Red Square, St Basil’s Cathedral, The Kremlin – we did it all!
There are few sights so characteristically Moscovian than the ones we saw today. It was awesome!
Our day started nice and early with a tour group “meet and greet”. Our guide for the week, Tatyana, is about 30 and is one of Russia’s “little people”; that is to say, she’s built like a gymnast not a potato-farming giant. It’s great to have someone who speaks fluent English and Russian that we can rely on – English is NOT widely spoken ’round here and since neither of us speak Russian (not even SLOW, LOUD Russian), communications over the past day or so we’ve been here have been restricted to pointing, nodding, grunting and the like. Our tour group is small (14 people), which is exactly why we chose this company – I can’t stand the thought of being part of a huge, impersonal tour of 50 or more. Half the group is from South Africa, and the other half are Aussies, with ages ranging from 20 to 87. Everyone seems friendly enough, though we haven’t really had a chance to chat to any of them for long because our day was so packed full of activity; I’m sure we’ll get to know them better over the next week or so.
Aside from its small group sizes, one of the other reasons we chose “On the Go” as a tour company is because they don’t lock you up in an air conditioned bus and just drive you around town; you get to ride local public transport, eat at local restaurants, the guides are English-speaking locals, etc – it’s a bit more “authentic” shall we say. As close to just jumping in an doing it on your own (like we did in Japan and Korea), without actually having to do it yourself. This does mean, however, that you are on public transport with everyone else, and in Moscow, this means having to be particularly vigilant about safety.
We’ve heard all sorts of horror stories about the pick pockets and gangs of thieves targeting tourists on the Moscow Metros system and in Red Square, so our philosophy was to take as little with us on our sightseeing trips as possible and to vigilant (“Be alert, not alarmed” – thank you Howard for that little motto). After 5 weeks on the road we also look scruffy enough that may also act as a deterrent. Most of our tour group, however, have obviously not heard the same horror stories, as they went out for the day with big handbags (the ladies mostly), flashy sunglasses and lots of jewellery. *SIGH*
Shane and I had one lady in particular picked out as the most likely victim, just because she’s older, seems a bit vague and had this giant handbag with just a little zip on her. Sure enough, first bloody day, first Metro ride, and she was targeted by a pack of young Gypsy girls. I saw them out of the corner of my eye surrounding her and managed to pull her out of the situation before the thieves had gotten anything, but they had already half unzipped her bag. The poor lady was completely freaked out, but thankful that nothing was stolen. I know pickpockets are an issue everywhere there are lots of tourists, but man it’s crap having to be constantly on alert and watchful of everything and everyone around you. We’re lucky back in Aus that we don’t have to worry about stuff like that day-to-day.
Red Square and the Kremlin were busy but not packed so it was easy enough to avoid the worst of the crowds and any suspect characters, so the rest of the day was incident-free in that regard. And maybe having something like that happen on the first day made some of the other people in the tour group with their flashy jewellery and giant handbags rethink their sightseeing accoutrements.
Anyway, we didn’t let that little hiccup upset our day ’cause we had some epic sights to see! From our local Metro station we went to Lubyanka Square, just a few hundred metres form Red Square and home to the Bolshoi Theatre (interesting factoid: bolshoi means “big” or “grand” in Russian); the “Lubyanka Building” a nondescript block that used to be the KGB headquarters (now home to the FSB – Russia’s Federal Security Service); and the Moscow Hotel – once the only hotel in town, designed to impress visiting foreign dignitaries with its enormity and grandeur (it is still a hotel, but way outside our budget at about $3000+ AUD per night).
From Lubyanka Square we went towards Red Square proper and entered via the Resurrection Gate, past the State Museum of Russia. Having seen so many news stories, movies and films set in Red Square we thought we knew what to expect, but the sheer scale of it was not something we were prepared for. If there is one thing Russia does well, we have decided, it is BIG. The Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union, obviously had the land, the resources and the audacity to do everything on a mammoth scale. It made us feel very, very small (which I guess is the point right?).
As Tatiana informed us, the name Red Square comes neither from the colour of the bricks of the buildings and walls around it (which, in fact, were white-washed at certain times in history), nor from the link between the colour red and communism. Rather, the name came about because the Russian name for this square is Krasnaya Ploshchad, and the word krasnaya can mean either “red” or “beautiful” in Old Russian.
Before it became Krasnaya Ploshchad this was the market square for the town of Moscow for centuries. Its rather grand size and appearance only began to take form, however, Moscow became the capital of the expanding Russian Empire in 1340. From then, successive rulers added to the square, building the churches and officially state buildings that now characterise this iconic location, including:
- Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan – originally built in 1612, the cathedral was destroyed in 1936 until Stalin, but rebuilt in the 1990s.
- In 1555 Ivan the Terrible was responsible for the construction of one of Red Square’s most famous landmark buildings: St Basil’s Cathedral.
- The State Museum of Russia is housed in a 19th century, purpose-built building.
- Lenin’s Mausoleum contains the embalmed body of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union. (We had the opportunity to line up to spend 30 seconds inside the mausoleum viewing Lenin’s embalmed body, but decided to forgo this for some lunch instead. It was amazing to see the length of the queue however – people line up for hours in order to get their glimpse of Lenin’s body.)
- My personal favourite: the GUM department store. Once the only department store in the entire Soviet Union where “foriegn” goods could be bough. The Glavnyi Universalnyi Magazin (translation = main universal store) is now a high-end shopping mall and is beautifully restored and maintained. We had lunch here and spent a hour or so perusing the shops, including the most expensive grocery store in Russia where the ladies behind the counter wear the same uniforms they would have worn under Soviet rule, and crystal chandeliers light your way.
The square is huge (330mx70m) and is flanked along the Western side by the imposing walls of the Kremlin and along the Eastern side by the GUM department store. Tatyana, our guide, took us on a 3 hour walking tour of the square, feeding us tid-bits of information (just enough to impress us, not enough to bore us – a good balance), and giving us time to take our touristy photos of everything. After our walking tour we had a couple of hours of free time for some lunch and to revisit our favourite spots. It was great! Shane and I took hundreds of photos, but have picked out the top 10 or so for you to enjoy.
After lunch we rejoined the group for a walking tour of the Kremlin. (Note: When signing up for “walking tours” of Moscow, be aware that distances here are HUGE. A couple of the older and less fit members of our tour group really struggled with the distances and pace, which made it a bit awkward at times. For us this was nothing – we’ve trekked up mountains in less time than that! Japan has really upped our tourist fitness.)
Ah, the Kremlin. Another enormous Russian edifice designed to make visitors feel small and insignificant. Kremlin in Russian means “fort or “citadel”, and Moscow’s Kremlin is the fortified complex which has served as this city’s heart and centre of government since the 14th century. Situated at the geographical heart of Moscow, overlooking the Moskva River and Red Square, the Kremlin compound includes a handful of government buildings built during the Soviet era, five 19th century palaces, 4 cathedrals and the enclosing Kremlin Wall with Kremlin towers. Since the Russian revolution of 1917, the Kremlin has served as the seat of government and includes the official residence of the President of the Russian Federation (we did not get to see Putin during our tour).
The Kremlin was huge, overwhelming, impressive, fascinating and just a little intimidating; Shane and I both agreed that it would have been great to have a few hours to explore the complex on our own, but that’s the compromise when doing a tour isn’t it? You get a guide to hold your hand when you need it, but you also need to do your bit and “stay with your herd”, as it were. Still, it was fantastic to see what we did. Again, we took way too many photos (we’re such TOURISTS!), but have tried to limit our selection to the highlights….
We had a specialist guide join us for our Kremlin tour and whilst she certainly knew her stuff and was very passionate about the subject matter, the commentary was just WAY too detailed and within a couple of hours we had glazed over from information overload. Then the heavens opened up and it started to rain, which was fine for us as we had checked the weather this morning and had umbrellas with us; most of our tour group did not have ‘brollies however and were soon not only footsore, but also soaked. Upon request the tour was finished a little sooner than scheduled (no complaints from us, there’s only so many churches and palaces you can digest in one day anyway!), and we all headed back to the Metro (everyone clutching bags far more tightly to their chests this time). By this time we’d been out sightseeing for almost 9 hours and we were sooo ready for a shower and some dinner! We are now bathed, fed, exhausted, but very content. An awesome day in Moscow, with more to come tomorrow!