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Discovering Astrakhan
November 16, 2014 16:37


Summer heat in Astrakhan does not dispose to cognitive walks, but spring and early autumn is the perfect time for walking explorations of old Astrakhan.

In Astrakhan there are as many routes as interesting places. Astrakhan was lucky to "stuck in the history." Still inhabited pre-revolutionary wooden houses with carved architraves were preserved in the small provincial town. Intricate pinwheels spin on house roofs. Many doors are still opened with antique handles glassed to "gold". As usual, all these are adjacent to the concrete and plastic, western-style renovation, air conditioners, TV "plates" and other signs of post-Soviet civilization. But the spirit of the ancient southern city appeared to be as indestructible as the smell of the fish on Selenskiye Isady.

In Astrakhan, even the bad roads are part of the story. Residents love to tell the legend of how Peter, being in Astrakhan, was terrified by city streets and ordered to pave them immediately. In pursuance of monarch's decree, every ship sailing up to Astrakhan should bring several poods of boulders for pavements. These good intentions, however, were short-lived: in the 19th century, local newspapers reported with regret a horse mired and drowned in the mud of one of the Astrakhan streets. For sure, that was not summer when city heats up to + 40 C in the shade, dry dust rushes in the air, but rain and coolness islands are seen as a gift from heaven.

From mid-May to late September respectable outlets lure exhausted customers with announcement like "Come in, here is cool!" The city life switches on the power saving mode: people move slow like in a thick hot syrup; creep from shadow to shadow, prudently saving power. In summer it is not shameful to throw the shoes away and to shake feet in the fountains. Squealing and laughing kids splash in rivers and canals between eleven urban islands. But in the spring and early autumn Astrakhan is ideal for hiking. There as many routes in Astrakhan as interesting places. But it is better to start with a simple (in terms of topography), but unusual (in terms of history) route around the Astrakhan Kremlin. Fraternal Gardenette. A garden with such a funny name is located next to the Eastern gate of the Kremlin. Officially – Fraternal Garden, but locals call it only Fraternal Gardenette. Even Vasily Aksyonov in his novel "The Island of Crimea" noted "the wonderful tendency of the Soviet population" to the diminutives, so Astrakhan dwellers support the tradition. The gardenette – nameless at that time – was first mentioned in the chronicles of the city in the middle of the 19th century.

Surprisingly, this chamber size square, according to modern standards, once was the main square of suburban White City, and hence of entire Astrakhan. The first name was Torgovaya, then Platz-Paradnaya and after the Astrakhan governor's residence grew nearby in 1802, it was renamed to Gubernatorskaya. In 1884, at the expense of the city and with the permission of the Emperor Alexander III, the monument to Emperor Alexander II was erected in the square and it was renamed to Alexandrovskaya. Shortly, a park with a huge circular flower bed in the center was laid out in front of the Governor's house facade.

A military band played here in the evenings and Astrakhan's high society strolled around exquisitely. In 1917 it had to be given up with the strolling, but the park survived. In winter of 1918, workers fallen in the battles for the Soviet regime were buried in the former Governor's garden and the next fall the park again, for the last time, was renamed and became the Fraternal Garden. Today it is a cozy park in the city center, full of cultural recreation activities, that is to say, shops. Sitting on the bench in the shade of the trees it is nice to listen to the amateur musicians, who often perform here or to have a burger or a cake, bought in a carriage parked at the entrance. Nowadays, Astrakhan's high society is exquisitely unpretentious.
Let's turn right at the cafe Scharlau on Lenin Street and return to the Kremlin, to its southern side. Where is a statue of Lenin there should be Lenin Square, which is city's main square. It appeared on Astrakhan maps only in 1958, but the history of the place is much longer. Occasion to reflect on urban metaphysics: there are lucky places like that Scharlau house, but there are unlucky places as well. Five centuries ago on the place of the Lenin Square there were salt marshes, which were flooded during high water.

On the bumps, towering above the flooding zone, local residents staged gardens. In 17th century there was built a monastery, around which the "workmen" began to slowly settle on the marshy lands. So, the Sayanov settlement came into existence. Moorland at the very walls of the Kremlin stopped satisfying the city authorities only at the end of the 19th century.

Luxurious Podkremlyovsky Park was laid out on Sayanov settlement area: there was even a pool with a fountain and a "bandstand" for orchestra. However, all this luxury short-lived: many things disappeared before the First World War, but revolutionary years "finished off" the park completely. Comrade Lenin became an unexpected benefactor of the place. In 1958, it was decided by the 400th anniversary of Astrakhan to name square after the leader of the proletariat and to erect there an appropriate monument.

On this occasion, the place was groomed, there were made flowerbeds and fountains: a worthy setting for a 9-meter bronze Ilyich over 8-meter pedestal of Karelian granite. But you cannot cheat the place’s karma: in 2008 Astrakhan celebrated its 450th anniversary and the square was reconstructed again.

The plague known as "hardscape" was already sweeping the country and Astrakhan got also affected. Sculptures and fountains on Lenin Square multiplied, staging at the feet of Ilyich a witches' sabbath: there are boys digging the ground, monsters like "Dune" sandworm getting out of the land and even bare-breasted females, who prudently introduced themselves as "Neva" and "Volga", the creations of architects from St. Petersburg.

Unlike Scharlau ladies, "Neva" and "Volga" quickly turned green, although it doesn't set the tone: they were originally designed to carry not erotic, but patriotic idea. Astrakhan dwellers love their Lenin Square. It is always crowded: now there are held city festivals and events, now students and mothers with children stroll between hardscape.

Lets' walk down the Kirov Street from Fraternal Garden towards the 1 May Canal (not of Volozhka Durnovskaya as Yandex maps state). On the right hand, at the roundabout, is located a two-storey mansion, ornamented with moldings and topped with a small tower with observation deck. This is Astrakhan's famous cafe Scharlau. It gained fame from the opening not because of coffee with cakes, but because of the mansion's extremely "obscene" decor. When this house with a patisserie on the ground floor rose up at the end of the 19th century on the corner of Belgorodskaya and Politseyskaya streets (current Lenin and Kirov), a real riot spread over Astrakhan: the townspeople were terribly outraged by stucco full-buxom ladies on the facade.

At those times, such sculptural revelation was virtually the same as broadcasting porno on the big screen in the city center in our days. It is said, that the idea of the original decor belonged to one of the Scharlau brothers Carl, the head of the company and connoisseur of corpulent ladies. It was him, who ordered Domontovich, the architect and Penkin, the sculptor a special decoration for the first confectionery in Astrakhan: caryatids, not of the restrained classic look, but looking like living women as much as possible. Astrakhan dwellers didn't appreciate Scharlau's taste: shameless alabaster dames angered conservative provincials so much that the case came to trial.

The court obliged the landlord to bring the building into decent appearance. But the Swiss did not stint on the bribe, local authorities did not disdain the offering and shameless skirts happily escaped. "Scharlau and Sons" confectionery opened, as it was planned, on the scandalous house’s ground floor. The owners, brothers Scharlau, settled on the second floor of the mansion. The chocolate factory adjoined the house from western side. Soon, exquisite sweets of Swiss confectionery reconciled Astrakhan dwellers with brothers and dames.

Apparently, Scharlau brothers were real masters of their craft and left behind some chocolate magic: the house remained standing in all historical debacles like charmed, losing only a balcony above the southern portal. But the most surprising thing is that the house never changed it first purpose: at different times it was a bakery, cafe, restaurant, coffee shop... The "profile" almost did not change, only signs did. A real miracle happened at the beginning of this century: the house and coffee shop were renovated and establishment was given back its historic name "Café Scharlau."

Read more about Astrakhan Region... 


Author: Anna Dorozhkina

Tags: Cafe Sharlau Lenin Square Astrakhan Astrakhan Region  

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