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Russia's Golden Ring

For more of Russia's Golden Ring, see the July 2014 issue of Globerovers Magazine.

Russia has much to offer to the intrepid traveller and one of the most rewarding destinations is located to the northeast of Moscow. Referred to as the Golden Ring (Золото́е кольцо́), the area is comprised of several historic towns famous for their beautiful golden onion-domed religious buildings. These towns played a significant role in the formation and growth of the Russian Orthodox Church over many years. They have also preserved the memories of some of the most significant events in Russia's history. Often described as “open-air museums”, the architecture mostly dates back to between the 12th and 18th centuries.  If you are into onion-domed churches, this is the most picturesque collection of towns in Russia to see these architectural wonders.

Before leaving home, brush up on your Russian, and more importantly your Cyrillic skills. Few people speak English, and Cyrillic is used almost exclusively. Without speaking some Russian, it will be very challenging to travel around Russia as people generally ignore English speakers. At one train ticket window the women responded to my English with "NO ENGLISH. ONLY RUSSIAN" and she looked like she wanted to attack me. Switching to broken Russian at least got some response from her. With all respect to our Russian brothers and sisters, most people I came across were not friendly or helpful. Forgive me for saying that I think they still suffer from the Soviet hangover. Even hotel staff (and I stayed in expensive hotels everywhere) could not care to smile. Oh, the only hotel staff that were friendly were those in the Moscow Leningradskaya Hilton. 

The original eight cities officially described as the Golden Ring includes Vladimir, Suzdal, Ivanovo, Kostroma, Yaroslavl, Rostov Velikiy, Pereslavl-Zalesskiy, and Sergiyev Posad. Some lesser famous towns in the circle include Alexandrov, Myshkin, Uglich, Rybinsk and Gus-Khrustalny.  Most of these towns are blessed with domed Kremlins, churches, cathedrals, and monasteries and most buildings are still functioning today, including the monasteries. Don't expect any ruins or many religious museums. Only a few of the many buildings across the entire Golden Ring are now mainly used as a tourist attraction where entrance and camera fees are charged.  In the functioning buildings, limited or no photography is allowed and the Russians strictly impose this ban. Now these places of worship would be of particular interest to photographers who prefer to capture people worshipping, rather than tourist dedicated churches where you would be taking photos (100 rubles camera fee) of a rather empty church. However, taking unauthorised photos in a functioning church is a great challenge, as we have to respect the worshippers while dodging the gatekeepers and the no-camera enforcing babushkas. 

Embark on your trip from Moscow’s Kursky Station from where local trains run a few times a day to Vladimir’s central station. The train ride takes about 3 hours and passes through some interesting countryside and a few small villages. Another option is to take a long distance train from either Kursky Station, Yaroslavsky Station, or Kazansky Station. Also, the Moscow-Vladimir special express train takes 30 minutes less, but runs only once a day from Kursky Station. While a few buses also run this route, the train is certainly the preferred option. Vladimir has a rich history and some of the most spectacular sites include the Cathedral of the Assumption, Cathedral of St. Demetrius, Monastery of Nativity, and the Golden Gate. Don’t miss the prettiest little red building, which now is called the Museum of Old Vladimir. All of these buildings are illuminated at night and when covered in snow they are a sight never to forget. 

Cathedral of the Assumption (Успенский собор) & Bell Tower, Vladimir

From Vladimir’s bus station a few busses run north to the small town of Suzdal. There are no trains in this direction. Suzdal is the most beautiful town of the entire Golden Ring. It is a quaint village, rather than a town, and has the most sights per capita than any other town in the Golden Ring. Among the most impressive are the Church of Sts. Boris and Gleb, Church of St. Elijah, Cathedral of the Nativity Virgin (Rozhdestvensky Cathedral), and the Holy Gates at the Monastery of the Deposition of the Robe. Don’t miss the impressive interior of the Cathedral of the Nativity Virgin (Rozhdestvensky Cathedral), and the prettiest little wooden Church of St. Nicholas, which is typical of Russia’s splendid wooden architecture of the distant past.  For over a thousand years until the 18th century, most buildings in Russia were made from wood, including houses, barns, palaces and of course, hundreds of churches. Working without hammers and nails, carpenters constructed some amazing churches with the most incredible wooden domes showcasing intricate fine wood carving works. Spend at least three days in Suzdal to enjoy the scenery and the small village atmosphere. People are generally friendly, food is good, and decent accommodation is available such as at the impressive Pushkarskaya Sloboda Resort. 
Church of St. Antipius (L), Church of St. Lazarus, Suzdal (R) intended special effects... just a fogged-up lens when taking from the cold into a store and then out again....which turned out quite nice!
Church of St. Elijah, Suzdal, Russia
From Suzdal the bus route continues to Ivanovo, which can be skipped if time is limited. Kostroma, founded in the 12th century, is the next town further north, which is another beautiful town along the mighty Volga River. Much of the older part of town lies on the banks of the Kostroma River which flows into the Volga. Kostroma's wealth of art and architecture is well known across Russia. From the historical city centre called Susaninskaya Ploshchad, the sights fan out in all directions. Not to be missed are the St. Ipatiev Monastery (known in English as the Hypatian Monastery), the Monastery of the Epiphany, and the Resurrection Church. Near the St. Ipatiev Monastery is a beautiful small wooden Church of the Theotokos Cathedral (1552). In winter the Kostroma River is frozen and can easily be crossed back and forth to the old town. Kostroma is on the train line to Moscow and the next town of significance, Yaroslavl, is in a southeastern direction. 

Across the frozen Kostroma River - the St. Ipaty Monastery, Kostroma
The wooden Church of the Theotokos Cathedral, Kostroma

Church of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian, Kostroma

Take either a bus or train to Yaroslavl which is the second-largest city in Central Russia after Moscow. Located on the banks of the Volga River, the city has a rich 1000-year old history with ample of architectural treasures to explore. While the important attractions are quite dispersed, long walks can cover most of them. Not to be missed are the Assumption Cathedral, Church of Elijah the Prophet, Sretenskaya Church, Monastery of the Transfiguration of the Saviour, and the Church of Archangel Michael. It is quite a lively town and just walking around the streets, parks, and markets is an enlightening experience. 

 Church of Elijah the Prophet, Yaroslavl, Russia

Continue southwest in the direction of Moscow either by bus or train to one of the oldest towns in Russia, Rostov Veliky. Located on the northern shore of Lake Nero, this is probably the second prettiest town (after Suzdal) in the Golden Ring and the attractions are quite concentrated around the historical walled Kremlin. 

Behind the walls of the Gate Church of the Resurrection and the Gate Church of the St. John the Devine you will find the Church of Hodigitria and the Dom Na Pogrebakh guesthouse inside the lovely 17th century monastery. Immediately outside the Kremlin walls are the Belfry and the Assumption Cathedral as well as the Church of the Saviour. 

A half hour walk along the shore of Lake Nero lies the impressive Savior (Spaso) Yakovlevsky Monastery, which has been venerated as the shrine of St. Dmitry of Rostov. Also referred to as the Monastery of St. Jacob Saviour it is an Eastern Orthodox monastery founded in the 14th century by St Iakov of Rostov. Many of the current structures were built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in a fine neoclassical style. Inside the walled monastery grounds are two 17th-century churches, namely the Cathedral of Conception of St Anna and the Savior Transfiguration Cathedral built during the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. Among the many accomplishments of Dimitry of Rostov: he is debatable credited as the composer or compiler of the first Russian opera, which is a six-hour-long “Rostov Mysteries” of 1705. Further out of town near the river Ishna is the beautiful old wooden Church of St. John of Nazianze. Take a taxi to get to this beautiful wooden church and spend much time just admiring the amazing woodwork.
Wooden Church of St. John of Nazianze near the river Ishna, Rostov Veliky
Along Lake Nero, Rostov Veliky

Wooden Church of St. John of Nazianze near the river Ishna, Rostov Veliky
The second last town of significance is further down the train tracks towards Moscow and is called Pereslavl-Zalessky. Located along the southeastern shore of Lake Pleshcheyevo at the mouth of the Trubezh River, the town was founded in 1152 by Prince Yury Dolgoruky. It was invaded numerous times by the Mongols between the mid 13th century and the early 15th century and during the late 17th century is was a favourite retreat for Peter the Great who built his famous “fun flotilla” on the lake. The town’s attractions are quite spread out and hiring a taxi for two or three days saves a lot on walking time. In fact, it is quite impossible to cover most attractions on foot. Weather permitting, renting a bicycle would be a good idea, as it would be in all other towns along the Golden Ring. 

The town deserves a few days of a traveller’s time as there is so much to see in and around town. Most of the buildings were constructed between the 16th and 19th centuries. Among the most beautiful in the centre of town are the Church of Alexander Nevskiy, the Cathedral of the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God, Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Savior, and St. Danil’s Monastery of the Holy Trinity. To the north east of the town centre is the stunning white St. Nikita Cathedral and Monastery. East of the centre, on the lakeshore, is the Church of the Forty Martyrs. Closeby are the St. Nicola Convent, Znamenskaya Church (The church of our Lady of the Sign) and the brightly orange coloured Church of the Intercession. To the south of town is the impressive Goritskiy Monastery complex, the blue domed Church of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the St. Theodore Convent with a beautiful wooden old house on-site.  
Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Savior, Pereslavl-Zalessky
St. Nicola Convent, Pereslavl-Zalessky

Continue by train towards Moscow to the last town, Sergiev Posad. The main feature of this town is the huge walled complex of the Trinity Monastery of St. Sergius. Within these walls are the blue and gold domed Assumption Cathedral and its impressive Bell-tower, the Trinity Cathedral, and many other impressive historical buildings. North of the Trinity Monastery is the pastel blue coloured Church of Peter and Paul, as well as the Church of the Virgin of Smolemsk, and the little St. Paraskeve Pyatnitsa Well Chapel. 
Assumption Cathedral, Trinity Monastery of St. Sergius, Sergiev Posad

By the time you are done with Sergiyev Posad you will be quite onion-domed-out for a while. Get back onto the train and within a short time you will be back in Moscow just in time for a ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre.

My next trip to Russia will be in Siberia and to the far northeast to visit the rugged Kamchatka Peninsula where many active volcanoes are waiting to be explored by helicopter.