When James Bond headed to Kazan in Russia, towards the end of Quantum of Solace, many people would have had but one thought: ‘Er…where?’
It’s a thought I shared before setting off to see what this provincial Russian city – a would-be new player on the Russian tourism trail – had to offer.
Russia for most Brits has previously meant escorted tours of St Petersburg or perhaps a long weekend in Moscow, and whilst Kazan is a fairly established destination for its domestic market, it is now embarking on an ambitious drive towards international tourism.
Pay attention – here’s the geography…
Kazan is around 400 miles east of Moscow. Sadly, there are no direct flights, and you travel there via Kaliningrad – a strange little outpost of Russia that’s separated from the mainland and surrounded by Europe.
Here you have the pleasure of being shunted around a cowshed of an airport while low ranking officials bark at you for papers about every hundred yards. I’m assuming Bond, J. skipped this bit.
It’s hardly Kazan’s fault, though, and I arrived in Russia’s eighth biggest city with an open mind. My first trip to the country may not have the glamour of Moscow or the historical heft of St Petersburg, but it would at least be an authentic experience.
I didn’t need to be an international spy to suspect this – as the capital of the Russian Republic of Tatarstan, Kazan has been a cultural hub for a thousand years.
And I’ll answer your first question about the Tatars straight away.
Friendly locals: A Tartar woman in Kazan
No, they didn’t invent the sauce. They did, however, exist as a tribe across large swathes of central and eastern Europe and Asia, and their influence in cities such as Kazan are obvious as soon as you arrive.
A Muslim people, Tatar cities have beautiful mosques – more of which later – and distinctive traditional architecture, kind of rugged yet ornate and colourful wooden houses, some of which I’d get to explore.
The mix of Russians and Tatars is ostensibly a peaceful one, and the influences cohabit the city harmoniously.
My first impression of Kazan was that it obviously had some wealth.
Oil reserves and a propensity for public spending and large architectural statements (almost all of them built to celebrate the city’s millennium in 2006) mean that much of the city looks spanking new, from the hulking hotels that stand out against the more prosaic residential buildings to the enormous hippodrome – about as technologically advanced a place as you’re going to get horses into.
My hotel – The Riviera – looked like it had been transplanted from Las Vegas, and was kind of needlessly over the top, but had nice designer touches and a lobby that must breach the top five glitziest lobbies in Russia.
All white: The historic Kazan Kremlin
The more interesting sites, though, were more than two years old. The Kazan Kremlin (kremlin just means ’citadel’ in Russian) is a World Heritage Site and boasts the striking five domes and six columns of the Annunciation Cathedral.
Next to it, as one cathedral is plainly never really enough, is the baroque St Peter and Paul cathedral.
Plain isn’t really a word that comes to mind at Russian Orthodox cathedrals – if there was gold leaf to be had, it was slapped on a wall somewhere and if you’re a fan of religious icons, then you’re in the right place as there’s more here than you could shake a thurible at.
Also in the complex is the biggest mosque in Europe, the Qol-Şärif mosque, which may suffer from Plain Jane syndrome next to the bling of the cathedrals, but is still impressive in its scale and as a sign of the harmonious co-existence of the religions here.
The city’s sights are pleasant enough – Bauman’s Street is the main commercial centre, and the Pyramid shopping centre is a good place to find retro-looking souvenirs.
Although the days of Communism are still apparent in some of the architecture, much progress is being made, and a new metro is just one of the projects that are slowly transforming the city.
Treat: Traditional Tartar food
Another telling sign of progress is the fact that most young people seem to dress all day like they’re at a nightclub, scarcity of material and thigh boots very much the order of even the coldest day.
The Tatar heritage is being conserved, though, especially through traditional restaurants where, under wooden roofs and with vodka flowing, you can chow down on some – very tasty – Tatar specialities.
For a native Lancastrian such as myself, the ‘belish’ (essentially a big, crusty pie) was heaven on a plate, while sweet-tooths would find it hard to resist the ‘chak-chak’, little domes of honey-sweetened dough balls.
The best way to truly get an insight into the Tatars is to head out to the settlements on the fringes of the city.
Visiting the Tatar villages can only really be done with a guide (easily arranged through the tourist office).
As the minbus shakes off the suburbs and the trappings of the city fall away, the landscape opens out into farmland, though high-heel thigh-length boots are still noticeably favoured by females under 45.
The houses become nearly all wooden – almost Alpine in appearance, but brightly coloured and with ornate flourishes.
As we get off the bus, a beaming gaggle of family members are there to welcome us into their home – at least three generations, all in traditional Tatar dress.
The villages are largely self-sufficient, and as well as milk fresh from the goats and honey straight form the hive, there’s a wealth of vegetables, cakes (chak-chak, of course) and – thank heavens – still-warm belish on a table that’s audibly groaning with the weight of the feast.
As we eat, our guide translates our questions and the questions that the Tatars have about the UK.
Many a glass is raised – the honey vodka and plum brandies knocked back purely out of politeness of course – and it’s a merry bunch we have by the time lunch is over and our hosts are playing us traditional music and singing haunting songs.