It seems that my Great Uncle phoned my mum last Friday with a question: “What on earth is Craig doing in Moscow?” It would seem he got my postcard.
But I guess it’s a fair enough question, it’s not a place you necessarily expect someone to be.
Well, I don’t always like conventional holidays (no sh*t Sherlock) and I am lucky enough to have friends who teach abroad. So, as I hadn’t left the country in the past couple of years I thought it was high time I paid a couple of them a visit. This, then, is how I came up with a holiday that took me to Moscow, Vienna and Bratislava in the space of two weeks. To me this seems perfectly normal. Apparently not everyone agrees.
Russian visas aren’t the easiest to come by. Sure, it’s not hugely complicated, but it’s long and needlessly drawn out, meaning only those who really want (or need) to go have much chance of making it to the end. But I did, and a mere couple of flights later I found myself face to face with an extremely bored border guard who (not unlike myself) didn’t want to be at passport control at 6am.
Moscow is utterly fascinating: It’s utterly crazy, but painfully logical. Well planned, but not necessarily well thought out. Basically, Moscow is like no other city on the planet. No one bats an eyelid at a convoy of army trucks hurtling down an impossibly wide, one-way, city-centre ring road; just as it seems to escape everyone’s attention that a bright yellow Ferrari is hurtling down this speed-limit-less highway, weaving between hundreds of blacked out 4x4s and Soviet-era rust buckets.
But this huge ring road (it encircles the Kremlin, Red Square and neighbouring district of Kitay Gorod) looks incredibly useful at first glance. Sure it may make the place rather polluted, but is much more sensible than the overcrowded narrow streets of London or Paris. It does also make it rather obvious that Stalin et al. (trivialising them just a little too much?) steam-rolled a large part of what once was called Moscow, but on the other hand it did give them free rein to create enormous boulevards to transport people across the city. Well, I say that, but it seems pretty apparent when you walk down Tverskaya Ulitsa (one of the main roads off the inner ring) that it handily cuts across one of the main squares, up a suspiciously corresponding road that leads directly into Red Square before splitting around the brightly coloured onions-topped St Basil’s to leave the opposite end of Red Square and rejoin the main ring. It’s almost as though these streets were designed more to hold enormous parades than serve as arteries through the city. Oh wait…
Talking of Red Square and the Kremlin, they’re both rather impressive. From GUM (once the department store for the Communist Party elite, now home to rich Muscovites prowling around its Cartier, Louis Viton and Omega ‘boutiques’) to the Historical Museum (is there any other type of museum?); the Resurrection Gate to Lenin’s haunting mausoleum, this square sees the warring aspects of this city all vying for your attention. There are hundreds of years of Tsarist history, the importance of Orthodoxy to the state, lingering memories of communist rule and the modern trappings of the newly super-rich; and that’s before you even think of St Basil’s Cathedral or the towers and walls of the Kremlin.
The enormous red walls of the Kremlin dominate the centre of the city, warding off uninvited guests and making it perfectly clear that only those permitted may enter their realm. Luckily I was permitted on both my forays and on each occasion I was presented with treasure. The first time was to go to one of the Kremlin’s more recent additions, the State Kremlin Palace. Built in the early 60s as an arena in which to hold meetings and the annual congresses of the Communist party, the exterior of concrete and glass hides its brilliant interior. The main auditorium can hold over 5,000 people, whilst the grand foyer (all 7 floors thereof) is covered in glistening marble – the only exception being the stairs, which have luscious sumptuous blue carpets to cushions your ascent. Oh, and did I mention the enormous ballroom smuggled in under the roof? These days along with the occasional political conference the palace also plays host to the Kremlin Ballet, which is why we were there on this occasion. I’m not the biggest fan of the ballet, but at 200 Roubles (roughly £4.20) it seemed like an enjoyable way to spend an evening. Ruslan and Lyudmila – a Russian love story – was pretty spell binding and for a one-night-only run the sets, costumes and choreography were spectacular; the 40 piece orchestra weren’t at all bad either. OK, I admit it, I was rather blown away.
If the first trip was all about architectural and artistic treasure, then the second was all about real treasure. The Kremlin Armoury is no longer home to the collection of weaponry once said to be enough to kit-out 2,000 soldiers, but now holds the horde of the Russian State. Its treasures span the centuries and constitute the largest collection of gold and silver in the western world (if not the entire globe). From diamond studded, gold and silver plated covers for ancient bibles to a headdress for the statue of Mary made of gold and inset by two of the largest three emeralds in the world, the most valuable treasures of the Orthodox church take up two grand galleries. Another is filled with the crowns and thrones of the Tsars: Ivan the Terrible’s throne is covered in plates of carved ivory, whilst the fir-lined crowns sparkle with diamonds and every other gem imaginable. Sitting blissfully in another is the coronation dress of Catherine the Great and the old coronation gown, a flowing river of gold embroidered with the double-headed eagle and lined with white fur. Next door are the ornate state carriages made by the finest craftsmen around Europe, but up in the far corner of the top floor is the display that out-dazzles them all. Gifts given by visiting European ambassadors representing their finest craftsmanship and wealth – think everything from decorated cutlery to silver decanters shaped like metre-tall snow leopards, oh and a wine fountain crafted from gold in the style of a Parisian rococo-era fountain (as you do). I dare anyone to go there and not leave still blinking in amazement that such an incredible collection exists. But if you are there, don’t just look at the treasures – the Armoury building itself is a work of art and would be a treasured masterpiece, if it weren’t for its contents.
And that, well that is just the very centre of the centre! To save this being the length of a book I will break here and talk about food, communist theme parks, butchers’ ponds and ‘Stalin Gothic’ in the next post.