Monday, July 19, 2010
A Saturday in Suzdal
I’m a week late with writing about this adventure, but I suppose better late than never, right?
I spent last Saturday in Suzdal. Suzdal is a small town about a 40 minute drive from Vladimir. Like Vladimir (which I will write about eventually) Suzdal is one of the towns that makes up the Golden Ring which is a series of towns east of Moscow that make up a circle of towns known for their age and beautiful monasteries.
I made my way from the apartment down to the American House to make the 10:15am departure time. Upon my arrival at the American House I met our tour guide named Vladimir who them promptly introduced us to our driver also named Vladimir. Yes, that’s correct Vladimir and Vladimir from the city of Vladimir. Right.
So I hopped into the car feeling very much like this was potentially a plot starring Will Ferrell with a bad Russian accent, and off we went-Vladimir, Vladimir, unnamed classmate and me. Only kind of sort of. We got about a block away from the American House, and Tour Guide Vladimir said, “Hey, girls, would you mind so much if we picked someone up and gave him a ride to Suzdal?”
“Who?” I asked because my brain immediately goes to the worst possible people to pick up (in my mind these range from cannibals to overeager Twilight fans) when Vladimir informs me that the person is his 14 year old son, Boris, a violinist who takes lessons in Suzdal. Apparently on Sundays the town allows kids from the local music school to busk in the center of town and keep what they earn.
So we pull over and pick up the waiting Boris with his violin case. Off to Suzdal we go- Vladimir, Vladimir, Boris, unnamed classmate and me. Tour Guide Vladimir knows the history of the town down cold, and fills the ride to the town with interesting facts about the city and its history.
While the main drag of Suzdal is just three kilometers long, the town is full of museums, cloisters and monasteries which led to Suzdal being named one of UNESCO’s world heritage sites in 1992. The town now has regulations about the types of new buildings that can be added to Suzdal—nothing over the height of two stories as to not obscure the famous onion domes of the city.
And look at them-why would you want to obscure these?
As Vladimir pointed out, thanks to the town’s efforts to keep Suzdal’s landscape and architecture as it was centuries ago, you can stand in a field and with no one else around feel as though you stepped back in time. It’s a little bit of magic being there.
Tour Guide Vladimir* had an action packed day for us, which included four different museums & monasteries including the Museum of Wooden Architecture, which covered a grassy field with examples of Russian peasant homes and workshops from centuries ago. There we got to hear people play traditional folk music and make pottery.
Afterwards, Vladimir gave us a tour of one of the monasteries and the gardens in the monastery where monks would grow their herbs and veggies. I have to confess that I break one of the travel rules when it comes to traveling in Russia. A lot of tour books will say “DO NOT EAT THE STREET FOOD!!” They will cite all sorts of reasons such as improper storage consumption to lack of hygiene of the handlers. I somehow missed the warning the first time here, and upon learning it the second trip to Russia I promptly ignored it since I figured street food didn’t kill me the first time here. As we wandered around Suzdal in the blazing heat I ate pickles contained in massive plastic buckets sold by old ladies on the street corner, and drank cherry juice sold by an old man with an umbrella. My only moment of hesitation came when Vladimir pulled some dill and some berries he insisted were currants from the garden and insisted we try them. As I ate the berries I sincerely hoped that Vladimir knew his botany as well as he knew his history, and that I wasn’t accidentally ingesting Death Berries**. Since I’m here writing this, it appears Vladimir did know his currants from his Death Berries.
Besides being famous for its cucumbers, cherries and onion domes, Suzdal is also famous for its mead—an alcoholic honey beverage. As I learned yesterday (so maybe it was good that I was a slacker about writing this because then I wouldn’t be able to share this fact), when peasant couples of the 19th century that got married would drink mead for an entire month after the wedding. This time period was called “the honey month” –what we now call the honeymoon.
Never one to turn down an opportunity to try all parts of a culture (or booze), I wanted to try Suzdal (Suzdalian?) mead, and boy did we find the right lady for the job. You see, Russians haven’t really mastered the art of free samples yet. There’s no wine tastings (or heaven forbid, vodka tastings) here. No free samples at the mega mall, but the lady we got our mead from is well ahead of her time. Her little table was set up at the edge of a large, dusty, sundrenched parking lot. There she sat under the shade of a tent with several bottles of mead and itty bitty plastic cups. First she got us to try her perfectly chilled homemade mead. It was delicious-the perfect combination of sweet and crispy. “200 rubles for a liter.” She told us, “Try some others.” Immediately, I thought, “What the heck am I going to do with a full liter of mead? The bottle would take up my host mom’s entire fridge. Plus she doesn’t drink, and I’ve only lived with her for two days and I don’t want her to think I’m a booze hound.” The little sales lady eagerly opened smaller, cheaper, factory made bottles of mead. Each one had a stronger up front alcohol flavor that wasn’t entirely pleasant. Then she offered her perfectly chilled homemade mead again. A sale was made, my friends.
*Driver Vladimir pretty much just stuck to his job title and drove. He also drank a lot of kvas and fell asleep with his shirt off in the back seat of the car while we visited museums.
**There are probably no such things as Death Berries. I probably made them up.