June 2016 and April 2017
Russia is huge. It takes seven full days to cross the country by train and about eleven hours plus an expensive ticket to fly from one end to the other. All of this can be quite a pain if you happen to be cash strapped and short on time while traveling through the country. But if you are such a person, do not fret. Let me introduce you to the Golden Ring.
Surrounding Moscow, there happens to be a ring of ancient cities (look at a map, it is quite literally in the shape of a circle) which include Tula, Tver, Yaroslavl, Vladimir, Suzdal, and Ryazan to name a few. I mention this because each of these are only about three hours by a $10 train ticket and can give you a feeling of the "Real Russia" beyond Moscow and Petersburg. And although I haven't gotten to visit all of them, I have seen one in both the summer and winter: Vladimir.
Named after the 9th century prince, Vladimir of Kiev, this city of about 300,000 people sits on top of a hill overlooking a river and valleys. And, to me with regards to both times I went, this was a perfect getaway from the business of Moscow. It was deceiving at first though. Vladimir is built like a big city, spread out as far as the eye can see, with large sidewalks and six lane roads, but there's something it's missing: people. My first evening there I stayed in a hostel on the outskirts of the town and I remember walking down a long wide city street with buildings and trees on either side. It was all the appearance of a big city, but on the sidewalk, there was only me. It felt a bit odd, but I liked it. It made me feel like I was this explorer who stumbled upon a ghost town, and in its own way, was calming and relaxing. It was just there for me to take in at my own pace without the hordes of businessmen rushing off to work or a choir of car horns from angry motorists.
Earlier that morning, Anne (see Awesome People section) had just left a Moscow hostel backed with screaming 18 year old boys, trying to prove themselves to the world, and a middle aged man whose relentless snoring caused sleep apnea not only for himself, but for everyone in the building. Here, we got to walk in silence, at our own pace, and enjoy the little odd buildings and appreciate the open landscape.
That said, there wasn't a shortage of things to do. Aside from the historical sites, there are tons of nice little places to go, including what may have been the best Turkish restaurant I've ever gone to. Unfortunately though, I completely forgot how to pronounce the name and therefore am unable to recommend it. It also had tons of nice little shops, which included possibly the best pryanik/пряник (Russian gingerbread) and medovuka/медовуха (honey wine) I've ever had. And there are tons of interesting places to go out at night near the city center, so it's never hard to find something happening.
Best of all though, has to be the view from the Prince Vladimir statue overlooking the river. It is situated on the edge of a hill overlooking a valley, and from it, the views are beyond words. Rolling green (or white in the winter) slopes with small, quaint historic houses roll down to the city's outdoor train station. Beyond that, lies a vast open valley with a mighty, blue, winding river, surrounded by green trees and an array of plant life. A single road travels off into the distance, and if you look close enough, you can just make out a couple tiny villages on the horizon. So, it is pretty much everything you won't find in Moscow or Petersburg, but in the best way possible.