Text and photos by Tatyana Shorova
The summer is here, and the most impatient travelers have already started making their plans! The most courageous and curious explorers, who are eager to see more of the country than just Moscow, St. Petersburg and their suburbs, may find it interesting to try one of the towns on the Volga River. The smallest town of the Russian Golden Ring—Ples—gives an opportunity to feel the very essence of Russia.
It might be a somewhat challenging trip in terms of getting there: the closest airport and train station are in Ivanovo, which is about 1 hour away by car. We took an overnight train there from Moscow and then a taxi directly to Ples which cost us about 1,000 roubles last summer. Traveling by car will take about 4-5 hours. Also there is a direct bus departing from Schelkovsky bus station—the trip is around 8 hours. Another interesting traveling option is a Volga river cruise: Ples is one of the favourite stops for tourists.
We stayed in the town only for one weekend in July but fell in love with it immediately and forever. As a cautious traveller, I had looked up visitors’ feedback before we went there and I remember myself thinking: “It can’t be THAT good”. Well, it wasn’t. It was better. The seeming disadvantage of being far away from large cities turned out to be the main attraction: beautiful nature, fresh air, pure water and unique atmosphere of a provincial town. I loved the small sandy (what a surprise!) beaches, tea drinking on the open terrace in a historical home, boat rides along the river, and slow promenade walks along Volga.
For dreamers like me exploring this town, I make no exaggeration when I say that it was like opening a vintage jewellery box full of treasures: malachite pine forests embracing the town, sparkling emerald waves of the powerful yet peaceful Volga River, shimmering silver grass on the meadows, tiny wooden houses as if from the precious old-fashioned postcards. Time seems to have stopped there just before the October revolution! The town gets quieter as it gets cooler in September and that’s when the magic starts. Flamboyant fall colours, fairy-tale mushrooms, incredible sunsets and chilly morning mists over the valley. It is time for the artists and photographers to create their masterpieces, and for friends to open their hearts and talk by the fireplace in the cool evenings, drinking delicious herbal tea with honey or jam and traditional pastry—baranki and pirozhki. The enchanting snowy winter gives you a chance to immerse into solitude and silence walking around the sleepy town, while the younger part of your family can still have fun skiing or snowboarding on the hills. History echoes on every street corner, and you need to live more than one day there to feel it. Take walks along curvy steep streets, but also talk to the locals. Listen to their stories about how they live, what they think of, what they write or paint.
The most famous artist who lived and worked in Ples, was Isaak Levitan. Over 200 of his paintings were created in Ples, including “Above the Eternal Peace” (1894), “After the Rain. Ples” (1889) and “Evening. The Golden Ples” (1889). You can see a selection of his beautiful landscape paintings in the Levitan museum. Ilya Repin, Alexey Savrasov, the singer Fedor Shalyapin, the playwright Anton Chekhov all knew about Ples and visited. To quote the latter, the town of Ples has “put a smile on Levitan’s paintings”.
Ples offers several lodging options, including luxury riverside private residences, nice private inns, budget rooms and apartments, and Soviet type recreation centres. I was lucky to come across the sweetest Russian-French bed and breakfast inn, called Private Visit, which is run by Elena and Andre Manienan. The surprises began the minute my husband and I turned the street corner: there was no fence around the property, which is so unusual for Russia! The inn nestles on the hill and has the best view of the town and the Volga River. The designer taste of the hostess combined with a personal touch turned this once decaying 130 year old “izba” (a wooden Russian village house) into a real pearl of Ples!
The biggest pleasure was to meet the wonderful family of Elena, Andre and their kids. Their family story alone is amazing and worth a book. We were totally impressed by their friendly and loving attitude towards people who are coming into their lives regardless of their social status. The innkeepers created a fabulous entertainment program: you can listen to the legends of the old house and see a real “food retreat”, a huge basement filled with all kinds of preserves. Your little ones will find a small zoo right in the yard with a real hedgehog, a mink and rabbits! Another special treat is a review of Andre’s collection of pictures of Ples, its residents and nature. You can spend an evening at the inn singing romantic songs together with the local bard Marina Kostina or watching Daniel’s show of tricks!
The room we stayed in was pretty small but cozy, with a private bathroom and a little porch. The food and drinks were delicious and it is truly hard to name them all: pancakes, jam, hot porridge, fresh squeezed carrot juice, tea or coffee—all for breakfast. For dinner we were offered a stunning variety of appetizers like salted mushrooms, fresh vegetables, a choice of soups; Russian or French, salads and fantastic second course dishes, home-made kvas (traditional Russian drink), fresh baked pastry and hot tea or coffee. We had our meals in a different place each time as there are comfy little nooks with dinner tables and large open terraces scattered around the inn on different levels facing the valley, the river and pine forest.
Ples is still developing its recreation facilities, so you will not find there a whole lot of restaurants and cafes. Due to the general slow pace, some of them do not even open on time. There are a few nice places along the river with curious names, for example, the Tea Room of Ples Sober Society where you can get pastries, tea or coffee. The prices are pretty low. Another thing that tourists do not miss is the famous smoked bream which is sold hot right from the smoking sheds!
The town’s events calendar includes, besides traditional holiday celebrations, a Duck Gastronomical Festival, a Festival of Flax Fashion, a Film Festival in the name of Andrey Tarkovsky,the Ples Jazz festival, the International Shalyapin Festival and some others. The town also frequently becomes a stage for movies.
But no matter whether you come for one of the grand events or for a quiet weekend, Ples will mantle you with beauty and harmony in any season. Make sure you take everything to create your own piece of art there and Ples will be able to give you a smile all year round!