I had been in Russia for a few days now on a Top Deck ‘Red Star’ tour and was getting used to the language, over-presence of authority, tasteless hotel breakfasts and the imposing communist statues that dot the cities. I no longer felt intimidated by any dodgy looking local walking in my direction and I had even mastered public transport (which when written only in Cyrillic can be a nightmare!)
Our tour group had previously visited St Petersburg and a quaint country town called Novgorod in the previous days. Many a vodka had been sampled (note: it’s usually cheaper just to buy the whole bottle in a bar) and the usual bonds that come with a tour group were starting to be formed.
Moscow seems like a giant city of organised chaos. The mega-metropolis sprawls out for kilometres and is home to over 15 million people. The extremes of wealth and poverty can be seen in a single glance with the city being home to the most billionaires in the world, yet most of the population live a very simple life.
My main reason for coming to Russia was to visit Moscow and in particular, see the magnificent St Basil’s Cathedral. This glorious place of worship overlooking Red Square seems more like a fantasy castle with its bright colours and multitude of patterned, onion-domed spires than a heavenly monument to the Russian Orthodox Church. Lit up at night it looks even more spectacular, and if it’s snowing, it’s like being inside your very own snow dome.
Red Square is a vast expanse of cobblestone prominently featured in many old war photos with Russia’s red army parading across it. Nowadays it is Moscow’s most popular tourist attraction having the Cathedral, Kremlin, Lenin’s Tomb and the indulgent G.U.M. department store lining each side.
Vladimir Lenin, of Communist leader fame, lies in state in a purpose-built mausoleum and for a few hours on most days you can join hundreds of others to view his waxy faced body. Just don’t think you’ll get a photo of you and your mates with Lenin a‘la Weekend at Bernie’s style as cameras are strictly prohibited. Laughing here may also cause international tensions.
The Kremlin, with its imposing walls, lies directly behind Lenin’s tomb and stretches a fair way back.
Housing the Russian Parliament and various other government bodies the vast compound also contains more gilded onion-domed churches. We participated in a tour led by a former KGB member who was surprisingly very friendly. In the Cathedral of the Assumption, we were treated to an impromptu performance by chanting monks. The acoustics in the church were unbelievable and their voices literally divine. At the end of their piece, our group were in awe and our KGB guide must have read our minds (some KGB mind trick perhaps?) as he mentioned we were allowed to clap. The surprises continued as the monks then went to a table… to sell CD’s. I bought one which was then autographed. Entrepreneurial monks, who would have thought?!
The end of our Kremlin tour took us through the Armoury museum. I knew there were more original Fabergé eggs here and was consequently very excited! I was actually quite impressed with the entire museum. There were plenty of things to look at from antique Russian bling, old collections of royal horse carriages, dresses from very, very tiny Russian princesses and of course many pieces of armour and weaponry.
Another local guide later gave us a tour of the Moscow Metro. During the Communist era, the government decorated many of the train stations in extravagant décor. Crystal chandeliers, gilded mosaics and many statues of the idealised communist citizen have now turned these stations almost into museums.
A group of us took a train out into the suburbs to go to the Artillery museum. Inside there were the usual photos and museum pieces but it was out back where a graveyard of Cold War machines lay where you really hit the jackpot. There were helicopters, planes, missile launchers, tanks, submarines and other pieces of death contraptions. It was all very impressive and perfect for creative photo opportunities. It was hard to contain my excitement as I ran around and yelled ‘Kaboom!’ at anyone I knew.
There were many things to do and see in Moscow. Visits to the ballet and circus were also made and the obligatory market visit for all our cliché souvenir needs was conveniently close to our hotel. Don’t believe the rumours that the fluffy Russian hats are made out of rat fur, although if it is, my silky, fluffy rat must have used Pantene.
Visiting Moscow, or Russia for that matter, is well worth the visa application hassles and will always be that extra bit memorable for its daily challenges and unique culture. Every man and his dog have been to Paris and Rome, so why not try something a little different?