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. These days you can still feel an abrupt change as the striking kremlin, stone mansions and churches of the European and Christian centre give way to Tatar and Persian sloboda (suburbs) with their wooden cottages, mosques and quaint courtyards where garlands of drying vobla fish flutter in the breeze.
Built in 1558 after Ivan the Terrible defeated the local Tatar khanate, Astrakhan is the successor of two imperial capitals in the area: Saray of the Golden Horde and Itil of the earlier Khazar kaganate, which adopted Judaism as its official religion. Both cities prospered thanks to their location on the Silk Route and by the sea.
Today, however, Astrakhan is first and foremost a jumping-off point for the Volga Delta, where the intricate wetlands are home to hundreds of bird and fish species and the scene of sharp tourist growth.