From Cold War parade ground to shopper's Paradise, Russia's capital is fast becoming a must see destination
Growing up during the Cold War my earliest impression of Russia was from the May Day parades through Moscow’s Red Square. Line after line of goose stepping infantrymen, tanks and rocket launchers filled the television screen as the grim faced politburo took the salute. To fit all those people and stuff, Moscow’s Red Square must be massive I thought.
As an adult, passing through the Voskresensky Gate into Red Square, the reality did nothing to dispel my childhood notion, it's mind bogglingly huge. Over 300 metres away, on the far side, were the onion domes of St Basil’s Cathedral. On our right the towering walls of the Kremlin and to the left, GUM, Moscow’s huge luxury shopping mall.
More properly known as the Cathedral of the Intercession of Theotokos on the Moat, St Basil’s (Admission 180 Roubles) was built in the fourteenth century. Inside nine small churches radiate from the Church of the Intercession. Each marks a victory in the Russo-Kazan war, except for the tenth, where beneath the smallest dome Vasily (Basil) the holy fool is buried.
Directly before the Cathedral is the monument of Kuzma Minin and Dimitry Pozharsky, the liberators of Moscow from the Poles in 1612. This used to sit in Red Square’s centre, but Stalin moved the statue in 1936 to facilitate the military parades that he viewed from Lenin’s Mausoleum in front of the Kremlin.
The Kremlin site has been inhabited since 200BC. The present fortification dates back to 1495 after Grand Prince Ivan III commissioned the Italian architect Patrus Antonius Solarius to design the walls. Within are four cathedrals, a vast Soviet era concert hall and four palaces, including the Russian President’s official residence.
Our Kremlin highlight, was the Armoury museum, (Admission 700 Roubles) where we saw the costumes, coaches, weapons and some exquisite Faberge eggs belonging to Russia’s Tsars. Also not to be missed were the Ivan the Great Bell Tower (500 Roubles admission also covers entry to Cathedral Square) - the tallest building in pre-revolutionary Moscow, and the gigantic Tsar Bell and Cannon at its foot.
On the opposite side of Red Square stands GUM. Built in the 1890s, the GUM department store is today a huge mall with three floors of shops selling luxury products. The food hall on the ground floor has everything from caviar and Champagne to Scottish shortbread. Oddly enough a good place to grab a cheap lunch is the top floor fast food court (pizza slice is around 200 Roubles).
No trip to Moscow is complete without a visit to the Metro. One of the most spectacular stations is Ploshchad Revolyutsii (Place of the Revolution) which is about five minutes walk away from GUM. Despite the shabby exterior the cavernous ticket hall was a magnificent confection of sparkling marble and a ticket from the Babushka (as Russian old ladies are known) behind the counter to the subterranean palace of delights was a bargain 26 Roubles.
Now this was Joesph Stalin’s favourite Metro station and it is easy to see the appeal. Bronze statues of Moscow’s revolutionary defenders stand guard in the arches that lead from the escalators to the platforms. Students make sure you rub the sculpted guard dog’s nose, it’s supposed to bring luck in exams.
However in the middle of a Moscow summer it’s much too hot to ride the Metro and a trip on the Moscow River was just the thing to cool off. Through a mixture of sign language and enthusiastic head nodding we managed to persuade the Babushka at Nabereznaya Pier to sell us round trip tickets on the Moscow Riverbus (800 Roubles). I have to say this was a very pleasant way to spend a lazy afternoon, taking in sites like the Peter the Great Monument and the funfair in Gorky Park while drinking chilled beer.
Eating and Drinking
Sushi is incredibly fashionable in Moscow at the moment as we discovered at Drova (Ulitsa Nikolskaya 5, tel: 495 698 2484, www.drova.ru ), where one half of the restaurant is a sushi bar while the other offers more traditional Russian fare. For our evening meal we went Russian with a starter of quite delicious borscht followed by fried chicken. Expect to pay about 700 Roubles. Drova is also good for a self service business lunch at a bargain 420 Roubles.
So having spent most of my cash I was delighted to find beer at 80 Roubles a pint at Kruschka (Ulitsa Nikolskaya 15, tel: 495 710 7199), This cellar bar is understandably popular with students and if you don’t mind the non stop metal, indie and hip hop sounds it also has a good value snack menu.
Our trip was arranged through Voyages Jules Verne (www.vjv.com), arriving from St Petersburg by the Sapsan high speed train (www.russiantrain.com). Within easy walking distance of Red Square the Park Inn Sadu Moscow offered a very comfortable standard of accommodation with air conditioning, essential at the height of the Russian Summer (12000 Roubles a night including breakfast). Return flight was with British Airways (www.britishairways.com).