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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A city guides had to forget

Nizhny Novgorod was the center of the Soviet Union's secret nuclear physics industry and so closed to foreigners. Now it's back on the map for tourists. Lindy Sinclair sampled a weekend in the city guidebooks used to ignore. Open any guidebook and you will be hard pressed to find any information about the city of Nizhny Novgorod for the expedient reason that no one was allowed to visit until last year. Called Gorky under the Soviets, this was the center of Russia's secret nuclear physics industry and the place of exile for Russia's famous dissident, Andrei Sakharov. No one was expected to wander around the town's Kremlin and shop for souvenirs. We arrived in Nizhny, Russia's third largest city, at 7:30 A.M. having had our sheets, pillow cases and towels forcefully removed from our persons by a sour old train conductor. She started that dreadful scratching on the door with her keys at 6:30 and kept it up every 10 minutes because we refused to get up until just before the train pulled in. It's a 10-minute cab ride from the station to the Hotel Oktyabrskaya, which is pricey but has no evidence of mice or rats, mafia or ladies of ill repute. The train station lies in the new town, and you must cross the meeting place of the Volga and Oka rivers to reach the older part of Nizhny, founded in 1221. It isn't hard spending a long morning cruising the old town. There is a walking street full of pretty wooden houses and an antique lover's heaven, Antal Antiques. This excellent shop, owned by the enterprising and congenial Gospodin Aleeyev, also has an exhibition room on the second floor (18 Ulitsa Sverdlova, entrance on Ulitsa Bolshaya Pokrovskaya). Also try the neat little antique store at 21 Ulitsa Bolshaya Pokrovskaya, entrance around the corner at Ulitsa Oktyabrskaya. They stock an array of silver and microscopes, cameras and some porcelain. The city also boasts an excellent cheese shop, Dmitrovsky, on Ulitsa Piskunovo. Run by the famous Madame Popova, hero of the city's well-known privatization push, the shop has plenty of cheese on offer, as well as a steady stream of imported groceries. Best of all, it stays open every day. Chilled and famished, we found ourselves racing into the Pelmenaya at 22 Ulitsa Bolshaya Pokrovka. Pelmenaya cafes are often places to avoid like the plague, but this cafe's bouillon with pelmeni was rather tasty. The bliny were strictly industrial, but with bread, dessert and a drink, it was the cheapest way of warming up and getting a seat. With the sun setting alarmingly fast, we flagged down a cab and headed to the Andrei Sakharov museum. It is a 15-minute drive past the high rises with signs declaring 'Glory to the October Revolution' and 'If you smell gas, ring 04' in huge three-meter high letters. Visiting this museum is a must. Sergei Ponomarov, the museum's curator and our guide for the afternoon, evocatively tells the story of Sakharov's life of exile. Sakharov was confined to this apartment in January 1980 and lived here until December 1986. You cannot but feel moved walking through the four small rooms, knowing that for six years Sakharov and his wife Yelena Bonner were only allowed to receive two visitors. A 24-hour KGB guard sat just outside the door and the couple was followed and bugged. Not speaking Russian is a drawback as you could easily walk in, look at the photographs and the truly unremarkable rooms, then buy a poster and leave. On Saturday night we went to the only Chinese restaurant in town, the Harbin. A very slick but friendly place, they actually didn't want our custom because a big local wedding reception was being held in the main room. But they found us a table in the back room. Most restaurants would dream of such a back room. The attention to detail and interior design was refreshing. So too was the beer. Unfortunately, the egg noodle soup was also the only tasty thing we ate all night. The Beef in Special Chinese Sauce and the Chicken in Nut were both less than special. Being spoiled because of the Moscow Kremlin, the Nizhny one isn't much. In fact the really good bit is the wall. The museum was shut, as was the small Arkhangelskoye church (1631) and we felt too old to climb over all the canons and tanks that form part of an open-air historical museum. Instead we scooted down the ramparts and walked to the river. By late afternoon we found the wonderful U Shakhovsky restaurant: Simple Russian cuisine is the menu, and every dish we had was a winner. We started with a tomato and mayonnaise salad and moved on to a delicious mushroom and onion julienne. I then had Chicken Kiev while my companion ate Shashlik that managed to be juicy and tender at the same time. Both dishes were plated with vegetables and salad. It is worth going all the way to Nizhny Novgorod just to try this food. A word of warning about the hotel. They are strict about their checkout times. They presented us with a bill including half a day's charge for the time between 8 A.M. when we arrived, and noon, the official check-in time. We naturally threw a tantrum. There is no notice of check-out times anywhere, so make sure you ask before you check in, or you will find yourselves steaming and cross as you head back to the Moscow train. Orientation Maps of Nizhny Novgorod are hard to find. Try the bookshop near the Chinese Restaurant on Ulitsa Bolshaya Pokrovskaya. Guidebooks haven't caught up with the re-opening of the city, so try the Historical Museum on Verkhne-Volzhskaya Naberezhnaya, or speak with Sergei Ponomarov, the curator of the Andrei Sakharov museum. Money Bring more than you think you need. The hotel only takes cash and if you like antiques, there are plenty to buy. Food The town has a market, between Ulitsa Bolshaya Pokrovskaya and Ulitsa Dzerzhinskogo. You will need food for breakfast as the hotel has a buffet that managed to make all meals taste greasy and suspect. Cheese, wine, fruit and chocolate bars ought to see you through the weekend in between good restaurant meals at U Shakhovsky. Transport Overnight train. For security attach a belt to the door handle and the metal bar beside it. And using a cork (which you need to trim so it fits snugly), insert in under the top left hand metal latch so no one can push the metal tab down from the outside using a thin wire (the common trick). The most convenient train leaves at 23:20 Friday night, arrives 6:30 AM Saturday. And leaves 21:50 Sunday night and arrives in Moscow 6:30 A.M. Monday. Entertainment U Shakhovsky has a jazz band on Saturday nights. The hotel has Russian Television but also bring your backgammon, books and playing cards. Accommodation Hotel Oktyabrskaya Reservations Tel. (8312) 32 06 70, Fax 32 05 50 $50 single, $80 double. Address: Verkhne-Volzhskaya Naberezhnaya 9A. The city's most comfortable and expensive hotel. Museums Andrei Sakharov Museum 214 Prospekt Gagarina, open daily except Friday 9 A.M. to 6 P.M. Tel. 66 86 23. The apartment is as Sakharov and Bonner left it, and there is one room of photographs and documents. Restaurants Coliseum 32 Ulitsa Bolshaya Pokrovskaya. Tel. 33 85 77. We didn't have time to try this one, but the staff (once past the burly bodyguards at the door) were accommodating and friendly. Prices are similar to other restaurants, around 40,000 rubles for two. Harbin 2 Ulitsa Bolshaya Pokrovskaya open Tuesday to Sunday. Tel. 39 07 51 Ten out of 10 for decor and friendly service, alas about 4 out of 10 for food. If you aren't that hungry you can still have fun. They have a Karaoke machine and a raunchy show on weekends. Around 30,000 for two. U Shakhovsky Ulitsa Piskunovo. Tel. 34 19 31 Strict dress code applies after six -- no jeans -- but dressing up is worth it. This slick restaurant serves tasty and beautifully plated Russian food. Booking essential for the night, but lunchtime is fairly uncrowded. Around 45,000 rubles for two.