After four fascinating but exhausting days in Moscow we were ready to see a quieter side of Russia so took a local train and then small decrepit mini-bus about 200 miles north-east of the capital to Suzdal.
Although it was a wealthy monastic centre in the 17th and 18th centuries, Suzdal is now a small, quiet provincial town, with a beautiful dome-spotted skyline, wide open meadows and gently flowing river. The town’s main draw are its churches, monasteries and Kremlin, but for us it was wonderful and deeply restorative just to wander down quiet lanes and around the peaceful monastic buildings, and to enjoy the dark skies and quiet night and our best night’s sleep so far in Russia.
After Suzdal we travelled east to Kazan, the prosperous capital of the Autonomous Republic of Tartarstan, and home to many of Russia’s Tartar population, as well as being a busy river port on the Volga. The city prides itself on its relaxed multi-cultural atmosphere, symbolised by the enormous new mosque built next to the old cathedral within the city’s beautiful old kremlin, and certainly felt a peaceful and friendly place to stroll around.
On the train to Kazan we were lucky to meet Liliya Bayanova, a fluent English speaker and one of the professors at a Kazan university who invited us in to meet her students. We thought she was suggesting a casual chat with a handful of students so were slightly taken aback to be ushered into a packed classroom, and even more so when Liliya announced we’d be giving a talk on the history and culture of the UK!
But although a bit nerve-wracking at first we really enjoyed it and ended up speaking for about 20 minutes and then answering questions for another 40 minutes or so. It was interesting to hear their thoughts on England (it’s clear from a number of comments people have made that Russians don’t think much of English cuisine, which is strange given that Russian food, with its similar reliance on soups, meat and potatoes, isn’t that different), and we realised how out of touch we are with the music scene when we couldn’t name a single band or song in the top 20.