Sunday, November 21, 2010

Alexandrov Adventure

Yesterday morning, I woke up to this:

It was 7 a.m., pitch black outside, and pouring rain. My bed had never looked so tempting.

But I forced myself to get dressed and head outside to wait for the bus into Moscow. My friends and I had planned to go to Borodino, the battlefield 130 km west of Moscow where Napoleon "won the battle but lost the war" in 1812. Being the history nerd that I am, I was incredibly pumped to explore this battlefield. Two summers ago, I was lucky enough to go to Antietam, a Civil War battlefield in Maryland, and one of my dreams is to visit as many famous battlefields as I can - Gettysburg is definitely at the top of the list. And so is Borodino...still!!

Because surprise surprise, for some reason the train going to Borodino wasn't running yesterday. The woman behind the ticket counter at Belorusskaya Vokzal (train station) didn't offer a reason, just a curt "nyet." My friend Jon suggested going to Mozhaisk instead and trying to get to Borodino from there, but I remembered hearing about Nate and Tom's adventure last year and quickly quashed that idea. Instead, we decided to make a day out of it anyway and go visit one of the towns in the Golden Ring, Alexandrov.

This pair looked cozy on the metro...I wonder how long they had been sleeping.
It was on the circle line, which just goes around and around in a circle in the
centre of Moscow, and people DO tend to just ride it for hours while
they nap...

The entrance to Belorusskaya Metro Station

Even on a Saturday morning, the metro at Komsomolskaya was still bustling

One of the ceiling mosaics at the Komsomolskaya metro station

Outside Belorusskaya Vokzal, one of the train stations in Moscow. Note how perfectly
my coat matches the building :)

Alexandrov is a small (population 64,000) town 120 kilometres northeast of Moscow. It's part of the "Golden Ring", a ring of ancient cities to the northeast of Moscow that played pivotal roles in the development of both the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church. They've been called "open-air musuems" and offer tourists a great panorama of traditional Russian architecture - churches, kremlins, etc. Although the Kremlin in Moscow is the most well-known in Russia, its not the only one. Kreml', or Kremlin, means fortress/citadel, and many towns in old Muscovy had kremlins constructed to protect the citizens.

In a great travel article on the Golden Ring, the author states that this cluster of old towns wrapping around Moscow provides the perfect way to experience the "real" Russia:

"...rural hospitality; somnolent landscapes and tree-lined lanes where pedestrians stroll and cars are few; wooden cabins with plumes of smoke trailing from the chimneys; the dreamy susurrus of the wind through the trees... a visit to the Golden Ring surrounds one with the artistic and spiritual treasures of Old Russia: the masterpieces of Orthodox ecclesiastical architecture, and the evocation of a hazy, half-mythical era of lost liberties, a time before Moscow arose as Russia’s unifier and despot."

WOW! I wish I could write like that...although I have to add in a disclaimer here. Maybe I chose the wrong time of year to visit my first Golden Ring town, but the weather yesterday was definitely not the greatest. The town itself seemed pretty depressing, but that could very well have been because of the slush, the mud, and the rain/snow. After arriving around noon, we made our first stop at the washrooms outside the train platform. I'm struggling right now trying to think of the right words to describe this washroom. Disgusting, hole, unsanitary, and revolting are the first to come to mind. On top of that, I suffered the indignity of having to PAY to use this concrete hole in the ground. 10 roubles!! The doors to the stalls were, for some odd and embarassing reason, really short so everybody could see the upper half of your body as you squatted over the toilet (there was no way in hell I was touching that so-called seat!) Look, I'm not a princess when it comes to roughing it. I enjoy camping and as an avid long-distance runner, I have no qualms in peeing in the bush if I have to. But those toilets were the most disgusting ones I have ever seen!!

After emerging from the terrifying experience that was the public washroom, we walked around the town for about 30 minutes in search of a cafe or somewhere - anywhere - we could warm up. Being 2 hours northeast from Moscow, there was actual snow on the ground in Alexandrov and it was at least a few degrees colder.

Bundled up outside a store called Zvozdochka - Little Star!

We finally found one called the CCCP Cafe (CCCP is Cyrillic for USSR). It was very cute and Soviet-kitschy, with interesting memorabilia and photographs on the wall.

The tablecloth was an old Pravda newspaper - the mouthpiece of the Communist Party. (There's an old Soviet joke about the two main newspapers at the time, Pravda (Truth) and Izvestiya (The News): "There's no truth in The News and no news in The Truth."

We ordered some tea (150 roubles each) and it came in a very pretty clear glass tea pot. We stayed at the cafe for quite some time, just chatting and enjoying the atmosphere. It was very nice because nobody pestered us to order more, or gave us looks or tried to make us leave. They just left us in peace to drink our tea and talk. It was lovely!

We left the cafe eventually and made our way to the Kremlin, about a 10 minute walk uphill from the cafe. Alexandrov is famous for being the site where Ivan the Terrible (Ivan Grozny in Russian; it is translated more accurately as Ivan the Awesome or Awe-Inspiring, but Terrible does invoke a certain amount of fear and power that I would say was true) fled in December 1564 after suffering a fit of insanity. He took all of Moscow's historical and religious relics with him, ran away to Alexandrov, and proclaimed the town as Russia's new capital. He refused to leave until the Church - aghast at how the tsar had just up and left Moscow - agreed to allow him to set up the Oprichnina, a section of land that he could govern himself in any way he chose. The Oprichnina also included the creation of the Oprichniki, Ivan's secret police force that rode around on horseback terrorizing the countryside. Maybe this guy does deserve his "terrible" sobriquet...

View from the bridge - the church towers inside the Kremlin can be spotted over the trees

The one and only time I think anything to do with pigeons is cute

Comrade Lenin and I

Despite the fact that these ancient white walls once housed a royal madman for three brief months in 1564-65, there is an innate calm and peace to Alexandrov's Kremlin. Perhaps it is the influence of the still-operating convent within the walls. The blanketing snow also helped add to the peace and silence of the place, where only a few tourists, a wedding party, and a couple of nuns outfitted in flowing black robes and wimples weaved between the tree-lined paths.

The entrance to the Kremlin

Check out the rules that were posted at the entrance (in English too!): I especially like "keep ethics, silence and don't drink alcohol" and "make thrifty use of the historical and cultural heritage of Russia, keep clean and accurate." I don't even know what that means...

Because it was a Saturday, and there seems to be numerous weddings every Saturday, there was a wedding party inside the Kremlin taking some pictures. It is part of a traditional Russian wedding to drive around to the different historical landmarks of the city and take pictures there. This bride was wearing a beautiful big white skirt that she lifted daintily around the puddles of slush and snow.

We walked around the pathways for a bit, stopping to read the signs in Russian (or trying to) before going into the musuem. Here we paid 30 roubles (approximately $1) as an entrance fee and had a great time walking around looking at the exhibits. There were a lot of books in immaculate condition from the 16th century, written in beautiful, flowing Old Church Slavonic, as well as some caftans, earrings, a French hood that I think belonged to Elizabeth I (or had something to do with her; it was next to a portrait of the English queen, who ruled at the same time as Ivan the Terrible and was rumoured to have considered him as a marriage prospect...a fascinating what if? of history!), and some armour and weapons belonging to the oprichniki. It was all very interesting! My one wish though was for more English captions. Everything in display was numbered, with a description underneath in Russian, but unfortunately I could only understand about 50%. This was disappointing because I would have loved to learn more.

The layout of the Kremlin

An oil painting of Ivan...those eyes were like the Mona Lisa's...they seemed to
follow me around the room...SO creepy!!

Check out Ivan's throne - pretty impressive with its intricate carvings and the Byzantine double-headed eagle his ancestor Ivan III adopted/stole after he married the Byzantine princess Zoe Paleologue. I think I would like a throne in my house one day...

After we left the musuem, we went into the Pokrovskaya church. The Christianisation of Russia occurred in 988, and there is an old, beautiful legend in the Russian Primary Chronicle that tells the story of how Russia chose Christianity over other religions. Prince Vladimir (later Saint) sent delegates to various neighbouring countries to research the different religions. One delegation went to see the Bulgars, who were Muslim, but the Russians were not impressed by the no-alcohol rule. "Drink is the joy of the Russians," they famously explained - not much has changed in the ensuing millenium! When they met the Jewish Khazars, a similar dismissal was made, because the Russians didn't like the fact that the Jewish people didn't have their own homeland. They weren't impressed with the Germanic tribes' religion either. But then they got to the Greeks. And that's when history was made.

Faced with the awe-inspiring beauty of the Greek Orthodox churches, the Russian delegates wrote back home to Vladimir that "we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it." Russia chose Orthodox Christianity, and with this choice, a Messianic path was forged that would affect the rest of Russian history.

As I stepped into the church, I felt much like the Russians must have felt when they walked into the church in Greece back in the late tenth century. Pure awe and wonder. In Heaven or on earth? It was hard to say. The interior was dark, with only candles and the gold gleam of the saints' halos painted on the walls for light. The iconostasis at the front was framed by mosaic icons of Mary, Jesus, and other saints. The air was heavy with incense as priest made his way through the crowd of believers swinging a heavy censer. Babushkas, with their hair covered in headscarves, knelt in front of the altar, crossing themselves numerous times the Orthodox way - instead of forehead, chest, left, right (the Catholic way), its forehead, chest, right, left. In one corner of the church, a group of nuns were singing a beautiful chant acapello. Its very simplicity drew me in, captivating me, and it was a very spiritual experience for me personally. The thing about the Russian Orthodox Church is that is appeals to all of your senses. We stood there in silence for a while, observing the service before quietly leaving and heading back outside, where twilight had fallen.

Get thee to a nunnery! The convent at Alexandrov

By this time, it was around 5pm and growing darker, so we made our way back to the train station and caught the train home to Moscow/Mytishchi. Two and a half hours later, I walked into my flat, tired but beaming from a great day in Alexandrov.


  1. Amazing Katie. How much there is for us to learn about the world. Can't wait to hear about Borodino - I'm sure you'll get there soon.

  2. Its just a wrong time of a year to go to Borodino, really. Its too muddy right now.
    Also, please consider a ride on a horseback over the borodino fields, its quite an experience!

  3. Hi! My name is Elena and I'm from Alexandrov. I'm a journalist in a local newspaper. We wanted to use your story about the day in Alexandrov in our nespaper. Can we? I'll be very glad if you can give me your photo (the one with the throne). Please, write me