The charms of Russia’s Golden Ring

  • WRITTEN BY Philip Game
  • DATE December 3, 2018

A nun chants at a lectern as others watch from the back of the whitewashed Russian Orthodox chapel, warmed by the slanting sun. Through the many-paned windows a suitably-shrouded sister can be seen tending bee hives amidst an orchard ablaze with apple blossom.

On a summer evening in the thousand-year-old town of Suzdal, nothing surpasses the ethereal beauty of evensong (evening prayers) in the Convent of the Intercession of the Virgin. Fifty nuns still reside within this convent where noble-born ladies were exiled centuries ago.

The Golden Ring towns and cities, northeast of Moscow, offer glimpses of provincial Russia’s charms. This fertile land of forests and meadows gave birth to much of the cultural heritage which post-Soviet Russia celebrates anew.

Founded in the twelfth century, Vladimir, a city of several hundred thousand, still wears a somnolent feel. Trolleybuses rumble past pastel-hued eighteenth-century public buildings and traffic on the main street remains sparse.  Two venerable cathedrals command a ridge looking out over verdant green plains stitched together by wide rivers. Young people are everywhere today: high school has ended for the summer, so it’s stiff suits for the guys, with frilly party dresses and red velvet sashes for the girls.

Dandelions bloom in the meadows; spires and domes rise beyond the trees as the road continues north to Suzdal.

Suzdal today boasts almost as many churches as people. With an eleventh-century Kremlin (or fortress) and several monasteries, the town survives as a living museum. In the town centre a row of colonnades distinguishes the trading arcade constructed as a market two centuries ago.

The Kamenka River once teemed with pike, tench and perch, and was navigable in bygone times but now admits nothing larger than a rowboat. Beside the river, the open-air Museum of Architecture and Peasant Life conserves unpainted wooden churches, barns and cottages gathered from the surrounding countryside. Steeply-pitched roofs and tiny windows reflect the harsh climate. Homesteads mirrored the owners’ affluence and status, whether impoverished peasants or land-owning kulaks.

From the Museum it’s a pleasant stroll across the Kamenka towards the Kremlin ramparts, enclosing the exquisite Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin, crowned by star-spangled domes of blue and gold. Inside, we admire the luxuriant frescoes, now under restoration, and the intricate workmanship of bronze chandeliers and other priceless artefacts.

Evening and it’s time to indulge the pleasures of the flesh, beginning with the output of the convent bees. The cosy Café Khaberchevnaya serves up a round of locally-brewed mead, deceptively smooth…

It’s a bright new Saturday morning in Yaroslavl, north of Moscow, where the Kotorosl flows into the mighty Volga. This is the day when every Russian city celebrates its history, and Yaroslavl has passed its millennium. Legend relates that in 1010 Yaroslav the Wise won over the original settlers by slaying a huge bear, so the city emblem depicts a black bear shouldering a pickaxe.

In 1612 Yaroslavl became the capital under the patronage of Ivan the Terrible. As the town prospered the merchants endowed a proliferation of churches. Yaroslavl remains a city of onion domes and spires, of leafy parks and riverside embankments. Relatively austere, the fourteenth-century Cathedral of the Transfiguration, enclosed by ruined walls, dominates a square beside the Kotorosl and the views from its belltower are framed by gilded spikes and green-and-gold onion domes. Across town, the Church of the Prophet Elijah, with its richly worked frescoes, commands a wide, open square. The fifteen domes of St John the Baptist, some distance upriver, are universally recognised from the back of the one-thousand-rouble banknote.

Today, bunting and flags have been set up and soon the city day celebrations begin, as successive brass bands parade into the main street, led by drum majorettes. The carnival atmosphere continues at the craft market nearby. Is this our chance to buy Russia’s nesting matrioshka dolls? It certainly is… as well as local weaving, crochet, home-made toys and local honey; or simply to mingle with ordinary Russians as they cast off their cares.

From a distance the riverside restaurant resembles an impossibly tacky amusement park. The mutton plov – akin to the pilaff dishes of the Indian Subcontinent – artfully mingles grilled lamb with dried fruit, and everyone enjoys the pint mugs of cloudy local beer. Local people are out bopping, boozing and necking, hot-rodding and horsing around, all along the green-swathed embankment.