Ekaterinburg On The Cusp Of Europe And Asia

On the border between two continents geographically and scene of the end of an era in Russia historically, Ekaterinburg is of no less importance to tourism than it is to history.

The Istanbul Bosphorus on the south and the Urals in the north are regarded as the boundary between Europe and Asia. Located in the Urals, Ekaterinburg (Russian Yekaterinburg), is the region’s largest center of settlement, and a city in which the Russian tsars have an important place.  Tsar Peter I (Peter the Great) founded the city in 1723 as an industrial center and dedicated it to his wife, the Tsarina Catherine I. Later it went down in history as the place where the last Tsar, Nicholas II, was exiled and subsequently murdered. Renamed Sverdlovsk after one of Lenin’s comrades, Sverdlov, from 1924 to 1991, it has reverted to its original name today, but the name Sverdlovsk still appears on train schedules and some old maps.

Situated around the River Iset and the small lakes formed by it with a population of 1,371,000, Ekaterinburg is a place easily toured despite being Russia’s third (according to some sources, fourth) largest city. Those who are up to a half hour’s walk from the station to the city center along Lenin Boulevard will first encounter a large church. Located at the spot where the tsar was executed, it was built in 2003 to commemorate the event and named the Hiram na Kirovi, or Church of Blood. Since the tsar and his family were later  sanctified by the Orthodox church, Hiram na Kirovi has become a place of pilgrimage today for Russian Orthodox Christians. Situated at the highest spot in a large park, it can be seen from all over the city, commanding notice with its golden domes.

BONES OF THE ROMANOVS
After being murdered here with his family in 1918, the Romanov tsar, Nicholas II, continued to occupy the minds of the country’s authorities. The house on Karla Libknekhta Street where the tsar was killed was demolished in 1977 to dispel the attention of royalist sympathizers. Shortly afterwards a modest monument and small wooden church were erected in its place. After a law restoring respect to the tsars was recently passed in Russia’s courts, an enormous struggle soon ensued among the towns wishing to preserve the tsar’s bones. Among the contenders, which included Ekaterinburg where the bones were actually located, the capital Moscow, and the capital of tsarist Russia, St. Petersburg, the latter eventually won.
There are a number of important buildings on Lenin Boulevard (Leninsky Prospekt) such as theaters and the universities, together with a variety of shops, restaurants and cafeterias. Continuing our stroll, we come first to a dam reservoir, then to a square that might be considered small by Russian standards, and finally to a pedestrian zone opening onto the square. If Lenin Boulevard is the city center, then this area, known as Plotinka, meaning ‘shore’ in Russian, could be regarded as the central point on the boulevard. And although the banks of the dam reservoir constructed here have been dubbed the ‘historic center’, in their newly revamped state they appear anything but dusty history today.

FROM ICE FISHERMEN TO ICE CITY
Although strolling around a city in winter has its drawbacks due to the cold, it is not without advantages as well. For example, only in winter is it possible to cross on foot the City Lake (Gorodsky Prud), which freezes over completely, and see the amateur fishermen trying to catch fish through holes they have made in the ice. Ice sculptures are another of the city’s winter-only attractions. These sculptures, which number among Russia’s most popular New Year decorations, take the form now of park furniture made by children, now of masterpieces shaped by the hands of artists. Not surprisingly, the most common ones are of none other than Santa Claus and Ded Moroz (Father Frost). Miniature cities, similarly made of ice, with castles, towers and bridges are known as Ledovi Gorodok (Ice City). Ekaterinburg’s ice city is created every year on the Square of 1905 (Ploshshad 1905 Goda), which also boasts the city’s only statue of Lenin. Nearby Vaynera Street (Ulitsa Vaynera) is a pedestrian zone known as ‘the Arbat of the Urals’.

BEAUTIFUL IN SPRING
While foreigners were banned from Ekaterinburg until the 1990’s due to the key military installations located here in the Soviet period, the city today has begun to exploit its touristic potential. Rich above all in natural springs, Ekaterinburg boasts numerous spas and mineral waters, and thermal tourism is highly developed accordingly. Not only that but Ekaterinburg, which is situated in the Urals, is also a center of winter tourism. Thanks to its abundant mineral springs and advanced metal industry, the city has grown rich economically and is poised now to accommodate conference tourism as well, having already hosted meetings such as the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) Nations Economic Summit and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in June 2009. But Ekaterinburg is even more beautiful in spring and summer. Reconnecting with nature and the city’s parks after a long winter, the locals enjoy activities such as nature walks and bicycle and motorcycle outings in the fine spring air as well as boat cruises on the lakes. Fun and cheap, these boat tours are especially popular with tourists.

CITY OF EDUCATION AND CULTURE
Ekaterinburg boasts a large number of cultural and educational institutions including libraries, universities twelve opera house/theaters, two symphony orchestras, 35 galleries and exhibition halls, and fifty museums. Among its important academic institutions are Ural Maxim Gorky State University, Ural State Technical University and the Urals Division of the Russian Academy of Sciences. One of the most prominent names in Russia’s recent history and the first head of state of the new Russia, Boris Yeltsin is among the 1955 graduates of the Ural Polytechnic Institute. Among the city’s cultural institutions worth a visit are: the Mineral Museum of the Urals, Ekaterinburg History Museum, the Ural Nature Museum, the Ural Museum of the History of Architecture, and the Local Arts Center and Fine Arts Museum. Among the city’s art institutions are an opera and ballet theater as well as the Musical Comedy Theater, the Drama Theater, the Youth Theater and the Circus. Places to see in the environs include the Europe-Asia Monument representing the city’s location on the cusp of two continents. In minimalist style, the monument is 20 km from the city on the road to Perm. If you rent a car to go there, you might also take in the famous Mafia Cemetery (Shirokorechenskoe) and, to the north, Ganina Yama near the village of Koptyaki with its monastery and the pit where the Romanovs were buried.

FESTIVAL TIME IN EKATERINBURG
The anniversary of the founding of Ekaterinburg is celebrated every year in a grand festival on the third Saturday of August. Events such as open air concerts, folk and modern dance shows, a parade of antique cars, a yacht race, a flower show and weddings are organized as part of the City Day Celebrations, which take place in the area between the city’s historic center at Plotinka and the Square of 1905. This year the city will celebrate its 287th anniversary in ceremonies that are followed by tourists and natives alike.

WHERE TO STAY
Hotels in Ekaterinburg (some are with five stars), which boasts 54 three touristic accommodations, cater in general to the middle and upper income level. Anyone staying longer than three days in accommodation other than a hotel is required to register with the police.

HOW TO GET THERE
Turkish Airlines flies from Istanbul to Ekaterinburg on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Return flights are on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

WHAT TO EAT
To discover the local flavors of Ekaterinburg with its over 800 restaurants serving European and Asian cuisine, try the ‘borscht’ soup and ‘pelmeni’, or ravioli Ekaterinburg-style.