The Golden Ring is a notorious summer tourist trap - but on a frosty February day the magic of Rostov Veliky can be yours alone.
Metropolitan Jonah established the kremlin at the heart of this lovely town, 200 kilometers north of Moscow in the mid-17th century; he built churches and palaces in the shadow of an earlier cathedral and the town later became known as Rostov the Great. A three-hour express train ride from Yaroslavsky Station whisks you through snowy forests and picturesque dachas, affording a glimpse of the spectacular Sergiyev Posad monastery about one hour in.
When you arrive at the station, cross the road and walk straight ahead along Ulitsa Lunacharskogo, between carved and painted cottages. After an easy kilometre and a half, you reach a school with a silver statue of Lenin. Beyond this, you can see the earthen ramparts of the Kremlin and the Ascension church to your left. At the T-junction with Ulitsa Karla Marksa, turn right.
The huge scaffolded structure behind the Kremlin wall is the early sixteenth century Assumption Sobor, modelled on the cathedral of the same name in the Moscow Kremlin. Carry on around the walls, past beautiful gate churches, to the main entrance, opposite a row of souvenir stalls. Turn left through the gate and buy a ticket.
There are nine different exhibitions to see, which is good news if it's a cold day. A combined ticket costs 300 roubles and snooping around the interiors is worth it even without the displays.Inside the baroque Virgin Hodegitria church, across the courtyard from the ticket office, there are plaster-framed frescoes on the green-painted ceiling. Go through the tunnel in the tall Resurrection church into the north courtyard to see the cathedral and impressive belfry. You can order a bell concert at the ticket office. The bells are all named and the largest one, weighing 36 tonnes, was called Sysoi after the metropolitan's father.
In the building next door to the tunnel, there is a display of the local craft of enamel work ("Finift"). Up the stairs in the metropolitan's palace, across the courtyard, there is a museum of icons and a surprisingly good picture gallery where works by Shishkin, Polenov, Levitan, Falk and Malevich jostle for space on the whitewashed walls.
Through the door opposite there is an exhibition of "Russian Drinks" (mainly samovars and vodka bottles) and of ecclesiastical treasures in the massive hall with one central pillar. Up the steps above the restaurant, in the "Red Palace", there is a grand collection of porcelain and a gathering of little bells. This last unusual display includes a foot-operated harness of troika bells that will play you the "authentic sound of the Russian winter countryside".
Downstairs in the refectory chamber, in a vaulted hall of the kremlin palace, there is a slightly rundown café. It's an unlikely location, convenient, and the food's tasty enough. There are a handful of cafes around the Kremlin walls if you don't like the look of it. Exit via the back gate (near the souvenir shop) to see more of the town's churches and the old trading rows. Turn right along Ulitsa Sovietskaya towards breathtaking Lake Nero. There is a great view. You can see the distant towers and pinnacles of the St. Jacob monastery seeming to float on the frozen water. Turn right along the shore and follow the track towards the monastery for about two kilometres, passing the "Khors" Art Gallery.
On this lakeside lane, you feel as though you've really escaped from Moscow. The ice fishermen pull the day's catch in on sledges and the sun sinks behind the feathered reeds. Admittedly, there are moments when you need to focus on the wide expanse of the lake with its wooded island, to the left, and ignore the stray dogs and factories on the edge of town, but it's worth the walk when you arrive at your destination.
The St. Jacob monastery was founded in the fourteenth century and is associated with several saints and icons, in particular St Dmitry, another former metropolitan of Rostov, who died in 1709. Count Nikolai Sheremetyev, who secretly married the serf opera singer Praskovya ("Pearl"), rebuilt the Dmitry cathedral in 1795 to house the saint's relics.
This is the building nearest the gates, whose grand interior matches the elegance of the neoclassical façade. In the centre of the compound, a wooden chapel over the holy well dispenses water with a strong mineral flavour. In the far corner, you can climb up a series of precipitous wooden staircases to look out from the high arched windows of the white tower. With the setting sun glowing on the cathedrals and the snowy lake stretching to the horizon, the views are spectacular.
As it gets colder and darker, it feels like a long way back through town. The monastery's security guard will happily call you a taxi, which costs 70 roubles to the railway station.
If you take the express train at 8.24 am and return on the 5.17 pm, you can make it there and back in a day. The return journey costs 750 roubles second class; it's advisable to get tickets a day or so in advance, as it gets full. There are a few hotels in town if you'd rather stay the night. We tried "Pleshanov's Estate" (http://www.hotelvrostove.ru/), which was very comfortable. Nearby is a new museum of merchant life.
Landmark of the week
Fyodor Shekhtel's exotic station, one end of the famous trans-Siberian railway, is a suitably romantic place to start and end this Valentine's Day trip. With its pitched roof, turrets and tiled doorway, it represents an iconic Russian fantasy in keeping with its destinations in the farthest reaches of the land.