One of the less polished stops on the Golden Ring route, but ideally situated for a weekend getaway on the railway line that connects Moscow and Yaroslavl, Rostov Veliky is the one of the country`s oldest documented settlements, celebrating its 1140th birthday this year.
Where Suzdal has rolling fields and a surfeit of monasteries, Rostov Veliky has the vast, still Ozero Nero, or Lake Nero, with fairy-tale clusters of domes and towers scattered about its shores. And the bells that woke me that September morning, I later learned, were the same ones French composer Hector Berlioz traveled the breadth of Europe to hear in the mid-19th century.
The belfry of the Dormition Cathedral (1162), once famous throughout the country and all over Europe, predates Moscow`s Kremlin and is hung with 13 bells, including the original grand 32-ton clanger that is only rung on rare occasions -- and, as it happened, during a special recording session on the weekend we visited. The gorgeous melodies played on these great chimes stayed with us throughout the weekend as we explored the town, wandering around the Kremlin and walking along the lake`s quiet shores.
Settled in prehistoric times, and later the hub of an independent principality ruled from Suzdal, Rostov Veliky was an important commercial and religious center until the 18th century, when the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church`s Metropolitan was moved to nearby Yaroslavl.
Today, Rostov Veliky`s charming collection of buildings -- it has both old and relatively new, and many of the older structures are currently the subject of meticulous restoration projects -- set amid overgrown gardens and parks is slowly waking up to the lure of the tourist trade. Its small-town dusty roads are officially home to 40,000 people, but -- barring the bustling Saturday market -- the city center remains largely deserted on weekends.
By contrast, Rostov Veliky`s Kremlin, churches and monasteries are a hive of activity on Saturdays and Sundays, when predominantly Russian groups of tourists and schoolchildren arrive to see the sights. These same groups proved something of a threat to our small band of travelers when it came to securing a meal at the local restaurants, where sheer force of numbers meant the larger groups consistently held sway. I suggest that you pack a picnic lunch or two to sustain you until after 3 p.m., when the masses usually depart.
Situated on a hill a stone`s throw from the water, the 17th-century Kremlin is the city`s main landmark. Although the Kremlin`s majestic kilometer-long white walls rise up from the water`s edge and tower over the city`s main drag, they have always been largely ornamental and never served to protect the buildings inside. The Kremlin was constructed by Metropolitan Iona of Rostov Veliky, with the assistance of Irina Lugovskaya, the great grandmother of Alexander Pushkin who, according to local lore, not only was once courted by Tsar Alexei, father of Peter the Great, but later fought the Poles at Smolensk disguised as the younger brother of her husband, Count Alexei Musin-Pushkin.
Despite the fact that the Kremlin complex has been rebuilt a couple of times, most substantially following the 1953 tornado that ripped through Rostov Veliky, taking with it every church dome within the Kremlin`s walls, the region`s historical prosperity is still evident in the Kremlin`s buildings and richly frescoed cathedrals. Buy a ticket that allows access to all of the Kremlin`s buildings for 60 rubles (just under $2) and feast your eyes on the beautiful frescoes by 17th-century Kostroma masters Gury Nikitin and Sila Savin that hang in the five-domed Church of the Resurrection (1670) and the west Kremlin wall`s Church of St. John the Divine (1683).
Despite the city`s initial reluctance to embrace the orthodox faith -- Rostov Veliky`s first bishop, Leonty, was killed in the 11th century when he attempted to convert the locals -- the city`s commercial center became the seat of the Metropolitan in the late 16th century and remained an important religious center for 200 years.
Outside the Kremlin are still more churches -- including the St. Isidore Church, which was built during Ivan the Terrible`s reign -- as well as a monastery or two. To the left of the Kremlin on the lake`s shore is the working Spaso-Yakovlevsky, or St. Jacob, Monastery, a nest of gold domes and towers. To the right is the much older, broken-down 12th-century Avraamiyev Monastery.
The range and beauty of these buildings and of the Kremlin are best savored from the water -- easy to do by hiring one of the motor boats moored on rickety piers in front of the Kremlin walls. After such a ride, we left the lakeside to wander back toward the train station via our abode in the Kremlin walls. As we walked past the 16th-century marketplace and this centuryЕs brightly colored izbas, the great bell chimed again. Perfect.