Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Kazan, with its gleaming new developments and clean streets, is the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan. Laurence Mitchell, a long-standing writer for hidden europe, introduces us to a part of Europe that has deeply Islamic roots.

article summary —

Striding along the bridge that crosses the Kazanka River it is impossible to ignore the nose-to-tail rush-hour traffic streaming north out of the city. It is a sign of Tatarstan’s growing fortunes and rising prosperity. Traffic jams come with the territory, as do American-style fast food and glitzy urban development.

Away to the left lies Kazan’s latest bold construction project — a sports stadium, gleaming new business hotel and pyramidal entertainment complex, all so new that the dust has not yet settled and the construction workers not yet left the site.

In the days of Imperial Russia, those with power built churches with domes that stretched heavenwards; in the Soviet period, it was monumental statuary; these days, it is sports stadia and business hotels, the latest incarnation of missionstatement architecture. The fumes and incessant honking are distracting but it is still a beautiful day, with a lurid orange, late afternoon sun lowering over the mud of the river. Still only early September, it somehow feels later in the year, as if this is the last shout of summer before the onset of autumn.

It’s a relief to reach the far bank. Arriving at the end of the protective barrier, I descend a slope towards the river where two men stand fishing, completely oblivious of one another. Thus far, I have resisted the temptation to turn around — the bridge was no place to linger — but now it seems appropriate. Back across the water, as picture perfect as the film set for a multi-million rouble blockbuster, the impressive sweep of Kazan’s Kremlin dominates the view to the south.

Naturally, I had been aware of its presence whilst walking across the river — minarets and onion domes had loomed large over a high wall that had clearly contained something special. Now the Kazan Kremlin is visible in all its panoramic glory: a pristine cluster of neat Orthodox churches, a red-brick Tower of Babel, elegant pastel-hued residences and an improbably large mosque — a combined effect so extraordinary that it is little wonder that the complex entered the new millennium as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As the setting sun turns the white limestone walls the colour of apricots, the fishermen pack up to leave empty-handed and a dredger slumps past low in the water. The rush-hour exodus has almost ended, although a ghost of red tail-light tracery is still weaving its way north to far-flung city suburbs. It’s time to return across the bridge to the city centre. Just a few lonely figures are heading the same way, their shadows throwing monstrous shapes on the Kremlin walls as they pass.

This is just an excerpt. If you are a subscriber to hidden europe magazine, you can log in to read the full text online. Of course you can also read the full article in the print edition of hidden europe 34.


Laurence Mitchell became a travel writer almost by default having squandered his youth travelling in North Africa and India. Following a stint teaching in Sudan, he went on to train as a geography teacher, which he pursued for a decade or so.

These days he concentrates on writing and photography and, while still drawn to transition zones and cultural frontiers like Central Asia, the Balkans and the Caucasus region, is increasingly more content to explore closer to home. He loves ancient tracks, moss-covered ruins, graveyards and allotment gardens, and believes it is possible to find the extraordinary in even the most quotidian surroundings.

Despite a slight distrust of guidebooks, he has contributed several of his own to the world's literary stockpile – Bradt travel guides to Serbia and Kyrgyzstan, ‘slow’ guides to Norfolk and Suffolk (also Bradt), and walking guides to Norfolk and Suffolk for Cicerone. His travel memoir Westering, which describes a coast to coast walk across England and Wales that connects landscape, memory and spirit of place, will be published by Saraband in April 2021. Visit Laurence's blog.

This article was published in hidden europe 34.