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Eight reasons to visit Tula - for the weekend, or longer

Tula is where one of Russia’s best known souvenirs - the samovar- is made -  so the town has come to be known as the “samovar capital” of Russia. It is also the capital for guns and gingerbread. the Tula Arms Factory, the centre of military and weapon technology, manufactures the famous Kalashnikov rifle, while stamped gingerbread was first invented in Tula – and you can still try it there.  A few kilometres beyond the modern city limits, one of Russia’s best known writers, Leo Tolstoy, the author of “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina”- the classic novels that have been adapted for cinema many times - lived and worked on his estate of Yasnaya Polyana.  To learn the right way to get a samovar going, to find a recipe for happiness, or to attempt to change the course of history - these are just a few of the many reasons to spend a weekend in Tula.   

FACT Tula can be reached in two hours, without traffic jams or hassle - a morning train leaves Moscow at 6:55 and arrives in Tula at 9:14; You can make it a day trip, with a return express at 5:15 in the afternoon, but we do recommend staying the night to appreciate everything Tula has to offer.  The train ticket costs 630 rubles - and for those wishing to travel in style there is a separate VIP compartment, with a TV and armchair home comforts.

1.      The Tula Kremlin

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Tula has a Kremlin too,  and though it is smaller than its elder counterpart in Moscow, it welcomes everyone free of charge.  Take pictures of yourself against the backdrop of the Kremlin walls, have a closer look at each of the nine towers, stroll along the top of the fortress walls, and spot how similar the dovetails crowning the brickwork are to their Italian prototypes.   The Tula Kremlin has never been invaded -  neither the Tatars, nor the German fascists could defeat it, but back in the 17th century, when the country was in turmoil with internal uprisings, external invaders and impostor tsars, one such pretender-ruler declared Tula to be the capital of the Russian State and governed there for a whole fortnight.  Inside the former Bogoyavlensky (Epiphany) Cathedral, as well as the Tula State Museum of Arms exhibition, you will find unique wall paintings – such as the hammer, sickle and red stars in a church setting.  Be sure to leave time for shopping: the little stores in the Kremlin arcade offer nice hand-made souvenirs, sweets and postcards. 

FACT At the age of 50 Leo Tolstoy became a vegetarian and his wife Sofia Andreevna had to cook two versions of dinner – one with meat for the children, the other without for her husband;  for twenty years before that, after losing all his teeth at a young age, Leo chewed his meat with his gums, which, dentists agree, were infinitely strengthened by such exercise. 

2.      A guest of the greatest Russian writer

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Tolstoy’s books have been adapted many times for the screen:  Greta Garbo, Sophie Marceau, Vivien Leigh and Keira Knightly are among the many actresses, who have tackled the role of Anna Karenina.  A recent BBC series of “War and Peace”, with the star of Downton Abbey Lily James playing Natasha Rostova, held audiences spellbound with its beautiful costumes, the splendour of the palace interiors, and the sincerity of its approach.  To see the study where all these stories were created, visit Leo Tolstoy’s family estate at Yasnaya Polyana;  Take a walk in the park to get a sense of the all-embracing Russian soul, listen to Leo’s voice to appreciate his wisdom, Or stand in his study and sense the sheer force of his talent. You will learn why the writer had to leave his home estate for good at the age of 82, and where his elder brother buried the stick that bore the recipe for universal human happiness. Ask your tour guide where you can try the famous Ankovsky pie, made to a recipe of Tolstoy’s wife. 

FACT Samovars are not only for making tea -  there were, for example, samovar-kitchens, used to prepare set meals,  with the inner chamber divided into two or three compartments, each for cooking a separate dish;  that kind of samovar came in particularly handy at inns and taverns all over Russia.

3.      Buy a famous souvenir

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The Samovar is one of the most interesting, original and useful Russian souvenirs, and Tula is the recognized hub of samovar making, so it makes sense to buy them here. There is a Russian saying: “Don’t bring your samovar to Tula”, which, like “taking coals to Newcastle”, means - no need to bring something to a place that already has it in abundance.   Local prices are extremely reasonable: a good samovar can cost 150-200 euros. Even if you aren’t planning to buy one, drop in to the private Museum of Samovars at the “Arsenal” stadium, with its collection of 500 pieces, including English and American bouillottes,  samovar-kitchens and samovar-yurts; or bouillotte for boiling eggs, and other devices for making mulled wine; even portable samovars and the so called ‘samovar-egotists’.  At the museum you can learn about the everyday details of Russian life, its tea drinking traditions and particular details of the old way of life, as well as practical tips on how to make a proper brew, clean the burner, and what to look for when buying a samovar.

FACT Gingerbread making goes back to ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, but it was the artisans of Tula who invented “gingerbread boards”, used to produce intricate patterns in the baking process.

4.      Making gingerbread

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Russians do have a sweet tooth, but there are not many traditional desserts in Russian cuisine. You may well have already tried ‘bliny’, cherry dumplings, ‘syrniki’ and various jams and preserves,  now it’s time for gingerbread! Russian patterned gingerbread with fruit filling comes from Tula -  you can buy it there on every corner -  And the most popular is made at the “Honey Traditions” factory. Tula offers you an opportunity not only to buy and sample gingerbread, but also to make it yourself: gingerbread-making workshops are held in that factory, as well as at the Museum of International Gingerbread in the Kremlin arcade,  where they will teach you various techniques of gingerbread printing, and explain how to prepare the glazing. You will learn why potatoes, dried apricots and tomatoes are added to fillings, where the yolk of duck eggs and lotus pollen are used to make the gingerbread dough, and which kind of gingerbread is considered the most spicy.

TIP: Apart from gingerbread, try the sweetmeats from Belev, a town in the Tula region, - like apple ‘pastila’ (fruit confectionery), boiled pastila, fruit jelly and marshmallow, -  all very tasty and, most importantly, made using exclusively natural ingredients.

5.      Play being a spy

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In Soviet times, spies were regular visitors to Tula, drawn to one of the country’s strategic facilities - the Tula Arms Factory.  It was there that the Mosin-Nagant rifle and the Tokarev TT pistol were designed, and the famous Kalashnikov gun produced. The plant started operations as long ago as the time of Peter the Great, and has a museum established by that Tsar-reformer.  A few years ago, with a considerably expanded collection, it moved to a brand new building designed in the shape of a giant helmet. There are the signature rifles of the emperors, a victory sword, multi-barrelled and miniature pistols, complete with miniature bullets, Turkish swords and Russian cannons - two floors of splendid weapons, where, unlike in Soviet times, you can take as many photos as you like.  You can play computer games, take a Kalashnikov gun to pieces, try on a military jacket, and pose for a picture in a suit of armour.  On the ground floor there is a cafe, a souvenir shop and a shooting gallery, where sniper rifles, crossbows and even machine guns can be tried.  If you have enough time, sign up for a creative workshop in wood and metal working - it only costs 5 euros and leaves a lasting impression.

FACT: In Russia, windows were traditionally framed with decorative trims called ‘nalichniki’.  They are true works of art and the intricacy and beauty of the wood carving is astonishing.  Every pattern is a symbol, the meaning of which goes back to pagan times.

FACT The special “Siniga” clay used in making Filimonovo toys is originally of a bluish-black colour that turns sparkling white after firing.

6.      Try your hand at one of Russia’s traditional crafts

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At the Tula Centre for the Development of Art you can master a traditional Russian craft, such as carving nalichniki, and learn all about their intricate wooden patterns,  or carpet and belt weaving, quilting and bead embroidery;  You can even have a go at being a blacksmith, or delve into the details of the Filimonovo toy cottage industry.  During the workshop you will mould one of the traditional figures: a ‘barynya’ (lady), a bird, a ram or a bear. Filimonovo toys are also whistles and are a perfect present for children. At the Ceramics Centre you will be taught to make not only pottery ware, but also the traditional tiles that were widely used in decorating Russian homes and churches. In the “Tula Antiquities” museum you can play the host in an old Russian “izba”, or peasant’s wooden house, or try being an army general fighting in the Battle of Kulikovo; you can also weave chain mail, or listen to a traditional Russian fairy tale.  At the “Olde Tula Chemist’s” they will tell you all about the peculiarities of Russian tea-drinking, and share some old tea making recipes. 

FACT September 21 is the Day of Military Glory of Russia, marking “The Day of Victory of the Russian Regiments Led by Prince Dmitry Donskoy over Mongol-Tatar troops at the Battle of Kulikovo.” This battle took place in 1380 at Kulikovo field in the south-east of the Tula region.

FACT The Battle of Kulikovo started with single combat between two ‘bogatyrs’ (or hero warriors) - Chelubey and Alexander Peresvet, who both fell after their first clash, having run one another through with their spears.  The Tatars were completely defeated, with Khan Mamai fleeing with the remnants of his army. That victory served as an impulse to form a strong and united Russian state.

7.      Enjoy European standards in Russian provincial life

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For those who enjoy eating and sleeping well, we recommend Tula’s hotels and restaurants as offering a quality of service that is far above provincial.  For lunch, try “Petr Petrovich” - a brewery restaurant in the Central Park - the local wheat beer with a serving of chicken wings is a speciality.  After lunch you can explore the park, with its ropes course, a horse riding school and singing fountains.  For dinner there is the “Pryanik” (Gingerbread) club, where you will be treated to mouth-watering steaks and entertained by young Russian stars performing live.  Then stay over in the “Turgenev” boutique hotel  in its historic, late 18th century building in the classical style, or at the five-star hotel SK Royal - both in close proximity to the Kremlin.  For those who prefer a residence out of town, try the “Citadel” country house hotel with its own ropes course, pistol club and cosy sauna lodges.

8.      Appreciate Tula’s sense of humour - and stay on

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If you have been in Russia a long while and have already had a chance to appreciate Russian humour, and to come to terms with some of the country’s peculiar habits, as well as learnt about its history, we suggest you stay on in the Tula region.  As part of any extended programme a trip to the town of Krapivna to attend the festival of ‘krapiva’ (‘nettles’) is a must.  You can give your friend a bit of a nettle whipping there, all to the rhythms of ethno, folk and jazz compositions performed by popular Russian and international artists.   Alternatively, pay a visit to Bogoroditsk - the town of a single estate that once belonged to an illegitimate son of Empress Catherine the Great - the very same German lady who so conquered Russian hearts.  You will learn lots of interesting details about the lives of Russia’s rulers.  In Belev, they will teach you to make those 100% natural sweetmeats that you tried in Tula, like apple pastila and boiled pastila, fruit jelly and marshmallow. If you are interested in old cooking recipes, and the traditions of meal preparation and table setting, you need to travel to Epifan and become a guest at the house of the merchant Baibakov, where they will regale you with stories of Russian merchant life and ply you with cups of delicious tea.  Back in Tula, locals will be sure to show you monuments to the mother-in-law, to Tarzan, and even to the salary, of all things! Ask about the stories behind them - and you’ll have another anecdote ready for your collection of amusing incidents from Russia. 

Join our group and individual tours covering Tula and the Tula region: for details and to book follow the link, or contact us by e-mail.