After Honningsvag, it was time to travel across the top of Europe into the Barents sea and then make a detour into the White Sea down to Archangel in Russia. Travelling down the White Sea, the land on either side was very different from the fjords and high rocky cliffs of Norway.
Here were trees and low stretches of land with odd lighthouse and habitation. This really did feel like the edge of wilderness and we were looking forward to visiting Archangel.
We had booked the cruise only a few weeks before it sailed and therefore did not have time to get a Russian Visa that you need if you want to go freely around Russia. The only alternative is that you can take one of the excursions organised by the ship, these are not always ideal but ultimately if we wanted to go on land we had little choice.
We arrived at the Archangel port to be faced with a busy container port with some indication of the importance of timber and fishing which is this part of Russia are the main exports. The port is around 30 minutes drive from the centre of the city and if you were travelling on a visa, quite a difficult place to get transport into the city. The only transport seemed to be small buses that seemed full most of the time.
The city is quite unusual because it lies on both banks of the Northern Dvina River near its exit into the White Sea. The city spreads for over 40 kilometres (25 mi) along the banks of the river and has numerous islands of its delta.
On the exit from the port, there were a number of large wooden houses that seemed either derelict of had burnt down. Obviously these had made full use of the local timber but they seemed poorly constructed. Travelling over the bridges, occasionally you could observe a large amount of timber floating in the water.
Archangel has a population of around 400,000 people and has a long interesting history, the city was the chief seaport of medieval and early modern Russia until 1703.
Its former inhabitants included the Vikings and in the 12th century, the Novgorodians established the Archangel Michael Monastery. Archangel was the scene of a number of battles between the Russia and Norway in medieval times before Ivan the Terrible gained control and began to use the port to trade with British and Dutch Merchants.
In 1693, Peter the Great ordered the creation of a state shipyard in Archangel although in 1722, he decreed that Archangel should no longer accept goods that amounted to more than was sufficient for the town. It was due to the Tsar’s will to shift all international marine trade to St. Petersburg. This factor greatly contributed to the deterioration of Archangel as a port.
Arkhangelsk’s economy revived at the end of the 19th century when a railway to Moscow was completed and timber became a major export.
During both world wars, Archangel was a major port of entry for Allied aid. During World War II, the city became known in the West as one of the two main destinations (along with Murmansk) of the Arctic Convoys bringing supplies in to assist the Soviet Union.
On the outside of the city, there are large blocks of concrete apartments which we assumed were vestiges from the Soviet days before you hit the centre. During Stalin’s reign many of the historic churches were destroyed but many have been rebuilt illustrating the importance of religion in the new Russia. We visited the Assumption church which had been rebuilt in 2004 with its wonderful icons and saw the stunning new city’s cathedral, dedicated to the Archangel Michael. Somewhat surprisingly in the centre of town is a large statue of Lenin and an old Tank in a glass box.
One of the city’s main landmarks are the fort-like Merchant Yards, in the 17th and 18th centuries this large trading centre was filled with luxury items. At one point all the trade from Europe came through this building. Some of the complex has recently been restored with a few exhibition rooms.
Along the promenade is a series of statues, most famously of Peter the Great who as I have mentioned built a seaport here and then moved most of the trade to St Petersburg which led to Archangels decline.
Interesting fact alert : The monument to Peter the Great, a sailing ship, and the sea terminal in Archangel are depicted on the Russian 500-rouble banknote.
The centre of the city is a strange mix of old buildings and new apartment blocks with plenty of shopping malls dotted around. There are plenty of green spaces and the city has a large promenade where the local walk and enjoy the riverfront.
In the very centre of town is a pedestrianized thoroughfare called Chumbarovka Street where you walk past old wooden buildings that are copies of traditional wooden merchant homes.
These buildings are now used for shops, restaurants and bars with a number of strange statues dotted along the street, one had a shiny hand and nose, we gathered that you shake the hand and grab the nose for good luck. For some reason this all seemed rather odd and Mrs Nice was distracted by a small number of street traders were putting away their wares. Mrs Nice spotted one with some Russian dolls and bought a couple. She did not pay a lot but was a little concerned she did not haggle to get the price down.
Things took a rather surreal turn when a man dressed as an angel on a bike appeared. Mrs Nice immediately began to talk to him, although he could speak no English and she could speak no Russian. Eventually we managed to work out he was wearing this outfit to highlight something to do with trees and the environment.
This unusual encounter and a ride back to the port led me to think that Archangel is a fascinating mix of old and new. Life on the outer edges of the Russian empire is not likely to be easy especially in the winter but the city was full of life except for the rather glum faces of the people waiting for the local buses.
As we left Archangel under a wonderful sunset, we began to look forward to our next Russian stop, Murmansk.
Old Fogies Travels are the adventures of two elderly Londoners (The Old Fogies) as they explore their home town and travel around the world looking out for the strange, unusual and absurd.
Our articles are published on our blog but also listed on the website of our friends at Visiting London Guide.com here.