From gleaming cupolas and ancient kremlins to wild strawberries and creamy moose milk, Moscow’s Golden Ring towns are packed with old-world charm.
Words by Daniel Allen
At the Chapel over the Well in the small Russian city of Sergiev Posad, a timehonoured ritual plays out. Engraved with flowers, vines and blue arabesques, the exquisite structure dates back to the late 17th century.
Over three centuries later, Russians of all ages still queue up beneath the well’s tent-like canopy to collect water from the spring below. Many have travelled from Moscow, 75km to the south-west, to replenish their life-giving supplies.
“I’ve come here every three months for the past 30 years,” explains grey-haired Muscovite Anna Kharkova, as she waits patiently in line clutching a plastic bottle. “I’ve seen many changes in that time, but the water still makes me feel as good as it did when I first tasted it.”
Window onto the past
The Chapel over the Well is just one of a range of architectural marvels inside the walls of Saint Sergius Lavra Monastery, which dominates Sergiev Posad like a cakemaker’s fantasy and is considered the spiritual heart of the Russian Orthodox Church. Towering over a colourful panoply of churches and other religious buildings, today the iconic gold and star-spangled cornflower domes of the monastery’s main cathedral captivate pilgrims and international sightseers in equal measure.
“With its traffic and malls and skyscrapers, Moscow is a very modern city,” says tour guide Darya Orlik, as she waits with a small group of Belgian tourists outside the monastery’s whitewashed walls. “But when you come to Sergiev Posad, you enter the gateway to the Golden Ring. You enter a land that time has almost forgotten.”
All that glitters
The Golden Ring: it may sound Tolkienesque, but the tales of war, spirituality and romance tied up in this necklace of ancient towns and cities are anything but fictional. Nestled on the fertile plains to the north-east of Moscow, and bordered by the mighty Volga River to the north, they truly deserve their glittering accolade.
“Nobody really knows why it’s called the Golden Ring,” says Darya. “Golden spring sunshine. Glittering onion domes. Clever marketing. I do know that many people tell me they have left here with precious memories.”
Strategically situated at the intersection of Europe and Asia, criss-crossed by trade and transport routes, the settlements of the Golden Ring grew prosperous on East–West commerce.
”If you come to the Golden Ring, you will see a different side to Russia. Life moves more slowly here. The people are gentler, more unassuming, more in touch with their surroundings,” says Darya.
Something old, something new
With the Golden Ring’s main sights and destinations handily spaced and well connected, a circumnavigation by road represents a perfect bite-sized exploration of authentic Russian culture.
Some stops, such as Yaroslavl, Kostroma and Vladimir, are good-sized cities, with an array of hotels, guesthouses and dining options. Others, such as Rostov, Pereslavl-Zalessky and Suzdal, are little more than sleepy backwaters, where wooden cottages, horsedrawn carts and babushkas selling strawberries compete for attention with wooden churches and stout-walled kremlins.
Imbued with history, the Golden Ring links a long line of Russian luminaries. Yaroslav the Wise, Alexander Nevsky, and Peter the Great all left their imprint on the local landscape in some fashion or another.
At Pereslavl-Zalessky, a quaint town of 40,000 people around 90km north-east of Sergiev Posad, the beautiful Goritsky Monastery sits on a bluff above Lake Pleshcheyevo. Between 1688 and 1693, it was on the lake’s azure, unruffled waters that Peter the Great famously marshalled his poteshny (toy) fleet as the precursor to a formidable Russian navy.
Embraced by two rivers, the mighty Volgaand its tributary the Kotorosl, Yaroslavl is the largest and oldest settlement on the Golden Ring, founded in 1010. In the city’s historic heart, the daily market is a bustling hub of commerce, as a mixed crowd of tourists and local shoppers peruse the cornucopia of traditional Russian wares on offer. Stalls and counters sag under the weight of luscious smetana (sour cream), buttered vareniki (dumplings), smoked fish and fresh honey, while miniature pyramids of high-quality red and black caviar add a touch of colour and class.
The Golden Ring may resonate with religion, but there’s far more to see on a journey here than just monasteries and churches. Its streets are crammed with neo-classical architecture, and the entire centre of Yaroslavl is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. During the long summer nights the paved embankments above the Volga and Kotorosl come alive with rollerbladers, joggers and dog walkers, while the waterborne restaurants and riverboats below offer fine dining and live jazz.
With burgeoning numbers of tourists, especially Volga cruise passengers, now arriving in Yaroslavl, the city’s fortunes are on the up once again.
“Things are changing here,” says local resident Oleg Pankov. “Thanks to our millennium celebrations back in 2010, we now have a new concert hall and a new hotel. We also have a new space museum dedicated to local heroine Valentina Tereshkova, the world’s first female astronaut, who incidentally began her working life as a seamstress.”
With its idiosyncratic blend of history, culture and easygoing charm, all set against the backdrop of some of Russia’s most glorious architecture, it’s little surprise the Golden Ring is now proving increasingly popular with those visiting Moscow. A refreshing contrast to the Russian capital, this vast al fresco museum really is a ring that rules them all.
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5 Senses – Sound
Standing nearly 89m tall, the impressive, five-tier baroque bell tower of the Saint Sergius Lavra Monastery in Sergiev Posad is one of the highest in Russia. It took nearly 30 years to build (1741–1770), and once boasted 42 bells, the majority of which have now sadly been destroyed. Back in 2003 a replica of the tower’s original ‘Tsar Bell’ was installed – weighing in at a hefty 65 tonnes, it is now Russia’s largest working bell. The bell tower also offers magnificent views of the adjacent Assumption Cathedral.