Vladimir, cathedral of the Assumption, GOLDEN RING, RUSSIAThe Golden Ring is the name for a loop of very old towns north-east of Moscow that were the political and cultural heart of Russia and are now the most popular tourist route in the Russian provinces. Depending on the amount of time one has, it is possible to organize one or two day excursions to Vladimir and Suzdal, which are the main points of the route. If one wants to make a more detailed study of the towns that comprise the Golden Ring, two weeks should be set aside to see the area more thoroughly

Russian towns of the Golden Ring are renowned for their architectural masterpieces, unique landscapes and unspoiled beauty that gives one an idea of the peaceful country life lived in Russia before its urbanization. Even today, none of the townspeople are surprised if a herd of cattle will appear on a main street, causing traffic jams.

The Golden Ring tours usually start in Moscow and go in a northerly direction along the old Yaroslavl road. The first stop is Serghiyev Posad, situated about 70 kilometres from the capital - it is famous for the Trinity Monastery (Laural) of St. Sergius. The word Laura is of Greek origin and means "the main and most exalted monastery." The cell in Serghiyev Posad was founded by St. Sergius of Radonezh (1322-1392). For a long time, Serghiyev Posad was considered the country’s spiritual centre, or "Russian Vatican." One may visit a friary, seminary and art museum recounting the history of Russian Orthodoxy in the monastery complex.

The next noteworthy site is the city of Aleksandrov situated in the Vladimir Region, 100 kilometres away from Moscow. A long time ago, people said that Nikitka Kholop lived here and attempted to fly after having tied wooden wings to his arms and jumped from the roof of the cathedral. The Aleksandrov Settlement was the last site where the famous lost library of Ivan the Terrible was seen; the librarycontained the largest collections of 16th century Greek parchments, Latin chronographs and Hebrew manuscripts. Scientists who were contemporaries of the Muscovy tsar came to study the manuscripts and were astonished when they simply vanished into thin air and disappeared without a trace. To this day, bright-eyed gold diggers and writers of detective stories are still fascinated by this mysterious library.

One may get the impression that there are more old churches in the city of Pereslavl-Zalessky (Yaroslavl Region) than there are cafes and shops. The city overlooks quiet Pleshcheyevo Lake, considered to be the cradle of the Russian navy: it is here that the young emperor Peter the great studied the elements of navigation three centuries ago. Miraculously, his small sailing boat has been preserved and can now be viewed in the local museum. Pleshcheyevo Lake is also famous for its ryapushka, a unique salmon-like herring which would normally be found in ocean waters but was probably driven into this lake by movements of glaciers during the Ice Age - this fish, a favourite delicacy of the Russian tsars (it used to be called "tsar herring"), is now emblazoned on the Pereslavl-Zalessky coat of arms.

Rostov the Great is the oldest town to the north-east of Russia: the earliest mention of it in the manuscripts is in the year 862. The city is situated by Nero Lake, whose name means "muddy" or "swampy." The bed of the lake is covered with a 20 metre layer of mud which is used as field fertilizer. The towers of the Rostov Kremlin, with their spectacular white-stone architecture, are reflected in the waters of the Nero.

Yaroslavl, A view from the tranfiguration Cathedral's belfry, GOLDEN RING, RUSSIAAnother beautiful town on the Volga that is included in the Golden Ring tour is Myshkin in the Yaroslavl Region. Legend has it that once, after going hunting, Prince Ukhotsky lay down to have a rest on the river bank. He was awakened by a mouse running across his face. The prince opened his eyes and saw a viper coming straight toward him. In order to honour the mouse that warned him and saved his life, the prince ordered a chapel to be built on that very spot. Myshkin has several unique museums, including the world’s only Mouse Museum, the Valenki Museum (traditional Russian felt boots) and the Vodka Museum created as a tribute to Peter Smirnoff, the inventor of the famous brand of vodka by the same name, who was born here.

Uglich, a fascinating old town situated on the right bank of the Volga in the Yaroslavl Region, is historically connected with a mysterious event of the 16th century - the death of Dimwit, son of Ivan the Terrible and the youngest member of the Ryurik dynasty which had ruled over Russia since the end of the 9th century. The people of Uglich, suspecting that the tsarevich had been murdered, staged a rebellion which was mercilessly quashed. The alarm bell which called the people to arms was punished as though it were a human being: it was lashed, its ringer was torn out and the bell was exiled to Siberia. Years later, the bell was acquitted and is now on display in the Uglich Kremlin.

Yaroslavl is another old city that has preserved its Kremlin as well as many beautiful 16th century churches and monasteries. The fine Volga embankment is the main gathering, resting and walking place; it is decorated with an openwork cast-iron gate from the 19th century. The "Music and Time" Museum was recently opened by John Mostoslavsky in Yaroslavl, with a wonderful collection of old gramophones, accordions, clocks and small bells on display, all of them in working order. This museum is a popular favourite among foreign tourists as they enjoy a round trip cruise along the Volga from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Yaroslavl is also considered to be the birthplace of national theatre. In themed 18th century, Fyodor Volkov created an amateur troupe here. Later, the group changed its home to St. Petersburg at the invitation of Empress Katherine the Great and laid the foundation for the first professional theatre in Russia.

Kostroma has earned the name "the flax capital of the North" - in the Middle Ages, excellent linen was produced here. It is not a coincidence that the Kostroma coat of arms depicts a golden ship with its sails billowed by the wind: foreign merchants came to this centre of Russian trade to buy goods. To this day, Kostroma has preserved the charm that makes it one of the gems of the Volga.

Like Moscow, the town of yuriev-Polsky (Vladimir Region) was founded by Prince Yuri Dolgoruky and named after him. The local fertile soil attracted farmers to the area, thus forming the Zalesye Princedom. In 1234, the Cathedral of St. George, one of the pearls of the Golden Ring, was erected here. It is one of the last examples of white-stone architecture in this area, with many buildings of this kind having been destroyed by the Golden Horde. The earthen ramparts of the 12th century Kremlin, the tallest one of its kind in north-eastern Russia, are still preserved intact for tourists to enjoy.

The Burse in Kostroma, GOLDEN RING, RUSSIASuzdal is another city with an amazing history. Founded in 1024, the town has experienced many changes in fortune but has always managed to keep its exceptional appearance right up to the present day. Over the centuries, Suzdal was a capital of the princedom and a calm provincial town al line one. For the last 250 years, even the town borders have remained virtually unchanged. The town comprises almost 200 architectural monuments of the previous millennium. Thousands of tourists come to see Suzdal every year. The town is overflowing with places to purchase handicraft works, as well as their famous medovukha (honey-based mead), a mildly alcoholic Russian drink often mentioned in fairy tales and poetic stories.

At the close of one's journey through the Golden Ring, one comes to Vladimir, the former capital of old Russia (12th to 14 centuries). Today Vladimir is a large industrial city, but it is definitely worth visiting if only to see the majestic Golden Gate and the frescoes of the Cathedral of the Assumption which were painted by the renowned Andrei Rublyov (end of the 15th century), an icon painter of genius.

The Church of the Intercession of the Holy Mother on the Nerl (1165) is situated in Bogolyubovo, about 14 kilometres away from Vladimir. It stands on a 6 metre manmade hill at the confluence of the Klyazma and Nerl rivers. The road does not go near the church, so one must walk about 2 kilometers to get to it, not the most comfortable of walks. According to a local legend, due to lack of congregants, there was an attempt to destroy the church in the 18th century, but a sunbeam reflected by one of the golden domes so bedazzled the builders that they assumed this was a sign from the Mother of God not to ruin the cathedral. And so it stands untouched and preserved to this day.

There are many towns and villages along the route of the Golden Ring where folk art craftsmen have lived through the centuries. To this day, cut glass has been made in the town of Gus-Khrustaliny (Vladimir Region), wooden boxes are painted in the village of Palekh (Ivanovo Region), painted metal trays are sold in the village of Zhostovo (Moscow Region), large shawls with bright ornaments are sewan in the city of Pavlovsky Posad (Moscow Region), and delicate jewellery decorated with painted enamels (finift) is produced in Rostov the Great (Yaroslav Region). It would be impossible to find a traveler who cold have resisted the temptation to take at least one traditional souvenir to have memories of Russia!