Russia 2019 day four: Moscow

Earlyish start today. I went to the Kremlin.

It was a bit messier than planned – my bottle leaked, soaking everything in the main compartment of my bag. So there I am sitting on a bench underneath Park Kultury trying to fit everything in the side pockets and the handy pockets in my t-shirt.

I joined the queue at the ticket office and when I eventually got inside, I discovered that I’d been queuing for the desks selling Armoury tickets. You can just walk in and walk up to the Cathedral Square ticket desk. There are even ticket machines. Still, the queue gave me time to obsessively flick the pages of my guidebook in the sun in an attempt to dry it without all the pages ending up stuck together.

Quick security check at the entrance tower and I was walking across the bridge and through the Trinity Tower into the Kremlin grounds.

I’d like to say walking into the heart of medieval, imperial, Soviet and modern Russia was a magic moment but I was stuck to the back of several tour groups with no sense whatsoever of where I was, where I was allowed to be and what was going on.

I was standing outside the Kremlin’s newest building, the concrete and glass Soviet addition that now houses the Kremlin ballet. To my right was the cathedral complex and if I wanted to step into the road, it had to be on the crossings. Kremlin guards are very quick to blow their whistles at anyone who steps into the road – and there are quite a few roads crossing the open square.

First up was the Patriarch’s Palace, quite tall and very narrow with silver domes. Under the arches and into Cathedral Square was Ivan the Great’s Bell Tower on the left, the big square gold-domed Dormition Cathedral on the right and the Archangel and Annuciation Cathedrals behind. Plus a lot of tour groups.

I started in the Side Chapel of St Varus in the back of the Archangel Cathedral while I figured out where I was allowed to go. There was a queue going into the Annunciation Cathedral so I sat and sketched the Dormition Cathedral while I waited – even worse than my St Basil’s sketch which did at least all fit on the paper! – and then followed them in.

I was later to learn that all the cathedrals are pretty similar inside – vivid frescoes up to and all over the ceiling and the inside of the domes, huge pillars, tombs around the outside and a massive gold altar screen covered with icons. No photos, obviously, but each one came with a six-page leaflet that contained a diagram and pictures of special items and icons. Gradually, I covered the three big cathedrals, the smaller Church of the Deposition of the Robe and the Church of the Twelve Apostles inside the Patriarch’s Palace. I say that they’re all the same but that doesn’t mean it’s not a spectacular sight.

It’s also a pretty spectacular sight to see the Kremlin walls from the inside, with the occasional glimpse of the domes of St Basil’s peeping over. And then there’s Putin’s house behind the cathedrals and Putin’s office on the other side of the square and the Arsenal next to the Trinity Tower. Oh, and the cannon that’s too big to use and the bell that’s too big to hang, with a small bit broken out of the bottom and that broken bit weighs eleven tons. And there’s even a bit of park and a hot dog cabin and the Kremlin’s own rose garden and water feature.

I knew the Kremlin would take me a while, even without the Armoury, but before I knew it, it was mid-afternoon. So I headed to the Saviour’s Gate Tower, the exit. Except that the path was closed, I wasn’t stupid enough to walk in the road, the tower was fenced and the outer door was closed. How do you leave the Kremlin when the exit is closed? How do I get out? Am I now a prisoner in the Kremlin? And for a while, it felt like I was. How do I get out? Back through the Trinity Tower, it turns out.

My plan was to go to the rooftop terraces of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the big white cathedral with gold domes just down the road. My visit there last night when it was closed had identified a cafe outside and I desperately needed liquid. I’d drunk whatever hadn’t escaped into my bag by 10am to make sure nothing else could spill and it’s ludicrously hot in Moscow at the moment. I went into the cafe, was shown to a seat at the bar and given a menu.

Twenty minutes later, I still hadn’t had my order taken. I know it’s a posh cafe of the sort I shouldn’t really be in and the staff are busy but I needed liquid and I could have drunk it and been on the roof by now. Being invisible on the bus yesterday was great but today when I couldn’t get a drink… eventually I left in a fury, leaving some unmistakable English in the doorway in response to what I assume was “thanks for coming, have a nice day!” from the girl who seated me. Do not bother going to Kiosk cafe outside Kropotkinskaya metro station, it’s a total waste of time. Now, the ice cream stand outside the cathedral, that was able to provide me with a bottle of Fanta in under 30 seconds.

I bought my terrace ticket and climbed 240ish stairs. Good stairs, the sort of stairs that belong in a cathedral built in the 1990s, just a lot of them. Well, there have to be. The roof is a long way up.

I could see everything from up there. I definitely saw five of Stalin’s Seven Sisters. I may have seen the other two, I’ll need to check when I get home. I saw the entire Kremlin laid out in front of me. I saw the Starbucks building next to Paveletskaya that I can see from my own window. I saw a lot of gold domes.

Back downstairs two roof circuits later, and a brief sit on the steps in the shade for a drink, I had a proper look at the inside of the cathedral. Very big and open and clean and bright, just as elaborately decorated as the Kremlin cathedrals but in a way that made it feel bigger, not smaller. A lot shinier too. An American tourist on the steps outside said they made Jesus & co look a lot more “realistic, like African or Egyptian or something”. We’ll leave her idea of where Jerusalem and Bethlehem actually are alone – the baby Jesuses (or Josh, if you prefer) in the Nativity scenes she liked so much had the faces of skinny white models in their early 20s only with her head shaved.

My last stop of the day was back at the top of Red Square in search of postcards for my scrapbook. I found some lovely arty ones but no traditional real postcards, real photos of places and things, particularly church interiors. Never mind, I’ll be back in Moscow in two weeks (when the Tattoo will have left Red Square – hopefully nothing will move in to replace it) and I’ll have another look then.

Tonight I need to pack because I need to be at the station for my bullet train to St Petersburg between 8.30 and 9am tomorrow. It’s only two metro stops away but it’ll mean leaving my room with breakfast inside me by 8.15am at the very latest.

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