I’d quickly had enough of the big smoke and wanted to scarper to the East pronto. But Russia is a big ol’ place and deciding on how to spend the 30 days that the Russian authorities nobly bestow on tourists. I figured that the Russians weren’t stupid and had probably been building the majority of their important cities and cultural monuments in the more clement areas for a long time. Why battle minus 40 where you don’t absolutely have to? (A question to be put to the Inuits at a future date.)
This means that a lot of worthy sites are in the West and South. Not all, but a lot. By this logic, I decided that some of the places near-ish Moscow were worth some time. They call it ‘The Golden Ring’, which I childishly can’t read without snickering. It refers to a group of towns that circle Moscow and played significant roles in Russian history. They are chock-full of traditional architecture from the 12th-18th centuries and stand as living proof that there are only so many onion-domed churches that you can bear.
I selected Suzdal and Vladimir cheated myself and my Trans-Siberian blocks by heading over on the bus. On a Saturday morning. Error. The traffic jam stretched from the city limit faaaar into the countryside and the journey took most of the morning. It was, however, entertainingly broken by the sight of a large man cycling down the highway wearing nothing but briefs and trainers. It marked the first of my experiences in using the phonetics in the DK phrasebook; whiiiich are rubbish. I relied instead on the kindness of strangers and the thankfully international city names. There are in fact a lot of cross-over words in Russian and English if you care to listen for them. Friendly folks and a nice bus driver who spoke some angleeski helped me to the right stop. ‘Good luck’, called the driver as I disembarked. Yup. I need it.
On the final mashukta hop to Suzdal I was sitting next to a man who was, as they all are, clutching a plastic carrier bag filled with lord-knows-what and whiffing lightly of home-brew. Despite appearances, he wasn’t mad and in the end enlisted the help of the other retired gents on the bus to point me in the right direction of the town’s only hostel.
Godzilla’s was set on the bucolic banks of the river in amongst a bounty of churches, wooden houses, monasteries and chocolate-box deliciousness. As I strolled along under the dappled shade of the spring trees, I was one happy bunny. Happier still to discover that the digs were not some scuzzy pit filled with migrant workers who touch your feet in the middle of the night, but a converted wooden farmhouse of high, airy ceilings, new furniture and enormous beanbags. Took an evening saunter around town to take in the beautiful cobbled marketplace, two (count ’em) monasteries and intricate wooden carving that adorns every spare space of every wooden house in the town. It’s mental how they found time for it, what with all the potato-reaping the peasants had to do.
Space is not at a premium in Russia and so even small villages have the luxury of plenty of ground between buildings. Suzdal is spread liberally over a couple of bends in the river and contains an unfeasibly large number of churches. I was told by a local guide that many churches have two models – the roomy, reverential summer ones and the cosier winter ones that were easier to heat. One explanation for the numerous churches is the presence of those monasteries.
One, Pokrovsky, where I nipped in one blustery Sunday morning, used to be the richest in Russia. Why? Because it was also a dumping ground for unwanted wives of the noble set and they had to pay for their keep too. Famous inhabitants included the first wife of Peter the Great, although she was not alone in Tsarina inmates. If in doubt, nun them out.
And who should be on the security gate as I wandered in with my Colombian pal to see what was going on? Right! Boozebag from the bus, still reeking faintly of vodka. I should point out that it is not unusual or seemingly frowned upon for officials to drink while on duty. I’ve smelt more than one drunk security guard and seen police officers in their squad car taking nips from a bottle of beer. Only beer, mind. Spirits would be beyond the pale.
He motioned to me to cover my head and, just as I did, the Sunday procession came out of the chapel. Visitors are requested not to take photos of the sisters, which seems only respectful, but it’s a shame cos it was such a pretty sight. The religious ministers, sisters and a handful of devotees proceed out and around the church, holding their icons and brass crosses aloft. As they walk, a quartet of nuns sing in a sunny, fluttery soprano and another sister up in the bell tower with mastery over the bells sends appropriate, multi-faceted melodies chiming out over the fields. It’s beautiful, although I had to suppress a giggle when the priest stopped at one ceremonial point to literally whip holy water at the believers.
The church plays a peculiarly strong role in Russian society, peculiar only in that I thought God was more or less dead in developed society. Well, we’ve all seen how wrong I am on that front. 65%of Russians profess to be of the Orthodox church, and not, I suspect, in the same way that 40% of the UK are Church of England because they may as well tick one box on the form. In its rituals, it bears a strong resemblance (in my eyes) to Islam, in that women are required to cover their heads and wear modest skirts in church, people nip into church for a quick prayer whenever the mood takes them and the service itself involves no chairs, but lots of bowing and crossing yourself.
Standing on the hill around the river bend is a large, royal blue dome studded with stars. That, I decided, had to be investigated. Turned out to be Suzdal’s old Kremlin, destroyed many times and rebuilt just as many over the years. The Nativity Cathedral is a World Heritage site (where isn’t these days?) but it is famous as it was the first in Russian that ordinary people were entitled to use. Previously, cathedrals were for the exclusive use of the nobility (Knyaz’). Very pretty.
Across the river, via a convenient newly-constructed footbridge, lies a museum to Russia’s wooden architecture. There is a small area to the North of St Petersburg that is famous for wooden churches and I had longed to go there, were it not for the constraints of distance and time. Check out some pics here. Don’t ask me why; I’d just read about them once. This was my compromise to self and a conveniently compact one at that. It contains windmills, water wheels, churches and peasant dwellings, all made of wood. Evidently you could tell a poor pauper from a less-poor pauper from the level of decoration around their windows and the number of levels in their home.
Nipped into Vladimir for a while, after struggling at the train station to make the stupid phonetics in the phrase book sound like they’re supposed to in real life. Luckily, I was saved by a guardian angel in the form of a friendly guy at the next counter who spoke a smattering of English, enough to translate my questions to the cashier for me. The most unsuspecting people speak English, I tell you. I would not have picked him out, looking vaguely thuggish with his blackened teeth and tracksuit.
The city was originally a defensive outpost for the Rostov-Suzdal principality with little influence during monarchs’ reigns until Yury Dolgoruky ‘Long Arms’, 1154-1157. However Long Arms’ son decided to make it his principality’s capital and so it became a gilded city for about 60 years until the Mongols invaded Russia and had another brief renaissance as the seat of the metropolitans of Kiev and All Rus until it was shifted to Moscow. They didn’t shirk and in those years they brought stone masons from all over to construct graceful white stone cathedrals, towers and palaces. The Mongols and a great fire were effective in their razing and the only ones that remain today are the Assumption Cathedral, Cathedral of Saint Demetrius and the Golden Gate.
I went for a wander around the grounds of the Holy buildings. Assumption Cathedral needs no explanation; suffice to admire it. It was built on a big hill overlooking the river Kylazma to embody the power and importance of the region. It works.
The St Demetrius cathedral was originally the private chapel of Vsevolod the Big Nest (where do they get these names?), carved by experts from Russia, Byzantine and Georgia.
Next to the historic white-stone edifices stand some Soviet additions. I’ve got a growing enthralment with all the statues of Lenin, which a small group of people are petitioning to have removed. Anyway, here is the local statue of him, outside the bank, and a striking monument to the war.
To the train station and beyond!