The Arkhangelsk Oblast (region) belongs to the European part of Russia. Despite its vast size (more than twice that of the United Kingdom), it is the least populated area of this geographical zone. During the XII century, Russians came here to escape the nomadic Tatar-Mongol invasion, becoming sailors, fishermen and hunters. The port of Arkhangelsk, founded during the time of Ivan the Terrible, became a high place of commercial trade where merchants exchanged furs for European wheat. Nowadays, people come to enjoy the silence of the taiga, the gentle light of its “white nights”, the harmony of Nordic landscapes and wooden architecture like in Kenozero and Malie Koreli. Further north, it’s possible to find an atmosphere of complete isolation amid the austere beauty of the Solovetsky Monastery.
Thanks to the creation of Saint Petersburg in the XVIII century, Russia gained access to the Baltic Sea that would become its shortest route to Europe. The city of Arkhangelsk shed importance and life returned to its peaceful ways. The northern part of the country was preserved from Peter the Great’s policy of “Europeanization”, making it a conservatory of Russian culture. So, while the rest of the country gradually moved towards stone construction techniques, the North remained stoically dedicated to wooden architecture. By the end of the XIX century, antique collectors and amateurs of Russian folklore and fairy tales rediscovered this region. Here, safe from wars and revolutions, the authentic spirit of old Russia lives on.
The “isba” is a traditional Russian home. This common element of Russian fairy tales and literature is a founding pillar of the nation’s culture. Of course, there are plenty of restored isbas in outdoor museums, but they’re not designed for guests! A much more genuine experience can be had in the wooden cabins on the shore of Kenozero Lake, far from the bustle of big cities. Imagine century-old larch floorboards and windows that open up to a sparkling lake in a place where the most pressing activity of the day is cutting wood for the banya.
The world-renowned beef stroganoff and traditional vinaigrette salad are concoctions of French chefs. True Russian cuisine can only be found in the big stone ovens of northern homes. They do not exist to belay nostalgia of the past rather, they are a survival necessity designed to heat the house. These deep ovens gently stew dishes for hours, giving them a unique taste and aroma. Cornflower and cranberry pies, golden pancakes, entire fish “en croute”… Not even in the capital will you find anything quite as exquisite as the hearty and warm atmosphere of remote villages in the distant North.
What does it truly mean to live life in a Russian village? What is a samovar? How can one survive in -30°C? Russian culture is not only in museums; you can live it from the inside by meeting locals over a full plate of traditional pancakes and cups brimming with sweet black tea. The authentic hospitality of the North is famous throughout Russia. Existence here may be humble, but locals have just as many questions as you about life in a foreign place. “What’s really happening in Europe? England? Germany? The other day, we saw on television… Is it true?”
Birds in the North were once deemed “fearless” by the author and traveller Mikhail Prishvin. Humans may only sparsely populate the area (2 people per km2), but birds are everywhere: there are at least 260 species in the Arkhangelsk region. Every summer in mid-July, the sea around the Solovetsky Islands comes alive with female beluga whales and their offspring, making Arkhangelsk one of the best places in Russia to observe nature at its most untamed.
The region of Arkhangelsk was specialised in shipbuilding from pinewood, the sap of which was turned into bird charms. Kargopol played an important role in the production of pottery, using the leftover clay to make toys. Even the most remote places here have their own unique pattern that is painted on wooden objects, though not quite so vivid as that of Khokhloma in Nizhny Novgorod, it still has a distinct northern touch.
Following in the steps of migrating peasants before them, monks once landed here, penetrating deep into the North to build monasteries in this harsh land. That is how the distant Solovetsky Monastery on the White Sea came to be. Built on a rocky island, 100km from the mainland, it became the high capital of Orthodox religion in the Russian North. During the Soviet Union, this monastic fortress was transformed into a place of totalitarian oppression for those who disobeyed the system. Since the fall of the Soviet regime, monks have returned and their deep voices ring out once again through the cavernous hallways of this religious stronghold. Thousands of pilgrims now visit this UNESCO World Heritage site from all over Russia. It has also become an attractive destination for tourism.
White nights on Solovky and Kenozero
The “white nights” season starts at the end of June and lasts until mid-July. The further north you go, the shorter the nights become. It is the best time for photographers and those who dream of Nordic landscapes.
To Kenozero by night train from Moscow or Yaroslavl: 3-day circuit
One night on a train is enough to reach Nyandoma, near Kargopol. From the station, it is only a 3-hour drive to get to Kenozero. Plan 3 days there to visit the local chapels and enjoy boat trips. If you have another few days, you can hike to the Porzhensky Pogost nestled in the Maselga Hills and meet the locals.
From Kenozero to Vologda or Solovky
There are two options to extend your trip after Kenozero:
1) Travel south to Vologda (5h by train). After visiting this town and its surroundings (Kirillov and Ferapontovo), you can regain Moscow or St Petersburg by night train.
2) Head further north to Arkhangelsk (5h by train) and catch a plane to the Solovetsky Islands (50min flight).
By plane to the Solovetsky Islands from Moscow or St Petersburg via Arkhangelsk
Plane is the most efficient means to reach the Solovetsky Islands. Take a direct flight from Moscow (2h) or St Petersburg (1.5h) to Arkhangelsk, then onwards to Solovky in just 50min aboard a turboprop airplane (An-24 or L410). Set aside 2 or 3 nights at least to visit the important sites on the Bolshoy Solovetsky Island (monastery, canals, Mount Sekirnaya and the botanical gardens).
From Solovky to Karelia
During the summer period until September, it’s possible to travel by boat from the Solovetsky Islands to Karelia (2h). You can extend your trip by visiting the islands of Kizhi and Valaam, or catch a night train to St Petersburg.
Skiing on Lake Lyokshmozero
In winter, a wide range of new opportunities opens up to visitors. From the village of Morschikhinskaya (2h from Kargopol), you can enjoy various cross-country skiing tracks (5–20km). The best time for this activity is between January and March.