The New Suzdal: Chinese tourists, fancy mansions and beard combs
I haven’t been to Suzdal for years, and was somewhat prejudiced towards its well-known cliché tourist delights and attractions. That was certainly a misconception. It’s worth coming time and again, its distinct local character is a joy for even the most sophisticated tourist.
The movable feast
There are many locations in Russia that leave you wondering how such culturally rich places can be so neglected and underrepresented on a tourist map (one such hapless place is the town of Kimry, some 120 km away from Moscow, which will be in the spotlight of an upcoming article). Suzdal is not one of them: this is a comfortable, well-off Russian province capitalizing on an inexhaustible flow of tourists (these days the town is in vogue with Chinese tourists who now come here in great flocks). With its unceasing festivities and celebrations, especially in the summer – Cucumber Day, Honey Day, the Day of the Apple Harvest – it is a site of constant events. In fact, Suzdal is probably one of the few rare Russian towns that seems to apply professional tourist marketing strategies, offering all kinds of fests and events the year round: two-week long Christmas celebrations in January are followed by Geese fights in February, then, of course, the Pancake Day festivities, then an Arts and Crafts fest in spring, and from then on it’s just one single swirl of open-air merrymaking.
The private mansions of the nouveau riche
This time we got to stay in Suzdal for a day and a half, enough to immerse in its atmosphere. We rented a cosy private house within a 10-minute walk from the town centre. Private houses in Suzdal were probably among my strongest impressions this time, they certainly deserve a separate photo essay. In the early 2000s, local conservationists became concerned with the town’s growing private house construction, which seemed to be getting out of control: land was cheap and the Russian nouveau riche were buying it with no restraints and building their stately homes in a haphazard manner. These days, however, the town administration imposes strict guidelines for private construction in terms of houses’ height, building materials and aesthetic requirements. As a result, many of the recently built private mansions are delights to be admired.
The choice of accommodation is almost overwhelming. Alas, one of the most original hotels (and my personal favourite), Likhonin House, closed down a few years ago. This was the authentic late 17th century chambers of the merchant Likhonin, a museum turned into a hotel, with tiny monastic cell-type rooms, Russian stoves, patchwork quilts and antique furniture. Whereas it may not have been a 5-star hotel in terms of amenities, the atmosphere of an old-time Russian home of a member of the merchant class was a joy to experience. Of course, these days you will find housing to fit all tastes and purses, from a small private izbushka to deluxe hotels. We stayed at a cozy private guest house Svetlitsa (Светлица) very close to center of town, and I’d be happy to recommend it to anyone who enjoys a quiet stay in a Russian-style home.
Enough has been written about Suzdal’s many churches and monasteries, and Suzdal’s key tourist attractions are well-known and certainly won’t be the focus of this article. I am always particularly curious to explore private museum projects and independent cultural initiatives. In this regard, Suzdal was somewhat disappointing. While there seem to be tons of unpretentious tourist amusements like retro photo studios, samovar tea rooms and Russian carriage rides, I didn’t really notice any private museums worthy of note. One recently opened space was a wax museum which I didn’t bother checking out. The medovukha tasting (medovukha is a traditional Suzdal light alcohol drink made of honey and herbs) sounded exciting but that, too, was somewhat of a let-down, as the product itself (all the 12 different kinds of it) was substandard and the appetizers, or zakuska unimpressive. The idea itself, however, is a good one. And the real well-made medovukha is divine!
My big joy are antique and old curiosity shops, and, as everywhere else, you will find in Suzdal their two basic types: posh and pretentious and the simple, no-frills kind. I prefer the latter, where you can engage in a long and delightful conversation with the salesman who is often the owner himself, knowledgeable and passionate about his craft, then bargain for an hour and leave with some cute (and sometimes quite exotic!) trifle.
And you never know what you can come across rummaging the old-age brick-a-brac. My trophy this time was a borodochyoska, or a beard comb dating back to as early as the 16th century! Seriously, it was the first time I had even come across such a bizarre personal hygiene item, but then again, the pre-Petrine Russia was well-known for its bearded men and yes, long thick beards do need combing!
And, of course, Suzdal’s restaurants and Russian cuisine never disappoint! The authentic Russian dining here is probably one of the best in the country, and you can pretty much spend your entire stay here crawling from one place to another. Gostiny dvor, Russkaya trapeza, Uley, to name a few, are all worthy of your attention.