Rostov Veliky – Stepping into Another Era
Text by Sophie Larder
Photos by Sergey Barakhovich
As the Moscow-Yaroslavl train disappears into the distance I am left standing on the platform with a handful of other passengers. As we cross the tracks I am struck above all by one thing: the silence. My fellow travelers disperse into taxis or along the road and I am left alone, walking along a leafy boulevard lined with picture book wooden houses of different shapes, sizes and colors, on the road that will lead me to the centre of Rostov-Veliky, considered the most picturesque of the Golden Ring towns.
Taking in the fresh air and the green landscape, the Kremlin appears suddenly on the horizon. Nothing fails to change the feeling that in stepping off the train I have entered another era. In the setting sun the Kremlin’s domes light up and the white walls glow pink against the darkening sky. The mood of enchantment continues as I knock on the huge wooden door of the Kremlin with an iron ring. It echoes and a modern day gateman ushers me in through a dark passageway into the Kremlin garden. Across the pond within the Kremlin is my hotel, one of the most atmospheric places to stay in the whole of Russia.
Dom na Pogrebakh is the name of the hotel. A small wooden building within the Kremlin walls, it offers wood-paneled rooms with high ceilings and wooden fairytale beds that come complete with a view of the massive domes of the Kremlin and the promise of waking up to the pealing of bells from the many churches. Other rooms look out onto the peaceful vista of Lake Nero, with silver domes glinting along its banks. It is indeed a world away from the noise, dirt and chaos of Moscow - a tranquil, though little known setting in which to unwind and take stock.
Rostov-Veliky is one of the oldest towns in Russia. First chronicled in 862, it was named Veliky or “great” by Yury Dolgoruky in the twelfth century due to its political importance at the heart of the Rostov-Suzdal principality. It has survived Tatar invasions, fires and even tornadoes. Situated just outside the north wall in its own courtyard, the Cathedral of the Assumption’s five domes dominate the Kremlin skyline. The belfry was added to it in the 1680’s and sits against the Kremlin wall with huge bells in descending sizes. Tours can be arranged to see both. The gate churches Tserkov Voskreseniya and Tserkov Ioanna Bogoslova line the walls of the Kremlin, with the pretty and colourfully patterned Tserkov Hodigitrii lying between them has an exhibition of Orthodox vestments. The Church of the Saviour-over-the-Galleries is filled with beautiful frescos, while in the Metropolitan’s house there is a museum of finift, the enamel painting native to Rostov.
Walk out of the door and down the wooden steps of the Dom na Pogrebakh and you are in the heart of this living museum. The Kremlin garden is covered with wild flowers, while trees mark a shady pathway from the hotel. On a Saturday off-duty soldiers from the local barracks lounge and take pictures while babushkas working at the museums gather to gossip, throwing disapproving looks at them. A cat sunbathes in a patch of light and a bizarrely dressed group of sightseers are posing on a wooden balcony. Enquiries tell me that costumes from the Ivan the Terrible period can be hired by anyone wishing to stimulate their imagination and provide a change from the usual holiday photo opportunities. Nuns in flowing black robes with heavy crucifixes add to the scene as they hurry along the pathway to the main West gate which is lined with artists selling their paintings of Rostov.
Through the gloomy archway of the Kremlin and out through the heavy gate, a lively trade is going on in makeshift wooden booths. Tourists are flocking to buy the enamel handicrafts Rostov is famous for. You can buy anything in delicate hand painted enamel; from a matching bracelet and earring set to a pill box decorated with a picture of the Virgin Mary. A young girl seeking to make a few rubles is shouting “hot pirozhki” above the din.
The dirt pathway by the old fashioned hand-worked pump leads down to the lakeside. Ahead of you is Khors, a two storied house that doubles as a museum and a two room hotel. Owned by artist Mikhail Selishchev, and named after a pagan sun god, this eccentric, whimsical little place houses antique household items as well as many paintings by local artists.
Following the dirt pathway around to the back of the dachas that line the waterfront brings another world to life. The gardens are bright with riotous colorful vegetables and flowers, while fences are painted in bright childlike colors and old babushkas in headscarves sit gossiping by their back door and look suspiciously as the tourists, strange visitors from another world, walk past them. A hesitant smile or a loud dobry dyen will easily break the ice and bring smiles and waves. Rostov’s people are a breath of fresh air after the anonymity of Moscow.
One of the best ways to pass your time in Rostov is to rent a rowboat or ask one of the fishermen who sit by the lake to take you out in his motorboat. Sometimes they will even offer to take you on a progulka to the island in the center of the lake. Don’t be put off by the rust and general wear and tear on the boats; they are generally as hardy as their owners. A ride in one of these boats is exhilarating. Despite the glass-like stillness of the water of Lake Nero, the winds whip past your face as you hurtle towards the tiny grassy island. At the island they turn the boat around and you can see the Kremlin, nestled on the banks of the lake, fairytale onion domes silhouetted against the sky, sunlight glinting off the Orthodox spires.
West of the Kremlin is the equally ephemeral Monastery of St. Jacob. Its high white walls and towers encircle the brilliant green domes of the Conception Cathedral. Ask your host to drop you off at the tiny jetty by the walls, or take the gentle half hour walk along the lake, passing dachas, army barracks and local fishermen. Life passes slowly and gently in Rostov.
Old women begging and tradesmen selling their home produce line the path up to the monastery. Just inside the gate a monk will be waiting by what, at first sight, seems to be a pile of sack cloths but are in fact skirts for women visitors to tie over trousers and headscarves for those unprepared and unversed in Orthodox conventions. Once in this attire the transformation is complete; all that’s standing between you and peasant life is the bucket of potatoes.
In wintertime life at the monastery must be bleak for the growing community of monks, only protected from the fierce wind off the lake by high walls. The firewood chopped and stored in huge arches gives testament to how little modernity has touched this place. But during my visit in the summertime the garden was beautiful and the air was warm. For ten rubles a black robed and bearded monk will take you up the precarious wooden ladder onto the walls and even higher up into one of the towers for a breathtaking view across the still water of the lake. On your way back to the gate don’t forget to visit the church to light a candle in front of an icon, and then stop by the Conception Cathedral. Its closed for restoration; but through the iron gate you can see the glorious, though damaged, murals decorating the walls and stretching up into the domed ceiling, while the alter with its golden cross stands ahead of you in the stillness and silence.
A visit to Rostov can be simply a relaxing break from the frenetic demands of Moscow. It can be an artistic and cultural experience. It can be an insight into a way of life Russians in cities left behind fifty years ago. It can even be a deeply spiritual or emotional experience. Whichever of these it is, Rostov makes you feel as if you have discovered it by yourself, this enchanting town suspended in time.
- The fast electrichka from Moscow to Yaroslavl (three and a half hours) departs at regular intervals from Yaroslavl Station. Price 300r (2nd class).
- Or try one of the many long distance trains that go through Yaroslavl. Might take slightly longer but useful if you want to travel later at night. You could also go by suburban train changing at Alexandrov.
- Buses from Moscow go via Pereslavl-Zalessky and Sergiev Posad (four to five hours)
- Buses from Yarolslavl (one hour) go about every hour.
Places to Stay
- Dom na Pogrebakh (+7-8536-612-44) right inside the Kremlin. Entrance through the West gate. Clean wood-paneled rooms with shared showers and toilets start from 500r for a twin room. More expensive modern rooms with private facilities from 1300r.
Places to Eat
- Trapeznaya (8-328-71; open 08:00 to 20:00) also right inside the Kremlin. Ideal for breakfast and lunch but shuts early. Tasty traditional Russian dishes and drinks including Medovukha (honey mead) and freshly made Pelmeni. Main courses from 200r.
- Arkada (337-05; open 11:00-23:00 Mon-Fri, 11:00 -14:00 Sat-Sun) in the Tradin Arkades around the Kremlin wall, Arkada is a brightly decorated bar, a favourite with the locals that does tasty shashlyk and piva for under 200r.
- Slavyansky (322-28); 100m east of the Kremlin, the more restaurant like Slavyansky is recommended by staff at Dom na Pogrebakh for evening meals. Main courses of traditional Russian fare up to 400r.
- There is no bank in Rostov but there is an ATM in the supermarket behind the earthen walls on Ulitsa Belinskovo.