Beyond Moscow

by Chris Howard

How to leave the city behind and in just a few days greatly broaden your understanding of Russia

Moscow is a fascinating city with lots to see and do but if you want to develop a fuller understanding of Russia in all its complexity try to find time to do one of these excursions, you'll get away from the other tourists and see sides of Russia you just can't see in Moscow. From the sight of fisherman catching perch under the birch trees while the church bells echo across the lake to the sound of a male choir reverberating around an ancient church this is timeless Russia.

Sergiev Posad and Rostov-Veliky - two days, one night

Rostov-Veliky and Sergiev Posad are both on the main railway line north of Moscow and make an easy two day trip to show you the best of the Russian countryside and Russian spiritualism. Rostov-Veliky’s old town is a beautiful collection of medieval churches, monasteries and crumbing nineteenth century wooden houses. It's also set on a lake teeming with wildlife. Sergiev Posad is an excellent place to learn more about the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian spiritualism.

From Moscow’s Yaroslavsky station take a train north through the rolling pine forest for about three hours and you’ll reach the charming lakeside town of Rostov-Veliky. The station is in the modern town which won’t win many awards for beauty, but it’s an authentic taste of modern Russia and the friendly locals will happily direct you to the beautiful lakeside fortified town centre (called a kremlin in Russian) 1km away. The kremlin contains within it several beautiful churches that should be newly restored from 2010 onwards. The bells play regularly and it rarely has more than a scattering of visitors. The highlight is the five domed Assumption Cathedral. A scenic 2km stroll along the lake shore will take you to the Monastery of St Jacob, the aura of benign neglect merely adds to the charm and the monks will be pleased to see foreign visitors.

The lake on a calm day has a tranquillity that makes a much welcome change after Moscow and is teeming with wildlife. In my visit I got two excellent views of minks and spent about five minutes watching an inquisitive stoat. You can walk along the lake shore for several hours in either direct in calssic Russian countryside of flat lands broken by the odd wooden farm and lines of beech trees and the occasional orchard. In winter take a bottle of the local honey spirit to warm yourself. In summer there is a ferry that offers a short cruise along the lake shore for a few dollars, although the chugging of the old diesel engine ruins the atmosphere and in my opinion you’d be better walking. Bikes can be rented from a nameless shop opposite the west gate of the kremlin for those who want to explore the surrounding countryside. The same shop also rents fishing tackle for those keen on more relaxed pursuits.

For sleeping, the lakeside Pleshanov's Manor, in Pokrovskaya, is a characterful 19 century hotel offering comfortable rooms for about $30 per double with breakfast. The decor is all dark wood panels, antique furniture and creeking wooden staircases. At night time there is a nightclub in the town for those who really want to get into the small town vibe but I’d recommend getting a traditional meal and a few beers either at the hotel restaurant for big, hearty traditional Russian food or one of the places near the kremlin such as Cafe Rus (Pokrovskaya) for a lighter meal, both are less than $10 per head including drinks.

Roughly half way between Rostov Veliky and Moscow is the town of Sergiev Posad home to the Monastry of St Sergius. Thousands of pilgrims come each day come for the tomb of St Sergius. For tourists this is the main attraction too, not least to watch the pilgrims paying their respects to the relic. A long line of people from all walk and stages of life snakes into the room full of people waiting for their chance to spend 10 seconds with the relic, long enough to kiss the relic container and be blessed by the priest. The room is only lit by candles and smells heavily of incence. Choirs often sing before the relic. The whole scene, if it were not for the clothes, could have taken time at any date over the past millenium. People don’t mind you watching so long as you’re quiet, respectful and don’t take photographs. Women will need to cover their heads and both sexes should dress modestly. There are also other churches, springs for holy water and a pair of fairly ordinary museums to see within the grounds. There are hotels but there’s really no need, visit either on the way from/to Rostov-Veliky or as a day trip from Moscow.

Vladimir and Suzdal - two days, one night

The most common overnight trip from Moscow, often included as part of guided holidays. This has the advantage of making the tourist infrastructure better, more people will speak English and guidebooks are more detailed for these towns. They have some wonderful cathedrals, churches and monasteries, a couple of good museums and are very easily accessible. However the locals are less friendly, the prices are higher and these towns lack the nature and countryside ambiance of Rostov Veliky.

Regular trains and buses leave from Moscow’s Kursky station to Vladimir taking about two hours. From Vladimir’s main bus station buses leave every half hour to Suzdal taking just under an hour. It's more pleasant to stay in Suzdal as it’s quieter and the hotels are more atmospheric. The Hotel Rizopolozhenskaya in the decaying Monastery of the Deposition is comfortable enough, cheap and very atmospheric. It used to be accomodation for the now departed nuns. The service is rather Soviet but not that it really matters as all you need the staff to do is check you in. Slightly classier are the wooden cabins of the Pokrovskaya Hotel which are decked out with traditional style furniture and haberdashery in the grounds of the Intercession Convent. They are a spot isolated and walking back after dinner will require a torch.

The big sights of Suzdal are the various religious buildings and the kremlin complex. Don’t spend too much time at any one but use them as focal points for a stroll around the pleasant small town. Most of the houses are brightly painted traditional wooden bungalows, the flat countryside stretches off for miles in every direction and the church spires lord above the town as they have for centuries. If you’re got time visit the quaint open air museum for its collection of traditional wooden peasants' buildings.

The choice of restaurants is surprisingly good for such a small town. The Kremlin Refectory is a bit over priced but has a good location inside the old archbishop's palace. Classic Russian soups, stews and grills work out at $20 per head. Gostiny Dvor (Torgovaya Square) is in a modern building but serves good pan-European food at about $10 per head right in the centre of town. On a fine day having a beer on the picnic tables at the back of Gostinya Dvor looking out at the sea of spires across the river is a very pleasant way to start the evening.

You should be able to get to Suzdal from Moscow in a morning and see all the sights in an afternoon leaving you ready the next day to head back to Vladimir. One of the most spectacular religious buildings in all Russia is Vladimir’s Assumption Cathedral and this should be your first stop. The frescoes and volume of gold leaf give it its character, while the grave of Alexander Nevsky, one of old Rus’s greatest military heroes gives it its focal point. It’s still a working church which means it keeps a good level of atmosphere despite its tourist appeal.

The Golden Gate and Military Museum are also worth seeing as is the Old Vladimir Exhibition. Many guidebooks recommend the Church of the Intercession of the Nerl on the outskirts of Vladimir. It’s hard to get to, especially if you don’t know enough Russian to ask for directions and if there’s been rain it can be a muddy trip. The church is nice, simpler than most with an attractive riverside setting but unless you’re really into church architecture, or fancy a challenge then it’s not really worth the trouble.

Given the price of hotels in Moscow you may choose to spend a night in Vladimir to save some money. It’s not a bad idea, there are plenty of bars and restaurants in Vladimir to keep you amused. The Hotel Vladimir, in Moskovskaya Street, has a wide range of room options and has a central location; you'll find a good range of bars and restaurants also on Moskovskaya.