never heard of the Golden Ring until we saw references to it
in literature we were using to help us arrange a later trip through
Asia in 2008. A visit to Tallinn in May 2007 gave us an introduction
to the Russian Orthodox Church and generated a fascination with
its architecture. The more pictures we saw of the Golden Ring
the more we wanted to go there, and and we managed to persuade
ourselves we ought to see some of European Russia before our
later trip into Siberia. Timing was crucial as the only time
we could fit it in would be the first week in September. So that
was what we did.
Having discounted any thoughts of doing it ourselves by public
transport there were two possibilities: group tour or private
tour. Group tours are anathema to us as you are fixed to a rigid
schedule and have little flexibility, so private tour with guide
and driver it was. We booked through Audley Travel whom we were
using for a couple of later trips. The draft itinerary included
two days in Moscow but we firmly ruled that out and said we wanted
to go straight to the Golden Ring. Our logic was that we were
short of time, we wanted to concentrate on the Golden Ring, we
couldn't do justice to Moscow in such a short time, we hate big
citiesand anyway the whole point of tailor-made trips is doing
what you want.
Day by day
day saw us flying BA to Domodedovo and a two hour wait to clear
immigration. The drive to Suzdal was long and - after dark -
boring, but it got the travel out of the way and we arrived at
Pokrov Convent where we were staying to have our spirits lifted
as it was floodlit and enchanting. We spent four nights there
and found it a captivating place and infinitely preferable to
the large tourist hotel further out of town.
The second day
was a short drive to Vladimir with its incredible cathedral plus
Bogolyubovo and a walk over fields to the Church of the Intercession
on the Neri on a beautiful late summer day.
The third day in
Suzdal proved to be not long enough as we did not accomplish
what we hoped with our guide. We had also agreed to have a lunch
provided at a local house and whilst this was both excellent
and interesting it took too much time out of the day. Suzdal
is a very small town stuffed with monasteries and churches and
we loved it. In its centre the atmosphere is almost pre-Soviet.
Fortunately the fourth day was to be spent there on our own and
we had a great time doing things missed the previous day and
The fifth day we
drove through Kostroma to Yaroslavl, both big cities. In Kostroma
the Ipaty Monastery and Wooden Museum are both good. Sites in
both cities can get a bit crowded at certain times with tours
from the Volga cruises. In Yaroslavl we stopped at the Yubileynaya
Hotel, a large, comfortable, boring tourist hotel.
The sixth day in
Yaroslavl saw the start of autumn with cool winds and a chance
to explore before starting with the guide. The cathedral and
especially the Church of Elijah the Prophet are amazing. Our
itinerary did not include the Treasury in the Kremlin but we
said we wanted to go in and were very glad we did. It was newly
opened, full of amazing things and had captions in English. Anyone
going to Yaroslavl should not miss the Treasury. Then on to Rostov
Veliky where thoughts of exploring the small town were dampened
by persistent rain and cold. We had two overnights at the Pleshanova
House, a small, pleasant guest house.
Our seventh day
in Rostov was damp, but the Kremlin highly enjoyable and needed
more time than had been allowed, a pity as the later trip to
St Jacob Monastery was perhaps not good use of time. However
in the afternoon we told the guide and driver we wanted to do
our own thing and went back into the Kremlin then had a good
nose round the small and slightly shabby town.
The eighth day
saw a drive to Sergiev Posad where the Kremlin is amazing. Being
so close to Moscow the place seems to get a lot of tours and
it was a major Orthodox feast that day. After that it was back
to Moscow for a (delayed) flight home.
Of the places we
visited we consider two to be unmissable. Sergiev Posad because
of its quite remarkable Kremlin, and Suzdal with its fantastic
buildings and atmosphere. Yaroslavl would come in third. That
is not to dismiss the other places, just to order priorities.
The galleries (links at the top of the column on the left) include
further comments about The Golden Ring and our trip.
What we made
A few days
in a very small part of a vast country with a driver and guide
to mollycoddle us means our experience was very limited. And
yet with Russia's history and previous attitudes to the west
we went not knowing quite what to expect, especially as the towns
we visited were not in the same league as the tourist honey pots
like Moscow and St Petersburg.
First impressions were of a rather run-down country that is unkempt
(though not untidy, we saw no litter) and a countryside of fields
not being cultivated. Then the contrasts emerged; the juxtaposition
of the brand new and the traditional, of prosperity and poverty.
The pedestrian crossings every few yards that aren't used because
drivers don't stop at them, the petty-fogging bureaucracy of
some minor officials. But perhaps above all the friendliness
and good humour of the ordinary Russian.
We were surprised how little English was spoken even amongst
traders dealing with tourists, or on captions in museums. The
Cyrillic alphabet makes interpreting signs difficult and getting
a knowledge of pronunciations is worthwhile, as is learning the
shape of some words. It pays dividends to find a restaurant with
an English menu, unless you want to take pot luck (which we did
a couple of times at food stalls and struck lucky). Food, like
many things, is very cheap although tourist hotel restaurants
apparently know how to charge. In Yaroslavl we had this in mind
and were looking elsewhere when our guide saw us and took us
into the place she was just leaving and helped us order. This
was a sort of Armenian pizza-cum-barbecue caff which though basic
was clean and produced an excellent and very cheap meal of soup
be aware that some people, especially the older, are uncomfortable
when cameras point in their general direction. Incidentally many
sites require a photography permit to be bought for a few roubles.
In some churches and museums photography is forbidden. In churches
women are expected to cover their hair; some places require this
and put scarves at the door to be borrowed. Sometimes trousered
females are also regarded with disfavour and aprons are put out
to cover their offending limbs.
Tap water presents a serious risk of giardia. Bottled water is
readily available, but to avoid the hassle of getting it we had
taken our collapsible Platypus bottles and purifying tablets.
We also took a Katadyn filter bottle which was handy when cleaning
teeth. Whilst on the subject of health just remember that some
Russian drivers are suicidal psychopaths.