As with most mornings, we woke (long after sunrise) to beautiful clear skies and comfortable temperatures. By the time we’d gotten organised and out of the hostel, temperatures were rising and clouds formed beyond a hazy horizon.
It was our third day walking past Saint Basil’s Cathedral, and it hasn’t lost any of its charm. It’s still beautiful enough to stop us for a few moments to search out the details (and to take some more lazy photos). At least in the sunshine it was possible to get a sense of the rich colours.
We paid the 350r ($9) to enter the cathedral, and at first were sorely disappointed with what we saw. Our guide yesterday told us that the church was actually ten small buildings all joined together, not a grand open space like many others. The reality of that meant we were walking through narrow and dark corridors. It did however do a good job of explaining more about the Saint Basil whom this cathedral was named after. Basil (or Vasily as he is called in Russian) was a Fool for God. There were many stories about Vasily, but they all talk about a man who would probably be institutionalised in our modern society. He spent his life naked (and that is how he’s drawn in all the paintings) spouting prophecies, including some aimed at the ill-tempered Ivan the Terrible. Amazingly, Ivan not only tolerated him, but named a section of this most splendid church in his honour after his death.
I didn’t realise, but we were only in the lower levels of the church. We eventually climbed a stairway and entered a much brighter, and much more open area, decorated in all manner of paintings. I could now see properly that each dome was a separate church, and navigating between them was actually a challenge. There were several that we only found after a second or third investigation of the hallways.
It wasn’t long after we’d arrived that we heard the indescribable sounds of men singing. I’ve always thought that the sonorous chanting has a certain (short term) appeal, but there was something about the acoustics that made it absolutely resonate and penetrate deep. Oddly, the sound was actually better outside the room than inside.
The colourful domes that make this building so distinctive had their own ‘church’ inside the tower, each with a slightly different style of decoration (much like the outside). As beautiful and intimate as they were, it didn’t compare to the fabulous exterior. Not even close.
Walking across the cobbled stoned Red Square is still amazing, even with the crowds. But, this group of police, from some Central Asian country, taking a group selfie (usie) kept me giggling for some time.
Afterwards we headed to The Kremlin to see what the fuss was about. Entrance was 500r ($13) each for the regular buildings, with additional tickets required to visit The Armoury and Ivan the Great Bell Tower (which was closed). It took a little time to find the sole ticket office, which conveniently was not where you entered.
It also involved a thorough search through metal detectors and x-ray machines, which is understandable as it’s where Mr Putin works. Bags had to be checked in to a cloakroom, and I stupidly left my guidebook inside my bag, leaving us without much information about what the buildings were. We stumbled lost for a while until we were able to find a gift shop that had a spare map/brochure, which improved everything – don’t forget to get a map when you buy your tickets!
After crossing the bridge and passing through the thick red-brick walls of the Trinity Tower, stuck to the right, away from where all the unfriendly looking Russian police were standing. The first of the museums that we entered was the Patriach’s Palace, which like the rest of the interiors, had a very strict no-photography policy being enforced, forcing me to make do with words and my memory. Inside were recreations and examples of the living quarters of nobility in that period. There was also a large collection of religious icons, but lacking an interest in religion, they were merely beautiful physical objects to look at.
The same applied inside the many white and gold gilded churches we were able to visit on our ticket – The Church of the Deposition of the Robe of the Holy Virgin, The Annunciation Cathedral, The Dormition Cathedral and The Archangel’s Cathedral. They had large interiors, covered with paintings and religious artefacts. On a purely aesthetical level, it was beautiful. At least the first one was. Like many things, there is a law of diminishing returns, and these churches weren’t exempt. There were hundreds of paintings depicting scenes and people from the bible. I feel a little embarrassed for not having much interest. There were sarcophagi of royals inside the Archangel Cathedral, some dating back over 500 years. If I had to choose, I would say that the Dormition Cathedral was my favourite, purely due to the openness of the interior space.
The courtyards and the exteriors of the buildings were much more to my taste, and it was pleasant to walk around and be surrounded by the golden domes of the churches.
The canon was as comically large as the broken Tsar Bell, both of which are not functional. At 6m and 200,000kg is the largest in the world (by nearly 100,000kg), and sadly was damaged in a fire before it could be used. Just the small broken piece weighs 11,000kg!
I think the Moscow Kremlin is somewhere that would really benefit from a guide, as the buildings on their own weren’t that impressive, but I feel that it would be the stories and the history that would bring it to life – but maybe I’d feel differently if Saint Basil’s wasn’t still fresh in my mind.
For lunch we decided to treat ourselves to a meal in one of the finest restaurants in Moscow, Café Pushkin. Getting there required a quick trip on the Moscow Metro, which really is a ‘must do’ activity. It was said that it was built as a ‘palace for the people’, and if that was the design goal, it was successful. The platforms are lined in marble and chandeliers hang from intricate ceiling roses. It’s only the escalators that ruin the illusion of luxury as they take their time as they descend far, far into the earth. That and the other sweaty passengers. And the clunky trains… Of course there are the reports of the atrocious costs to human life to create this ‘palace’.
We actually walked past Café Pushkin last night as we were searching for somewhere to eat. We didn’t stop last night as dinner courses are well beyond our budget, but fortunately the lunch menu is entirely affordable at about 1000r ($25) for a three-course meal. An extra 200r ($5) if you want to pair it with wine.
Even if the food was rubbish, just entering this restaurant is an experience. Gone is the non-hospitality so common in Russia, in its place is service as good as any we’ve experienced before. Even the interior screams quality and luxury. We were a little giddy. There were a few choices for entrée, soup and mains. Even with an English menu, I wasn’t quite sure what I was ordering (the words may have been written in English, but the dishes were mostly French).
My Beef Consommé was light and rich, but it was the enormous stuffed bread ‘donut’ that was the standout surprise. I thought that maybe with the discounted lunch set menus, quality and servings would be sacrificed. This didn’t seem to be the case, as it was delicious, and I was nearly full (with our mains yet to come).
And, my main course was the best Beef Stroganoff I’d ever tasted, so rich and so soft it was almost like it came out of a slow cooker. The tiny nibble of Risa’s duck leg was enough to know that she’d also received an amazing meal (though I think mine was better).
But, it was not like the spectacle that some of the other diners had ordered. The waiters headed some brandy, which they eventually lit and poured over a dome-shaped structure, which collapsed shortly after being consumed by the flames, revealing a pyramid shaped cake hidden inside. It was pure spectacle, and we were both rather excited that we got to see it twice.
The restaurant was modern (1999), but it was built into an old mansion. There were two very distinct styles with the interior, with ours being more like an expensive old bar, called ‘The Drugstore’. Upstairs was like the living room and conservatory of an oligarch called ‘The Library’.
Lunch may have cost more than we usually spend in two days, but it was worth every single rouble. I can’t recommend the bargain lunch menu highly enough, even if I did feel a little out of place sharing space with (probable actual oligarchs) who were arriving in their Rolls Royce and Bentleys.
After lunch (early dinner, really), we decided to take the other direction home along Tverskaya Street, the way we should have walked yesterday when we were searching (and failing to find) dinner. It was frustrating to see so many restaurants, bars and takeaway shops. We even visited the fancy Yeliseevskiy Gastronom, which is like no supermarket I have ever visited before. The craziest part, it was still about the same prices as regular supermarkets. It looked more like a place royals would hold banquets and ballroom dance (that’s a thing royals do, right?).
And then the rain started. The skies were dark before we entered Pushkin Café, and there had been a few showers while we were eating, but they were now getting heavier. We returned to the hostel to rest for a while before heading out for a quick experience of Moscow night life. We were unlucky with timing, as our Russian friend had to go away for work while we were in Moscow, so he was only able to give us advice where we should go. However, the rain intensified into a full-blown lightning storm, which was still raging when we gave up and went to bed. It was incredibly disappointing to miss a chance to see the Moscow nightlife, but with a 12PM curfew and the weather, it wasn’t to be. I guess flights to Moscow are cheap from our new base in London, so we can always come back. Maybe.