Over the years, many cities have tried to capture the prize of being Russiaâs third city, after Moscow & St Petersburg â not purely in population (there are around a dozen âmillionikâ cities) but in terms of image, grandeur and significance. In Soviet times it was Novosibirsk and its scientific neighbor Akademgorodok which came closest and the 1990s saw Nizhny Novgorod appear on the scene with Boris Nemtsov as its forward-looking governor. The noughties saw Yekaterinburg battle it out with Rostov-on-Don, leaving smaller Sochi not far behind but in recent years it has been Kazan which firmly entrenched itself; in fact in 2009 the Russian Patent Office even granted Kazan the right to brand itself as the âThird Capital of Russiaâ.
I first visited Kazan back in January 2003, and it differed little from most other semi-progressive provincial towns, other than some of the signs were in the Tatar language as well as Russian. Granted it was the middle of winter and not much was going on, but you could have been almost anywhere from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad. The place was functional but there were few indications of what was to come. Fast-forward just over a decade and Kazan has transformed itself from being âjust another cityâ to one that stands out as heading in the right direction.
For starters, Kazan excels at hosting events, particularly in sports, with its football (thatâs âsoccerâ for the Septics) team Rubin Kazan regularly entertaining Europeâs elite in the Champions and Europa Leagues. The downtown part of the city has enjoyed an almost complete makeover in recent years, successfully managing to blend some of the old, new and Tatar heritage into a vibrant centre. The figures speak for themselves; in 2015 Kazan was visited by over 2 million tourists, which was a 20% increase on the previous year.
Visitors tend to kick off sightseeing trips with a walk around Kazanâs UNESCO-listed Kremlin, which was built 5 centuries ago at the behest of Ivan the Terrible. The spacious grounds include numerous old buildings, the most famous (& probably the most beautiful) is the light blue & while Qolsharif mosque, pictures of which adorn almost everything even vaguely connecting Kazan. Not far behind is the Annunciation Cathedral, built in the 1560s and is behind the residence of the President of the Republic of Tatarstan â a rather more modern structure! You can climb up the Kremlin walls for great views of the Volga river, and on the other side is âkazanâ the cooking pot monument which has become a tourist attraction in itself.
Although nobody can be completely sure of the origin of the name âKazanâ, the most accepted version is that it is derived from the Tatar word âQazanâ which means âboilerâ or âcauldronâ. Walk across the bridge and pay R50 to climb to the top of âKazanâ (the cash desk is at the top â stairs only; the lift is reserved for wedding parties, and there are no toilets!) for an amazing panoramic view of the Kremlin.
Once back on the more happening side of town, stroll down Kazanâs Arbat equivalent, called Ul. Bauman which is almost as long as its Moscow counterpart and just as lively. Everything you need, from restaurants, bars, souvenir shops and cafes are on this pedestrianised street; youâll know when you reach the end as itâs a main road with a lake on the other side. If youâre not yet done, head to the right hand side for the old town, containing houses and mosques from central centuries ago, with office blocks on the other side of the water.
Summed up, Kazan is definitely one of the best suited cities to host World Cup matches in 2018, and is certainly looking forward to doing so. And if you fancy lingering a little longer, easy day trips can be organised to the hill fortress of Bolgar, which Tatars consider to be their spiritual capital (2 hours each way by car) and to the settlement of Sviyazhsk (2 hours by boat, or 45 minutes by car). Both are well worth the journey.
Kazan is a 1 hour & 20 minute flight from Moscow and there are several flights per day from all three main airports (Sheremetyevo, Domodedovo & Vnukovo); there are also regular flights to most other Russian cities in the European side of the country, plus some to CIS and international destinations. Expect to pay around RUR6,000 â RUR10,000 for a return ticket between Moscow & Kazan. The overnight train is a convenient alternative (10-14 hours) but wonât save you much cash unless you opt for platskart (dormitory class â think Schindlerâs list).
There is an Aeroexpress between the airport and the city centre but since cabs into town only cost around RUR500, unless you are feeling particularly eco-friendly, there is little point, particularly if there is more than one of you. Most places of interest are within walking distance but taxis are cheap and plentiful; RUR200 should be the max for short hops. Kazan also has a metro although it is of limited use to the casual visitor.
For location, you canât beat the Marriott, which is a stoneâs throw away from the Kremlin and the roof terrace is a meeting point in itself, with great views. Itâs not as expensive as you might think, particularly on weekends when occupancy is low. However, there are plenty of other options to suit all budgets.
Tatarstanâs population is virtually split 50/50, between Russians and Tatars, and they seem to get along just fine. Everyone speaks Russian, and most Tatars speak at least some of their own language, even if the Russians donât! In touristy areas, signage is in three languages (Russian, Tatar & English), although donât expect to get by without at least some knowledge of Russian.