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Nine Reasons to Visit Suzdal

Nine Reasons to Visit Suzdal

Curious about what Russia might have looked like in the eighteenth century? Then you should visit Suzdal! Virtually unchanged for almost three centuries, the town still boasts parish churches aplenty, wooden houses with vegetable gardens and a wonderful sense of rural calm.

In olden days, when Moscow was still just a tiny border town, Suzdal was the capital of a mighty principality. Today, Suzdal offers visitors more than 200 ancient monuments, including several listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

At one time, Russia’s Tsars used to send their unwanted wives and daughters to Suzdal. Later, the town lay on the trade route from Russia’s southern provinces to St Petersburg and Arkhangelsk. Once a town of merchants, today Suzdal attracts film directors eager to capture its unspoilt beauty. One of the Rothschild billionaires even praised Suzdal, claiming its attractions could earn him millions.

Those who visit Suzdal nowadays are drawn to its peace and quiet, and to its hospitality. Visitors come here to rest and sleep, take a good steam in the banya, or Russian sauna, drink some medovukha mead, try the crunchy local cucumbers and delicious kulebiaka pies, buy valenki felt boots and Dymov pottery.

Useful Tip. Suzdal has no railway station, and Moscow’s suburban train system does not operate here. A suburban train (or elektrichka) leaves Moscow for Vladimir at 7.21 am, arriving at 10.07 am. From there, take a minibus (marshrutka) to Suzdal, and you will reach your destination in forty minutes.

1.      Start with the Kremlin

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Unlike its Moscow counterpart, Suzdal’s Kremlin never had fortified walls: for defence, it relied on ramparts and the river Kamenka. When visiting the Kremlin, make sure to take a walk around and see the Rozhdestvensky (Nativity) Cathedral. Its main attraction are the Golden Gates, built in the pre-Mongol period using the fire-gilding technique. A dangerous method, this involved the use of mercury, which cost several craftsmen their lives.

From the Kremlin, it’s a short walk to Suzdal’s Museum of Wooden Architecture, where you can enjoy a taste of Russian life in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The museum allows visitors to compare the lifestyles of wealthy peasants and ordinary peasant families, visit a merchant’s home, a wooden church and a windmill. The museum entrance also offers a splendid view of the town, whilst the stall next door sells hot tea and the local dessert, Vladimir gingerbread with condensed milk.

Interesting Fact. Of his visit to Suzdal, Evelyn de Rothschild remarked: ‘You are walking on gold! I'm a rich person, but if I got Suzdal for some years, I would double my capital!’ This comment made the Soviet authorities spring into action. A massive reconstruction project started in Suzdal, its decrepit buildings were renovated, and tourists started to flock to the town. This also marked the creation of the USSR’s first tourist route – the Golden Ring.

2.      Visit a Place of Exile

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Although a small town, Suzdal is home to five monasteries and convents. The oldest of these is the Rizpolozhensky (Deposition of the Robe) Convent on Lenin Street: its Holy Gates have long been a favourite for photographers. One of the functions of the monasteries was defence. The thickest walls were to be found at the Spaso-Evfimievsky (Saint Euthymius) monastery, although ironically, they never served to keep enemies out. For two centuries, nonetheless, the monastery did house a detention centre. In Soviet times, Yuri Gagarin visited the monastery and met the inmates of the women’s correctional facility there. The monastery’s main Spaso-Preobrazhensky (Transfiguration of the Saviour) Cathedralboasts miraculously rescued frescoes by Gury Nikitin. The nearby viewing platform is a favourite spot with filmmakers, offering views unobstructed by cables or high-rise buildings. From here, visitors can admire another of Suzdal’s convents – the Pokrovsky (Intercession). In Tsarist Russia, rulers would send their unwanted wives and daughters there. Take the time to walk to the convent: up close, it is perhaps even more attractive, thanwhen viewed from a distance.

Interesting Fact. The Pokrovsky convent did not abide by very strict rules. Even during the Great Fast prior to Easter, when most Orthodox Christians follow a strict diet, the convent’s menu numbered over 200 dishes with fish.

3.      Weave Some Lapti and Paint a Fresco

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For something a little more unusual, why not try a masterclass in birch bark weaving! Here, you can learn to make real Russian lapti, or bast shoes, as well as traditional baskets for berries and mushrooms. You could also try your hand at baking: in Suzdal’s bakery, you can make dough, shape pretzels, learn secret tips and enjoy a well-earned cup of tea, taking your freshly made pretzels home with you. If you would like to find out more about icons, come to the Rozhdestva Khristova (Nativity of Christ) Church. Here, Father Andrei Davydov will tell you all about the history and rules of the ancient craft of Orthodox icon-painting. You will learn about encaustic, the technique used in icon-painting up until the tenth century, and will even have a chance to create your own frescoes. Suzdal has other traditional crafts on offer, too: you can make a cloth doll or straw figure, decorate a matryoshka Russian nesting doll, or try your hand at working in a forge.

Interesting Fact. The Russian expression “lyka ne vyazhet” (literally: ‘can’t weave bark’) means ‘to be extremely drunk’. In olde Russia, weaving items from birch bark or bast was considered very easy. This task required no special preparation; therefore, if one could not do it, one was either excessively tired, or extremely drunk.

4.      Buy Valenki

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In the Trading Rows in Suzdal’s main square, you can buy valenki – the most famous local souvenir. These traditional felt boots come in a huge range of styles and prices, the most attractive featuring designs by local artists. Another favourite traditional Suzdal souvenir now on offer is Dymov pottery. The factory and shop are located on the outskirts of the town, on the road to Vladimir. Visitors can attend a masterclass, or simply choose some great gifts: there are tiles and vases, unusually shaped plates, souvenirs, special pottery ranges by individual craftsmen, and the beautiful trademark Dymov black ceramics, created using a special firing process. In the masterclasses, you can learn to work with clay, and to make and decorate traditional Russian tiles. You can also buy Dymov souvenirs at the Trading Rows in Suzdal’s central square. Next door, why not try the Gostiny Dvor restaurant, which serves borscht, pearl barley and pike fishcakes on attractive Dymov ware.

Interesting Fact. Developed in Ancient Greece, the encaustic technique of burning in colours involves the use of pigment mixed with beeswax and fixed with heat.

5.      Get Drunk on Mead

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If you think Russia’s most traditional tipple is vodka – think again! The Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleev is sometimes credited with inventing vodka 150 years ago. For centuries though, the traditional alcoholic beverages of the Slavs were mead and medovukha. Medovukha was mainly made in monasteries, which tended to produce a particularly strong and delicious drink. The main ingredients of medovukha are honey, water and yeast. The most famous medovukha came from Suzdal, where virtually every household made its own, and most housewives had their own recipe. In Suzdal’s Trading Rows, you can find the Suzdal Mead Factory’s special mead-tasting hall, which offers medovukha with hops, mint, juniper berries and pepper. Depending on the added flavours and length of aging, mead can contain 5 to 16 percent alcohol. In Suzdal’s restaurants, you can also sample local spirits such as khrenovukha (a strong drink with horseradish), kliukovka (with cranberry), and cedar, sea buckthorn and lemon spirit. They are all delicious, but be warned – order your taxi back to the hotel beforehand!

6.      Try Cucumber Jam

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Enjoy another traditional Suzdal offering, crunchy cucumbers. Salted cucumbers are of course a specialty all over Russia, but in Suzdal, the preparation of cucumbers is a real cult. In July, the town holds a Cucumber Festival, where visitors can hear odes to this wonderful vegetable, and learn new and bold recipes involving its use. In Suzdal, cucumbers come in different sizes, tastes and colours: green, yellow, sweet, fried or steamed. You can even buy wooden, clay and papercucumbers.  When it comes to growing and preparing cukes, the locals are pros, always turning out crunchy and delicious fare. Take a stroll through Torgovaya (Market) Square, and you’ll see the jolly Suzdal women selling their homemade treats, from fresh-salted cucumbers in jars, to pickled mushrooms, jams and khrenoder spicy horseradish sauce. There’s even a special restaurant dedicated to the cucumber, Ogurets, where you can try cucumber jam and Ogurtsovka cucumber spirit.

Interesting Fact. Cucumbers are thought to have originated in the Himalayan foothills of India, where they still grow in the wild. These wild cucumbers are small and occasionally inedible due to the bitter cucurbitacins they contain. Cucumbers are a good source of potassium, aiding effective functioning of the heart and kidneys.

Interesting Fact. Khrenoder, or khrenovina, is a sauce made with horseradish, garlic and fresh tomatoes.  In some varieties, only red tomatoes are used, whereas in others, a combination of red and green tomatoes is preferred. The ingredients are minced together, with salt and pepper added to taste.

7.      Festive Fun in Suzdal

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Besides the Festival of the Cucumber, Suzdal also marks all Russia’s traditional holidays in style. Festivities involve people turning out to drink tea, dance, or even watch a goose fight! For Shrovetide, a doll symbolising winter is burned as revellers enjoy stacks of delicious pancakes, made to resemble the sun. For Kupala Night, a celebration linked to the summer solstice, people light bonfires and play at jumping over them, weave flower wreaths and bathe in the rivers.

Orthodox Easter is a mighty celebration with painted eggs and kulich Easter cakes. For the folk holidays of Honey and Apple Spas, or Honey Saviour and Saviour of the Apple Feast Day, guests are welcomed with honey and apples to celebrate the harvest.

Besides all this, Suzdal holds a whole host of other festivals celebrating patchwork crafts, biker Blues, anime, bell ringing and wind instruments. In winter, Suzdal puts its magical natural surroundings to good use with the Russian Fairytale celebration. Visitors can also catch a Russian banya festival, as well as festivities to celebrate the trusty axe, valenki felt boots and laptibast shoes. The celebration of lapti includes participants taking part in races, football and tennis tournaments, all while wearing these traditional shoes, of course.

8.      Take a Steam in a Banya

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Any trip to Suzdal would be incomplete without a visit to a banya, or Russian sauna. Suzdal has oodles on offer: Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has especially praised the service in Pushkarskaya Sloboda. Try the traditional technique of slapping your body with bunches of oak leaves, take a dip in the pool, then roll off to the hayloft to rest and enjoy tea with fragrant honey.

Also available are thalassotherapy treatments, scrubs, massage, body wraps and Turkish baths. The three-hour programme in Svetlaya Banya includes a soap massage with birch leaves, or a massage with a body scrub, as well as tea with bagels and jam. You will definitely emerge a new person! The Goriachiye Kliuchi complex boasts 12 different banyas: the Altai Banya with straw bunks and aromatic herbs, the Taiga Banya with scents of pine needles, juniper and spices, the ‘Black’ Banya with its smoke, a Salt Banya with Tibetan plates, the Tsar’s Banya with its pool. Try them all! Mind you, this might leave no time for any other of Suzdal’s many delights...

Interesting Fact. The Slavs believed that banyas had their own spirit – the Bannik. Whenever he is in a foul mood, he burns visitors with hot steam, throws stones and knocks ferociously on the walls. To gain the Bannik’s good favour, guests would leave him a piece of rye bread with coarse salt, or bury a black chicken beneath the entrance. During Sviatki (Christmastide), there was a tradition of fortune-telling in Ancient Rus. Young women would approach the open door of the banya with raised skirts. If the Bannik touched them with a hairy hand, the woman was to expect a rich husband. If the Bannik’s hand was plain, the husband would be poor, and if his hand was wet, the woman’s fate would be to marry a drunkard.

9.      Eat Wild Boar for Lunch

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Rye pies with stuffing, special kulebiaka pies with sturgeon spine, or chicken, or mushroom; stuffed sterlet, pike and suckling pig; borscht, solyanka soup with pickles, salo bacon with garlic and horseradish, meat with mushrooms ‘merchant-style’ and, of course, game: wild boar, quail, pheasant and even moose. For those unfamiliar with the delights of Russian cuisine, Suzdal is an excellent place to start. The choices are many: the truly royal Ulei, the gourmet’s paradise Le Bazar, the Petrine Pushkar, atmospheric Pechka, cozy Privratnitskaya or moderately priced Trapeznaya, as well as the already mentioned Gostiny Dvor and Ogurets, and a few dozen other cafes and restaurants offering Russian dishes made with local produce and served in an original setting. Tables should be booked in advance. Should you feel that all this good fare has taken its toll on your figure, help is at hand: you can always take some exercise with paintball, hunting, fishing, horse riding, dog sledding, snowmobile or sledding sprees, catamaran cruises, boating, skating or skiing!

Interesting Fact. In medieval Russia, game was served strictly in accordance with social status. Fried swan, for instance, was only served at princes’ tables, whereas grouse and blackcock were considered the fare of ordinary folk. Certain types of game were forbidden altogether. Hares, for instance, were considered ‘unclean’ until the end of the nineteenth century.

Useful Tip. If you’re heading for the Vladimir Region, allow yourself more than one day. Take time to wander down Vladimir’s Moskovsky Prospect from the Golden Gates to Sobornaya (Cathedral) Square. Visit Kideksha and Bogolyubovo. Go and admire the famed Church of the Intercession on the Nerl. Visit all of Suzdal’s 200 attractions, and plan a trip to Murom.

You’re Invited! Interested? Why not book an individual or group tour of Vladimir and Suzdal! You can find more details and book through our website or by e-mail.