A Golden Opportunity: Part Two
This article is part two of my mini-series about the historic Russian tourist route known as the “Golden Ring”. If you would like to learn more about the history and origins of this route, please check out the article I wrote for part one. This time I will be exploring each city individually, discussing their individual histories, as well as their best sights and attractions. Without further ado, I’ll begin to the east of Moscow and move in a counter-clockwise direction, starting with Vladimir.
Starting to the south-east of Moscow, the first major city of the Golden Ring is Vladimir. The nearby city of Ryazan, though also definitely worth a visit, is generally not considered to be part of the route, as the original old city was razed to the ground by Mongols in 1237 and never rebuilt. The eponymous principality of Ryazan remained with various other capitals until 1521, and its final capital of Pereyaslavl was declared the new city of Ryazan in 1778. The historic centre of Vladimir, on the other hand, remains as glorious as it was when the city was the capital of old Russia between 800 and 900 years ago.
The great monuments of Vladimir are a testament to its position of primacy amongst the early Russian states. Architects and stonemasons from all across eastern Europe contributed to the austere beauty of the city’s churches and cathedrals, many of which have been immortalised as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the “White Monuments of Vladimir and Suzdal”. Most prominently amongst these sites is the Golden Gate of Vladimir, made of glistening white limestone and topped with a classic golden dome. Frequently overlooked is another member of the UNESCO site in the nearby village of Bogolyubovo: the Church of the Intercession on the river Nerl. Standing solemnly in a field on the riverbank, this church and its intricate stone carvings have not been altered since the 12th century.
The second city included in the aforementioned UNESCO site is Suzdal. Despite being significantly smaller in size than nearby Vladimir, Suzdal is an absolute must-see on the traditional Golden Ring route. In fact, its lack of developed industry has left the historical centre as a pristinely preserved window to the past. Since the late 1960s, the centre was officially protected from industrialisation by the government, thus the Suzdal skyline is remarkable not for towering factories and apartment buildings, but the golden crosses and multi-coloured domes of its countless churches and monasteries. Near the city Kremlin is another unique monument, an open-air museum of wooden architecture featuring windmills, cottages, and of course, antique churches.
The next stop around the Golden Ring is the youngest of the eight cities, Ivanovo. Also the second-largest city in the route, Ivanovo area was known for centuries as a producer of remarkable textiles, even earning it the nickname “Russian Manchester” during Soviet times. Modern Ivanovo is young in a different way, as it is one of Russia’s primary cities for students, featuring 13 higher education institutions. This combination of youth and industry make Ivanovo quite unique amongst the other cities on this list, and nowadays tourists travel there to appreciate its early 20th century constructivist architecture. Ivanovo also holds a special place in Soviet history, as it was the host of the first Marxist society and one of the first Soviet councils.
The last city on the eastern side of the Golden Ring is Kostroma. The first city on this list to be located on the banks of the mighty Volga river, Kostroma is the furthest from Moscow of all the cities of the route, and is therefore best visited as part of a longer journey. Despite this distance, Kostroma is doubtless worth the trip for lovers of both history and architecture. Like Moscow, legends say that Kostroma was founded by Yuri Dolgoruky, and the first Romanov ruler of Russia, Michael I, was living there when he received the news that he had been elected as the new Tsar. His place of residence at the time, the Ipatievsky Monastery, is highlighted by the five golden domes of its Trinity Cathedral, with its exquisitely restored interior decorations.
Also on the banks of the Volga and home to another UNESCO World Heritage Site is Yaroslavl. Believed to have been founded by Prince Yaroslav in the year 1010, this city recently celebrated its 1,000th anniversary. The largest city on the Golden Ring, Yaroslavl is the unofficial capital of the route, and features everything from an amusement park and riverside beaches to wooded parks and elegant cathedrals. In fact, if you want to see a sneak peek at some of Yaroslavl’s monuments, look no further than a 1,000 ruble bill: it features the monument to Prince Yaroslav as well as the Church of St. John the Baptist. This church is considered one of the pinnacles of classic Russian religious architecture, with its 15 towering domes and red brick walls. Due to its status as a major transportation hub and a destination for refugees fleeing the Siege of Leningrad, Yaroslavl was heavily damaged by air raids during World War II. However, the city centre has been expertly restored, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Not to be confused with the much larger city of Rostov-na-Donu on the banks of the Don river in southern Russia, Rostov Veliky is one of the oldest cities on the Golden Ring. It is also one of the smallest, with little more than 30,000 residents. However, Rostov Veliky is not just to be brushed off, and is as remarkable as any other city on the route. Overlooking the placid lake Nero is the Rostov kremlin, widely considered to be the best outside of Moscow, with its rare silver domes that are a classic symbol of the city. Another notable symbol of Rostov Veliky is its unique style of enamel painting, which is celebrated in museums around the city and throughout its monasteries and churches.
Also located on the shores of a lake is the city of Pereslavl-Zalessky, which is slightly larger than nearby Rostov Veliky, but still one of the smallest on the route. However, despite its size, Pereslavl-Zalessky holds a significant place in Russian history for a few reasons. For one, this city is the birthplace of the Russian folk hero Alexander Nevsky, and a statue of him is located outside the still-standing church where he was baptised over 800 years ago. It was also in Pereslavl-Zalessky that another famous Russian, Peter the Great, spent much of his youth. It was on the nearby lake where Peter developed his love for boats and the open water, a love that would eventually lead him to found the city of Saint-Petersburg. The manor where Peter grew up has been renovated into a museum of Russian naval history, including an exhibit with one of Peter’s original model boats.
The final city on the list is also the closest to Moscow, no more than two hours away by public transit. Sergiev Posad is named after Saint Sergius, the founder of the city’s incredible Trinity monastery. This beautiful complex has become one of the most important religious sites in all of Russia, and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993. Iconic Russian painter Andrey Rublev was first trained in this monastery, and it is also the final resting place of many Russian patriarchs and princes. The monastery absolutely dominates the centre of the city and is splendidly maintained, making it well worth a short day trip from Moscow to visit.
Thank you for joining me on this short adventure around Russia’s “Golden Ring” tourist route. Last summer, I was lucky enough to be able to visit some of the cities on this list, and I hope that later this year I’ll be able to complete the set. Each city has its own unique charm and appeal, and they all provide a window into a side of Russia that one just cannot see from inside the metropoles. I wish you all happy trails, and hope you enjoy the Golden Ring!