Land of Churches and Kinder Surprise
Published: November 9, 2011 (Issue # 1682)
NIKOLAUS VON TWICKEL / SPT
Don’t miss Bogolyubovo’s stunning blue-domed monastery, which boasts the Castle of Andrei Bogolyubsky, named for Yury Dolgorky’s son.
VLADIMIR — Drivers heading to this city’s biggest tourist attraction should be careful when approaching Cathedral Square: The parking space in front of the magnificent Assumption Cathedral is for busses only.
Other vehicles are likely to be met by a local traffic police officer, eagerly waiting for motorists who decide to head off the square with a left turn, thus crossing over a solid line on the road.
On a recent visit, a reporter was singled out for a fine even though he had only turned on his blinker to make the forbidden turn. But he was let off after the policeman noticed the foreign driver’s license.
But even bad-tempered police officers cannot spoil a visit to Vladimir, a city 160 kilometers east of Moscow that prides itself as being the heart of the Golden Ring, a collection of ancient towns that comprise the country’s prime tourist attractions.
Perched on a steep bank overlooking the beautiful Klyazma River basin, Vladimir’s historic center is dotted with historic sights.
City officials claim that Vladimir was founded in 990 by Vladimir the Great, the legendary ruler of Kiev who is revered as the founder of Russian Orthodoxy because he adopted Christianity in 988.
Interestingly, this theory was only introduced in the 1990s. The city earlier celebrated its founder as Prince Vladimir Monomakh, who built a strong fortress here in 1108 and named it after himself.
Whatever the truth, the name retains a powerful ring today because it is borne by Vladimir Putin, the uncontested strongman of the country’s politics.
But the city’s attraction lies less in its name than in its sites and its location on the main route to Nizhny Novgorod, which ensures that it is the first destination for almost everybody heading out east from Moscow.
What to see if you have two hours
Visitors arriving by car are bound to pass the Golden Gates, a rare example of ancient Russian city entryways.
Once you have parked your car legally, stroll up to the Assumption Cathedral and take a deep breath of cool air inside the 12th-century temple, which is said to have served as a model for the Kremlin’s Assumption Cathedral.
If you like the church’s outside carvings, make sure you see more of them by taking the short walk along the ridge to the St. Demetrius church. Built in the same century, the one-domed church is renowned for the some 600 stone carvings of saints and mythical creatures that make up its facade.
Next on the list of must-see sites is the Church of Intercession on the Nerl, which ranks among the country’s most treasured architectural gems. Sitting on a meadow at the confluence of the Klyazma and Nerl rivers a short drive east of Vladimir, the little church is famed for its elongated proportions, which make it look slender but resulted in the interior being too dark to hold services.
To see the church, you need to take a 10-minute walk through a meadow, which is a regular ritual for tourists from all over the world. In the spring, you might want to bring a small boat for that because the footpath tends to vanish under seasonal flooding.
The walk starts at the train station of Bogolyubovo, the first village beyond the Vladimir city limits. To find the station, motorists must take a right turn just behind Bogolyubovo’s impressive blue-domed monastery.
That monastery also boasts the Castle of Andrei Bogolyubsky, son of Moscow’s founding father, Yury Dolgoruky.
Bogolyubsky, who died in 1174, presided over Vladimir’s golden age, when the Vladimir-Suzdal principality rose to become a challenge to Kiev.
Converted into a church, which was rebuilt after an 18th-century collapse, that monument is often overlooked by visitors — but actually it is Vladimir’s fifth item on the White Monuments of Vladimir and Suzdal, a list of eight monuments that were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992.
Kinder Surprise chocolate is made in Vladimir.
What to do if you have two days
Off the beaten tourist track along the plateau overlooking the Klyazma River lies the city’s north, which is characterized by a typical Soviet mix of urban housing and industrial sites and offers a skyline radically different from the center’s Orthodox crosses and spires.
This is where the sprawling Vladimir Tractor Engine Plant lies, as well as several electrical and machine-building works.
It is here that the city generates added value to its almost 350,000 inhabitants, of whom only a few can live off tourism. Across the northern city bypass lies the Globus hypermarket, where many of the locals do their shopping.
From here, it is just a 30-minute drive to Suzdal, whose Kremlin and St. Euthymius Monastery continue the UNESCO site and the Golden Ring. Do not miss the Church of Boris and Gleb in the Kideksha village, just 20 minutes west of Suzdal.
Where to eat
By far the most attractive restaurant in Vladimir is Traktir, housed in a two-story log house (1A Letneperevozinskaya Ulitsa, +7-4922-324162; policanov.ru/tractir.php) a stone’s throw from the Golden Gates. The restaurant, which also has a summer cafe next door, is located conveniently at the western entry to the city center, meaning that you can regain your strength here with the help of traditional Russian cuisine after some grueling hours on the road from Moscow. An average meal for one costs about 600 rubles ($20).
Sadly, most other restaurants in the city center expect their guests to eat in dimly lit rooms with no windows.
Cafe Van (61A Bolshaya Moskovskaya, entry from Podbelskaya Ulitsa, +7-4922-326377) is no exception to this widespread habit, but as consolation this Armenian-themed eatery offers some of the best shashlik in town. An average bill for one amounts to 1,000 rubles ($32.75).
Where to stay
Tucked away in the western center, the Monomakh Hotel (20 Ulitsa Gogolya, +7-4922-440444; monomahhotel.com) won’t win a design award but boasts a summer terrace overlooking back gardens, and the staff are trying hard to fulfill the slogan of “princely hospitality.” The 16 rooms cost between 2,300 rubles ($75) for a single and 5,400 rubles ($175) for a deluxe double.
On the other, eastern end of the center is the rather attractive Erlangen House hotel (25 Bolshaya Nizhegorodskaya Ulitsa, +7-4922-323795; erlangen.ru), a by-product of the city’s partnership with the German city of Erlangen. Apart from German classes, the house offers five rooms priced at 2,000 rubles ($65) to 4,000 rubles ($130) per night.
If both those hotels are full, you will have to resort to the Hotel Vladimir, located bang in the center (74 Bolshaya Moskovskaya Ulitsa, +7-4922-324447; vladimir-hotel.ru), where a midsize room costs 4,200 rubles ($135).
While officials and business representatives tend to praise Vladimir’s proximity to the capital as an advantage, this view is not shared by everybody in the local population.
“Moscow makes prices go up,” complained Yevgeny Petrov, a youth activist for the Liberal Democratic Party, who was campaigning outside Vladimir’s Drama Theater during a recent visit.
NIKOLAUS VON TWICKEL / SPT
Girls taking a break from an afternoon of skating by the 12th-century Assumption Cathedral.
Yet despite this, he said, many young people are seeking work in Moscow, where wages are significantly higher.
The average wage in Vladimir was 18,781 rubles, or some $600, in the first half of this year, according to a report published on the city administration’s web site.
And while some of the city’s official economic indicators are not bad, like a 16 percent rise in retail sales and an unemployment rate of just 1.7 percent, a closer look at such figures reveals that the picture is not that bright.
A more telling number for the state of the labor market is that of those officially registered as employed, which in July stood at 112,000 or just a third of the city’s population, according to the report.
How to get there
The best way to get to Vladimir from St. Petersburg is via Moscow. Many trains leave daily for Moscow with prices starting from 1,000 rubles. Flying is also an option.
The road from Moscow to Vladimir is called Shosse Entuziastov, but it usually elicits little enthusiasm among drivers because it is riddled with traffic lights and is notorious for its traffic jams, which can make the 190-kilometer trip from city center to city center last four hours or more.
The situation improved for rail passengers last year, when Russian Railways launched the Sapsan high-speed rail link to Nizhny Novgorod. Currently, Sapsan trains leave Moscow’s Kursky Station twice a day, at 6:45 a.m. and 7:30 p.m., and stop at Vladimir after one hour 45 minutes. One-way tickets cost about 1,000 rubles, depending on the day of the week. Cheaper and more frequent connections are by regular train, but the trip then takes about three hours.
Main industries: manufacturing, electronic components and machine building, chemical industries, agriculture
Mayor: Sergei Sakharov (United Russia)
City manager: Andrei Shokhin (United Russia)
NIKOLAUS VON TWICKEL / SPT
Vladimir’s young people are looking for work in Moscow, where wages are much higher.
Founded in 990
Interesting fact: Tucked away on Letneperevozkinskaya Ulitsa stands a typical U.S. house, a wooden bungalow with an open garden and garage. This is The American Home, an exchange and language teaching center founded in 1992 by Ron Pope, a scholar from Illinois. Currently, the home’s English program enrolls 400 students per term. Find out more at serendipity-russia.com
Sister cities: Babruysk, Belarus; Canterbury, Britain; Kardzhali, Bulgaria; Chongqing, Haikou, China; Usti-nad-Labem, Czech Republic; Kerava, Finland; Saintes, France; Erlangen, Jena, Germany; Anghiari, Campobasso, Italy; Jelenia Gora, Poland; Bloomington-Normal, Sarasota, United States.
• City Hall’s press service (+7 4922-53-28-17);
• Sergei Shedrin, spokesman for Mayor Sakharov (+7 903-833-33-33; speaks German);
• Viktoria Deripaska, spokeswoman for city manager Shokhin (+7 910-777-71-20).
• Ferrero Chocolate Factory (Vorsha, Sobinsk District; +7 4922-37-91-91; ferrero.ru) produces Kinder Chocolate, Raffaello and Nutella. Opened in 2008 with a total volume of direct foreign investment of more than $275 million, the plant is located some 30 kilometers west of Vladimir and it employs some 500 people.
• Vladimir Tractor Engine Plant (43 Traktornaya Ulitsa; +7 4922- 53-86-38; vladtractor.ru), part of Machinery Industrial Group N.V., an industrial holding based in Cheboksary, focuses on small and medium-sized agricultural vehicles.
• Globus (28 Suzdalsky Prospekt; +7 4922-37-68-66; globus.ru) is a German-owned hypermarket with about 50,000 goods altering regional consumer behavior.
Q: Why did Globus open one of its supermarkets in Vladimir?
A: Based on the proximity of the most moneyed region, Moscow, the retail market and purchasing power of the local population are both strong enough.
NIKOLAUS VON TWICKEL / SPT
A statue of another namesake of the city — Vladimir Lenin — overlooks Cathedral Square.
Q: What are Vladimir’s biggest advantages as a place for foreign investment?
A: This is a cultural and historic site with global significance, attracting a big number of tourists. At the same time, it is a huge transit corridor. The country’s biggest logistics artery, linking Central Russia with the east and northeast, goes right through the Vladimir region.
Q: What are the biggest problems in Vladimir?
A: The infrastructure is not developed well enough — roads and supply networks do not fit modern investors’ demands. However, this situation is typical for many Russian regions. Also, land prices have gone up considerably in recent years, leading to tax hikes. For instance, the land tax in Vladimir is already more expensive than in the Moscow region. This considerably raises expenditures for investors owning big pieces of land, and rents for land are also affected.
Q: Why did Ferrero choose the Vladimir region for its factory?
A: When Ferrero Group decided to construct its own factory in Russia in 2007, our specialists analyzed several sites in the Central Federal District. Their key criteria were: the land’s legal status, compliance to technical requirements, infrastructure and the availability of skilled labor. Another feature that was taken into account was the availability of appropriate legislation for foreign investment.
Q: What are the main advantages of Vladimir, both as a town and as a location for foreign investment?
A: The administration is actively using its resources to assist investment projects. A stable socio-economic situation, high education and qualification levels and a well-developed market infrastructure are factors that contribute to making the Vladimir region very attractive for foreign investors.
Q: What are the challenges of working and living in the Vladimir region, and what do you recommend to improve conditions in Vladimir?
A: The main challenge is to really understand my Russian friends and to learn from them on the job and in life. I would improve public transportation: If there were more connections to Moscow, Vladimir could become more attractive, even as an alternative to the capital for international companies.
Sergei Sakharov, Mayor and Speaker of the city legislature
The 43-year-old was regional director for the VimpelCom mobile carrier and a member of the Vladimir regional legislature before being elected speaker of the city legislature in March 2011, thus automatically becoming mayor. He is a leading member of United Russia’s Vladimir branch.
Q: Why should investors come to Vladimir?
A: Because it pays off! We are just 160 kilometers east of Moscow and strategically placed on the main trade route all the way to China. Despite our proximity to the capital, rent prices for office and production space are much lower than in Moscow and the Moscow region. Our work force is also much cheaper. And recently we incorporated large territories formerly outside the city limits and designated the land for construction of housing and business projects.
Q: Why should foreigners invest in Vladimir?
A: We have already attracted some foreign investors to Soviet-era factories inside our city, like Avtopribor [the auto parts manufacturer created a joint venture with Fiat unit Magneti Marelli in 2007]. Our regional laws offer attractive tax discounts to foreigners. And last but not least we can offer stable political and social conditions.
Q: What is your favorite part of Vladimir?
A: The historical center, which makes us very proud. We celebrated our city’s 1,021st birthday this year, and we are the center of the Golden Ring.