Let’s just get this out of the way – no, we didn’t see Snowden, we arrived via a different airport 🙂
We flew into Moscow on Saturday, July 13th, and were faced with a passport control line that was less like a line, and more like a blob that slowly oozed towards the front. After more than an hour in the mob, a train trip to the city center, and changing to the metro to reach our hotel, we were a bit travel weary. We had plenty of daylight remaining, though, as the sun didn’t set until around 10 pm, so we grabbed a quick dinner and made our way to Red Square to get our first glimpse of the city.
The next day, we started with the Izmailovo markets. A friend from Budapest, who had lived in Russia for several years, recommended these markets for souvenirs – they have craftsmen on site, selling their own handcrafted goods, so there’s less mass-produced and overpriced items to sift through. It was a great recommendation. The markets are vast, with an area called “Painters Alley”, where artists sell oil and watercolor paintings; wooden stalls where craftsmen carve wooden Santas and paint matryoshkas (the traditional Russian nesting dolls) in front of you; and flea markets where vintage and antique items are sold, where Richie sifted through what seemed like thousands of Communist pins, banners, and medals. There’s even a faded and rotting replica of St. Basil’s sitting randomly in the middle of a muddy field. We spent hours here, and we had to remind ourselves that we had ten more days of sightseeing and adventures (and that we shouldn’t spend all our money here!)
Afterwards, we headed to Tsaritsyno Park. Its grounds were originally purchased by Catherine the Great, but the current palace wasn’t constructed during her lifetime. On recommendation of friends, we skipped the museums within the palace and spent a few hours exploring the park itself. The grounds were extensive, with fountains, creeks, a pond for canoeing, and winding trails throughout that led to gazebos and hidden ruins.
Our next day was filled to the brim with Red Square activities. We started with the State Historical Museum, which holds exhibits of Russian history from the prehistoric era through the 18th century. The building itself was gorgeous, and the exhibits would probably have been fascinating if I hadn’t just woken up shortly before visiting, but to be honest, I probably would’ve rather been at the markets 😉 We had an audioguide, which was necessary as the exhibit descriptions were all in Russian, but sharing an audioguide is not my favorite thing (I’m a skimmer, Richie’s a listener).
Next, we visited St. Basil’s cathedral. It’s technically called The Cathedral of the Protection of Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat, but that’s quite the mouthful. There’s a chapel at the front of the church dedicated to St. Basil (St. Vasily, in Russian – who Richie proclaimed to be “awkwardly naked”after viewing several portraits), so people generally refer to the whole church as St. Basil’s. The cathedral’s structure is unique – rather than a large central sanctuary, with chapels ringing it on the sides, the main chapel is only slightly larger than the others and is set slightly to the side. The hallways twist and turn and are ornately painted, and the chapels are filled with the traditional Russian painted icons rather than marble sculptures.
Outside of the cathedral, we passed the Place of Skulls – a platform where Ivan the Terrible addressed his public, and often referred to as a place where executions took place, although Wikipedia assures me that’s just a myth. It would be pretty awkward if there were public executions just steps from the church.
We stopped in GUM for lunch – in communist times, Russian citizens would stand in lengthy queues here to get basic goods. Now it’s an upscale shopping mall with a fabulous sushi and champagne bar. Go figure.
On our way into the Kremlin, we passed the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, just in time for the changing of the guard. These guys have better high kicks than I do.
There’s lots to explore inside the Kremlin. Many of the buildings are closed to the public, as they’re currently used for government and military operations… and I think Putin might live in one of the buildings? But there are still plenty of sights accessible to tourists, like the Tsar Cannon, which was cast in 1586:
And the Tsar Bell, which was never hung as it lost a significant chunk while it was cooling off in the foundry pit:
The armory couldn’t be visited, but the cannons surrounding it were captured from Napoleon’s army during the Napoleonic wars:
There were five churches within the Kremlin open to the public, but none allowed photos inside. It’s a shame, because the interiors of these churches were truly unique. One held the tombs of all the tsars and emperors of Russia, while another was the site of all the marriages and baptisms of the royal family. Yet another held the tombs of the patriarchs of the Russian orthodox church. They were all beautiful in their own way, and we spent a LOT of time staring at the walls and saying “Wow” over and over.
As we exited, we couldn’t help but giggle at this sign (okay, I giggled. Richie, being a guy, probably chuckled or snorted.) You’ve got to be an Aggie to appreciate this, though.
The next day, we visited Lenin’s tomb. It’s in Red Square with the other sights, but it’s only open on certain days for limited hours. No cameras were allowed inside, and there were enough guards posted around the tomb to work a football game. Needless to say, they’re not taking chances with their idol. You walk around the outside of the tomb, where many other political figures (including Stalin) are buried in the Kremlin’s wall, and then you enter the tomb to see Lenin’s body on display. Honestly, it looked a bit like one of Madame Tussaud’s wax figures rather than an actual human being… which is probably for the best.
Afterwards, we headed to Victory Park, which holds memorials for what Russia refers to as the Great Patriotic War (we ‘mericans call it WWII).
The park contains a church, a Holocaust memorial and sculpture, and a war museum complete with planes, boats, tanks, and weapons all covered in Nazi or Communist symbols.
Our last stop in Moscow was the Novodevichy Cemetery, where many of the most famous people in Russia are buried. We saw the graves of Nikita Khrushchev, Boris Yeltsin, and Stalin’s second wife (whose headstone had to be encased in plastic to prevent vandalism), as well as cosmonauts, dancers, and other celebrated people. Many of the headstones had full sculptures of the person, including one with his giant schnauzer! Some had tributes to their profession (tanks for soldiers, or mathematical formulas for professors). Others had their signature on the gravestone, which was a little creepy to me (I kept saying, “It’s like they’re endorsing their death!”) but Richie thought it was really neat.
We wandered among the tombstones for hours – there were so many interesting ones, and it was really a peaceful place.
We ended the day early, because we had an early train ride to St. Petersburg in the morning! I’ll fill you in on that next time.
For more photos of Moscow, check out my Facebook album here (accessible even if you don’t have an account).
– We stayed in the Golden Apple hotel on the recommendation of our friends who’ve lived in Moscow until this June. It was a wonderful hotel, about 5 minutes from a metro line and about a 15 minute walk from shops and restaurants, and the employees were very helpful with directions and registering us (which you must do if you don’t want an encounter with the police!)
– My favorite restaurant while we were there was a little French cafe called Jean-Jacques. Unfortunately the waitstaff don’t speak much English, and they didn’t have an English menu available at the time, but we were able to make do with a French one (and they appear to have an English website).
– By FAR the least expensive souvenirs were at the Izmailovo market. They do have very expensive ones as well (I fell in love with a gorgeous hand-carved Santa that was nearly a foot tall, but alas, he was almost $500 and no amount of puppy-dog eyes would have made Richie relent) but you can find many, many inexpensive and lovely options there. Items were at least $10-15 cheaper than in Moscow and sometimes up to $50 cheaper than in St. Petersburg!