Six Hours in Smolensk

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September 27th 2014
Published: September 28th 2014
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I managed to buy convenient train tickets from Moscow to Smolensk. However, departure was at 1.45 in the night which was not at all convenient. I wouldn’t take a taxi, but went to Byelorussky train station within the metro working hours and waited for two hours. Surprisingly, I did not find the waiting hall, it seemed to be either closed because of late time or under repair. Thankfully, the outdoor air was not too cold and there was no wind, so I just paced the platform to and thro, sat here and there, thought about things and tried to figure out what the inscription “2пр4” meant on the train departure display.

Now, even if you know Cyrillic letters, it would not help you decipher what this means. Only asking a person would, but I did understand it on my own. Of course, I would be at a loss if I hadn’t previously used commuter trains at this station. “Пр” in this case means the commuter train platform, the same from where Aeroexpress to Sheremetyevo departs. It should read somewhat like ‘Platform 4 (suburban trains), Track 2”.

During the night, I did not sleep well; I arrived to Smolensk at 8 in the morning – to my mind, this is the perfect time for arrivals. I had a map with me so as not to indulge in searches and lose no time. The one disappointing this was the morning chill, but I hoped it would soon turn to warmth as the sun rose. I saw two nice churches near the station as I crossed the overhead bridge, and a silhouette of a huge building far away, hidden in haze. Then I crossed another bridge, over Dnieper River, and from there saw the huge cathedral and the fortress walls. We will later learn that these walls are not called a Kremlin, though the appearance and the idea are almost identical. There were no residential or other high-rise buildings visible in the area. The central area is all hills and ravines in vegetation, thus Smolensk is said to be a city on seven hills. Itmakesthecityparticularlybeautifulandpicturesque.

I walked along the river on the embankment, with trees, benches and ramps for the disabled, and even a playground for children. I guess families crowd this place during weekends.

Before I cross another bridge over Dnieper to see something interesting on the right bank, let us pinpoint some important historical facts about the city. The town was first mentioned in the chronicles in 862. In 882, the town was captured and annexed to the Old Rus by Prince Oleg. In the XIII century, Smolensk princes established close relations with the Grand Princedom of Lithuania. In 1440, the citizens of Smolensk tried to gain independence from the Grand Princedom, but the uprising was suppressed. The town also was ruled by Rzecz Pospolita for a certain period, but Rus finally regained Smolensk in 1654.

On the right bank of Dnieper, I decided to have a bite at McDonalds because I felt cold and needed some tea. I also noticed a hairdresser’s saloon and thought about having my hair cut, but postponed this campaign till later in the day. After that I returned to the fortress walls and finally satisfied my curiosity about the huge cathedral, which dominates over the city. The fortress was built in 1595-1602 by architect Fyodor Kon (the surname means ‘Horse’), who built the fortress by the example of Kremlins in Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Tula, Kolomna, Zaraisk. Its fortress is 6.5 kilometers long with less than a half of towers and walls left. The fortress had a great importance for defence in the Russian State.

Good news for tourists from abroad – many signposts and names of streets are given in Russian and English, and there are also signs of main attractions and map-boards also in two languages.

Uspensky Cathedral, being impressive and formidable from the distance, is the more so when seen close. The cathedral was built in the memory of Smolensk defence during 1609-1611 against Rzecz Pospolita. Its style is Baroque, and the hill where it is located allows viewing the town from above. You will not see modern buildings in the vicinity, they all are far, with low-rise private houses occupying the ravines within the remaining fortress walls. I had to walk a considerable distance to reach the wall and towers I saw from the hill. From there, I gradually entered the more modern and active part of the city. In particular, I liked Bolshaya Sovetskaya Street with its colourful brick buildings. The names of streets are duplicated: first comes the contemporary name, e.g. Lenina Street, then Blonnaya (in the XVIII century), Kirochnaya (since 1869), Pushkinskaya (since 1899).

I entered a bookshop (to buy a book to read on my next train trip), then descended back to the river and again crossed the bridge to the hairdresser saloon I noted previously. I even wanted to finish sightseeing at this moment and return to the station, but, thankfully, changed my mind. After the haircut, I went to the nearby shopping mall and had a bite at Domino Café. It had excellently decorated interior and cheap and tasty food. I would not expect a simple café (not a restaurant!) to have so many decorations. Inspired by the food, I decided to return to Bolshaya Sovetskaya Street by bus and explore the area near Central Park of Culture and Rest. It was the best decision I made on that day.

I saw a lot of monuments: to the poet Alexander Tvardovsky and his personage Vasily Terkin (refers to Great Patriotic War), more fortress walls, metal boards with words of gratitude to heroes who defended and developed Smolensk during the ages, and a horrible monument in the Pioneers’ Park. I call it horrible because it depicts emaciated bony bodies of children perished in Nazi concentration camps. I’ve seen many war monuments but this one was certainly among the most impressive ones.

As my time of stay was gradually running out, I decided to make a final rush and walk more, instead of returning to the station by bus. The city seemed to celebrate something; I have thought about it from the very beginning when I saw bridges adorned with multi-coloured flags. It turned out it was the city’s birthday!

I saw many people walking the streets and parks, many families and children, some of them on guided excursions – in the Mini-Park in the Memory of Heroes (perished in the war of 1812), with busts of great commanders M.B. Barclay de Tolly, P.I. Bagration and others. Heroes of Great Patriotic War are buried right here, by the Fortress wall. After I left the park, I saw crowds of people – that’s where the amusement part began – the Central Park of Culture and Rest, with stands selling a variety of souvenirs, handicraft items, pictures and what not. There was a moat by the Fortress wall, and the monument to architect Fyodor Kon.

There was even the “Royal Fortress” – remains of earthen mound, which is Europe’s last earth rampart of the Dutch bastion system of the XVII century. I did not explore it. There was a concert going on in the part, and shashlik was being fried on a lawn. I also saw the Monument to Smolensk Defenders of 1812 and after that had to stop sightseeing actually, because my camera battery ran out. I never do sights (if not seen before) without a photocamera. My feelings were elated and I was completely satisfied. Before returning to the train station, I bought a bottle of water and a baked roll.

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