On Moscow's doorstep is the so-called Golden Ring - a dazzling collection of medieval cities that even the communists regarded as the cradle of Russian civilisation. Nicholas Pyke was in thrall

There is something almost ghostly in the whitewashed skyline of Suzdal, the more so when its assembly of ancient towers and ramparts stands cut-out against the spreading grey backdrop of a Russian winter day. The covering of fallen snow makes the whiteness seem complete, apart from the blackened windows and the dull gold and silver of the larger onion domes.

There is something almost ghostly in the whitewashed skyline of Suzdal, the more so when its assembly of ancient towers and ramparts stands cut-out against the spreading grey backdrop of a Russian winter day. The covering of fallen snow makes the whiteness seem complete, apart from the blackened windows and the dull gold and silver of the larger onion domes.

In its way, Suzdal is a ghost - a beautifully preserved medieval town whose origins stretch back to the 11th century. It lies only 150 miles from Moscow, a neighbour in Russian terms, but Suzdal is centuries apart from the traffic-clogged capital. There are no lines of Soviet-era apartment blocks, and none of the multiplying boutiques of the new capitalism. Suzdal is shaped instead by an older order, a time of powerful monasteries and convents, when the Orthodox Church, with the Tsar at its head, ruled absolutely.

This sense of a world apart is deepened by the February silence, when few visitors chance the sub-zero temperatures and the potholed Russian roads. Suzdal is a different proposition in the summer when the bulk of its one million annual visitors arrive. Suzdal, a World Heritage site, is a vital and celebrated link in the Golden Ring, the chain of historic towns stretching north-east from Moscow to the upper Volga. Anyone interested in the history of Russia should consider visiting a region viewed even by the communists as the cradle of their civilisation.

Suzdal was the pre-eminent commercial centre, whose wealthy merchants commissioned dozens of churches, 15 of which survive. The habit of building two at a time - a small, warm winter one, and a cool church for the summer - helps explain the proliferation. Twelfth-century Vladimir, just half an hour away, was the capital before Moscow rose to power. It is known as the "father of Russian cities". Sergiev Posad, the closest section of the ring to Moscow, is the spiritual heart of Russian Orthodoxy. Further afield, Kostroma, on the north bank of the Volga, is the only Russian city to retain its 12th-century layout.

They may seem a world away from the grandeur of Moscow, but these mini-cities are intimately connected to the capital - and were instrumental in its foundation. Together, they shared the task of repelling marauding Tartars from beneath their immense and characteristic fortifications. Russia's most famous Kremlin, next door to Red Square, is only one of many ancient Kremlins in the region.

Yet to British travellers, crowding into Moscow and St Petersburg in ever greater numbers, even the closest parts of the Golden Ring remain largely unknown. With the number of repeat visitors growing, this could change. A number of travel firms, including the London-based Intourist Ltd, already offer day-trips and week-long tours of towns on the Ring. The growing pressure on the infrastructure of the big cities is another reason why visitors might be well-advised to think of what lies beyond central Moscow. The summer shortage of accommodation is well-documented in St Petersburg, not to mention the queues for the main attractions, which reached three and even four hours long during last year's tri-centennial celebrations. Now it seems to be spreading to the capital, where this summer's hotel space is already under pressure.

Some of the historic towns, Sergiev Posad in particular, can be reached as a day trip. The centre of interest here is the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, which stands apart from the main town, known as Zagorsk during most of the 20th century. It is, like Suzdal, a remarkable sight, although grander in tone - a creation of closely packed church towers and domes, medieval and baroque, all enclosed by Ivan the Terrible's fortified wall. Equally striking is the hushed gloom of the distinctive, frescoed Orthodox churches inside the ramparts. The Troitskiy Cathedral - in reality a small church - is at the heart of the devotions and, even in the winter, a place for pilgrimage. The monastery was closed down by the Soviets and turned into a museum. But these days, queues of old women in headscarves line up to receive a blessing beneath a 30-foot iconostasis, the high wall of ancient, honey-coloured icons that divides the tabernacle from the Russian congregation.

Many of the towns in the Ring can be reached from Moscow's Yaroslavsky station. Sergiev Posad is 75 kilometres (47 miles) away on the suburban elektrichka train. The beautiful city of Rostov on the banks of Lake Nero is a three-hour journey. Vladimir and nearby Suzdal are just a little further by road or rail, but in the summer months at least, when the birch-lined Russian roads are easier to negotiate, can still be done in a day trip with a hired car. Independent travel is quite possible but plenty of reading beforehand and some grasp of Russian would help. Hiring a guide would be a better option for most, and these are in plentiful supply. Trained for the most part by Intourist - in the days before the famous state travel company was split into more than 50 private franchises - they are formidably professional and well-informed.

The winter months have distinct advantages for visitors, including the beauty of the snow-covered landscape and the absence of crowds. It is also easier to find accommodation. The number of hotels is steadily increasing, many of them using traditionally-styled wooden cabins which, to a Western visitor, have a Scandinavian or Alpine feel. But booking ahead is still a good idea.

In Suzdal, the main tourism centre and hotel is anything but traditional: a low-level 1970s structure, purpose-built for large crowds. The irony is that the town had many more visitors during the Soviet era - two million a year - when the trade unions organised cultural holidays for the workers (with suitably debunking commentary on the ecclesiastical past). It comes as a surprise to learn that the Brezhnev regime was responsible for a great deal of the restoration and maintenance of towns like Suzdal, although most of the churches remained closed to worshippers.

Those wanting a more authentic feel can try to find space at the hotels run within the grounds of the Convent of the Deposition of the Robe, or the Convent of the Intercession overlooking the river. There is also a hotel in a refurbished merchant's house run by the joint Vladimir-Suzdal museum authority.

Much of the past to be rediscovered in these towns is a glorious one. But some more disturbing shadows lurk here, too. For centuries, Suzdal has been a place of exile, particularly for the unfortunate wives and daughters of Russian royalty. Boris III sent his first, childless wife to the Convent of the Intercession in 1525, a trick repeated by Ivan the Terrible in 1575 and even the revered Peter the Great in 1689. The huge Saviour Monastery of St Euthymius that guards the northern entrance to the town has been variously a jail, a mental asylum and a teenage reformatory. Leo Tolstoy was almost locked away here after his excommunication. The nearby town of Vladimir was a holding camp on the great "Road of Tears", the highway from Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod and the Urals, a site of banishment first discovered by the Tsars then willingly adopted by the Soviets.

The Orthodox Church, however, proved impossible to exile and now it is enjoying a powerful resurgence. President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB operative, chose to attend a televised Mass in Suzdal on Christmas Eve. The number of visitors to the Golden Ring dropped disastrously during the chaos of the early 1990s, but they are steadily building once again, thanks in part to the rediscovered spirit of religion.


How to get there

Nicholas Pyke travelled as a guest of Intourist (0870 112 1232; www.intourist.co.uk). As well as short, weekend breaks, it offers an eight-day escorted "Golden Ring" tour with monthly departures from April to September. The price of £869 per person (based on two sharing) includes return flights from Heathrow, bed and breakfast in three-star hotels, transfers, guides, tours, excursions and some meals. All visitors need a visa. Tourist visas cost £30 from The Russian Consulate, 5 Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8.

Where to find out more

For more information and to obtain a visa application form call 020-7229 8027.