In Zhivago's footsteps

Rostov cathedrals.
Rostov cathedrals. Photo: Corbis

Paul Edwards leaves Moscow for the sweeping flatlands that even today offer solace and romance in a time of upheaval.

It doesn't need a strong imagination to picture the two tragic lovers acting out their doomed idyll in a landscape that is becoming one of Europe's most alluring tourist destinations.

The Great Russian Plain is where Boris Pasternak set his sweeping saga Doctor Zhivago. In the film the luminous Julie Christie and

A young girl in traditional clothing.
A young girl in traditional clothing. Photo: Corbis

dewy-eyed Omar Sharif flee there to find stolen moments of peace and love away from revolution and war.

This is the Golden Ring: a half-moon of small cities beyond Moscow. It's where rich Muscovites have their weekend dachas, where ordinary Russians struggle to make sense of the widespread changes that continue to affect this land of immense horizons, and where Lara and Zhivago ignored the turbulence of Mother Russia to set up their love nest.

A few facts cloud my illusion: the book was banned in Russia and the film was shot in Spain, Finland and Canada; and Pasternak had never heard of the Golden Ring, since the label was manufactured recently by travel publicists. But the name is apt: gold leaf crowns the spires and onion domes in what is - ironically, given the decades of godless communism - one of the world's most devout regions.

A Sergei Posad church.
A Sergei Posad church. Photo: Corbis

The Golden Ring has become attractive for thousands of local and international tourists. McDonald's has arrived in several places, some of the hotels have got it just about right and travel firms are starting to devise itineraries.

The half-dozen towns that comprise the district are like pages from Russian history and each seems an open-air museum. Mongols, Poles, Turks, Nazis and others have invaded and slaughtered, communism and bloody revolution have tainted the forests and fields, yet these extraordinary communities maintain a heritage that stretches back to pagan society.

Each town has a photogenic honeycomb of gold-topped churches, kremlins (fortresses), cathedrals and convents. It's a quiet land beyond the scary bustle of Moscow with its get-rich-quick attitude to life and business, where large men in black jackets challenge you to make eye contact.

Curiosity, coupled with a lifelong admiration for Julie Christie, inspired me to take the Russian road less travelled on a tour designed by Insight Vacations. In 2013, the Golden Ring package will also visit St Petersburg; sadly, my itinerary missed out on the outrageously beautiful northern city.

A couple of days in Moscow renewed my enthusiasm for the gobsmacking scale of Red Square, the Kremlin, St Basil's Cathedral and the surprising former GUM people's store, which is now a three-storey arcade devoted to big-ticket items from the world's leading designer labels.

I was also happy to revisit the new, grim Dostoyevsky metro station, where mosaic murals depict murder, self-harm and other violent episodes in the gloomy author's novels. Happy, because prophecies that the station would become a mecca for suicides have proved largely unfounded. Like most other Moscow stations, this is a considerable work of art.

However, if you're trying to find something purely light-hearted in Moscow, you'll need to look long and carefully. This is not Fun City, although it does make a token gesture to frivolity along Stary Arbat, a street housing Europe's largest Hard Rock Cafe, some Western-style bars and at least 100 stores all selling roughly similar bits of tourist tatt at inflated prices.

Traffic is dense and the art or habit of smiling seems to have vanished. Maybe all the smiling people have moved to their mansions in London's West End or along the French Riviera.

Whatever - it's good to get out of town and into the flatlands where the Golden Ring begins. Out here the tempo has reverted almost to the slow, season-dictated days of princes and serfs. Except that the princes are likely to be industrialists with friends in high places and the serfs are townsfolk with an enduring love of their homeland and - after decades of oppression - their religion. The wooded plains seem limitless and drain into the kilometre-wide Volga. Europe's largest river, with a flow 20 times greater than the Murray-Darling, paradoxically never reaches an ocean but runs into the Caspian Sea, which has no outlet other than evaporation.

The Golden Ring is an arc of less than 1000 kilometres running north and east of Moscow and kicks off with the spectacular religious compound of Sergiev Posad. This is the most important monastery in Russia and the holiest place of the Russian Orthodox Church. Bewildering ancient buildings cluster around a sloping courtyard - a riot of blue, white and gold.

Founded in 1345 by St Sergius, the compound was the model for hundreds of monasteries and churches across Russia and was expanded by Ivan the Great and others until it now houses two cathedrals, several churches, a belltower, various chapels, a holy well, defensive walls and kremlin, refectory and a couple of museums.

Even the grey-faced men of the Stalin era recognised they had a colossal work of art on their hands and the buildings were protected. The compound now has UNESCO World Heritage listing.

Heading towards Rostov, the domestic architecture veers towards gingerbread wooden homes with striking paint jobs. Anatoly Michailovic devotes his spare time to painting green and white circles and verticals on his house, fences, sheds and dog kennels; neighbours go for more sombre blues and browns. Michailovic is happy to show visitors around his pumpkin-rich garden while his insane-looking dogs try to eat the fence.

Rostov - often known as Rostov the Great - is a little gem, with a white-towered kremlin and a museum and workshop devoted to enamel craftwork. The cathedral has a bell weighing 32 tonnes. Local dogs and birds are used to it; tourists listen in awe.

Next stop is Yaroslavl, a large city (population: 600,000) sprawling across the confluence of the Volga and Kotorosl rivers. Again, more onion domes and kremlin walls in a town centre with World Heritage listing. The Volga is busy with cargo boats and river craft, some heading upstream through canals to St Petersburg.

Just when you think you have seen enough onion-topped churches, you reach Kostroma, where there are several more. But there's also a fascinating museum of flax and birch bark, where clothes and toys are displayed and sold according to ancient traditions. The intricate Bird of Happiness, carved here from a single piece of wood without glue or nails, has a span of delicate, lifelike feathers.

And so through grim, workaday Ivanovo to Suzdal, my favourite town along the Golden Ring road. I count 45 churches, cathedrals, convents and other religious buildings, together with an impressive kremlin. Not bad for a town of about 10,000 people - little wonder it has UNESCO recognition as a museum city.

The market square looks like a film set - with a little engineering it could become a Mexican pueblo or sleepy Spanish plaza. Stalls sell clothes, artefacts, general junk and even that rarity in much of Russia - good food. They also make an excellent honey-based product called medovukha, roughly equivalent to mead.

The visual effect of all those bulbous white churches attracts many weddings from Moscow, and the town is geared up with restaurants, hotels, horse-drawn carriages and everything else needed to stage a hectic Russian ceremony. Suzdal is also home to a museum of wooden architecture, an entire village of Zhivago-style timber buildings shifted here from various parts of the Russian plain.

For those of a more ethereal inclination, there's a studio of religious icons said to be up there with the best in the world. An iconographer, Father Andrey Davydov, knocks out originals at the breathless rate of one a month, using the encaustics or wax-based technique with mediaeval egg tempera. He uses natural minerals, including silver and gold, usually in dust form.

Last town on the Golden Ring is Vladimir, perched on the edge of the Kliasma River. A former national capital, it has striking whitestone architecture typified by the Cathedral of the Dormition, now almost 900 years old, and the vast Cathedral of St Demetrius. And so back to the big city, where Zhivago glimpsed his Lara for the last time before dying of a heart attack. Sometimes Moscow can do that to you. Then again, so can Melbourne.

FAST FACTS

Getting there Cathay Pacific has a fare to Moscow from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1900 low-season return, including tax. Fly non-stop to Hong Kong (about 9hr) and then non-stop to Moscow Domodedovo airport (10hr 30min); see cathaypacific.com. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days and you must be invited by an authorised travel agency in Russia. Intended visitors to Russia must obtain a tourist visa, valid for single and double entry for a maximum of 30 days. See sydneyrussianconsulate.com/visa.html.

Touring there The Golden Ring may be visited from early May to late September as part of Insight Vacations' Easy Paced Russia 11-day tour, which includes Moscow and St Petersburg. Priced from $3534. See www.insightvacations.com

Paul Edwards flew with assistance from Cathay Pacific and toured courtesy of Insight Vacations.

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