The Golden Ring Part 1: Vladimir and Suzdal

At varying distances of between 2 to 5 hours drive north east of Moscow are a collection of small towns known as The Golden Ring. These towns date from the early 12C and contain some of the oldest and most beautiful early Kremlins, monasteries, cathedrals, and churches with their prominent onion domes. They are considered amongst the most picturesque towns of Russia in an area that has preserved many of the old traditions of ancient Russia. There are 8 main towns and many smaller ones within the Golden Ring and during the warm sunny days of last autumn we visited 4 of them.

Our first trip was to Vladimir and Suzdal. On arriving in Vladimir we discovered that they were hosting a fun run and had closed off many of the streets to vehicles. This meant that a) parking was difficult (but successfully accomplished eventually) and b) there was a festive party atmosphere. We decided that what was needed was lunch. We found a nice little restaurant but no sooner had we sat down and placed our order when the fire alarms went off! So grabbing our cutlery and we managed to nab one of the few tables outside where we ate our food and drank our coffee. Then, with guide book in hand, we headed off to visit the sights.

Now I need to just stop there and give you a potted history of medieval Kyivan Rus and its rulers. I promise it will be brief! Once upon a time… In 988 Vladimir The Great (who lived in Kyiv) converted to Christianity and decreed that all the inhabitants of Kyiv should also become Christians followed by the all the people of the East Slavic lands that he ruled, known as Kyivan Rus. Kyivan Rus reached its greatest extant under Vladimir’s son, Yaroslav The Wise (1019-1054). On Yaroslav’s death the throne passed to his 5th, and favourite son, Vsevolod I of Kyiv. Vsevolod married the daughter of the Byzantine emperor and had a son Vladimir II Monomakh. Stay with me – we are almost there. Vladimir II Monomakh founded the town of Vladimir!! In 1108 he sent his young son Yuri to rule the vast Vladimir-Suzdal principality in the north east of Kyivan Rus. Yuri is thought to be the son of Vladimir’s first wife, Gytha of Wessex, who was the daughter of Harold Godwinson last Anglo-Saxon king of England – yes the one who was shot with an arrow in the eye while fighting against William the Conqueror. Yuri Dolgoruky, meaning George Longarms or Longreach, founded several other towns in the area but his real claim to fame is as the founder of Moscow and builder of the first Kremlin there. For those of you who have read my earlier post about Tverskaya street you may remember my mention of him and his statue. So it turns out the founder of Moscow was half English! But I digress.

During all this time the sons and brothers, uncles and nephews in the family were fighting each other for control of Kyiv and the other major cities that made up the Kyivan Rus lands. Finally in 1173 Yuri’s son Andrei Bogolyubsky was defeated in a battle for Kyiv and made Vladimir his capital which ended Kyiv’s rule over north eastern Rus. Under Andrei’s rule Vladimir was enlarged and fortified. After his death his brother, Vsevolod the Big Nest (because he had 14 children by his wife!) consolidated Vladimir as the capital of his lands. OK that is the end of the Lineage Lesson for today but please remember these names as some of them will reappear from time to time in both this post and future posts.

Vladimir was founded in 1108 and, as mentioned above, was the former capital of medieval Russia. Famous for its white stone churches it contains 3 buildings from the mid 1100s which are UNESCO protected. My favourite was the small St Demetrius Cathedral with its carved exterior showing the biblical story of King David. It is thought to have been built in around 1193 during the reign of Vsevolod the Big Nest. The historical old town sits on a bank above a river with fabulous views over the river valley.

Assumption Cathedral
Assumption Cathedral

After an afternoon spent exploring Vladimir we set off for Suzdal. On our way we stopped at Tserkov Pokrova Na Nerli, the Church of The Intercession of the Virgin Mary on the Nerl. A pretty white stone church in a pastoral setting on the banks of the river Nerl. Built by Andrei Bogolyubsky (son of Dolgoruky remember?!), aka Andrei the Pious, as a memorial to his son who died in a victorious battle against the Bulgars. It is on the UNESCO world heritage list. Once you have found the car park (not as easy as you would think) the small church is reached by way of a path through the meadows either on foot or, for a small fee, by horse and cart. Like St Demetrius Cathedral this church is made of white stone with exterior carvings of King David. A very photogenic church and setting and, if not for all the visitors, an incredibly peaceful place. Definitely one of my favourite churches.

Having enjoyed the tranquility of the Church on the Nerl in the milky late afternoon sun, we headed on into Suzdal.

For a short while Yuri Dolgoruky made Suzdal his capital, at a time when Moscow was still just “a cluster of cowsheds” until his son Andrei moved the capital to Vladimir. As Suzdal declined in political importance it grew in religious prominence and in the late 17th century wealthy merchants paid for the building of 30 charming churches which still remain. In the mid 1800s the local citizens failed to persuade the government to build the Trans-Siberian railway through the town (it went to Vladimir instead) meaning that Suzdal was not only by-passed by the railway but also by the 20th century. As a result it has retained, not only its churches and Kremlin but also many old wooden cottages and the surrounding flower filled meadows through which flows the river Kamenka.

In the morning we set off on a walk through the meadows past a couple of pretty churches, a convent and a monastery. It was all very pastoral, bucolic, peaceful and pretty.

Before crossing the river into the main town we stopped off at the delightful Holy Intersession Convent still run and occupied by the nuns who live in the wooden cottages amid a lovely garden.

Finally we crossed the river under the imposing walls of Saviour Monastery of St Euthymius. Founded in the 14th century it was steadily enlarged and fortified with the great brick walls and towers being added in the 17th century. Inside there are several churches and exhibitions with some fabulous 17th century frescos.

Finally on our self tour of Suzdal we came to the Kremlin. It was here, inside the earthen ramparts, that our friend Yuri set up his capital. It contains a 13th century cathedral, a handful of churches and a few houses.

Whilst beautiful and tranquil within the Kremlin walls, outside was a different story full of people trying to sell things to the tourists – dressed up pony rides for children, Cinderella horse and carriage rides for families and couples and stalls with “made in China” Russian souvenirs.

Our delightful hotel Pushkarskaya Sloboda was on the southern edge of the town and consisted of a large selection of wooden chalets spread across lush gardens with views of the Kremlin across the river.

In the evening we went to the hotel’s restaurant set in a rustic log cabin with a traditional peasant hut vibe. We were entertained by ‘traditional’ singers and we decided to order the nastroiki tasting set of 6 different flavoured vodkas!

The next morning, before heading back to Moscow, we went to the open air museum displaying some old wooden buildings – houses, windmills, and churches – from around the region giving a glimpse into the lives of rural folk from the area.

So far Suzdal is definitely my favourite place on the Golden Ring and a must see for anyone in the area.

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