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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.