The good thing about travelling, even if to the same destinations, is that it is never the same, provided that you keep an open eye and are ready to meet, talk and listen to people.
I hadn’t been to Suzdal and Vladimir for years, and quite honestly, was a bit prejudiced towards both, especially Suzdal: what is it but an overcrowded tourist Mecca?
My recent trip there has once again taught me to always keep an open mind. So here are some highlights of our pilgrimage to the two most renowned towns of the Golden Ring. The story begins with Vladimir, which was the first on our itinerary.
Hotels and dining experience
The town offers a fairly wide range of accommodation, as can be found on booking.com. Ours, however, was a last minute booking: we were going to arrive late in the night so I didn’t want to be bothered with too thorough a search. But I could have done better.
The hotel Vozdukh (not a promising name) turned out to be a very humble type of lodging, though quiet and very centrally located. A tip: never take the no-breakfast option in Vladimir if you don’t want to skip breakfast, as most restaurants and cafes (at least the decent ones) do not open until 12 pm. We ended up going to Coffee Bean in a local shopping mall, which was far from the authentic dining experience I was hoping for!
Things got better in the afternoon when we chose to have lunch at Oblomov, a five-minute walk from the Golden Gates – the very heart of town – and right across from an adorable little shop & museum of Old Soviet candy. Oblomov boasts one of the finest restaurants of Vladimir, serving Russian and European cuisine in a cozy, tasteful interior. Not bad for a tiny province!
The historical center is small and full of character. There are hundreds of old wooden houses to admire, with their cute little palisadniki (miniature flower gardens) and carved window cases. Of course, a major highlight are the age-old cathedrals, Uspenski and Dmitrovski (both being almost a thousand years old), an absolute must-see, if only for the tombs of the Russian Princes, Dmitri Donskoi and Andrei Bogolyubski and Rublyev’s frescos (Uspenski cathedral) and the rare and perfectly preserved stone carving (Dmitrovski). I would also recommend a rather atmospheric museum of local history and culture, Stariy Vladimir (Old Town of Vladimir) based in what used to be an old water tower – there’s lots to learn about the old ways, as well as admire a breathtaking view from the top.
For more ideas, refer to TripAdvisor for tips about the many more Vladimir tourist attractions, from a decent art gallery to the private Spoon museum.
The hidden art treasures
I quite enjoy the Vladimir art school of landscape, which is known for its bright, happy decorativeness and naiveté, simple but not superficial. The names of Yukin, Britov, Kokurin, and Yegorov have become well-established among regional art movements in the 60s-70s Russia, producing tens of followers of the school. I had been to a couple of local artist studios and private galleries before and was keen to explore this art further. As we were passing by an adorable wooden house lavishly ornated with elegant carving I noticed a sign Dom Iskusstva (The House of Art) above the porch and eagerly walked in.
I was back two hours later and speaking with Valeriy, the gallery boss. The man seemed highly suspicious of me and my intentions: “Who are you?” was his very straightforward question, which caught me off guard. I honestly didn’t know how to respond to that, and what he expected me to say. Uhhh, just someone who wants to see your art?.. Is that good enough? “And so, do you have a rich daddy or something?” I beg your pardon?!!! Honestly, I was losing patience with this man.
To be honest, I was amused but not really offended. The truth is, if a Russian asks you questions like that (in this case, an owner of a small gallery in a tiny provincial town), don’t be insulted: chances are they just lack good social skills, and believe me, this is so often the case. As I later discovered, Valeriy turned out to be a very pleasant man, passionate about the art of his hometown and jealously guarding his collection. Indeed, the collection I later explored was quite a little treasure and I suppose his suspicion was justified. After all, few people can afford to purchase a 300,000 rouble ($5,000) painting in a town like Vladimir.
After the uncalled interrogation, Valeriy finally gave in (assuming I was trustworthy?) and escorted me to a little attic room above the main gallery space. Which was certainly a privilege, as few gallery guests get to see it I assume, quite simply because most don’t bother asking about the possible hidden jewels. The old, dusty, funny-smelling attic was a find: there were paintings by Yegorov and Britov as well as their less famed brothers in trade.
I took a liking to two landscapes by Yegorov and after a while was tentatively inquiring after their worth. Of course, Valeriy’s sales skills left to be desired. He was sending mixed signals, explaining he had no real intention to part with the paintings and at the same time implying that no one had yet offered a reasonable price. I believe he was being perfectly honest: he could probably use the money and yet was not too happy to give up the paintings which could find their notable place in a local museum.
I also put an eye on a beautiful still life standing in the corner. Valeriy was reluctant to give me details, explaining hastily this was a work by an unknown artist and he would be prepared to sell it for a reasonable amount. As I discovered later from a lady at the shop, this was his own work!
In the end, I bought a little pastel still life and promised to come back for a longer talk and a possible purchase. This was an enjoyable experience and I am happy to share the contacts of the place Художественный салон «На Никитской», Nikitskaya street 2, Vladimir. Alas, Valeri was not too happy with the paintings being photographed, so I only managed to take one quick picture of his treasures.
All in all, time very well spent! Stay tuned for my Suzdal story.