Kirillo Belozersky monastery in the Vologda region of Russia.

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Kirillov-Belozersky Monastery

Northern European Russia

In the 16th and 17th centuries, this monastery in the lakeside town of Kirillov, 130km northwest of Vologda, was northern Russia's largest, and one of the country's most powerful. Founded in 1397 by a monk from Moscow, the monastery grew from a cave into magnificent grounds comprising 12 churches, three-storey fortress walls and the glorious Assumption Cathedral.

Entry to the grounds is free, with individual and combined ticketing for the site's exhibition rooms. Buses connect Kirillov and Vologda (R330, 2¾ hours, up to seven daily).

The prosperity of the monastery was made possible by wealthy patrons, including the Romanovs and Ivan the Terrible. Ivan had a personal room within the monastery and planned to take his own vows here. Things did not go quite as planned, however, with the tsar becoming disenchanted with what he saw as the ‘lecherous’ goings-on within the cloister. A prolific and polemic letter writer, Ivan penned a no-holds-barred epistle to the abbot of the time, blasting the lack of asceticism within its walls: ‘Today in your cloister Sheremetyev sits in his cell like a tsar; Khabarov and other monks come to him and drink and eat as though they were laymen, and Sheremetyev – whether from weddings or births, I don’t know – sends sweets and cakes, and other spiced delicacies around to all the cells, and behind the monastery is a courtyard, and in it are supplies for a year.’ An anti-religion exhibition was housed in part of the monastery during the early Soviet era, and icons, engravings and other valuables were confiscated.