Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Golden Ring: Vladimir and Suzdal

Given the length of our stay in Moscow, we had an opportunity to visit a few more cities on the Golden Ring. My book recommended visiting Suzdal and Vladimir but given the language barrier, I was a bit worried about traveling to these two cities by train and bus. Thankfully, Three Whales also offers a one-day private tour to Vladimir and Suzdal. So I booked this tour on our fifth day in Russia.

Vladimir was our first stop in this tour. This city, which is about 3 hours away from Moscow, was very important during the 12th century under the reign of Prince Andrei Bogolubyosky. It was during this time that two of the Vladimir's most important landmarks, both UNESCO World Heritage sites, were built. The first of these is the Golden Gate, a defensive tower and triumphal arch that you pass when you enter the city.

Our tour included a trip to the Military Museum inside the Golden Gate. Here, we learned more about the history of Vladimir. There is a diorama that showcases the fall of the city during the Mongol Invasion in 1237.

The other important landmark in the city is the Assumption Cathedral. This cathedral is very important in Russia because the Assumption Cathedral at the Kremlin in Moscow was modeled after this, and the Moscow church then served as model for the Assumption Cathedral built in Sergiev Posad. There was a religious ceremony that started once we completed our tour inside the cathedral, making our experience here even more interesting and memorable. 

There is a third UNESCO World Heritage site in Vladimir which was built after the death of Prince Andrei Bogolubyosky. The Cathedral of St. Dmitry stands a couple hundred meters from the Assumption Cathedral and is worth visiting to see the profusion of stone carvings that fill its exterior walls. Visitors are not allowed to enter this cathedral.

It was during this tour to Vladimir that we had our first official Russian meal at Traktir. We had a four-course meal that included a Russian salad, Borscht (a popular soup of Ukrainian origin), a chicken dish, and ice cream. It was a very satisfying meal that gave us energy for the rest of the day. (Lunch was included in our Three Whales tour.)

Once we had seen the key sights in Vladimir, we then made our way to Suzdal. My book said that if there is only one place on the Golden Ring that you visit, it should be Suzdal. This town is charming and idyllic, with its quaint wooden cottages and churches and monasteries that feature old Russian architecture. A trip to Suzdal is like stepping back in time and it is easy to understand why it is a very popular tourist destination.

We first visited the Saviour Monastery of St. Euthymius, Suzdal's biggest monastery. There are a few places of interest inside, including the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Saviour with its green domes surrounding a central golden dome...

...and the Cathedral Bell Tower, which features a concert of chimes and bells every hour on the hour. Naturally, our tour guides (both Oleg from Three Whales and our local Vladimir and Suzdal tour guide) made sure we got to see this concert while we were there.

We then made our way to the beautiful Museum of Wooden Architecture and Peasant Life. In this open-air museum you will find a collection of preserved wooden buildings such as log cabins, barns, and windmills that have been brought here from different parts of the Vladimir region. Highlights here include the Transfiguration Church (on the left, which can only be viewed from the outside) and the Resurrection Church (on the right which visitors can enter).

Our final stop in this picturesque town was the Suzdal Kremlin ("kremlin" actually means a town or city's fortified stronghold). The most prominent structure here is the Cathedral of the Nativity, with its beautiful blue domes decorated with gold stars.

Similar to other Russian Orthodox churches, this cathedral features a dazzling interior, including an impressive iconostasis, several brilliant relics, and resplendent blue-themed frescoes that cover all the walls and pillars.

Our trip to the Kremlin also included a visit to the Suzdal History Exhibition in the Archbishop's Chambers. As our tour was pretty jampacked, we didn't have a lot of time to purchase souvenirs so my mom took some time at this museum to buy a few items. I would actually have loved to spend a lot more time just meandering about in Suzdal, taking in the sights and maybe even enjoying a carriage ride. Three Whales does provide an option for an overnight stay in Suzdal so if you have the time, this might be a good option to take.

Next up: St. Petersburg.

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