by Vicki Malone
July 10,2018: I am in Suzdal, Russia, two and a half hours by train from Moscow. Our Russian/American hosts, Marina and Phil, insisted my daughter, Rosie’s family and I see “the real” Russia — the Russian countryside – where small wooden houses remind me of Bethel.
We drag our suitcases along a dirt trail next to the stone walls of the fourteenth century monastery which also served as a fortress against the invading Mongol armies. Its many towers overlook the Kamenka river and we see the glistening gold and blue domes of the several churches, monasteries, and convents dotting the horizon. All of them are part of the massive restoration of over 25,000 Orthodox churches in Russia.
We stow our suitcases at our lovely log B&B, and head out to the twelfth century city gate and Alexandrovsky Convent, donning headscarves and skirts provided to tourists in the living churches which have active congregations. We walk on metal tiles gazing at the massive walls adorned with gold icons and frescos. I stand breathless as the melodious voices of a choir burst forth – hidden in the upper floors amongst the intricate naves.
Two more churches and stop for cream of pumpkin soup, herring-in-a-fur-coat salad, breaded salmon and grilled duck. My son-in-law, Jono, declares it one of the best meals of his life. Still light in the late evening, we prod tired grandchildren home, and do not go to the famous Suzdal steam baths.
I recognize many wild plants we have in Alaska—wild geraniums, lupine, fireweed, but there are also massive trees, massive trees. Clearly they have a longer growing season and milder winters than we do.
In the morning, happily stuffed with a Russian country breakfast of yogurt, two hot cereals, sausage, cheese, frankfurters, millet, and blinis (Russian pancakes) stuffed with sour cream and local honey, we are off.
Russian town folk greet us from tables in their backyard. They are selling small wild strawberries and blueberries; fresh dill, and ruby red tomatoes from the garden that nearly everyone keeps in the backyard. My grandchildren, Miriam and Simon and their friend, Kazi, stop to pet a milking goat. Only when the goat head butts Simon soundly do we understand what the Russian woman is trying to tell us about the goat.
We arrive at Our Savior Monastery of St. Euthymius with its abundance of flower and vegetable gardens and I see asparagus plants for the first time. This monastery has a special bell tower and every 15 minutes the bell ringer plays for 5 minutes using both his hands and feet to produce complicated and surprisingly rhythmic tunes.
We are blessed with another sunny day, light breezes and great billowing white clouds which gather and dissipate throughout the day. We spend as much time outdoors in the church gardens, scaling their towers and trekking in between churches and museums as we do absorbing the centuries of art, history, and religion of Suzdal. We depart for Moscow on the third day, vowing to return some day in the winter.
Vicki Malone is a resident of Bethel, Alaska.