We pulled into the Moscow train station and set off towards the station entrance with our new Finnish friends. We chatted and walked in the bright sunshine when suddenly, the daughter interjected, “did that say Stone?” I wheeled around and saw a man walking next to the train with our names on a sheet of paper, so we waved a sad farewell and headed off to our hotel.
Thanks to Russia’s tight-fisted visas, the clock was ticking for anything we wanted to see in Moscow. Despite this urgency, the remainder of the day was nearly derailed when we arrived at the Arbat House hotel after 3 months of Asian guesthouses. The luxurious bed & enormous pillows, spacious bathroom (whose floors remained dry during a shower) with plentiful toilet paper, excellent internet and quiet courtyard out the window called to us, “hey, relax, take the day off.” Nevertheless, we limited ourselves to scrubbing off 5 days of train travel before heading out to find some dinner and see the sights.
Moscow is a beautiful city. Their restoration work is meticulous and never-ending, as old, 15th-and 16th-century buildings stand next to new office spaces and apartments, with virtually no indication where one ends and the other begins. The character of the old city remains intact despite the refurbishment, with the striking stone buildings retaining their original design and charm.
Despite the old buildings, Moscow is undoubtedly a modern city. Outrageously expensive sports cars gleamed and rumbled as they raced through the busy streets. Pricey clothing and accessory boutiques abounded, alongside upscale restaurants and bars whose staff, I suspect, would have frowned at our travel-worn t-shirts. We were provided a glimpse into the cost of living when, after finding a sensibly-priced restaurant, we discovered that their reasonable prices were directly related to their snack-sized portions. This was quite an adjustment after our culinary experiences in Asia, where we’d grown accustomed to receiving a multi-course meal and drinks for less than the cost of many western appetizers.
After dinner, we headed to Red Square. My expectations were somewhat modest since our visit to Tiananmen square, but I was blown away when we arrived. The expansive, cobblestone square is surrounded on all sides by spectacular buildings. On one side, a surprisingly picturesque stone shopping mall, known as the Upper Trading Rows, occupies the entire block. Opposite the mall stands Lenin’s mausoleum, appearing to have been carved out of a giant block of granite, yet dwarfed by the imposing wall of the Kremlin behind it. Providing one of the entrances to the famous square, the Resurrection Gate stands next to the State Historical Museum, whose sculpted red bricks contrasted with silver peaks to form the illusion of snow on the rooftops. Of course, the far end of the square provides one of the most iconic views in Russia – the famous (and spectacular) St. Basil’s Cathedral, glowing in the amber light of the setting sun. As we soaked in the view, the light slowly changed and intensified, transforming from yellow, to orange, to red, then faded until a rich, cobalt sky was all that remained.
St. Basil’s Cathedral has had several names over the years, originally the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed, and now formally known by the awkward mouthful, the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin by the Moat. It was opened in 1561, after Ivan the Terrible commissioned two architects to build it in 1554 to celebrate a military victory. The local legend is that, after the completion of the work, Ivan had the two men blinded so that they would never again be able to build anything as beautiful.
The next morning, we were met by a local girl, Alaina, for a walking tour of the city. She spoke quickly and turned out to be a wealth of historical knowledge of the city’s buildings and streets. Clearly a high achiever, she was attending university on a full scholarship, majoring in diplomatic studies, and spoke 5 languages – Russian, English, Chinese, Korean and German. We wandered around the old part of the city for a few hours, while she pointed out unique buildings, historic locations and explained the statues scattered liberally around the streets. Moscow in the summer is a truly pleasant place to be, as the bright colors of fresh flowers decorate every corner, and the warm sun ensured the ice cream vendors lining every alley never failed to look appealing.
Once we took our leave of Alaina, we stopped to enjoy some local food for lunch. I sampled pelmeni, a type of dumpling filled with meat, potato or mushrooms. Jenn, ever distrustful of foods where she can’t see inside, selected a venegret, a traditional beet salad with pickled vegetables. After lunch, we set off on our own for more exploration, wandering for several kilometers before arriving at the doorstep of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. This magnificent, gold-topped building took nearly 40 years to complete at the end of the 19th century, commemorating the defeat of Napoleon. It was the site of Tchaikovsky’s premier of his 1812 Overture in 1882, but was destroyed by Stalin in 1931 and wasn’t rebuilt until more than 60 years later.
While we would have loved to stay longer, our visa was expiring the next day, ensuring that we took our bus departure time seriously. After one last glimpse at St. Basil’s, we bade a fond farewell to Russia.