Photos by Phoebe Taplin
A tourist brochure points out that the size of the region equals “Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland and the Netherlands” combined, so there is plenty to explore: ancient monasteries surrounded by lakes, charming towns and farming villages, and the woodland home of the Russian Santa Claus, Ded Moroz. Famous for butter, lace-making and ornamental silverware, there are treasures in the region to suit all tastes.
The peaceful capital of this area, the town of Vologda, makes a great tourist base. Industrial suburbs have spread out over the last hundred years, but the train station, hotels, beautiful kremlin (open 10am-5pm, Wed.-Sun.) and old churches are concentrated into a couple of square miles around the serene Vologda River.
There are several 19th century wooden mansions in the center of town, giving it a pleasantly old-fashioned feel. The fortified kremlin, a collection of 17th century palaces and churches, houses a series of museums including exhibitions of delicate Vologda lace and 15th century icons. Ivan the Terrible ordered the construction of the majestic silver-domed cathedral next door. Further along the embankment there are more galleries and museums to visit and in the summer, the city hosts the new, international “Voices” film festival, showcasing independent European cinema. Next year’s festival is scheduled for June 30-July 4, 2011.
In the village of Semenkovo, a short taxi ride out of town, the ethno-architectural museum has collected examples of wooden buildings from the last two centuries. There are–amazingly–explanations in English. In one of the houses, a lively museum of butter traces production from its peasant origins to the innovations of Nikolai Vereshagin, Vologda’s 19th century dairy-product tycoon. The local butter is still very popular in Russia and well worth sampling. The museum opened a new milk products shop in June this year that enables you to do just that. It also celebrates a seasonal cycle of festivals from Easter to Harvest to Christmas. Children can enjoy a “day of country living” or attend master classes, learning to make traditional dolls or painted ornaments. You can find out more at www.semenkovo.ru (Russian only).
If all this sounds too hectic, you can simply wander among the autumn trees, the flowering meadows and grazing horses and admire the carved window frames and massive, interlocking logs of the houses.
The road running northeast from Vologda, close to the long Kubenskoye Lake, leads to the Russky Sever (“Russian North”) National Park. More than 700 plant species grow in forested countryside, including several types of orchid, like the yellow and purple ladies slipper. The area includes beautiful monasteries, their architecture enhanced by the setting.
On the shores of the scenic Siverskoe Lake, the 14th century Kirillov monastery is now the Kirillo-Belozersky Museum (open Tues-Sun, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; kirmuseum.ru/en). The exhibitions include a complete collection of fine 15th century icons from the Assumption cathedral. The cathedral itself is currently closed for restoration, but the real delight is wandering through the spacious grounds, effectively encompassing two monasteries, inside two kilometres of fortified wall. There are a total of 11 churches and 10 towers in this holy city.
The smaller, Ivanovsky monastery, across a ravine to the left, was built up around the wooden hermitage where the founding monk Kirill lived when he first arrived. The holy gates, leading to the grand, Assumption monastery, are painted with 16th century murals.
Visitors can climb the walls in the northeastern corner for the best views of the whole ensemble, with a 19th century wooden windmill in the foreground. It’s also worth strolling outside the walls along the lake, where numerous fishermen wait patiently for bream and pikeperch. Earlier this year, the monastery was used as the backdrop for an epic television series called Raskol (“schism”) about the life of Patriarch Nikon.
Twenty kilometers away, the tiny isolated monastery at Ferapontovo makes a lovely contrast to Kirillov. On a hill above a lonely lake, this whitewashed group of churches has been given UNESCO-listed status for its uniquely preserved frescoes, painted by Dionysius in 1502. The museum inside the Nativity Church guards these treasures carefully, insisting that visitors wait for an official tour and closing altogether on rainy days to protect the precious paintings. The panoply of ochre, blue and crimson in these ancient murals is certainly impressive. What was the exterior west wall (now protected from the elements), around the elegant doorway, shows the birth of the Virgin Mary (from which the church takes its name). The monastery’s location is atmospheric and there is also a colorful museum of peasant artifacts and an art gallery.
At the other end of the Vologda region, nearly 1,000 km away from Moscow, is the fairy tale town of Veliky Ustiug. The former mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov, (who is still a local hero) helped to fund the establishment of Ded Moroz’s official home in the pine forests nearby. Ded Moroz or “Grandfather Frost” is the Russian Santa Claus, but you can visit him all year round. Many of the town’s churches are arranged picturesquely along the Sukhona River. In the Trinity monastery just outside the town, is a baroque 18th century iconostasis. The golden wreaths, twisted columns and flying angels frame some incredible paintings. There is another selection of museums and galleries dedicated to art and history, but again, it is the peaceful atmosphere and sense of stepping back in time that makes the town so delightful.
If you go:
Train tickets to Vologda cost anything from 500 rubles for a basic seat up to nearly 5,000 for a first class bed. A place in a four-berth coupe costs around 2,000 rubles. Trains leave from Moscow’s Yaroslavsky station.
Vologda’s modern Atrium Hotel , has very comfortable rooms from 3,600 rubles a night. The fancier Angliter charges slightly more for boutique-style rooms in different colors of baroque décor with pictures of Venice on the walls.
There are several cafes and bars in the centre of Vologda. The Italian Bellagio Restaurant, at 4 Ulitsa Orlova, receives rave reviews. It’s tipped by the Voices guide as: “simply the best restaurant in Vologda.” The “Kilt” bar round the back, on the waterfront has huge pizzas, great cocktails and live music. For a more Russian experience, check out the Lesnaya Skazka in a suitable fairy tale building at 10 Sovietsky Prospekt.
Kirillov and Ferapontovo can be accessed via a long day-trip by bus or taxi from Vologda.
You can find more travel information for the region at Vologda-oblast.ru