Zvenigorod, whose name means "city of bells", is the oldest town in the Moscow region. Set in an area so picturesque and hilly, it has exaggeratedly been called "the Russian Switzerland", this historic settlement on the Moscow River has become a favourite location for dachas and sanatoria. Follow this route out of the centre and you will discover some of the ancient treasures of these wooded hills. Since the train station is quite far from the town centre, it could be more convenient to arrive on the No. 452 bus from Kuntsevskaya metro station which stops opposite a cafe on Ukrainskaya Ulitsa. Alternatively, if you prefer to travel by train and not risk getting stuck in traffic, you can catch bus Nos. 23 or 51 from Zvenigorod Station into town. Either way, head towards the new white stone Ascension Church at the end of the road, turn left before you reach it and then right - without crossing the river - along Ulitsa Frunze. This used to be the main road from Poland and Lithuania, making the hills above it a vital look-out point in the defence of Moscow.
A few hundred metres along this busy road, parallel to the river, is the quickest way to the gorodok ("little town"), the 14th century kremlin that was the heart of medieval Zvenigorod. The first part is lined by old wooden houses. Shortly after the houses end, a flight of steps on the right leads up, past a spring, through more cottages to the lovely Assumption Cathedral, the oldest building in the Moscow region, pre-dating Moscow's Kremlin cathedrals by nearly a century.
The younger son of Dmitry Donskoi, Prince Yury Dmitrievich, commissioned the cathedral here. He was attempting to rival neighbouring Moscow, ruled by his older brother, Vasily. When Vasily passed on the principality to his 10-year-old son, Yury attacked Moscow and declared himself Grand Prince, sparking a 20 year civil war full of gory blindings and poisonings, which in turn laid the region open to the Tartar invasion.
Behind the cathedral, you can see the slope of the kremlin's earthen defences. Walk towards and round these along the lime-tree avenue and follow the track until it reaches a fork, just before a yellow signboard. Fans of Anton Chekhov, might want to make a short detour on along the track to the right which comes out on Ulitsa Lermontova close to the wooden house at No. 10 where the playwright lived in 1884, just after he finished his medical training.
Otherwise, turn left along a smaller track (behind the yellow sign) and continue to follow it each time it forks left (one turning leads only to a small woodland spring so carry straight on here) until eventually you come out on the main road again behind a bus stop. This little path winds picturesquely between the ramparts of the kremlin and a valley filled with flowers, but it is muddy in wet weather when you may prefer to stick to the road all the way. Cross the road and turn right until, opposite the art nouveau-style gates to the Podmoskovny Dom Otdykha ("house of rest"), a track forks left down to the river bank.
Turn right along a small path by the river for about a kilometre, enjoying views of the monastery on the hill to the right and across the river to the left. When you have drawn level with the monastery, turn right along the defined mud track towards the highway. Before you cross over at the lights you might want to check the times of the buses back into town. Walk on up the road ahead until you reach the gates at the far end of the huge white walls.
The Savvino-Strozhevsky Monastery is open 10 am-5 pm every day except Monday and contains the city museum. A simple cafe outside the gates serves cheap, tasty food. It has a terrace overlooking the countryside to the east. The animal-loving monk, Savva, whose statue sits nearby, founded the monastery in 1404 at the request of Prince Yury. There is a story that a mysterious monk saved Tsar Alexei from an angry bear in the woods, and told the tsar his name was Savva. The tsar later arrived at the monastery to find that Savva had been dead for 200 years. Alexei had a small palace built here in 1650 and often brought his son, the future Peter the Great, to visit this holy place.
The oldest church is the gold-domed Nativity Cathedral, full of candle light and frescos. The 17th century "Tsaritsa's Palace", built for Alexei's wife, has three exhibitions: the princess's chambers, provincial portraiture and archaeological finds. Each costs 30/70 roubles for Russians/foreigners. The belfry, whose enormous bell used to be audible from Moscow, was funded in 1693 by the Regent Sophia, who sheltered here during the Streltsy Rebellion.
The well-tended monastery gardens are especially beautiful at this time of year with borders of roses, hollyhocks, golden loosestrife and ox-eye daisies. The monastery shops sell all kinds of souvenirs including homemade bread, honey, mead, kvas and hot herbal drinks. Buses Nos. 23 and 51 run from here all the way to Zvenigorod Station, through long lanes of dachas, over the river and past the Vvedenskoye Estate, now Zvenigorod Sanitorium.
Landmark of the week
Uspensky (Assumption) Cathedral in Zvenigorod Gorodok, known locally as the "Sobor na Gorodke"
Built in 1399 inside earthen ramparts, this building is modelled on the 12th century cathedrals in Vladimir and decorated with a carved stone frieze.
Andrei Rublyov, most famous of all icon makers, painted the original frescos which are still visible in places.