Moscow – East Meets West

The official population of Moscow is just over 11 and a half million people. The real population is acknowledged to be somewhere around 15 million and during the journey from the airport to the city centre, it can feel like 90% of that number are on the roads.

Thankfully for locals and visitors alike, Moscow has an extensive and reliable metro system. The metro map is a colourful and easy to understand affair that acknowledges the brilliantly simple topological map designed for the London Underground by Harry Beck. Lines of different colours branch out from the centre and there is a circle – a genuine, concentric circle, as opposed to London’s squashed and wobbly circle – at the heart, Moscow’s circle line being brown rather than yellow.

Moscow’s underground is also a good deal cheaper than that of London, a single journey costing less than a pound, multiple journeys being even cheaper. Not only is the metro thoroughly efficient, with trains running every two minutes, it is also an alternative art gallery that can be visited for the price of a single ticket. Space limits further detail here, as this is a worthy of a full article at a later date.

Red Square - State Historical Museum

Red Square – State Historical Museum

However hard one tries not to be an obvious tourist, it’s almost impossible not to start with Red Square and the neighbouring Kremlin. The eye is naturally drawn to the crazy fairytale castle that is St Basil’s Cathedral. Even by the standards of the Orthodox Church, this is one weird building, defying any attempt to ascribe an architectural style to it. It almost seems as if Byzantine architects undertook a full-scale tour of India and the Far East before selecting the bits they liked best.

St Basil's

St Basil’s

The cathedral was, in fact, a collection of churches around a central one, further adding to its idiosyncratic nature. There are no services at the cathedral now. It functions as a museum and is almost certainly the most-photographed building in Moscow.

The towers of the Kremlin are also the subjects of many photos. There are 20 of them and no two towers are the same. The highlight of the Kremlin, though, is its Armoury. The name is something of a misnomer. It’s true that you will find weapons and armour here, but the Armoury contains much more.

The Armoury is the Kremlin’s museum and is packed with the trappings of imperial splendour. The collection of carriages, including sleds, is particularly impressive and it’s clear that the ruling dynasties spared no expense on their own comforts. The sheer weight of gold, silver, diamonds and gems is breathtaking. Perhaps only Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace houses a collection of such ostentatious wealth.

The Armoury

The Armoury

Among the array of imperial clothing is a pair of boots belonging to Peter the Great. The boots are very large, as indeed was their owner, who was believed to have been around six feet eight inches tall. Two metre Peter, in fact.

If the confectionary box that is St Basil’s no longer functions as a place of worship, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour most certainly does. Situated by the Moscow River, it is the world’s tallest Orthodox Christian church and its appearance owes something to the great church of Constantinople, Hagia Sophia. The present church, however, is not the original. Stalin had the first reduced to a heap of rubble and the current building, astonishingly, is brand new. There is a strict security check for visitors, but this is designed not so much to stop the destructive urges of political leaders as to prevent idealistic young women with guitars performing protest songs inside the church.

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

Moscow has a fine and varied selection of museums. For Russian art, the Tretyakov Gallery is a must see museum. The vast majority of the 170,000 or so works are by Russian artists and the collection is strong on portraits. Naturally, emperors and empresses feature strongly, but for literature lovers, there are some real delights. The Kipresky portrait of Pushkin shows the poet in a gloriously Byronic pose, draped in a tartan shawl. Dostoyevsky is captured brilliantly by Perov, the writer seemingly caught in a moment of intense thought. A rather foppish Gogol is portrayed by Moller and the author’s New Romantic-style appearance was surely to provide some form of inspiration for the Human League’s Phil Oakey 140 years later.

Tretyakov Gallery

Tretyakov Gallery

The State Museum of Contemporary Russian History, still known by its former name of the Revolution Museum, is a substantial, though slightly chaotic and disorganised melange of exhibits from the failed revolution of 1905 through to the end of the Soviet era in the 1990s. With a touch of Russian ironic humour, the location is a building formerly known as the English Club, a place where the wealthy and privileged met in pre-revolutionary days before 1917.

Museum of Revolution

Museum of Revolution

Moscow has a reputation for being a very expensive place to visit and in some respects, this is true. It is certainly not cheap for eating and drinking in restaurants and bars. This is not too much of a problem if you are only there for a few days. For those staying for a longer period or those on very tight budgets, there is consolation. The prices in shops and supermarkets are considerably cheaper. For example, a half litre of beer in a pub might well set you back at least five pounds, but a half litre bottle in a shop shouldn’t cost more than a pound and may well be a good deal less. The same rule applies to food.

Bolshoi Theatre

Bolshoi Theatre

There are nine main railway stations in Moscow. One of the most attractive is the Baroque Belorusskaya, from where trains depart for – no shocks, here – Belarus and numerous countries to the west. The elegant Rizhsky runs trains to Riga and also houses the Moscow Railway Museum.

Trans-Siberian trains leave from the rather quaint Yaroslavsky station, one of three stations on Komsomolskaya Square. Kazansky provides services to the distant Russian cities of, yes, Kazan and Ekaterinburg. The St Petersburg trains depart from Leningradsky station. Passengers arriving at St Petersburg will find themselves looking at the station’s identical twin, the Moskovsky.

Those passengers include Duck Holiday, who will resume the story in St Petersburg.

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Auschwitz-Birkenau

A historian once pointed out, quite correctly, that it was necessary to understand the past in order to understand the present. This is a phrase that springs all too readily to mind for a visitor to Auschwitz, a place that one feels must be included on a trip to Krakow.

It is, of course, not quite so easy to understand the minds of those that created places like Auschwitz. It is also understandable why some people may not wish to visit. It is not a place that makes for comfortable viewing, but travel is not always about seeing the beautiful and aesthetically pleasing things. Travel is, or should, be about understanding and learning as well as hedonistic pleasure.

If one were to be driven inside the grounds of Auschwitz without seeing anything, and thus missing the infamous gates, little might seem amiss. The site of an old army barracks, you might think and this would be correct, as the camp served precisely this purpose until 1940. Only then did its ghastly history begin.

The notorious gate

The notorious gate

There are a few hints in the grounds of some of the camp’s unpleasant secrets. The watchtowers and barbed wire suggest a more sinister purpose. The visitor might not immediately realise it, but a basic brick building was used as a gas chamber. Nearby, there is a gallows. Here, Rudolf Höss, the Commandant of Auschwitz, was hanged after being convicted of the murder of three and a half million human beings.

Gallows

Gallows

It is, though, inside the buildings that the horror of the place begins to hit home. It is, of course, impossible to imagine what things were really like, but the stark displays leave a feeling of emptiness and despair, none more so than the cabinets filled with human hair. The vast piles of tattered shoes are also heart-rending.

Watchtower

Watchtower

However awful Auschwitz feels, a trip to the nearby Birkenau camp feels even more desperate. The latter was built by prisoners, largely Russian prisoners of war, as an addendum to the Auschwitz camp, as Auschwitz was simply not big enough. Birkenau is vast, bare, bleak and open. The railway line running into it gives a sense of a one-way journey into Hell. The sparse wooden huts and the basic latrines made it a Hell that was freezing in winter and burning in summer.

Birkenau

Birkenau

View of Birkenau camp

View of Birkenau camp

Huts at Birkenau

Huts at Birkenau

This is history at its most uncomfortable. It is also history at its most necessary.

Wieliczka Salt Mine

The small town of Wieliczka is about eight miles south east of Krakow and is known almost exclusively for the salt mine beneath it. Salt deposits were first discovered in the 13th century and the mine continued in commercial operation until the end of the 20th century. The site was placed on the very first UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1978.

The first task for the visitor is, naturally enough, to descend. There are around 350 steps down, though it can seem like more as the spiral staircases just keep coming. An inevitable thought as you disappear further into the earth is that you hope you don’t have to come back the same way. Thankfully not – there are lifts to take you back to the surface.

Going underground

Going underground

Although some of the more recent sculptures in the mine were created by modern artists, most of the work was done by miners. Unsurprisingly, in a devoutly Catholic country, many of the pieces are of a religious nature. The effect is rather like entering an underground cathedral. It’s possible, should you be so inclined, to hold your wedding ceremony in the mine, though presumably the event would cost a fair amount. There are even occasional concerts held in some of the larger chambers, the acoustics being exceptional.

(Under street) sculpture

(Under street) sculpture

One of the sobering thoughts, as you wander around the passages and caverns of the mine, is that the visitor only sees a tiny portion of the whole place. A visitor will walk around two kilometres of the total of 200 or so kilometres of the total. The walking tour takes around two hours.

The mine is almost an underground city in salt, with its chapels, chambers and rooms. The ‘city’ has its own lakes and small rivers, so intensely saline as to make the Dead Sea look like a freshwater lake. The administrator of the mine had his own ‘house’ within the mine, the Gothic architecture befitting its subterranean location.

The most spectacular of the mine’s three chapels is the Kinga Chapel, dedicated to the mine’s patron saint. It is the largest chapel and is delightfully ornate, containing many sculptures and intricate chandeliers, all lovingly carved from rock salt.

Salt chandalier

Salt chandalier

Poland thrives on myths and legends. Not surprisingly, one of these legends is attached to the mine and its patron saint. Kinga was a Hungarian princess who was to be married to the King of Krakow. As a gift for her husband, she asked for a salt mine, salt being scarce in Poland. Her father duly provided one. She threw her ring into the depths of one of her father’s salt mines before leaving for Poland. On arriving there, she asked the people to dig a deep pit. The people found salt and wrapped around a salt crystal was the princess’s ring.

Salt stalagtites

Salt stalagtites

The original miners had their own canteens, but the modern-day visitor can have a meal in the restaurant, 125 metres below ground. Diners are unlikely to make requests for extra salt.

Great Museums – Muzeul National de Istorie

Visitors to Bucharest’s National History Museum should not be put off by the appalling statue on the front steps. This abomination purportedly shows the emperor Trajan holding a wolf. It should be ignored, unless one takes the view that, like some cult films, it is so awful that it is, paradoxically, good.

Wolf-free version

Wolf-free version

Behind the ghastly statue sits the magnificent Neo-Classical building that houses the museum. It was completed in 1900 and was, until 1970, the home of the Romanian postal service, Poşta Romană. There are sixty or so rooms, though not all tend to be open at the same time.

Some critics might suggest that the museum is something of a one-trick pony. This, however, would be unfair, and in any case, the pony in question is a particularly impressive one and worth the admission money on its own. That pony is the replica of Trajan’s Column. Not just any replica – this is a full-scale affair.

Detail from Trajan's Column

Detail from Trajan’s Column

There are two significant and impressive collections. One is the Lapidarium, which displays some magnificent statues from a Bronze Age necropolis. This is where the visitor can follow, along the frieze of the column, the progress of the Dacian Wars (there were two in rapid succession) and the eventual and inevitable victory of the Romans – under Trajan, naturally – over the heroic Dacians. The extraordinary carved work shows around 2,500 figures, mostly soldiers, of course, but also statesmen and priests. Naturally, Trajan appears at very regular intervals.

Pietroasele dish

Pietroasele dish

The other superb collection is known as the Romanian Treasury. This includes Dacian jewellery and the Romanian Crown Jewels. The Pietroasele Treasure is a glorious collection of Gothic art, with gold dishes, cups and jewellery. Don’t be fooled by black-clad modern day Goths; fourth century Goths liked a bit of flashy colour.

Dacian bling

Dacian bling

The Crown Jewels comprise various crowns, swords, sceptres and jewellery. The Kingdom of Romania was a rather short-lived affair, lasting from 1881 until 1947, with only four kings, though one was to reign on two separate occasions. The collection is not, therefore, huge, but is impressive nonetheless. Top place in over-the-top jewel overload is probably the sword of King Carol I, Romania’s first king, encrusted with around 1,200 jewels.

Crown of Maria

Crown of Maria

The museum holds various exhibitions, often of an international nature. There is almost inevitably some kind of building work going on, but the museum always tries to keep its star attractions available for viewing.

Bucharest may not be everyone’s idea of a picturesque place and indeed there are some awful monstrosities (see the Presidential Palace). Many fine buildings were lost during the Ceaușescu period in particular, but thankfully the lovely National History Museum remains. But please do something with that statue…