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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Discovering History in a Golden Wonderland

Vintage motorbikes with sidecars painted in cheerful colors, goats and geese along the roadside, views of rolling countryside for as far as the eye can see and of course some of the finest examples of early Russian architecture at every turn - the Golden Ring is like a breath of fresh air.

And it's there for the taking, perfect for a weekend trip out of Moscow.

The Golden Ring, or Zolotoye Koltso, is a modern name for a cluster of 16 old towns and villages to the northeast of Moscow that once overshadowed the present capital as the political and cultural heart of Russia.

Most of the towns can be reached by train or even boat, but the easiest way to take in the main sights at your own pace is by car.

The churches, monasteries, kremlins and museums that dominate the Golden Ring combine to create a wonderfully picturesque landscape.

Our party of four left by car last Saturday morning and headed for Vladimir, about 170 kilometers away. We planned a smaller loop of the ring, traveling counter-clockwise and taking in Vladimir, Suzdal, Yuryev-Polsky and Pereslavl-Zalessky - a two-day trip of 420 kilometers.

Despite our best efforts to beat the dacha exodus, we got caught in the early traffic leaving the city, and it took almost four hours to reach Vladimir.

The first sign of the rich architecture to come was the Golden Gate (similar to Kiev's) at the entrance to the old town. Vladimir was founded in the 12th century and became the Orthodox capital of medieval Rus in the 13th century when the metropolitan moved here from Kiev.

We just squeezed into the showpiece of the town, the Assumption Cathedral, as it was closing for a break. The interior is dark and crammed with religious art, including frescoes by Andrei Rublyov. The seriously devout worshippers, who had strewn the steps of the cathedral with flowers, blessed themselves repeatedly, lit candles and kissed icons inside, creating such an intense atmosphere that, as tourists, we were almost driven out by their faith.

The white stone cathedral was modeled on Kiev's Byzantine churches and is quite majestic, situated on a rise off the city's main square. Nearby and worth a walk around is the small Cathedral of St. Dmitry, with impressive stone carvings on the outer walls.

There are other historic attractions in Vladimir but it's a place that has lost most of its charm, and once we took in the view ofthe river, the power plant, the town and the surrounding countryside we were ready to leave.

The road to Suzdal is well marked once you get to the decrepit outskirts of Vladimir. Along the 24-kilometer route a pattern emerged of pleasant landscapes interspersed with sleepy villages. In these wooden settlements the simple and tough lifestyle appears untouched by the developments of the past decade in Russia.

Officially protected against any industrial development and by-passed by the Nizhny Novgorod-Moscow railway, Suzdal is disarmingly quaint, with an atmosphere seemingly unchanged for centuries. There are 33 churches and several monasteries, and the only thing moving is the tourist traffic. Stunning examples of Russian architecture are on every corner and at the end of every lane, and the best way to explore is on foot - just follow the cupolas.

On our first evening, we stumbled across confession rites in the beautiful cathedral inside the Pokrovsky Convent. The convent was originally a place of exile for the unwanted wives of tsars, including those who failed to produce an heir.

Inside the warm bright building, four nuns shrouded in black sang seamlessly in harmony from a psalm book while a golden haired priest wearing sumptuous vestments heard confessions one by one in an alcove at the other side of the church. It was very hypnotic and peaceful, and no one seemed to mind the presence of four strangers.

Later, we stopped to give a ride to a gold-toothed nun on one of the backstreets. In between blessing us profusely, we were warned in a thick Ukrainian accent of the coming of the anti-christ. The sister also urged us to find God and avoid eternal damnation through the only true faith.

Near the Pokrovsky Convent we discovered a lovely little restaurant called LimpoMpo. The cozy basement is nicely decorated and the service is fast and friendly. And the food is tasty -we voted the baked salmon and rice dish and the pickled vegetables starter the best - and good value. Our meal worked out at around 100 rubles ($4) a head. On the night we ate there, a table of Russians with great voices and a wide repertoire sang one song after another and played the guitar much to everyone's enjoyment.

We stayed in a two-room suite with a garage in the motel at the sprawling Main Tourist Complex, GTK, which was adequate and cheap (430 rubles) but totally devoid of charm. It has quite a few facilities, including a swimming pool and pharmacy, and no doubt the place is a lot more cheerful in summer weather, but overall it's a dull functional complex. Tel. (09231) 21530.

At the other end of the scale, and much more atmospheric, are the accommodations inside the walls of the Pokrovsky Convent. A comfortable two-room izba, or hut, costs the equivalent of $90 per night and the setting is idyllic, the restaurant top class. Tel. (09231) 20908.

The next day we doubled back to Vladimir and then cut across to Pereslavl-Zalessky, 70 kilometers away.

Well worth a visit along the way is Yuryev-Polsky. Arriving in the village, we were almost the only car and definitely the only tourists in sight. We paid 5 rubles each to visit two exhibitions inside the Archangel Michael Monastery, the centerpiece of the village.

The best exhibit, inside the monastery walls to the right, is in a museum dedicated to Bagration and the War of 1812. We startled the attendant, who switched on the lights for us to wander around. Also in the grounds of the monastery is an old wooden church that was transported there from a nearby village. The simple izba-style building is a refreshing sight after all the elaborate stone architecture.

After a brush with the vigilant local police, who objected to us stopping the car to ask for directions from friendly locals in a no-parking zone, we set off again for the lakeside town of Pereslavl-Zalessky.

The best view in this one-street town is from the elegant Goritsky Monastery, situated on a rise off of the Moscow road. From this elevated spot the whole of Pleshcheyevo Lake can be seen and you can almost picture the invading Mongol hordes, who besieged the region in the 13th century, appearing on the horizon.

Pereslavl is known as the birthplace of the Russian navy, since it was here that Peter the Great laid the foundations of Russian shipbuilding.

Pereslavl also has one of the oldest cathedrals in Russia, dating from 1152, right in the center. Next to it in the Bilina Bistro; delicious blini with homemade black currant jam make the perfect afternoon snack.

Double rooms in the very basic Hotel Pereslavl, Tel. (08535) 70041, cost 230 rubles per night, and the Traktir Na Ozernoy restaurant next door is passable. Good salads and attentive waitresses compensate for the slow service.

For those who don't have the time to spend another night away, the drive back to Moscow is straight and pleasant and a manageable 130 kilometers. But don't miss a wander along the river to the lakeshore - it may be your last chance for a while to savor the fresh air.