We were now only hours away from Moscow, but rather than rush to enter the metropolis, we made one last visit to rural Russia. It wasn’t the most straight forward journey from Kazan, involving two trains and a minibus, but it wasn’t difficult to get here.
We’d made severe miscalculations with the weather in Russia. We’d packed expecting temperatures similar to what we’d left behind in Hokkaido, Japan. Instead we’d found swealtering temperatures under a baking sun. It made for lucious, green scenery, but it also made walking around much, much less comfortable. It was a thirty-minute walk from where we jumped off the minibus to Guest House Volshebny Sad, our hotel for the night. The sidewalks were being taken over by the thick green grass. The trees were in blossom, and skies were clear blue and vivid. The air was rich with the sounds of bird life … and clunker Soviet cars.
It was immediately clear that the description Lonely Planet had given about it being a town that modern Russia had skipped was true. The houses were old, beautiful and wooden. Some were brightly coloured, others were plain raw timber, and likely a few heavy winters away from colapse.
Walking through the back streets towards the centre of town, it felt empty. Even once we’d reached the main street of town, we didn’t see much – apart from a few souvenir shops, hotels and the occasional restaurant/cafe. It is most certainly not a devoloped area, and while we did see more tourists than locals, we didn’t many of either.
Another thing we didn’t see – ATMs. Other cities in Russia have an ATM on every corner, but we had to walk a fair distance to find one to have some money to buy lunch. It is unfortunate that the ATMs in Russia would only issue (at least to us) a maximum of 4000 rubles ($100). Russia is cheap, it’s not that cheap, and we were constantly removing money from ATMs.
Now that we had money again, we could eat. It was actually a bit of a challenge to find somewhere, and we ended up behind the markets in a small restaurant facing the river. I ordered some Pelmeni (Russian ravioli) with sour cream while Risa ordered chicken heart soup.
We walked through the central market square, where there were loads of stalls selling souvenirs (many hand made, or at least the appearance of it) and local produce. There was a look of desperation on many of the faces of these sellers – I don’t think business was booming. We’re not in the market for souvenirs (we don’t need things), so we had to walk past.
We decided to walk a big loop through town, out to the churches on the other side of the river. Using the map on my phone (with the free offline Android maps application MAPS.ME) we followed what looked like a footpath, but turned out to be a feint muddy path through the grass, with a couple of planks of wood to cross some small creeks. It was such a trivial thing, but it really felt like we were going somewhere uncharted, which felt nice after so much time walking around cities.
The churches that we saw on the map and travelled to were mostly unused, and in need of maintenance. It was incredible just how many churches were in this small town, and understandable that so many were in disrepair. Looking around in Suzdal, it was genuinely difficult to pick a direction and not see the golden spire of a church somewhere.
As well as the churches, we stopped for a quick visit to the Suzdal Museum of Wooden Arhcitecture and Peasant Life, mostly because the stunning wooden church caught our attention. I’ve never seen anything like it. It reminded me of a Japanese movie, Howl’s Moving Castle. Sadly, it has burnt down several times (I guess large wooden buildings don’t like lightning), so it was a modern recreation. The larger church was closed inside, but it was possible to view inside the smaller, and somewhat simpler one.
The churches were certainly the main attraction, as the other buildings were mostly pesant houses, which were interesting and well preserved/furnished, but somehow lacking in excitement. It was interesting, but not a ‘must visit’ attraction – maybe it would be better if we weren’t so tired from walking all day.
Across the river from the museum was the Suzdal Kremlin (fort). Unlike others we’d seen, this kremlin only had dirt walls. The highlight was certainly the Cathedral of the Nativity, with its big bulbous blue domes, specked with golden stars. Unfortunately, we couldn’t enter the church as it was ten minutes before closing time, which was disappointing.
We were exhausted from so much walking, especially given the unexpected heat. There didn’t seem to be a huge choice for dinner options, so we picked one of the first places we saw. I thought due to it’s location on the road towards the kremlin that it might be an expensive trap, but it turned out to be quite simple (and cheap) with really tasty meals. The sun was starting to set, and it was perfect sitting outside. We ordered a local mead-like beverage medovukha as it is said to be famous in the area – there were no shortage of shops selling it. It was really nice, slightly alcoholic, and perfect chilled with ice as we relaxed into our seats waiting for dinner. I also ordered what sounded (and looked) like a Russian parmigiana.
As we walked back to our guest house, we passed more churches. I know I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating – there are churches everywhere in Suzdal! Just have a look at the sights on Trip Advisor!
We didn’t have much time left before we had to return to Vladimir to catch a train to Moscow, but there was just enough time to walk to the Spaso-Evfimiyev Monastery complex, but sadly it was partially closed (and the tickets were quite expensive) and there was a lack of English information. So, instead we settled for a walk around the large red brick walls that enclosed the complex.
It was sad to miss out, especially as we weren’t really sure what was inside (I like to keep an element of surprise). However, we found some baby goats by the side of the road. I think Risa was just as happy feeding and patting them as she would have been going inside the monastery.
We then walked back into town, caught the marshrutka (minibus) to the bus station, and caught another minibus back to Vladimir to continue the journey to Moscow. Our first mini bus driver actually called the second minibus enroute, and he stopped and waited for us on the side of the road. The bus was full, so it was standing room only. We were once again pleased with the honesty and friendliness of the average person here, really going out of their way to help us, even though we don’t speak a common language (and smartphones can only do so much without an internet connection).
From Vladimir, it was a four hour journey on a regular train, so we opted for a bed in a third class carriage (which was cheaper than a seat in an express train). Sad to say, but we actually closed the blinds and slept for the entirety of the journey, so we saw next to nothing until we reached the grey concrete apartments that marked the outskirts of Moscow.
Suzdal was a good excursion into what was once a very important Russian town, and a good break before the anticipated craziness of Moscow. There really was no development, and very little tourism, other than a few groups on tour buses. Everything they say about the number of churches in town is most definitely true!