Another Golden Ring town – it has not kept pace with its larger neighbours who grew into cities – Suzdal is a very old and very beautiful historic location.
The centrepiece is the ancient Kremlin – made out of earth rather than stone or brick – dating back to the 12th century. Within this you can find the Cathedral of the Nativity, originally built in 1225 but extensively renovated in the 16th century and with the distinctive onion-domes not added until 1750.
There is a large market square (empty when we visited) and a handful of souvenir shops around the edge. There are a few interesting sculptures here and there. There are lots of other old churches dedicated to various other popular Russian icons.
After eventually finding a route across the river (the main bridge was closed), we explored the Museum of Wooden Architecture and Peasant Life. Basically this is a museum where they have transplanted peasant buildings from villages in the local region which represent the life of a Russian peasant – little changed in 700 years, even after the emancipation of the serfs in the 19th century and the Bolshevik revolution in the 20th.
Most peasant homes have the same structure. They are made mainly of wood, but there is a stone hearth in the centre, usually whitewashed. The room with the hearth is always heated, this is called the Izba. The owner of the house usually has the bed nearest to the door, and children have to sleep on a shelf just below the ceiling – probably the warmest place. Elsewhere in the room are benches and a table for handiwork, preparing and eating food.
There is another room mainly used for storage, but in the warm summer months it can be used as an extended living area. For larger buildings, of more wealthy peasants – ones who employ other labourers to help them – there can be an additional unheated room. Outside the main building there is a covered storage area, in winter this can also be shelter for livestock. This is where the equipment for farming is kept.
There were some examples of other buildings too – churches, windmills, and rooms for demonstrations of basket-weaving, doll-making and other traditional crafts. Geese wandered freely around the museum just as poultry would have done around a working peasant home. It was interesting to see how most of Russia lived before the 20th century – and many still live like that today, we passed so many villages with houses like this on our travels. But it was also fascinating to learn that there was a hierarchy even among the peasants – there were wealthy peasants with big houses, and poorer peasants with smaller houses and few luxuries, only the essential equipment for their lifestyle.
The last place we saw in Suzdal was a red-walled monastery (from a distance) and a white-walled convent. We were allowed to walk through the convent grounds – I even saw a nun collecting honey from a beehive – and it seemed like a nice, peaceful place to live.
The final stop on our 3,700km journey was another Golden Ring city, Vladimir. This is believed to have been named after the 12th century prince of the Kievan Rus’ (not one of the Rurikid princes), although some say the city was established some 200 years earlier by Vladimir the Great (who was a descendant of Rurik, and is known as the father of Russian Orthodoxy because of his influence on making it the official religion of the Russian state).
Whoever established it, it is a historic and important city. Like Suzdal it has very old, earthen fortress walls (Kremlin) – it was the first thing we saw, beside the 11th century Golden Gate. It has several cathedrals, the most famous dedicated to St Nicholas. There is a statue of the 13th century artist, Rubliev, who decorated the interior of the cathedral. There is also an interesting statue of Vladimir the Great travelling with Patriarch Peter, a nod to the origins of the original Russian Orthodox religion.
Our hotel for our final night was mostly made of wood, with narrow, spiralling staircases which creaked. The room was wood-finished, it had the look of a sauna or perhaps a peasant house, but it was a pleasant place to spend the night nonetheless.
The most interesting thing about Vladimir to me was a small, historic, mostly pedestrian district full of interesting museums and sculptures. There was a museum to a famous blacksmith who made beautiful iron designs, there was also a museum to Baba Yaga, the witch from Russian folk tales. And there were a number of whimsical sculptures. There was the fireman holding his hose – if you pumped the pump next to him water actually came out. There was an idler – a man that revelled in having no job or purpose in life. There was a sophisticrat – peering through opera glasses around an information post. There was a huckster selling potions and medicines. A bohemian artist – Vladimir is famous for it’s art tradition. And, for no reason, a giant pair of cherries. Most of these statues had shiny noses where people rubbed them for good luck.
And so ended my epic journey around the north of European Russia, from Novgorod to St Petersburg, to the lakes of Karelia, Vologda and the great Golden Ring cities at the northern end of the Volga. I saw all the tourist spots but I think I got a real feel for the real Russia as we drove through village after village, away from the big urban centres. It is a beautiful and mysterious country full of surprising history.