Exploring the Golden Ring: Sergiev Posad.

My stay in Russia is officially over, but I still have a few adventures and insights left that I still want to share with you here.

Part of my family came to visit me in Moscow at the beginning of December and I thought that it might be interesting for them to show them something besides (the very westernized and international) Moscow. So I took them to a city in the Golden Ring: Sergiev Posad.

The Golden Ring – Золотое кольцо – is textbook Russia not far from Moscow. It is an area that has the country’s oldest towns, which used to play a major role during the time of the Kievan Rus’. The architecture of the cities in the Golden Ring is marked with onion-shaped domes and kremlins, everything mostly untouched by the Soviet industrialisation. Now, this area is very popular among tourists as it is very idyllic, especially during winter when it is covered in snow.

Sergiev Posad

Before my family came to visit me I had already travelled to two other cities within the Golden Ring, namely Rostov and Yaroslavl. Sergiev Posad – Сергиев Посад – is the closest to Moscow in the Ring (72km by railway). Over 110,000 people live in the city which is located in the Moscow Oblast. Its most important or well-known site and reason for people travelling there is the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius, which is the most important monastery and the spiritual centre of the Russian Orthodox Church. Sergiev Posad is – apparently – also the place where the matryoshka dolls (traditional Russian wooden toys) were born.

We travelled by Elektrichka which took us around 1.5 hours. We decided to use this suburban electrical commuter train as it was the cheapest option and it gave us the most elbowroom for travelling (buying a ticket much in advance is not necessary, you can buy it right before boarding the train). However, there are faster train options available as well. A bus would have been another cheap and easy option but we didn’t want to risk that as we travelled on a Sunday and there is usually a lot of traffic during the weekend.

Already on the train my family got to experience something that isn’t a thing in (Western) Europe: there were more than ten people who tried to sell all (un)necessary stuff such as bags, christmas decoration, calendars etc at a bargain price. After arriving at the train station we had to walk for around 1km in order to get to the monastery. It was really easy to find as we could spot it from some way ahead and there were plenty of signposts.

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Sergius

Bartholomew was born in 1314. Already in his early life he knew that he wanted to live in asceticism so he decided to move into the woods where he could work and pray a lot. A few years later he became a monk and took the name Sergius. The city’s namegiver and patron saint apparently was able to work miracles by healing people and seeing the future. Already during his lifetime the monk became famous and people started to visit the monastery in order to get advice from him. He and his pupils further founded several monasteries throughout Russia. Today the Trinity Lavra is one of the most respected and largest one in Russia.

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The monastery celebrated its patron saint’s (St. Sergius of Radonezh) 700 year birthday in 2014

Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius

The monastery was closed by the Bolsheviks (surprise surprise), but it was reopened as a museum, residence of the patriarch and a working monastery after WWII. Despite the move of the patriarch and the church’s administrative centre to Moscow in 1988 the Lavra remained the most important spiritual site in Russia. The monastery became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.

When entering the monastery we passed through the red tower with the Church of John the Baptist’s Nativity, which was erected in 1699. We followed a road that lead us to the heart of the square from which we could see all of the churches.

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The Trinity Cathedral was built in the 1420s and is the centrepiece of the monastery. People were already queuing outside the building in order to seethe tomb of St. Sergei (and pray in front of it?  or whatever they do) which stands in the southeastern corner of the cathedral. Apparently there is a memorial service for him all day every day.

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The Trinity Cathedral (on the left) with the queue

The most prominent church of the square is the Cathedral of the Assumption which was finished after 26 years in 1585. With its star-sprangled blue onion domes it catches one’s eyes. The money for this cathedral was left by Ivan the Terrible in a fit of remorse for killing his own son. Another special fact/thing about the church is that in its vault is the grave of Boris Godunov who is the only tsar that wasn’t buried in the Moscow Kremlin or in the St Petersburg’s SS Peter & Paul Cathedral.

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Empress Elizabeth particularly favoured the monastery and had a white and blue baroque belltower erected in the 18th century which is with 88 metres still one of the tallest structures built in Russia.

Right in the middle of the square is the Chapel at the Well which was built over a spring. It is believed that the spring appeared during the Polish siege. A blind monk drank the water and got his eyesight back. What a miracle! During summer the water is pumped outside and over it is a very colourful baldachin. I was pretty disappointed that neither my mom nor my aunt wanted to get holy water even though they wanted to go in almost every church that they saw in Russia. Tsk Tsk Tsk.

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Bell Tower with the baldachin for the holy water thing

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Baldachin and Chapel at the Well on the left

The most colourful building within the monastery walls is the Refectory Church of St. Sergei. It was a dining hall for pilgrims but is used as a church during winter in order to hold the morning services as it would be too cold in the Assumption Cathedral.

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Despite being an impressive monastery that had many beautiful and colourful buildings there were quite a few things that I did not like about the place. It was a bit disappointing that two of the main buildings inside the monastery, which looked very impressive at first glance, weren’t even churches but souvenir shops. Almost the entire building next to / behind the Trinity Cathedral was only a souvenir shop and nothing else. We also went to have food at a place nearby and this restaurant was the most expensive one that I took my family to and the food wasn’t even that good and the staff seemed to be very disinterested in keeping their guests happy. Still, the interior was nice and my family could try a bit more of the traditional Russian food there. We could really see that the monastery is very focused on (but also probably dependent on) tourists.

In spite of all the things that I did not like about the place it was a good travel opportunity for me and my family. I could show them something outside of Moscow, they got to travel in an Elektrichka and we saw the most important religious place in Russia.

My recommendation for people who are considering going there would be that you should only go there if you haven’t already seen a few other churches in Russia or if you want to see another city close to Moscow that hasn’t changed as much as the capital has in the past centuries. There are definitely more interesting and more beautiful cities in the Golden Ring, but if you don’t have much time to travel to another city or spend much time in another city, Sergiev Posad would be a great choice! Just beware – there are a lot of souvenir shops and stalls waiting for you there…

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