At the Chapel over the Well, women in headscarves make small talk as they queue for water. Many have come from Moscow to the monastery of Saint Sergius Lavra, in the small Russian city of Sergiyev Posad, to replenish their supply from the sacred spring. For those who have forgotten to bring a receptacle, recycled water bottles are provided. For a small fee, of course.

Sergiyev Posad is only 75km to the northeast of Moscow yet it is a million miles away from the power and get-rich-quick ambition of the Russian capital; religion and tourism are the order of the day here, with life moving to a more relaxed, meditative beat.

Founded in 1345, the monastery is one of the largest in Russia and the spiritual centre of the Russian Orthodox Church. Expanded several times by Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century - to celebrate the capture of Kazan and as penance for killing his son - the huge Saint Sergius Lavra compound was the template for hundreds of monasteries and churches right across Russia.

Today, even for the faithless, the monastery is a stunning spectacle. Towering over a colourful melange of churches and other religious buildings, the huge gold and star-spangled blue domes of the main cathedral resemble a confectioner's fantasy. Bearded monks in black cassocks complete the scene, walking the narrow paths with a purposeful stride and the occasional incongruous sports bag.

With its whitewashed outer wall punctuated by arrow slits, Saint Sergius Lavra bears more than a passing resemblance to a fortress.

"The Poles tried to breach the walls in the early 17th century," explains Igor Telegin, one of the monastery's 300-odd monks and aspiring priests, in broken English. "Peter the Great also took refuge here twice. In fact, everywhere you look here there are stories about power struggles or political intrigue."

Arrive in Sergiyev Posad and you enter Russia's Golden Ring. Spread out in a half-moon to the northeast of Moscow, bordered by the mighty Volga to the north, this clutch of historic cities and towns deserves its glittering epithet.

"Why do we call it the Golden Ring," asks Moscow-based tour guide Anna Pankova. "Precious history. Golden autumnal leaves. Gleaming cupolas. There are a lot of reasons."

Situated at a junction of continents and cultures, and bisected by vital waterways, the settlements of the Golden Ring once grew fat on East-West trade. It was here that Russia was born as a nation. Then, as Moscow rose to power, the lustre of the Golden Ring faded, leaving a legacy of cathedrals, kremlins (fortified complexes) and convents that are only now finding their way onto the international tourist trail.

With destinations conveniently spaced and connected by decent roads (not always Russia's forte), the Golden Ring makes for a great multi-day road trip. Some stops - Yaroslavl, Kostroma and Vladimir - are thriving cities, with good hotels and guesthouses, and populations in the hundreds of thousands. Others, such as Rostov, Pereslavl-Zalessky and Suzdal, are sleepy hamlets where horse-drawn carts and roadside wells compete for attention with onion domes and redoubtable kremlins.

The Golden Ring abounds in churches. After Saint Sergius established his monastery, other monks erected 150 religious structures in little over a century. While many of these suffered from neglect during the communist era, the last two decades have seen widespread restoration. In Yaroslavl the building has continued into the present day; the golden-domed Dormition Cathedral may look centuries old but was completed only in 2010, to celebrate the city's 1,000 years of history.

The Golden Ring also links a roll call of historical luminaries. Yaroslav the Wise, Alexander Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Nicholas II (the last tsar) all left their mark on the landscape.

At Pereslavl-Zalessky, a hilly town of 40,000 people about 80km northeast of Sergiyev Plosad, the fabulous Goritsky Monastery overlooks the placid waters of Lake Plescheyevo. It was here that Peter the Great assembled his poteshny ("toy") fleet in the 1680s, laying the foundations for the mighty Russian navy.

Founded in 1152, Pereslavl-Zalessky is also the birthplace of Nevsky, who became a legend in Russia after military victories over German and Swedish invaders. Nevsky was christened in Red Square, the ancient heart of the town, which is still surrounded by a fabulous collection of vermilion-walled, onion-domed churches and cathedrals.

Yaroslavl is situated at the confluence of the Volga and Kotorosl rivers and, in the city centre, Mytny Market is in full swing daily. Within its covered confines, a mixed crowd of tourists and local babushkas (elderly women) peruse stalls and counters groaning under the weight of freshly made smetana (sour cream), smoked fish, cheese, linden honey, saffron and beeswax. In the corner of the fruit hall, a vending machine dispenses jars of caviar.

Packed with gorgeous neo-classical architecture, the ancient heart of Yaroslavl is a Unesco World Heritage site. The city is blessed with plenty of green space and, during the long summer nights, its river banks come alive with rollerbladers, joggers and dog walkers, while floating restaurants and bars offer haute cuisine and hoppy beer. Ornate street lamps throw long reflections onto the water and illuminate ducks in the reeds.

"A wind of change has blown though Yaroslavl recently," says amiable guide Anatoliy Starunov. "Thanks to our millennium celebrations … we now have a new concert hall, a new hotel and a lovely park by the Volga. We also have a new space museum dedicated to local heroine Valentina Tereshkova, Russia's first female cosmonaut, who, incidentally, trained as a weaver."

Living in a wooden cottage on the outskirts of Yaroslavl, Sergei and Irina Murakhovskiy are also upbeat about their city's fortunes. The couple frequently host foreigners on cross-cultural exchanges. A builder and barbecue enthusiast, Sergei's roasting shashliki (kebabs) tantalise the neighbours with their aroma.

"For many people here today the priorities are a nice environment and cultural preservation," says Sergei, as he prepares his "secret" kebab sauce of mayonnaise, sour cream, garlic and dill. "Yaroslavl is green and friendly. You rarely get a spontaneous zdravstvuyte ['hello'] on the streets of Moscow, that's for sure."

Another thing you don't get in Moscow is moose milk. At the Kostroma Moose Farm, about 25km outside the city of Kostroma, the four-legged inhabitants are free to come and go as they please, generally showing up each morning for their fill of carrots and lupins. This liberated lifestyle may explain why their milk is so rich, creamy and popular with visitors.

Roaming through the fields and poplar forest, the pampered moose are blessed with a fertile environment. Mushrooms, blueberries and strawberries are all in fruitful supply here, if you know where to look - or stick your snout. Roadside babushkas, their freshly picked wares enticingly displayed in plastic cups and buckets, are a common sight in summer and autumn.

With its unique mix of history and religion, local colour and laidback charm, the Golden Ring is proving to be a hit with overseas travellers. And it is here that many discover there's a lot more to Russia than drab totalitarian architecture and rampant capitalism.

Getting there: Aeroflot flies daily from Hong Kong to Moscow. Sergiyev Posad is about 90 minutes from Moscow by bus or train, and from there each town of the Golden Ring is connected by short bus routes.