YELABUGA, Tatarstan — Watching over the point where the Kama and Toima rivers meet in European Russia, the city of Yelabuga is a confluence of many types.
Its suburbs boast a special economic zone with tax incentives, brand-new factories and high-end manufacturing that co-exist with state-supported industry. Centuries-old architecture and house-museums mix with modern restaurants and retail outlets. The Tatar and Russian languages combine on restaurant menus, building signs and in people's speech. In fact, the city, located 215 kilometers east of Kazan, has two separate but similar names: It is called Yelabuga in Russian and Alabuga in Tatar.
Yelabuga (ye-LA'-bu-ga) is also typical of Tatarstan because of its investor-friendly business environment. Tatarstan is praised by both foreign financial institutions and individual companies for its uncommonly helpful officials, attractive tax rates and aggressive recruitment of Russian and foreign manufacturers, which build state-of-the-art factories and add jobs in the republic.
The regional government set up the special economic zone outside the city limits in 2006 and, together with corporate players, has invested more than $2.5 billion since in the special zone. Companies there include U.S.-Russian carmaking joint venture Ford-Sollers, French industrial chemical giant Air Liquide, and Danish insulation maker Rockwool, which opened its largest plant worldwide at the industrial park earlier this year.
In addition to its business ties and manufacturing strengths, the city has numerous historic spots. Settled in the 10th and 11th centuries by the Bulgars, the forefathers of the Kazan Tatars, the area was a trading and army outpost. Russian culture and religion advanced into the region, leading to the construction of churches in what would officially become Yelabuga in the 1700s. In the following years, the city was a merchant town.
Soviet poet Marina Tsvetayeva relocated from the Moscow region to Yelabuga as part of a wartime evacuation in 1941, living in the town with her son. A literary great who bridged the tsarist and Soviet eras, Tsvetayeva achieved fame as a lyrical poet and the status of a major Russian writer of the 20th century — but mostly after her death, as she was forced into exile in Europe and then hounded by the NKVD upon her return. She took her own life in August 1941 in Yelabuga and is buried here.
A memorial museum marks the place where she spent her final days, and it includes a library dedicated to the Silver Age of Russian and Soviet literature, a period that included Tsvetayeva, novelist Boris Pasternak and poet Anna Akhmatova.
The city also was home to landscape painter Ivan Shishkin, who was born into a Yelabuga merchant family in 1832 and left the region to study art in Moscow and then St. Petersburg in 1852. As with Tsvetayeva, there is a museum for the artist, a reconstructed version of the house where Shishkin spent part of his childhood.
His painting "Morning in a Pine Forest" can be found in Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery and on the light-blue wrappers of Krasny Oktyabr's Mishka Kosolapy chocolate.
What to do if you have two hours
Head to the Savior Cathedral, or Spassky Sobor, constructed on a site where churches have been torn down and built up at least five times in the past 400 years. Blue-green cupolas top the cathedral's five main domes and its skinny bell-tower, while its white walls make for a plain canvas. A colorful approach to the cathedral is a stroll down Spasskaya Ulitsa, lined with pink buildings on the right and yellow walls on the left.
From there, head west on Naberezhnaya Ulitsa to reach building No. 12, the Ivan Shishkin House-Museum (elabuga.com/shishk/sch.html). It is a reconstructed version of the house in which the famed landscape painter spent much of his youth, with re-imagined interiors suggesting the life of his comfortable family. A tour lasts about half an hour.
From here, wind your way around the back to the main part of the city and take a peek at its serene streets. Because entrance doors aren't separated from the sidewalk by stairs, many buildings look like they have pushed out of the ground. Most are just one or two stories, and the Savior Cathedral blooms from the edge of the city like a giant blue-and-white flower, dominating the landscape for kilometers on end. A typical street is Kazanskaya Ulitsa, with red-and-gray checkered sidewalks, turquoise buildings and yellow walls.
What to do if you have two days
Take a walk to Yelabuzhskoye Gorodishche, a squat stone tower that is a vestige of the region's Bulgar heritage. The two-story structure stands on the city's riverbanks and can be reached by a 15-minute stroll from the city center. Also called Chyortovo Gorodishche, it is the oldest architecture in Yelabuga, dating to the first centuries of its 1007 settlement, according to Regina Khabibullina, a research associate at the local tourist center. It was part of a fortress-mosque and was used as both a place of worship and a defense post, she said.
Also worth a visit is the Tsvetayeva museum (20 Malaya Pokrovskaya Ulitsa), where her belongings, including the notebook purportedly found in the pocket of her apron after she died, are on display.
For another major figure in Russian history, stop by a museum dedicated to Nadezhda Durova (123 Moskovskaya Ulitsa, elabuga.com/durov/durova_02.html). Durova is considered the first female officer of the Russian army, taking part in the campaigns to beat back Napoleon in the 1812 conflict, and she gained a legacy as a cavalrywoman. The museum showcases ornate military uniforms from the era and mementoes from her life.
What to do with the kids
For meals and fun, try the Shishka Family Cafe (21 Prospekt Neftyanikov, +7 (85557) 3-21-64.) Decorated with a woodsy scene like a Shishkin painting, it serves Tatar and Russian fare like stuffed blini, with a typical tab of about 200 rubles per person. There is a children's menu and a playground across the street. It is open 10 a.m. -9 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m.-10 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Manhattan (16a Internatsionalnaya Ulitsa, +7 (85557) 3-15-71) combines a nightclub, restaurant, bar, cafe, billiards and bowling under one roof. Open until 1 a.m. on weeknights and 3 a.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, it draws about 60 people per night. Nightclub entrance costs 150 rubles on Friday and Saturday. Men can get away with sneakers if paired with a smart jacket and jeans. Women should wear a skirt or dress to the restaurant. Reserve a table ahead of time.
If you want to catch a flick, try Brooklyn, a multi-screen movie theater located in the same complex. The cinema shows films until 11:30 p.m. Reservations can be made at +7 (85557) 4-66-11. Tickets start at 120 rubles, and the snack bar serves shwarma, blini and desserts.
For simple drinks with friends, there is a bar in the lobby of the Alabuga City Hotel, which is open 24 hours a day and has a small array of tables. There are also eight television screens watchable from the bar itself.
Where to eat
Alabuga City Hotel offers Gurman Hall (4a Kazanskaya Ulitsa, +7 (85557) 2-60-00; alabuga-cityhotel.ru), a simple restaurant with a tree-filled view and a Russian, Tatar and European menu that includes smoked beef with fresh vegetables and a Kazan Salad of boiled beef, pickles, eggs, cheese, garlic and mayonnaise. The average bill for a dinner for one is 600 rubles without alcohol.
Yelabuga, the restaurant, is a local favorite (7 Ulitsa Stakheyevykh, +7 (85557) 7-52-30, elabuga-restoran.ru/index.html). With Russian and European fare, you can find classic fish soup, mutton and vegetable dishes there. The price per person is about 600 rubles minus liquor.
You can find European and Armenian cuisine in the wood-covered interior of Ararat (26 Prospekt Neftyanikov, +7 (85557) 2-57-01, tatararat.ru/elabuga). Try the house shashlik. The typical bill is about 400 rubles without alcohol. Reservations are required.
Where to stay
Alabuga City Hotel (see contact information under "Where to eat"), located about a kilometer from the Savior Cathedral, is widely considered to provide the best lodging available, and the service and cleanliness match the reputation. Expect to find piles of pillows, a modern brown-and-white decor and an oversize bathroom in your room. A standard room with one double bed costs 3,500 rubles, while an apartment with a Jacuzzi and a kitchenette goes for 7,700 rubles per night.
In the middle of Yelabuga itself is the Toima Hotel (4 Ulitsa Govorova, +7 (85557) 7-54-73, firstname.lastname@example.org). A standard room goes for 1,950 rubles, while high-end rooms are about 3,000 rubles per night. Another option is the Vizit (4 Ulitsa Tazi Gizzata, +7 (85557) 5-12-84), which is ranked as a three-star hotel by a regional hotel website. Its rooms cost from 2,000 rubles to 3,000 rubles per night.
Other helpful hints
If you are calling a business or person from a city landline, you can skip the city code (which is 85557) and just dial the last five digits. In orienting yourself, keep in mind that what locals call the "upper" part of the city is the western half along the Kama River, while the "lower" part is the eastern half along the Toima River.
How to get there
Four airlines — Aeroflot, Ak Bars Aero, Tatarstan and UTair — make the two-hour flight every day from Moscow's Domodedovo and Vnukovo airports to the Begishevo Airport in Nizhnekamsk, a city south of the Kama River and about a 45-minute drive from the edge of Yelabuga. Тaxis wait at the airport; there is no mass transit. Plane tickets start at about 7,000 rubles round trip.
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