The Pearl Necklace of Tatarstan

In 2006, Tatarstan developed and presented the Pearl Necklace of Tatarstan tourist route. The “necklace” consists of a small ring and a large ring. The small ring goes through municipalities adjacent to Kazan. The large ring joins tourist centres of international and national importance. This tour itinerary includes the principal landmarks of the large ring.

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Located 27 kilometres (17 miles) west of Kazan. Take Trassa M7 (M7 Highway) to the marked exit. Shuttle buses are available from Kazan and Zelenodolsk to the monastery.

The Baroque monastery complex was established in the 17th century on the shore of Raifa Lake, at the meeting point of three woodland zones – the southern taiga, the western temperate forest and the southern broadleaved woodland. This monastery is a shrine to the miraculous Georgian icon of the Mother of God.

The lands around Raifa Lake are the birthplace of Russian turpentine oil. Up until the end of the 1920s, Russia was unable to produce this indispensable product and imported it from France and the United States. It was believed that the Russian pines did not produce sap suitable for making turpentine and wood resin. It was not until 1924 that a group of scientists from Kazan discovered that the pines growing around Raifa Lake – Pinus Sylvestris – produce lots of highest-quality sap, with turpentine oil content of up to 35%.

This land is also famous for its silent frogs. Legend has it that once upon a time, the monastery’s founder Philaret, tired of the frogs' constant croaking, implored, "Oh Lord! Let them live, but be silent!" And God heard the monk's prayer and granted it.

There is a Pilgrim House Hotel with 25 rooms, a small café, a souvenir shop and paid parking with round-the-clock guards.
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The drive from Kazan to Sviyazhsk is 67 kilometres (42 miles), although the actual distance between the two is much shorter. Travelling via the federal Trassa M7 (M7 Highway), take the exit left before the village of Isakovo, on a two-level junction, drive a further 10 kilometres (6 miles) towards the Volga River, and the road will bring you straight to the unique 16th-20th-century historical and architectural complex.

The fortress, built on the high bank at the confluence of the Sviyaga and Shchuka Rivers, was raised by Ivan the Terrible in just four weeks in 1551, as a forward staging post for the conquest of Kazan which stood 28 kilometres (17 miles) away. The plan worked, the Kazan Khanate fell, Kazan was sacked, and Sviyazhsk became the first Russian city and Christian Orthodox centre of the Middle Volga region. Two monasteries and a dozen churches were built here. In the 20th century, the Soviet authorities either demolished the churches or turned them into offices. In 1997, the remains of the Holy Dormition Monastery were returned to the Russian Orthodox Church and the complex took in its first dwellers. The large-scale reconstruction of the historical open-air museum in Sviyazhsk began in 2010.

The remains of public and church spaces built in the Middle Ages by Pskov architects Postnik Yakovlev and Ivan Shiryaj can still be found on the island. You can visit the Holy Dormition Monastery (which used to be the seventh most important of Russia's 1,105 monasteries) and John the Baptist Convent, see the Assumption Cathedral which houses the unique 16th-century frescos and relics of Saint Herman, and several other unique churches. The island has remained largely unchanged for half a millennium, and you can be transported back in time just by walking around.
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In 2003, one of Russia's largest outdoor activity centres outside the Caucasus Region was opened right across from Sviyazhsk. In the summer time, it is home to a nine-hole golf course, a clay target shooting range, an open-air pool and various kayaking options, while in the winter it turns into a full-scale ski resort with chairlifts, lighted ski trails and a snowboarding park. The trails are best suited for intermediate level skiers and snowboarders. There are wide, smooth green-, blue- and red-marked slopes. The total length of the ski trails is 2.8 kilometres (1.6 miles), with an elevation of 160 metres (350 feet). Guests can stay at Alpine houses with occupancy of 4-6 people (84 square metres (900 square feet)), where prices start at 8,000 rubles per night, or at three different hotels. There is also a big children's playground, as well as cafés, restaurants and rental stations for sports equipment.
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The trip from Kazan to Bilyarsk is 137 kilometres (85 miles) on Trassa R-239 (R-239 Highway). You have to drive towards Orenburg, to the ferry across the Kama River near Sorochyi Gory Village, take the bridge and head left, towards the village of Alexeyevskoye. After the village, turn right, following the signs, and drive a further 45 kilometres (28 miles) on to Bilyarsk. Buses for Bilyarsk leave Kazan twice a day and you can also get there by hydrofoil.

The village of Bilyarsk stands on the site of Bilyar, the "Great City" of Russian chronicles. It was the ancient capital of Volga Bulgaria, and is believed to have been one of the world's largest cities in the Middle Ages, exceeding Paris and London both in area (800 hectares) and in population (70,000 people). The city was famed as a large industrial and commercial centre, the meeting point of the caravan routes from Central Asia and Iran, Kievan Rus' and Scandinavia, the Caucasus and Byzantium. The city was destroyed during the Mongol conquest of 1236. Those of its residents that were left alive moved to other towns and villages in the Kama and Volga regions.

Today, Bilyar is a collection of ancient architecture dating from the 10th to the 12th centuries. It is the site of an archaeological dig that has already resulted in the discovery of the remains of a white-walled Cathedral Mosque with an area of about 2,500 square metres (27,000 square feet), a palatial complex, fortifications, Bulgarian aristocratic houses and a caravanserai.

The Bilyarsk Open-Air Museum includes a Museum of History and Archaeology, a memorial house in honour of Russian chemist Alexander Arbuzov who founded the scientific school of organophosphorus chemistry, the site of the ancient city of Bilyar, and the Holy Spring, which was considered a pagan sanctuary as far back as the ninth century. There are plans to open a Museum of History and Ethnography.
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To get from Bilyarsk to Bolgar requires a journey of 110 kilometres (69 miles) on Trassa R-240 (R-240 Highway), through the villages of Bazarnye Mataki and Nikolskoye. In 2014, the Bolgar State Historical and Architectural Museum Reserve was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. Bolgar (Bolghar) is the centre of Volga-Kama Bulgaria, the first early feudal state of North-Eastern Europe. It was established in the 10th century by Bulgarians who left the Caucasus and moved to the middle reaches of the Volga River and beyond the Kama River (other group of migrants moved beyond the Danube River, while the Bulgarians who stayed behind are now known as the Balkar people). The Bulgarians were Turkic people who assimilated local Turkic and Finno-Ugric tribes. In 922 AD, the Bulgarians officially converted to Islam and a special embassy was dispatched from Baghdad in honour of this event. Prince Almish took the Muslim name of Ja'far ibn 'Abdullah. Following the Mongol conquest, Volga Bulgaria joined the Golden Horde, which – under the influence of its subjugated peoples – soon accepted Islam as its dominant religion.

From the 10th to the 15th century, Bolgar determined the fates of the peoples of the Volga and Urals regions: the most important trade routes went through this area. This is where Europe's first cast iron was made (the Russian word for cast iron, chugun, is Tatar in origin).

Large-scale reconstruction has been underway here since 2010. The site of the ancient city of Great Bulgar is believed to be the most complete collection of Golden Horde architecture. Here you can find the Museum of Bulgar Civilisation, which is based on the exploration of the ancient town site and has many archaeological finds on display. There is also a Memorial Sign in honour of the acceptance of Islam, along with the world's largest printed Koran (2 x 1.5 metres (6 x 5 feet), weighing 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds)) and numerous architectural monuments dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries. These include the Cathedral Mosque and the Large Minaret (24 metres (74 feet high)), Bulgarian aristocratic tombs and mausoleums built in the 14th century, and an archaeological dig which is open for viewing. There are also the remains of the Khan's Palace of the 12th and 13th century, the White Chamber – one of the 14th century bath houses – and the mysterious Black Chamber, which intended purpose is still unclear.

Entrance to the reserve is free of charge. The cost of visits and tours depends on which route you select. There are four to choose from, each lasting two to five hours. The Great Bulgar route, which includes the Museum of Bulgar Civilisation, the Memorial Sign and the architectural landmarks, takes three hours and costs 190-380 rubles. It is best to book the tour ahead of time.
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Bulgar is also home to the 3.5-hectare facility dedicated to the history of bread and agriculture – the Bread Museum. There’ is also an ethnic park called Camel Kingdom, where one can feed camel calves, take a camelback ride and try some camel milk.