Russia 2019 day two: Moscow

It turns out my bit of not-so-central Moscow is really noisy – lots of people driving noisy cars far too loud and far too fast and I can’t tell whether that’s on the road below or on the Garden Ring, which is one of three roads encircling the city centre. And then at 10.30, either a war broke out or huge fireworks.

Breakfast in the morning was very typical Ibis/chain hotel so bread & butter, croissant & jam, orange & apple juices for me and then I went to see Moscow.

First obstacle: the metro. Thanks to my lack of Cyrillic last time, I’d been very impressed by Martyn managing to navigate it but it’s not so hard. The ticket machine speaks English and spat out a single journey ticket and then the metro itself astonished me by being absolutely identical to the one in Kyiv. Same escalators, same layouts, same signs, same trains, same interchange stations.

I took green line 2 from Paveletskaya to Teatralnaya and exited at Ploschad Revolyutsii. I’d looked up how to get to Red Square from here but I couldn’t remember and it didn’t matter. I followed a lane and emerged on a street hidden under iridescent butterfly hangings and as I walked along, I got a glimpse of red towers ahead. This was the street I’d planned to end up on…

But Red Square wasn’t quite as easy as that. It was occupied by an International Military Tattoo. Getting in and out was only through metal detectors and bag searches, which I imagine is pretty permanent in this day and age but the north end of the square was all Christmas-style market, in wooden huts, and the southern end was the parade ground. You couldn’t really see Red Square. The Kremlin walls and towers rose up over it all but St Basil’s Cathedral, which is lower down the hill, was almost invisible behind rows of seating. Obviously, all this meant foot traffic was pushed down fenced walkways which meant the first real look you got of St Basil’s was from virtually underneath it. So I went inside. I’d planned to do it, I’m just not sure I’d planned to do it so quickly. There was a short queue for tickets (you get in cheaper if you’re Russian!) but no queue for entrance.

In my attempts to find the exact name of one of the churches I took a photo of, I’ve read quite a few opinions on the interior and most of them agree that it’s disappointing compared to the outside and borderline not worth it. These people are wrong.

This cathedral was built by Ivan IV, known as the Terrible although originally it meant more like Awesome (like a winter storm at sea, not like the way we use it now) to celebrate various victories. It’s nine churches clustered together, none of them big enough to fit more than about twenty people in. No European soaring open light spaces here for thousands or coronations.

Despite its size, there are only two floors. The downstairs has fairly low ceilings and every surface that can be painted on has been. The Vatican has nothing on this. The main attraction of downstairs is the Church of St Vasily the Blessed, the most recent of the churches and the one that the whole structure accidentally acquired its everyday name from – Vasily being Russian for Basil. The cathedral itself is officially named the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat (it used to have a moat) but that’s a bit of a mouthful. Vasily’ crypt is all gold and icons and all the slightly tarnished splendour you’d imagine for the resting place of an actual saint.

Finding the stairs is a bit of a challenge. So is climbing them. They’re clearly newer than the rest of the cathedral but some of the steps are ludicrously high, there’s an awkward turn two thirds of the way up and they’re very narrow.

Upstairs is as much of a maze as downstairs, only it’s a little more open and sometimes you come across a big area open to the sun, especially at the top of the stairs that criss-cross the southern end. Some parts of the maze are therefore very light and some are very dark and narrow. There are a lot of frescoes and colours going on here too – I like the airmail effect of red, white and blue stripes by the stairs. You fall from one church to the next, never knowing what’s going to be through the next door, what you’ve already seen, where you’re supposed to go. There’s a map near the southern end but I’m pretty sure it’s the wrong way up and ‘you are here’ doesn’t match up with what I’m seeing at all.

It was while I was lost in a darker part that I heard a choir echoing through the maze and if it’s difficult to navigate, imagine trying to follow an echo that’s coming from everywhere at once. It turned out to be a four piece male voice choir in what seems to be the Church of the Holy Trinity, judging by the spiral on the ceiling. They’re very good but it sounds better echoing around the walls than coming from four men in white shirts.

At last I left. I wanted to see it properly from the outside too and the only place you can really do that right now is from the south. I found a bench and sketched it for my scrapbook. I can’t draw but even if I could, there’s just so much going on. Every church is a separate structure, there’s endless decoration from top to bottom, domes poking out from behind domes, practical square bits at the bottom, a tree blocking part of it.

By now I’d made up my mind to run back to the hotel, partly for lunch but mostly for spare camera batteries. But I had a deadline. Scheduled electricity maintenance meant a planned power cut between 2 and 6 and it was already 12. I decided I’d go to Alexadrovsky Sad station instead of fighting my way back through Red Square and that was how I realised how triangular the Kremlin is. Would have been far quicker to just go back through Red Square. Still, eventually I found the Kremlin ticket office (and queue) and Kremlin entrance (and queue) and got to the metro. Best way home: change to line 5 at Park Kultury.

At Park Kultury, while changing lines, I spied the souvenirs. I’d been keeping an eye out. Moscow’s Oyster equivalent, the Troika card, comes in wearable forms and I wanted a ring. You can’t operate the Tube by waving your hand over the turnstile. You can pry the chip out and put it in things but TfL really don’t like that. Moscow loves it. So now I have a pearly white ceramic ring on my finger, preloaded with ten journeys and can enter the metro by touching the gate and it’s like actual magic. Not to mention it saves finding a card or getting out my wallet every time.

I finally got back with thirty-five minutes to spare. I didn’t stay long. I grabbed my stuff and tried to put some money on my ring and failed – you can only do it on the website in Russian and the app, which is in English, wouldn’t accept my cards. I had to do it in person at the metro station. I dropped some stuff on my bed – two used metro tickets, the box for my ring containing the instructions and my unique ID number, my phrasebook and camera case and personal alarm (I’d managed to set it off at Park Kultury without even noticing – well, I noticed something. Thought I’d get on the train and escape because there’s a quiet alarm at the station but no one’s reacting. Got on the train – it continued. Alarm in the whole metro system and no one seems to care! Oh… no… it’s me.

I decided I’d go to Gorky Park while I waited for the electricity to come back on. The nearest station, it turns out, is not Park Kultury but that’s where I went. I crossed the bridge over the river and saw the statue of Peter the Great which I’d assumed to be in St Petersburg, which is after all his city and his capital. I saw that from a rooftop last time. A church? Where is there a church convenient for viewing it? It took the entire length of the bridge for me to realise it was from the white and gold Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which was only built around 1997, I think. This is why I had to come back here as an adult!

I had had no idea what the weather would be like but it was hot. I found shade in Gorky Park and then walked down to the fountains to discover that in ten minutes, they’d start their music and light show. People were sitting around the edge with their feet in the gutter so I joined them. The lights aren’t visible at 3pm and the fountains aren’t really in time with the music but it’s fun to watch. I walked around the fountains. At the bottom, you’d get a view right through the fountains to the huge chunk of Soviet gate at the park entrance if not for the spray. On the far side, there was a man on roller skates dancing to the music.

I went to Oktyabrskaya and took the metro back to Alexadrovsky Sad and finished my circular walk of the Kremlin, past the Unknown Soldier – I know the guards march in peculiar Russian style but right then they were standing still. Back at the top of Red Square, the arches were closed. And the next set. And the next. Red Square was completely closed! You can’t close Red Square! I walked through the expensive shopping centre and back down to the benches at the southern end where I’d sketched At Basil’s, only now the sun was setting and it was harder to see and definitely harder to take photos. Rather than wind my way north or circumnavigate the Kremlin again, I walked along the top of Zaryadye Park and three little churches on the same street back to Kitay Gorod station and home just in time to join the queue returning at 6 and wanting to use the one lift operating for three hotels (this one is attached to the Mercure and the Accor and we had the only lift that worked during the power cut). There was a woman behind me who huffed and whined the entire time we were waiting for the lift. It was taking too long. It’s on the ninth floor now, oh great! It’s going to be half an hour before we get back to our room and I have to change! It would be quicker to walk. If it had taken much longer to arrive, my responses to these would have become audible – well, they already are but it’s amazing how deaf people become if you stare at the lift while you snap “Then just walk!”

The power finally returned a few minutes after I got back to my room – yes, lady, on the ninth floor, the lift goes to all floors, not just yours – but the wifi took a bit longer to come back to life. I used the time to paint my sketch of St Basil’s and now with some colour, it makes more sense and also looks so much more wobbly.
Last job of the day: more food shopping. I ignored last night’s Магнит and tried the Daily минимаркет next door. Mistake. This was the kind of upmarket posh place that has pale wooden shelves instead of real shelves, looks like a National Trust giftshop and sells neither bread nor plastic cheese slices. So to the Billa. I’d seen it on the map when I’d searched for supermarkets and I know Billa. Unfortunately it’s further than it looks. I’ll stick to Магнит for the rest of the week.

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