Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Golden Ring

The Golden Ring is the name given to Russia’s most famous historical region, a handful of towns around Moscow which have been centres of Russian culture and politics for centuries. We visited four of the towns.

Sergiev Posad

This small town is easy to reach as a day trip from Moscow. The trip itself was quite interesting – our first experience of a Russian local train, it’s a bit like a live version of the shopping channel with vendors walking through the carriage selling everything from ice creams to train timetables to suction hooks. Sergiev Posad is best known for its monastery which is still home to black robed, long bearded monks.

Unfortunately for us, some of the major buildings of the monastery are undergoing restoration work at the moment, so we didn’t see it at its most impressive.

20130522-184949.jpgSergiev Posad when we visited (top) and without the scaffolding

Still the monastery contains some beautiful buildings and lots of visitors are there as pilgrims to visit the remains of St Sergius in the Trinity Cathedral and take home a bottle of holy water from the fountain in the courtyard. We queued up to see the silver sarcophagus and then felt a bit fraudulent not to be crossing ourselves and kissing the lid.

20130524-110955.jpgExalted Trinity Monastery of St Sergius (clockwise from top left): monk walking through grounds, visitor at a shrine, church above the Holy Gates, ikon

It was a really hot day, so on the way back to the station we had a refreshing glass of Kvas, a local soft drink made from fermented rye bread which is much tastier than it sounds!



Vladimir was a nice change of pace after the bustle of Moscow. A medium sized town which is not just reliant on tourism, but does have some great historic buildings. We were lucky enough to find an excellent host for our stay here (also named Vladimir). He was not only generous enough to meet us at the train station and drive us to the house, but he and his wife entertained us for an evening of Russian banya, barbecue and conversation (aided by a Russian-English dictionary!).

20130524-111030.jpgTonya and Vlad, yummy barbecued chicken, between Banya sessions!

The day that we visited the town’s museums happened to be an open day which meant that they were free but also very busy with locals. The Golden Gate in the centre of the main street is the last surviving remnant of the town’s medieval defences. It now contains a military exposition with an audio visual element which the administrator switched to English for us, much to the confusion of the locals! The town is also home to two cathedrals, the small Cathedral of St Demetrius of Salonica which although plain inside has hundreds of carvings outside, and the beautiful Assumption Cathedral where Russia’s earliest rulers were crowned.

20130524-111040.jpgVladimir museums (clockwise from top left): The Golden Gate, carvings on the Cathedral of St Demetrius of Salonica, glasswork in the Crystal Museum, forge at the blacksmith’s workshop

20130524-111054.jpgThe Assumption Cathedral at sunset


It feels as if every second building in Suzdal is a church – at one time there was a church for every 12 of its inhabitants along with 15 monasteries, and although not all of these survive, there are still a lot left! It’s quite a small sleepy town now, very pretty and easy to wander around. Many of the houses in the town are wooden and some have ornate carvings along the eaves and around the windows.

20130524-111103.jpgChurches at the Monastery of Our Saviour and St Euthimius, inside the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of Our Savior, domes of the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin

Suzdal also has a small museum of wooden architecture, similar to the one which we visited in Riga. The standout building here is the beautiful wooden Church of the Transfiguration and it was also interesting to see the reconstructions that they have of the building interiors.

20130524-111115.jpgUs outside a peasant’s house, windmill and weathervane, kitchen reconstruction

20130524-111133.jpgThe Church of Transfiguration, wooden tiles on the dome, inside the Church of the Resurrection


Bogolyubovo is mentioned in our guidebook as a side trip from Vladimir and it was recommended to us twice (by Eva who we met at our hostel in Moscow, and again by Vlad and Tonya). We decided to fit it into our spare afternoon before the train to Yekaterinburg, and we’re very glad that we did. The bus let us off near to the very active convent. The interior of the cathedral is beautifully painted and was further enhanced by the nuns’ choir practice. Outside we saw the remains of the original cathedral and another two nuns washing the windows – they definitely wouldn’t have passed a HSE assessment…


We then took the path past the railway station and over the somewhat flooded fields to the Church of the Intercession on the Nerl. This small single domed church dates from the 12th century and was commissioned by Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky who sited his royal palace here and developed Vladimir into the capital of Rus.


Here’s our Golden Ring round up:

What photo takes you right back to the Golden Ring?

Bogolyubovo wasn’t in our original plans but we both loved the simplicity and location of this church.


Summarise the Golden Ring in three words.

  • Churches
  • Cathedrals
  • Monasteries

You really know you’re in the Golden Ring when…

You find yourself lining up another shot of church domes.

What one item should you definitely pack when going to the Golden Ring?

Julie: a scarf to cover your hair in the churches.

Moscow Round Up

It has quite a different feel to St Petersburg, but we really enjoyed our fortnight in Moscow. There’s also been a bit of a heat wave with temperatures peaking at almost 30 degrees Celsius on most days. A nice change if you’re lounging in the park, and we certainly did some of that, but not so much fun if you’re pounding the pavements or standing in the queue to go through security at the Kremlin.

20130522-130012.jpgRelaxing, erm OK sleeping, in the Sculpture Park on Krymsky Val and Gorky Park

There were a lot of tourists around the Kremlin and Red Square, and with good reason, many of the major sights are here, but we didn’t have to venture far to lose the tour groups. Even the museums that we visited were largely deserted, or at least seemed to be full of locals.

20130522-125448.jpgMuseums (clockwise from top left): Eyes at MMAM photography museum, Tretyakov Gallery of 20th century art, Matroyshka museum, exhibition of the Great Patriotic War at the Contemporary Russian History Museum

We reached all corners of the centre of the city visiting the ‘Seven Sisters’ skyscrapers commissioned by Stalin. They’re all different but as you can see they share a common styling.

20130522-125503.jpgThree of Stalin’s ‘Seven Sisters’ skyscrapers (clockwise from top left): Kudrinskaya Square Building, Moscow State University, Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building

One of the creepier things that we did in Moscow was to visit Lenin’s mausoleum which is situated on one side of Red Square. Lenin’s embalmed body has been on display here since his death in 1924. Although it’s free to enter, the rules are strict – no talking inside the mausoleum and you have to leave your camera in the cloakroom outside. As you can see from the picture (which I found on the Internet, I’m not brave enough to risk the wrath of the security guards!) the body is in remarkably good condition considering its age.


Here’s our Moscow round up:

What photo takes you right back to Moscow?

It’s an iconic image of Moscow – St Basil’s Cathedral seen from Red Square. For our first week here, Red Square (and the entry to St Basil’s) was fenced off due to preparations for the Victory Day parade, so we had to delay our visit into our second week. Although similar to St Petersburg’s Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood on the outside, St Basil’s Cathedral is quite different inside. Rather than the huge open space with vibrant wall mosaics that we’ve seen in many Orthodox churches, it is subdivided into 9 smaller churches (one under each dome, and one under the steeple), each with its own iconostasis and mostly subdued wall paintings.


Summarise Moscow in three words.

  • Uncompromising – Moscow doesn’t pander to tourists, it’s getting on with its own business and if you’re lost or struggling then tough. And if the Kremlin museums need to close for a day then they do so without notice either on their website or at the ticket offices. That said, we came across plenty of nice people, like the girl behind me in the coffee queue who murmured “inside or outside” as I was staring uncomprehendingly at the harried cashier who was barking at me in Russian.
  • Large scale – the city is huge and you definitely need to get to grips with the metro system (itself quite uncompromising) to get around. The ‘Seven Sisters’ skyscrapers are built on a monumental scale, and the Tsar cannon and bell in the Kremlin show that the Muscovites mean business.
  • Soviet – there are lots of reminders of Soviet times around the city from mosaics in the metro system to hammer and sickle carvings on buildings and lots of statues of Lenin (not to mention the man himself)

You really know you’re in Moscow when…

You’re in a very slow (maybe even unmoving) queue somewhere near the Kremlin.

What one item should you definitely pack when going to Moscow?

A Cyrillic to Roman alphabet conversion chart.

Bolshoi Theatre Tour


The Bolshoi ballet company is world renowned. The company tour during the summer months, which meant that there was a good chance they’d be performing at their home theatre while we were in Moscow. As you would expect, most of the tickets were booked over a fortnight ahead, and although we can go a little over our daily budget, most of the tickets were still north of £100. Each. Ouch.

Given that neither of us know anything about ballet (OK, I know there are mirrors, tutu’s and pirouette’s, but that’s about it), we didn’t think we’d fully appreciate what it would cost us, despite being tempted by the performance of Romeo and Juliet. We’d read that it’s possible to get tickets at the last minute from touts keen to make any money back on the night of performances, but decided against it as we weren’t confident we had the right clothing even if we scored a couple of cheap seats. And it’d be very unlikely we’d end up sitting together.

Getting in

While investigating tickets, we found out that the Bolshoi does tours three times a week on a first-come, first-served basis. The strictly limited 15 tickets go on sale at 12:00, for a Russian-only tour that starts at 14:30, lasting 90 minutes, and are sold as one ticket per person. We thought we’d get there early, and on arrival at 11:00, there was already a handful of people waiting. A nice Russian lady asked us some questions, and we think we heard some numbers in there, until a Dutch couple translated for us – the group was self-organising, and we had number’s 11 and 12. Excellent.

20130524-101242.jpgQueuing outside the Bolshoi for 2 of the 15 tour tickets. The couple to the right sitting down are the friendly Dutch translating organisers!

Our Dutch friends explained the situation to everyone else that turned up, and after there were 15 waiting, most decided to try again another day.. it all seemed quite efficient, that is, until 5 minutes before the ticket door opened. One old lady just walked right into the middle of us crowded around the door, and managed to get in just ahead of us – we’re now 12 and 13.. OK, we’re still good.

The door opened again and the next bunch were allowed in – then a slight and well dressed pensioner wearing too much lipstick at the back of the group shouted protestations at the guard and thrust an official-looking card at him. It transpires that war veterans can queue jump, she’d only been waiting 10 minutes! We got in just behind Mrs Veteran, as 13 and 14 – a definite case of Russian queuing.

The Tour

We bought our ticket in the foyer and the tour began immediately – contrary to the information we’d read. And what a first impression the foyer makes:

20130524-101543.jpgWhite walls, white marble staircases with gold relief and red carpets for the stairs. Elegant and sophisticated

I can’t tell you much about the tour itself, as it was in Russian. Instead, here are some more pictures..

20130524-101647.jpgFoyer for the belle-etage

20130524-101729.jpgThe tour included several rooms off the wings of the main theatre, which contained photographs and costumes of past performances

From the first floor we took the lifts to the top floor and were asked to keep very quiet as rehearsals were on in the main theatre.. yay! we’re going into the Bolshoi theatre!

20130524-120834.jpgView from the 4th floor balcony, Main stage, Bolshoi Theatre

One of the women in our tour group started doing a little bit of translation into English for us and the Dutch couple. The main chandelier used to hold candles, and was lowered to the stalls before performances to be lit, but the dripping wax became a problem so they installed a net underneath, but that obscured the view from the 4th floor balcony!

Delighted at being able to see the main stage (as sometimes it’s not possible during the tour), we then went through one of the refreshments bars to a staircase on the western side of the building – wait! There’s an upstairs?

Directly above the main stage is an exact replica of the stage itself and the orchestra pit. There are only about 10 rows of seats, but all other dimensions, mechanics and materials are the same. We were allowed to wander briefly onto the stage, and when the tour guide led the group back downstairs Mrs Dutch and I quickly snuck behind the stage for a peek!

20130524-122028.jpgThe main practice stage and orchestra pit, which is above the main Bolshoi performance stage

The tour continued downstairs, and we found the main 1st floor foyer filled with TV cameras for some sort of press conference:

20130524-223726.jpgInterview inside the Bolshoi. Do you know who this is?

20130524-123128.jpgThe old banqueting hall, which was used to entertain VIPs. To the west of the main stage on the first floor. That’s our tour guide in the middle of the picture

Just before we thought the tour would end, our guide checked the main theatre again and said it was OK for us to sit in on the rehearsals for a few minutes – this time on the ground floor in the amphitheatre at the back of the stalls!

20130524-123826.jpgBolshoi rehearsals. Wonderful organ music recital

20130524-124016.jpgClose-up of the organ rehearsals

20130524-124113.jpgThe ceiling in the Bolshoi’s main stage – stunning

The tour is definitely worth your time if you can get to the Bolshoi on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday no later than 11am, and don’t mind a bit of Russian queuing (or “pushing in”, as we British call it) when the doors open for tickets at 12:00.

Crossing Continents

Yesterday we boarded a train in Vladimir. 23 hours 40 minutes, 1625km and 2 time zones later we pulled into the station at Yekaterinburg. About 30 minutes before Yekaterinburg we passed an unassuming white obelisk which marks the border from Europe into Asia and so passed into the next phase of our adventure.


We’re also now happy to be back in accommodation with wi-fi and we’ve got a few blog posts stored up which we’ll be posting over the next few days.

Moscow Kremlin

I’m sure you’ve heard of the Moscow Kremlin. I hadn’t realised before we started planning our little trip that the word “Kremlin” actually means fortress, and isn’t just the exclusive moniker for the most famous of them.

The Moscow Kremlin is the centre of Moscow, and we were surprised to find that all of the places Moscow is famous for are either a block away, right next to, or actually inside the Kremlin walls themselves.

The Moscow Kremlin, viewed from the footbridge over the Moskva River. The white and gold building in the centre is the Grand Kremlin Palace, and the golden domes belong to Cathedrals and Bell Tower

We arrived in Moscow a week or so before the Victory Day celebrations, to find most of Red Square – which is the long, cobbled space outside the east wall of the of the Kremlin – closed for the massive military parade preparations. After a short walk around the outside of the magnificent St Basil’s Cathedral which is in Red Square, and the impressive and expensive ГУМ (pronounced “Goom”) shopping arcade adjacent, we decided to return a few days later when we could spend a full day in the Kremlin.

20130517-131727.jpgOur first evening in Moscow, outside the magnificent St Basil’s Cathedral

20130517-131829.jpgSt Basil’s Cathedral from the Red Square side, and the one-time exclusive ГУМ shopping centre

Our guide book states of visiting “[the Kremlin] .. may be partly or completely closed without warning if there are VIP visitors”. Unknown to us and the 80-odd people stood at the ticket offices at 1pm that John Kerry, the USA Secretary of State was inside. Not only was there no warning, but there wasn’t any notification on the ticket offices at all – not even in Russian! The Kremlin was simply shut.

Moscow Kremlin ticket offices – closed. The queues kept moving, but it was because people were giving up!

We tried again the next day and.. sunshine and success!

The aptly named Cathedral Square in the centre of the Moscow Kremlin. Left to right: The Assumption Cathedral, Ivan the Great Bell-Tower & the Assumption Belfry & the Filaret’s extension, The Archangel’s Cathedral

There’s strict security to get inside the walls (as one would expect) and there are uniformed guards at every corner ready to blow a whistle at you if you stray off the designated path, but it’s so worth the visit. Cathedral square is stunning. The interior is elevated to the height of the walls which adds to both the view, and the feeling of safety and superiority as you look out over the Moskva river and the southern Moscow skyline.

20130522-180950.jpgEntranceway into The Archangel’s Cathedral

Unfortunately we don’t have any internal pictures of the Cathedrals as photography isn’t allowed.

20130522-181507.jpgMain entranceway into The Assumption Cathedral


As well as the amazing Cathedrals, there are two massive Tsar artefacts in the Kremlin grounds:

20130522-182328.jpgThe Tsar-Cannon – never fired in battle, and apparently only ever fired once

20130522-182354.jpgThe Tsar-Bell – damaged in a fire in 1737 before it was finished

After a quick stroll in the secret gardens (which aren’t so secret as you now know about them), we were ushered out of the Kremlin as it closes promptly at 6pm.. not before I noticed the empty guard boxes on the way out..


The Kremlin Armoury

We wanted to visit the Kremlin again, this time to see the Armoury Chamber – a purpose-built museum to house the riches of the Tsars. Getting tickets was easy, but they’re for timed “seances” of two hours in duration. We arrived at the gate about 10 minutes past the start of our allotted “seance”, to find an extremely slow-moving queue of one security gate at the southern Kremlin entrance, compared to the 8 or so for the main western one. 40 minutes later with half our allocation spent on queuing, we were in.

20130522-184941.jpgThird queue of the day – almost inside the Armoury!

On the positive side, the excellent audio-guide is included in the price, and for all we thought we would get rounded up at 11:30, our fears were unfounded and we were able to walk back through some of the rooms and re-visit their vast collections, ignoring the time constraints.

We agreed that this is the best, most well-laid out collection we’ve ever visited because of its size, variety of the collections, and for me at least, the way the exhibition differs room-to-room. For example, the first room contains religious iconography with intricate gold thread and jewels. The next contains weaponry: rifles, duelling pistols, swords and armour gifted to the Tsars and created by the craftsmen of the Armoury, and so on it goes, every room is something new and a change from the last which keeps the interest piqued.

20130523-234336.jpgThe Kremlin Armoury (photo credit:

As part of the Armoury’s collection are 10 Fabergé eggs. Some of them were on loan when we visited, and it would have been thoughtful had they put a photo in their place – especially as the audio guide described two of the ones on loan! I didn’t know that they were made to order, some taking two years to make, and contain a secret inside that was relevant to the intended recipient. We’d have loved to have seen the Trans-Siberian Railway Fabergé egg!

20130523-231819.jpgThe Trans-Siberian Fabergé Egg – with working miniature train! (photo credit:

The Kremlin Diamond Fund

After leaving the Armoury and the Kremlin for a spot of lunch, we queued again to catch the first afternoon “seance” of the Kremlin’s Diamond Fund.
We’d read plenty of information of how you actually get to it, and it all seemed a little complicated – indeed it is..
The Diamond Fund is in the Armoury museum building, but it’s managed by a different government department to the Armoury which means the tickets can only be bought once you’re inside. To get into the Armoury you either need an Armoury ticket or you can just say the Moscow Kremlin equivalent of open sesame.. “Diamond Fund”. This not only got us into the building, but past the ticket gates too – if you didn’t want the audio guide (and you had the front to try it), you could visit the Armoury for free! – up the stairs and en-route is the Diamond Fund entrance and ticket desk. There’s a small waiting area and despite queuing outside for half-an-hour past the stated opening time to get in we’d timed it perfectly.

The Diamond Fund has even tighter security – no cameras, phones, or bags are allowed and there’s an extra security checkpoint just before the entrance which feels like you’re stepping into a posh bank vault.

Oh but inside.. Wow! The darkened rooms accentuate the sparkling wealth on show. The first display cases contain un-cut diamonds grouped by size and colour, arranged in tubes about the size of toilet rolls, maybe 15 or so tubes per case and easily 40+ diamonds in a tube.

As you progress though the first of the two rooms, the diamonds get bigger and there are cut diamonds alongside other precious stones; rubies, emeralds, and sapphires – including the world’s largest sapphire.

In the centre of the room is a large square cabinet containing gold nuggets found in the mines of Siberia. Most are larger than your hand, and there are 3 Russian stamped gold bars on display too.

The Orlov Diamond (Photo credit: Elkan Wijnberg;;

The second room contains intricate, ornate, and elaborate jewellery, including the massive Orlov Diamond, gifted by Count Grigory Orlov to Catherine the Great in the 18th Century, and believed to have been originally found in India, then subsequently stolen from a Hindu statue in 1750 by a deserter from the French army. Seeing it reminded me of the line from the movie Snatch: “Frankie four-fingers has a diamond the size of a fist” – it’s about the same size!

The two Kremlin museums are quite expensive to visit at ~£14 and ~£10 each respectively, but we thought they were worth it given the collections on display.