Caucasian Russia: Land of Mountains, Spas, and Reckless Poets

Russia’s Caucasian region is a beautiful, sweeping landscape where you can scale Europe’s highest peak, enjoy restorative spas, and visit the spot where the hard-living poet and novelist Mikhail Lermontov fought a fateful duel. Located between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, the region lies close to Russia’s border with Georgia. Its main settlement is the city of Pyatigorsk.

This city, whose name means “five mountains” in Russian, has a population of about 140,000 and has served as a health resort since 1803, thanks to its natural bubbling springs. The city is strongly focused around this industry and has numerous sanatoriums and wellness hotels where thousands of people stay every year. Its balmy, humid weather in summer makes a dip in its chattering, slightly sulfur-smelling waters a delightful experience, as you feel simultaneously cool and warm. The city is 512 meters (1,680 feet) above sea-level.

Walking around the streets of Pyatigorsk provides one with a slightly strange sensation, as this rather small city sits surrounded by rugged scenery, and its concrete blocks jut out against the broad brown slopes of mountains, partly covered with snow. As you stroll down the town’s main street, the tallest mountain of them all, snowy Mount Elbrus, is clearly visible on the horizon to the south. It is also worth visiting Pyatigorsk’s big central marketplace, where the traders – mostly old ladies in headscarves – wax lyrical about the qualities of the fresh vegetables and fruit they hope you will buy.

The beauty of the Caucasian region was certainly not lost on Lermontov, who is considered one of the greatest Russian writers. A fearless soldier and inveterate dueler, he was possessed of a fluid lyrical gift and a particularly black, fatalistic brand of Romanticism. He chose Caucasia as the setting for his influential novel, A Hero of Our Time, a tale of danger, passion, machismo and emotional alienation.

The author’s own life was no less turbulent than that of his protagonist Pechorin, and he was only 27 when he died here in 1841, shot in a duel with a fellow soldier whom he had offended. Lermontov’s place of death is marked by a monument in Pyatigorsk, and close by you can visit his small local house.

Pyatigorsk has some elegant architectural features built in the 1820s and 1830s by the Bernardacci brothers, a pair of Italian architects who settled in the region. These include several parks and houses, Diana’s grotto, and an Aeolian harp with a stone neo-Classical pavilion.

The smaller city of Kislovodsk, a little way to the west of Pyatigorsk, is also a spa town, though it began as a military station in 1803. Lermontov’s novel is largely set in Kislovodsk, and some of its characters reflect its popularity at the time among Russian aristocrats and artistic types.

While in the area, take advantage of the opportunity to climb Mount Elbrus, an inactive volcano generally recognized as the highest mountain in Europe at 5,642 meters (18,510 feet). It is about 40 miles south-southwest from Kislovodsk.

For such a high mountain, Elbrus is surprisingly easy to climb, at least in summer. A cable car system takes you up to a 3,800 meter (12,500 foot) height, and the standard route to the top continues straight from the end of the cable car system.

You don’t need to fight a duel or join the imperial army to enjoy the craggy and evocative atmosphere of Caucasian Russia. It’s an inspiring place almost guaranteed to bring out your inner romantic poet.

Written by and photos by David Hill for EuropeUpClose.com

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