Along Russia’s Kamenka River, the medieval township of Suzdal draws weekenders from Moscow, about 130 miles southwest, to its opulent, onion-domed Orthodox churches and well-preserved monasteries. But Muscovites also visit to experience Suzdal’s other treasure: mead.
Russian mead, or medovukha, is a blend of fermented honey and yeast and has the approximate alcohol content of wine. Additional ingredients make the mead sour (lime), sweet (extra honey), spicy (pepper), or bitter (pine-tree buds). Sample Suzdal’s best at the Zal Degustatsii Medovukhi (Mead Tasting Hall), wedged behind the shops off the central Torgovaya (Trading) Square. Inside, the walls and arched ceilings are painted with ornate flowers and vines, and waitresses in embroidered aprons serve stacked trays of mead in small clay cups. Join customers on wooden benches toasting with a hearty “Budem zdorovy!” (Let’s be healthy!).
Then stroll (or wobble) through neighborhoods of delicately latticed wooden homes and dozens of churches and monasteries scattered across Suzdal, some reconsecrated as active centers of worship and refurbished to their original glory. Walk a half-mile north from Torgovaya Square to the Savior Monastery of Saint Euthymius to see the 16th-century seven-domed Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Savior. There, brilliantly colored frescoes provide the setting for virtuoso bell-ringing performances. On weekends, a cappella choral music echoes throughout the building.
As you walk around the town, look for Russian babushki (grandmothers) in head scarves selling homemade mead from folding tables. They smile, point, and market the merits of the cloudy brews contained in an assortment of stubby brown bottles. You can purchase one for less than $5.
At the end of the day, relax on a park bench on the bluff behind the square, sip your Suzdal-made mead, and gaze over the Kamenka River toward golden domes sparkling in the fading light. —Bill Fink
This appeared in the May/June 2010 issue.