Bohemian getaways from Moscow

Nothing in classic Russian literature captures the idea of paradise lost better than Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. The M2 highway going directly south from Moscow passes a few notable countryside retreats – including Chekhov’s own at Melikhovo (80km) where the writer’s modest estate, now a wonderful museum, is located. But the main ‘cherry-orchard’ belt lies further south.
Since the end of the 19th century, urban escapists have been gravitating towards a cluster of bohemian dacha (country house) settlements in the valley of the Oka River around the sleepy town of Tarusa, roughly 130km down the M2. Later in the 20th century, the Soviet authorities created a practical reason for the bohemians to move here, on top of the idyllic scenery. Many of those who survived Gulag prison camps were not allowed to settle closer than 100km from Moscow, which is why artists, writers and musicians ended up starting their new lives after prison here.

But the story begins long before the Soviets. One of the earliest settlers was artist Vasily Polenov, who built his estate in a beautiful wooded area across the river from Tarusa in the 1890s. The money came from a single painting he sold to the tsar – Jesus and the Sinner Woman, which is today on display at the Russian Museum in St Petersburg. The estate, now called Polenovo, remains the main magnet for visitors to the area.
The estate’s architectural eclecticism reflects the progressive cultural trends of that age – designed by the owner, the buildings reveal his fascination with Germany, Italy as well as Russian folklore. Polenov gave each building a romantic name: for instance, the sweet little cottage that houses the artists’ studio was christened ‘the Abbey’. Further along a footpath, lined with giant fairytale-like fir trees, stands a summer theatre – an open-air structure with ancient Greek and Gothic architectural elements covered in red American ivy.

The local peasants were welcome to watch the plays, which is why – uniquely and amazingly – Polenov retained the estate after the 1917 revolution and died here in very old age a decade later. Now a museum open for visitors, the estate is still run by his family that lives on the premises. The area is great for leisurely walks through the woods, fields and along the meandering river with its sandy beaches. The water gets warm enough to swim in summer (but beware of the strong current!).
These days the area still attracts the trendy crowd, just like in Polenov’s times. Mark & Lev restaurant manifests all that is good about Moscow’s gastro-hipster culture, which benefits from Russia’s ban on foodstuffs produced in the EU by encouraging local production. Branding their brainchild ‘a locavore place’ and getting most products from an adjacent farm, the owners subject traditional Russian staples to modern cooking techniques, and the result is most satisfying. Try the steamed sturgeon with spelt, and water it down with house-made kvas (traditional Russian fermented drink made from rye bread) or local beer.

Mark & Lev is about 5km on the way from Polenovo back to the main highway. It’s possible to walk the distance along the riverbank via the village of Bekhovo, whose pretty art nouveau church was designed by Polenov in 1904. Further down the same road, the village of Podmoklovo has an interesting Italianesque church, which is the venue of an annual festival of medieval music played using period instruments.