Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer (Image: Flickr/Jurvetson)
Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer (Image: Flickr/Jurvetson)
Everyone’s talking about how Moscow is the “new” Prague or the “new” Berlin, but that is far too easy a description for this revolutionary city of style.
There is nothing “new” about Moscow. It was always there and still seems like the original frontier town as it winds along the Moskva (Muddy) River with its streets a glorious mix of architecture, squares filled with golden-domed churches, elaborate Metro stations and grey concrete Soviet legacies.
Since perestroika Moscow has come a long way quickly, from a place where once you could almost finance your trip by selling your jeans or videos of the latest American films to what is now an oil-rich, remarkably restored city full of ideas and secrets. It seems to have washed its face and opened its doors to the outside world – albeit with caution. Foreigners are welcome but it is clear that the Muscovites are managing fine without them. The capital’s growing middle class seems to be revelling in the exciting novelty of what it never got enough of under Communism — style, money and freedom.
Standard style for young “new” Russians is men in black leather jackets and highly polished shoes, women with mayonnaise-blonde dyed hair and stilettos. They teem in bars, restaurants, bistros and nightclubs, spending easily, sometimes paying top European prices. At Cafe Pushkin a glass of bubbly is $20 (£13); a coffee in stylish Petrovka Street is $5. A seat at the cinema can cost $40. Big spenders can pay $200 simply to book at table at a hot nightclub. (The local currency is roubles, with about 50 roubles to £1, but dollars rule over sterling.)
Moscow is the most alive city you could wish for. Hordes of people — unofficial figures cite the population at more than 15 million — live there and the city is vast, covering an area of 1,081 square kilometres. Although not all Muscovites are tasting this bright new dawn, as shown on the outskirts of the city where bleak-faced people who are too old or too tired or too forgotten to catch the breaking economic wave live in grim apartment blocks, there is nevertheless a refreshing flourish and vitality about the place.
Moscow, or the “city on seven hills”, dates back to 1147. It became Russia’s capital in the late 15th century under Ivan the Terrible and when the capital was transferred to St Petersburg in 1712, under Peter the Great, it remained a powerful economic centre.
It is the most Russian of European cities, much of it being elegant 19th century merchants’ mansions and exotic 1930s Stalinist edifices of granite grandeur mixed with intriguing Modernist/Constructivist buildings. It would have indeed been a different matter had Emperor Napoleon not embarked on his fateful invasion of Russia in 1812 and had the evacuating Russians not set the largely wood-built city on a fire rather than let the French take their city.
Moscow is a perfect city for a long weekend visit. Most of its gems lie within the inner boulevard (The Apple Garden Ring) and transport is cheap (15 roubles, about 30p) and easy. Battered tramcars criss-cross the city and taxis are everywhere downtown. There is 280km of Metro track (open from 6am to 1am) running between 171 stations, many of them architectural masterpieces of a glorious 1930’ and 1950’s Underground Palace design. Some of the most opulent are Komsomolskaya, Kievskaya and Smolenskaya, to be visited and savoured in the light of the London’s poor, old, tired Underground.
Moving around in Moscow is easy but bear in mind one of the hangovers from Soviet times is that policemen have the right to check your ID at any time so carry a passport with you.
Whatever time of day or night you arrive, head straight for Red Square, an extraordinarily impressive place that overshadows almost anything you’ll see in Europe that is grandiose and romantic.
Red Square takes the breath away whether it’s midday or midnight with St Basil’s Cathedral and its magical, brightly coloured onion-shaped domes, Lenin’s tomb an
d the Kremlin, a massive palace-fortress enclosed by 2 km of forbidding castellated red brick walls. Also there is GUM, once an open-air market, now a superstore arcade, the Bolshoi Theatre (currently being rebuilt), the Kazan Cathedral and the History Museum.
I took a break for a cup of â€œchai” (tea) at the legendary Metropol Hotel on the northern side of the square. When I stayed there 18 years ago it was full of faded old men in green livery and lumpy babushkas on creaky, linoleum-lined landings who issued guests with a small piece of soap and a little recycled loo paper. Now the Metropol is the most splendid example of turn-of-century grandeur with its glass ceiling and Deco lifts and memories of guests like Tolstoy, Shalyapin and Kennedy.
Walking, provided you don’t get run down by the deadly chaos of dusty Ladas, battered Skodas, gleaming BMWs and aggressive 4x4s, is a good option. Be sure to get a map with the names in both the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets so that you know where you are. Russians are friendly and happy to help but I found their English was as bad as my Russian.
You could walk yourself to death in Moscow. There are more than 200 museums, from the new Vodka Museum in Izmailovskoye Shosse with its 250 brands of vodka and daily tastings, to the Cosmonauts Memorial Museum in Mira Avenue. (Museums usually close on Mondays). There are more than 614 orthodox churches, chapels and synagogues in the city and ever-proud of their cultural legacy, there are museums to Gorky, Gogol, Tolstoy and Pushkin and monuments to everyone from Karl Marx to Charles de Gaulle.
Perhaps the most interesting of the art galleries is the fabulous Tretyakov Gallery of Russian art from the 10th to the 20th century, which is a picturesque walk off Red Square, across the river, the island and the canal, to the south bank along streets lined with beautifully restored 19th century residences.
A good place for a break and some souvenir-shopping is the Staryi Arbat, a pedestrianised street leading west to Smolenskaya Plaza with its “stepped” Gotham City-style skyscraper, where buskers and artists hang out among the theatres and restaurants and pretend they are in Paris.
There are boats that do trips on the Moskva River for an intriguing backdoor view of the complex history of the city and interesting trips outside Moscow include the centre of the Russian Orthodox Church in Sergiev Posad, a medieval town 70kms away on the Golden Ring Route, and Kolomenskoe Estate, overlooking the Moskva River, where grand dukes and tsars have spent their summers since the 14th century.
Whilst at the latter I happened upon a traditional Russian wedding re-enactment to an audience of bemused foreigners. Before I could protest I found myself in traditional gear, standing in as the bride’s mother and looking unmistakably Russian.
Intourist offer a hassle-free visa service and arrange excursions, flights, accommodation and guided tours. For more information see www.intouristuk.com.
Intourist is represented by Titch Tours in South Africa.
Where to Stay:
It is worth paying the extra to stay closer to the middle of town than in the cheaper, Soviet-style suburban hotels like Cosmos Hotel and Alfa Hotel.
Downtown hotels with character include :
The Golden Apple, Royal Aurora, Metropol and Marco Polo.
Daily direct flights from Transaero from Gatwick (www.transaeroairlines.co.uk) and on BA (www.britishariways.com) and Aeroflot (www.aeroflot.co.uk) from Heathrow.
UK tourists visiting Moscow require a visa, issued at the Russian Embassy in London (Tel. 0906 550 8960). Passports must be valid for at least 6 months after your return from Russia and you need invites from hotels and flight details.