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8 Reasons to Visit Sergiev Posad

LIFEHACK The fastest way to get to Sergiev Posad is by express train from the Yaroslav station in Moscow.  It speeds you there in an hour - and beats the traffic jams.
For centuries, Russia’s Tsars came to pray in this very place, some of them making the journey from Moscow on foot.   Sergiev Posad is home to the largest monastery in Russia - The Holy Trinity St Sergius Lavra - a true symbol of Russian Orthodox Christianity.  This was the dwelling place of spiritually strong people, humble and hardworking, ready to endure all sorts of privations - and absolutely not concerned with fame or fortune. The town is also known as Russia’s “toy capital”: the first matryoshka – which has now become a famous souvenir – was made here - the first dolls for the royal children came from here - and in Soviet times the town was the site of the country’s main toy factory.   During this visit you have the chance to try delicious honey cake, learn the ropes of bell ringing, paint your own matryoshka, take a plunge into water at only two degrees, and take exquisitely beautiful photos of Orthodox churches that can serve as a guide to the history of Russian architecture.     
FACT: There are a great many monastic communities in Russia, but only two of them are called “Lavras” - The Holy Trinity St Sergius, and The Holy Trinity St Alexander Nevsky in Saint Petersburg.  The title ‘Lavra’ is given only to the largest monasteries, those of special historical and spiritual significance.  

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   Speaking the same language as the Russians 
He led a solitary life deep in the woods, sharing his food with the bears, and was one of the most educated individuals of his time; he promoted the unity of Russia under the rule of Moscow - and helped to shake off the Tatar-Mongol Yoke. This was Sergius of Radonezh - the founder of The Holy Trinity monastery, a humble and hardworking hermit, who became the greatest saint in the eyes of generations of Russian rulers.  Most of the monasteries in Russia were established by his followers and disciples. In the Lavra, images of Sergius of Radonezh are everywhere - his monument adorns the main square in front of the monastery, and you will find scenes from his life, full of events as it was, inside the entrance arch of the Holy Gates. The most popular episode in his life is the appearance of the Mother of God to Sergius - see how many depictions of that you can spot around the Lavra.   Sergius is a household name in Russia and if you are interested in learning more about him, there is an English-language publication about the saint’s life and the history of the Lavra in the monastery bookshop.  
FACT: The Iconostasis (or altar screen) is the partition dividing the altar from the nave of the church; it consists of several rows of icons, the number of rows can vary from three to five. In the middle of the bottom row are the Royal Doors, while to the right is an icon of Jesus Christ - and the icon of the saint or feast to which the church is dedicated.  So, for example, in a “Trinity” church, it will be the icon of the Trinity.  The icon of the Last Supper is usually placed above the Royal Doors, and the Cross is always set at the top of the altar screen.

   Learning about Russian art and architecture 
Stand in the central square inside the monastery and look around you: the buildings you see serve well as a lesson in the history of Russian architecture. The simpler the design and the more subdued the colour, the older the church.  Compare the Trinity Cathedral and the Bell Tower - it is easy to determine which is older. Don’t be daunted by the queue to enter the Cathedral: if you are not planning to visit the shrine with the relics of St Sergius, you can pass it by and walk straight in;  feel the unparalleled power of the spiritual presence within this ancient church -  for more than five hundred years people from all over the country have brought their troubles and requests here.  Take a closer look at the altar screen - some of the icons there are the same age as the church itself. To the right of the Royal Doors there is a copy of the famous Trinity icon, which in the 15th century transformed the principles of icon-painting at the time. The original, painted by Andrei Rublev specially for the Trinity Cathedral in the Lavra, is now in the Tretyakov Gallery collection in Moscow.  
FACT: Orthodox Christians observe the strictest fasting days - going without food and drinking only water. Fasting totally excludes meat and dairy products, while fish and oil are allowed on certain days.  Wednesdays and Fridays are fasting days throughout the year. 

   Sampling Orthodox Christian fasting food
You may already know that Orthodox Christians keep the fast before Christmas and Easter, but altogether there are more than 200 fasting days in the Orthodox calendar – that means more than half the year! -       So no wonder that some imagination is needed to come up with new recipes that would be both fit for purpose and taste good. Before leaving the monastery, pay attention to the bakery - it will be on your right when you are going out - the honey cake, cabbage pies and a fish pie called ‘kulebyaka’ there are a must - all count food for fasting days - but they are delicious!  For something to drink, have a cup of ‘ivan-chai’ or a glass of ‘kvas’. Kvas tastes a little like coca-cola, but is made using only natural ingredients: rye bread, yeast and a bit of sugar. 
FACT: Baptism in the Orthodox church is performed by full immersion in the font with holy water - in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  
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   Taking panoramic shots and keeping warm
To take a panoramic photo of the Lavra, cross the road via the underpass - it’s also a good place to buy hand-knitted down shawls, but there will be another opportunity later on to choose your toys.   Cross the road, then turn right and go up the hill until you reach another monument to St Sergius of Radonezh – he is depicted here at the moment when his prayers about his flock were answered by God, who sent a flock of birds to him – to represent the great number of monks at his monastery - and to assure him that their number would not decrease if they follow his path. This spot offers one of the best views of the Lavra.  For another viewpoint, follow the path along the monastery wall that leads to the spring of St Savva of Storozhev.  There is a pool there - to feel the power of the Orthodox faith and the fortitude of the Russian soul, join the people in the water - it’s only 2 degrees! - those who have tried it say this cold plunge actually has a warming effect.    

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   Finding out what the prayers of the Russian Tsars were about - and what the peasant life was like  
In the Stable Yard museum you can take a closer look at the monastery buildings and get an idea of how it all looked in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. The Holy Trinity St Sergius Lavra played an important role in the history of the Russian state, and Russia’s rulers were always generous in supporting it.  The exhibition displays unique royal gifts to the monastery - including icons embroidered in gold and decorated with precious stones, embroidered robes, huge silver candle holders, and much, much more.  Here you can learn which of the Tsars donated the most to the monastery - and which ones, on the contrary, kept borrowing money from it for all sorts of projects. Some of the intrigues and tricks used by the rulers of Russia will be revealed. Ask the guide, for example, about the splashes of red paint visible under the blue sash on the portrait of Catherine the Great. To find out how life was for the peasants in these times of royal intrigue, the exhibition “The World of the Russian Village” - shows the interior of a peasant’s house and introduces some of the traditional costumes, ceremonies and accessories of everyday life in the country.
FACT: The name “Matryoshka” comes from a woman’s Christian name - Matryona - which means ‘homemaker’ or ‘mother’ – and the doll is thought to have originated in Sergiev Posad.   It was here - at the beginning of the 20th century - that the first Matryoshka was made – it consisted of eight pieces - a girl with a cockerel, alternating with a boy, with the sequence ending with a wrapped-up baby.  

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   Painting your own matryoshka
As the capital of Russian toys, Sergiev Posad has a toy factory, a toy research institute, a toy college, a toy museum and a great many shops selling Russian toys of traditional types and decoration.  You can start your exploration of the world of toys by visiting the museum - and meeting the dancing bears and other mechanical toys that have been produced for centuries in Sergiev Posad.  You will learn about the history of toy-making and see the dolls that belonged to the children of the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas the Second. To learn how to paint your own matryoshka, sign up for a class at the toy factory that is situated opposite the Lavra. In Soviet times it was the main toy factory in the whole country, and produced the greater part of all the toys for all Soviet children, including the plastic Chipollino that you saw in the museum. Your class will not only teach you traditional ways of painting Russia’s best-known souvenir, but you are also able to find presents to suit any taste in the “Russkaya Matryoshka” souvenir shop.  

   Enjoying a good lunch
“Varenichnaya Number 9” on Karl Marx street is considered to be the best place to eat - good food at a reasonable price.  They serve beer in milk churns, just like 50 years ago - the television shows old Soviet films, and there are books on the shelves  - alongside a bust of Lenin and cans of a traditional Russian treat - the sweetened condensed milk called ‘sgushenka’.   Try the speciality - dumplings stuffed with chicken breast and potatoes in sour cream sauce, served in a frying pan.   If it’s a weekend and they are full, walk on to the nearby “Brynza”, the Georgian “Pirosmani” or “10 Druzei Ushli v Muzei” (“Ten Friends Out at the Museum”) - all conveniently along the same street.  Next to the “Varenichnaya” is a souvenir shop “Gorod Masterov”, where apart from matryoshki, bunnies on wheels and wooden Easter eggs, you can buy beautiful hand-made cards, at 200 rubles a set, and add your own message while waiting for the dumplings to arrive. 

   Learning the ropes in bell ringing
The peal of bells from Russian Orthodox churches is known all over the world. In the Russian church, on the first Sunday after Easter anyone can go up the bell tower and ring the bells - but the “Russian Bells” showroom offers this opportunity all year round.  You will learn about the history of the bells and be shown wooden, stone and flat-shaped varieties. Apart from such guided tours, the gallery also runs concerts and classes.  A group of 20 schoolchildren practising bell ringing all at the same time doesn’t give the teacher a headache - rather, quite the opposite, it makes one go away. That happens often here - this music is healing.  The museum is private, so you can arrange the time of your visit by appointment.