, that much of the city is still being renovated.  I found this to be a welcome alternative to St. Petersburg or Moscow, where everything was renovated long ago.  Vyborg today is a photographer’s paradise, and I also look forward to visiting again in a few years and seeing the changes.

If you are traveling from St. Petersburg, there are many trains to Vyborg, most of which will take between one and one and half hours for the journey.  The Vyborg train station is a stone’s throw from the old city.  And if sightseeing and photography at a slower pace are your cup of tea, you certainly won’t leave Vyborg disappointed.

If you know that you will never be able to visit Vyborg, but would like to check it out, never fear.  I visited Vyborg recently and shot some video for my Russian language blog.  But I found the city to be so fascinating that I made English subtitles.  Take a ten minute walk around Vyborg with Zhenya and me (Click CC on the bottom right of the Youtube screen for English subtitles).  Enjoy!

How I Protected Myself From the Draft While Camping in Kamchatka

It is a well known fact that Russians are afraid of the draft.  Not the military draft.  The level of danger associated with forced military conscription is nothing compared to the threat of a window left slightly ajar.

I have spoken about this danger before, but when I was in Kamchatka last year, I had sort of a funny situation when our Russian guide asked us to use some pine branches while setting up the tent.

The situation was a bit extreme.  We were stuck in the river and our satellite phone was not working, but happily this all happened with friends in one of my favorite places on the planet.

Here is how it happened.  For English subtitles click the CC button on the bottom of the YouTube screen (and if you speak Russian, please subscribe to my YouTube channel!).  Enjoy!

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I do find it humorous that it seems that there is no danger in standing at a bus stop for an hour when it is -40 degrees but a slight draft is considered to be unhealthy.  I guess I shouldn’t laugh- over the years I have learned that these peculiarities sometimes turn out to be right.  And it is idiosyncracy that sets any nation apart, and for many of us were why we fell in love with Russia in the first place.

What do you find simultaneously strange and endearing about Russia?

Mouse Town, Russia

What is your town’s competitive distinction?  What separates your locality from everywhere else on the planet and is an argument for tourists to come and slap down their hard-earned dollars?

Myshkin is a town in the Yaroslavl region, with a population of about 6000, beautifully situated on the high bank of the Volga River.  But every year, more than 140,000 tourists come and visit.  What draws them there?  It’s a four hour drive from Moscow, and there are certainly plenty of other beautiful cities along the river.


The first glimpse of Myshkin, on the approach by ferry

Myshkin’s first draw is a quirky play on it’s name that roughly translated from Russian means “of the mouse”.

And in Myshkin, there are mouse museums, a mouse palace (we’ll get to that later), a restaurant “The Mouse Trap”… and much more.  In all, I understand there are 29 museums in this small town.

With 10 and 12 year old boys getting some cabin fever as the summer continues (with their older siblings off at camp), I thought, why not make a weekend excursion up to Myshkin?  Certainly, any town that has created an industry off of the mouse name has a sense of humor, and deserves the drive.


The water closet in the “Mouse Trap” restaurant

Upon arriving, we checked into the guest house that my wife had found and decided to go exploring.  The Orthodox church in the center of town is being renovated, but you can climb up into the bell tower for a 10 ruble donation.


After dinner, we had a bit of a stroll.  I was impressed- there were small signs on most of the houses downtown explaining the significance of the house.  In most cases, it wasn’t information of national significance, but it created a good amount of interest.  For example, one house was home to some wealthy merchants and had electricity even before the Communist revolution. – Learn Russian with Free Podcasts

There were plenty of tourists, it seemed that most of them had recently arrived on a river cruise ship.


Incredibly intriguing was not just the cruise ship on the Volga, but the boardwalk and beautifully maintained lawn all along the riverfront.

The next day, we started with a museum that celebrated the local history of linen production, and also had an outdoor museum dedicated to various machinery.


The “Locomobile” hails from an age when there was no concern regarding a carbon footprint

The cost of this whole museum was 70 rubles- just a bit over a dollar.  And as we found out, it was our favorite museum.


A young tourist tries his hand in the linen production process

We didn’t have a lot of time, but I understand that there were museums in town that would show the pottery process, and also the woodworking processes that Russia has perfected over the years.


Learning about life before Playstation

The outdoor museum was a random collection of antique cars and other heavy equipment, some blacksmith’s work, and lots of woodwork.


“Hey kids, look at that old wooden sleigh…”

We had certainly gotten more than our 70 rubles worth, and the boys were looking to head to the river, so that we did, where they ran around in the water, but mostly threw sand at each other.

For the grand finale of our trip, we decided to go to the Mouse Palace and splurged on 200 rubles per ticket (over $3!).  We were greeted by the Mouse King and Mouse Queen:

I’m not sure what it was about that presentation, but our 12 year old said that he would “never be able to unsee that”.

Then we were taken to a room of the Mouse Palace where we learned about mouse rights and humane mouse traps.  I swear that I’m not making this up.  There was a bank of phones on the wall, and we were instructed to pick up the phones and listen.  Sure enough, there were mice squeaking on the other end of the line, and it was being translated.  It is with great pain and a no small amount of shame that I must tell you that I don’t remember their message to humanity.  If properly decoded, I think the mice might have been trying to communicate that “even if you pay only 3 dollars, it will still all feel very gimmicky, and the historical parts of the town are a much better way to spend your time”.

After that, there was a trip to the basement where we viewed various types of mice in cages and were informed that Myshkin will be hosting a Major International Mouse Event in 2020.  I’m totally going.

My recommendation: I think Myshkin is a great weekend getaway.  Reasonable prices, and plenty to do for a couple of days.  I would recommend it for families with children who live in Russia and speak at least a bit of Russian- we saw no foreigners while we were there nor any English-language signs.  If you only have a week in Russia, you might want to focus on some other cities, but if you’ve already been to Moscow, St. Petersburg, etc., why not make a quirky getaway to Mouse Town, Russia.