A day at the Russian North - the Republic of Karelia
January 1, 1970
by Kate Sukhanova
You wouldn’t expect a lot of sun from the Far North of Russia, especially given the stereotype about Saint-Petersburg’s lack of sunny days. But there is a place that lies about five hours north of Russia’s second-biggest city that would not only greet you with rays of warm sunshine but also the beautiful wilderness, waterfalls and marble canyons (in the summer, that is!). I am talking about the Republic of Karelia.
The program of the trip I chose included driving through the Leningrad region and Karelia, and stopping at the Korela fortress, Sortavala, the Ahvenkoski waterfalls and finally, at the Ruskeala Marble Canyon.
The journey to Priozersk – our first stop – took about three hours from central Saint-Petersburg. In the Middle Ages, Priozersk was known as Korela, but it changed names throughout history due to various invasions by the Swedish and the Finnish. So, it’s no wonder that the Korela fortress was a must.
The town’s arguably most famous landmark has been standing since the 13th century Those familiar with Pushkin might recall that it was the very same prison where his school friend, Decembrist Wilhelm Küchelbecker was held, along with 9 other Decembrists. Korela was also home to Russia’s “Man in the Iron Mask” – a prisoner who claimed to be the Catherine II’s son and whose name is still debated today.
Our next stop – the town called Sortavala – was preceded by a couple of hours’ driving through villages with names more Finnish than Russian, and the roads that could fit right in “A Series of Unfortunate Events”. That part of Russia is very tricky to drive through, not least because the roads have a lot of turns and part of it is literally a dirt road. But it ends right as you drive into the Karelia Republic. And it’s so worth it!
We had an hour or so to look around the town and shop for souvenirs and were offered a lovely homemade lunch at the Lamberg Café. It can get very busy, because it’s a popular stop for tourists, so make sure to book in advance! The views of the Ladoga at the terrace alone deserve a visit, and of course, you can’t travel to Karelia without tasting the Lohikeitto soup and the Karelian kalitka (a traditional pastry sold pretty much everywhere in the region)!
Tip – Karelian souvenirs
If you want them, you should get souvenirs at Sortavala, because those sold in Ruskeala are fairly pricey, and the choice is about the same. I got myself a shungite owl because I collect owl figurines, a juniper necklace for my mom and a stick-on piece of shungite that goes on my phone. Shungite is a stone only found in Karelia and it is used to protect oneself against EMF radiation. So, if you choose to visit Karelia, make sure to stock up! Don’t miss out on a couple of cloudberry jam jars from a local farmer – the best jam in history. And it’s very good for girls too ?.
We then drove a few more kilometers to the Ahvenkoski Waterfall Park. Karelia is a land famous for its lakes and rivers, and the waterfalls of the Tohmajoki river are one of the most significant natural landmarks and a popular destination for tourists who like quests. You’d find quite a few figurines from Karelian folklore all over the park. Russian movie aficionados would recognize the location – “The Dawns Here Are Quiet” (Oscar’s Best Foreign Language Picture Nominee of 1972) was filmed here!
The color of the water is not what you’d expect – it’s a little rusty because of the high concentration of iron salts in the water. But it is very pure and safe to drink, thanks to the untouched nature of the region. And the trees around the waterfalls, coupled with fairytale characters all over the place, really make you feel incredibly removed from the rest of the world. Despite the noise of the water hitting the rocks, you can truly find peace here (or some kayaking if you prefer that!).
I was a little sad to leave the relaxing waterfalls, but at the same time excited to see the main reason I’ve booked the trip – the Ruskeala marble canyon.
In the 1700-1800s, Ruskeala was one of Russia’s biggest reserves of marble which was used to build Saint-Petersburg’s most famous landmarks, such as the Hermitage. Back then, Ruskeala was one of Russia’s mining centers. However, the quarry was subsequently flooded and has been a tourist destination since the 1990s.
The lovely tour guide dressed in national Karelian costume took us for a hike. The trails led us through a small grove on the edge of the quarry, from which we could see the emerald-green waters, surrounded by walls of marble.
We were quite high above it, but the heights were hardly the reason for my fast-beating heart. I was, simply put, overwhelmed by what was before my eyes. Nature really is the best artist of us all, and Ruskeala’s incredibly diverse color palette is one of the biggest testament to that that I’ve ever had the fortune to witness. She plays with the greens, the greys, and the browns in such a way that I would never have thought possible. From the very bottom of the quarry, which we can see very well thanks to the translucent emerald waters, to the blue northern skies, Ruskeala Marble Canyon Park is truly one of the wonders of the Russian North.
What you can do in Ruskeala
I personally thought that the hiking trails were the best way to get to know the beauty of the park, but Ruskeala has a lot more to offer! For one, you can go around the Emerald Lake by boat and enjoy the grottos inside. The mysterious marble labyrinths might be a little bit chilly, but bring a jumper and the tunnels won’t seem so intimidating. They call it “Space Underground” – the marble caves, the stalactite and stalagmites, and the tunnels are illuminated, and as your boat slowly slides along the pristine emerald waters, it really does feel like you’re on another planet!
If you like active tourism and not afraid of heights, you can try a bungee jump above the Ruskeala quarry. A flight of about 400 meters 30 meters above the lake would surely take your breath away, and if I weren’t super terrified of the heights, I’d jump on that in a heartbeat! The whole thing would take about 30 seconds but you’re unlikely to ever forget it!
Ruskeala is also home to a husky farm, so if you have the time, you can play with cute puppies. And if you go in the winter, they might even take you for a ride in a sled around the quarry!
- Karelia is pretty warm in the summer, but take a jumper with you nonetheless;
- Try to book an organized tour – you’ll learn a lot from the affable tour guides! Plus some places in Karelia are pretty tricky to get to, even by car;
- Wear comfortable shoes – the terrain isn’t exactly asphalt and cobblestones;
- Be prepared for some twisty roads;
- Don’t be intimated by the wilderness – and be open to trying new things like cloudberry jam and shungite shampoo.