Strolling down the stunning boulevards, overlooked by pristine orthodox churches and the city’s Kremlin fortess, it is amazing to think, that less than 30 years ago, visiting Nizhny Novgorod was impossible.
Russia’s secret city was known as Gorky back in the Soviet era, which came to an end in 1990. Nowadays, the secret’s out, with the World Cup bringing untold tourism to the area, and locals could not be happier to show off their sensational city.
“We don’t want this World Cup to end,” a young Russian fan told me as we waited for the queue to die down on the steps up to the Kremlin. “The city is so boring the rest of the time.”
Both arms are very much open these days in Nizhny. Shops and restaurants line pedestrian-only plazas, street performers play everything from Prince to Pavel, while fans from all over the world embrace and dance the afternoon away.
Decided that, with a bit of downtime, I would actually head to the Fan Zone and soak up some atmosphere.
The intention is there, but the execution is a little lacking. There are smiles, high fives and big screens everywhere, but the entertainment in between live games irritates more than it enthrals.
I know I sound like a grumpy old man, but in the middle of the afternoon, nobody wants loud, thumping techno music drowning out their conversation about the Panama Canal or whether Diego Maradona or Lionel Messi is better.
The scene speaks for itself, as everyone retreats as far from the front as possible, leaving a weird scene of a MC trying to get a crowd to jump when there is nobody there.
Fortunately enough, the Brazil match sent the over-enthusiastic cheerleaders packing, and provided a much more watchable spectacle – Brazil and Argentina fans winding each other up.
There were plentiful Argentina fans still in town after their humiliating defeat to Croatia, all praying for some good news – Brazil to slip up against Costa Rica.
And, for long periods, it looked like that might happen, until Philippe Coutinho pounced – cue wild Brazilian celebrations, in their bitter rivals’ faces.
The next match saw Argentina get revenge, as Nigeria did them a huge favour against Iceland.
A few England fans had arrived, also pleasantly surprised by the hospitality they have encountered. Where are all these hooligans then?
The evening provides a really cosmopolitan feel, as fans eat al fresco, with a backdrop of the various street artists. Are we in Venice or a former Soviet enclave?
Unfortunately, my hotel is well away from all the action, and from all normal expectations of quality – basically a single room with a shared bathroom, at the back of a supermarket, all for a rather inflated price – so off I head back to get ready for the arrival of the English en masse.
We can only hope that everyone behaves themselves, as Nizhny natives deserve to enjoy their moment in the sun.