Last week under a dark, overcast sky, I set out for a week-long road trip to visit the towns and cities of Russia’s Golden Ring – a theme-route that takes you through a handful of cities northeast of Moscow that were part of ancient Rus and played an important role in the formation of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In the midst of the ongoing pandemic, many of the sites I visited were closed on quarantine, but I was still able to visit, if not actually enter, many of the main landmarks, which included churches, monasteries, and fortresses. Sergeyev Posad, unfortunately, was one of the towns where the fortress was closed, although it was possible to see much of it from outside its red brick walls. There was also an observation deck in a nearby park which provided a view of the landmarks within the fortress, as well as the town itself, from above.
That the fortress was closed and there were few tourists in this town (as well as the others) offered me a unique opportunity to visit these sites and enjoy them in peace without crowds, vendors selling souvenirs, food, and ice cream, charter buses, and other elements of tourism that would have inevitably offered a different, less pleasant experience.
After Sergeyev Posad the next town was Rostov Velikiy, which also offered a fortress with various religious sites within its brick walls – these painted white. I arrived at night under the rain, rented a room in a guest house off the shore of Lake Nero for about $35 and called it a day.
The guest house, just like the town, as well as Sergeyev Posad, was eerily empty. It was clear the owners had not been expecting any guests that evening – they had already opened a bottle of their chosen alcoholic beverage and were in high spirits. “Don’t mind me,” a burly man of about fifty years of age jokingly said as he scurried by to take himself somewhere out of sight while the woman host continued to provide a tour and point out where I could make coffee or tea.
As the woman led me up the steep wooden stairs to the rooms on the third floor, she also expressed her regret that I had not arrived earlier, for I could have used the grill outside to make shashlik before it got dark. Once settled in my room, the woman disappeared for the night.
By the next morning, the weather had not yet let up, though I imagined the views of the town on the backdrop of dark cloudy skies would not be any less appealing than that of a perfectly clear blue sky, so I was not disappointed. I had not packed my umbrella, so the order of business for the day was finding one.
On my way out of the guest house (the owners were still sleeping), I passed through the kitchen and dining room on the first floor. Although fully furnished with enough wooden tables and benches to accommodate and feed several groups of visitors at once, the dining room was completely empty, except for the deer and moose heads mounted on the walls. I stood there on the stairs and could picture a bustling dining room with visitors and their children eating Russian pancakes called blini that look like French crepes, or maybe even the thicker Russian cottage cheese pancakes, which are called syrniki.
After finding a cheap black umbrella for about five dollars, I was ready to explore the town’s main landmark – the fortress. Unlike the fortress in Sergeyev Posad, the fortress (kremlin) in Rostov left one of its doors open to the public, allowing me to explore the territory within the walls and even ascend to the top of one of the churches’ bell lofts for a bird’s eye view of the quiet little town and Lake Nero further off in the distance.
This is perhaps one of the times during my trip that I really appreciated the lack of tourists. For a church donation of about three dollars, an elderly woman attending the property allowed me through a gated iron door to ascend a spiral stairway and squeeze my way through a narrow brick corridor until I reached the second set of stairs. Then, finally, an opening, where I emerged back into the light of day on the top of that ancient Russian Orthodox Church in its bell loft.
Three dollars afforded me the opportunity to observe the serene and empty kremlin grounds from above. This is not something many ordinary late-spring or early-summer visitors have had the chance to see or experience. And the views were captivating – even for a person who is not religious.
After Rostov, I set out for Yaroslavl – a city of over 600,000 residents on the right bank of the Volga River founded in the year 1010. It would be the fourth Russian city on the Volga I visited (after Samara, Kazan, and Nizhny Novgorod).
I will be updating my blog in the coming days to tell the story of my trip to Yaroslavl, Kostroma, Ivanovo, and further around Russia’s Golden Ring.