On a clear day, with snow on the ground, the porcelain-producing area round Gzhel seems to draw inspiration directly from the landscape. The traditional porcelain, painted with cobalt flowers, has been produced in this area since the eighteenth century. The clay-rich soil of the Gzhelka valley is distinctly marshy, producing bullrushy lakes and swampy meadows. The deforestation, which took place to feed the kilns in the nineteenth century, has left tracts of relatively open countryside and the fields and lakes are punctuated by church spires and factory chimneys. There are nearly thirty villages, about fifty kilometres south east of Moscow that are still manufacturing the world famous Gzhel and Majolica ceramics. This week's walk explores a couple of them to find out more about the history of this delicate craft.
To reach these villages by train, you need to set off from Kazansky Vokzal, near Komsomolskaya Metro. Catch a train headed for Shatura, Cherusti, Egorevsk or Kurovskaya (There are daily trains around 9.25am and 10.35am and then 1.25pm. At weekends, there are additional trains at 10.14am and 12.20pm. The journey takes about an hour and a half and costs 168 rubles, return). Walk down the steps in the center of the platform at Ignatevo station and follow the path that curves through the fields. Follow the road straight on, through the village of Boldino, until you come out on the Egorevskoe Shosse.
If you want to go straight to the Gzhel Museum and Shop without visiting the Institute, simply cross over and continue straight ahead. Other wise, turn right along the main road (there is a better footway on the far side) until you reach a little chapel decorated with blue and white tiles. Turn left here to reach the Gzhel State Institute of Industrial Arts, founded in 1901 as the Rechitskye Work shop. Just ask to visit the shop and you can usually have a look around inside. There is a map of the local area, information boards tracing the history of artistic education here and a series of display cases with work by students from Dyetsky Sad (‘kindergarten') all the way through to college years. There are also some experimental pieces produced by students and a little conservatory full of plants and sculptures. The Institute advertises "Open Door Day" on December 20th.
Take the next left after the Institute and walk diagonally right after block 18 through the wooden playground until you come out at the end of the row of shops that passes for the centre of Elektroizolyator. This unprepossessing Soviet urban settlement has almost swallowed up the village Novo kha ritonovo, birthplace of the Kuznetsov industrial millionaires. Yakov, who was a blacksmith ("kuz nets"), opened his pottery workshop in 1810, founding a porcelain empire that now exports worldwide. Matvei Kuz netsov built his big factory in 1861. During the Soviet era, other factories were located here, manufacturing not only crockery and figurines, but also ceramic parts for po wer stations.
Walking between the war memorial and the flags outside the old Yunost Cinema, pass the Podsolnukh (‘sunflower') Cafe where you can sit under plastic vines and fairy lights and have a 25-ruble coffee. After the cafe, turn right through the workers' village to the large signboard, which directs you to the Gzhel museum and shops. The larger of the official Gzhel factory shops is straight on, past the local market. There is often a porcelain stall in the corner where you can find some bargains. If you turn left instead at the signpost along a lane with fir trees, you reach a second shop or "Artists' Salon" on the ground floor of a modern block. On the fourth floor, there is a small museum, displaying a variety of beautiful ceramics, a few dating back to medieval times. The museum caters generally for tour groups, but will often let you go in, although the opening times are irregular.
The more expensive tours also provide glimpses of the manufacturing process or even the chance to try gzhel painting yourself.
Go back to the road and turn right, passing the house where Boris Aba lakov, director of the nearby factory, lived. Walk on across a little railway track and turn right, opposite the pond, past a derelict "teremok," along a concrete path by a green fence. Follow this back onto the main road, near the Electroizolyator factory. The logo, which is stencilled onto the fence, shows the date 1818, together with a picture of the local Old Believers' church, which is visible ahead.
Turn right towards the church. At the end of the factory fence, you reach one of the older buildings with socialist realist sculpture in the garden and relief medallions over the door. The building just beyond contains a cafe upstairs and another factory shop on the ground floor. To reach the cafe, go through an unmarked door in the nearest corner. You can have a cheap and tasty lunch here with the factory workers in clay-splattered overalls and felt boots. For those who don't insist on the double-headed eagle Gzhel logo, the shop offers excellent value.
Go on along the main road past the Georgievsky Church. You can't get inside as this elegant Art Nouveau building is being restored. Ivan Kuznetsov, Matvei's cousin, commissioned it in 1912 to commemorate the victory over Napoleon one hundred years earlier. The striking pointed gables, which decorate the white tent-roof, are picked out in pale blue and the distinctive assymetrical structure is visible across the fields. Immediately after the church, cross over the stream and turn left along a lane, parallel to the lake, that leads past rows of painted dachas with intricately carved window frames.
The beautiful brick church of St George the Great Martyr, at the end of the road, was built in 1863 with white stone decorations and five azure domes with gold stars. A painted panel inside a window on the east end shows St George on horseback while, inside, six angels are arrayed around a sky blue dome. The local industry is evident, as always, in the large vases with bunches of dried flowers. Some of the tombstones in the cemetery even have porcelain name-plates. A paved pathway leads away from the church over a little bridge through the bullrushes to the station where trains back to Moscow depart (with an intermediate train on weekends). At this time of year, the electrichkas are usually full of vendors and buskers, so your journey home is sure to be entertaining.