The nesting doll’s eyes met mine from across the marketplace. Surrounded by a cornucopia of Soviet trinkets, vinyl records, embroidered shawls and kebab stalls, it was something about the promise she offered, of more treasures hidden within, that compelled me to start haggling.
I was in lzmaylovo flea market trying to select a memento from the Russian capital. It had taken me a while to visit this city, not least because the visa process is somewhat laborious.
British citizens need to apply in person at Edinburgh, Manchester or London application centres to have fingerprints taken. But my delay was also due to my arrival method — via a two-week train trip from China, meaning Moscow held, for me, the promise of journey’s end.
In some ways it was the opposite of many peoples experience of the capital. With three stations connecting Moscow not only to Asia but also Siberia and Europe; and with five airports (plus new direct flights with Aeroflot to Gatwick) and waterways linking it to St Petersburg, most people visit it enroute to further adventures. But as I was quickly discovering, itis also well worth lingering…
Challenging your preconceptions is what Moscow does best. Leaving politics aside (always wise), it frequently surprises. This is a city where richly decorated palatial interiors house humble grocery stores, and where you can pick up a loaf of black bread for under a Euro. Here, Soviet-style apartment blocks, seemingly devoid of personality, house residents not shy of pointing out the flaws in their leaders and joke about the KGB. It’s also where young, six-foot-tall, heel-clad socialites party all night (this is the city that never sleeps), then slink off to the Orthodox churches the next morning with knees, shoulders and hair covered.
The constant mingling of seemingly conflicting ideas reflects Moscow’s eclectic and resilient roots. Founded as a 12th-century trading post on the confluence of the Moscow and Yauza rivers, the Russian metropolis has so far been burned to the ground (during a 131h-century Mongol invasion), crowned the largest city in the world (17th century), lost its capital status and fought off Napoleon’s forces (18th century), then emerged as the centre of Lenin’s, then Stalin’s communist regime, regaining its capital cache in the process.
Much like the city’s architecture, Moscovites don’t sugar-coat their past (or present), they embrace it, just as they did the dawn of capitalism in the ’90s. You have only to stroll across from seeing Lenin’s embalmed body in Red Square to the adjacent McDonald’s to see proof of that.
But throughout its past— and likely into its future — Moscow has always begged not to be taken at face value. It may be famed for its brightly painted, eye-catching exteriors, but there lie many faces behind that colourful façade.
Here’s the Plan…
When to go: Despite its freezing winters, Moscow offers city breaks year-round. But temperatures often fall below zero (°C) between Nov and Feb, when snow and rain is common. Summer sees temps in the low 20s, though it can be crowded at this time. Autumn (Sep—Oct) is a good time to visit: it’s getting colder, there are fewer tourists and the city is tinged gold by the turning trees.
Getting there: British Airways offer direct flights from London Heathrow, and Aeroflot has now launched daily non-stop services from Gatwick. Flights from regional UK airports are available but indirect.
Getting around: The easiest and cheapest way to get about (not to mention the most visually arresting —its stations are like palaces) is by Metro.
Where to stay: Hotels in Moscow can be expensive. Fora great location on the Moscow River, just ten minutes’ walk to the main sites and with views of Red Square, try the Hotel Baltschug Kempinski; For a more quirky, budget option (and provided you have no fear of small spaces), try Anti Hostel, a Japanese-style capsule hotel.
Where to eat: For a treat any time of the day — it’s open 24 hours—go to Café Pushkin, an experience in itself. Be sure to try the blinis (Russian pancakes) and pelmenis (dumplings), all washed down with kvas (aka ‘Russian cola’), a fizzy soft drink made by fermenting Russian black bread.
Day 1: The Red Centre
Head there early, before the coaches arrive, to check out the double-arched Resurrection Gate, which was rebuilt in the ’90s after Stalin ordered the 17th-century original destroyed to allow tanks inside this old market square.
If Russian leaders are your thing, spare some time to see Lenin’s Mausoleum, a black-and-red pyramidal structure where the Communist poster boy lies in state. Head next to The Kremlin having pre-booked tickets earlier. Explore the cathedral square complex behind the 2km-long red walls, where guilded interiors rival the gold turrets seen externally.
For a temporary reprieve from church and state, pay a visit to GUM, the Russian Revival-style shopping centre. With its ornate columns and wrought-iron rails, it sits on the site of the square’s old market stalls and is worth visiting for its ice-cream alone.
Leave bourgeois treats behind for a trip to iconic St Basil’s Cathedral, the brightly coloured, onion-domed building completed in 1560. Finish with a stroll in Alexander Gardens.
Day 2: Take Me to the River
Slicing through the heart of the city is the Moscow River, and there’s no better way to get a proper sense of the capital’s sprawling centre than from the water Setting sail between May and September, Capital Shipping Co runs sightseeing river cruises from the docks near Kiyevsky station and Novospassky bridge, offering short trips that last a couple of hours, as well as longer versions and even hop-on, hop-off tours.
Along the way, you can see (and get out and explore) Sparrow Hills, home to the imposing State University building; the Moscow lnternational Business Center, with its cluster of skyscrapers; the lush Gorky Park, complete with Russia’s own take on Disneyland; the towering Peter Pan-esque statue of Peter the Great; and the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, with the latter being well worth a look inside.
Spend the afternoon back on land exploring the area around Pushkin Square. Art lovers should make for the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, while others curious about Moscow’s Soviet past should try the Museum of Contemporary History. End with some good Russian fare at Pushkin Café.
Day 3: Going Underground
Envisioned by Stalin as `palaces for the people`, the 300km network of Metro lines is a sight to behold. Grab yourself a day ticket and explore. Top stops include Revolution Square Station (with no less than 72 bronze statues), Novoslobodskaya (for its stained glass), Kurskaya (mosaics), Komsomolskaya (chandeliers) and the white-walled Mayakovskaya.
Get off at Partizanskaya station to enjoy bargain hunting Russian-style at Izmaylovo Market, a place stocked to the gills with old war trinkets, Sovietspoils and whole colonies of nesting dolls — including some decorated as Vladimir Putin.
For quiet, head back towards the centre for Novodevichy Cemetery, resting place of Russia’s first post-Communism president Boris Yeltsin. The sheer range of headstones makes it feel like a sculpture garden. Nearby, check out the161h-century Novodevichy Convent— allegedly saved from destruction in 1812 when resident nuns snuffed out the bomb fuses laid by Napoleon’s troops.
En route to the airport, make a final stop at the plush Yeliseev’s Food Hall (ten mins’ walk from Tverskaya Street) to buy as much caviar, kvas and black bread as your l luggage (and customs) allow. Nostrovia!