I had the incredible opportunity to tour some major points of interest in Moscow during my second weekend here. A very nice young lady who has been here before, Ms. Montana (who also speaks Russian) took another girl, Ms. Wisconsin, and I on a guided tour of the city.
We met up at the Novoslobodskaya Metro Station on the circle line and proceeded to head to the southern end of the city, where statues of Soviet soldiers and peasant partisans adorned the platform in honour of the heroes of the Great Patriotic War.
We left the station and emerged outside the gates to some park I can't pronounce, a large and sprawling piece of Moscow’s history.
This park used to be the Czars' Moscow dacha (country home) until the 1917 Revolution (when the last of the Romanov dynasty were executed by the Bolsheviks). This park had wide cobbled avenues running along perfectly manicured lawns with evenly spaced maples, willows and birch trees. There were also a couple of Orthodox cathedrals, a monastery and the remains of the palace gates. It was very Louis XIV.
Russian couples strolled leisurely around and a couple of beautiful blushing brides in full wedding gowns went waltzing past with photographers in tow.
We made our way to the banks of the Moscow River and had a seat on a bench, where we produced a picnic lunch of cheesy bread, cheese, sliced ham and turkey, some apples and a small box of wine. As the three of us ate our lunch along the banks of the river in this beautiful and serene park, two female police officers on gigantic cavalry horses came clip-clopping down the path. Ms. Wisconsin said “Oh, they want us to take their picture!” and pulled out her gigantic-lens camera and snapped a shot. Well, these were real militsia and not a tourist attraction. They stopped their horses and clip-clopped over to us where one of them pointed at our box of wine and snarled “No Alcohol!” Sorry, we said, and shoved the box into Ms. Montana’s purse. They gave us a hard look for a moment and then clip-clopped away, the horses snorting.
After our picnic (we finished off the wine by drinking it out of a bag) we took the metro to Ploschad Revolyutsii (Revolutionary Square) and emerged in front of some of the most famous architecture in the world! First, directly in front of us, was the Bolshoi Theatre where ballets, operas and symphony orchestras from around the world put on performances. I won’t get into the Bolshoi yet because I didn’t actually go inside, and I plan on seeing a ballet there within the next couple of months.
To our left was a towering red-brick wall, behind which spires and buildings of ancient architecture poked out of. This was the Kremlin Wall! I knew I was in Moscow when I spotted a gigantic bronze statue of a man in a Soviet uniform atop a horse, one hoof crushing the head of the fascist beast. I instantly knew that this was Marshall Zhukov, Stalin’s top general who led the defence of Leningrad, pushed the Germans back from the gates of Moscow, wiped out the Nazi 6th Army at Stalingrad, won the Battle of Kursk, liberated the Motherland, and drove the avenging Soviet armies into Germany to capture Berlin and end the Second World War. Kind of like an Eisenhower, Elvis and Julius Caesar all rolled into one for the Russian people.
Next to the statue of Zhukov was an impersonator of Joseph Stalin. You can have your picture taken with him for a few roubles, but I decided not to waste my money. Ms. Montana said “That is so wrong. It’s like having a Hitler impersonator in Berlin”. Still, an interesting curiosity. I would probably take a picture of a Hitler impersonator, too!
We walked through a gigantic red gate and laid out before us was Red Square itself, with the famous onion-domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral at the far end and the enormous red walls of the Kremlin to our right. To our left was an old pre-revolutionary palace of Baroque French design (think Catherine the Great). This was the famous GUM (pronounced goom) shopping mall.
We walked onto Red Square, which was packed with people of all nationalities. A Japanese couple asked me to take their picture in front of St. Basil’s. We snapped a lot of photos ourselves. To our right was Lenin’s Mausoleum (but it was closed...I am determined to see the preserved Lenin) and beyond that, jutting out from a clock tower on the south-western corner of the Kremlin wall, was the famous podium where Soviet leaders stood as tanks and missiles rolled along Red Square in the old footage. Stalin gave his speeches from there, and it was there that Gorbechov announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
While the girls talked about stuff and people waltzed by me from every direction, I stood for a moment and blocked everything out. Being a total history geek, I needed to absorb the fact that I was standing in the centre of one of the most famous places in world history: Red Square! My feet were actually touching the same cobblestones that Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great, Napoleon, Lenin, Stalin, and many other great figures of history stood on! Trust me, for a history nerd this was one of the single greatest moments of my life, and I totally geeked it out for a moment or two.
Then I turned my attention to GUM. “Let’s go in!” I said, to which Ms. Montana and Ms. Wisconsin happily agreed.
GUM is the world’s third most expensive shopping mall after Macy’s and Harod’s, and it caters to the elitny. More specifically, it caters to women, as the moment we walked in the ornate doors we were greeted with perfumed air, sophisticated flower and plant arrangements, and over a hundred top-of-the-line designer shoe, purse and cosmetic stores. I had never seen a mall store with chandeliers until I walked into GUM!
We found a cozy little cafe at one end of the mall and ordered specialty coffees and an apple and chocolate pastry for 600 roubles (about $20). The waitress spoke English, as they would in such a high-end cafe in a heavily-touristy location, and we enjoyed ourselves immensely, or at least, I did. I can’t speak on behalf of the girls.
After an hour or so we left GUM, snapped some photos of Red Square at night (beautiful...the buildings are lit up in soft-glowing spotlights and the multicoloured domes of St. Basil’s makes every ray of light appear to be a different colour), and got back on the metro.
We then went to Ms. Montana’s flat and got drunk on vodka.
The next day we went to the Arbat or, more specifically, the Old Arbat (after having lunch at a TGI Friday’s).
The Old Arbat is one of the most famous streets in Moscow. It is a pedestrian street of old cobblestones and 18th Century architecture. It is and has always been the place where the Russian intelligentsia hang out. Artists, writers, poets, musicians and philosophers used to live and work along the Arbat. In post-Soviet times it has become a mecca for the same sort of people.
Pushkin used to live here, and Tolstoy, when he needed to come to Moscow (he hated Moscow) would stay on the Arbat. It is like New York’s Soho or London’s Carnaby streets. It was also on the Arbat that Stalin’s NKVD goons attempted to assassinate Trotsky but he saw them coming in time and, in broad daylight (Stalin wanted the death of his biggest competitor for top-spot to appear accidental) led the secret agents on a mad chase down the cobblestones, knocking over street vendors and buskers as they went, where he managed to elude them and escape to Mexico.
The Arbat was filled with street artists, statues of Dostoevsky and Pushkin, cafes and beer gardens as well as street performers and a very intellectual-looking crowd. It reminded me of Paris or Milan, but with a very distinct Russian feel to it.
We walked to the end of the Arbat and I found the first of the Seven Sisters.
The Seven Sisters are seven enormous skyscrapers built in the 1930’s by Stalin to show the world the progress Russia was making under the Communists. They are in a New York King-Kong sort of style, and there are seven of them in a circle around Moscow. Once they used to dominate the skyline but now they are buried behind even taller glass and steel skyscrapers. I am determined to hunt down all seven of them, and at the end of the Arbat was the first. I only have six more to go.
That was my weekend as a turist, and it was one of the most memorable weekends I have ever had. So far, after only a week and a half, I love Russia! Of course, any Russian will tell you that “Moscow isn’t Russia”. Okay then, I love Moscow!