Thursday, March 9, 2017 - Arrival in Moscow, Exploring Red SquareWe landed at Moscow's Domodedovo airport at 4 a.m. We went through immigration quickly, and by the time we got to the baggage carousels, our 2 checked bags were already waiting for us!
We were met by Olga, our city guide from Abercrombie & Kent. We have never traveled with A&K before, but they had a Black Friday deal on Moscow / St. Petersburg that we couldn't resist. Since it is off-season, we were able to get a private guided tour for a reasonable price.
Olga is very sweet, and her smile and enthusiasm really invigorated us after a long flight. We enjoyed chatting with her on the 40 minute ride to the city center. Moscow traffic is legendary, but luckily not at that hour! We passed by groves of white birch trees, Craig's favorite. He remarked on them, and Olga said that they are prevalent in this area.
As we approached Moscow's city center, we passed through a series of concentric ring roads, with the Kremlin in the center. When we reached the city center, we drove past Red Square and got our first glimpses of the Kremlin walls and St. Basil's Cathedral, which were beautifully lit. It started to sink in that we were actually in Russia!
I have been studying the Cyrillic alphabet, as a book that I read suggested that it can be helpful. Many signs are transliterations of English, so knowing how to pronounce the letters is surprisingly effective. I was very proud of myself when I was able to read a stop sign along the ride (and this stop sign was just a white rectangle rather than an easily-recognizable red octagon). Small victories!
Russian stop sign
We got settled into room #602 shortly before 6 a.m. The room was lovely, with a king-sized bed, love seat, and desk. The bathroom was spacious and modern. We had no scheduled program today, as we wanted the flexibility to be able to rest and get over our jet lag. Olga mentioned that Red Square is less than a 30 minute walk from the hotel, and that it would be very safe for us to go alone if we felt up to it.
Since the hotel serves breakfast until 11 a.m., we decided to take a rest before getting something to eat. I wasn't sure I'd be able to sleep, but apparently I fell so sound asleep that Craig tried to wake me up at around 8:00 and I didn't even stir. He then fell back asleep, waking up at 10:15. This time he woke me up mid-REM sleep so that we wouldn't miss breakfast. The bed was so soft and comfortable!!
We headed downstairs and both felt very groggy as we enjoyed the buffet breakfast. There were stations everywhere, featuring fresh bakery items of all types (including some delicious Russian pastries), fruit, meats, cereal, cheeses, and American breakfast staples such as scrambled eggs, bacon, and sausage. You could also get eggs to order.
We were both feeling quite groggy and jet-lagged. Our stomachs were still on Boston time, and all of the choices were overwhelming. So we each filled a small plate with buffet pastries, scrambled eggs, meats, and cheeses. We eagerly swilled coffee, and had multiple glasses of cranberry juice (a favorite of ours which we would soon learn is quite popular in Russia).
Feeling a burst of energy from breakfast, we explored the hotel a bit. In the center is an atrium with a fountain on the lower level and a glass domed ceiling. We walked down the staircase to the lower level to see the fountain and gift shop. The clerk in the shop was quite friendly, and we looked at all of the beautiful items for sale. Of particular interest were the various matryoshkas. The prices were not as high as I would normally expect in a high end hotel gift shop, and the quality of the art work was high. I had to restrain myself, as I had only been in the country for a couple of hours, and would have plenty of opportunity to purchase souvenirs.
The sun was shining and the skies were blue, so we felt that we had to take advantage of the nice weather and take a walk to Red Square. It was winter, and this could be the only sun that we got! Whereas in the past we might have been intimidated by heading out into a foreign city with a different language and alphabet on our own, we now had enough travel experience under our belts to relish the adventure. Craig was feeling good despite the jet lag. He had his walking cane with him, so he was not intimidated by the prospect of a long walk.
After a quick shower, we headed out. It was a beautiful day, with temperatures in the 40's. We walked down Tverskaya Street, admiring the architecture. Unlike many places we have visited, our physical appearance did not immediately belie that we were foreigners. Add to that our black wool coats and scarves, we blended in even more (until we spoke, that is). Elderly people with canes whom we passed seemed to feel a solidarity with Craig. They would motion to their canes, nod at Craig, and give him a big smile.
We saw a very cool park bench which was made of a series of vertical plywood sheets in a very modern design. I took a seat and Craig photographed me. We walked through Pushkin Square, where we saw a statue of namesake Alexander Pushkin, early 19th century poet/playwright/novelist who is arguably the founder of modern Russian literature. Behind the statue, the massive Rossiya Theatre (formerly the Pushkinsky Cinema) advertised a Cinderella musical.
I could see small bright blue onion domes topped by gilded crosses peeking over the buildings. I walked a couple of blocks to get a good view of this Russian Orthodox church, which turned out to be the Nativity Church at Putinki. It was beautiful - a bright white church with blue and gold ornamentation gleaming against the bright blue sky!
I walked back to the Pushkin statue to meet Craig. Yesterday had been Women's Day, when everyone gives flowers to the important women in their lives. Bouquets of flowers had been placed on various statues around the city, and it looked quite nice.
We had no local money, so we located a bank (recognizing Cyrillic characters helped with this) with the intention of withdrawing some roubles from an ATM. That in itself was an adventure, as the first bank we entered had no ATM. I took out my card and mimed putting it into a machine, and the guy working there pointed me further down the street. We entered the bank and found and ATM which had an option for English. We withdrew some roubles and felt quite satisfied after figuring out how to do this. Again, sometimes it's the little victories...
We crossed a main intersection using an underground walkway that also houses the Metro. There was stenciled street art of a matryoshka doll in the tunnel. It was extremely warm in this tunnel, and there were several gift shops and food stalls. We popped out just outside of Red Square, next to the State Historical Museum. It is an ornate red brick building built in the late 19th century. We could see the brightly colored onion domes of St. Basil's Cathedral peeking at us, and we walked in that direction, like moths to a flame.
Red Square (Krasnaya Ploschad) was so-named in the 17th century (the word Krasny means both beautiful and red). We walked across the vast expanse of the square, which has been used as a marketplace since the Middle Ages.
On the northeast boundary of the square was the sprawling late-19th century indoor shopping arcade. It was nationalized in 1921, and named Gosudarstvenny Universalnyy Magazin (GUM), or Government Deparment Store. Today the initials are the same, but they stand for Gosudarstvenny Universalnyy Magazin, or Main Department Store. The building is nearly 800 feet long, and at the time of the 1917 revolution, contained 1200 shops. During the Soviet period, it was one of the few stores which did not have shortages of consumer goods, and customers would queue the length of Red Square to shop there. Today it is a luxury mall, having been privatized after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
At the corner of the square between the State Historical Museum and GUM, is the picturesque Kazan Cathedral. THe original church was built in 1625, but it was demolished by Stalin in 1936. After the collapse of thee Soviet Union, it was rebuilt in the style of the original, using money from private donations. The cathedral is painted coral and teal, with a gilded onion dome in the center. The gold looked quite opulent in the sunlight.
Opposite GUM is the Kremlin, a walled fortress originally built in 1156. We enjoyed looking at its crenolated walls, massive doors, and towers. Many towers in the Kremlin are topped with stars made of ruby glass. These were installed in 1937, replacing the double headed eagle, which had been the symbol of Tsarist Russia. In front of the Kremlin wall is Lenin's mausoleum. The current structure looks stereotypically Soviet, a squat step pyramid made of polished red granite, marble, and black labradorite. His enbalmed body is on display here, but it was closed by the time we arrived.
St. Basil's Cathedral was on the opposite end of the square from where we entered. It seemed surreal to actually see it in person. It is every bit as impressive as we had hoped. The domes are brightly painted and textured. They are topped with gilded finials and crosses. The blue skies and bright sunlight enhanced its awe-inspiring beauty. We spent so much time admiring it and photographing it from every possible angle. We walked around the building, admiring late 17th century frescoes of icons.
The cathedral dates back to 1561. It has a whimsical, fairy tale feel to it. It is so iconic, and we couldn't believe that we were seeing it with our own eyes. To us, it is synonymous with Russia.
Although time seemed to stand still for us, its passage was marked by the Spasskaya (Savior) Clock Tower which dates back to 1491. It chimes every quarter hour, and on the hour the bells ring out the time. We were so enraptured by our surroundings that it seemed like it was just constantly chiming.
When we finally tore ourselves away, we walked back across the square, and stopped into a gift shop in the State Historic Museum building. There was an employee dressed as a Tsar. I was like a kid in a candy store in this shop, which ran the gamut from trinkets to amazing works of art. There were hundreds if not thousands of matryoshkas of all kinds, as well as finely painted lacquer boxes, icons, painted eggs, and baltic amber. Once again I had to restrain myself. I would have plenty of opportunities to buy souvenirs, and we knew that Red Square was probably not the most cost effective option. But, being able to see and price what kinds of things are available would help to inform later purchases. Snd it was good to know that this shop, with all of its lovely items, is within walking distance of the hotel, should we decide we absolutely need something before leaving Moscow.
We left Red Square via the Resurrection Gates. We turned around and noticed that you could see the far-off St. Basil's Cathedral peeking through the left archway. It became obvious that this is the most dramatic way to enter the square. The original gates, which were built in 1680, were demolished by Stalin in 1931, as he wanted military machinery to be able to enter the square for parades, and it wouldn't fit through the gates. But, like much else in the city, the gates were rebuilt in their original image after the fall of the Soviet Union. On the outside of the gates is the small Gate Church of the Iberian Virgin (also recently rebuilt). The Tsars would pray here before entering the Kremlin. We saw many people stopping here to cross themselves before entering Red Square through the Resurrection Gates.
We once again crossed the main intersection via underground tunnel. We stopped in to a small subterranean shop selling matryoshka dolls. They had some exquisite examples, but the prices were higher than the two other shops we had perused. It was fun to look at the selection, but eventually the heat of the tunnel got to us and we continued on our way back aboveground.
We walked back up Tverskaya Street toward the hotel. We stopped into a little "souvenir shop" which was quite interesting. It had a small array of souvenirs, as well as bottled drinks and donuts. There was also a contact lens vending machine. I have never seen anything like it. It contains boxes of disposable Acuvue contact lenses (the same brand that I wear) in various prescriptions. It seemed much cheaper than at home, too!
Craig was looking at the beer in the refrigerated case. The woman working at the store was quite friendly, and spoke into her phone so that it translated her words into English. We were able to ask her about the beer selection. Yay technology. Craig bought a local Wolf's Brewery IPA and I bought a 5 Ocean Hard Cider to take back to the hotel.
By now it was around 4 o'clock. We knew that we would have to eat something this evening before getting a full night's sleep. Our stomachs still weren't on Moscow time, so we weren't terribly hungry. We decided that we should get a small bite to eat. We knew that restaurants could be expensive in Russia, and we wanted something reasonably priced. Being our first day in the city, we didn't really know what the options were. Luckily, we could recognize the Cyrillic letters for restaurant (pektopah) and cafe.
We came across an adorable restaurant called the Beverly Hills Diner. It was piping 1950's music out onto the street corner, and through the window we could see that it had classic retro diner decor. The waitresses were dressed in cute uniforms and looked like they just stepped out of a Tom Waits song.
We could certainly get a bite to eat here for a reasonable price. We couldn't resist the allure of a Russian take on an American diner, so we entered and were seated at a red naugahyde booth. Our table had a linoleum top and aluminum trim. There were neon signs for the Rolling Stones and Hotel California, and the ceiling was covered in shiny tin. This seemed to be the American Dream as idealized by Russia...fascinating!
Craig got a roast beef dinner with gravy, steak fries, and steamed veggies. I got meat loaf with gravy, mashed potatoes, and steamed veggies. We each had a decadent milkshake to top it off (Craig had strawberry and I had vanilla). It was exactly the comfort food that our jet-lagged bodies craved. Our modest bill was delivered in an oversized Campbell's Soup can.
We walked back to the hotel at around 5 o'clock. We rested for a while and looked at the day's photos. But by the time the sun went down, we couldn't resist walking back to Red Square to see everything lit up. I was a bit concerned about Craig, wondering if he should get some rest, but he was resolute. He had his cane and he felt good, so let's go! It was colder now that the sun had gone down, so we wore more layers. As we exited the hotel, a man was playing a baby grand piano in the lobby.
We walked back to Red Square. It was really beautiful to see all of the gorgeous architecture lit up at night. And to top it all off, the almost-full moon was visible above St. Basil's Cathedral and the Kremlin! The Square was busier tonight than it had been during the day, but we felt totally comfortable and safe walking around by ourselves. We did notice that there was absolutely nowhere to sit in Red Square. Craig was once again happy that he had his cane. As he stood there, he was able to lean on the cane to take some of the pressure off his legs.
After walking around the square and taking photos, we walked along the Kremlin walls and saw the eternal flame burning at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We saw some statues and fountains in Alexander Garden that must look amazing in other seasons when they are operational.
By 9 o'clock, our legs were tired and we decided that we should really get some rest. I knew that if I was tired, Craig must really be having a tough time. But he had insisted on going out again. Luckily, he has his cane and it helped with his mobility. As always, he is a trouper, though he may pay for it a bit tomorrow. We have a busy day tomorrow with Olga, and we are meeting some friends of my friend and colleague Maria tomorrow night at a museum.
Back at the hotel room, we enjoyed the beer and cider we had purchased at the convenience store this afternoon. I finished writing up the day's adventures and posting it to Facebook. I knew that we would both sleep very well in the marshmallow bed.
I had taken 441 photos today. Not bad for a day where we had nothing planned!
Marriott Grand Hotel Moscow
Early morning arrival at Domodedovo Airport
State Historical Museum
St. Basil's Cathedral
Spasskaya (Savior) Clock Tower
St. Basil's Cathedral
St. Basil's Cathedral
Resurrection Gates and Gate Church of the Iberian Virgin (notice St. Basil's peeking through the left gate)
Beverly Hills Diner
Beverly Hills Diner
Approaching Red Square
St. Basil's selfie
GUM historical shopping arcade
Moon over St. Basil's