Moscow – An unexpected journey

This was in some ways the land of the unknown. Moscow carried in part an image of a city run by the mafia, with dark alleys, high crime, language problems, and major safety issues. What we discovered was something totally opposite – beautiful colorful city, happy-looking facades, actually helpful people and an amusingly easy to read language. We walked around most of the time and discovered local markets, gardens and some beautiful hole in the wall places to eat. Some of the experiments with food didn’t always work but it was always an enjoyable experience. The final positive was the price – a meal would cost nearly the same as it would in India.

We landed early morning and got a cab to our hotel, a short walk from Red Square. The room nice and spacious enough and there was a large atrium for breakfast and means. We showered, had a quick snack and then made the tough choice of taking a nap or walking to Red Square. The adventurous spirit won. We strolled across to the most famous square in the country. It is flanked on one side by Kremlin and kind of showcases the fabulous St Basil’s Cathedral right upfront. This is the church that probably inspired the Disney castles and doesn’t look anything like what you would expect a cathedral to look like. The third side of the square is an expensive mall (GUM) with a facade full of even more expensive restaurants, squarely targeted at tourists. These are best avoided.

Among all these stunning architecture, Lenin’s mausoleum somehow gets lost. There is not much signage and opening hours are very limited but if you do get in, his sarcophagus still lies there. We did not find out about it in time. The square though is a photographer’s dream come true, with cobbled stones and bright red walls.

On the way back from the square, we came across a beautiful local garden that basically occupied a very wide divider on Tverskoy Boulevard. A small portion of it near Pushkinu Monument hosted a farmer’s market with beautiful flowers, local produce and some household products like soaps and cheese. The sellers were dressed in medieval local attire and were trying to recreate some traditions. No one understood a word of English and we hadn’t still figured out Russian, but sign language worked really well. I bought soap.

There were many restaurants in the vicinity of the square as well as our hotel. We checked one out for dinner and it was a pleasant surprise to find a great variety of vegetables, some good soups and a wide variety of drinks on the menu, besides the traditional beef.

For the next day, we booked a hop-on-hop-off to get a good orientation and flavor of the city. It turned out to be a good idea as Moscow is really well spread out and 4 days definitely aren’t enough to do everything. We saw the theatres, fancy hotels, and malls with some interesting stories…not a bad investment of a day. The highlight of the trip was the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The original church was actually destroyed by the communist regime and a swimming pool opened in its place. After the fall of the communist government, the church was rebuilt as a close replica of the original. It looks grand from the outside, but the inside is beyond imagination beautiful. Sadly, no photography allowed there. The walls are all adorned with grand paintings, and the overall scale of the place is stunning. There is a basement, just as would be in historic churches and it has some amazing artwork too.

Far better on the inside

Some of the other stops including a panoramic view of the city from a lovely vantage point, a sight of a number of rivers and waterways and a view of what they call the ugliest statue in the world. The end point of the tour actually is a beautiful park by the river, with fountains, flowers and lot of locks.

One of the most amazing things to do in the city is the tour of the Kremlin. The historic complex, that is home for some of the most amazing Russian architecture, stunning churches, museums, and Vladimir Putin. We got to see the first two! The uniqueness of the architecture stands out with the golden domes on plain white facades. The interiors are usually opulent and grand. It is easily a full day exercise, especially if you visit the museums and the Armory. We missed the timing for the Armory tickets, but it was still quite worth it. The Cathedral of the Assumption was possibly the most amazing of the lot with some fabulous paintings and grand interiors. Ivan the Great Bell Tower stands out for its unique shape, height and just the number of stories associated with it. A nice garden next to it was good to catch a break from all the walking.

No tour of any major city from the erstwhile USSR will be complete without a visit to the metro network. Each station is unique in its design and very elaborately decorated. Most of them can make for a tourist attraction by themselves. There are tours that can show you some of the most amazing stations. Some are newly made and depict modern Russian achievements and other older ones showcase traditional design and the soviet way of living.

Among all the golden domes and amazing buildings, there were still some hidden skeletons that just take a little while to identify. On a wonderful Mokhovaya St which has the wonderful looking National Hotel and the Four Seasons just across from the entrance to the Red Square and the Biblioteka Imeni Lenina, a glorious and massive Library, there are many buildings that are covered in cloth that is designed to look like building facades. A coverup for the communist era ruins that never got renovated and modernized.

Overall a wonderful 4 days in a city that has totally moved on from its communist past or at least is trying really hard. The infrastructure is modern and the parts that are not are well covered up. The food is a good mix of traditional and modern and there is enough to make the trip very comfortable. The only thing we missed was the traditional Russian Sauna with the birch leaf massage – if you did get one there, do leave a comment on how it was.

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