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A journey around the Golden Ring retraces Russian history back to the beginning. This is the clutch of towns northeast of Moscow where ancient Rus grew into the Russian nation. In many cases, the whitewashed walls of these once-fortified cities still stand and the golden spires and onion domes of their monasteries still puncture the sky. Bells ring out from towering belfries; robed holy men scurry through church doors; historic tales recall mysterious, magical times.

Day 1: Vladimir
About 175km east from Moscow, your first stop is Vladimir, which was the seat of the throne in the 12th Century. High up on the slope above the Klyazma River sits the solemnly majestic Assumption Cathedral, built to announce Vladimir's claim as capital of Rus. Spend an hour admiring the detailed carving and the 15th Century frescoes painted by Russia's foremost icon painters, before retiring to the quaint and comfortable Monomakh Hotel.

Day 2: Suzdal
Drive 35km north to the enchanting village of Suzdal. The winding Kamenka River, flower-drenched meadows and dome-spotted skyline make this medieval capital a perfect fairytale setting. Peeking over the Kremlin walls are the star-spangled domes of the village's oldest church, the Nativity of the Virgin Cathedral (AD1220-onwards).  A walk along the earthen ramparts reveals a veritable medieval wonderland with magnificent views of three monasteries, two convents and some thirty smaller churches. Afterwards, you can dine at the Kremlin refectory (trapeznaya), which has been serving delicious food for centuries.

Day 3: Kostroma
Get up early for the 173km drive to the northernmost point on the Golden Ring. Kostroma was founded in 1152, but the historic centre dates to the 18th Century, when the old wooden structures were demolished by fire. Spend the afternoon exploring the 14th Century Monastery of St Ipaty, which poses on the right bank of the Kostroma River. Exhibits are dedicated to the young boyar Mikhail Romanov, who was in exile here when he was elected tsar, thus launching the dynasty. Spend the night at the aptly named Hotel Volga, a Soviet-era establishment offering timeless river views.

Day 4: Yaroslavl
About 76km west, this is the namesake of Kyivan prince Yaroslav the Wise, who founded the town in 1010. His statue overlooks the town square, opposite the formidable 12th Century Monastery of the Transfiguration of the Saviour. Stroll along the banks of the Volga River and discover the myriad merchant churches, most of which date to the city's 17th Century heyday as a trading centre. Take a break to recover at an outdoor cafe along the quaint cobblestone pedestrian street ulitsa Kirova.

Day 5: Rostov-Veliky
Drive about 60km south along the road headed back to Moscow. Founded in 862, Rostov "the Great" gives the impression of a sleepy village, spread out along the shore of the Lake Nero. From the dusty streets rise the white-washed walls and shiny domes of the Kremlin, a relic of the 12th Century, when Rostov was the seat of the Grand Prince. Climb up into the fortress walls, from where you can also enter the unusual gate-churches. Keep your ears pealed for a bell concert, which the resident monks play from the belfry of the Assumption Cathedral.

Day 6: Sergiev Posad
About 75km further south, Sergiev Posad is the site of the Trinity Monastery of St Sergius, the epicentre of Russian Orthodoxy. Ever since 1380, pilgrims have been journeying to this place to pay homage to St. Sergius of Radonezh. His tomb sits in the sombre Trinity Cathedral, where a memorial service in ongoing. After paying your respects to Russia's patron saint, make your way to the restaurant Trapeza na Makovtse, where you can dine in the shadow of the monastery's spires and cupolas.

Day 7: Moscow
It is an easy 70km and 700 years back to modern-day Moscow, but do not overlook the contemporary capital's medieval roots. Moscow was founded in 1147 as a smallish fort, surrounded by a wall for protection; ceremonies and celebrations were held on the plaza outside. The fort, of course, is the Kremlin, while the ceremonial plaza is Red Square - still the heart of Moscow geographically, historically and spiritually.

© 2011 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘Journeying back in Russian history’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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