Charmed by Simplicity in Vladimir and Suzdal
By Anna Kulyagina
Photos by Denis Manko
It is not in my character to spend my free time working, but I was invited on a tour organised by the Moscow travel boutique, Yappi Club, to one the Golden Ring towns and I could choose which one. Surprising myself, I chose Vladimir and Suzdal. I wanted to find out if they were of really no interest at all or was it just my personal nightmare of one awful trip last October. I was shocked by the beauty, ancient energy and simplicity of these two different but yet similarly attractive places. Now that I try to compare the emotions of my two trips, I am captured by the enjoyment of the second trip.
My decision to visit these beautiful cities again was based on impetuous intuition. The only thing I was sure of was that I would definitely have a new experience. I was looking for that. The Yappi club organized the travel schedule and gathered a small group of young people and took five of us by road to Vladimir. If you get used to the traffic jams and the bad roads, the 4 1/2 hour trip is relaxing. Our mini-bus was mobility itself, compared to the huge excursion buses. As we entered Vladimir around 13.00 we saw typical Soviet industrial areas but as we proceeded the boring look of 20th century Vladimir disappeared. I found myself murmuring an old fairy tale when we reached the Golden Gates at the historical center of the town. They were built to highlight the prestige of the new capital in 1158. Now the dome of the Gates is the Museum of Honor and combines the past and present. It took several centuries to change the look of the gates and the ditches which are all that is left of the fortifications around them, but at least you can imagine what they looked like inside the museum. Inside there is a panorama illustrating the invasion of the Tatars in the 13th century.
The guides will tell you the story of the gates; they used to be covered in golden sheets and had two moats forming the left and right sides to protect the town from unwelcome hostile visitors. But after the visit of Catherine II the ditches were demolished on her order. This occurred when Catherine came to town and her procession could not pass through the gates. Now this area around the gates is used as a wedding cortegeís route. They have to go round the gates three times beeping their horn at full blast. We were there on a Saturday which is a popular wedding day and we could watch and listen to the constant din. I remember I counted 15 corteges. No doubt the old part of the town is the most attractive for tourists and for weddings, the oldest of ceremonies.
We proceeded through the gates and went up the Bolshaya Mosskovskaya Ulitsa to the St. Dmitrius Cathedral. We could not go inside the Cathedral as it was under restoration but the outside view held enough excitement. It was built by the local architects on the order of Vsevolod 3rd or Dmitry. What I could not help thinking while standing and listening to our guide was how different the people were at the time they built a white stone church and didnít realize that centuries later we would look at it in admiration and respect their work. They could produce such beauty and it was preserved for us to appreciate. The building itself produces the effect of an overpowering presence. For a minute it was strange for me to see people wearing jeans and t-shirts, talking on mobiles and taking pictures as I was transported into the past by the shear beauty of the church.
The Dormition Cathedral was our next stop. It was built by Andrei Bogoluibsky with the condition that his family would be buried there. He invited the Bolognese architect Aristotile Fiorovanti who was the creator of the Dormition Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin. The building was finished in 1158, but it has survived as reconstructed after a major fire in the city in 1185. From 1189 when it was finally re-opened, it became not just a place for services and prayers but the place where the first library was founded. I think the guides could tell more about the historical meaning of the Cathedral and the fact that it was plundered a few more times during Tatar and internecine wars, and about the luxurious decoration of Russian Orthodox Church style and its ancient frescos. That explains why when you enter the church you feel the energy of time and events that have been happening there for centuries. Though it is mostly a tourist spot and every day there are large crowds, donít miss the chance to go. It seems to be alive, breathing ancient air and speaking an old language but yet seems to understand your feelings and nourishes a positive energy within its walls.
Suzdal is history, architecture and art museum in every cornerstone. We spent a full day there and we have so many things left to see. They say that you need at least ten days to have a good in-depth experience. There are thirty churches, five monasteries and fourteen bell towers. Give yourself ample time and Suzdal and Vladimir will reward amply reward you!
Leaving Dormition Cathedral and walking round Vladimir, we saw a simple old town with touches of the Soviet period in its shops, post office and small fountains and parks. It looked peaceful and calm, with families walking with their kids and it was almost strange to compare all the history with present day reality.
The last place in Vladimir we went to see was the former water tower which is now the museum of Vladimir at the beginning of the 20th century. The exposition is all about that time, the way it looked and the way people looked. What they wore, what they did, where they went and where they bought goods. There is a funny sign from an old photo shop; it said ďwe take pictures today come to pick them up tomorrow.Ē A hundred years ago and they had such fast service! The museum is also a good place to visit because of its fourth floor open terrace with a panoramic view of the Klyazma river site and the churches and cathedrals at almost birdís eye height.
We finally ran out of time and the only thing we regretted was that we couldnít visit all the other places that sounded interesting such as Trinity Church where there is an exhibit of crystal, lacquer miniatures and needlework.
The road to Suzdal takes fifty minutes and reveals a picturesque view of a quiet rural area smelling of fresh grass and the sound of the quiet farmland. I had time to recollect my emotions and prepare for our next chapter of history and reality. Have you ever felt like a giant in a Lilliputianís city? I have become used to feeling like a Lilliputian in Moscow where a three storied building is a big rarity. Suzdal is a two storied town in its entirity. It has substantial historical significance and it is not allowed to build houses of more than two storeys. So the whole town looks like a museum dollís house. It is only fifteen square kilometers with thirty thousand inhabitants, most of whom are museum babushkas and guardians of the historical center. It was still daylight in the town but we were too tired to go for long investigative tours so we stood on the Marketplace in the central spot of Suzdal and just watched the action. If you like horses donít miss the chance to take a ride in Suzdal. You can ride yourself or take a carriage and pass the time like a noble for only 150 rubles for 20 minutes. I am allergic to horses so I just watched the cabs parking and departing from a safe distance. My friends were excited mostly by the idea that the road belongs primarily to horses and not to cars.
By 20:00 in the evening we were hungry and found a very good place on the market square called Gostinny Dvor (Hospitality Yard). They have a rather big menu and I think it is because of the loads of people coming to Suzdal to try something really Russian. We found white mushrooms, honey fungus, salted milk mushrooms; grilled, fried with onion, garlic or vegetables; pelmenies, aspics, blinis with red and black caviar, cream and salmon and nothing cost a fortune. But you definitely have to try the medovukha (honey wine). There is a large variety of this unique local brew. The average bill will be around 800 Rubles. Itís worth it. If you donít know what to choose the waiters will help.
After dinner we took a walk and at 23:00 we finally came to the Pottery House where we stayed the night. (See bottom bar)
Suzdal in the evening and in the morning and during the day is the same. It is calm, quiet and slow. Donít go fast as there is no place to hurry to. Take your time and enjoy the slower pace of life. Relish the Museum of Wooden Architecture and Peasant Life with its houses and small wooden church, the big well, the windmills and the peasantís yards. Our wonderful guide, Margarita Mikhailovna was so intelligent that we tried to catch every word. Her lecture was something to treasure. That treasure came out in full when we came to the Monastery of Our Savior and St. Euthimius (Spaso-Yevfimiev Monastery). It was founded in 1352 and besides the ancient historical significance it has to Russia, it has played a role in the modern history of the 20th century. At the beginning of the Soviet era it was a prison for Polish refugees. Afterwards the buildings of the Monastery were used as a penal colony for juvenile delinquent boys and later girls. It is a miracle that the old frescos and the church were kept almost untouched. It didnít have such an energetic feeling as in Vladimirís Cathedral probably because of these later events. But there still was something I will not forget. We were in the middle of the guided talk when five young men came up to the dais. They asked for silence and started singing. It was wonderful and I could feel the positive emotions coming up from the very depth of my soul.
The Pottery House
It all started in Suzdal three years ago when a young and talented businessman decided to build a house far away from noisy and crowded Moscow. It was a real problem to clear the ground for the foundation on the site because every millimeter is under tight control as Suzdal is a protected historical city. One can always choose to give up the idea of having a house built there or begin with a small spade and brush and start the archeological excavation that is necessary before a house can be built.
Vadim Dymov chose the second approach. As the work was proceeding a lot of different crockery shards were found. And by the time the house was to be built an entirely new idea was born for the site; a pottery studio would be built. And this pottery studio would produce copies of ancient pots, dishes and any other delicate yet functional things that were made in Suzdal centuries ago. The town has always been famous for its cathedrals and monasteries but there were no historical records of clay manufacturing there. Vadim and his friend Victor Germanov who is now the general Director of Manufacturing, began the monumental work of restoring the historical specimens, designs, images and ornaments. They found that almost every yard in Suzdal had its own pottery kiln to serve the needs of the family. They discovered that there were three trends throughout the centuries for developing and manufacturing toys, utensils and ceramic tile. And now they successfully produce all of these items. They also developed pottery workshops for the guests. Everyone is welcome to visit and buy a dish or listen to the lecture about the manufacturing process. But now they can even take part in the production of the pottery and make a vase, plate or whatever the individual talent allows.