What? Maslenitsa (“butter week”) is a half-Christian, half-Slavic pagan celebration of the soon-to-come end of winter that takes place for a week before Lent. Think Mardi Gras, or carnivals of Rio de Janeiro and Venice, but instead of ball gowns, beads and nudity you get traditional Russian games, folk music and dance concerts, a lot more snow and horse sleigh rides. You also get piles and piles of bliny – Russian crepe-like pancakes that are THE traditional Maslenitsa food, representing the sun – and everyone gets a little tipsy on medovukha, the honey-mead.
Where? Suzdal is a small town about 5 hours from Moscow and a must-see destination for anyone curious about the real old Russia because of its stunning examples of medieval churches and fortresses and traditional wooden houses of Russian villages.
Why? Although Maslenitsa festivities take place throughout Russia, including all over Moscow, Suzdal is particularly known for its Maslenitsa celebrations. It is a good match of atmosphere: medieval setting plus pagan traditions of the Russia of yore equals a very authentic feel.
How did I fare? Oiiiii…I was a bit overwhelmed, but had a great time. It seemed like the entire population of Moscow has descended onto this town of 10,000, helped by the fact that “peak Maslenitsa” – the Forgiveness Sunday – fell in the middle of a three-day weekend this year. The weather was pleasantly mild at around 0C/32F, but walking was nearly impossible because melted snow covered sheets of ice with ankle-deep puddles. By the end of the day my feet were soaked. Although during the pre-Lent week meat is already forbidden in Russian Orthodoxy, the lines for pork and lamb shashlik outside were an hour long. You couldn’t get a seat in any restaurant, and mead tasting, which I have been looking forward to for weeks, was for pre-booked tourist groups only.
BUT. The mood was amazing. Everyone was super-cheerful, from the frolicking children to the local craftsmen selling their work, to the women dressed-up in traditional Russian folk garb making bliny in the central market square. I warmed up with a couple of shots of vodka and some mulled wine and enjoyed myself till the last bus home.
Suzdal’s endless market sells everything from traditional Russian headdresses to rolled wool boots called valenki, from picked vegetables to medovukha, from branch bunches for the banya to hand-crafted quilts to wrap yourself into afterward. What would you buy?