Most recent John Allan Travel Blog

In the biggest city – Moscow
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Thu 23 May ’13 – day 12  After a good night’s sleep I finished unpacking, before heading downstairs for a continental style breakfast, so I had a couple of rolls, orange juice and coffee – just enough to keep me going.

I headed for Capital Tours which is listed in the Lonely Planet guide, there are no Kremlin Tours on offer but I booked three other trips which I will take over the next few days.

 

 

 

 

Then off down the street to GUM, the No 1 Store in Communist times; with its ornate entrance and lavish interior, it is now just like any other very upmarket establishment the world over and catering for those people who have the money.  GUM occupies a site along the length of Red Square, opposite the Kremlin; St Basils Cathedral is at the far end of the square.  Leaving the store I turned right and walk passed the Kazan Cathedral and through the Voskresensky Gates; on the Manezhnaya Pl (Square) side of the gates is the Iveron Chapel.

 

 

 

 

Despite being restored between 1925 and 1933, the Cathedral along with the Gates and Chapel were demolished in 1936 on Stalin’s orders to make room for heavy military vehicles driving through Red Square during military parades.  Fortunately blueprints of the building survived and in 1989 the project to rebuild the Cathedral started. This was the first church to be rebuilt in post-communist Moscow.  On 4 Nov 1990, Patriarch Aleksei II laid the first stone of the new building and three years later the Cathedral was back in all its former glory.

According to a popular custom, everyone heading for Red Square or the Kremlin visited the Iveron Chapel to pay homage at the shrine, before entering through the gate.  Beggars and outlaws would pray there next to the highest royalty and even the Tsar himself.  The Chapel along with the Gates were completely rebuilt between 1994 and 1996.

Next to the Voskresensky Gates is the State History Museum and it is here that you get tickets for Lenin’s Tomb; there were crowds of people queuing to get into – I didn’t bother.

 

In front of the State History Museum is the equestrian statue statute of Marshal Zhukov the most decorated General in the history of the Soviet Union and Russia and unveiled in 1995 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Moscow Victory Parade, when the Soviet commander had spectacularly ridden a white stallion through Red Square.

Having walked around Manezhanaya Pl, I returned to GUM where I had lunch at one of the many food outlets on the upper floor; there are a wide variety of foods from all over the world on offer.  It was plentiful and relatively cheap given that Moscow is now one of the most expensive cities in the world to visit; eating the main meal of the day at lunchtime is also cheaper than dining in the evening.  The toilets on the top floor are also free to use unlike those lower down which charge an exorbitant rate; they are however decorated in a Tsarist style if that is your thing.

After lunch I headed back to the tour company as this was the starting point for all the walking tours.  The first one I did was entitled ’Lubyanka and the Gulag’; our guide was very good and led the small group around the streets.

The style of the buildings was many and varied just as in any other city, but the traffic chaos has seemed to reach new levels here.

 
Occupying the whole length of the street on the other side of Staraya Pl from my hotel was the building that had been the headquarters of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and is now the headquarters of Presidential Administration of Russia.

 

At the top of Staraya Pl is the Plevna Chapel, a public subscription monument to the Russian Grenadiers who died during the Siege of Plevna, a battle in Bulgaria in 1877 between Russian forces and those of the Ottoman Empire.

The group then strolled up Novaya Pl passed the huge Polytechnical Museum which covers the history of Russian science, technology and industry, but unfortunately the exhibits only have descriptions in Russia.  On the other side on the road was one of the many churches in the city that have been refurbished and brought back into use in the last few years.

We then reached Lubyanka Square where the Solovetsky Stone is located across from the road from the building that was the KGB headquarters, but today houses the FSB.  The monument consists of a large stone brought from the Solovetsky Islands, the location of Solovki prison camp, part of the Soviet Gulag system.

Nearby is another memoria, this one to those residents of Moscow who were shot during what was known as the “Years of Terror”.

It is strange to think that the Lubyanka, the popular name for the headquarters of the KGB, was the originally the headquarters of the All-Russia Insurance Company before 1917.  Following the Bolshevik Revolution, the structure was seized by the government for the headquarters of the secret police, then called the Cheka.

A little way north of Lubyanka Square along ul Petrovka is the Gulag History Museum, one of the newest museums in the city.  An elderly Russian lady gave the group a guided tour and our guide acted as the interpreter.  A map showed the number of prison camps which numbered in the thousands and contrary to popular belief they were not all in Siberia, but scattered across the length and breadth of what was the USSR.  Lots of people were imprisoned for no other reason that paranoia, or executed so that they could not stop Stalin (predominately) from gaining supreme power in the country.  The exhibits were quite disturbing in some cases, but all were thought provoking.

After the tour finished I went across the road to the Marriott and used an automatic exchange machine to change Euros into roubles, I also got a cash advance against my debit card.  The Marriott was a typical western hotel with prices to match.

The weather had been overcast all day but not cold, however just as the tour finished the skies opened and down came the rain.  So brolly up and a fast walk back to the hotel dodging the puddles meant that I didn’t get drenched.

Having bought lots of postcards I sorted through them and consigned nearly half of them to the bin.  You could only buy cards as a collection and some have nowhere a message can be written and others are pictures that didn’t mean a lot.  So I spent the evening writing cards to all and sundry making sure that the first line of the address said Great Britain in Cyrillic script; if you don’t do this then the chances are that the postcards will not leave the country.

The rain was now lashing down and as my room is up in the attic space it was quite noisy; the television had no English language channels, so once I have completed all the cards I turn in.

 Fri 24 May ’13 – day 13   When I woke, I just turned over and went back to sleep eventually getting up at 08:20 hours and I didn’t bother with breakfast as I was not feeling hungry.

Outside the hotel barriers have been set up as the Russian Orthodox Church have gathered by the statue of Saints Methodius and Cyril which was erected on this day in 1992.  The statue is in honour of the missionaries who are credited with inventing the Cyrillic alphabet about 863 by adapting Greek letters; this then allowed the translation of the Bible from ancient Greek into Russian.  On the pedestal there are figures of the two brothers close to the Cross and with the Bible in their hands; at the foot is an ever-burning icon-lamp.  All the priests are in very colourful robes with lots of icons being held aloft and the ceremony is led by the Patriarch.

I asked the hotel receptionist to write ’30 stamps for England’ in Cyrillic script on a piece of paper and then set off for the post office.  The main entrance was closed but after a couple of abortive attempts I found the correct door and then eventually got to the counter that sold the stamps I wanted.  With a little bit of help from a young lady customer and a few hand signals I get what I wanted and am them shown where to post them.

It is time to try and find internet access so that I can send people an update, but I send ages trying to find the one listed in the Lonely Planet guide as being in the Okhotry Ryad, an underground shopping mall near the Alexandrovsky Gardens, but have no luck.

 

 

 

 

As it is now very humid I sit down as I am feeling hot and sticky and consider going on a bus tour, but as there will quite a wait I wandered over to ‘The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and watched the Changing of the Guard which happens every hour on the hour.  This is performed by the Presidential Guard who march using a very high leg swinging goose step combined with exaggerated arm movements, while keeping the rifle balanced in the palm of their hand.

There was also a platoon of the Presidential Guard in working dress practising marching, but using dummy rifles made of wood.  They were definitely not as good as the Queens Colours Squadron or the Brigade of Guards.

It is lunchtime so back to GUM, but I have to make a detour as Red Square was under lock down with long queues to get through the security checks.

Now it’s time to use the Metro and head out of town to the Real Russia office to collect my remaining railway tickets.  As all the automatic ticket machines have an English language button it was easy to buy a ticket and it was just five stops up the line, then follow the directions that I printed off the website before I left home, it was easy to find.

There were four ladies working in a single office all of whom spoke reasonable English and as I was expected they had the rail tickets ready for me to collect.  However there were some other bits & pieces missing so they immediately phoned Yuriy in the Volgograd office who e-mailed the necessary ‘stuff’ through.  I had a chat with him and had to pay extra for the hotel in Ulan-Ude as it was the only one available – used the debit card.

While in the office the ladies let me use one of the computers to gain access to the internet and I found that the parcels I sent home from Warsaw have arrived safely.

The ladies were intrigued about my plans so I had to explain what I am doing and why; I suspect that this will be the first of many discussions about my journey and that I will have to tell people:  who I am, where I am from, where I am going, who I am with (no one) and why I doing the trip.

One of the ladies wants to have her photo taken with me so I oblige.

I took the Metro back to the hotel and saw that all the barriers have been removed and that the street was being washed.

More postcards needed to be written so I sat at the desk until 22:00 hours and then went to bed, but as I tried to drop off to sleep a firework display started however it didn’t last too long and once it was finished I quickly dropped off.

Sat 25 May ’13 – day 14   I awake to find the sun is streaming through the skylight, so it is likely that it will be yet another very hot day.

I set off for the Kremlin where I buy an entrance ticket that includes the Armoury; as you as not allowed to take bags into the Kremlin grounds, I drop my day sack off at the left luggage office and then walked to the Borovitsky Gate where I joined the queue and it took ½ hour to gain admittance.

Once inside I headed for the Armoury where I got the audio tour handset that provided me with a commentary as I made my way around the exhibits.  This was an impressive museum which plenty of artefacts that can be found nowhere else.

Having left the Armoury I turned left and head up the embankment past the Great Kremlin Palace which was where Stalin lived; there is no admittance to the interior, however the photos in the guidebook show what a magnificent place it is.  This building is where the Russian President greets foreign Heads of State.

 

Further along there is a good view down to the Moskva River and on the other side is the British Embassy.  It is said that Stalin hated this view because the first thing that he saw every day was the Union Flag fluttering from the flagpole situated in the embassy grounds; it is rumoured that pressure was brought to try and get the British government to move the embassy to another site, but they have always resisted and it remains at the same location to this day.

The Annunciation and Archangel Cathedrals  have glittering gold onion shaped domes as is normal on Russian Orthodox places of worship.

In front of the Assumption Cathedral is Sobornaya Pl where the Presidential Guard performs a display every Saturday at 12:00 hours, so I find a good vantage point and watch the ceremony.  It was not bad, but the Household Division are much better and even the band looked full of old men.

 

 

 

On the east side of Sobornaya Pl is the Ivan the Great Bell Tower, which is the tallest structure within the Kremlin.  It is said to mark Moscow’s precise geographic centre, while the geometric centre is the Saint Basil’s Cathedral.

With the sun beating down it was very hot so a bought a bottle of water and found a spot in the shade where I sat for a little while to relax and take the weight off my feet.

I tried to take some photos but this proved to be very difficult and locals and tourists appeared in the frame just as I was about to take the shot.  However with a bit of perseverant I managed to get some photos of the various attractions.

 

 

 

 

The offices of the Russian President are in the Senate Palace of Congress

 The ramp up to the Trinity Gate Tower once bridged the Neglinnaya River which was part of the Kremlin’s defences until the early 19th century when it was diverted in to tunnels.  A small amount of the flow runs along the edge of the Alexandrovsky Gardens where it has turned into a series of attractive water features.

 

 

 

 

I had lunch in GUM (again) and then strolled back to the hotel where I had a snooze as I was hot, sticky and tired after my morning’s wanderings.

The evening was taken up by the ‘Moscow by Night’ tour where I was joined by Miller, an American from Wisconsin – he was too brash for my liking.  Our guide was an elderly lady named Natalia who certainly knew her stuff, but I am now getting overdosed on architecture and I’m definitely not interested in art galleries.  Having met at Capital Tours we set through Red Square and passed Spasskaya Tower which used to be the main entrance into the Kremlin and through which the Soviets hierarchy would come on May Day when they would watch the parade from the top of Lenin’s Tomb.

Nearby and situated in front of St Basils Cathedral was the Lobnoye mesto, also known as the Place of Skulls, is a 13-meter-long stone platform.  Its primary use was for announcing the Tsar’s decrees and for religious ceremonies.  Despite a common misconception, the circular platform itself was never a place for executions.  Sometimes scaffolds were placed by it, but usually public executions were carried out at Vasilevsky Spusk behind the Cathedral.

 We walked along Bolshoy Movskvoretsky Most which took us over the Moskva River from where we had good views across to the Kremlin and behind us to Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral.

In the Zamoskovorechie district south of the river were a number of attractive buildings amongst the standardized concrete jungle.  There were also a number of sculptures that would not have been allowed a place in Soviet times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The tour ended back near Red Square and as I walked back to my hotel there was a Black Tie function underway in the exhibition hall so that side of the street was fenced off so that the ‘beautiful people’ would not have to come into contact with the ‘plebs’ who were kept well away.  Definitely a case of the haves and have-nots!!

Back in my room I drunk lots of fluids as I had started to dehydrate in the heat, then carried on writing postcards before turning in.

This is the end of the second week of my trip.

 

Sun 26 May ’13 – day 15   I had a disturbed night’s sleep as the noise from the club in the basement, although not loud, went on until 05:00 hours and what with the sound of the heavy rain hitting the roof, it was a series of short naps rather than a long sleep.

It was still pouring with rain when I got up and I am feeling slightly worse for wear with a sore throat and pounding head.

Felt a bit better after a hot shower, but having missed breakfast I put my umbrella up and headed off to the nearest coffee shop.  I was the first customer of the day and had a cappuccino and a slice of apple strudel which made me feel a little better.

My guide for the ‘Moscow Metro’ tour was called Darlin and she turned up wearing multi-coloured wellies; just what is needed as the pavements are rutted and covered in puddles.  The stations on the tour were quite ornate and the majority are deep underground as they built to act as bomb shelters during WW2.

Having got to Ploshchad Revolyutsli metro station without getting splashed by passing cars, Darlin bought the tickets and we then boarded a train and went a few stops up the line to Mayakovskaya which is considered by many to be the best station on the system.  It was the grand-prize winner at the 1938 World’s Fair in New York for its Art Deco central hall that’s all pink rhodnite with slender steel columns.

There were statues and busts galore plus reliefs right across the network.  The artwork was very patriotic in the style one would expect of a metro designed and built in soviet times.  However some of the stations were opulent in their design, something that I would not have expected in a soviet system.

 

 

 

 

 

Stations came in all shapes and sizes, including one with what can only be described as a mezzanine level along which people walk and look down on the trains and another that is part of a bridge over the Moskva River and is the only one on the system with windows.  This station is near one of the sports stadiums and so had lots of trophies on display.

 

 


 

One custom is for people, especially students, to rub the nose of an animal for good luck and so over time a shiny finish has appeared.

There were also a few quirky sights seen during the tour.

Having finished the tour I decided that a boat trip on the Moskva River would round off my stay in the city.  So from the metro station nearest to my hotel, Kitay-Gorod, I go one stop and then change to the circle line and go five stops on the clockwise line.  To anyone who has braved the London Underground, the Moscow Metro is an easy system to work out as each line is separate but with regular changing points.

I walked to the start point of the river cruise just as the 15:00 hours departure was leaving, so brought a ticket for the trip leaving at 17:00 hours.  The Radisson Royal Moscow, which is one of the so called Seven Sisters, was only a short distance away, so I went there for a bite to eat; this was the old Hotel Ukrania, now upgraded at the cost of millions of dollars and it shows.  Externally the building is a similar to that of the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, but inside is now totally different.  Security was very tight and there are dark suited men at all the entrances as well the doorman in his top hat and long coat.  No Russian car would be allowed to sully the car park as it is full of top of the range Bentleys, Mercedes and BMW’s.  I ordered a cappuccino and a chicken club sandwich – no chicken only veg.  The coffee was not very hot but the sandwich was very tasty and the bill was mind blowing, but what would expect in a place like this?

The cruise boats are also run by Radisson and I boarded at the earliest opportunity and got a seat on the upper deck at the rear of the vessel.  On the opposite bank is the White House, this was the Russian Parliament building where Boris Yeltsin faced down the tanks during the attempted coup d’état in 1991, then a little way along is an apartment block with an advert for Gazprom, the state energy company, on the roof.

Having set off Kiyesky station for trains to the Ukraine and southern Europe, especially the Balkans was immediately on the right.  The Moskva River makes a series of huge loops through the centre of the city so there are never any long straight views ahead (or behind).

One of the Federal buildings had a strange incomplete look as a strange structure had been put on top of the roof.

To see a ski jump in one of the parks was something that I was not expecting, but then again the city does have a lot of snow in winter.

I just whoever erected the replica of the Space Shuttle complete with Russian markings in Gorky Park was trying to kid!!  Attached to the opposite bank were a couple of floating restaurants, but they didn’t seem to be open which was strange for a Sunday afternoon.

 

The massive statute of Peter the Great (94.5m high) at the western end of Bolotny Island is considered to be an oddity as he hated Moscow and even moved the capital to St Petersburg.

The first building you pass on Bolotny Island is the former Red October chocolate factory.  After more than a century of producing chocolate and other sweets, the factory was forced to close as part of the efforts to move industry out of the city centre, but instead of demolishing the building it was converted into an arts and entertainments centre.  I’d prefer the chocolate factory.

On the opposite bank is the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour which was built on the site of an earlier and similar church.  The original was destroyed during Stalin’s era and he planned to replace the church with a 315m high Palace of Soviets; this project never got started, but for 50 years the site was the world’s biggest swimming pool.

Near the Cathedral are some ornate houses and you have to wonder how much longer these will last in the reconstruction that is happening across the city.

 

There were great view of the Kremlin, the British Embassy and St Basil’s from the river.

 

 

The cruise turned round by the Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building, another of the Seven Sisters; it was started in Sep, 1947 and completed in 1952.  The main tower has 32 levels, is 176 metres tall and has apartments for the ‘elite’, whereas the wings were converted to multi-family ‘kommunalka’ housing.

On the return trip I had a beer and apple cake with ice cream, it was expensive so obviously Radisson has large overheads, or a high profit margin, or maybe a combination of both.

When the trip was over I walked back to the metro station and it was then a quick trip back to the hotel.  At least the rain stopped during the morning, but it is still very muggy.

I set my alarm as I have an early start tomorrow.