Three Days In The Hero City of VolgogradBy
I decided to take a 3 day trip to the city of Volgograd in Southern Russia with the main aim of exploring the battlefields of the Second World War. From September 1942 to February 1943, the fighting was harsh and around 2 million men and women died. Much of the city was also destroyed with little more than 5% of the original buildings surviving. Today, more than 1 million people call Volgograd home.
If you arrive at the airport which was used as a German airstrip during the battle, the terminal building proudly states “Hero City Volgograd”. My guide met me at the airport and drove me to my hotel. The journey took around 30 minutes. I stayed at the centrally located Best Eastern Hotel Volgograd which is typical of the Soviet era hotels that have been modernised yet still retain some features of the bygone era. The entrance and stairways were beautifully ornate given the impression of a far better hotel than the 3* grade it has. However, the room was a bit more basic. The bathroom was reasonably modern and there was air conditioning which was very welcoming but the bed couldn’t be described as comfortable and the TV only had a few Russian stations. There was a fridge but no safe for valuables. Breakfast was included but the choice was repetitive. One major plus was free wi-fi throughout the hotel. In a country when mobile phone roaming charges are so high, it was a welcome lifeline.
It quickly became apparent I would need to use my limited Russian a lot more in Volgograd. Almost all the signs are only in Cyrillic and few people speak English. That said, I did find menus in both Russian and English at one cafe. I found the use of an English speaking guide during my 3 days in Volgograd absolutely priceless. There was little in the way of tourist information available in any language, never mind English so if you plan an independent trip, make sure you have your information before you arrive.
There are memorials to be found right across the city. The observant visitor will notice monuments with T-34 tank turrets. There are 80 of these in total and they mark the furtherest point of the German advance before the Soviet counter attack began on 19th November 1942. It gives you an idea just how close the city came to falling. Of the various places of interest, two of the more popular are Mamayev Hill and the Panoramic Museum.
I also visited the small museum in the basement of the department store. Its hidden away and takes some finding. It was here that the German commander Friedrich Paulus was found by 5 Red Army soldiers, one of whom still lives in Volgograd today. Other places I visited in the city included Lyudnikov’s Island, the tractor factory where the last T-34 was produced and the Grain Elevator where so many men died.
During my 3 days here, I ventured more than 50 miles from the city to the point where the German Army was finally encircled trapping 330,000 men. It is at a point on the Don – Volga canal which Stalin built to link these two mighty rivers. The canal is huge, capable of transporting large cargo ships. I also visited some old German trenches, the only German cemetery at Rossoshka, Soldier Field and the church at Gorodische which the Germans used as a hospital.
I found some comparisons with the Western Front battlefields of France in that where ever you looked, there were memorials and graves to the fallen. The Volgograd region has it’s own ‘iron harvest’ of rifles, cartridge cases, helmets and the like from the fight and in excess of 1,000 soldiers remains are found each year. Unlike the Western Front, many of the memorials are not well signposted so for the independent traveller, would be difficult to find. However, the significance of what took place here 70 years ago and the efforts of soldiers like Vasiliy Zaitsev and Private Altukov of the 38th Motorised Brigade who found Field Marshall Paulus should never be underestimated.