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.