Located about 30 miles east of St Petersburg, Lake Ladoga is Europe’s largest freshwater lake, home to a whopping 660 islands. Flanked by thick forests and characterised by rocky coves, this vast body of water provides a range of outdoor opportunities, from swimming to rock climbing, as well as a fair share of historical and cultural sights.
The waters of the 30 or so rivers that flow into Lake Ladoga are freed from minerals and impurities as they freeze during the winter months. They flow south along granite rock, which prevents them from being saturated with salts. The result is exceptionally pure lake water – so pure that it is said to be among the purest on Earth, three times softer than that of any other lake in Europe, and six times softer than drinking water.
From Lake Ladoga, the water makes its way to St Petersburg, flowing through ancient Russian forests that are rich in charcoal, a porous rock that further acts as a filter. Lake Ladoga famously serves as a source of drinking water for the city. Renowned vodka brand Russian Standard even uses it to create the nation’s favourite tipple (the word vodka is a diminutive of the Russian ‘voda’, meaning water); the company’s vodka scientists go as far as describing the lake water as ‘being alive’.
While Russian Standard vodka scientists associate the lake with Russia’s much-loved alcoholic spirit, Lake Ladoga conjures up substantially different images to historians. During WWII, the lake served as a vital supply route during the Siege of Leningrad. Throughout the brutal winters of 1941 and 1942, its frozen waters connected the beleaguered city to a small stretch of Russian land 100 miles away. Convoys of trucks brought in oil, grain and fuel to the city’s trapped inhabitants.
A locomotive track was laid across the ice to bring in constant supplies of medicine and food, while bringing out vulnerable children, the sick and the wounded from the city. This life-saving route across the lake’s frozen waters became known as the Road of Life.
Today, it’s possible to trace part of the infamous route from St Petersburg to the lake. Along the way are commemorative plaques and monuments that serve as poignant reminders of one of the war’s most brutal military campaigns. Some memorials are dedicated to children who perished of hunger, others to pilots and anti-aircraft gunners that defended the road and sacrificed their lives to deliver supplies to the city.
On Lake Ladoga’s eastern shore is The Road of Life Museum, which provides an interesting insight into the precarious ice road that became Leningrad’s lifeline during the war. On display are naval ships that defended the lake, transport planes, artillery weapons and ship equipment, along with a unique example of an MO-4 submarine chaser.
History aside, Lake Ladoga is a wonder of Nordic beauty, characterised by dense forests and rocky coastlines that can be explored by boat or on foot. The lake boasts an incredibly diverse ecosystem, with nearly 500 species of fish roaming its waters, including carp, bream, perch, and the endangered Atlantic sturgeon, whose eggs are used to make premium caviar.
The southern part of the lake is best suited for bathing and walking, while the northern part is wilder, with secluded rocky coves and dense forested areas of coniferous trees home to brown bears, elk and lynx. The northern section is characterised by an archipelago of about 50 islands, the largest of which if Valaam, home to the 14th century Valaam Monastery.
With its natural beauty, Valaam has long served as a spiritual retreat for Orthodox believers, attracting scores of religious pilgrims and counting numerous illustrious figures as past guests, including Tsar Alexander II, composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky and chemist Dmitri Mendeleev. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the monastery and the island’s property were returned to the Church. Sadly, many secular long-standing islanders have recently faced eviction from religious authorities as the Kremlin seeks to restitute all religious property to the Church.
Visitors should not miss northern Lake Ladoga’s Ruskeala Marble Canyon, which for years provided stone to construct some of Russia’s most impressive buildings. Opened by Empress Catherine the Great at the end of the 18th century, the canyon supplied marble to adorn some of St Petersburg’s grandest buildings, including the windowsills of the Hermitage, the front of St Isaac’s Cathedral and the floors of Kazan Cathedral, along with the halls of some of the city’s most lavish metro stations. No longer in use, the marble and granite quarry is today filled with emerald-green waters, flanked by white vertical rock carpeted with bright green vegetation. Visitors can walk the perimeter of the canyon along a path with viewing platforms, and boats can be rented out to explore the openings of grottoes and underground tunnels.
The jumping-off point for the Marble Canyon is Sortavala, a small town located at the northern tip of the lake near the border with Finland. It’s home to the Kronid Gogolev Museum, which displays wonderful wood-carved paintings that depict village life in Russia’s far north (Vladimir Putin and Boris Yeltsin are said to count Gogolev’s works among their private collections). The intricate detail is impressive, with sculptured reliefs of nature and exquisite scenes portraying everyday peasant life, carved into veritable paintings complete with wooden frames.
Top image: Islands in Lake Ladoga © Shutterstock
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