We’re hopelessly lost. Either the Kostroma Moose Farm has secretly moved or Google Maps is having a senior moment. My guide, a blonde Muscovite named Anna Pankova, leaps from our minivan to interrogate a villager. Alexei, the driver, glares at his cellphone. Outside the rolling Russian farmland is a vision of bucolic loveliness, with swathes of purple lupins swaying in the breeze.
Amending my meticulously planned itinerary — mid-itinerary — doesn’t seem such a great idea now. Today’s deviation has already messed up Alexei’s careful fuel calculations for our four-day trip. But how can you come within 15 miles of a moose farm and not drop in, especially one that sells fresh (supposedly therapeutic) dairy products? Having witnessed the full architectural magnificence of the Golden Ring already, I feel like getting back to nature.
The Golden Ring: it may sound Tolkienesque, but the tales of war, spirituality and derring-do tied up in this collection of beautiful, time-honoured towns and cities are anything but fictional. A stone’s throw from Moscow yet a million miles from the get-rich-quick ambition and power-play of the Russian capital, they truly deserve their glittering epithet.
For now, though, our circuitous journey along the Ring has veered slightly off course. After an hour of driving down something that may once have been a road, there’s no sign of a moose. Anna bounces back to our vehicle with a grin. Apparently the moose farm is in Sumarokovo. We are in Sumarokovo. But it’s the wrong Sumarokovo. Alexei says something in Russian about his GPS and manages to frown a little harder. “You know, right now we’re actually in the spot where the great Russian martyr Ivan Susanin was killed,” says Anna excitedly on the drive back to Kostroma. “He deliberately led some Polish invaders to their deaths in the forest. Today, we use his name for someone who claims to know where they’re going, but who actually doesn’t.”
I try to catch Alexei’s eye in the rear-view mirror, but his gaze is firmly fixed on the next pothole. I lie back and reminisce on the first three days of my journey into Russia’s past.
Most journeys around the Golden Ring begin in Moscow, where I arrive at 10am on a high-speed Sapsan train from St Petersburg. Bundled into Alexei’s minivan by Anna, we plunge into the traffic and I read up on my destination. Way before St Petersburg was even a twinkle in Peter the Great’s eye, way before Moscow, the Golden Ring was a necklace of thriving settlements, built between the 11th and 15th centuries on the eastern edge of the Kievan Rus empire. Later, as Moscow rose to power, the Ring’s fortunes waned, but a glorious legacy of cathedrals, churches, kremlins and convents remained.
“Most Russians, at least those in the west, consider the Golden Ring to be the Slavic soul of their country,” says Anna. “Once you understand the Ring, then you understand Russia.”
With most destinations connected by decent highways, touring the Golden Ring may just be the finest road trip between the Baltic Sea and the Urals. Some stops — such as Yaroslavl and Kostroma — are bustling cities. Others, like Rostov Veliky and Suzdal, are little more than hamlets where horse-drawn carts compete for attention with the local onion domes. Over the next four days we’re to witness some of the finest historic architecture and art in eastern Europe.
“Why do we call it the Golden Ring?” asks Anna, rhetorically. “The precious history. The beautiful artwork. The autumnal leaves. The gleaming cupolas. There are lot of reasons. Perhaps it’s just the memories people leave with.”
Less than 50 miles from Moscow, Sergiyev Plosad is the closest Golden Ring destination to the capital. After some consummate overtaking by Alexei, we arrive in time for lunch. Pulling up outside the ornate wooden exterior of Russky Dvorik restaurant, he informs me earnestly that I have half an hour to eat before the Chinese tour groups arrive. Thankfully, the food arrives quickly, with a taste that matches the view from the window. Between bites of mouthwatering buttered vareniki (stuffed dumplings), I look out on the huge domes — some gold, others star-spangled blue — of Trinity Lavra of St Sergius monastery, a colourful melange of cathedrals, churches and chapels more reminiscent of a cake maker’s fantasy than a centre of religious piety.
Beneath scudding cumulus clouds, the Lavra presents a stunning spectacle. After finishing off our milky tea, Anna and I dodge the Chinese tour groups outside Russky Dvorik and head to the main gate; pausing to admire the massive outer wall on our way. Punctuated by row upon row of arrow slits, this was a monastery clearly built with one eye on defence. “An invading Polish army tried to breach the walls in the early 17th century,” explains Anna. “Peter the Great also took refuge here twice. In fact, it’s rare to come across a historical structure on the Golden Ring that isn’t connected with conflict, death or political machinations in some way.”
Today, all is peaceful at the Lavra. At the Chapel over the Well, women in headscarves chat as they queue for sacred spring water. Many have come all the way from Moscow to replenish their supplies. Bearded monks in black cassocks walk the narrow paths with a purposeful stride and the occasional incongruous sports bag.
Standing on the steps of a stucco-clad, five-tiered belfry, Igor Telegin, one of the Lavra’s 300-odd religious residents, keeps a careful watch on proceedings. He’s eager to show us the inside of the belfry — a rare treat for overseas visitors. Unlocking a heavy wooden door, he leads us up several sets of narrowing stairs. Just as I’m about to become wedged between wall and camera bag, we emerge onto a wooden platform. Surrounded by diminutive replicas, it’s here we’re faced with one of the largest bells I’ve ever seen.
Igor tells us it’s the Tsarsky Kolokol, cast in 2003 and weighing almost 80 tonnes. “Before the Russian Revolution, there were 42 bells in this belfry, but in 1930 more than half were thrown to the ground and smashed,” he explains. “Communism and religion were unhappy bedfellows back then.”
From the belfry’s elevated viewing platform, the monastery is an even more fantastic sight, with a panoply of golden domes and cupolas gleaming in the early afternoon sun. “This is the spiritual centre of the whole Russian Orthodox Church,” says Anna. “I think you can see why.”
Steeped in history, the Golden Ring unites a roll call of Russia’s greatest leaders and luminaries. Yaroslav the Wise, Alexander Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Nicholas II (the last tsar) all left their mark on the landscape.
After Sergiyev Posad, we make the short drive to Pereslavl-Zalessky, a small town of about 40,000 people, 50 miles north east. My guidebook informs me it was here, between 1688 and 1693 on the placid waters of Lake Plescheyevo, that Peter the Great assembled his poteshny (‘toy’) fleet — a practice flotilla of pint-sized wooden vessels that was the forerunner of Russia’s mighty imperial navy.
We arrive at the gates of Pereslavl-Zalessky’s Goritsky Monastery just as they’re closing. While Alexei checks our tyres, I walk around the walled exterior, flanked by a carpet of thistles and wildflowers. Rising high above the walls, the verdigris onion domes of the Assumption Cathedral dominate the skyline, while Lake Plescheyevo stretches into the distance. Below the wall, amid the flowers, small groups picnic on cold pirozhki (pies) and kvass (a fermented bread drink). Below a guard tower, a farmer sits on a folding stool, engrossed in a paperback, while nearby, a tethered cow contentedly chews the cud.
Founded in 1152, Pereslavl-Zalessky is also the birthplace of Alexander Nevsky (1221-1263), who rose to legendary status after he repelled German and Swedish invaders. His name was later immortalised in Nevsky Prospect, St Petersburg’s famous thoroughfare.
Nevsky was christened in Pereslavl-Zalessky’s fabulous Red Square. Ending our tour here, surrounded by vermilion-walled, onion-domed churches, I’m greeted politely by a stream of babushkas (old women) taking the late afternoon air. In a country known for its reserved behaviour toward strangers, it seems a fitting way to end a day of pleasant surprises.
Around 75 miles north east of Pereslavl-Zalessky, the Golden Ring city of Yaroslavl is bisected by the Volga and its smaller tributary, the Kotorosl. It has a relaxed atmosphere I’ve yet to experience in other Russian cities. Bathed in early morning sunshine, the banks of both waterways are lined with rollerbladers, joggers and dog walkers, while young couples nuzzle on park benches and snap selfies.
At Yaroslavl’s Mytny Market, tourists and trolley-wheeling babushkas inspect counters stacked with tvorog (cottage cheese) and other soft cheeses, linden honey, spices and beeswax. In one corner of the fruit hall, a vending machine dispenses jars of red and black caviar.
Shepherding us around the market, Anatoliy Starunov, my local guide for the day, explains Yaroslavl’s air of laid-back confidence. “It was tough here after the global financial crisis,” he says. “But then came Yaroslavl’s Millennium celebrations in 2010 [the city is believed to have been founded in 1010], when we got a new museum space, a new concert hall and a lovely park by the Volga. We even got a new cathedral, paid for by a private donor. Sanctions are having an effect, of course, but we Russians are used to overcoming problems.”
That afternoon, we make the short trip out to the Golden Ring town of Rostov Veliky, passing a succession of entrepreneurial babushkas selling mushrooms and wild strawberries. Luminous road signs warn of wild moose.
Rostov Veliky is famous for its white-towered kremlin and skyline of multicoloured cupolas rising above the turbid waters of Lake Nero. Taking shelter from a rainstorm, I admire one of the kremlin’s many chapels whose interior is covered in beautiful frescoes depicting Biblical scenes. The illustration of the devil clutching Judas Iscariot seated on a lion is particularly graphic. “The people of the Golden Ring were always god-fearing folk,” says Anna. “And if they forgot to fear, then they had to be reminded.”
Down on the farm
The next day we continue onward to Kostroma, the furthest Golden Ring destination from Moscow. Founded beside the Volga by Prince Yury Dolgoruky in 1152, the city was then invaded by the Mongols and razed to the ground several times in the 15th century. Today, Kostroma is a quiet place, full of parks, statues and classical architecture. Across the expanse of the Volga, where a few hardy locals bathe in the shallows, the city’s Ipatiev Monastery is radiant in the sunshine.
But it’s moose I’ve really come to see. Dating to the 1940s, today the Kostroma Moose Farm’s primary functions are to produce milk, harvest antler velvet for pharmaceutical purposes and to lure tourists. After our first attempt to find the farm ends in failure that afternoon, we’re forced to overnight in a Kostroma youth hostel, much to Anna’s disgust. The moose are free to come and go as they please, we’re informed by the farm manager over the phone; showing up at feeding time early each day, they wander back to the forest by mid-afternoon. Waiting for tourists who get lost is not a priority.
Having compensated Anna with dinner at Kostroma’s superbly-named Dorogoya, Budu Pozdno (Darling, I’ll Be Late) Restaurant the night before — great shashlik (kebab) and microbrewed beer — we set out again for the farm early the next day. We arrive at feeding time, as a herd of huge males and svelte females chows down on poplar branches and lupins. A heavy-antlered bull saunters over to the fence to grab carrots from my outstretched hand. At the moose creche, a trio of bandy-legged youngsters poses for a photoshoot, lowering themselves to the forest floor in ungainly fashion before dozing off in the dappled shade. I’m offered a glass of milk — warm and creamy with a slightly acidic aftertaste. “You’re lucky,” says Anna. “Most of the milk goes to the local sanatorium. Apparently it’s good for stomach problems.”
Our detour means we must now rush to catch the afternoon train to Moscow from Vladimir. But there’s just time to call in at Suzdal — a favourite Golden Ring destination — en route.
A three-hour drive from Kostroma, Suzdal must own the world record for most religious structures, with over 40 churches, cathedrals, monasteries and convents shoehorned into a town of just 10,000. It became a monastic centre in the reign of Ivan the Terrible (1547-1584) and has preserved its old-world appearance ever since.
Suzdal’s pretty market square has stalls selling handicrafts and local produce. After picking up a pot of honey, I rush down to the kremlin, past a long line of horse-drawn carriages. Then it’s over a bridge to the Museum of Wooden Architecture & Peasant Life, which boasts an entire village of Doctor Zhivago-style timber buildings cherry-picked from the surrounding area and a collection of fairytale churches.
By this stage, Anna is having a nervous breakdown, so I leg it back to the minivan for the 25-minute drive to Vladimir. A whistlestop tour takes in the magnificent 12th-century Golden Gates. All that’s left of a defensive wall that once encircled Vladimir, these dominate the centre of the city like a Russian Arc de Triomphe.
We pull into the train station with 10 minutes to spare. While my guide takes calming breaths, I shake Alexei’s hand. Our fellowship of the Ring has been strong, but it’s time to say goodbye.
Thanks to a uniquely Russian mix of history and religion, local colour and laid-back charm, the last four days have been a revelation. Sweating (and swearing) profusely as I heave my suitcase onto the departing train, I’m already grateful for some golden memories.
British Airways flies from Heathrow to Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, as does Aeroflot and Transaero Airlines. EasyJet flies direct from Gatwick and Manchester.
Average flight time: 3h45m.
The most convenient option is a multi-day tour with a driver and guide. Alternatively, rent a satnav-equipped car at the airport and drive yourself, or use public transport — most Golden Ring destinations are well served by the rail network.
When to go
Most visitors come in the hottest months (July-August) but the weather is also pleasant in the shoulder seasons (May-June, September-October). Winter can be very cold (January-February averages -10C) but travellers are rewarded with a picturesque blanket of snow.
Need to know
Visas: Visit ru.vfsglobal.co.uk for details.
Currency: Ruble (RUB). £1 = RUB 88.
International dial code: 00 7.
Time: GMT +3.
How to do it
Exeter International has a four-day tour, The Golden Ring, with guide and driver from £2,655 per person, based on two sharing. Includes return flights to Moscow but not visas.
Express to Russia has a four-day Golden Ring tour with private guide and driver from around £800 per person, based on two sharing. Flights and visas not included.
Published in the December 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)