Discreet though it was, the military presence on the far bank of the Volga and the two police speedboats bobbing on the river made it plain that Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s prime minister, was in residence at his country house.
I was standing in the bow of a tourist boat sailing upstream from Plyos, a once thriving port and 19th-century summer resort on the southern bank of the Volga, 375km northeast of Moscow. Alexey Shevtsov, a former mayor of the town, was pointing out the weekend homes of the rich and famous.
There was the dacha of one of Moscow’s leading lawyers; another belonged to the governor of St Petersburg; another to a Russian former ambassador to Washington who was now a presidential aide ... Otherwise they were owned by those he called “capitalists”, a term that Shevtsov might equally apply to himself, for until he sold it in 2006, he was president and chief executive of Ormeto-Yumz, Russia’s second-biggest heavy engineering company.
If all this conjures up an image of heavily-protected ostentatious rural palaces, the reality is very different. Admittedly there is high security around Medvedev’s densely forested estate, Milovka, which isn’t visible from the water when the birch trees are in leaf – though we got a good view of the private ski slope he is building. But otherwise Plyos is a low-key place: an enchantingly pretty town of onion-domed churches and brightly painted wooden houses with ornate carved window frames and zinc or tin roofs, spilling down the hillside to a waterfront of fine former merchants’ houses and colourful houseboats. It’s a town entirely free of designer shops and western brands, where no one wears heels and jewels remain in the safe: a sort of Bridgehampton for Muscovites, if you will.
As with the Hamptons, visitors to Plyos (population barely 2,500) mostly own, rent or stay with friends. But Shevtsov, who used to come here with his grandmother as a child in the 1970s and now owns 40 buildings in the town, is gradually changing that with what he is calling a “dacha hotel” named Sobornaya Sloboda. Here you can stay in one of nine houses, sleeping between two and 10, that are serviced and run like a hotel.
The dachas range from a splendid quayside art-nouveau mansion built in 1907 (which during the Soviet era housed three families in a communal apartment) to single-room wooden structures unexpectedly reminiscent of the “gingerbread” chattel houses you find in the Caribbean. I stayed in a traditional two-bedroom izba, or log cabin, called Dom Maklashinykh (after the family who built it). It stands just behind the house-museum dedicated to Isaak Levitan, arguably the greatest Russian landscape painter of the 19th century. Levitan spent three summers in Plyos in the 1880s with artist Sofia Kuvshinnikova, his much older married lover. During that time, he produced more than 200 paintings of the town and its surroundings, images that resonate with almost all Russians because of their prevalence in school textbooks, and offer visual evidence that the town has hardly changed in more than a century.
Levitan was not the only important artist to find inspiration here: Ilya Repin, Alexey Savrasov and Konstantin Makovsky were also drawn by the exceptional light reflected by the mighty Volga, which is 700m wide at this point, and 15m deep. This vast body of water is also said to amplify the sound of bells, hence the nine exquisite churches, from the tiny, very simple 17th-century hilltop Church of Eternal Peace to the more cathedral-like Church of the Resurrection (1817), whose green roof and golden cupolas were restored this year. (These also explain the name of Shevtsov’s hotel, which roughly translates as “settlement of cathedrals”.)
My temporary home was in many ways the dacha of my dreams. It was simply but evocatively furnished, with heavy Volga linens from the nearby town of Privolzhsk, and had a huge brick stove at the heart of its sitting room. Each morning, I’d rise from my supremely comfortable bed to find a hearty breakfast laid out on the dining table: kasha (buckwheat porridge), bliny, pastries, eggs, soft sweet white and hard salty yellow cheeses, ham, fresh orange juice and coffee.
Dinner, which can also be ordered in, was better still. On offer was just about every Russian dish I could think of: the classic chopped salads; clear soups of mushroom or sorrel, or ukha, a fish consommé with chunks of pike-perch from the river; pelmeni, a kind of Siberian ravioli stuffed with local duck or wild mushrooms; more bliny, this time with assorted smoked fishes and salmon caviar; and various roasted and grilled meats. The opening of Mari Vanna in London may have raised the international reputation of Russian cooking but this was the best I’ve tasted. (Chef Aleksandr Golubev was recruited from the Metropol Hotel in Moscow.)
In opening these dachas to paying guests, Shevtsov hopes that Plyos will become what he calls “the birthplace of a new responsible, conscientious attitude to tourism in Russia that is not about too much comfort or standardisation”. Although he himself is widely travelled and no stranger to luxurious hotels, he craved what he calls “the real, the hidden Russia” and sensed that others did too.
There is no doubt that Plyos is suffused with nostalgia for pre-revolutionary times. This is the provincial Russia of Gorky’s Summerfolk, of Turgenev, Tolstoy and, above all, of Chekhov, who was a life-long friend of Levitan and based several of his characters on the artist, not least Konstantin in The Seagull.
Shevtsov has found a market for these rentals among a wealthy but wistful Russian elite keen to “experience true Russia” and to re-establish a connection with their heritage and their roots. Indeed the reason the dachas in the hotel inventory keep changing is that so many of his regular guests end up buying them. So he acquires more and, together with local architect Svetlana Zyryanova, whose life’s work has been the painstaking preservation of historic houses of this kind, restores or, where necessary, rebuilds them from scratch. My other favourite was Dom Krylovykh, an elegant two-bedroom wooden house straight out of Anna Karenina. Built in 1870, it has a glazed veranda and interiors in the “English and French style” – synonyms for pretty chintz and toile de Jouy – and an extra room in the loft “for the visiting servant”.
My only regret is that more has not been made of their gardens. Although they are filled with peonies and black-veined butterflies, most lack anywhere to sit and could do with a bit of weeding and overall maintenance. Still, Shevtsov’s project is a work in progress. As well as the addition of more dachas and a small marina, this summer will see the reopening of a restaurant in the 19th-century former yacht club.
In the meantime, the place to eat out is Chastny Vizit, run by a Frenchman and his Russian wife in their eccentric and eclectically furnished private house. There’s also good reason to cater for yourself, to picnic on fresh fat smoked bream from the river, and wash it down with kvass, a sour drink fermented from stale bread. Both are sold at stalls along the high street, a tradition that I’d assumed to have died with the Soviet Union. The surrounding birch groves and pine forests are full of wild mushrooms, especially ceps, and fragrant wild strawberries the size of fingernails. (Just be aware that there are toxic ticks too.)
You can swim in the cool clear waters of the Volga from the two narrow beaches. There are pedalos and boats for hire, and talk of a golf course. In winter, there is skiing, sledding and snowboarding, as well as hovercraft trips on the frozen river.
But mostly, I sensed, people come here to recharge. “Yes indeed, what peace, what harmony!” Chekhov wrote when he came to Plyos in 1890. It’s a line that resonates still. No wonder the substantial riverside estate currently under construction a few kilometres downstream is rumoured to be earmarked for Vladimir Putin.
Dachas at Sobornaya Sloboda in Plyos range from Rbs9,800 (£195) to Rbs36,000 (£716) per night (tel: +7 493 394 3846; email: email@example.com).
Claire Wrathall was a guest of Russia travel specialists Exeter International, which offers three nights in Plyos from £1,350 per person, including transfers from Moscow.
Moscow’s five-star stopovers: Stolichnaya and a stained-glass dome
The journey from Moscow to Plyos takes about five hours, whether you go by road or cut the driving time in half by taking the high-speed Sapsan train from Kursk station to Vladimir. So you’ll probably need a night or two in Moscow – in which case don’t miss Levitan’s paintings of Plyos at the State Tretyakov Gallery.
For the moment, Moscow’s newest hotel is the Kempinski Nikolskaya (doubles from Rbs11,900 [£237]), which opened in May in a lavishly restored palace built for Count Orlov-Davydov in the 1870s. It has a magnificent stained-glass dome over its lobby and original fin-de-siècle mosaics in its cavernous restaurant. Here the traditional Russian cuisine is good but the cost of sparkling water ruinous: a bottle of San Pellegrino will set you back about £18.50. The overall look of the hotel is as gilded and glitzy as you’d expect from Leo International, the designers responsible for the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi. But the staff are delightful. Be warned that the rooms facing the Lubyanka, headquarters of the Federal Security Service, suffer from traffic noise.
Later this year, Four Seasons should also open its first Moscow property. It will occupy part of what was the Hotel Moskva, the 1930s behemoth depicted on bottles of Stolichnaya vodka and, in 1937, condemned by Frank Lloyd Wright, at the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Architects, as the ugliest structure he had ever seen. Off Red Square, the Moskva was demolished in 2004 but has inexplicably been rebuilt to look exactly as it did. The hotel’s modern interiors, by British firm Richmond International, might make up for the clunking exterior. (A second Four Seasons, facing the Kremlin on Sofiskaya Embankment, is also under construction.)
Amid this growing competition, the supremely efficient Ararat Park Hyatt (doubles from Rbs12,800 [£255]) has unveiled 24 new Park Suites designed by Tony Chi to feel convincingly like private apartments. Like the rest of the hotel (which is a rare outpost of understatement in a city in thrall to bling), their style is modern and high-tech, though liberal use of reflective glass can make you feel as if you’re in a fairground hall of mirrors.