This tourist route runs approximately 180 kilometres (112 miles) through the north-west of Nizhny Novgorod Oblast. These picturesque landscapes are usually referred to as "zavolzhskie," or "beyond the Volga," as they are located to the east of the river. It is a great itinerary for a road trip, with two or more overnight stops. From Moscow, you can reach Gorodets by federal highway M7, turning left at the 390 kilometre mark towards Balakhna and taking local road R-152. You can use the latter to start your trip from Nizhny Novgorod itself. Another way to start this trip is to take a riverboat cruise from Nizhny Novgorod to Gorodets.
Gorodets is the oldest town in Nizhny Novgorod Oblast. The local museum quarter can be seen in an hour and boasts perfectly preserved old stone merchant houses and multicoloured peasant log cabins with chiselled wood carvings that look like something out of a fairy tale. Gorodets is the best place to buy souvenirs made by Nizhny Novgorod craftsmen. Nizhny Novgorod Oblast accounts for more than half of all Russian arts and crafts, and most of them are sold in the major City of Craftsmen Museum and Tourist Complex located on the Volga River embankment in Gorodets.
Along with souvenir shops and galleries, the wood cabins host workshops featuring Gorodets paintings, golden thread embroidery, painted clay toys, wood carvings and willow weaving. You can take a master class and make and paint your very own clay whistle. You can also try your hand at the potter's wheel or learn the basics of Gorodets painting.
The tea room is a good place for a snack: you will be offered fragrant tea with herbs and a local delicacy, Gorodets gingebread (pryanik). This local treat made with honey has been around for over 400 years. Today, the spice cakes (kovrizhka) and gingerbreads are made with different fillings, the most delicious of which are sweet condensed milk and walnuts. You can learn all about the recipes at an excursion.
There are two other small, but hospitable museums: the Museum of Goods and the Museum of Samovars. These museums house collections of peasant and merchant household tools and miscellaneous items. In July, Gorodets is especially crowded as it hosts the Brotherhood of Folk Craftsmen festival, which draws artisans from across the whole country.
You can choose one of the small, cosy hotels in Gorodets for your overnight stay and in the morning, continue on your way to the town of Semenov, which lies some 70 kilometres (43 miles) away. This is where Russia's most famous souvenirs – painted nesting dolls, or matryoshki - are made. Although Moscow Oblast is considered to be the birthplace of Russian matryoshka, the majority of these bright souvenirs are made in Semenov. The local hereditary craftsmen or, rather, craftswomen (as the factories are almost exclusively staffed by women) are virtuoso masters of the famous Khokhloma painting style. This style of painting, with its rich ornamentation and use of bright reds and golds, has been named in honour of the local Khokhloma village. The craftswomen of Semenov paint dishes, furniture, interior design items and even computer mice.
You can watch the painters at work at one of the local factories, where you will also have an opportunity to make your very own painted matryoshka or wooden spoon. Every year, during the third weekend of June, Semenov hosts the Golden Khokhloma Festival. The artisans always prepare something spectacular for the show, while the factories organise free tours.
Fifty kilometres (31 miles) from Semenov you will find Svetloyar – a mysterious lake of unknown origin. Its basin is almost perfectly oval-shaped, while its clear water never becomes mouldy or overgrown with algae. Legend has it that at the bottom of the lake is the ancient town of Kitezh, which was submerged before the eyes of the Tatar conquerors who, upon seeing the miracle, retreated. They say that only the righteous can see the outline of the submerged town. A good time to test this is on July 6-7 when the local residents organise a nighttime celebration of Ivan Kupala, blending the ancient summer festivities of Eastern Slavs with Christianity through Saint John the Baptist. During the celebration, people walk around the lake with candles and jump over fires. Even if you are unable to catch sight of Kitezh, you can still make a wish: according to legend, if you walk three times around the lake on Ivan Kupala night, your dream will come true. Tours around the lake are organised by the Kitezh Museum of History and Arts. If you visit the museum itself, check out its vast collection of ceramics.
You can stay overnight at one of the camp sites in Voskresenskoye Povetluzhye Nature Park, located in the villages on the banks of the picturesque Vetluga River. All of the camp sites are made up of real peasant log cabins or look-alike wooden houses. Each site has a dining area offering traditional Russian dishes prepared in wood-fired stoves, a Russian banya (wet sauna) and horse stables. Whatever season you choose to visit, you can arrange group or individual fishing and hunting trips. In the summer, there is kayaking on Vetluga River and mounted treks, while in winter you can take rides in horse-drawn sleds. In the neighbouring village of Troitskoye, you will find the Noah's Ark Fauna Park. The specially protected woods are home to reindeer, dappled deer, Siberian stags and elks, who have no fear of people.