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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Lermontov’s “Mineral Towns” Today
Text and photos Piers Gladstone

Since the 18th century, Russians have been travelling to Mineralnye Vody (The Mineral Towns) in the Russian Caucasus Mountains in search of curative spring waters and rest. In 1774, this area passed from Turkish to Russian rule and in the 19th century the five main towns and their natural springs became a popular summer destination with “polite society” from St Petersburg and Moscow, as well as for romantic writers such as Lermontov and Tolstoy. Now, many of the springs and sanatoria no longer function, but all of the towns, their springs and their parks, are still popular destinations throughout the year for Russians and tourists alike.

The Pushkin Gallery, Zheleznovodsk

At 6.25 pm precisely, the Novorossiysk – Vladikavkaz express gives a predeparture hiss before slowly slipping out of the station and into darkness. A providenik brings freshly laundered sheets, vacuum-sealed in plastic, before returning with tea in glass cups. Outside the window all is total darkness, stars watching high above a mysteriously unknown landscape. Sheets of car headlights arc and sweep around the S-bends of hills shrouded in mist, like a series of lighthouses viewed from the sea. The train enters a succession of tunnels, the light from the compartment illuminating brickwork speeding by. Arches with lone electric bulbs flash by at regular intervals, before being sucked back into darkness.

Shapes and shadows dance across the compartment’s walls and ceiling. Squares of weak light from the train’s windows reveal vague shapes outside as they pass in the night. The stations of small towns are blanketed in mist. Undefined shapes and forms, voices and noises emanate from ill-lit platforms. Excited hushed voices enter the carriage’s corridor. At 4.30am, small flakes of snow drop lazily from the sky, fingering their way to tickle and kiss the faces of the newly arrived in a wintry greeting at Mineralnye Vody, the transport centre for the spa towns of Kislovodsk, Pyatigorsk, Yessentuki and Zheleznovodsk.

From Mineralnye Vody, the jagged and snow-dusted peaks of the mountains high above the train tracks are shrouded by slow moving cloud, the occasional speck of blue revealed before being cloaked again. All of the train stations, even the smallest, are regal in their architecture. This theme is continued and extended on arrival at Zheleznovodsk, the smallest of the spa towns, where the older sanatoria and springs close to the railway stations are fantastic architectural follies. The most striking, the brownish red and white striped Ostrovsky Baths (built in 1893), complete with Arabic inscriptions and a faux minaret, belongs more to Damascus than the Caucasus.

Early morning in one of Yessentuki’s many parks

Ring Rock, near Kislovodsk, daubed in graffiti

Overlooking the city and the terraced park stands the Pushkin Gallery, a glass and blue metal gallery that was prefabricated and brought from Warsaw and erected in 1901. Now it is shuttered and closed. The weak morning winter sun glints off its metallic roof while trolley-pulling souvenir sellers arrive and set up their stalls. An old woman completes a gentle exercise routine while gazing out across the valley to the mountains on the opposite side, plumes of cloud pouring from their peaks like smoke trailing from an ocean liner’s funnels.

Pyatigorsk, the ‘capital’ of the Mineral Towns, immortalised both by Mikhail Lermontov’s novel A Hero of Our Time and by his death in a duel in 1841, feels tired and soulless. Modernday Pyatigorsk sprawls untidily beneath the old town located higher up at the foot of Mount Mashuk. The old town seems not to have stood the test of time, but then neither have the social classes nor the political philosophy whose foundations the town was built on. The genteel society who brought their architecture, their values and their presence in the summer months from St Petersburg and Moscow, have not been here since 1917. Pyatigorsk, more than its mineral town neighbours, suffers from this de-contextualisation.

The unkempt, empty and silent treelined boulevard of Prospekt Kirova no longer is graced by the footsteps of mothers with their young daughters in search of eligible young bachelors. Their houses that line it are, for the most part, either crumbling and faded or have been demolished. One block of houses has been restored and brightly painted, creating a splash of colour as yellows, oranges, pinks, whites and apricots march in procession up the hill towards the somewhat forlorn Academic Gallery.

And yet, on walking into the courtyards and down the alleys to the side of these houses, real life and an essence of this town in its modern context can be felt. Washing hangs on lines, cats sit on windowsills unblinkingly watching their domain, while dogs root around in corners. The houses stand in varying degrees of disrepair, but nonetheless they are alive. Like in Old Havana, the old town of Pyatigorsk’s colonial buildings from an imperial age now house a completely different kind of inhabitant in a different era, and like in Havana, the buildings have subsequently been infused with life and charm.

The Pyatigorsk of Lermontov exists only in the imagination now. Then, it was a form of cultural imperialism: the transportation of a lifestyle and an architectural ethic to a faraway region, built after an imperial conquest. Then it was a colonial town. Now it is a postcolonial reality.


One Zheleznovodsk’s 19th century Arabic follies

Ring Rock, close to Kislovodsk

The Kislovodsk train meanders like a river through the valley, a mysterious low cloud hanging in the cold morning air. The bluish wood smoke from the houses dotted around the valley blends with the mist, the smell of it faintly perceptible, even in the train. A succession of mountains pass by on either side, their dark ridges butting out into the valley, while the tops of the mountains wear a thin white cap of snow. The head of strange elephantine mountain juts out towards the train tracks, its body concealed by the mist.

The winter sun is like a bright moon, softened and filtered by the cloud and mist. As the train nears Kislovodsk, so the horizon is illuminated in an almost celestial light as the sun starts to break through the cloud that has kept the city hidden. The tower blocks on the outskirts are not yet illuminated and stand undefi ned, strange monoliths in the murky light.

The large 19th century Kurortny Park (Cure Park) is humming with weekend activity even though it is out of season. Various stalls selling dried herbs and tonics for one’s health are surrounded by customers while a woman on a bench sells dried fruits and nuts, singing serenely to the radio that sits next to her. A large eagle stares wistfully towards the mountains that it should be soaring above, waiting with a variety of other animals to be photographed. Couples promenade arm-in-arm and young children chase pigeons. People throw coins over their shoulders into a fountain while making a wish. An old busker in a beret serenades a small girl dressed in pink with his saxophone. She claps her hands and squeals with delight, bringing smiles to the faces of old men playing chess and backgammon who sit on circular benches built around the feet of trees. There is a palpable air of happiness and healthiness as the setting sun warms the outcrop of Krasnye Kamni that hangs above the park.

The area immediately outside Kurortny Park is a well-preserved pre-revolution architectural museum, except that this museum lives and breathes in the present. It is a pedestrianised area, where regal buildings face each other across bulvar Kurortny, people browse the souvenir stalls, and narrow streets head up the hilly sides where small ornate wrought iron bridges connect the upper levels.

The focal point of this pedestrianised area is the graceful Indian-temple style Narzan Spring Gallery, built in 1903 and home to Kislovodsk’s most famous mineral water and around which the town was originally founded. Life expectancy here is between 10-15 years higher than the national average, which many attribute to the drinking of Narzan’s rich and carbonated waters. Locals and tourists alike are serious about their mineral waters, and here in Kislovodsk, there is also a sense of seriousness and civic pride in the city and its wealth of well-maintained and grandiose historical buildings. It is a town with a spirit, where a continuation of its history can be felt, but a continuation that is not dependent on this history.

At the top of Mount Maloe Sedlo, Kislovodsk

Curative water drinking, Yessentuki

‘Ring Rock’, 5 km outside of Kislovodsk, has been a favourite excursion for those visiting the town ever since it was built. A large natural circular arch in a limestone cliff sits at the end of an escarpment, framing the sky. The steep path leading up to the arch is lined on both sides with women selling a variety of traditional handmade ethnic goods. The final steps to the arch are smooth, worn and carved by the footsteps of centuries. The arch and the surrounding rock and caves have been heavily daubed in graffiti. Empty bottles and burst balloons evidence of previous celebrations. Small pieces of cloth have been tied to the branches of trees for good luck. Weathered by their exposure to the elements, they now look like scraps of rubbish snagged in the trees. The modern age has left its marks on this ancient of places.

Distant somnolent sounds drift up to the arch from the direction of Kislovodsk lying darkly veiled across the plain that the rock silently watches over. Behind the arch, a pine forest with flecked brushstrokes of birches’ white swishes in the wind. A party of excursionists arrive in a minibus and follow their tour guide slowly up the path. Once at the foot of the arch, they stand obediently like school children, hands folded, listening to their guide, raising their heads when he points upwards.

One of the many small iron bridges in Kislovodsk

The Olympic Complex, built for athletes to train for the 1980 Olympic Games and now used by the army, sits high above Kislovodsk atop of Mount Maloe Sedlo (Little Saddle). The road from Kislovodsk winds its way up past farmyards with ancient tractors and equipment in them, while haystacks dot the nearby fields. A young shepherd stands on a ridge, his crook in hand, watching over his flock of brown sheep as three large birds of prey silently float and circle on the thermals high above, black silhouettes imperceptibly moving against the deep blue sky. The valley below is bathed in sunshine, the shadows of clouds slowly sliding across the valley’s floor, dulling for a moment the brightness of the brown of the earth and the white of the snow.

A yellow cable car, swaying slightly in the wind, brings walkers, mountain bikers and panorama seekers upwards to Mount Maloe Sedlo. Far below, three gold domes shine amid the miniature buildings of Kislovodsk. Two old women sit on a bench overlooking the view, making cooing noises while holding out sunflower seeds in the palms of their hands for the small birds that flutter around them. To their right is a romanticised statue of Lermontov in military uniform looking out across the valley to Mount Elbrus, Europe’s highest mountain, that stands imperiously above the Caucasus range it commands, its power and longevity mocking the insignificant of the statue below. A cloud shaped like a halo sits above its twin peaks, adding to its majesty.

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