A weekend in Suzdal
Source: Legion media, Nikolai Korolev
Located around 125 miles from Moscow, Suzdal is one of the most popular towns on the so-called Golden Ring route that connects the ancient towns of Central Russia. Here, there is no need to fear touristy nonsense.
In a town with just 11,000 inhabitants, there are around 200 architectural sights, which include five monasteries, more than three dozen churches and several museums. It is a compact town where you can walk from the center to the outskirts in just 10 minutes. It’s very hard to get lost here.
Noon. Market Square
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Market Square is the perfect place to start your sightseeing, located in the town center at number 63a Lenin Street. It is here that classic 19th-century Russian literature comes to life before your eyes. These days, the shopping arcade and trading stalls seem slightly oversized for the number of traders they house, but they still keep their old function.
There are souvenirs on display — everything from bog-standard fridge magnets to wooden handicrafts, and even Russian winter “valenki” felt boots tied up with bows. If you don’t need Russia’s version of Ugg boots, then have a glass of “kvass” (a refreshing non-alcoholic drink brewed from fermented bread) or some traditional Russian mead instead. There is food available here too, but there are better options ahead if you can wait just a little.
Of Prisoners and Monks
Now that you are suitably decked-out with souvenirs, press the rewind button and scroll back a few centuries. You have a choice of monasteries to visit: the Spaso-Evfimiev Monastery (on Lenin Street) or the Holy Convent of the Intercession (in Pokrovsky) on Pokrovskaya Street. Both these holy institutions in previous times combined many functions — ecclesiastical, defensive and even (although quite naturally) punitive.
The Pokrovskaya Convent played a role in the lives of royal spouses; both Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great had their out-of-favour wives take the veil here. At the Spaso-Evfimiev Monastery you can climb the bell tower for a magnificent view over the local area. Take care, though: the local bell-ringer can sometimes be a bit tipsy. As you may discover on the Internet, the incumbent priest is an inordinately strict follower of the monastery’s traditions and boasts of being an “old lag” who was behind bars at the Vladimir Prison eight times. Ask your Russian friends if they have heard of this — they probably have.
The Monastery Refectory
A happy traveler marches on a full stomach — and since we’ve just come from the monastery, lunch at a monastery dining hall could be just the thing. Eating in Suzdal has long been oriented toward tourists. Even in Soviet times, the table staff was dressed up in Russian national costume and armed with clumsy wooden soup dishes and painted spoons. Some of these traditions can still be found today.
The food here beats all expectations. It is true that you will not find minestrone, pizza or “deflope” with croutons here, but many of their dishes are Suzdal specialities that you will not find elsewhere either. These include Monastery-Style Meat and Archbishop’s Salad. A hearty lunch for two will set you back around €12 ($16).
By car Leave Moscow along Shosse Entuziastov and then follow the M7 Moscow–Nizhny Novgorod Highway. Before reaching Vladimir, take the left turn onto the road for Suzdal, which will be marked. Follow this road for 16 miles until you reach Suzdal. The total distance is around 135 miles.
By intercity bus Depart from Moscow’s Shchelkovsksy Bus Station (Metro station Shchelkovskaya). You can take any of the buses that go through Suzdal, or take the “commercial” Moscow–Ivanovo bus that also stops in Suzdal. Ticket prices are around $6.70 and the journey time is 4 hours, with departures every 30 minutes. The Suzdal Bus Station is about 2 miles from the town center; local city buses number 2 or 3 will take you for around $0.50. A taxi should cost around $4-5.
The traditional Russian cabbage soup (“shchi”), hotpot and pancakes are also worth trying. Monastic rules play a part in the menu planning: there are no meat dishes on Wednesdays and Fridays, or throughout the entire periods of the many religious fasts in the Orthodox Church calendar. However, the Privratnitsa cafe at the fortified gates takes a softer line on dietary abstinences, which visitors may find more palatable. The prices here are palatable too: their delicious mushroom cream soup goes for around €3 ($4). Payment is accepted in cash only.
Anyone who has traveled much in Russia knows that the word “kremlin” is a collective term for fortresses, usually the seat of local princes who ruled the surrounding lands. Suzdal’s kremlin is located at 20 Kremlyovskaya Street. It is actually far older than Moscow’s, listed in ancient chronicles as being built in A.D. 1024. The location was wisely chosen; it is skirted on three sides by the Kamenka River, which creates a natural obstacle to anyone intent on ransacking the princely coffers. However, the walls have tumbled a bit. People say that merchants of yore often mistook the Spaso-Evfimiev Monastery for the city’s kremlin, since its walls looked slightly more menacing. When visiting the kremlin, take a look at the bell tower of the Cathedral of the Nativity — especially the city clock. It’s not hard to find, just take a look around.
The clock face has Old Slavonic lettering in addition to the numerals; telling the time with numerals was a habit brought to Russia from Europe much later, in the days of Czar Peter the Great. Before then, Russians told the time with letters: “a” was one, “b” was two, and so on until 10, for which they used the letter “i.” Well-known to Europeans, the letter “i” has long-since fallen out of use in Russian.
Supper on Kremlin Street
You can get a bite of supper very easily nearby. The whole length of Kremlyovskaya Street is given over to a huge selection of different cafes and restaurants. You could look in at the pricey “Russkaya Restauratsia”, which has dozens of kinds of Russian dumplings (ravioli-style) available with fillings that include meat, forest mushrooms, salmon and even red caviar, all for €5–10 ($6.70–13.40).
The menu also promises the Czar’s Scrambled Quail Eggs (€3.50), “ushnoe” old-fashion braised meat (€8), and a halfway house between the past and the future called “Baron Burger” (€8). If your tastes are simpler, then you can always pop into the Kakaya teashop next door and sit around the samovar. They have more than two dozen kinds of tea.
A night in a Russian Log Cabin
If all this history has given you a taste for the past, you may want to forego a dull modern hotel in favor of something more traditional — and have no fear! You can spend a night in a Russian “izba” – a traditional log cabin house, just like in the photos in museums. There are guesthouses aplenty of this kind in Suzdal and its environs.
If you are travelling on foot, there is a cozy hotel right here on Kremlyovskaya Street. If you came by car, then try Pavlovskoe Podvorye (Pavlov’s Courtyard) at 14 Michurina Street. Prices start at €50 ($67) a night, which gives you an entire small house to yourself. Credit cards are not widely accepted, so it’s best to bring cash along with you. Izba comforts are far greater than you might imagine; traditional furniture, home-sewn drapes and the pleasant smell of resinous timber.
You can have breakfast at Pavlov’s Courtyard, where the menu includes baked omelette in a pot, or home-made “syrniki” (cottage-cheese pancakes made the traditional Russian “babushka” way) — and all for just €3.
Sunday, 11:00 a.m.
Souvenirs at the Market Square
The Symbol of Suzdal is a falcon with raised wings, topped with a closed, gold crown. The bird is depicted on the city’s crest and is often found on different souvenirs. Look for locally made Suzdal crafts:
Embroidery and textiles
Souvenir shops have beautifully embroidered towels showing views of the town, aprons trimmed with lace for serving tea and framed hand-embroidered city scenes. There is also the traditional national dress, from simple peasant smocks to elaborately decorated costumes. You can buy readymade pieces crafted by local Suzdal nuns, or order some exclusive item from local ateliers. The embroidered towels cost $20 on average.
Old Russian Downshifting
Wealthy monasteries and princely abodes are all very well and good, but for balance we should take a glance at Russian serf life as it was centuries ago. So, welcome to the Suzdal Museum of Wooden Architecture and Peasant Life on Pusharskaya Street. The museum was laid out along the lines of a typical Russian village, with a church (of course) at the heart of the village. The main path leads from there, lined with log cabin houses. All the buildings within the village are beautifully decorated with wooden carvings. The usual interior furnishings of the houses are built into the rooms as part of the house itself — benches, shelves and work surfaces. The heart of the house would be the brickwork stove and its chimney; always across the room diagonally from the stove would be the “red corner,” where the household icons would hang.
While visiting the museum grounds, it is worth it to try to catch the psaltery players. The art of playing this ancient Russian instrument is now almost forgotten. The Suzdal players are a little touchy, and if no one comes to hear them play, they are liable to put their instruments down and go off for a sulk.
Another quite different performance at the museum is given by the local geese. They are not wooden, but very much alive. One glance at them confirms that birds of their size, with beaks of their sharpness, could not only save Rome, but give someone a nasty pecking too. Even so, the majority of the live exhibits are of a peaceful disposition.
Old Russian Weaponry
Don’t miss the opportunity to immerse yourself in the life of the ancient Slavs as they lived in the 9th century before the holy baptism of Ancient Rus. Just visit the Shurovo Settlement (14 Korovniki Street), another open-air history site. If you fancy yourself a medieval warrior, you can try spears, swords, longbows and other similar weaponry.
Crystalware, jewelery and items for decorating the home can make an excellent gift, especially because many of these items are produced as one-of-a-kind and are completely unique. Crystal pieces start at $20.
After all, the ancient Slavs had to compete on equal terms with Vikings and warriors of the Byzantine Empire.
The food in the local Korchma tavern is all made from natural ingredients and cooked in a large cast iron furnace. The recipes may be old, but the food itself is deliciously fresh. There are traditional dishes of pike perch, merchant-style meat, salt pickles and a mug of “sbiten” — a mildly alcoholic spiced drink. All of this goes for €25 ($33.50).
The Fairytale Comes to an End
You can find a variety of antique items in Suzdal’s souvenir shops — old coal irons, fire tongs, kitchen utensils, dishes and plates, and candlesticks. Antique pieces start at around $30.
And so, as every Russian child knows, the fairytale comes to an end with the words: “I was there myself, and drank honey mead.” It may not be clear where Russia’s beer capital might be, but the honey capital is definitely in Suzdal. Honey mead is on sale everywhere, practically on every street corner. To get your hands on the real deal, though, head for the Tasting Hall of the local mead distillery at 13 Promyshlennaya Street. You can be sure of getting good quality mead here, and it is all freshly-brewed — quite different to the bottled stuff — with a different taste and a longer shelf-life. A tasting costs €5, after which you can buy the mead you like most (around €3–4 per liter).
Birch bark souvenirs
Suzdal’s craftsmen can make almost anything out of birch bark: tableware, cigarette lighters, book covers, toy boxes, cosmetics cases, bookmarks... and of course the old Russian footwear known as “lapti.” Birch bark boxes cost around $13, while lapti go for $27.
There is quite a range of mead to choose from. A tasting usually includes 10 ceramic thimblefuls of different meads. There is mead with mint; with hops, with juniper berries and, perhaps best of all, with horseradish. Each shot is 50 grams, but it all adds up to half a liter — so be ready for the strength of it, and don’t forget to have a snack.
The usual snacks with mead are different kinds of pickles — pickled apples, pickled cabbage or the mandatory pickled gherkins. The strength of the meads can vary from 4.8 percent to 8.5 percent alcohol. They even have an alcohol-free version for drivers. Maybe it’s worth getting some for the journey home, as well, in case you get held up in traffic.