I went to Russia for Moscow: new Moscow, in all its trashy splendor; bad old Soviet Moscow, with its thundering skyscrapers and dismal workers' cafés; imperial Moscow — flamboyant, absurd St. Basil's Cathedral, and the grave where Gogol was rumored to have been buried alive. But once there, the sentimental part of me wanted Mother Russia, too: the Russia of Turgenev and Tolstoy; the pine forests, the gloomy ponds. So my new-Moscow economist brother and I rented a car and set off for a two-day spin through the countryside, motoring around the Golden Ring — a circle of thousand-year-old (and slightly younger) settlements northeast of Moscow where you can find some of Russia's loveliest churches and icons.
We took off in the afternoon (typically, though we'd hired the car for 9 a.m., it wasn't available until two, and perhaps without my brother deftly negotiating in Russian it would have taken even longer) and drove straight up the M7 to Vladimir. As you leave Moscow you emerge, like Dorothy, from black-and-white into Technicolor, passing through gray suburbs — monstrous, dilapidated Soviet apartment blocks, traffic fumes — then suddenly entering forests of silver birches interspersed with clusters of dachas, the elaborately carved wooden houses that Russians retreat to on weekends. Dachas are so tiny they look like playhouses, and they're painted in bright, nursery colors: turquoise, green, red, yellow. We arrived in Vladimir by five.
Vladimir used to be important: founded in 1108 by Vladimir Monomakh, the soon-to-be grand prince of Kiev, it quickly became Russia's most prominent city. The story gets a bit depressing in the 13th century: the town was repeatedly sacked by the Tatars and most people cleared out. For a few glamorous years starting in 1300 it was the seat of the metropolitan, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church; by 1626, however, the population had diminished to 610. These days Vladimir is a city of 350,000, heavily industrialized except for its historic center.
The highway from Moscow took us straight to the Golden Gate, which squats weightily in the middle of the road—a rotund white stone structure topped by a golden dome, with green roofs on each of its four cylindrical towers. The light was heavy and yellow in the late afternoon, and clusters of residents had ventured out into the street for an evening promenade. Vladimir's women are a sight to see; with their wide, square faces and big pale eyes, they look like strange, vivid, beautiful puppets. We parked the car and walked along the main street, over the wrought-iron bridge that commemorates Vladimir's 850th birthday, past a statue of Lenin—still up on its pedestal, as in most small Russian towns.
Soon we came to a steep hill, at the top of which stood the Cathedral of the Dormition. Built in the mid 12th century, the building is solid and Romanesque down below, but then effervesces into delicate towers and domes laced with gilt filigree. Inside, its 18th-century iconostasis—the wall of painted icons behind the altar—is a Baroque fantasy, all gilded pillars and marzipan curlicues. From the cathedral door we turned right and strolled through a little park of oak, lime, and birch trees to the Cathedral of St. Demetrius. Compared to most Russian churches, this one—very small, square, simple, white—is a sparrow among peacocks. Its outside walls are covered with stone carvings of birds, lions, and gargoyles that have an eccentric, folk-art quality; the incidental figures that are usually secreted away in decorative borders here unexpectedly emerge as the focus of attention.
We stopped for dinner at the Restoran u Zolotykh Vorot, on the Ulitsa Bolshaya Moskovskaya—not fancy, not exactly hopping (we were, in fact, the only people there), but the chicken-mushroom soup was hot and tasty, the red caviar delicious. Before leaving town we wandered down some side streets, past girls jumping rope next to old-fashioned wooden houses with carved window frames and eaves. Another church. A school. Nearby, somebody was playing the piano.
Suzdal, 22 miles north, is a well-preserved village, protected by the government from any modern development. It's even older than Vladimir, and survived the Tatars better: in the 17th and 18th centuries it still had enough wealthy merchants to build its 30-odd churches and cathedrals. The road there takes you through farm country, with little churches on hills in the distance. The light turned pale and watercolory as we drove; the landscape was misty and washed with gray. We arrived at about nine, just as the sun was setting.
A few hundred yards past the town's main gate, we pulled over to scramble up a grassy hill so we could see the last of the sun. (My derision had failed to dissuade my brother from his quest for a sunset photograph.) We listened: no sound, except for ravens cawing somewhere nearby, and a dog barking farther off. No people. No traffic, except for a few cows being led down the main street. We heard the flapping of a bird's wings as it passed overhead. Down below, a lone goat grazed by a pond, next to a jumble of miniature tin-roofed wooden houses, each with a miniature vegetable plot. I sniffed the air. Ah! The heady fragrance of cow manure, with just a touch of bonfire.
As night fell, we set off for our hotel. The Likhoninsky Dom, a 19th-century house renovated in period style except for its striking cleanliness, smelled of freshly cut wood and of the dried flowers that hung in bouquets from the entrance hall ceiling. We slept in a pine bedroom under patchwork quilts.
After breakfast (the best herbal tea and honey blini in Russia), we walked to the Museum of Wooden Architecture—a collection of houses, churches, and windmills from the 18th and 19th centuries, situated in a field of dandelions. The windmills were so absurdly quaint it was hard to believe they were real—they looked like giant crafts projects constructed by a clever child out of enormous matchsticks. We ventured inside the log houses, all done up as they had been in their time—icons in one corner, quilted beds for the old people over the big stone oven. It was here, it must be admitted, that we began to suffer from the Colonial Williamsburg effect: everywhere we turned there was another elderly woman standing around in peasant regalia. And here, too, we encountered, for the first time, other tourists.
We fled across the nearby Kamenka River to the Nativity of the Virgin Cathedral, which we recognized from photos by its dark blue onion domes painted with gold stars. By all accounts there are amazing 13th- and 17th-century frescoes inside, but that day the cathedral was closed because of, as the sign on the door mysteriously put it, "unsatisfactory temperature humidity conditions on the 6th, 13th, and 20th of May." (Sites in Russia often close unpredictably, for strange and implausible reasons.) Resigned to missing the frescoes, we strolled to the north end of the village to take a quick look into the Savior Monastery of St. Euthymius. There, in the monastery museum, we were charmed by the delightfully hideous modern Russian folk art—everything from fur wall hangings to glass sculpture—which quite erased the effect of the Museum of Wooden Architecture babushkas.
For lunch, my brother knew just where to go. Turning right at the main gate of the monastery, we followed the dirt footpath—so rustic!—around the corner, down the grassy hill, and across the wooden footbridge over a stream to Suzdal's 16th-century Intercession Convent. This was once the place where Russian nobles, including Peter the Great, sent their inconvenient wives. Nowadays the nuns seem to devote considerable attention to their flower beds, for the convent courtyard was a clamor of red tulips, bluebells, and yellow dandelions. Across the courtyard we spied several nuns counting stones—in the service, we solemnly concluded, of some strange penitential ritual. (Upon closer inspection they turned out to be sorting potatoes.) We ducked into the old convent refectory, now a restaurant, the Restoran Trapeznaya. It looked like a room in a medieval castle, with massive, whitewashed Romanesque arches, and heavy iron candle sconces on the walls. And the food was as delectable as the atmosphere: leafy salad, noodle soup, heavenly black-caviar blini, and vanilla ice cream.
Returning to the hotel, we retrieved the car and set off for our last stop, Rostov—first mentioned in chronicles in 862. We drove straight through to the town kremlin, built by aspiring patriarch Iona Sisoyevich in 1664. There are a number of buildings within the kremlin walls, but the one not to miss is the Church of the Savior-over-the-Galleries. We had to ask for the door to be unlocked, and the key itself—a massive iron relic worthy of Quasimodo—was worth seeing. Then, inside, naughty frescoes! Hell is always a lively subject, and here it was imagined as an industrial-scale S&M club, with lots of well-endowed young women hanging naked from the ceiling by rope handcuffs.
From the kremlin, we walked over to the nearby Cathedral of the Assumption and asked to hear the bells—10 minutes of pure joy. The ringers let us stand in the tower with them, and just watching them was an extraordinary experience. Two of the bells are so gigantic that each requires a person's full strength to ring it; the largest, cast in 1689, weighs 32 tons. The remaining 13 bells are divided between two ringers, who manipulate them by means of strings and wooden pedals, like marionettes. The sound was deafening but very close to revelation.
At the end of the day, we made our way by car to the Yakovlevsky (St. Jacob's) Monastery on the shore of Lake Nero. We slipped into the church in the center of the courtyard and stayed to hear part of the traditional five-o'clock service: monks in black robes with long, tangled hair, moaning and chanting; kerchiefed old women crossing themselves; incense and candle smoke. (It's not intrusive to show up in the middle—many people come and go.) Heading back to Moscow, we stopped for a moment by the side of the road just outside Rostov. In a dreamy mood, contemplating our imminent return to the modern world, we took a last look at the monastery reflected in the lake, and pretended we could still hear the sound of the bells ringing across the water.
Moscow, Vladimir, Suzdal
The M7, which branches northeast off Moscow's Outer Ring Road, takes you straight to Vladimir (about three hours, allowing for traffic in Moscow). See the sights and eat at the Restoran u Zolotykh Vorot, then get back on the M7 and take the A113 heading north to Suzdal (about 20 minutes).
Suzdal, Rostov, Moscow
Explore town and have lunch at the Restoran Trapeznaya. On the A113, continue north to Ivanovo; then take the P152 due west to Rostov (three hours). Follow the M8 all the way back to Moscow (also approximately three hours).
• Americans must have a visa to visit Russia. A tour company, such as Serendipity Russian Tours (309/454-2364), or a visa service, such as Perry International (312/372-2703), can take care of this for you—you don't want to spend hours at the Russian consulate—but allow at least a month for your application to go through.
• Teach yourself the Cyrillic alphabet so you'll be able to read road signs. This sounds intimidating, but it really isn't—I did it on the plane on the way over.
• To rent a car with automatic transmission, call well in advance (Hertz, 7-095/578-5646; Eurodollar, 7-095/298-6146). Otherwise, be prepared to drive a standard. You can also hire a car with a driver: it's not that expensive (though do factor in the driver's food and lodging), and it's always handy to have a Russian speaker with you.
• Russians, like Americans, drive on the right-hand side of the road. You can use your U.S. driver's license, but carry your passport as well.
• Gas pumps don't turn off automatically when the tank is full.
• In Russia it's illegal to drive after consuming any alcohol.
• Expect to pay a small entrance fee at most sites, and to buy a camera permission ticket if you want to take photos.
• Watch for the traffic police, known as GAI (pronounced "gah-ee"). Do something wrong, and they may wave you down with a giant lollipop-shaped baton. The officers are generally polite and reasonable, at least toward foreigners—not at all the bribe-hunters you might expect.