Monday, 10 September 2012

Vladimir, Suzdal and more churches than you can shake a stick at

Our little guest house
The day we headed to Vladimir did not get off to a very good start.  We arrived at Moscow Kazansky Station a couple of hours before the train was due to leave and Paul was despatched to get coffee.  He returned with a pained grimace holding two plastic cups full of what can only be described as sweet boiling water the colour of wee.  It was disgusting. 

The real tragedy was that he had gone to the trouble of purchasing this rubbish and as the plastic cups were not designed to hold boiling hot water, they had virtually collapsed as he was carrying them covering his left hand with boiling water and scalding himself quite badly.  We established where the toilets were and after first protesting that he would be fine, he finally trotted off to find a tap to run cold water over his hands. 

The WCs were situated at the end of platform 1 which is obviously code for where all criminals and pikeys should congregate (together with lots of Russian wearing a variety of uniforms to keep a eye on this lot).  Paul couldn’t immediately find the loos and given the nature of burns, he was now in agony so he rinsed his hand in a puddle of what he thought was water but what turned out to be actual urine.  How he didn’t throw up immediately I’ll never know.  He returned with a grim look on his face, tainted with a lot of pain. 

Our Room
I scuttled off to find a cold can and some water.  I couldn’t find any soft drink cans so it had to be beer which Paul drank and I think helped.  We spent the next hour or so pouring water on his hand, trying to cool the burning, before boarding the train to Vladimir, a short journey of 3 hours which flew past.  He ended up with some enormous, deep blisters on his hands but they seemed to heal eventually after a few days.

We were met at Vladimir Station by Ivan, our host in Suzdal, and we had another roller coaster ride on the Russian roads.  The main road from Vladimir to Suzdal works like this.  There are two lanes in each direction, and each has a smaller lane on the right (half lane, half ditch) into which you steer your car should anyone come screaming up behind you wanting to overtake. 

The river running through Suzdal
The only problem with this system is that the smaller lane is not really big enough for your average vehicle to move into so when you are overtaking (as Ivan frequently did) you are straddling the white lines in the middle of the road. 
And the chances are, someone else is doing the same in the opposite direction.

Luckily Ivan’s car had quite a lot of power so we felt fairly safe but it was a bit hair raising to say the least.
Our guest house in Suzdal was a pretty little place on the outskirts of the small town.  It was welcome change after the hustle and bustle of Moscow.  Although it is one of the Golden Ring towns and as a result attracts about 1 million tourists every year, it is surprising rural.  A river twists and turns through the town, with little wooden bridges dotted about and we had a lovely time enjoying the peace and quiet after hectic cities.

One of the traditional merchants' houses
Suzdal is known for its churches, Kremlin and monasteries but mainly its churches.  There are literally hundreds of them in various states of disrepair.  When this trip was in the planning stages, it seemed a place not to miss but by now we were already a bit fed up with churches and if knowing we were going to see a lot more in Suzdal, we may have passed it by but we are glad we didn’t because it really was a lovely little place.
There is also a Museum of Wooden Architecture which is interesting and we were taken there with our guide the day after our arrival. 

One of the many churches in Suzdal
All our guides have been lovely, usual in their 20s, excellent English speakers and generally really good company.  It has been good to meet local people and talk to them about their country (of which they are all proud), their own lives and what it is like to grow up in Russia today.

Katya, our guide in Suzdal and Vladimir, was no exception.  She seemed to really enjoy explaining what it was like for rural Russians in the nineteenth century, how they lived, their traditions and superstitions – basically information that is likely to have passed us by.
Sunset over the river near our guest house
We also visited Vladimir (and more churches and cathedrals) and it was at about this stage that we were beginning to think that if we never saw another church (or onion dome) it would be too soon.  And icons.  Usually of the Virgin Mary but other saints feature.  They do love an icon do Russians.  They vary in skill, splendour and ostentatiousness  but largely seem to verge on the grand and flamboyant side, with a lot of gold.  And I mean a lot of gold.  It’s hard to continue to be impressed, time after time.
Later that day we decided to venture out to eat.  We were a little wary as we didn’t know what to expect in terms of cost after the astronomical prices in Moscow and St Petersburg but we decided to try and find somewhere reasonable.  We are mainly buying our food at supermarkets but every now and again will eat in a café or restaurant.  Our supermarket meals are limited to bread, cheese, and (usually out of date) ham or salami and the odd meal out supplements our diet (usually with some dill which is clearly considered by Russians as one or your 5 a day).

Where we scared the natives!
The strange thing about Suzdal (and Russia in general) is that it always seems to be closed.  It is very difficult to know whether somewhere was open for business.   We wandered around the town trying to avoid anywhere that looked like it would charge Savoy prices in return for something you would rather feed your dog.
We eventually decided on a café which had been recommended by Ivan’s wife.  As we walked in, all the staff, who had been sat down chatting in the (up until we arrived) empty bar area, scattered like cockroaches, leaving one terrified waitress to deal with the two foreigners who had just walked in.  At one point during our negotiations with said waitress, I glanced through the kitchen hatch where the staff had reconvened and were staring through at us.  I looked away and when I looked back a second later and they were gone again.
Paul enjoying a spectacular rainbow!
In the meantime, the petrified waitress seemed unable to respond to any of our attempts to communicate that we (a) would like to see a menu and (b) would like a couple of beers.  The poor thing just stared wide eyed at us in sheer panic until we eventually managed to persuade her to serve us two beers and hand us a menu.

We were relieved to see that the prices were very reasonable so we sat down with our beers and another, less terrified  waitress, with a smattering of English came to take our order.  We were also relieved that the menu was in English as well as Cyrillic.  We can read Cyrillic but we just can’t understand all the words.  We need pictures (which don’t represent just how much dill you’re going to get) or an English translation. 
The view from the hill near us
We decided on caviar and mushrooms to start followed by fish and chicken.  I am pleased to report that the food was absolutely delicious and that was certainly encouraging because so far we had been underwhelmed by what we had experienced so far (apart from the Moscow kebab!).  Quite satisfied with our supper we paid our bill and left to watch the sun set over Suzdal from the hill near our guesthouse.
Our final day in Suzdal was uneventful.  We spend the day wandering around the town, enjoying the views, and the peace and quiet, before heading back to Vladimir Station to catch our train to Ekateringburg.
It is a perfect antidote to a huge, hectic and expensive city like Moscow and the sort of place you could lose a few days happily wandering around checking out lots of churches, traditional wooden houses in various states of disrepair and the lovely countryside.



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