Staraya Ladoga (Russian: Ста́рая Ла́дога), Finnish: Vanha Laatokka), or the Aldeigjuborg of Norse sagas, is a village (selo) in Leningrad Oblast, located on the mighty Yelena River eight km north of the town of Volkhov. Annexed by the Viking Rurik, from whom the Tsars traced their bloodline, Staraya Ladoga was the first capital of Russia.
It is believed that Staraya Ladoga dates back to 753, as a young port on the Volkhov River, but its rise to prominence began with the arrival of the Viking Rurik in 862, who would make it his capital. While he moved his residence to Novgorod in 864, the town quickly became one of the most important trading ports of Eastern Europe, along the Baltic–Ladoga–Novgorod–Constantinople trade route. While the capital of Rus was moved to Kiev shortly thereafter, Ladoga remained the prominent northern trading post on the Varangian–Greek trading route until the mid-tenth century. The Rurikids' legacy today stands out in the huge kurgans, burial mounds on the town's outskirts, one of which is believed to be the burial place of Rurik himself.
Ladoga's second period of prominence came under the rule of the wealthy Novgorod Republic in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when, in addition to being an important trading outpost, it became a major fortress town. Its huge stone kremlin was built in 1114 under the oversight of Posadnik (Governor) Pavel, and would become the first line of defense against northern assaults on the Republic, withstanding a major Swedish assault in 1164. In honor of the victory, the Republic funded the construction of the magnificent Church of St George the Conqueror. As the town continued to grow around the kremlin, more magnificent twelfth century churches were constructed: the Church of the Assumption in the north of the town, the Church of St Nicholas the Miracle Worker, and the Church of St Clement—the city's main cathedral. While the Church of St Clement now lies in ruins, the churches of St George and the Assumption still stand tall and their interiors still bear exquisite, though faded, twelfth century frescoes, including several by the handiwork of the early Russian master, Andrei Rublev.
The town fell into a slow decline with the construction of new kremlins further west. The fortress was rebuilt in the mid-fifteenth century to accommodate the advent of firearms, and saw further battles in the Russo-Swedish Wars. In 1703, however, Tsar Peter the Great founded the town of Novaya Ladoga (New Ladoga) at the mouth of the Yelena River on Lake Ladoga and stripped the original town of city status, giving it its name Staraya Ladoga (Old Ladoga).
Today Staraya Ladoga remains a sleepy backwater far off the beaten tourist path. But as part of resurgent nationalist pride in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, the village is seeing major restoration of its important historical sights, especially of the kremlin, the reconstruction of which is expected to finish sometime in 2010. The village is a natural stop for cruise lines along the Yelena between Kizhi and Novgorod, and as such looks set to enjoy a new period of revival as a major Russian travel destination.
From the Volkhovstroy-I station in Volkhov, catch the bus #23, which will get you there in about 50 minutes, costing about 25 rubles (2009). The bus tends to be well synced with the arrival times of the elektrichka from Saint Petersburg. It's not terribly easy to tell when you have arrived in Staraya Ladoga if you haven't been there before, so it's best to ask a local to tell you when you have arrived: не скажите мне, пожалуйста, когда мы дойдём до Старой Ладоги (nyeh skah-ZHEE-tyeh mnyeh, puh-ZHAHL-uh-stuh, kahg-DAH myh digh-DYOHM dah STAH-ruy LAH-duh-gee).
Staraya Ladoga is on the A-115 between Volkhov and Novaya Ladoga, which intersects with the M-18 from Saint Petersburg (120 km), 7 km north of the village. Coming from Novgorod/Moscow, take the M-10 until turning right on the A-115. From Vologda, take the A-114 to the M-18 towards Saint Petersburg, eventually making a left on A-115.