Russia's little empty Oxford

Street Life SUZDAL

"HAVING A lovely time. Wish you were here." I am away from Samotechny Lane, sending this postcard from Suzdal.

Actually, it would be reassuring if anybody were here. This ancient Russian city is an architectural jewel, comparable perhaps to somewhere like Oxford, yet at the height of the tourist season it is almost deserted. I arrived as the sun was setting, coming over a glorious plain with a prospect not of dreaming spires but of dreaming onion domes, Suzdal being one of the so-called "Golden Ring" religious centres of old Russia.

Now I am staying in the concrete Tourist Centre. A private hotelier leapt into the road as I passed, trying to attract me to his bed and breakfast, but I had already booked the former state hotel. It is fine. The renovated room costs $20 (pounds 12.50) a night. There is soap and toilet paper. I have promised the private man to dine at his guesthouse instead.

I explore the city. It has a kremlin (fortress), a convent, two monasteries, dozens of churches, dating from the 12th to the 18th centuries, and a nearly 200-year-old shopping arcade with wrought-iron signs for the cobbler, the milliner and the wine merchant. Little wooden bridges take me back and forth across the river Kamenka, meandering and thick with water lilies.

I am looking for the world famous Church of the Intercession on the Nerl. It is featured in thousands of pictures.Simple, white and standing alone on the bank of the river Nerl, it is as perfect as a pearl. But I discover that the church, built in 1165, is not in Suzdal itself. I must drive through the nearby city of Vladimir, grim and industrial despite its historic centre, to Bogolyubovo. When I arrive, I find that the church is smaller than I expected and somehow spoilt by electricity pylons, cars and other 20th-century trappings.

Returning to Suzdal feels like coming home. There are no high-rise buildings here.The city is like an extended village of wooden houses with lace curtains and geraniums in the windows. Goats and geese stand at the bus stops.

The locals are poor. A sign in the supermarket lists the times when the hospital will pay blood donors. At night, the street lamps are not lit. The city budget lacks funds.

Yet, there is a feeling of quiet dignity here. The statue of Lenin in the central square is not overpowering. Capitalism also seems to have touched Suzdal only lightly. Absent are the kiosks that make other Russian cities sleazy.

If only there were more road signs to encourage tourists. If only at the private Kuchkova guesthouse they could do something about the flies. Then Suzdal would indeed be a five-star tourist destination. So why are there so few visitors? Because rich Russians go abroad and poor Russians do not have holidays, while Westerners are scared off by the country's instability.

Suzdal is distinctive, an island of beauty in a sea of mediocrity. Yet, umbilically linked to the rest of Russia by the poor, anarchic road I described last week, it is dragged down to the common level. In that sense, it is anything but an island and will only prosper when Mother Russia herself finally flourishes.

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