Worth a Trip: Bolgar

It might be the smallest town in Tatarstan, but Bolgar (Болгар) shares its name on equal terms with the country of Bulgaria. The word ‘Volga’ is most likely a Slavic corruption of the same name. Bolgar is the descendant of Great Bulgar, the capital of one of the most powerful states of early medieval Eastern Europe. Ruins of that city, on the outskirts of the modern town, have been turned into an open-air museum, which has become a major place of pilgrimage for Tatars in search of their roots.

The Bulgars were a Turkic tribe based south of the Don when they came under pressure from the Khazars and had to migrate. One branch headed west and occupied the eastern Balkans, but it was soon assimilated by local Slavs, leaving no trace but the name. The eastern branch settled on the Volga and mixed with local Finno-Ugric tribes. Sunni Islam became the official religion in 921.

The Bolgar State Historical-Architectural Museum Reserve is east of town, with a boat landing directly in front of the large Museum of Bolgar Civilisation (Музей Болгарской цивилизации), which houses the site's main exhibits on Bolgar's history.

Hydrofoils leave Kazan early morning (usually 8am) and return from Bolgar late afternoon, usually at 3pm or 4pm, giving you about three hours to look around. Check exact times, as they tend to change from one navigation season to the next (roughly from late May to September). They dock at the quay directly in front of the Museum of Bolgar Civilisation. Expect to pay around R360 each way.

Kazan Tourist Information Centre runs 11-hour boat excursions to Bolgar (twice weekly in the season, R2000 including lunch). You can stay at the Hotel Regina; ask for a quiet room, as kids and loud groups can be a problem.

Buses make the 200km drive from Kazan's Yuzhny Avtovokzal bus station year-round (R350, three hours), departing at 10am and 5.45pm. Some Saturdays, Kazan Tourist Information Centre runs day excursions by bus (R2000, 11 hours) with lunch.