The golden circle around Moscow is an area containing cities of ancient importance and cities that helped define Russia today. Many of the transiberian trains stop at Vladimir, a city which stood against the Turkish invaders but eventually fell. Many tourists visit Vladimir, Szudal and Nizny Novogorod on day trips from Moscow, but we decided to spend a little more time seeing at least two of these cities.
After a full day dealing with the phone saga and cancelling our original train (easy to do for a small fee) we finally arrived at the Moscow Kurskaya train station to buy some new tickets. There are slow, express and really fast trains to Vladimir, but since the express journey only takes 2.5 hours we opted for this. Safely on board the train, we noticed that yet again, everyone was sleeping on public transport. We arrived into Vladimir around 9pm and walked to our hostel. The walk was a little scary in the dark, but thankfully it was just along the main road which had street lights. The entrance to our hostel was a little more dubious as it seemed to be a semi-derelict building. Think of the worst Scottish close you have seen but with bare brickwork and crumbling walls and you will have some idea. Inside the hostel we were warmly greeted by the owner, who despite not speaking any English was able to check us in and show us around. Hostel Chocolate is a chocolate themed hostel with chocolate bed sheets and artwork all over. Thankfully the bathroom suite did not follow the trend but instead the shower looked a bit like a spaceship capsule.
The next morning we got up to explore Vladimir, but were tempted to a coffee by our host before we left. Vladimir is a fairly large city but the old interesting centre is very compact. Somehow we managed to find the back entrance along an alleyway of ramshackle houses before we reached the first church. The main sites in Vladimir are clustered around two squares with a lovely walkway and sculptures between them. Our visit coincided with the first day of the Russian school year known as Knowledge day. Following three months of summer holidays, Russian school children dress up with bows in their hair and carry flowers for their teachers. Many seemed to go to school for just part of the day and the rest of the day was spent having fun and visiting the local sites. It created a very buzzy atmosphere while we walked about the town.
In terms of sites, Vladimir has a few to offer especially if you would like to visit churches. We opted for a few less churches and visited the famous Golden Gate first. The Golden gate was the site of a huge battle for Vladimir against the Turks and is still a strong part of the Russian identity. Today it holds a museum on the history of the gate including a video which we happily watched in English! The rest of the museum holds weapons from the 12th to 20th centuries but unfortunately none of them have English descriptions.
Our next stop was the old water tower and the museum of Vladimir, which mainly encompasses life of peasants and townspeople from the 20th century. We enjoyed looking at the photographs and exhibits but it’s only a small museum. On our way back towards the hostel we also visited the cathedral. Vladimir’s cathedral was used as a model for the assumption cathedral in the Kremlin of Moscow. It looks very similar from the outside but inside most of the paintings appear much older than the restored ones in Moscow.
We collected our bags from the hostel and made our way to the bus station to catch a bus to Szudal. The buses run every half hour and it costs just 95 rubles for the 45 minute journey. The bus took us through a very open landscape which was largely argicultural and we realised just how far some people in Russia must walk to get the bus. Our bus kept stopping in the middle of nowhere to let people off and we had to search the horizon to see the nearest village which was perhaps 3-5km away. Interestingly the bus station at Szudal is also around 2km away from the centre, but the bus continues for an extra fee of 17 rubles per person and drops you off in the town centre. We made it mid afternoon and then only had to work out how to cross the river and reach our guesthouse. We crossed the river and walked across most of the town before reaching Viktoria guesthouse. We had to call the owner to check in, but he helpfully gave us a map of the town with the main sites marked. All we needed now was some food from the local corner shop. The corner shops sell a huge variety of long life produce along with some dairy, sausages and a small selection of fruit and vegetables. When buying food in these small shops, our lack of Russian is starting to become a little frustrating for both us and the shopkeeper. We resolved to learn a little more so that we could order more easily.
The next morning we planned to visit the Kremlin, museum of wooden architecture and a Monastery. Quite a lot to cram into a day but thankfully Szudal is pretty small and all these attractions are within walking distance of eachother. It was a lovely sunny day so we set off in shorts and sandals to make the most of it. Our first stop at the Kremlin was probably the most interesting as it contains a musuem housed in an old palace and the church of the nativity. The church dates from the 11th century and was originally built from white stone before later being restored with red bricks and painted. The museum contains archeological finds from the area and the jordan canopy. The Jordan canopy is a kind of altar that was constructed on the frozen river for epiphany (6th January). A large service was held on the river ice and the preist dipped a crucifix through a cross shaped hole into the river to bless it’s waters. This is the only canopy of it’s kind to survive and is housed in its own dome shaped room. The rest of the museum contained religious art, jewellery and artefacts from the church and local town. It was a big musuem and the only bit that we didn’t enjoy was the room full of icons (probably because we have seen so many and they are all starting to look the same).
Just across the river is the museum of wooden architecture, which was founded during Soviet times. It contains around 15 wooden buildings which were moved here partly for preservation but mainly to create a tourist attraction and put Szudal on the map. Only a few of the buildings are open, including one church and several different peasant houses. For us it was interesting to compare how sparsely decorated and uncosy Russian houses were compared to the ones we saw in Romania. There were a few English descriptions about the layout of the houses with the main room (izba) being the only heated room of the house. It was interesting to see but probably not quite enough to justify the 300 ruble entrance fee. On the way back to town we passed two large wedding processions in fancy cars and a limo and started wondering what a Russian wedding is like, since the bride and groom always seem to be on an extended photo shoot. It turns out the photo shoot around the town is standard and can last several hours. Probably a hard task in a town as small as Szudal.
Our walk to the monastery led us past a lady milking her cow and then the Gvostiny Dvor or shopping arcade with its market. Today the arcade houses fairly boring shops and the market sells souvenirs, slippers and homegrown produce. We picked up an ice cream and continued up the main street to the monastery of spaso euphymius. This is the largest and best maintained monastery in Szudal (there are 3 more) and houses 10 museums. We decided to go in and find out what was inside since all the signs were in Russian. Inside the huge fortress like walls is a large courtyard, a couple of churches, a medicinal garden and the old houses for the monks. We visited two of the museums and were disappointed to find very little English and heaps of religious treasures. It was good to see inside the monastery complex but not worth visiting the museums. There’s even another museum of icons here :-(. Back at the guesthouse we made our spaghetti and meatballs and packed for our next train journey.