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Kolomenskoe, Russia

Experienced voyagerExperienced voyagerExperienced voyagerExperienced voyager Joshua Brook
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The old imperial estate at Kolomenskoe is one of the most picturesque and enjoyable of Moscow's out of town attractions and is an absolute must see for those with an extra day to spare in the Russian capital. The estate is nestled on the steep west bank of the Moscow River, 10km southeast of the Kremlin and surrounded by 390 hectares of ancient forest land, which is now a conservation zone and one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites. Kolomenkoe features vintage wooden structures built by many of the country's Tsars, one of the most beautiful churches and examples of Russian tent-roofed architecture in the country, and is a beautiful site for a spot of summer sunbathing or a snowy walk in the winter.

The village of Kolomenskoe was first mentioned in the will of the Grand Prince Ivan Kalita in 1339, but its history really begins in the 13th century when a settlement was founded there by refugees from Kolomna, fleeing from Tartar-Mongol invaders led by Batu Khan. During the 16th century, Kolomenskoe was chosen as the site of a royal summer retreat, where Ivan the Terrible stayed during his childhood and later with his first wife, Anastasia.
The estate was completely destroyed by the Tartars during the Time of Troubles and in 1606 the village became the campsite of Ivan Bolotnikov, leader of the first Russian peasant war, when they laid siege to the Rus capital for five weeks in their attempt to take the city. In 1667 the estate was rebuilt by Tsar Mikhail Romanov and included a magnificent wooden palace, which his contemporaries dubbed the "eighth wonder of the world". In 1682 the estate became the refuge of the 10-year-old Peter the Great, when the Streltsy, the fearsome yet disparate band that made up the Kremlin guards and Russia's first professional soldiers, revolted at the death of his younger brother Fyodor and the country was thrown into turmoil while the imperial siblings and Muscovite boyars bickered over the ascension to the throne.

Kolomenksoe was also one of the sites where the young military-minded Peter practiced war games, European strategy and tactics with his "toy" regiments of soldiers. Catherine the Great and Alexander I also built palaces on the estate but much was destroyed after the 1917 Revolution, when the local cemetery was razed, the churches closed and the village destroyed by collectivization. It was only thanks to the architect P. Baranovsky (who also preserved the architectural plans of Red Square's Kazan Cathedral, which helped immeasurably in its reconstruction, and was responsible for saving St. Basil's Cathedral from demolition) that the churches were not destroyed and a Museum of Wooden Architecture was instead established there in 1925.

Today the entire estate is open to visitors and features some fascinating architecture. Just inside the entrance to the grounds stands the impressive Church of the Icon of Our Lady of Kazan, built in 1644 by Tsar Alexei in memory of the struggle against the Poles during the Time of Troubles. The church's five azure domes dotted with glittering golden stars, its box-like refectory, arched porches and covered stairway are all typical of ecclesiastical buildings constructed during Tsar Alexei's reign. The church became better known in modern times for an icon of the "Majestic" Virgin, that was discovered in the building's attic on the day of Nicholas II's abdication, by a woman who dreamt that the divine power vested in the tsars had now been returned to the Mother of God.

The icon depicts the Virgin holding the Imperial orb and scepter, an image that was considered subversive in Soviet times, when people were punished for possessing copies of the icon. The church was originally connected by a covered walkway to the great sprawling wooden palace, created by Tsar Mikhail Romanov in the 17th century, until Catherine the Great ordered it be pulled down. Regarded as a marvel of Russian carpentry, Mikhail's palace was constructed without using saws, nails or hooks and boasted 250 rooms and 3,000 mica windows in a gigantic maze of corridors, wings and private quarters. Each member of the Imperial family had their own collection of rooms, which were ornately decorated with intricately carved wooden trims and topped by bulbous domes and tent-roofed towers covered with multicolored wooden tiles and gilt edging. During the reign of Peter the Great the palace fell into disrepair and was considered a liability and was consequently destroyed at the orders of Catherine later that century. Visitors can get an impression of the craftsmanship and skill involved in the construction of the palace by looking at a small scale model of it, constructed in 1867 by the carpenter D. Smirnov, and from old engravings on display in the Kolomenskoe grounds.
Not far from the site of the original wooden palace visitors can wander in the oldest oak woods in the Moscow region, with some trees dating as far back as 600 years and some having been planted by the young Peter the Great himself. The woods offer a troika of ancient structures placed here with the opening of the Museum of Wooden Architecture. The most interesting is undoubtedly Peter the Great's cabin, originally constructed in 1702 on an island off the port city of Arkhangelsk from which the Emperor could observe the erection of the Novodvinskaya Fortress. The building contains just four rooms, with tiled stoves, mica windows, log walls and surprisingly low ceilings for a man measuring 6 feet 4 inches in height.

Also of interest in the vicinity is a log watchtower from the Bratsk ostrog, a Cossack fort originally constructed in 1652 on the banks of the Angara River in Siberia, which later served as a prison. Visitors should also have a peek at the nearby wooden gate tower from the St. Nicholas Monastery in Karelia, carefully crafted from interlocking logs without requiring a single nail and featuring a tall hexagonal tower topped by a pointed turret reminiscent of a witch's hat.

Beyond the impressive Front Gate lies the historical and imperial heart of the Kolomenskoe estate. The gate itself is an impressive double-arched structure topped by a clock tower whose clock was salvaged from Moscow's Sukharev Tower and which still marks the hour with a cacophony of tinkling bells. During Tsar Alexei's reign the gates were flanked by a pair of mechanical lions who roared their greetings at any visitors to the estate. Just inside the gateway stand a collection of buildings housing the Kolomenskoe Musuem, which includes an excellent collection of icons and woodcarvings, imperial portraits, decorative stove tiles and an impressive ceramic frieze by the artist Vrubel, depicting the legend of Volga and Mikula. Visitors also have access to the newly restored Frjazhsky Cellars, the Chancellery, where the imperial scribes worked meticulously on the Tsar's edicts and pronouncements, and the original Guardhouse. In the vicinity you will also find a 12th century Mead Brewery, originally built in the village of Preobrazhenskoye near Moscow and one of the few wooden buildings on the estate to survive the Great Moscow Fire of 1812, and the small Neoclassical 1825 Pavilion, which is all that remains of the palace that Tsar Alexander I built at Kolomenskoe.

Beyond this ensemble, on the sloped bank of the river, stands the magnificent Church of the Ascension, built between 1530 and 1532 and one of the finest examples of Russian tent-roofed architecture still extant today. It has often been said that the church rivals the splendor of even Red Square's St. Basil's Cathedral and the two are in fact historically linked. The Church of the Ascension was commissioned by Vasily III in 1529 as an offering of hope that he would be graced with a son and heir to the throne, and this son, Ivan the Terrible, would later decree the creation of St. Basil's. The church's remarkable tent-roof rises to an impressive 70 meters and features an octagonal base, rising in decorative tiers of kokoshniki, limestone ribbing and geometrical patterns and topped by a lantern and a miniature onion dome. The building represented a dramatic departure from traditional Russian architectural themes and there is still much debate as to the sources of this. Some attribute it to the country's separate traditional of wooden tower churches, but many more claim that the influence of the Italian architect Petrok Maliy, who was involved in the church's design and construction, and Romanesque pyramid-roofed structures may well have been the source of inspiration. The church's exterior is ringed by an elevated terrace reached by three staircases, on the river-facing side of which stands the remains of a stone throne, where Ivan the Terrible used to sit and contemplate the view. The interior is very light but cramped, due to the thickness of the church's walls, and features a gallery above the main entrance from which the Tsar and his family would watch services.

The Kolomenskoye Estate also hosts a number of festivals and traditional Russian religious celebrations every year. These include Maslenitsa, two days of festivities in mid February based on the pagan Spring festival that marks the onset of Lent, Easter Sunday in mid April, Russian Victory Day on May 9th, Peter the Great's birthday on May 31st and Babe Leto, a folklore festival celebrated at the end of September to mark Indian Summer. The festivals feature traditional Russian music, dance, costumes, food and games and the estate provides a magnificent historical backdrop to the celebrations. The estate also runs a variety of tours, excursions and activities for children. More info on: www.moscow-taxi.com

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