Kazan (meaning a cooking pot in Tatar) is the Istanbul of the Volga, a place where Europe and Asia curiously inspect each other from the tops of church belfries and minarets. It is about 150 years older than Moscow and the capital of the Tatarstan Republic (Республика Татарстан) – the land of the Volga Tatars, a Turkic people commonly associated with Chinggis Khaan’s hordes.
From Rostov-on-Don, the overland routes to the Northern Caucasus and the Black Sea coast cross the Kuban Steppe (Кубанская Степь), named after its river flowing from Elbrus into the Sea of Azov. The region is an important agricultural centre and is often referred to as the bread basket of Russia.
The Golden Ring comes with a diamond and that’s Suzdal. If you have only one place to visit near Moscow, come here – even though everyone else will do the same. In 1864, local merchants failed to coerce the government into building the Trans-Siberian Railway through their town. Instead it went through Vladimir, 35km away.
With its East-meets-West feel, Astrakhan is an unusual provincial capital where a pretty river promenade and city parks are offset by architectural heritage in a shocking state of decay. Once upon a time, its streets saw German pastors mingling with Indian tea traders and Kazakh herdsmen.
‘Oh, Samara, the little town, I am so restless – give me some rest.’ The quintessential drinking song is now only partly true: this city of over a million is little no more, and in recent years has focused on drawing visitors to the city. Not without justification, for Samara is a pleasant place to visit.
Embraced by two rivers, the mighty Volga and the smaller Kotorosl, Yaroslavl’s centre is dotted with onion domes like no other place in Russia. It indeed boasts a record-breaking 15-dome church. This religious zeal dates back to the times of Kyivan Rus, when the town was founded by Prince Yaroslav of Kyiv to guard his realm’s northeastern flank.