The Apple Of Our Eyes

The Sun-Herald Traveller

11 January 2015


A religious festival offers a tasty insight into Russian culture, writes Tatyana Leonov

I've always loved fruit, so it is sheer luck when I find myself in Suzdal for the Transfiguration Festival – known as Yablochniy Spas and translating to Apple Saviour – in August.Suzdal is a treat for the eyes on any day. The charming town is more than 1000 years old and is one of Russia’s oldest settlements.

Although it lies only about 200 kilometres from bustling Moscow, it has remained almost untouched by the modern world. Here old unpaved country roads and coiling laneways make up the infrastructure and it’s not uncommon to come across amateur artists hunched over wooden easels – brush in hand, recording village life.

Recently the local economy has focused on the tourist industry and the hotels springing up on the outskirts of town are evidence of a gradually changing landscape. However most tourists (Russian usually, I don’t hear any English spoken) choose to stay in homes- turned-bed-and-breakfast inns (a way for the locals to earn extra cash). My host, Olga, lives with her daughter, son-in-law and their new baby. When I arrive she brews fragrant tea and heats up blini, which I eat with a dollop of sour cream and a dusting of sugar.

For breakfast the next day it’s farm-fresh eggs sunny side up, cooked with plump tomatoes and cucumbers from her garden (cucumbers are popular in Russia, even more so in Suzdal where there’s a big yearly cucumber festival). Olga hurries me out the door after breakfast – not trying to get rid of me, but excited that someone from as far away as Australia is going to witness today’s festivities.

In Suzdal the Transfiguration Festival marks one of the most important Russian Orthodox church celebrations and commemorates the event where Jesus took three of his disciples to Mount Tabor where he transfigured – showing he was both son of man and son of God.

Devout Russians bring apples and other autumnal fruit, such as grapes and plums, to be blessed by the priest during the liturgy. Some say the late harvest fruit is symbolic of the final transfiguration, but the truth probably lies in social customs formed throughout history.

After the church service the merriment starts. I taste delightfully spongy apple cake, drink fruity apple kvas (a tangy alcoholic drink brewed from rye bread and yeast) and pose alongside giggling village kids dressed as fruit for a local photographer.

A crowd gathers as three distinctly Russian-looking men in colourful patterned traditional dress begin to play folk songs. A few enthusiasts start to sway their hips and as the performers get more animated everyone begins to clap to the beat.

The balalaika player looks up and cracks a smile as he notices two clumsy babushkas begin to dance. I crack a smile too–atmy husband – as I push him to join the babushkas.