“In Russia, we have saying… ‘Come visit Russia; before Russia visits you!'”
This morning we did a walking tour as a sort of welcome to Moscow, orientation thing. Irina was our very petite but very vocal guide, and this is how she greeted us – thankfully with a warm grin.
Moscow as a city is roughly 870 years old, which Irina asserts makes it a ‘very, very old city’. The Germans standing beside me snort in derision at this claim, but given that it is over four times older than when Australia was ‘founded’ (no, so not getting into that); well, I’m inclined to agree with her – it is quite an old city. Having been founded in 1147… yes, a date that precise apparently, when two guys, whose names I have forgotten, met at an existing Slavic settlement and decided to fortify the township and built a moat. Then they were invaded by Mongols. Then came a period of Grand Duchys. Then came the Tsars. Then there was the Russian Empire. Then they had the Soviet Era. And more recently the Russian Federation… and that pretty much sums that up. Nah, just kidding. Russian history is colourful and complex but there’s no way I can relate all the Princes, Ivans and Romanovs here that we heard about today.
On our way to the walking tour this morning, we came past the famous Bolshoi Theatre. The Bolshoi ballet and opera companies were founded over 200 years ago, and I was really looking forward to seeing an opera here. Unfortunately, they close every summer for renovations, maintenance, and annual holidays for the companies. So at the moment, we can’t even go in to tour the building. There has been a theatre on this site since 1776; the first was destroyed by fire, the second was destroyed by the invading French in 1812, but this current building was constructed shortly after in the 1820s and has recently undergone extensive renovations. Photos of the inside look amazing, but I will have to return to Moscow if I ever want to see it myself.
After this, we met our tour at a monument dedicated to Saints Cyril and Methodius, in Kitay-Gorod. These 9thC Christian missionary brothers are attributed with creating the first Cyrillic alphabet before which, the Slavic people had no written alphabet and as such no written history. Irina states that this was very important to the Russian people, as they translated the Bible into their languages and they were able to read and pray in Slavic languages after this. They were canonized in the 80s at some point and are considered co-patron saints of all of Europe.
Right beside the statue of St Cyril is the Church of the All Saints with its leaning bell tower. Built after the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380, as far away from the border of Moscow as possible it is also known as the Church of Kulichki – which literally means, the church at the the world’s end, or the church in the middle of nowhere. Now, of course, it is practically in the CBD. The church has a spotted history, having been closed by the NKVD in the 1930s as a place of mass executions… a cross was laid at the church in the 1990s as a symbol to the victims of repression who were executed here.
From Kitay-Gorod (which quixotically translates literally to ‘China Town’, but has nothing to do with communities of diasporic Chinese or China towns worldwide as we tend to think of them…? Go figure.) we made our way around to St Basils Cathedral, which is officially known as the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat, or Собор Покрова Пресвятой Богородицы, что на Рву, for short. It was a functioning church for centuries but is now primarily a museum consisting of nine interconnecting chapels. Built from 1555 to 1561 on orders from Ivan the Terrible (whom Irina affectionally refers to as Ivan the Poor), it was built to commemorate the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan. It seems most churches in Russia are built more in the way that triumphal arches are built in western Europe – to mark some political or military triumph. It is designed to look like the flames of a bonfire rising into the sky and it is iconically connected to Russia, Moscow and the Kremlin in the Western eye.
It is a crazy stunningly beautiful building the likes of which I have never seen before. We are planning on touring the museum tomorrow, and hopefully, I’ll have better light in the morning and with fewer people about… So fingers crossed, more photos to follow.
We then we made our way over the the GVM, (Glávnyj Universáĺnyj Magazín, literally meaning “Main Universal Store”), which was the name given to the main department stores during the Soviet era. It faces directly onto Red Square opposite the Kremlin. I was unable to gain any decent photos of this area today, as the entire space is under construction with bleachers being installed for an upcoming music festival. We stopped at the Gvm for ice creams and bathrooms, though not necessarily in that order… weirdest thing ever for such a large department store – down stairs right near the entrance is a ‘Historical Toilet’ which costs you 150 rubles to go into $3AUD. I wondered at the ‘historical’ bit… was the plumbing the first ever indoor plumbing in Mosocw? Was someone important assassinated there? Did the first ever Russian cosmonaut take a crap in there? No, apparently nothing that exciting. The ‘historical’ bit, is because it is a bathroom renovated to pre-revolution style… So I kept my $3 and followed Irina directed us to an obscure bathroom three levels up and in behind a weird eatery space.
Across from the GVM and on the edge of Red Square (TIL that ‘red’ in Russian is synonymous with ‘beautiful’ which has nothing to do with anything, but I thought I’d throw that tid-bit in!), is the imposing State Historical Museum of Russia. Hopefully we will have time to go explore here tomorrow. I love the bright red brick facade.
Kazan Cathedral is a 17thC style church built directly opposite the State Historical Museum. It was the first church rebuilt after the period of atheism that of the Stalin regime… which means, for all its 17thC style architecture, it is barely 25 years old. The original gatehouse into the Red Square. This site just outside the gatehouse to Red Square is considered the very centre of Moscow. There is a folk story that claims there was a girl who dreamed she was going to get married, and if she threw a coin in town the man who picked it up would marry her. She came here, dropped a coin, the man who picked it up then married her. So now people come here, stand in the centre of the Kilometre Zero and throw small coins about to make wishes… or something like that. Our walking tour ended in Alexander Gardens, where we saw the changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and were given some excellent suggestions on places to shop and dine and sights to see. It was an excellent free tour to orient visitors to the city and well worth the 1,000 RUB tip that we gave Irina for showing us around. Below is a photo of Irina doing her best for international relations and trying to show that not all Russians are as severe as their external demeanour. 🙂
We took some time to wander and enjoy the gardens. Lovingly kept the high yellow walls of the Kremlin over look the entire space. Moscow is a city of some 13 million residents, having grown rapidly since the turn of the 20th century when it was a city of barely 1 million people. The reason for this rapid expansion was population movement of people looking for work after the revolution… which now means that 10% of Russia’s entire population live and work in Moscow, but for all that – the city has many lovely parks and green zones which gives a wonderful open feel to the area. The Geyser Fountain depicts four sculptural horses that represent the Four Seasons…
After this we had a very late lunch and decided to head indoors out of the heat for a while. We went to a shopping centre to buy (of all things!) hats. Both of us had forgotten to pack hats for this trip, which makes me feel like a failure as an Australian… but in my defence, I thought I was coming to Moscow, and the projected temperatures were supposed to be in the low 20s, not high 20s and absolutely scorching sun. 🙂 Nevermind, I am now the proud new owner of two rather odd hats – a blue suede baseball cap, (Yes! Actual blue suede!) and a black news cap.
We head back towards Red Square to have a look at some of the souvenir shops and things as we wound our way back towards the Budapest Hotel… the shops are bright and colourful and the offerings are very Russian.
(^ See? Blue suede cap!)
Mr K bought himself a Russian football scarf – because, well it’s bloody hot. And I picked up a coffee mug because all the tea cups are tiny everywhere we go and I have no intention of suffering through the tiny cups for the next four weeks.
On the way back tot he hotel, we stopped at TSVM – another large and well known department store to look for, of all things, some Coke Zero (Moscow seems to be a place of very few diet soft drinks), and found ourselves in their gourmet food hall… where a lovely lady offered me samples of caviar that cost about $100AUD for a 50gm tub. Delicious. Sadly it was going to be a while before we got back to our hotel, and I had no way to keep any refrigerated. :/ So it stayed in the shop.
Our walking tour, by the time we meandered our way back to the hotel at 6pm was approximately 14.67km – okay, not approximately, exactly 14.67km according to my watch thingy. No wonder my feet were aching from all that pavement! We came back, relaxed for a bit, and went out for a late dinner at a nearby pub called ‘Haggis’ (yep, so adventurous of us to take in the local food), feeling absolutely wrecked after a long day.
Looking forward to tomorrow – we have a big line up of things to see and delve into properly.