By Elinor Garely
There are those of us who would be very happy to stay in Moscow for our entire trip, enjoying Russian food at the Red Square, steak at the Louisiana, or Latin American cuisine at the Acapulco. A few hours at the Guerlain salon and spa, a dip in the Hyatt pool, and a shopping spree at Equipage for a new Longchamp outfit, is my idea of a perfect day. There are others who seek to find the original Russia, and for these intrepid travelers, a four hour drive to the Golden Ring cities of Vladimir and Suzdal will be an important part of their journey, bringing them back to an earlier time.
Suzdal citizens find their roots in the 9th century, where they traded with such countries as Germany and Central Asia. This small community in the Vladimir region of Russia is about 210 kilometers northeast of Moscow, on the Kamenska River, with a population of 13,000. A walk through this tiny community in 2003 is almost identical to the walk we would have experienced in the 19th century. Goats, chickens, and cows graze next to the churches, monasteries and the Kremlin; old men herd their goats, shooing off foreign tourists with their canes. The big disappointment comes when the traveler, looking for the rural village craft shop or the small corner bakery with freshly made bread, finds only factory made products for sale in the only food shop available for miles. The reality is that the stark grey cement of Soviet-era architecture surrounds this little piece of history, making every little memory of the “old Russia” very precious.
There are pockets of an earlier time, and the traveler can explore these treasures by foot, finding delight with the town square, the monasteries and wooden bridges that make this location so charming. On weekends you are likely to find marriage ceremonies by the score, with friendly brides and grooms offering to share their ham, and cheese and party vodka with strangers.
For dining purposes, the recommended restaurant is the Kharchevnya bar and restaurant on Lenina Street where local Suzdal families gather to sing traditional Russian songs and break bread with their neighbors. The richer folks in town select the Landysh Café, at the beginning of Neteka Street. It is possible to stay overnight in this unique town, and hotel accommodations range from $2.50 to $22 per night (foreigners and Russians pay the same price). Because it is a popular location, advance reservations are recommended. It is also possible to arrange a home-stay and information is available at http://www.waytorussia.net/GoldenRing/Suzdal/Accommodations.html
One of the oldest cities in Russia, and located on the Klyza’ma River, Vladimir, founded in 995, was at one time a capital of Russia and its political, cultural and religious center. It has developed a reputation for its unique cathedrals which date back to the 12th century and four of these buildings are on the UNESCO World Heritage list. There are a few architectural gems worth a visit, including the Uspensky (Assumption) Cathedral (1158-61) and the Golden Gate (1164).
Located in the center of Russia, 180 km from Moscow, it is linked by rail and road. At one time a thriving economic center, over the last several years, Vladimir has experienced a decline in production, an increase in unemployment, and reduced living standards, which has encouraged the community to focus on increasing the number of tourists to this location.
Finding a place to stay overnight is not a problem, and accommodations range from $8 to $30 (double). Hotels have a rule limiting accommodations to foreigners to 2 nights. So, if you plan to stay longer, the organization that invited you needs to place a special request to the hotel management. Should your hotel room not be available (even with a confirmed reservation) become assertive, offer a cash reward, start to bed-down in the lobby – you will be surprised at the number of rooms that become vacant. A viable alternative is to rent an apartment for a few days, and these can be found through listings on the Internet.
There are almost no signs of American culture in Vladimir, until you come upon the American Home, where Russian students take classes and interact with Americans in this decidedly Russian community. The American Home helps Russian students learn English in a uniquely American environment, including studying in the rec-room, watching American television videos, enjoying America’s favorite holidays of Halloween, and Valentine’s Day, and reading American fashion magazines such as Vogue and Glamour. It has also acted as a catalyst, encouraging students who have not even visited Moscow, to find a way to study in the USA.
Back in Time – Fast Forward to the Future
An Internet search on these two communities turned up lots of Suzdal and Vladimir women looking for husbands. With a slowing economy, it appears that employment as well as marriage opportunities are limited. Regardless of your motives, if you are an adventure traveler and seek to experience a part of Russian history that is quickly being destroyed, plan a journey to these tiny communities, they will surely add a new dimension to your understanding of Russian history and culture.