WE knew that driving a rental car in Russia wouldn’t be easy even before we arrived at the poorly marked Europcar counter at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport where they deal, on average, with only 14 customers a week. There, it took a nice young man 40 minutes to check our reservation, make photocopies of our documents and test two G.P.S. systems. The first was broken; the second, which he deemed O.K., stopped working even as we pulled out of the parking garage.
Then we ran smack into the real problem: Russian roads, made worse by Russian drivers. On that first afternoon, heading away from Moscow we got a taste of both. Clogged intersections; clusters of potholes or “hens’ nests,” as Claire de Laboulaye, my French traveling companion, called them; giant trucks on narrow roads; big-bellied Russian traffic-police officers trolling for offenders, bringing the flow of traffic to a crawl.
A road trip around Russia’s Golden Ring — a circuit of about 10 ancient towns northeast of Moscow, each with its own set of glittering onion-domed churches and medieval fortresses — was going to be a challenge, even for us. Both Claire and I were well prepared by our years of Russian travel, which for each of us began in childhood, and picked up again in the 1980s, under the auspices of the Soviet-era Intourist travel agency, with its K.G.B.-trained guides, grim hotels and empty restaurants serving awful food.
Those days, happily, are gone. In the last 20 years another, more accommodating Russia has emerged, beyond the slick tourist hubs of Moscow and St. Petersburg. In the Golden Ring towns — several of them, anyway — this means decent, occasionally even charming hotels, functional phones and Wi-Fi, better restaurants and innumerable churches and monasteries lovingly rescued from Soviet-era neglect.
All of this was enough to lure us into a rented Nissan Tiida for six days of adventure, without a functioning G.P.S., just a Lonely Planet guidebook and a Russian atlas, which, maddeningly, displayed our route over several pages, sometimes with bits missing.
Even in Soviet times, the Golden Ring was a draw for tourists, starting with the magnificent walled monastery in Sergiyev Posad, about 43 miles from Moscow, dominated by bright blue and gold cupolas. From there, the other towns are spaced out about a half day’s drive from each other, as the ring stretches up toward the Volga River.
Some stops — Yaroslavl, Kostroma and Vladimir — are proper (if small) cities, with populations from 300,000 to 650,000. We decided to make only fleeting stops in these and to concentrate on smaller towns — Pereslavl-Zalessky, Rostov Veliky, Plyos and Suzdal — all of which have kept something of their pre-Soviet character. With the exception of Plyos, a pleasant provincial river town, all are steeped in Russian history, linked to towering figures like Alexander Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Nicholas II, the last czar.
It’s a region known for its bewildering number of churches, convents and monasteries. After St. Sergius founded his monastery at Sergiyev Posad around 1340, other hermit monks followed his example and headed north, seeking salvation in nature, building an astonishing 150 monasteries in just 100 years. Backed by the power of the Moscovite princes, this extraordinary missionary movement was to become a key force in the unification of Russia.
This legacy was destroyed or abandoned during Soviet rule, but in the last 20 years that devastation has been reversed as the Russian Orthodox Church and individual believers undertake a countrywide restoration. Only once on our whole trip did we see what was once a common sight — a church in ruins, with trees growing out of the belfry.
All of this lay ahead of us as we set off from the airport on a summer afternoon, driving through the dust and smog of exurban Moscow.
After a night spent at a private dacha, not far from the glories of Sergiyev Posad, we headed north. That was when we made our first mistake. We assumed a two-way road would put us on the highway to Yaroslavl. Wrong. It suddenly, inexplicably became one-way, sending us straight toward the highway exit. Luckily, there was no oncoming traffic.