Saturday, May 31, 2008

Escape From Moscow: Side Trips in the City's Suburbs

May 30, 2008

Moscow is one of the world's great cities, a massive and vibrant testament to Russia's historic and current power and wealth.

But sometimes the bling -- from the line of Bentleys outside the new Ritz-Carlton hotel near Red Square to the 150 ruble (€4) coffees at the Starbucks branch -- can be blinding. The city, rolling in oil cash, is increasingly expensive (for the past two years, it was named the world's most-expensive city to live in for expatriates by Mercer Consulting) and increasingly crowded. Last year, 11 million tourists visited, including four million foreigners.

Hotel room rates rose 11% last year from a year earlier and were up 93% from 2004, to an average of more than 12,000 rubles a night, according to Hogg Robinson Group, a corporate-services company.

Luckily, visitors in search of a quainter, quieter Russia don't have far to go. Podmoskovye, the suburban region beyond Moscow's outermost ring highway, is full of interesting sights for travelers looking for a bit of relief from Moscow's Wild West madness -- from majestic palaces and war memorials to historic artisan workshops to natural spots for fishing and hiking.

The region, all within 20 minutes' to three hours' drive from the city center, is home to sleepy and colorfully named towns such as Serp i Molot (Sickle and Hammer) and Pravda (Truth) that don't usually figure on Moscow tour itineraries.

Here we offer a look at the region's offerings in crafts, architecture, history and outdoor sports. One can mix and match a day trip based on geography, or fashion a full tour based on a theme.

The central square at the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery


The Moscow region -- the seat of an empire that depended heavily on the power of the Russian Orthodox Church -- is home to some of Russia's most impressive churches and palaces, as well as some of the empire's strongest and oldest fortifications.

St. Sergius of Radonezh, the creator of monastic life as it is known today in Russia, is buried 70 kilometers northeast of Moscow at the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery, which he founded in 1345. Pilgrims come here to visit the saint's tomb, a silver-and-gold edifice encased in glass, but the site is a breathtaking assortment of cathedrals, chapels, bell towers, defensive battlements and other structures, and is now a Unesco world-heritage site. Interiors of the churches are frescoed and include icons by the great painters Andrei Rublyov and Simon Ushakov.

Assumption Cathedral, with its gold and sky-blue domes, stands at the monastery's center. It is a copy of a larger, more famous cathedral with the same name in the Moscow Kremlin. Trinity Cathedral, whose whitewashed walls glow in the sunlight, represents one of a few remaining white stone churches of the 14th- and 15th-century Moscow style.

The monastery continues its tradition nearly 700 years after St. Sergius founded the seminary here. A priest starts taking requests from visitors for prayers at 8 a.m. "People come here, write down their wishes for their families and loved ones, and give it to the priest so that he will pray for them," said a black-robed monk.

Entrance to the monastery and its churches is free. Monks conduct tours in English. (Call to reserve a day ahead. See travel information on facing page.)

Three shops inside the monastery sell remarkably delicious Lenten foods year round -- the monks observe periods of fasting -- including gingerbread cakes that resemble oversize muffin tops. The monastery also makes its own honey and "sbiten," a drink of water, honey and spices.

New Jerusalem Monastery, meanwhile, 50 kilometers northwest of Moscow, is a masterful example of Old Russian, classical and Baroque architecture. Its polychromatic ceramic tiles spawned similar craft around Russia.

Patriarch Nikon founded New Jerusalem in 1666 as the Russian Orthodox Church's power swelled, and the church and czars dubbed Moscow the "Third Rome." The complex's main church, the Resurrection Cathedral, though topped with gilded domes in the Russian tradition, was modeled after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Some of the most famous architects in Russia, including Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli -- designer of Tsarskoe Selo and the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg -- designed buildings in the monastery complex, which also includes three other churches.

A line of painted and glazed red-clay ceramic cherubs, dating from the 17th century, runs around the outer walls of the cathedral. Over the next few decades, they influenced similar creations in Yaroslavl, a church-filled city 250 kilometers northeast of Moscow.

The red-brick ruins of what was once the belfry -- shattered by a Nazi bomb in 1941 -- remain, weathered over nearly seven decades. With little funding in Soviet times, restoration work has been slow. Birds swoop in through uncovered windows, and the morning frost crystallizes on walls with cracking, centuries-old paint.

A museum at New Jerusalem's north end -- restored and modern inside with white, stuccoed walls -- houses fragments of the monastery's architectural story: an iron bell salvaged from the belfry, icons from the 17th to 20th centuries, and golden crosses inlaid with semiprecious stones.

About 20 kilometers west of Moscow is Arkhangelskoye estate, called the Versailles of the Moscow region -- even though it is smaller and less grand than its French cousin. But it is stunning nonetheless, a collection of 18th-to-20th-century neoclassical buildings with colonnades, pediments and coffered ceilings set against a landscape of carefully pruned lawns, tree-lined allées, flowery archways, statues and lonely bridges -- all with a view of the Moscow River.

The estate, now a state-owned park and museum, has passed through the hands of several princes and was frequented by poet Alexander Pushkin. Prince Nikolai Yusupov (whose descendant became notorious for killing Rasputin in 1916) acquired the palace in 1810 and filled it with art. Many of his 50,000 acquisitions, including 18th- and 19th-century paintings by French, Italian, English and Russian artists, are on display in the museum. Jazz festivals draw visitors to the lawns every summer.

Tsaritsyno rivals Arkhangelskoye in name, scale and beauty. The 18th-century, 700-hectare estate located 20 minutes south of Moscow's center (technically still within the city limits) is home to Catherine the Great's Grand Palace.

Two architects, Vasily Bazhenov and Matvei Kazakov, began work at the behest of the empress, but after her death in 1796, the half-finished palace was abandoned. Muscovites came to know and love Tsaritsyno as an overgrown, weathered ruin -- until last September when it was restored at the request of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.

Today, the State Museum Reserve Tsaritsyno is an odd, sometimes discordant mix of the old and new -- classical and gothic structures are painted in Disney-like colors, and a modern fountain wasn't in the original design.

Even so, Tsaritsyno holds on to a certain charm. Catherine's red palace, with a classical plan, white gothic detailing, large columns and ogival arcades, stretches 145 meters long. Across a green field, the second cavalier building, nicknamed the Octagon for its shape, has a trademark Russian design called kokoshniki: corbel arches shaped like a woman's headdress. Bridges, pavilions and other architectural follies dot the landscaped gardens, where birch, ferns and lime groves flourish.
A lacquered papier-mâché box made at Fedoskino


Some of Russia's most-loved souvenirs -- lacquered boxes, flowered shawls and white and cobalt-blue porcelain -- are produced in historic artisan towns in the Moscow suburbs.

Almost every Russian kitchen has something from Gzhel porcelain works -- or at least in the Gzhel style. The ceramic cups, samovars and teapots made here are central to tea drinking, almost a religion in this country.

Gzhel, located in Novokharitonovo, about 60 kilometers east of the center of Moscow, is the most famous of Russia's ceramics manufacturers for being a pioneer of the craft, uniting the workshops of the nearby town of Gzhel into a conglomerate and for the quality of its wares. You can take a tour of the factory, visit the adjoining museum and buy items in the shop.

Producing since the 14th century, Gzhel makes works that typically come in blue and white, hand painted with folk characters and entwined flowers and vines. The utilitarian objects are formed in witty shapes -- a teapot in the form of a cottage, a butter dish adorned with a milkmaid and her charge in relief.

In the quality-control corner of Gzhel's nondescript factory, aproned women tap the wares, listening for a crisp twang -- the signature sound of an object well baked. "If it doesn't sound right, we break it," to make sure no less-than-perfect item is offered for sale, said Natalya Zhukova, the factory's tour guide.

The museum shows some of Gzhel's works over the years, including bulbous, flowerlike teacups, multicolored tiles used in radiant-heat Russian stoves, elaborate ceramic chandeliers and even telephones with dainty receivers and flowery swirls around circular number dials. In the shop, blue-and-white teacups with saucers are 550 rubles (€15) a set, while gold-pattern sets go for 1,400 rubles.

Russia's lacquered boxes -- once used for snuff and small items such as postage and cards -- are miniature masterpieces of folk painting. Papier-mâché boxes are hardened with glue and resin, then painted with intricate, often idealized scenes of troika riding, sunset landscapes and peasant pleasures, or episodes from legends -- heroic princes battle dragons, and snow maidens enchant villages.

The craft began in Russia two centuries ago in Fedoskino, about 35 kilometers north of Moscow's center. Here, in a several-weeks-long process, artisans layer metal powders with oil paints and lacquer. "We apply an underlayer of aluminum or bronze so [the image] retains its brightness after centuries," said Irina Dyakova, a craftsman and the factory's tour guide.

The treated papier-mâché is extremely durable -- as seen in some of the 19th-century samples in the factory's museum. Workers wind cardboard around a mold, submerge it in a vat of heated glue and dry it in an oven. The item is returned to the kiln to harden after each layer of paint and lacquer.

Souvenir stalls in the city are notorious for hawking cheap imitations; true lacquerware is expensive, because of the painstaking process. In Fedoskino's shop, 30-centimeter panels with scenes of tea drinking and troika rides range from 32,000 rubles to 40,000 rubles.

Unique designs are relatively more expensive. A small box with a harlequin in pastel colors playing a flute commands 18,200 rubles.

Eighty kilometers east of Moscow, in the city of Pavlovsky Posad, Pavlovo Posad Shawl Factory produces another Russian favorite: wool shawls, or platki. Worn by aristocratic ladies in the 19th century -- picture Chekhov's three sisters lounging around the drawing room -- they became a wardrobe basic when the factory began mass-producing them. The shawls made by Pavlovo Posad are known for their quality and fidelity to traditional patterns.

The warm, soft wraps entered the wardrobes of Russian aristocrats from France, and with Russia's cold winters, they became indispensable. Because they were valuable items, men often presented them as gifts when asking for a woman's hand in marriage.

"I love shawls. I could collect them forever," said a tour guide, who said she had seven and wanted seven more. "It's not just for wearing. You can also use it to decorate a table or throw over a couch."

The factory's adjoining museum shows the process of making the patterns. When the business began in 1795, the designs were hand stamped with wood and copper blocks; today a machine stamps the patterns on the cloth. Each shawl can be printed with as many as 10 colors, and in the old days, a single misplaced block could ruin the design. Fringe is hand-tied onto the shawls, which are usually square in shape, 90 to 150 centimeters a side.

The earliest designs included flowers and paisley in intense greens, reds and blues against a black background. Today, pastels, leopard prints and monochromes have been introduced, and shawls in silk have been added in recent decades.

The manufacturer's store sells shawls at factory prices, from 200 rubles to 1,800 rubles. One pattern that has been popular for 18 years for its intricate flower design in blue is the Maiya (1,080 rubles on Russian wool or 1,700 rubles on Australian wool), named after the granddaughter of its designer, Ekaterina Regunova. The granddaughter was born in 1989 the day her grandmother completed the design.

Cannons on display at the Battle of Borodino history museum and reserve, site of one of the largest battles in the Napoleonic era


The historic military battles around Moscow began soon after the city's founding in the 12th century, from the 13th-century fight against the Tatar Hordes to the Battle of Moscow in World War II.

One of the most resonant is the Battle of Borodino, in which the Russian Imperial army fought Napoleon's invading troops about 120 kilometers west of Moscow near the town of Borodino on Sept. 7, 1812. It was one of the biggest battles of the Napoleonic wars; 44,000 of the 120,000 Russian soldiers died, and 30,000 of 130,000 French were killed.

The Russians, under General Mikhail Kutuzov, actually lost the battle, but strategically pulled back before being destroyed, drawing Napoleon even farther from his supply lines. The following month Napoleon and his troops, starving and freezing, retreated to Poland.

The battle became a textbook case of the failure of an overextended army, as well as the inspiration for numerous works of art, music and literature, including Tolstoy's "War and Peace."

Today the battlefield is part of the Borodino War and History Museum and Reserve. The 110-square-kilometer site preserves the rolling, grassy meadows where the battle took place, with 300 memorials at important sites of the battle, including the commanding points of Kutuzov and Napoleon. (You can also see pillboxes and other defensive works built in 1941 for the Battle of Moscow.) Maps of the territory are available at the main museum building.

In the museum, you can see historic uniforms from both the Russian and French armies -- the French in red and navy short coats with tails, with red or gold piping and epaulettes; the Russians in beige or blue ankle-length coats -- as well as old maps and strategy plans. There is also a section covering "War and Peace." Tolstoy traveled here in September 1867 to do research for the novel, and some of the books he used are on display, as well as photographs of the area from the time period.

Weapons are displayed: cannonballs, muskets and grenade shards. Toy soldiers are arranged on a model of Borodino, providing an overview of the entire battle.

Every year on Borodino Day, the first Sunday in September, the museum organizes a re-enactment of the battle, in which thousands of Russians take part in full regalia wielding bayonets, flags and trumpets and riding horses lent from nearby Moscow Stud Farm No. 1 (see the Outdoors section for more on this horse stable). Last year drew 2,000 re-enactors, 200 horses and more than 100,000 spectators to watch the battle re-enacted step-by-step.

The village of Gorki-Leninskiye, 35 kilometers south of Moscow, is the site of Lenin's final illness and death from a series of strokes in 1924. It was here (when the village was just called Gorki) that Lenin, in ill health after the revolution, retreated to his Doric-columned mansion at the end of Birch Alley.

His house has been preserved as a museum (called the Gorki-Leninskiye estate), but unlike most museums glorifying the life of the revolutionary leader, this one tells the story of Lenin as a dying man.

Clocks and calendars are frozen at the moment of Lenin's death -- 6:50 p.m., Jan. 21 -- and one can see the iron-and-wicker wheelchair and bottles of sedative powder he used, as well as the plaster cast of his face and hands made hours after death. (Lenin's body was later embalmed and moved to the mausoleum on Red Square.)

In the days before his death, Stalin and other Communist Party officials came to see the leader, but what is most interesting here are the remnants of Lenin's private life. Lenin read German, English, Italian and French, and books in foreign languages, including by Goethe and Shakespeare, line the library shelves. He loved Russian authors, too, and had tomes by Tolstoy, Turgenev and Pushkin. Legend has it Lenin could devour up to 600 pages a day.

In the garage is a telling detail of how the socialist revolutionary actually lived: a gray-blue 1916 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, outfitted with oversize skis and caterpillar tracks to travel in snow. The vehicle, maintained by Adolf Kergess, the former chauffeur of Tsar Nicholas II, was one of nine Rolls-Royces used by Lenin.

In the 14th century, the city of Kolomna, 115 kilometers southeast of Moscow, on the strategic confluence of the Moscow and Oka rivers, was Russia's second richest after Moscow. Today, what remains of the city's fortifications is a stunning example of medieval defensive architecture.

Italian architects -- including Aleviso Novi, who built the Moscow Kremlin -- designed the oval-shaped red-brick city walls. Kolomna's kremlin rivaled Moscow's in length and was designed so defenders could repel attackers with frontal fire from the walls and flanking fire from the towers.

Seven of the 17 towers remain, including Granovitaya Tower, sliced almost perfectly in a cross section to reveal its thickness and height. The kremlin walls are four meters thick and 20 meters tall. Some sections have walkways along the top.

Kolomna lost its strategic importance after the 17th century -- Moscow grew more powerful and was able to defend itself against the Tatars -- and as a result, the city's role in the Orthodox church was accentuated. Established as a diocese in 1350, Kolomna's metropolitan -- equivalent to an archbishop -- is one of six permanent members of the Russian Orthodox Church's holy synod.

Most important for visitors are the city's 20 churches and four monasteries. Some that closed or became run down in Soviet times have been revived in recent decades. The city has rebuilt the Church of Nikola in Posad's elaborate 16th-century roof made up of kokoshniki arches and reopened the Church of Nikola Gostinogo, one of Russia's first to be constructed of brick. The Assumption Cathedral Church, a 17th-century remake of a 14th-century original that commemorates Russia's victory over invading Mongols, reopened in 1999 and now hosts the city's main religious services on holidays.

At 4:30 p.m. every day, chimes of the bell tower at the Novo-Golutvin Women's Monastery signal the beginning of evening worship, where the nuns' singing can be heard.

A troika driven by Russian champion Alexander Pankov at Moscow Stud Farm No. 1

Outdoor Sports

It is no wonder many of Moscow's 10.5 million denizens leave town every summer for suburban holiday dachas. The countryside around the metropolis is filled with lakes and forests of birch, the silvery-white tree that epitomizes Russian rural beauty. Among Muscovites' favorite pastoral pastimes are horseback riding, skiing and fishing.

Moscow Stud Farm No. 1, 35 kilometers southwest of the city, was once a central source of horses for the Red Army's cavalry. Founded in 1924, it was the only auctioning ground where foreign buyers could buy domestic breeds. Today, it is an idyllic, wooded landscape for training, trail riding, countryside walks and even rides in troika carriages.

Visitors here can ride Orlov Trotters, a breed developed in Russia in the late 19th century and known for its speed and stamina. The quick trot makes the horses well suited to troikas. The stable has a statue of its most famous Orlov Trotter, Kvadrat, who held the record as the fastest Orlov in the 3,200-meter race from 1950 to 1986, and sired 600 offspring around the Soviet Union.

The farm's territory includes grassy fields and woods, four arenas, and the upper course of the Moscow River, clean enough for a dip. On a recent afternoon, the indoor manege was alive as students and trainers practiced their canters and jumps.

The stables house 500 horses; besides the Orlov Trotters there are mainly Russian Trotters, Trakehners and Hanovers. Look for Albatross, an Arabian that Russian President Vladimir Putin gave the farm's riding school in 2005, with the condition that only the best students were to ride it (director Alexander Filin says tourists can ride the horse).

If a sleigh ride is more your pace, three-horse troikas, as well as two- or single-horse wagons, are available. The troika's grace lies in the three horses' staggered pace: The middle animal trots while the side horses gallop. If you're lucky, Alexander Pankov, a Russian troika champion and one of the stable's staff, will drive your troika or even teach a lesson in the delicate Russian art. To request a ride or a lesson, call a day in advance ( 7-495-634-81-77).

The Yakhroma, Volen and Stepanovo ski resorts are clustered about 60 kilometers north of Moscow, in the Klinsko-Dmitrovskaya mountains.

Streams of Muscovites arrive every winter weekend to groomed slopes blanketed with snow, complete with piped in Euro lounge music. The slopes are lit, so skiers can stay until 2 a.m.

Yakhroma is perfect for novices, with wide, gentle slopes, including one for beginners' lessons, and ready instructors at reasonable rates (900 rubles per person per hour, or about €24). Volen, on an adjacent property a 10-minute stroll across the Kamenka River, has steeper slopes for advanced beginners. Stepanovo, three kilometers away, has a longer, bumpier ride on its one-kilometer run. The parks also offer tobogganing, ice-skating, tubing, sledding and snowmobiling. Although cross-country has been more common in Russia, downhill skiing is gaining popularity.

During the summer, when the region has up to 15 hours of sunlight, tourists swim or go mini-golfing at Volen. At Yakhroma, you can rent a bike to try the Nord Shor Extreme mountain-biking course. Both Volen and Yakhroma have log cabins to rent; Yakhroma's 13 Stepanovskoye Inns are each a cabin with three rooms, three bathrooms and a private sauna, for 24,000 rubles a night on weekends.

Fishing for carp, perch and pike is popular in the many natural and stocked lakes around Moscow. At Sabi, for example, 25 kilometers southeast of Moscow, fishermen cast lines from docks along the wooded shore, which are dotted with whimsical sculptures made of birchwood. Strawberries abound in the summer and mushrooms in the fall for picking.

In the winter, fishermen in fur-lined gloves and thick, warm camouflage jackets -- they sell cheaply in Moscow's markets -- ice fish from the snow-covered surface.

A day rate of 3,000 rubles includes any catch of up to 10 kilograms in total. Beyond that, each kilogram is charged per type of fish. No license is needed. Before visitors leave, park managers weigh their catch and determine the amount to be paid.

Istra Holiday cottages

Trip Planner

How to Get There

Podmoskovye, the official name for the administrative region around Moscow, covers a vast area, stretching out 100 to 150 kilometers in all directions from the capital. Commuter trains run regularly to many of the towns worth visiting, but at least a basic knowledge of Russian is needed to negotiate them. For an easier option, rent a car, or a car with a driver.

Podmoskovye is fed by more than a dozen radial highways. Getting to the destinations in this story can take anywhere from 40 minutes to three hours by car, depending on the distance and the road congestion. Traffic along the radial highways is always heavy, although not so bad outside rush hours.

Hertz and Auto Europe have offices in Sheremetyevo 2 and Domodedovo, Moscow's two main international airports. Avis is in Sheremetyevo but will transfer cars within Moscow for 730 rubles (€20). Thrifty is at three locations, with one close to Sheremetyevo. A standard five-seater runs about €100 a day.

In Russia, Budget car rental is a chauffeur service, with hourly rates of €40 to €90. You may not rent a car without a Budget driver. The office is at Sheremetyevo 2.

Some Moscow companies offer a combination of interpretation, tour guiding, chauffeur and car rental. Try Moscow Tour Guide (7-495-565-6163;, where you can hire a guide at $25 an hour or a car with a driver starting at $25 an hour.

Road signs are in Russian, so take a day or two to learn the Cyrillic alphabet in order to recognize place names. For maps, go to Dom Knigi Moskva (8 Tverskaya Street; 7-495-629-6483; where a helpful staff will help you navigate through their large selection.


Hotels and sanatoriums left over from the Soviet era remain popular, and new establishments have sprung up in the region around Moscow. Near the St. Sergius Monastery, try the wooden, Russian-style Russky Dvorik, which movie stars frequent (14/2 Mitkina Street, Sergiyev Posad; 7-496-547-5392;; 3,200-6,400 rubles a night for a double room.

North of New Jerusalem Monastery are Istra Holiday's luxury cottages (Trusovo village, Solnechnorgorsk region; 7-495-731-6199;; 6,100-7,300 rubles).

For something completely different, Zvenigorod Sanatorium, near Moscow Stud Farm, is a spa in a 19th-century columned estate once owned by Tsar Pavel I (Zvenigorod; 7-495-992-4134;; 1,980-3,100 rubles).

Bor, near Gorki-Leninskiye, has cottages, horseback riding and hockey. Governing political party United Russia holds party and media gatherings there several times a year (Odintsovo-Vakhromeyevo; 7-495-616-0820;; 4,600-5,200 rubles).


Near Arkhangelskoye, head to Deti Solntsa for salads, chops and meat dumplings (4 Pogodina Street, Staroye Peredelkino; 7-495-730-8989;; 700 rubles a person).

Near Moscow Stud Farm, dine among Russia's richest at A.V.E.N.U.E., which serves Italian and French dishes (Barvikha Luxury Village, Rubloyvskoye-Uskpenskoye Shosse; 7-495-980-6806; 2,300 rubles).

For something more Russian near the stable, try Tsar's Hunt, which is styled like a hunting lodge and serves Uzbek, Russian and other Eastern European dishes (186A Rublyovskoye-Uskpenskoye Shosse, Zhukovka Village; 7-495-418-7938; 1,700 rubles).

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