The cities on our Golden Ring tour are teeming with ancient architecture, including loads of Russia's iconic onion domes. Leaving Petroslavl-Zalessky, Tara read from a website I'd saved about our next picturesque, church-filled destination of Rostov:
People call it a miracle on Earth, a symphony in stone, the Eternal City of Russia… It rises like a vision amidst the sweeping expanses of Russia, a wonder city on the shore of Lake Nero.
We've grown accustomed to the over-the-top declarations touted by guidebooks and websites for everything from major tourist spots to the most mundane of destinations. Unfortunately, the rose-colored glasses worn by these travel writers can make it really difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff!
When Tara was done with her reading, we laughed, agreeing that this might be the most embellished offering we'd ever encountered. Very curious nonetheless, we drove onwards, sweating heavily in the stop-and-go traffic.
It is pretty rare to cover more than an hour's worth of ground without seeing an accident these days. The reckless passing and irresponsible, solipsistic attitudes of the typical Russian driver practically guarantee that the roadsides will be dotted with destroyed vehicles.
We've seen cars completely totaled from head-on collisions, numerous tractors toppled over, and several huge semis rolled into the ditch like beached whales. Though we witnessed similar driving habits in Tunisia, we strangely don't recall there being many accidents!
One such collision caused a traffic jam for several kilometers on our way to Rostov:
While traffic moved at a snail's pace, we had plenty of time to check out these bizarre roadside souvenir stands. I couldn't help but snicker when I saw this bear; it looks like he was in the middle of some auto-erotic asphyxia…
Who on earth is buying these things?! Someone must, or they wouldn't be there? Right?
A little further on, we met Remy, a Swiss cycle tourist on his way to Rostov to meet a friend. We passed him, stopped at a shop, and bought him a bottle of cool water (we were hoping for cold water, but it doesn't seem to exist, even in refrigerated cases).
When we pulled back on the road, we thought he must've turned off because we kept driving and driving and driving and he was nowhere to be found. Finally we came upon him, a remarkable distance from where we'd stopped. He was moving FAST!
After a short chat, we left the speedy Remy behind, thankful to have a car in such dangerous traffic and hot, smoky weather. Shortly after, we arrived excitedly in Rostov, the Eternal City of Russia! Welllll, it didn't exactly rise like a vision from the sweeping expanse…
…but when we made it to the center of town, and saw it's Kremlin, the glowing review I'd saved actually started to feel pretty accurate!
We walked inside the first cathedral, and Tara picked up a cloth from a pile of kerchiefs near the entrance to tie around her hair. It was dark inside, illuminated only by dust-filled rays of sunlight, shining in through two doors on opposite ends of the nave. Vivid paintings covered the high walls and ceilings, but their splendor was slowly being consumed by the forces of time. All of them were peeling and chipping heavily as they fell into ruin.
Inside, two scarved women were performing some sort of ceremony, and they occasionally broke into harmonious, angelic singing. In a radiant shaft of light, an old man stood in worn brown shoes, fingering his rosary, back against a wall, eyes lowered towards the intricately carved tiled floor. We watched as he followed the prayer, bowing and making the sign of the cross at all the appropriate times.
Then, a mysterious door in the front of the church opened with a loud creaking, and out walked a man (priest?) decked to the nines in fine golden robes that stood out in stark contrast to the crumbling, faded pallor of his surroundings. He sung for a moment, then walked back and entered the inner sanctum from whence he came. What was in that room? Were they hiding god in there?
After a few more minutes of women singing and chanting, another man walked out, this time, an old bearded one! All smelled faintly of incense, and the atmosphere was positively awe-inspiring.
The idea of taking a photo of all this seemed highly disrespectful, so Tara refrained. I, on the other hand, was carrying our field recorder. I managed to capture some of the service, from a distance. The sound isn't the best, but here it is:
After this experience, our tranquil walk through the pastel buildings of the Kremlin was really just the icing on the cake. Best of all, we were the only people around, and so were able to admire our surroundings in complete silence.
Well, almost complete silence! I still had my sound-recorder in hand, and managed to capture the tail end of some church bells.
Meandering through the stairs and walls and buildings of the Kremlin, we made a friend. He was sleeping with his eyes open, curled in front of a large, ancient door.
After a big cat stretch and gaping yawn, he meowed at me and tried to climb my leg. So, I sat down beside him and he crawled into my lap.
What a sweetheart. The whole encounter made me a little maudlin for days spent at home in my office, programming with two cats vying for a place on my lap. They'd often sleep directly on top of one another, purring away awhile I worked. When we started this adventure, I couldn't wait to leave everything I knew behind. Now I am often reminded of small things from home which I miss dearly, and clearly took for granted.
Heart brimming from our encounter and the memories it brought forth, we said goodbye to our little friend, and walked back towards the entrance of the Kremlin.
I have to admit, it really was a vision!