"The eyes of the people must be trained to see beauty everywhere, in the streets and railway stations." This was the philosophy of Savva Mamontov, a railway tycoon and philanthropist whose "artists' colony" at Abramtsevo was to have such an impact on Russian art. Guests and residents included many of the painters who hold pride of place in the Tretyakov Gallery today: Vrubel, Repin, Surikov, Korovin, Levitan, Serov and Nesterov. Abramtsevo is now a museum full of intricate and colorful artifacts, which makes for a therapeutically uplifting destination. The journey to this lovely estate, deep in the birch woods north of Moscow, begins from Mamontov's "Yaroslavl" Railway Station. This art nouveau station in the neo-Russian style was designed by the architect Shektel (who also designed the Gorky House). It is decorated with tiles from the Abramtsevo workshops, demonstrating the striking glazes, fairy tale figures and natural forms that were a feature of some of the experimental work there. The trains to Abramtsevo leave from the glass annex at the back of the station, which houses the "local ticket offices." Trains bound for Sergiev Posad or Alexandrov leave roughly every half an hour and take about eighty minutes to reach the blue-painted station nestled in the forest.
When you get off at Abramtsevo, cross the railway lines. Behind the tent-shaped archway in the middle of the far platform, you will find a flight of steps that lead down to a woodland path. This route, which crosses three rickety bridges, will take you all the way to the museum-reserve.
From here, you cross over a stony track and go straight on along the little path, passing close to some houses, then down some steps to the left, winding round to the right over the river and then up the hill parallel to the road as far as the car park. The entrance is across the road.
There are at least six different buildings you can visit inside the park, any of which may be closed on any given day. Working out which ones you want to buy tickets for is quite a challenge. It costs about 300 roubles to see everything, but you can also get tickets, which cost about 60 roubles each, for individual buildings.
There are brief descriptions of the interiors in the following suggested route. Not far from the gate, the white building houses an exhibition of modern paintings and some intriguing photos of Abramtsevo during the Soviet era. Going straight on, past a three-hundred-year-old oak tree, you reach a red-roofed dacha where the artist Vasily Polenov lived with his wife after their marriage.
Turn right here to visit the little white-washed gem of a church, where the wedding of Polenov and Maria Yakunchikova was the first service. The church was a cooperative project, led by Elizaveta Mamontova, designed by Viktor Vasnetsov and filled with icons by Repin and other artists who lived here. This art nouveau chapel was built in 1881 and combines several architectural elements in what was - at the time - a ground-breaking fusion. It houses one of Vrubel's exquisite tiled stoves and the pews are painted with wild flowers by Vasnetsov.
Nearby is Vasnetsov's wooden "children's summer house," evoking the hut belonging to the fairy tale witch, Baba Yaga. Turning left at the summer house, you can reach the far end of the estate in ten minutes, along a path running across the ravines and gullies through the pine trees.
Just after the last ravine, you can turn right down the hill and then follow an undulating path back along the little Vorya River, meandering through the long grass of the valley.
When you reach the often-painted pond with its three bridges, turn right up the hill towards the main house. Inside this grey wooden building is an exhibition about the Aksakov family who owned the house in the mid-nineteenth century. Famous writers, like Gogol and Turgenev, were frequent visitors and fondly refer to the house in their letters. The second part of the exhibition deals with Ma montov and his artistic retreat here. The cozy rooms of the quaint Banya-Teremok, on one side of the main house (nearer the church), are decorated with traditional lace-pattern wood-carving and ceramics, including several examples of the owl motif which has become the emblem of Abramtsevo. In the Studio-Workshop (nearer the road), there is a shining roomful of Vrubel's metallic-glazed pottery. The ceramic bench nearby, decorated with characteristically fantastical coloThe house of rs and creatures, is also the work of Vrubel. The Kitchen, another wooden house from the 1870s contains a two-room exhibit of ‘peasant crafts', collected for inspiration by the artists who lived and worked here. "What we wish to see in art," wrote the sculptor Antokolsky who was a member of Mamontov's artistic circle, "are sagas, fairy tales, dramas, the history of the past and the events of the present."
If all this creativity has made you hungry, there are two very different venues providing refreshments before you head back to railway station. The local "Produkti/Cafe," in a concrete shack just beyond the car park with its unpretentious table of souvenirs, might serve you a cup of tea if you are lucky and will certainly sell you bread, cheese and fruit for a basic picnic on the train home. If you have time and money, however, you might want to check out the brand new Gallereya Restaurant, opposite the fancy Gallereya Hotel whose neo-Russian facade hides a swimming pool and theatre. A bowl of soup with warm bread and herb butter, overlooking the autumnal field where Vasnetsov painted his famous "Three Bogatirs," might just be a perfect end to a perfect trip.
The Gallereya Restaurant has a small playground just outside the garden where kids can play while their parents relax over coffee. There is even a small aviary of peacocks. As for the museum, the bright colours are appealing and each bite-sized exhibition is surrounded by plenty of open space. Although we did manage to negotiate the muddy path from the station with a pushchair, it could hardly be described as stroller-friendly. For slightly older kids, it's not too far with steps and bridges to add interest.