The highlight of the Golden Ring is Suzdal. One of Russia's oldest cities, it dates back to the year 1024. Prince Yury Dolgoruki made it his regional capital in the 12th century, and it became a fortress whose Kremlin protected the Russian border. Today, its Kremlin forms the historic heart of Suzdal and contains it the oldest houses in the city. When the Muscovite tsars came to power in the 16th century, Suzdal traded its political status to become the religious center. Its religious architectural heritage is extraordinary, with more than thirty churches and five monasteries, all uniquely constructed and decorated.
If you visit Suzdal at the end of February, you may be lucky enough to catch the colorful celebration of Maslenitsa, a pagan holiday devoted to the end of winter and the beginning of spring, as well as the beginning of the Orthodox Great Fasting. There is a host of jolly festivities during Maslenitsa Week, including delicious blinis, local medovukha (mead), riding troikas, authentic singing and dancing, and other boisterous traditional activities.
In Suzdal, an abundance of wooden architecture creates an entrancing atmosphere of rural calmness and serenity, while its host of old domed churches, bell-towers, and monasteries testifies to its status as a spiritual center. The city's charm is so great that it was left untouched by the Soviet industrialization which destroyed so much of Russia's heritage. It is no wonder artists come by the score to sit in its quiet lanes and absorb inspiration.
One of the most impressive religious buildings is the Intercession Convent, steeped in the tragedy of the noblewomen banished here by cruel husbands. One such woman was the mother of Ivan the Terrible. Peter the Great, a tsar who proclaimed to be open-minded, also exiled his first wife here. The walls of the convent hold the prayers and tears of the forgotten women. It is a place of somber beauty.
Another beautiful place in Suzdal is the Cathedral of Nativity of the Virgin. Although the Cathedral's main walls date to the 16th century, the carved white stones at the base originated in the days before the Mongol-Tatar invasion of the 12th century. The cathedral's five blue domes are dotted with glittering golden stars while its doors hold beautiful scenes from the New Testament. Inside wait breathtaking 13th century frescos. There is also the massive Saviour Monastery of St. Euthymius, Suzdal's largest monastery, the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Saviour, St. Nicholas' Church, and the Museum of Wooden Architecture and Peasant Life. Most of the churches are situated in picture-perfect areas within walking distance from each other. The entire village is steeped in a hearty spiritual atmosphere.