Ufa is the capital of the autonomous republic of Bashkortostan (Республика Башкортостан), home of the Bashkirs, a Muslim Turkic people who dominated most of the southern Ural Mountains before Russian colonisation. Although they’re only a third of the republic’s population, you can hear their lispy language spoken on the streets of Ufa, in rural areas and on the radio.
Rostov-on-Don (simply ‘Rostov’ to locals) is the gateway to the Northern Caucasus region. It’s southern Russia’s largest and most cosmopolitan city, as well as an important industrial centre. Flowing through the city is the Don River, celebrated in Mikhail Sholokhov’s novels of the Russian Civil War, And Quiet Flows the Don and The Don Flows Home to the Sea.
On the Volga, 150km northwest of Moscow, the charming town of Tver dates back to the 12th century. After a fire levelled most of the town in 1763, the architect Pyotr Nikitin replanned Tver’s centre on a three-ray system and built his patron, Catherine the Great, a ‘road palace’ to rest in on journeys between the then-Russian capital of St Petersburg and Moscow.
When Catherine the Great travelled south to tour the lands conquered from the Turks, her lover Potemkin had cheerful facades erected along her route. These hid the mud-splattered hovels that made up the newly founded city bearing her name, Yekaterinodar (‘Catherine’s Gift’). It's been a long time since Krasnodar has needed those facades.
A stop in this industry-focused metropolis can be useful to break up the long journey between Moscow and destinations in Ukraine or the Caucasus. There are some grand buildings worth a gander around pl Lenina and along pr Revolyutsii towards the impressive Annunciation Cathedral.
A scenic road passing through a deep, narrow canyon leads up from Adler to Krasnaya Polyana (Red Valley), Russia's newly built ski mecca that hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics ski events. The scenery here is simply spectacular, with snow-capped mountains looming above three world-class ski resorts containing kilometres of high-quality pistes.
Once called Rauschen, Svetlogorsk is a pleasant, slow-placed spa town, 35km northwest of Kaliningrad. The narrow beach backed by steep sandy slopes is nothing to speak of, but the pretty old German houses, revamped sanatoriums, top-class hotels and dappled forest setting make it worth a visit.
Welcome to Lada-land, the place where one of the world’s most ridiculed vehicles is produced. The city is a particularly depressing Soviet urban sprawl, where the quality of the roads matches that of Lada cars. That said, it is strategically placed by the giant Kuybyshev reservoir dam, with the Zhiguli Hills starting right across the water.
The long beach that gave Zelenogradsk (formerly Kranz) the status of royal bathing resort for the Kingdom of Prussia is still the town’s prime attraction. It’s a low-key place with a nostalgic atmosphere: crumbling Soviet eyesores, lovely German buildings and modern villas stand side by side.
The highly industrial city of Magnitogorsk is of limited interest to travellers, but once you leave it you enter eastern Bashkortostan and the southern Ural Mountains, a region where picture-perfect birch groves and large blue lakes fill depressions between gentle grass-covered hills and the mountain ranges.