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75km (47 miles) NE of Moscow

This town's magnificent 14th-century monastery and its history as the holiest of Russia's Orthodox shrines draws pilgrims from around the country, and plenty of non-Russian tourists. The trip serves as a course in Russian architecture and sociology, as well as an immersion into Orthodox traditions. Music enthusiasts can delight in informal choral concerts -- even a small midday church service produces hypnotizing harmonies. The town also claims to be the birthplace of the matryoshka, the ubiquitous nesting doll. Visiting the monastery, matryoshka shopping, and wandering the run-down but charming streets are enough to make this Moscow's most satisfying out-of-town day trip. It's also the only city on the historic Golden Ring that's a comfortable 1-day trip from the capital.

Essentials

Sergiev Posad, called Zagorsk in the Soviet era, can be reached by bus, commuter train, or taxi. Many hotels and tour companies arrange bus trips here. Patriarshy Dom tours has an informative and intimate English-language tour (tel. 495/795-0927; in the U.S. tel. 1-650/678-7076; www.russiatravel-pdtours.netfirms.com). Intourist offers a more standard trip, which includes more religious history and less propaganda than in Soviet times (11 Stoleshnikov Pereulok; tel. 495/923-8575). Intourist also has offices in two Moscow hotels: the Ukraina and Cosmos.

If you're traveling on your own, consider taking a bus from the main Shcholkovsky Bus Terminal. The cheap, direct trip takes about 2 hours (though tour buses manage to make the trip a bit quicker). The bus you need is labeled MOSCOW-SERGIEV POSAD-YAROSLAVL, meaning you get off midjourney. The driver may know only a few words of English. You'll be dropped off at the bus station near the monastery.

The commuter train, called elektrichka, leaves from Yaroslavsky Train Station (go to the suburban ticket desk, called prigorodniye kassy). The ride is cheaper and smoother than the bus, but it's slightly less convenient. It makes a few stops on the 1 1/2-hour journey, and you have to be able to read SERGIEV POSAD in Russian to make sure you don't miss your stop. When you get off, it's a 10-minute walk through town to the cathedrals. Train cars are fitted with hard wooden benches that can be crowded on weekend days, especially in summer. Weekdays during off season they're calm and pleasant, as long as you don't get stuck with a curious or alcoholic seatmate. Tickets on the bus or train cost less than 330 rubles.

An excellent but pricier option is hiring a car and driver for the day. That way you can depart and return at your leisure, and perhaps take some side roads to better view the countryside. The price of the trip is negotiable, and costs more if you get an English-speaking driver or guide. Try your hotel tour desk, or contact Moscow Taxi (www.moscow-taxi.com).

What To See & Do

Trinity Monastery of St. Sergius (Troitse-Sergiyevo Lavra) is the place to start. Sergius of Radonezh founded the monastery in 1345, and it gained a reputation as the source of Russian military and spiritual strength after his blessing was believed to have inspired victory in one of Russian history's most crucial battles, against the Mongol Tatars at Kulikovo Pole in 1380. For centuries, Russian czars and commoners trekked here in pilgrimage, traveling in gilded carriages or on foot for days or weeks, many fasting throughout the journey. The site was so charged with history that even Stalin couldn't bring himself to raze it, though its monks were sent to labor camps after the Bolshevik Revolution. Stalin even allowed the monastery to reopen after World War II as the spiritual center of the emasculated, state-monitored Orthodox Church of the Soviet era.

Sergius was canonized after his death, and his remains lie in the monastery's Cathedral of the Trinity. This cathedral boasts several works by Andrei Rublev, Russia's most famous icon painter. Many pilgrims come to Sergiev Posad just to see his iconostasis masterpiece, Old Testament Trinity. The monastery's version is a copy; the original now hangs in Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery. The cathedral started a trend with its use of kokoshniki, the pointed arches that became a defining feature of Moscow church architecture in ensuing centuries.

The monastery's current walls were built in the mid-16th century, as was the Cathedral of the Assumption that rises in the center of the complex. Its four blue onion domes around a larger gold one may look familiar -- they were inspired by the Cathedral of the Assumption in the Kremlin. The Chapel Over the Well is a dizzying structure carved with flowers and vines and blue arabesques, built over a spring discovered in 1644. Pilgrims still come with empty bottles, jugs, and buckets to fill with its holy water.

Among the prominent people buried at the monastery is Boris Godunov, Russia's ruler from 1598 to 1605, the only czar not buried in Moscow or St. Petersburg. He ascended to the throne in controversy and his death plunged Russia into the Time of Troubles, a decade of war and jockeying for power. Godunov's court enemies are also here, in more elegant tombs inside the Cathedral of the Assumption.

A century later, Peter the Great took refuge here from the streltsy royal guards and later from the Regent Sofia, who was conspiring to keep him from power. He later showered funding on the monastery, and his daughter Elizabeth, who became empress, bestowed it with the title of lavra, the highest religious rank for an Orthodox monastery.

The monastery's Museum of History and Art (tel. 495/786-2708; www.musobl.divo.ru) houses an impressive collection of jewel-encrusted robes, gems, and icons from centuries past. The more unusual garments and exhibits are on the second floor. Entrance to the monastery is free, but the museum charges a fee of 130 rubles. Permission to take photos also costs a fee. Anyone wearing shorts will not be let on the grounds. The monastery, the main resident of Ulitsa Krasnaya Armii, is open daily from 8am to 6pm. The churches are open to the public Monday through Friday, and the museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10am to 6pm.

The monastery produced wooden toys as far back as Sergius's time, for children of local residents and visiting royalty. In the 19th century the town became a center of matryoshka workmanship, and now many rare nesting dolls and other wooden toys and dolls are on display and for sale at the town's Toy Museum (tel. 495/254-2581; 123 Ulitsa Krasnoi Armii; Wed-Sun 10am-5pm). If you have time and energy, wander south of the monastery around Kelarsky Pond, a popular spot for amateur artists in summer.

Where To Dine

For such a touristed town, Sergiev Posad has minimal dining options. Russians outside the big cities don't generally eat out, and residents here are no exception. The coziest option is Russky Dvorik, a wooden cottage between the train station and the monastery at 134 Prospekt Krasnoi Armii, with traditional Russian fare for about 500 rubles per person per meal. Café Posadskoye is a cheaper, simpler version, opposite the monastery at 22 Prospekt Krasnoi Armii. Large groups prefer the neighboring Russkaya Skazka, with overpriced but passable Russian standards and a spacious dining hall. Kovcheg Hotel has a comfortable dining hall offering fairly flavorless food. There's even a McDonald's if nothing else suits you.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.