A Foreigner's Guide to Karelia

Louis Rossier invites you to visit Republic of Karelia.

A Foreigner's Guide to Karelia

Photo by Ekaterina A. Ershova

At just a stone's throw from Saint Petersburg, Karelia is the home to wonders, waiting to be discovered on a summer vacation. In the north-west of Russia lies one of Russia's most beautiful regions: the Republic of Karelia. Easily accessible from St. Petersburg and Moscow, with its good infrastructure and many interesting places to visit, and above all its magnificent northern countryside, it's an ideal summer destination for anyone with a week's vacation to devote to it. We gathered a small selection of interesting places to visit, along with a few practical tips.

Ruskeala Mountain Park

Don't let the 'moutain' in its name fool you: this small family park is accessible to visitors of all shapes and conditions. This former marble quarry has supplied some of St. Petersburg's finest architectural achievements, including St. Isaac's Cathedral and the Winter Palace. Since the end of its operation, it has been flooded, to the delight of its many visitors who can now discover it by boat. Easily accessible, either by the historic train linking it to Sortavala or by car – you're sure to find a space in the huge American-style parking lot – it's a family destination. You can go for a walk, take a boat ride at the bottom of the quarry or try your hand at the zip-line above. No need to worry about ticks – ubiquitous in woody Karelia: park managers spray nature with chemicals so you can stroll around in shorts and skirts without fear for your ankles. In terms of comfort and fun - it's absolutely marvelous. This place is for those who search for calmness and authenticity.

Ladoga Skerries National Park

But fortunately, there are alternatives if you're the lone wolf type. Indeed, the crowds can't help but disperse to explore the 'Skerries', numerous islands that dot the coast of Lake Ladoga. They are ideal destinations for boat trips and hour-long meditative retreats, where you can lose yourself in the contemplation of the diaphanous water. The highest elevation points offer a magnificent panorama of the surrounding area after a short hike, while others, more modest, delight the curious with their rabbit populations – « But how did they get there? » will you be left wondering. Dubious rumors say that they are the descendants of the now exctinct Karelian swimming rabbit, that populated the area in the Neolithic age. Suspiciously enough, the website of the Lagoda National Park has no information about swimming rabbits, but plenty of useful information on the Skerries nonetheless.

Valaam Monastery

Ladoga lake's largest island, Valaam, is also home to the monastery of the same name, whose foundation date varies between the 12th and 15th centuries, depending on the historian. In any case, the buildings that stand here today date mainly from the 18th century, when the monastery was re-erected from the ruins left behind by merciless Lutheran Swedes. The skits – small constructions where Orthodox monks retreat to pray, the closest English term would be a hermitage –  crucify the island and can serve as destinations for meditative strolls between well-kept gardens. To get there, you need to book your ticket in advance, which includes the boat trip from Sortavala.

Kivach Nature Reserve

In the Kivach Nature Reserve you'll see a lovely waterfall. But just as the Ruskaela Mountain Park turned out not to be so mountainish after all, don't let the words nature reserve fool you: here you won't need hiking boots, picnics in the backpack or even a bottle of water. Indeed, you'll have covered the entire area accessible to the public in just one hour, provided you've dragged your feet. After that, there's no trail for those who want to stretch their legs further. This zapovednik, like others in Karelia, lends itself more to a half-way stop on the way to another place than as a destination in its own right. This disappointment highlights another particularity of Karelian forests: their wilderness makes them somehow inhospitable, and they don't allow themselves to be meekly surveyed by tourists. If you're not lucky enough to come across a local who will point out a bushy, uninviting path, you'll simply have to give up discovering them on foot on your own.

Kizhi Island

The island of Kizhi alone would justify a detour: its size lends itself wonderfully to a lazy day's hike, more than enough to leisurely circumnavigate the island and admire its sumptuous wooden churches, the oldest of which, the Church of the Intercession, dates back to the 17th century. But this long island on Lake Onega is also an open-air museum, as many traditional Karelian buildings were relocated here in the second half of the 20th century. It's a chance to discover how the region's simple folk lived, and to step back in time as the architecture of these traditional cottages has remained unchanged for centuries. If you've ever wondered what those stove-beds on which the characters in your favorite Russian novels sleep look like, you can find out in Kizhi. A favorite of the author of this article. To get there, boats shuttle from Petrozavodsk and others, much cheaper, from the hamlet of Ersenevo, just opposite the island.

A word on Karliean cities…

Founded in the early 18th century on the initiative of Peter the Great, who established an iron foundry here for his artillery pieces, Petrozavodsk is not the ugliest of Russian cities, boasting fine examples of neoclassical architecture, such as its Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. But Karelia's largest city owes most of its charm to its long promenade along Lake Onega, with its unique atmosphere, a sort of Arctic Montreux or Arctic Nice. That said, Karelia's treasure is its nature, so it's worth spending a few hours in Petrozavodsk on your way in or out. The same applies to the other towns you will pass through, which are at least ten times less populated than Petrozavodsk.

How do I get there?

From St. Petersburg, the Republic of Karelia is really next door, to Russia’s standards: its border is a 2-hour or 3.5-hour drive away, depending on whether you're travelling west or east along Lake Ladoga. It takes 3 hours and a half to reach the first major urban center, Sortavala, and 5 hours to reach the capital, Petrozavodsk. Trains also run to both cities from St. Petersburg. From Moscow, Petrozavodsk's connectivity makes it an ideal gateway. It will take you a night by train or an hour and a half by plane (Severstal') to get there. Once there, we recommend renting a car.

Where to stay?

The best way to get a taste of the Karelian experience is to find lakeside accommodation, with a bania and barbecue area if possible. When the sun goes down and one of your friends plays guitar while you wait for your shashliks to grill, you won't regret the absence of a mobile network. So don't linger for more than a few hours in the urban centers of Petrozavodsk and Sortavala: head instead for accommodation aggregators (sutochno, avito, yandex, cian) and use the map to choose one located near a lake. Countless options dot the endless shores of the immense Ladoga and Onega lakes, but Karelia contains almost 61,000 lakes of varying sizes, so don’t hesitate to venture on the shores of lesser known lakes and ponds.

Practical advice

Its immense hectares of forest are offset by a low population density: just 3 inhabitants per square kilometer (compared to 24 in Leningrad oblast and 190 in Moscow oblast). While a change of scenery and a breath of fresh air are guaranteed, this low population density calls for a few practical precautions. You'll need to download road maps in advance, given the uneven cell phone coverage, and check the location of gas stations before embarking on the day's expedition.

When to visit?

Popular among Russians, Karelia sees the majority of tourists flocking during its mildest months, between June and August. Visiting at the extremes of this period will avoid crowds of tourists in the places of interest. Its forests are teeming with delicious boletus and chanterelle mushrooms from the end of August onwards, enough to prepare delicious dishes if you dare to venture into the woods with a basket. But as always, watch out for bears!

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Louis Rossier