AROUND the middle of March begins a curious and peculiarly Russian season: Winter coexists with spring.
No longer do harsh subzero temperatures make strolling outdoors impossible, and yet Russia's quintessential snow still blankets the landscape. The sun can shine warmly enough to make the eaves drip, but the sky's pale enamel blue recalls recent frosts.
It lasts no more than a few weeks, but the opportunity to explore the countryside is worth seizing. By April the serious thaw will release an ocean of mud that marks what Russians call "the season of roadlessness."
In the meantime, roads in this ancient town three hours northeast of Moscow follow the most unexpected paths - under the 18th-century walls of St. Jacob's monastery, for example, right out into the middle of Lake Nero, which is still frozen solid enough to bear the weight of a car.
There, local fishermen, blase about the view behind their backs, concentrate instead on their holes in the ice. But for anybody else the fairy-tale skyline - myriad silver and golden onion domes atop whitewashed churches within turreted fortress walls - is entrancing.
Rostov's Kremlin unrivaled
Rostov Velikii, which means "Rostov the Great," is one of the oldest towns in northern Russia, first mentioned in 862. It was another 800 years, however, before the town reached the pinnacle of its glory as the center of an especially rich diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Metropolitan Iona, his ambition to become church patriarch frustrated, devoted all his efforts and his considerable wealth to constructing a magnificent Kremlin - a fortified cluster of 17th-century churches and administrative buildings - that is today unrivaled throughout the country.
And while visitors to the Moscow Kremlin are ushered out at dusk, in Rostov you can sleep at a hotel established in one of the buildings inside the walls, to be awakened in the morning by the bells of the cathedral next door.
And awakened you will be, for this is not just any peal of bells. Cast in 1688, the largest of the 15 bells that hang in the free-standing belfry weighs 32 tons and can be heard for 20 miles. Your bedroom window is less than 200 yards away.
Made as a set, the carillon is unique: Czar Peter the Great spared it even when he ordered that one-quarter of all the bells in Russia be melted down to make cannons during his war against the Swedes; the French 19th-century composer Hector Berlioz came to Rostov to hear its bells; "even the Bolsheviks didn't dare touch them," says the Rev. Roman, the local priest.
But the Communists did forbid the ringing of the bells when they shut down the cathedral in 1935, and for more than 50 years they hung silent. Then, 10 years ago, encouraged by the new mood of glasnost sweeping the country, a handful of local men dug into the cathedral archives, found a 19th-century bell-ringing manual, and taught themselves campanology.
Old skills can be relearned, but only up to a point can old churches be rebuilt. A Soviet-era guidebook boasts that the restoration of Rostov after a terrible storm in 1953 "is one of the most brilliant achievements of Soviet architecture." But what it fails to mention is that of the 50 or so churches that stood in Rostov before the Communist revolution, more than half were blown up in the 1920s and '30s.
Almost all the rest were closed, including the lofty 16th-century cathedral, which was used variously as a warehouse and a military stable before simply being abandoned. Today, windowless, its floors torn up and piled with rubble, its icons moldy with damp, its brickwork stripped of its plaster and wracked by repeated frosts, the cathedral looks to most eyes like a disaster area.
But when Fr. Roman shows the structure to visitors, clambering to the center of the nave with them, he spreads his arms wide and announces "so here is our cathedral." It is clear that he sees the church not as it is, but as it will be. He was a little hurt when a visitor was surprised to hear him describe himself as dean of the cathedral. "We regard this as a functioning cathedral," he says.
Functioning churches are a good deal fewer now than they once were in the town of Kostroma, too, 80 miles northeast of Rostov. Kostroma's location on the banks of the Volga River made it an important commercial center.
But imposing classical buildings ring the central square, including a remarkable pastel-yellow fire station that looks as if a lighthouse had sprouted from the roof of a Greek temple.
Two memorable 'voices'
The colonnaded facade of the nearby Czar's Hotel, built for royal visitors, offers a clue to the city's prosperity. The first Romanov, Mikhail, was staying in a monastery in Kostroma when he was elected czar in 1613, and every one of his successors to the throne except Peter I visited the town and patronized it.
The Ipatyev monastery itself, stout walls surrounding a courtyard of rare tranquillity, now is a museum, and through the welter of half a millenium's history, two very personal voices make themselves heard.
One is that of Gury Nikitin, a serf painter in the 17th century, who covered the columns, arches, walls, and ceilings of the Trinity Cathedral with frescoes depicting Biblical scenes full of miraculous life, along with occasional zoological failings. He clearly had never seen a camel, for example, so he painted the animals accompanying the three wise men as horses with humps.
The other voice is that of a much humbler painter, but one who had a much more noble lineage: Czarevitch Alexis, the son of the last Romanov, Czar Nicholas II.
In an exhibition of mementoes of the last royal family - coronation dinner menu cards, sepia photographic portraits, and the like - one corner is devoted to paintings that Alexis did when he was 7.
They are boldly colored caricatures of heavily medaled and whiskered military men, pompous courtiers - gaudy butterflies pinned by the perceptive eye of a child.
Three hundred years earlier, from within the walls on which these pictures now hang, a boy barely older than Alexis had founded the Romanov dynasty. Six years after Alexis drew the caricatures, his death - and that of his family - at the hands of the Bolsheviks marked the end of that same dynasty.
*Travel outside of Moscow, which is now freely permitted, still requires a certain sense of adventure and tolerance for the unexpected on the part of the traveler. Russia is full of extraordinary tourist destinations, but Russia's tourist industry is still shaking off notorious habits of Intourist, the old Soviet tourist office. It is still unusual to find hotel or restaurant staff offering the friendly service of other countries.
*From Moscow it is possible to book excursions to Rostov Velikii. Although the trip there and back can be done in a day, visitors are better off staying at the Sputnik hotel inside Rostov's Kremlin and taking their time. Be warned, however: The setting is sublime, but the plumbing appears to be as ancient as the walls. Bring your own towels and soap.
*Rostov can also be reached in four hours by train from Moscow's Yaroslavsky Station. The trip to Kostroma is three hours more.