The Solovetsky Islands archipelago is one of those places which people talk about, say that they would love to visit but disappointing few ever actually do. This, however is part of the attraction as you won’t meet hoards of tourists in this largely unspoilt part of Russia yet you can ‘get off the beaten track’ without having to completely rough it. Oh, and the name is typically shortened to ‘Solovki’.
Although it’s believed that Solovki have been inhabited for millennia, it was back in 1429 when monks first built a wooden hermitage on the main island and in the 1570s a much larger, stone fortress was built around it as a defense against Swedish attacks. Even British frigates attacked it during the Crimean war but the monastery remained intact. Worse was to come after the October Revolution when the islands were turned into a labour camp for ‘enemies of the people’. Even if you’re not a museum buff and you don’t speak (much) Russian, the main museum on the island is worth a visit as it is dedicated to those who were interned here during the Stalinist era. There’s no English translation but the photos, pictures and artifacts speak for themselves. Entrance is 200Rbl.
Although Solovki ceased to function as a gulag in 1939 (it became a naval training base), the monastery was badly damaged yet restoration work began only in the 1960s. Monks returned in the 1980s and the islands acquired UNESCO status in 1992, yet even today much of the inner parts are covered in scaffolding, spoiling your photos. Given its central location, the monastery is a logical place to your sightseeing and you don’t have to be a committed God botherer to appreciate both the inner and outer buildings. Entry is free although following Orthodox tradition, ladies are expected to cover their heads (scarves are provided).
Behind the monastery is the local tourist office which can help organize excursions to more remote places which require motorized transport, be it a 4 x 4, or a boat to neighbouring islands although some attractions are easily walk able from your hotel. Kick off with ‘labyrinth’ of mysterious stone circles a ten-minute walk south from the town’s centre, by the sea shore, and the botanical gardens are a 3 KM walk north and also worth a visit. The other museum of note is a converted boat and tells a history of the region with a maritime flavor. Entrance is free and it’s across the water behind the monastery.
Solovki appear to be caught in a sort of love-triangle between three parties, all with their own interests. Firstly the Russian Orthodox Church would like to see tourism to the islands restricted to religious pilgrimages, whereas the local authorities are not surprisingly interested in all types of tourists so long as they spend money! Lastly are the thousand or so permanent inhabitants who would like to see general improvements, such as paved roads. Fortunately, regardless of why you came, you’ll be made to feel welcome!
When to go: Only the foolhardy would even consider venturing to Solovki anytime other than in the summer months as the White sea freezes over and fog can ground flights for days
There are two main ways; either by air, or a combination of land and sea.
Air – Solovki’s tiny airport has flights to nearby Arkhangelsk (40 minutes; in the summer they’re at least once a day, sometimes more often although much less frequent in the winter) from which there are regular connections on to both Moscow and St. Petersburg as there are no direct, scheduled flights from either city. However, not only are tickets relatively pricey - expect to pay around 7,500Rbl one way, NordAvia fly Ilyushin 78s propeller planes (think crop-sprayers) which are prone to delays at even a hint of bad weather. Budgeting a day either side in Arkhangelsk is a wise move or you risk missing your connection.
Land and sea – there are frequent trains from Moscow (also from St. Petersburg and Petrozavodsk) to Murmansk, which stop at Kem, a 12 km ride to Rabocheostrovsk from where boats depart for Solovki daily. Timing is key here as neither place has much in the way of accommodation and what little they have is typically booked up in advance by tour groups. If possible aim to catch a train which arrives at Kem in the early hours of the morning (around 06:00) and catch a waiting cab to the port at Rabocheostrovsk (there are occasional busses too). Boats leave in the morning and return in the late afternoon, allowing you to take an evening train north or south.
Where to stay
There are only a handful of hotels on the island and these can get booked up in advance so don’t assume that you can just rock up and walk in. We stayed at the Hotel Priyut which costs 2,500Rbl per night for a double, had reasonable wifi (our mobile phones didn’t work there; no reception) and breakfast was included. Overlooks the monastery so couldn’t really complain!
What to eat
Some hotels offer dinner but usually only for guests, although the Hotel Solovki has a separate restaurant which can be used by non-guests. There’s also a café/stolovaya in the main square which offers cheap, but adequate meals at lunchtime. Bear in mind that there is only one shop which sells food and drink – it’s next door to the museum.
The ‘town’ centre and the Kremlin is easily walk able from the airport and the port although if you have pre-arranged transport via your hotel or tour operator, you will be met upon arrival. Travel light, especially if flying; that plane ain’t big!
Although there is a tiny branch of Sberbank, there is no ATM on the islands and whilst some establishments claim to accept credit cards, connections are patchy so bring a large stack of cash with you, preferably much more than you think you’ll need. You may end up spending rather more time there than you anticipated, if the weather isn’t being kind to you.