Russia is a huge, multicultural nation whose history reaches back into a past that can only be accessed through constant familiarization with the soul of the nation. Written accounts begin in the ninth century, but sometimes recount tales of a time already long past. One of the best ways I have found to access that ancient past, written and unwritten, is to visit the cities of the Golden Ring - eight cities (and towns) that were once integral to the defense of the Principality of Muscovy, the principality that would become Russia.
Recently, our group was fortunate enough to have visited two of these towns and give ourselves a little break from big, busy, beautiful Moscow. It is possible to get to most of these Golden Ring cities in under four hours by train, and a direct train will take a traveler to Vladimir in under two hours - perfect for a little weekend trip. We arrived at the Vladimir train station, and went straight to Suzdal where we would spend the night.
Suzdal is a smaller town with a population of around 10,000, and is surrounded by rich farmland famous for its cherries and cucumbers. It is a quiet and cozy little town with a farmers market in the center where one can find all sorts of fruits, vegetables, preserves, mead, and goods ranging from clothes to magnets. During the winter, one can rent a sleigh drawn by horses to transport oneself about the town. Besides the kremlin, a uniquely Russian fortress of which each Golden City has its own version, I recommend that a visitor climb the Main Tower where one can enjoy learning a bit about bell towers and bell forging on his way to the top where one can see one of the best views of Suzdal.
After Suzdal, our group returned to Vladimir for a day before returning home by train. Vladimir has its own beautiful kremlin (кремль - a word meaning fortress), and many remnants of the former protective architecture of the city. The Golden Gate, the former enterance to the city proper, still stands in all its glory while traffic flows effortlessly around it. It is easy to see this as a metaphor for Vladimir itself, where the population has continued to adapt and modernize without forgetting its ancient past. Another hallmark of the city is the Assumption Cathedral (Успенский сабор) which was so stunning that its design was the basis for the famous Assumption Cathedral in the Kremlin in Moscow.
I think many of us were happy to return to eventually return to Moscow, a place that I have personally called home for five and a half months, now. However, as the noise of the city flooded back into my ears and the crowds of people jostled me as I ducked into the packed metro, the peace and calm of white snow, horse-drawn sleighs, and visions of a distant past of princes and heroes came to my mind, and I supressed my grin so as to not stand out among the crowd. I have already planned my next journey to another Golden City.