It is often said that Russia is like a never ending fairytale. With its charming landscapes and undeniably vivid cultural heritage, every village and town has something to offer to the curious traveller struck by wanderlust. For someone who is interested in getting a glimpse of Russia during the middle ages, the Golden Ring, as it is popularly known as in the tourist circuit, is an ideal route that includes medieval towns and cities historically known as Zalesye, meaning ‘beyond the forest’. This was in fact with reference to their distance from the erstwhile ‘Rus’ state’s capital, Kiev.
The Golden Ring covers eight cities and towns including Yaroslavl, Kostroma, Ivanovo, Suzdal, Vladimir, Sergiev Posad, Pereslavl-Zalessky, and Rostov Veliky. Among these, Vladimir and Suzdal are by far the most stunning owing to the captivating medieval architecture that survives to this day. Indeed, time seems to be frozen in the ancient town of Suzdal, erstwhile capital of Rostov-Suzdal principality. Once a bustling trade centre, the town was eventually annexed by Moscow in 1392.
Spread out like a magical medieval fairytale landscape, the quiet town melts the heart of even the most hardened skeptics with the Kamenka river meandering through picturesque meadows and old-fashioned wooden houses. Interestingly, Suzdal is now a religious center that mainly survives on tourism, away from the hustle and bustle of Russia’s other industrialized towns.
Dating back to early 10th century, the town is characterized by Suzdal Kremlin, a fortress strategically located on a bend of the Kamenka on three sides and a moat to the east to secure the place from invasion.
The fortress of Kremlin encloses notable monuments like the Nativity of the Virgin Cathedral, the Cathedral Bell Tower, the Bishops’ Chambers, the Nikolskaya wooden church (Church of St. Nicholas), Voskresenskaya church (Resurrection church), the Assumption Church, the Church of the Nativity of Christ, and Elias Church (Church of Elijah the Prophet), among others.
Based on historical records, I came to know that the wooden church of Nikolskaya was built in 1766 and transported to Suzdal from the village of Glotovo, a rural settlement in Russia, around 450 km north of Suzdal.
The Nativity Cathedral, oldest stone structure in Suzdal, is part of the Vladimir-Suzdal Museum of the Reserve. It houses an impressive collection of old Russian art (dating back 12th and 13th centuries), frescoes, and even church utensils from medieval Russia. The adjacent cathedral bell tower was constructed in the 17th century and is typical of the architecture of that era. The Bishops’ chambers, constituting the long single building, was in fact a complex of residences of rich bishops and related financial and other buildings during 15th-17th centuries. Today, the heritage building, consisting of long passages and galleries, is a part of the Vladimir-Suzdal museum that showcases public expositions.
Voskresenskaya Tserkov’, or the Church of Resurrection of Christ, was built in the 18th century. Located right at the entrance of the small marketplace, or shopping arcade, the church boasts of an impressive bell tower with a cube, octagonal, and then tent shapes, typical of the craftsmanship of that era.
The Assumption Church, located in the Kremlin’s northern entrance was actually destroyed in 1923. It has since been restored to its former glory and functions as the local church.
Another picturesque heritage monument on the banks of Kamenka River is the Elias Church, or the Church of Elijah the Prophet. It looks straight out of a picture postcard!
The shopping arcade is a pretty trading square where you can buy souvenirs and baked goodies from locals. The cafes and restaurants inside the arcade serve delicious European cuisine as well as local dishes.
The Museum of Wooden Architecture is yet another noteworthy attraction famous for beautiful wooden houses of wealthy peasants from the 17th to 19th centuries. In the 1960s, medieval buildings from all around the Vladimir Oblast were collected and assembled in Suzdal to create this open-air museum that artfully depicts the life and surroundings of medieval landlords and their workers. The museum even showcases windmills and two churches – Church of the Transfiguration (winter church) and the Church of the Resurrection (summer church with minimal insulation) – that makes the whole place look like a fully-functional medieval village.
The imposing Saviour Monastery of St. Euthymius, located on a hill overlooking the river and the rest of the town, is yet another remarkably well preserved monastery from the medieval times. Declared as a UNESCO World Heritage site, there are many churches and museums inside the monastery that house interesting thematic expositions. The monastery prison, built in the 18th century by order of Catherine the Great, was used to imprison religious dissidents.
The famous bells at the monastery chime every hour during opening times in the Cathedral Bell Tower associated with the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Saviour.
How to reach Suzdal from Moscow: There are several ways to travel from Moscow to Suzdal. You can either hire a car and drive down or get there via Vladimir by train and bus. High-speed trains – Strizh, Lastochka and Burevestnik – run between Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod that leave from Moscow’s Kursky Railway Station and take around 1.5 – 2.0 hours to reach Vladimir. You can also take the standard suburban trains (which are cheaper than the high-speed trains) from Kursky Railway Station, but these take around 3 hours. Buses from Moscow to Vladimir take around 4 hours. From Vladimir, catch a suburban bus (runs every hour) to Suzdal (takes 30-40 min.). The bus station is right opposite Vladimir railway station. Taxis are also available in Vladimir.
You can also catch a direct bus from Moscow to Suzdal from Schyolkovsky Bus Station that passes Vladimir too. It takes around 4.5-5 hours to reach, depending on traffic conditions.
The best way to visit Suzdal is by staying overnight at Vladimir which is also one of the popular cities in the Golden Ring. Though far more industrial than Suzdal, there are a few impressive UNESCO World Heritage sites in Vladimir that also fall under the ‘White Stone Monuments of Vladimir and Suzdal’. These include The Assumption Cathedral (Dormition Cathedral), The Cathedral of Saint Demetrius (Dmitrievsky Cathedral), and The Golden Gates, all built in the 12th century.
You don’t need to be a history buff or a lover of ancient art and architecture to enjoy Suzdal. The spellbinding atmosphere of this small town brings so much peace and contentment in one’s mind that you will forget about the modern world and its problems.