Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Top 10 Can't Miss Things to Do and See in Vladikavkaz

1. Prospekt Mira

Prospekt Mira is the wide, leafy pedestrian street in the center of the city. 5 lanes: a central tree-lined aisle where the restless youth and cantankerous old men alike sprawl, gossiping, on benches; a tram line on either side (careful not to walk in the tracks when a tram is coming); a car-width road on either side blocked off from traffic, a favorite of skateboarders, roller blading children, and young mothers pushing baby carriages. Shops, cafes, and restaurants flank the roads- including a Subway (sandwich shop) which was closed the entire time I was there...the local options are better anyway!
Which leads me to...

2. Cafes/Restaurants
Other than the mountains, the reason to go to Vladikavkaz is the people. The North Caucasus is a place like no other, and one of the most interesting things to do is people watching. Sitting at a popular cafe or restaurant gives you a great vantage point, and on Prospekt Mira there are several good places with outdoor seating.  Try Americano, with its small outdoor porch, or Lookoom, an Uzbek chaikhana (tea house) with a patio running the length of the building. My favorite people watching spot is the corner of Prospekt Mira and Ulitsa Maksim Gorkovo- muscular young men idle their muscular 4-wheel-drives (cars are much cheaper to import into Georgia than Russia, and there are no customs fees for moving a car from South Ossetia to North Ossetia- since South Ossetia is run de facto by Russia- so don't assume that all the drivers of the nice cars with RSO license plates are actually from  South Ossetia). Most of the cafes and restaurants (there are very few bars) close at 11 or midnight (one Vincenzo is open until 1 am!)- the town even turns off the free wi-fi on Prospekt Mira from 11 pm to 8 am. After Vladikavkaz winds down on a Friday or Saturday, the restless youth gather at this corner to soak up whatever remnants are left of the night, and there is an electric energy in the air. 
Follow Ulitsa Maksim Gorkovo down a ways, past the lovely Vincenzo cafe (try the pastries!), and Magiya cafe to see the next point on the list...

3. Children's Park 
Right around the middle of the pedestrian Prospekt Mira, there is a side street that leads to the Children's Park! According to the Internet, this park is called "Детский парк Tropic Land" (detskiy park- children's park). Overlooking the Terek River, the area consists of a Ferris wheel, bumper cars, and a bunch of other 1950s-style amusement park attractions. There are lots of food stands too- corn, soda, beer, chips, hot dogs. There were even two entrepreneurial girls running an adorable donut cart when I was there!

4. Adult Park...?
All along the east bank of the Terek, fanning out in either direction from the Children's Park, is what I like to think of as the Adult Park. It's basically just an outdoor recreation area maintained by the city. It has statues (like the bronze arm wrestlers below), benches overlooking the river on which young couples sit too close together and get old people's tongues clucked at them, and a little wooden archway tunnel of love. It is said that a couple who walks through the tunnel will fall in love- but the locals I talked too were also saying something about maybe watch your back if you choose to walk through there...
It's actually a lovely wooded area to stroll through, and I imagine in the winter there are places people ice skate, cross-country ski, and maybe sled!

5. Eat your Weight in Pirogí
First rule of traveling- "I may never have the opportunity to try this food again!" gives you the right to eat as often and as much as you want- as long as it's local.
Caucasian food in general is known across Russia as some of the most flavorful, varied, and difficult to make. It could be loosely compared to the popularity and attitude towards, maybe, Indian food in the United States. Ossetia is no exception to great cuisine! The classic, of course, is shashlik (see #10 below!), found throughout the region, but you can't miss this local specialty in Vladikavkaz that is difficult to find in the rest of Russia!
A fresh, juicy tsaharadjin pirog-
beet root leaves and cheese
Pirogí/пироги (note the accent is on the i- not to be confused with the Polish pierogi or the Russian pirozhki) are circular (representing the sun or the universe) "pies" stuffed with various savory fillings, usually including Ossetian cheese. This guide explains the different types well at the end. Often, a table is set with three pirogi to represent the Holy Trinity. The full sized pies are so massive it's hard to finish one by yourself, so grab some friends and pop into one of the many restaurants serving traditional Ossetian food! Alternatively, many bakeries sell pirogi, and often they have a smaller 'personal pan' size. The widely agreed upon best spot for pirogi in Vladikavkaz is called Tri Piroga (3 pirogi), on the corner of Ul. Markusa and Ul. Kirova- they even have a website!
This great line from the Wikitravel article on Vladikavkaz explains the phenomenon well-
"You may wonder what all the pizza boxes people are packing on the plane to Moscow are about, it's pirogi for the huddled masses in Moscow."
I didn't fly, so I can't verify the accuracy of that statement, but I brought back three boxes with me to Georgia!
Tri Piroga storefront sign

6. Nightlife
Vladikavkaz is not a very nightlife-filled city. They turn off the city wi-fi on Prospekt Mira between 11 pm and 8 am to deter people from loitering there too long, most restaurants close around 11, and there are only a handful of bars and clubs. My favorite cafe chain, Vincenzo, does have one location open until 1 am! And then, of course, there is a small smattering of clubs open very late, maybe all night. My recommendation is to try and exhaust yourself during the day so you don't even have the desire to go out at night, because especially without local friends, you'll be hard pressed to find places to really party in the style of a mid-sized American or Russian city. I've also heard rumors of an extremely elite, exclusive underground club, so if you've got your Rolex and Armani on, you might want to ask around for it.
I visited one nightclub, club Faraon, on a Thursday night, and it was pretty dead, but still interesting. A few people were dancing upstairs to heavy pumping EDM, and lots of people were downstairs singing karaoke. Around 3 am a bunch of new people started arriving. Here's a clip I found of a dance off at that club:

7. Museums
There are several interesting museums in the Vladikavkaz city center!
  • North Ossetian Republic Art Museum; Prospekt Mira 12 
  • North Ossetia State Joint Museum of History, Architecture and Literature; Prospekt Mira 11
  • North Ossetia Museum of Modern History and Culture; Ul. Kirova 48  
You need to speak Russian or find a translator to help you because the vast majority of the displays in all these museums are only in Russian.   

8. Fiagdon Valley- City of the Dead
More or less the entirety of English-language info on the Internet about the city: 

It is exceedingly difficult to find coherent information about this place and how to visit it. Many locals believe (I think, incorrectly) that this area is still off-limits to foreigners, so you might have to push to get a ride out there. Fiagdon is the name of a river and a valley/gorge in North Osseta-Alania, near Vladikavkaz. There is also a small settlement of about 1000 people bearing the name. The area boasts gorgeous mountains and ancient Caucasian watch towers, but the real gem is the City of the Dead, just outside the village of Dargavs. About an hour's drive from Vladikavkaz, there are few tourists. Due to ancient legend warning that entering the City predicts certain death, locals tend to avoid the place as well. Some of the buildings are said to date back as far as the 12th century.


9. Biragzang hot springs
Hot Mineral Springs in Biragzang, North Ossetia-Alania

These natural hot springs are filled with minerals that have supposed healing powers. I went at night (a friend knew the manager and let us sneak in at 2 am), so I didn't even realize what a gorgeous setting the pool is in, but the steamy waters glide over your body like silk and feel restorative and invigorating in any season or time of day! There is a small fee to enter, but it's well worth it.
To get here...ask a local to drive you- in Russian, it's "Birangzang goryachi tselebni istochnik"
Near this place, towards the border with South Ossetia, is an amazing monument. Carved into the shiny black rock of a high cliff face overhanging the road is a horse and his rider (an Ossetian Saint) leaping out, stretching above the road.

10. Shashlik in the Mountains

Vladikavkaz's best asset is its stunning scenery. The North Caucasus mountain range pads the city from the south and east, providing an abundance of excellent shashlik spots. Shashlik is both a food and an activity- similar to an American barbeque or picnic. Shashlik means stocking up on chunks of raw meat (chicken, pork, really anything on hand), marinade, onions, tomatoes, and probably a large handful of dill. You'll also need drinks- sodas, beer, maybe a bottle of your neighbor's homemade chacha or wine. Don't forget the skewers, charcoal, and little mangal grill, and head up into the mountains. Grill up the shashliki and enjoy your afternoon of relaxing fun!
A guide to shashlik-mashlik.

This is a wonderful source for information about life in North Ossetia! (In Russian)

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