St Basil's Cathedral
The iconic landmark of Russia.
One of the most significant countries in the world and with such a rich history, Russia has been on my must-see list for some time now, probably the last country in Europe that I felt I absolutely had to visit.
Also the largest country in the world, colouring a massive chunk on my world map proved an incentive too!
Perhaps the main reason it has taken me so long to finally visit Russia is the fact that it isn't the most accessible country to visit. It is the first country for which I have ever had to apply for a visa before travelling there and I did have reservations about how safe it might be given Russia's political history and reports of racist murders in St Petersburg. Russia is probably no more dangerous than other places, but certainly the hassle of having to organise a visa has contributed to me putting the trip off. With work as busy as it was at the time, the whole visa thing was rather annoying and untimely.
Finding someone to go with was another reason for my belated trip to Russia and I was fortunate enough to have my friend Anna accompany me on this
State Historical Museum
Opposite St Basil's Cathedral on the other side of Red Square.
Russian adventure. Anna's first appearance on this blog was a cameo on my trip to Cardiff
last year - I met her through friends Kevin and Nikki who themselves have previously accompanied me to Milan
Waking up at 3.30am (I had only got a couple of hours sleep) to catch a 7am flight, no-one should ever be made to get up so early.
The early flight was one of the first ones easyJet have ever flown to Moscow, which was good timing in term so cheap fares, for us. Something else easyJet have started doing is allocated seating, which was a surprise to us. You can reserve your seat for a fee but not choosing to do this means you get assigned a random seat - sneaky.
My first impressions of Moscow as we were driven from Domodedovo Airport into the city was as I had expected the Moscow suburbs to be like - rough, worn, like a massive Belgrade or Tallinn.
Another thing that stood out immediately on our first afternoon in Russia was how badly dressed the locals were! I don't mean to demean Russians in general here, but just as an observation, the average Russian
Church Of Christ The Saviour
The largest Orthodox church in the world.
just seemed to have no fashion sense. The guys were like rough chavs, sleeveless and often shirtless - the girls don't help themselves with their stony facial expressions, even if some of those faces are quite cute.
Our first real Russian experience was perhaps the most famous and quintessential of Russian experiences - Swan Lake at the Bolshoi Theatre for a night of ballet.
Those of you who know me well are probably surprised that I'd agree to go see the ballet but this wasn't just any ballet performance, but the most famous ballet production performed by the the most famous ballet company in the most famous theatre in the world.
I surprised myself as well by a) not falling asleep despite the how tired I was from the early morning flight, and the fact that I have slept through the last two productions of Cirque Du Soleil that I have attended and b) actually enjoying the performance. The music was perhaps the most striking aspect of the performance, immaculately played by a live orchestra and adding a real sense of drama to the tremendous skill being shown on stage - how the ballerinas don't get dizzy after all
Inside the world famous theatre.
that spinning I will never know. The production however, is a story told by music and dance and leaves the viewer wondering what will happen. The music was famously recognisable - I had definitely heard most of the tunes played before.
Our seats though were awful - we had our own box on one of the upper balconies off the side of the stage but we were sat behind a row a people which meant that if we sat down, we actually couldn't see the stage at all. Even standing up, we could not see the entire stage without craning our necks a bit. That's what you get for buying the cheapest seats in the house though - even if they were £115 a pop.
The theatre itself however is beautiful and we felt a bit privileged to have our own balcony complete with a sitting couch out the back - it was like being a member of the elite back in the times of Tsarist Russia.
We totally guessed our way home on the metro after the show - we were really struggling with the Cyrillic alphabet. We couldn't really read anything - which way was out, what the
GUM Department Store
The old state department store now an elegant high-end shopping mall.
name of our metro station was - although we did work out a couple of words; ресторан (restaurant) and аптека (pharmacy).
The next day we were lead on a walking tour with our young and helpful guide Natalie, along with a lovely old English couple, Trevor (who was a ring-in for Hugh Hefner) and Suzanne.
All of Moscow's famous sights are all in the same vicinity - the famous Red Square. Unfortunately for us, Red Square itself was completely fenced off as they were organising a graduation concert in the middle of it, which is a bit a tradition and a bit of a big deal apparently. Our first port of call however was the wonderfully elegant GUM Department Store, formerly the state department store during Soviet times. It is now a high-end shopping mall with all of the top brands within its opulent surrounds.
We then came to the most iconic sight in Russia - St Basil's Cathedral. It's the building on all the postcards, and is to Russia what Big Ben is to Britain, the Eiffel Tower is to France, the Coliseum to Italy, and Christ The Redeemer to Brazil - and it's a lot smaller than
Inside St Basil's Cathedral
Impressive, but not as cool as the outside.
I thought it would be, much like another iconic sight, The Statue Of Liberty
While it didn't blow me away, it was still a cool feeling nonetheless to see it in the flesh. As a kid I actually thought that St Basil's was actually The Kremlin and that this was the actual Russian parliament building - how cool would that have been? We not only saw it, we got to go inside it where in one of the domes, there was a male choir making the most of the brilliant acoustics by belting out some great baritone harmonies. The tunes reminded me a lot of Beirut (the band). Would have bought a CD if they weren't selling for £25 a pop. While there are some great icons and artwork inside the cathedral, it doesn't really have anything on its colourful onion-domed exterior.
After walking along the walls of The Kremlin, we then went on a tour of Moscow's metro system.
Now you wouldn't specifically do a tour of London's Underground but then again, London's tube stations aren't opulent works of art, boasting chandeliers, mosaics, paintings and statues. Such extravagance was at the order of Stalin, who wanted to deliver something awesome for his
Kievskaya Metro Station
I managed to capture a group of Russian policemen in this one.
citizens in return for their service and loyalty to the state.
With seven million passengers riding the Metro every day, Moscow's metro is the third busiest in the world and you can really see it. Taking photos on the platforms probably pissed off a lot of locals and I've never seen so many people on escalators and in tunnels - but the platforms and carriages never get too crowded due to the frequency of the trains. I don't think we ever had to wait more than two minutes for a train and there were never any breakdowns or delays. While never crowded, the trains were never empty either - with seven million people using the metro every day, I think that if the trains weren't so frequent then they'd all be packed like tins of sardines.
And if you thought that commuters on the Tube were miserable, then I'd say that Moscow's metro commuters take misery to another level. Maybe it is just the default Russian facial expression, but I swear that everyone on the Metro was suicidal.
Our next stop was Arbat Street, a one kilometre long pedestrianised street that was formerly home to many craftsmen, merchants, nobility and
Long and famous pedestrianised street in Moscow.
artists, most notably, the celebrated poet Alexander Pushkin. It is now a street full of shops, cafes, and street artists, as well as dudes dressed up in Disney costumes who grab your friends and in doing so oblige you to take photos of them with your friends, before blocking your way unless you pay them money for the photo. F*ckers.
We stopped for lunch at a Russian pancake fast food joint where I had the extremely salty caviar pancakes. After lunch, Hugh- I mean Trevor - and Suzanne then took off back to the hotel while Natalie took us on to the Gorky Park, Moscow's version of Central Park. It is massive recreational space complete with cycling/roller-blading lanes, public table tennis tables, fountains, gardens and other amusements. There was so much happening in the park and on a nice summer's day, it had a great vibe to it.
Our guide Natalie was really helpful - she took us all the way back to the hotel before marking out great places to eat and drink on our maps of not only Moscow, but also St Petersburg. It's always great to get some local tips.
Armed with Natalie's tips, we set
Natalie showed us how to slide a coin up the arch, which if you slid it with enough force, would travel all the way along the arch to the other side.
out that evening to find some dinner. By the time we settled on a pub-like Russian restaurant, it was about 10pm, but still bright - the daylight hours here are pretty crazy.
There was a lot of soup on the menu and keeping in mind how cold it can get here, I suppose it is no surprise why. The beetroot based borscht
is very nice and the solyanka
with its cucumber, cabbage, mushrooms and most unusually, sour cream, was especially tasty.
The most interesting thing on the menu however, was the "bread & salt" shot, that came with a pickle. We just had to try it. What came out was a shot which was dark at the bottom, light at the top, and topped with a gherkin like some sort of Russian tequila. It didn't smell promising either, like some sort of strong schnapps, and Anna was scared.
So we shot it, and then ate the gherkin - and it wasn't that bad. It turned out the top layer was lemon juice and the bottom bit was some sort of gravy-vodka and all the flavours went together quite well, a sort of savoury-sweet fusion.
The potato pancakes we had were
Looking directly at the GUM Department Store with the State Historical Museum down the end. The square unfortunately was fenced off during our entire stay in Moscow.
a winner, while the casserole hotpot I had was OK. Almost all Russian dishes come with dill or at least to option to add dill.
Apart from eating dill, when in Russia...you do vodka shots. So naturally I ordered a couple as digestifs
. For the locals however, it seemed that vodka shots are taken before each course and there were some hammered patrons in the restaurant. It seemed that getting absolutely shitfaced is just a done thing over here.
Just down the road from where we had dinner, we decided to pop into Kamchatka, a bar that Natalie recommended for cheap beer. Cheap was the aim - Moscow has a reputation for being ridiculously expensive, and we didn't experience anything to suggest that this wasn't true. I would say prices were generally the same if not just a little bit more expensive than London.
The bar was cool, with a retro / wine cellar feel to it and the beer was definitely cheap. A drunk young local guy got talking to us and seemed friendly enough, just a little bit annoying as drunkards usually are. There were also a couple of Kiwi guys in there - we're everywhere! We
Watching the world's most famous ballet being performed by the world's most famous troupe.
then got talking to an Asian-looking girl and her Asian-looking friend who were in fact locals. The girl had actually lived and worked in London for a while and could speak pretty good English. One thing I have noticed in Moscow is the number of Asian-looking people in the city. I am guessing a lot of them have come to Moscow from the east of the country and places like Kazakhstan and other former Soviet republics in Asia. It is a different kind of Asian look though - much like an Eskimo or a Mongolian might typically look like rather than a more Oriental look. A lot of them work in the service industry as well, as waiters and bar staff.
So Anna and I were talking to the girls at a table when suddenly we hear raised voices behind us and we see two guys in some drunken confrontation. Voices were raised further and then suddenly it all kicked off. The two dudes fell on our table as they went at each other, spilling my beer all over me. The drunk guy we were talking to earlier was fighting some other dude in the corner. A girl was desperately
Taken from St Basil's Cathedral. These walls run along Red Square.
trying to drag a dude off another dude before beefy security arrived on the scene to try and diffuse the situation. I kept my back right against the wall as the carnage erupted all around me - the place was beginning to resemble one of those free-for-all bar brawls you see in the movies. I got the hell out of there before it got to that stage, although I had problems getting out due to one really angry guy trying to get past security back into the bar to get at 'em. Seeing that Anna had also made it outside, I went to join her before the angry guy suddenly started hurling the outdoor furniture everywhere in pique of rage - one of the metal chairs he threw almost hit us. We thought we'd better call it a night...
After some drunken limbo outside St Basil's Cathedral, what we thought would be a thirty minute walk following the canal back to our hotel turned out to be twice as long, but all's well that ends well and we finally made it back, even if we were absolutely knackered and in my case, reeking of beer.
Russian men get a bad
Taken from the footbridge near the Cathedral of Christ The Saviour.
rap for being dodgy-looking, aggressive, vodka-swilling alcoholics and unfortunately on our one night out in Moscow, the men we encountered only reinforced the stereotype.
The next day, we embarked on self-guided tour of The Kremlin. Buying tickets was a bit of a faff as different parts of the Kremlin were only open at certain times and tickets for these parts were only on sale at certain times. We managed to get tickets for The Armoury however, a multi-storey museum inside The Kremlin that houses all of the treasure accumulated over the years by the Russian State and Church.
The Kremlin is the official residence of the President Of Russia - in other words, The White House/Downing Street of Russia - Putin's House. The complex itself was an old fortress that as well as serving as the president's/Tsar's official residence over the years, has also served as the headquarters of the Russian Church, which explains the four cathedrals that sit within the Kremlin walls, along with the five palaces. The guards inside The Kremlin were quite pedantic and you'd get whistled at if you walked into any area that they didn't want you to go into - perhaps understandable given
Square of cathedral's inside the Kremlin. The Cathedral Of The Dormition is in the foreground with the Cathedral Of The Annunciation in the background.
this is Putin's crib but it all played into the Russian political stereotypes of seriousness and absolute control.
The cathedrals are impressive both in design and scale and I was surprised to find them in there. We went inside a few of them while we waited for The Armoury to open. Once inside The Armoury I was suitably impressed by the collection in there that includes all manner of articles from medieval weaponry, royal regalia, Fabergé eggs, and sleighs that were pulled by dwarves. Perhaps the most impressive items I saw in there apart from the jewellery were the old, ornate horse drawn carts that used to ferry around the Russian royalty back in the day.
Speaking of jewellery, we also visited the Diamond Fund with all of its sparkling diamonds and gigantic nuggets of gold. With suited guards, red carpet, black marble display cabinets and the only lighting coming inside coming from the spotlights that illuminated the jewels, it felt like you were in an invite-only jewellery shop for the mega-rich.
On our way out of The Armoury, we bumped into Trevor and Suzanne again - and not for the last time on this trip.
As tourists visiting all
Ceremonial cannons inside The Kremlin.
of the same sites, it was perhaps no surprise that we bumped into Trevor and Suzanne but in general, Moscow's city centre isn't actually that big - certainly you wouldn't think that this is a place home to 16.8m people. It means that Moscow's urban sprawl must be enormous.
After The Kremlin we had a lazy evening, eating at the same place where we ate the night before and enjoying the amenities of our hotel. I have to say that I was mega-impressed by the Katerina Hotel that we were put up in. It is far from the fanciest hotel, but it is clean and functional and has everything you need from a breakfast buffet with everything that you could want, free Wi-Fi all over the building, a free mini bar
, and a spa and sauna. They even let us have a shower there before we caught our overnight train to St Petersburg the next night.
Go Russia, the company that organised our hotels and transfers also deserve a mention - they were generally very organised and very quick to meet our requests., no matter how late we made them!
It was raining on our last day Moscow and
The Church Of The Dormition is in the foreground with the Church Of The Deposition Of The Robe in the background.
the temperature had not been the warmest for a couple of days now. On our way back to The Kremlin, there were massive detours around the Alexander Garden due to some sort of important ceremonial event. The only plus side to it was seeing all of the armed guards don grey cape/poncho things that with their army hats made them all look like M. Bison
The reason we had come back to The Kremlin was to go up the Ivan The Great Bell Tower for some awesome views across Moscow. It was a bitter disappointment as were only allowed barely halfway up it. When we were asked to leave the tower, there was a great sense of "is that it?" Bullsh*t.
Our disappointment was soon laid to rest once we arrived at Bunker 42 - an old, secret, Soviet nuclear bunker underneath a suburb of Moscow that is now open to tourists. The entrance to the bunker is off the side of non-descript building and if it wasn't for the big red Soviet star on the front of it as well as the candy-striped traffic barrier arm, you wouldn't have known that there was anything here. The uniformed guards behind the
Command control centre in the old Soviet nuclear bunker. You used to be able to fire nuclear missiles from here.
metal gate seemed to be playing along as well, not revealing anything at all about whether we were in the right place. With a group of tourists waiting outside, we were sure we were in the right place but even when we were let in no-one seemed to know what was going on. Our uniformed guide then introduced himself and began the tour.
Our guide's English wasn't great but he gave it a good crack and we could understand most of what he was saying through his comparethemeerkat.com accent. Descending 65m underground, we walked through red-painted tunnels of reinforced concrete (Anna thought our guide said "rainforest concrete") before watching a short film about the history of the Cold War which necessitated the building of the bunker. As well as being a place to protect VIPs in the event of a nuclear attack on Moscow, the bunker was also a secret command post. In the old command room, one of our group got to simulate the firing of a nuclear missile. While missing out on firing a missile, I did get to pose with a Kalashnikov later on in the tour. We also got to experience what it would have been
Bunker 42 Party Hall
The most awesome of retro / Bond villain lair party halls, inside Bunker 42.
like when the raid siren went off, as the lights went out and the red lights started flashing as instructions are bellowed over the tannoy in Russian. Hehe, cool. Our guide was very informative as he showed us a model of the bunker, the old switchboards and the secret tunnel that linked the bunker to the nearest metro station, where workers would arrive at night on board special metro trains. The most impressive part of the bunker was the караоке bar and restaurant down there. The place can be hired out for private parties and the I have to say that the party spaces down there are quite possibly the coolest 60s/70s retro party spaces I have ever seen - it was like a Bond villain lair down there. I would absolutely love to host a party down here. If I win the lottery, I am totally renting this place out.
The караоке bar was far from the only one we had seen in Moscow - who would've thought the Russians enjoyed their singing so much?
We finished our stay in the Russian capital by doing a bit of walking tour around the Moskva River. We took in the
Detail On The Church Of Christ The Saviour
Because I couldn't go inside, I was left to photograph what I could of the church's exterior.
Cathedral of Christ The Saviour (which only Anna was allowed inside because I had shorts on) which is the biggest Orthodox church in the world, before crossing the footbridge over to the Peter The Great Monument before checking out Balchug, a small island on the Moskva River that is now full of regenerated and gentrified docks and warehouses that are now home to funky bars, clubs and galleries. It was a bit of a shame we hadn't come down here in the evening to check out the nightlife which looked like it would've been lively down here.
Instead, we went back up north past the old KGB building to another restaurant recommended by Natalie called Cafe Filial, which specialised in mainly French fare. The food was delicious and the place was young and hip - well worth the journey.
We took one last walk through Red Square and St Basil's Cathedral as the sun set on Moscow and our visit there.
A visit to Moscow is a must because it is simply Moscow - one of the world's most significant cities with some of the world's most iconic landmarks. While serious and stately on the top, there is a vibrant
Inside Ploshchad Revolyutsii station, the dog's nose is worn because it is considered good luck to rub it.
world of delights below - even if the people underground in this world are a little po-faced.
Next up - St Petersburg.
до свидания (do svidaniya)!
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