One way to brighten up cold, gloomy January is to get on a train out of town for the day to be cold somewhere else. It would be difficult to top Sergiev Posad, one of the holiest places in Russia, where ancient icons glow in the light of a hundred candles and the cathedral domes are fretted with golden stars. The relics of the fourteenth century hermit monk, Saint Sergius, attract a steady procession of visitorrs and this week we join them on their journey out of the city. Trains leave from romantic Yaros lavsky Station every half an hour, and take about 90 minutes to reach Sergiev Posad (or ‘Zagorsk,' as it was called in the twentieth century), cost 168 rubles for a day return and pass through some lovely towns and villages on the way. Bus 388 from VDNKh metro also runs about every half an hour
From the train station (1) it is an easy ten minute walk to the monastery, straight down quiet Sergiev skaya Ulitsa and past some wonderful old wooden houses. At the junction with the busy main road, Vosne senskaya Ulitsa, turn right and go down the hill to cross over the Konchura River, admiring the Trinity Monastery of St Sergius' most picturesque south-eastern panorama ahead of you. You can make a detour across the yellow footbridge and back to drink the holy water in the little chapel before going on up the hill and turning left (2) by the cafes through an arcade of stalls, under the underpass and up the steps on the other side. You enter the monastery (or "Lavra" as this particularly holy kind of monastery is called) through the beautiful gateway church. Women should cover their heads.
Inside the two kilometers of brick wall and eleven towers, are seven churches and two cathedrals, along with a former Tsar's palace - now a seminary - a former hospital, an academy and a museum. The big cathedral straight ahead in the center with four blue domes and one gold one is the Cathedral of the Assumption, commissioned by Ivan the Terrible and completed under Boris Godunov who is buried outside near the entrance. If you can manage to slip inside with a tour group, the frescoes are amazing. The small church to the left is the "Church of the Holy Spirit" (Dukhov skaya), whose intricate walls and dome-topped belfry were built by craftsmen from Pskov in 1476. The tall turquoise bell tower, with baroque white plasterwork opposite was completed three centuries later. Between the two is the ornate octagonal "Chapel over the well" and to the left as you walk on into the Lavra is the Refectory and the Church of St Sergius with carved and painted vines and colourful facets all over the walls.
Many of the churches are closed except for services and paid guided tours (there is a timetable of tours at the kiosk when you come in). But the holiest building of all (3) the early fifteenth century Trinity Cathedral, in the far left corner, is always open and full of people singing, lighting candles or queueing to kiss the baroque silver shrine of Saint Sergius that glows under the oil lamps. Many of the icons in the iconostasis are by the medieval painter, Andrei Rublyov, who spent his youth and took his monastic vows here.
Next door is the Vestry museum, which houses two floors and several centuries of religious artistry. Don't miss the upper floor with its ornate ceilings and tiled stoves. One of the mitres on display weighs two and a half kilos and is decorated with 600 pearls. After all this you may be ready for a break. If so, the best place to eat - far cheaper and more atmospheric than any of the tourist cafes outside - is the stolovaya, downstairs just inside the monastery entrance. Here you can eat soup, stuffed pancakes, buckwheat or chocolate-coated gingerbread alongside devout babushkas with headscarves.
Going out of the monastery again, turn left along the walls going past the "Duck Tower" on the corner, and the restored yellow block of the monastery hotel, to the good historical museum housed in the 18th century red brick "Konniy Dvor" (Stable yard) (4). On the ground floor are local archeological finds from the stone age onwards, followed by three rooms of historical artifacts and models of the monastery. Upstairs, there is a great display of crafts, while in the courtyard outside there are giant wooden bells, a honey kiosk and a workshop. From here, you can either go back down the hill towards the pond, or you can walk around the outside of the walls on the other three sides. This longer route has a stretch along the main road and is quite slippery at this time of year, but there are great views of the back of the Lavra, including the sixteenth century towers and the hospital buildings.
On the other side of the pond is the rather disappointing Toy Museum (5) with toys from different countries and centuries, including the ubiquitous Matryoshka dolls, first devised in nearby Abrametsevo and mass-produced by woodworkers from Sergiev Posad in the 19th century. From here you can go up Prospekt Krasnoi Army as far as the traffic lights, where you turn left into Ulitsa Kooperativnaya. The railway station is straight ahead and the shopping center on the right near it has two cafes in the basement. Trains back to Moscow leave from the nearest platform.
Family friendly features
Of the three museums, the varied exhibitions in the Konniy Dvor are the most interesting for the whole family: The collection of wooden toys in the craft section is brighter and better-displayed than the Toy Museum, the historical section has bronze age spears and giant eighteenth century coaches and the courtyard area has wooden sleds and space to play in the snow. There is plenty to see on the train journey. And, of course, it is hard to leave the birthplace of the Matryoshka without a souvenir.