The UNESCO world heritage site Suzdal, located in the Vladimir region, is part of the Golden Ring – a string of cities in the Northeast of Moscow known for their art and history.
Suzdal is known as the “Golden Dome of Russia” due to its vast number of beautiful Orthodox churches and monasteries, a lot of which have had to undergo restorations, but have still preserved the pristine whiteness of the original stone.
“We really do not know when exactly Suzdal was founded,” says Sergey Sedov, a historian, “but it was first mentioned in the Russian chronicles in 1024.”
Sedov further elucidated that Suzdal used to be the political center of the region until it was attacked and greatly damaged by the Mongols in the 13th century, and then again by the Polish and Lithuanian armies in the 17th century.
Suzdal has remained a small provincial town ever since then. But it began to attract attention and visitors in the mid-19th century when a railroad was built that connected Moscow to the city of Nizhny Novgorod and ran close to Suzdal.
There are no looming skyscrapers or spacious outlet malls in Suzdal, but there are many charming vistas. There is also the marketplace that sells sweet treats, knickknacks and offers horse rides to both tourists and locals.
Local tour guide and Suzdal lifelong resident Katya Orel gave some insight into her home city.
“We call Suzdal a museum town, because in its small area – only nine square kilometers – it houses 300 architectural monuments,” she said.
Monastery of the Savior and St. uthymius
On the bank of Suzdal’s Kamenka River there stands the Monastery of the Savior and St. Euthymius, built in the 14th century. Originally used as a fortress to protect against enemies, it was one of the most influential and richest cloisters in the city.
Today, however, it is a museum. Valery Garanin, a bell ringer at the Monastery who plays for seven minutes on one leg, said his job required true commitment and understanding.
“I think a believer can perhaps get a better feeling of this job, but one really has to have the right skills. Otherwise, no matter what he feels inside about things like church holidays, he may not succeed at this job,” Garanin said.
Svetlana Melnikova is Deputy Director of the Suzdal-Vladimir state museum, which oversees the art and history collection of the two cities in addition to another city in the Golden Ring. She says that Suzdal, which has also come to be known as the “Pearl of the Golden Ring” has earned its popularity due to its architectural wealth.
“We have 5 monasteries, 36 churches, 15 bell towers. And I should say that the most interesting, the most honorable monuments belong to the Vladimir-Suzdal State museum,” Melnikova said. “We have many museum exhibitions that reflect all this beauty and the treasures of Russian history. And that is why we have so many visitors. And we are lucky to have them.”
Also on the must-see list for Suzdal visitors is the banya – a Russian bathhouse. The bathers who help the visitors get the best out of their experience assure you that it does not take an extreme athlete to take part in a traditional Russian bath.
The experience begins with immersing oneself in the steam and then being massaged and whacked by the bathers with bunches of birch tree leaves.
“Birch is a powerful antiseptic,” says Sergey Mayorov, one of the bathers of the Hot Springs Bath Complex. “It is very good for the skin. It gives a better massage for the body.”
Birch is also meant to help the body absorb heat, which is exactly what someone needs before they decide to take a brisk walk through the snow and willingly plunge into a hole in a frozen river.
The procedure is an age-old tradition, says the manager of the Hot Spring Resort in the Vladimir region, Irina Burakova.
“People do it for purification and the principal it’s based on is the temperature shock, so-called pain and pleasure,” Burakova says.
Katya Chursinova, a Suzdal tour guide, says that the grandeur and beauty of cities like St. Petersburg and Moscow fails to show the “real Russia” that can only be found in such provincial cities as Suzdal.
“Here, nothing distracts your attention from the beautiful surroundings. There is no traffic, no faceless new buildings, no factories,” said Chursinova.