We knew that driving a rental car in Russia wouldn’t be easy even before we arrived at the poorly marked Europcar counter at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport where they deal, on average, with only 14 customers a week. There, it took a nice young man 40 minutes to check our reservation, make photocopies of our documents and test two GPS systems. The first was broken; the second, which he deemed OK, stopped working even as we pulled out of the parking garage.
Then we ran smack into the real problem: Russian roads, made worse by Russian drivers. On that first afternoon, heading away from Moscow, we got a taste of both. Clogged intersections; clusters of potholes or “hens’ nests," as Claire de Laboulaye, my French traveling companion, called them; giant trucks on narrow roads; big-bellied Russian traffic-police officers trolling for offenders, bringing the flow of traffic to a crawl.
A road trip around Russia’s Golden Ring — a circuit of about 10 ancient towns northeast of Moscow, each with its own set of glittering onion-domed churches and medieval fortresses — was going to be a challenge, even for us. Both Claire and I were well prepared by our years of Russian travel, which for each of us began in childhood, and picked up again in the 1980s, under the auspices of the Soviet-era Intourist travel agency, with its KGB-trained guides, grim hotels and empty restaurants serving awful food.
Those days, happily, are gone. In the past 20 years another, more accommodating Russia has emerged, beyond the slick tourist hubs of Moscow and St. Petersburg. In the Golden Ring towns — several of them, anyway — this means decent, occasionally even charming hotels, functional phones and Wi-Fi, better restaurants and innumerable churches and monasteries lovingly rescued from Soviet-era neglect.
All of this was enough to lure us into a rented Nissan Tiida for six days of adventure, without a functioning GPS, just a Lonely Planet guidebook and a Russian atlas, which, maddeningly, displayed our route over several pages, sometimes with bits missing.
Even in Soviet times, the Golden Ring was a draw for tourists, starting with the magnificent walled monastery in Sergiyev Posad, about 43 miles from Moscow, dominated by bright blue and gold cupolas. From there, the other towns are spaced out about a half day’s drive from each other, as the ring stretches up toward the Volga River.
Some stops — Yaroslavl, Kostroma and Vladimir — are proper (if small) cities, with populations from 300,000 to 650,000. We decided to make only fleeting stops in these and to concentrate on smaller towns — Pereslavl-Zalessky, Rostov Veliky, Plyos and Suzdal — all of which have kept something of their pre-Soviet character. With the exception of Plyos, a pleasant provincial river town, all are steeped in Russian history, linked to towering figures like Alexander Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Nicholas II, the last czar.
It’s a region known for its bewildering number of churches, convents and monasteries. After St. Sergius founded his monastery at Sergiyev Posad around 1340, other hermit monks followed his example and headed north, seeking salvation in nature, building an astonishing 150 monasteries in just 100 years. Backed by the power of the Moscovite princes, this extraordinary missionary movement was to become a key force in the unification of Russia.
This legacy was destroyed or abandoned during Soviet rule, but in the past 20 years that devastation has been reversed as the Russian Orthodox Church and individual believers undertake a countrywide restoration
All of this lay ahead of us as we set off from the airport on a summer afternoon, driving through the dust and smog of exurban Moscow.
After a night spent at a private dacha, not far from the glories of Sergiyev Posad, we headed north.
Pereslavl-Zalessky, a hilly town of 42,000 people whose main road sweeps past a half-dozen monasteries, has a grand past that dates from the 12th century, when it was established by Prince Yuri Dolgoruky, best known as the founder of Moscow.
It is a pretty town, intersected by a tree-lined river where fishermen stake out their favorite spots. Some of the 19th-century two-story town houses have been restored, with coats of pink, green and yellow paint. If you avert your gaze from an ugly new shopping center, you can imagine a scene from a novel about provincial prerevolutionary Russia.
Virtually all of the Orthodox Christian monasteries in Pereslavl are in various states of renovation. One, the Goritsky, which looks like something from a Russian fairy tale, is the home of the local museum, which was closed. We stopped at two others, which are once again functioning as convents. At the 14th-century Fyodorovsky Monastery, we followed a group of black-clad nuns, one on her cellphone, walking briskly toward the main church. There we had our first encounter with a familiar Russian facial expression: the scowl that melts into a smile.
We had approached the nun behind the candle counter and asked for the name of the church. “And you," she snarled, “who are you?" We explained that we were tourists interested in the wonderful restoration, and her face instantly lighted up. Suddenly Sister Natalya was eager to tell stories. This kind of encounter happened again and again. Russians like to tell stories; whether they are true or not is unimportant.
Then we headed off to Rostov Veliky, justly famous for its gorgeous skyline of many-colored cupolas rising above Lake Nero. The Rostov Kremlin, with its white stone walls and covered walkway from which you can look out across the lake, or inward to a pretty garden with a pond, has been restored, in particular its three chapels with orange-tinted frescoes.
On our way to Yaroslavl the next day, we made an impromptu detour to the starkly impressive Borisoglebsky monastery, built in the 16th century, with its massive walls and towers. The grounds inside were unkempt, full of lilac bushes in full bloom, and quiet, except for the sound of a single bell ringing at midday.
In Suzdal, our last stop, the tourism industry is operating at full tilt. Where there were once only horse-drawn carriages, there are now also bright pink buggies, shaped like pumpkins and pulled by ponies. The trading arcade (a row of businesses sheltered by an arcade), a standard feature of old Russian towns, is full of restaurants, crowded with tourists in the high season, both Russian and foreign.
The next day, when we finally dropped the car off in Moscow, at a Europcar agency hidden away on a back street in a bank building, we checked our speedometer: As it turned out, we had gone more than 800 miles