Zalesye, or ‘Land beyond the forest’ in the north-eastern periphery of Kievan Rus, became the birthplace of the Russian state. In the vast area between the Volga and Oka rivers, a powerful Vladimir-Suzdal principality emerged in the twelfth century. Moscow, initially a marginal settlement, took the lead in the fourteenth century and embarked on the mission of ‘gathering Russian lands’.
Today Moscow is a dazzling metropolis with remarkable architectural monuments, superb museums and a rich cultural life; it is also the point of departure for exploration of the country’s historical legacy along the route of old Russian cities known as the ‘Golden Ring’.
Orthodox Christianity underpinned culture and daily life in mediaeval Russia. It has continued to exert a dominant influence down the ages, even through the Communist era. Despite the damage done by Soviet attempts to impose atheism, religion has enjoyed a remarkable revival in recent years: churches are again used for worship, many monasteries have been reinstated, and there has been much restoration and reconstruction – supported by the government.
The architectural and artistic heritage of the Orthodox faith are sometimes found in spectacular locations. We see churches and monasteries that are striking landmarks in the landscape, while the chiming of bells, the splendour of ritual and the shimmering magnificence of icons and frescoes create a lasting impression.
Although rooted in Byzantine tradition, Russian mediaeval art and architecture display originality and receptiveness to western European ideas. The white stone churches in Vladimir and Bogoliubovo feature Romanesque sculptural decoration, whereas Renaissance influence was brought to the Moscow Kremlin and elsewhere by Italian builders. The Moscow school of icon painting of the early fifteenth century, epitomised by Andrei Rublev, produced images of perfect harmony and beauty. The high iconostasis, a screen with tiers of icons separating the altar from the congregation, developed into a distinctive element of Russian ecclesiastical architecture.
Study of this glittering artistic legacy, explored in its geographical, historical and religious context, is richly rewarding both in its own right and as an essential means better to understand Russian national identity.
London to Moscow. Fly at c.10.50am from London Heathrow to Moscow (British Airways). Drive (c. 1 hour) to the city centre and settle in to the hotel. First of three nights in Moscow.
Moscow. A short coach tour is a profitable introduction to the capital. The Tretyakov Gallery holds the finest collection of Russian icons in the country, many of which formerly belonged to churches and monasteries visited on this tour. After lunch, return to the Gallery to contemplate the national narrative depicted in significant 18th- and 19th-century history paintings. The lustrous landscapes of Isaac Levitan (1860–1900) are a highlight and a precursor to our visit to Ples. Leo Tolstoy’s Moscow residence offers an intimate glimpse into the domestic life of the novelist.
Moscow. Walk through Alexandrov Gardens to the Kremlin, which dates back eight centuries as a centre of Russian government. Many of the tsarist and ecclesiastical buildings have survived the Communist era, among these the spectacular group comprising the icon-rich Cathedral of Assumption, the Cathedral of the Archangel (with tombs of Grand Dukes and Tsars of Muscovy) and the Cathedral of the Annunciation, private church of the Tsars. The Armoury Museum has a remarkable collection of gold and silver, and other precious objets d’art, gifts to the tsars. The Novodivichy Convent, baroque-style Moscow architecture at its finest, was a retreat – at times enforced – for some of Russia’s most famous noblewomen.
Moscow, Pereslavl Zalessky, Rostov, Yaroslavl. An early start as we quit Moscow for the provinces. Simple and exquisite, the church of St Saviour of Transfiguration in Pereslavl Zalessky, completed in 1157, is one of the earliest churches on the Ring. Rostov Veliky (the Great), on the banks of Lake Nero, flourished as a trade and cultural centre from the 9th to 18th centuries. The Kremlin complex, with its enchanting silver and gold cupolas, has been sensitively reconstructed after a tornado wreaked havoc in 1953. The enamel museum represents the living tradition of miniature painting on enamel, which originated in France in the 17th century. Overnight Yaroslavl.
Yaroslavl, Kostroma. On the west bank of the Volga, the ancient city of Yaroslavl retains much of its 18th- and 19th-century mercantile appearance and layout. The museum within the former Monastery of the Saviour of the Transfiguration is one of the best of its kind. At the heart of the town, the 17th-century Church of Elijah the Prophet is decorated with outstanding frescoes on subjects from the Old and New Testament. Under the reign of Boris Godunov, whose relatives built it, Kostroma’s Ipatiev monastery was the wealthiest in the country; the 17th-cent. Trinity Cathedral, which retains a magnificent iconostasis, once boasted over 100 icons. The first Romanov tsar, Mikhail, left from here to be crowned in the Moscow Kremlin in 1613. Overnight Kostroma.
Kostroma, Ples, Suzdal. Now considered one of the most desirable country getaways by wealthy Muscovites, the little town of Ples on the banks of the Volga was made famous by the 19th-century artist Isaac Levitan who found the light and birch strewn landscape irresistible. His former lodging among the fish-smoking shacks on the riverbank is now a modest museum. Drive 180km to the city-museum of Suzdal, with its impressive assemblage of ancient churches and monasteries. First of three nights in Suzdal.
Suzdal. The ethnographic museum of wooden architecture, with its historic samples of vernacular buildings, is an insight into rural living in old Russia. Within the Suzdal Kremlin stands the Cathedral of the Nativity with its 13th-century white stone reliefs; its ancient doors are rare surviving examples of the technique of fire gilding. Dedicated to the first Russian saints, the 12th-cent. Church of St Boris and St Gleb at Kideksha was once part of a princely residence. St Euphimius Monastery includes the magnificent Cathedral of Transfiguration, a bell-tower and a prison used both in the tsarist and Soviet periods. Overnight Suzdal.
Suzdal, Vladimir. The focus in Vladimir is a magnificent ensemble of unesco listed masonry structures originally erected under the auspices of Andrei Bogolyubsky (‘The Pious’) in the 12th century: the Golden Gate, the spectacular Cathedral of the Assumption – with frescoes by the celebrated iconists Andrei Rublev and Daniil Chorny – and St Demetrius Cathedral, fabulously decorated with stone carvings. A short distance north-east, walk across water meadows to the perfectly proportioned Church of Intercession on Nerl, a masterpiece of Russian medieval architecture. Final night Suzdal.
Alexandrov, Sergiev Posad, Moscow. The private residence of the tsars, Alexandrov was used by Ivan the Terrible as the alternative capital of Russia. Nearby at Sergiev Posad, Trinity-Sergius Lavra is our final stop on the Ring. The extensive monastery complex of St Sergius, the ancient centre of Russian Orthodoxy, with churches and buildings dating from the 15th to the 18th centuries, remains a thriving site of pilgrimage and worship today. An exuberant, ‘peopled’ site, as the other historical sites on the Ring would all once have been, it makes a fitting end to the tour. Ovenight Moscow.
Moscow. Free morning. Midday transfer to Domodedovo Airport for the flight to Heathrow, arriving. c.18.00.
Andrew SpiraGraduated from the Courtauld Institute and City University (both London)—worked at the Temple Gallery, London, specialising in Russian icons, before working as a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum for several years—has led many cultural tours to Armenia, Georgia, Romania, Crete and Russia and is now a Course Director and Lecturer at Christie’s Education, London.
Price, per person
2018: Two sharing: £3,740 or £3,460 without flights. Single occupancy: £4,260 or £3,980 without flights.
2019: Two sharing: £3,980 or £3,660 without flights. Single occupancy: £4,490 or £4,170 without flights.
Flights (Euro Traveller) with British Airways (Airbus A321); travel by private coach throughout; accommodation as described below; breakfasts, 7 lunches, 8 dinners with wine; all admissions; all tips for drivers, restaurant staff, guides; all state and airport taxes; the services of the lecturer and a national guide.
British citizens and most other foreign nationals require a tourist visa. The current cost for UK nationals is around £110, including service charge. This is not included in the price of the tour because you have to procure it yourself. You will need to complete an online application in the two-month period before departure, and submit this, along with your passport. Since December 2014, it has been obligatory for UK residents of all nationalities to attend one of three application centres, in London, Manchester or Edinburgh, in order to submit biometric data (fingerprints) as part of the visa application process. Visa issuing times vary from country to country but UK residents should expect to be without their passports for approximately one week.
Hotel National: an elegant and comfortable 5-star hotel in the city centre, within easy walking distance of the Kremlin; Ring Premier, Yaroslavl, functional and corporate, this 4-star hotel is the best of a limited choice; Hotel Ya, Kostroma, a comfortable, modern hotel. Pushkarskaya Sloboda, Suzdal, accommodation is in traditional dacha-style log cabins within the hotel complex. Single rooms are doubles for sole use.
There is a fair amount of walking, as well as standing in churches and galleries on this tour. Some coach journeys are longer than 2 hours. Average coach travel per day: 48 miles.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.fco.gov.uk.