Velikiye Luki, Russia: A Trip to Small Town Russia
During our visit to Russia in the summer of 2015, we found a very unique small town named Velikiye Luki (also written as Velikie Luki). Every year in the second week of June, this place hosts a hot air ballooning competition that is quite famous. The competition had been going on since 1996, attracting ballooning enthusiasts not just from Russia, but all across Europe and Asia. So we decided to take a trip down to this not so well known town, which happened to be one of the most exciting trips I ever took.
Velikiye Luki lies approximately 475 kms. (295 miles) south of St. Petersburg, and we booked an overnight train to get there. I was super excited as it would be my first time travelling on a long distance train in Russia. Russia is famous for the Trans–Siberian Railway, the longest railway line in the world. It stretchs from Moscow in the west to Vladivostok in the east, covering more than 9000 kms (5592 miles). We had booked seats in sleeper class, which were quite comfortable and safe. There was the option of four berth and two berth compartments with bedding and hot water for tea/coffee available for free.
After a nine hour journey, we arrived at the town of Velikiye Luki at seven in the morning. There are a few hotels in the town, but all of them were booked due to the festival. Luckily, there is Airbnb and we were able to book an apartment for our two night stay. Since it was a new place and we didn’t know where to eat, we headed to a lonesome McDonald’s for breakfast, where we were met by a friend who lived in that town and would be our guide for the rest of our trip.
The centre of the town was quite nice, with old buildings and wide streets – although not the same grandeur as St. Petersburg. But it had quite a nice feel to it, and we found a few things that are not easy to find in the bigger cities. The town is quite old, and was established in the year 1166 as Luki. It also has the honour of being designated a City of Military Glory for its contribution in the Second World War. There are several monuments dedicated to the soldiers of the war that are visited by many people from around the region.
The highlight of our trip was of course the ballooning festival. The competition was set to be held for two days, and we were thrilled to watch the numerous colourful balloons compete on the first day. The sight of hundreds of hot air balloons sailing over the lake was truly mesmerizing.
This was not all, however. We were surprised to find that later in the evening the site also hosted a competition for RC model aircraft. Along with the professionals taking part in the championship, there were quite a few who were participating for fun and gave a good display of the acrobatics their aircraft could perform.
The second ballooning competition was supposed to start quite early, at around five in the morning. We woke up pretty early and walked for almost an hour to arrive at the hotel where the competitors were staying. However, due to strong winds, the competition was first delayed and ultimately had to be cancelled. So instead of the balloon race, we spent time at the local amusement park, which did not have many rides for full grown adults. The day being Sunday, there was a carnival in the park near the lake where the competition was taking place. This turned out to be a fun experience for us. We savoured a lot of local farm delicacies, fruits and honey. There were also numerous tents selling “Shashlik” – or Russian shish kabobs.
Another pleasant surprise for us was the beer from this region. It turns out that they had a few small local breweries that produce some really good beer. There were some stores where you could buy the local draft beer – bottled from the tap right in front of you. This was something new for me – I found later that this is not so uncommon in the smaller cities in Russia.
Overall, it was a very good trip for us, full of pleasant surprises and good memories. It was the first time that we saw a hot air balloon race, and also the RC aircraft in action. It is unique experiences like this that make traveling to new and unknown places so much fun.