Russia's Home to the Golden Domes
Rostov: the home of Russia's sweet onion provides the perfect quirky escape from Moscow
By Victoria Green
Moscow is infamously busy. Locals and tourists alike have been fleeing the city for a quieter Russian experience in the 'golden ring' - a circle of ancient religious towns dotted around
Moscow for generations.
For those tourists who fancy a change from picturesque monasteries and small town squares, Rostov Veliky, home of the sweet onion, is a refreshingly quirky alternative.
Rostov, not to be confused with Rostov-on-Don in the South of Russia, is a small town lying a mere 200 km from Moscow, which by Russian standards is spitting distance. Most of Rostov’s notable architecture dates back to the late 17th Century and you can easily fill a visit with the typical golden ring attractions. Yet Rostov stands out for its famous root vegetable- the onion.
Onion farming has a long history in the region. One Archbishop in the 18th Century wrote of the Rostov region: "local people get rid of all their diseases with onion and garlic, medicines and doctors are not required. To my extreme astonishment, the people here live ninety of more years but unfortunately have the strong smell of garlic and onion.”
The town’s Lukovaya Sloboda, which loosely translates to the ‘onion community’ or ‘onion quarter’, is the easiest place to taste and learn about the Rostov sweet onion.
It’s a private complex linked to two restaurants, a museum and a hotel with a banya (Russian sauna). Just a short walk from the train station and about a 20-minute walk from the center of the town, it’s the center for all things onion in Rostov. See this map for further details.
Taste it all: The Onion Café
Despite being located at the side of a large busy road, as soon as you enter the Lukovaya Sloboda, the warm atmosphere and twee décor quickly make you feel like you are in a cozy wooden dacha (traditional Russian cottage) in the depths of a forest.
Onion garlands adorn the cabin-like walls and rows of onion marmalades and jams wholesomely line the shelves.
The menu is surprisingly diverse considering all dishes use onion in some form. It’s very reasonably priced and I’d recommend ordering everything on the menu if budget allows. The cuisine would be best be described as ‘comfort food’ and is perfect for a snowy winter’s day. My favorite culinary creation was the pancakes with caramelized onion marmalade but the bread made from an onion-based dough was also very tasty.
Ode to the Onion: The Museum
The size or even impressiveness of the museum aspect of the onion-complex should not be overstated. It consists of a large room filled with artifacts of varying levels of interest. Yet for those, who like me, love a quirky little museum- it’s a treasure trove of bizarre items.
The basis of the museum is traditional onion farming techniques but it also touches on general onion paraphernalia and a selection of ‘old things’. Exhibit highlights include hats with decorative onions, an onion broom, onion models, an old iron, onion garlands and a large soft toy ‘onion family’. Information is available in Russian but most items are pretty self-explanatory.
If visiting with children, it’s possible to organize a craft workshop (with onions, of course) if booked in advance through this website.
How to get to there?
There are regular trains from several of the major Moscow stations and can take only an hour and a half if you manage to get tickets for the fast train. They are most frequent from Moscow Yaroslavsky station. Here’s a helpful guide to getting to Rostov Veliky by public transport.
Where to stay?
There is number of good options for accommodation in Rostov.
If you’d like to stay somewhere a little unusual, the Troitse-Sergiev Varnitskiy Monastery has basic, clean rooms in an eerily quiet active monastery.
Another good option is the Rostovsky Hotel.
Information about other attractions in Rostov:
Rostov was founded on the banks of Lake Nero in the 12th Century. Local legend claims that Peter the Great realised that the waters of Lake Nero made the surrounding land particularly fertile. To harness the land’s full potential, he sent a group of residents to learn the latest farming techniques in the Netherlands. A boat trip across the lake is a wonderful way to view the town from afar.
Kremlins or fortresses are the centers of many older Russian towns. Rostov’s Kremlin is an interesting example of life in ‘old Russia’.
The Princess and the Frog Museum
If your desire to visit quirky museums was not satisfied by the onion museum, check out this ‘The Museum of the Frog Princess’ which explores the fairy-tale of the Princess and the Frog. Come armed with google translate or a Russian speaker is possible.
Victoria Green is a British freelance writer who has lived and worked in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia. She focuses on Central Asia and the wider Silk Road. On weekends you can find her eating Uyghur food and getting lost in the mountains.