MOSCOW

August 14, 2010 - Moscow, Russia

On August 13th we arrived in Russia for yet another one of our weekly three day stints, and I was all ready to create the “St. Petersburg # 7” file when I got some really great and surprising news – on the second of our three days, I would be escorting the day tour to Moscow! Now, not only was I surprised because this was a very special tour, one in which mainly only Officers (or “Stripes” as I call them) get to attend, but also because I didn’t find out that I was even going until the day prior, less than 24 hours before. Normally, this would be no big deal, but like I said, this trip to Moscow was a special tour. A special, whole-day tour which included airline reservations! That’s right! I’d be flying to Moscow bright and early the next morning! In fact, the name of the tour was Moscow by Air.

I woke up at around 5:30am to make sure I had enough time to get ready for my 6:00am meeting time in the theatre, where I met Claudia and Mariana, both of whom were also escorting today. I was very excited that I wasn’t the only escort going because now I’d have someone to hang out with. And not just anyone either, I really have fun with Mariana and Claudia and enjoy their company very much, so I definitely lucked out! (I also lucked out because, as I’m sure even you at home are aware, Moscow had gone through a very recent disaster with brush and forest fires which sent the city into a complete hazy smog. In fact, last week’s tour to Moscow had been cancelled because of it. We were all keeping our fingers crossed that it wouldn’t affect us this week! Fortunately for us, it didn’t and we were all a “go”!)

There were 79 passengers total who were attending the tour, all spread amongst three coach busses. Each bus not only had one of us escorting, but also a guide from St. Petersburg, and then an additional guide (a Moscow local), who we’d pick up once we arrived in the city. For everything that was involved in getting to Moscow, I was surprised at how smooth the process went. Well, for everybody but me, that is! You see, when we arrived at the airport and got our tickets, for some reason my name wasn’t on the airline’s list. And as you can imagine, it wasn’t very easy for Mariana (Assistant Destinations Manager) to explain to the Russian gate attendant that, “This must be a mistake. All the information from the ship was sent two days ago. I can show you. His name and information is on all of my manifests.”

Although Mariana assured me that everything was going to be okay and it would all work out, it was at this point that I started to get a little worried. Was I not going to get to Moscow after all? Did I get my hopes up for nothing? I noticed now that not only was the gate attendant on her phone, but also Alex, my busses guide, as well as Mariana. Everyone was seemingly a little panicked, but still, Mariana assured me that I’d be getting on a plane today. Thankfully, she was right. We never really did find out why or how my name was excluded from the list, but it was fixed. Fixed by Alex, who actually bought a ticket for me out of his own pocket! Of course his company will be reimbursing him, but it was still so nice and selfless of him to do. I was just lucky the flight wasn’t sold out!

Before I knew it, I was seated on a small plane and headed to Moscow. The plane was like every other plane I’ve ever been on before – one aisle with rows upon rows of three seats on both sides. I don’t know what I had imagined, or why I had expected it to be any different than what I’m used to, but for some reason I had. In reality though, it was exactly like flying at home, bad luck and all. I was seated next to people who were completely rude, behind someone who insisted on declining his seat, leaving me with practically no leg room and then, of course, the baby a few rows away started crying. Before any negative feelings could set in though, it struck me that this was the first time in 8 months that I distinctly remember hearing a baby cry. I was sent into some odd appreciating revelation, where I just sat back in my cramped seat, next to the complaining passengers, and listened to the beautiful crying of the baby. Well, this lasted a quick 25 seconds before the little voice in my head came back to life and told the baby to shut the #$%# up!

In all seriousness though, none of it bothered me. I was heading to Moscow, a place I had never imagined myself ever visiting, and I was doing it for free. (Did I mention each passenger paid $1,099 to do this?!!?) It was like killing two birds with one stone – visiting Russia, and getting to see both of its major cities! There was no way I could allow myself to be affected negatively when I was too busy counting my blessings!

Once we landed safely, we boarded our new coach busses, and met our Moscow guide, Tanya. She was very friendly and anxious to take us on our full day adventure. Of course, Alex would be coming along as well! I felt lucky in the team of guides assigned to my bus! They were easy to understand, helpful and just as excited to spend the day in Moscow as we were. I felt even luckier when we arrived closer to the city because not only was the day clear, with no signs of smog at all, but the weather was beautiful and, as Tanya said, “The fact that it is a Saturday means that the city will be less crowded. Most locals leave the city on weekends to go to their summer homes in the country.”

Tanya was right! The city wasn’t crowded at all! In fact, even she was surprised at how un-crowded it was. She said that if it were a Monday, the streets would be filled with locals going about their daily business; it’d resemble any other major city on a weekday. But, again, seeing as how it was the weekend, and due to the abnormal summer they’ve been experiencing, most people are probably away, soaking up the last bit of sun they can before it all goes away again for more than the better half of a year.

I didn’t care what it was taking the Moscow locals out and away, but I definitely appreciated it! It allowed for us to easily and quickly navigate our way through the streets and casually take in the sights at more of our leisure. Speaking of which, the city itself is very impressive! I had heard some passengers from past trips come back and say they preferred St. Petersburg, while others had the complete opposite opinion. I, myself, would have to agree with the latter group. Moscow was above and beyond St. Petersburg in my eyes. It was cleaner with a more modern, less depressing feel to it. It was younger, hipper and contemporary, while still being filled with buckets of history.

Speaking of which, the first stop we made was for a great photo opportunity across from the Kremlin, the walled ancient heart of Moscow and the oldest part of the city. We stopped just along the street on the opposite side of the Moskva River, where I was able to capture some great pictures of the long red brick wall guarding the white churches with gold onion domes behind.

The Kremlin sits at the very center of Moscow, atop Borovitsky (Pine Grove) Hill. Few places in the world possess the historic resonance of the Kremlin. The first wooden structure was erected on this site sometime in the 12th century. As Moscow grew, the city followed the traditional pattern of Russian cities, developing in concentric circles around the elevated fortress at its center (kreml means “citadel” or “fortress”). After Moscow emerged as the center of a vast empire in the late 15th century, the Kremlin came to symbolize the mystery and power of Russia, as it has ever since. Before the black-suited men of the Bolshevik Revolution took over, the Kremlin became synonymous with the Soviet government, and “Kermlinologisits,” Western specialists who studied the movements of the politicians in and around the fortress, made careers out of trying to decipher Soviet Russian policies. Much has changed since the Soviet Union broke up, but the Kremlin itself remains mysteriously alluring. A visit to the ancient Kremlin grounds reveals many signs of the old – and new – Russian enigma.

Of course, a visit to the Kremlin grounds was planned; however, we’d have to wait because first we were headed to another notorious landmark in Moscow – Red Square.

World famous for the grand military parades staged here during the Soviet era, this was originally called the Torg, the Slavonic word for marketplace. Many suppose that the name “Red Square” has something to do with Communism or the Bolshevik Revolution. In fact, however, the name dates to the 17th century. The adjective krasny originally meant “beautiful,” but over the centuries the meaning of the word changed to “red,” hence the square’s present name. The square is most beautiful and impressive at night, when it’s entirely illuminated by floodlights, with the ruby-red stars atop the Kremlin towers glowing against the dark sky. There are five stars in all, one for each of the tallest towers. They made their appearance in 1937 to replace the double-headed eagle, a tsarist symbol that is again finding favor as an emblem of Russia.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see Red Square at night, but it was impressive enough in the daylight to send me on a photo snapping spree. There was just so much to take in! I immediately wanted to capture everything I could on film. The first landmark we saw was St. Basil’s Cathedral. It instantly reminded me of the Church of Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg, however, this building was even more elaborate and colorful, if you could imagine! At once, I was taken back to my childhood and thrown right into a scene of the popular board game, Candyland. St. Basil’s, properly named the Church of the Intercession, looked as though it belonged more in Disney World than Russia. It was just so whimsical!

…It was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible to celebrate his conquest of the Tatar city of Kazan on October 1, 1552, the day of the feast of the Intercession. The ventral chapel, which rises 107 feet, is surrounded by eight tower-like chapels linked by an elevated gallery. Each chapel is topped by an onion dome carved with its own distinct pattern and dedicated to a saint on whose day the Russian army won battles against the Tatars. The cathedral was built between 1555 and 1560 on the site of the earlier Trinity Church, where the Holy Fool Vasily (Basil) had been buried in 1552. Basil was an adversary of the tsar, publicly reprimanding Ivan the Terrible for his cruel and bloodthirsty ways. He was protected, however, from the tsar by his status as a Holy Fool, for he was considered by the Church to be an emissary of God. Ironically, Ivan the Terrible’s greatest creation has come to be known by the name of his greatest adversary. In 1558 an additional chapel was built in the northeast corner over Basil’s remains, and from that time on the cathedral has been called St. Basil’s.

Now in the very middle of the square, our guide talked to us a bit as to what we were looking at before letting us explore on our own for the next hour. Across the way, I saw Claudia with her group, and quickly met and linked up with her. Together, we set off to explore, keeping a lookout for Mariana, whose group didn’t seem to make it yet.

The first thing we did was stroll across the square to the Lenin Mausoleum.

Except for a brief interval during World War II, when his body was evacuated to the Urals, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924) has lain in state here since his death in 1924. Whether it’s really Lenin or a wax look-a- like is probably one of those Russian mysteries that will go down in history unanswered. From 1924-2930 there was a temporary wooden mausoleum, which has been replaced by the pyramid-shape mausoleum you see now. It’s made of red, black, and gray granite, with a strip of black granite near the top level symbolizing a band of mourning. Soviet leaders watched parades from the balcony.

A visit to the mausoleum is still treated as a serious affair. The surrounding area is cordoned off during visiting hours, and all those entering are observed by uniformed police officers. IT’s forbidden to carry a camera or any large bag. Inside the mausoleum it’s cold and dark. IT’s considered disrespectful to put your hands inside your pockets, and the guards have been known to reprimand people for unbuttoned collars or sweaters. If you’re inclined to linger at all, they will gently but firmly move you along.

Outside of the mausoleum are special burial grounds. When Stalin died in 1953, he was placed inside the mausoleum alongside Lenin, but in the early 1960’s, during Khrushchev’s tenure, the body was removed and buried here, some say encased in heavy concrete. There has been talk of finally burying Lenin, but even in today’s Russia this would be a very controversial move, so he is likely to remain in Red Square for some time.

We didn’t really have quite the time to walk through Lenin’s Tomb, although I had really wanted to. I dragged Claudia along with me from one end of the square to the next, trying to decide how and where you enter from, or if there was a fee involved, but when we thought we figured it out, it seemed too late. By the time we would walk through, we’d have to meet back with our group. So instead, we took pictures of what we could see from the outside, including the carved granite busts of the deceased men buried there.

Still with no sign of Mariana’s group, Claudia and I continued to tour and explore Red Square, stopping briefly to get photos at the Historical Museum, the large red-brick building, built in the pseudo-Russian style in 1874-83, located on the opposite side of the square as St. Basil’s. We also checked out GUM.

…Pronounced “goom,” the initials are short for Gosudarstvenny Universalny Magazin, or State Department Store. This staggeringly enormous emporium, formerly called the Upper Trading Rows, was built in 1889-93 and has long been one of the more famous sights of Moscow. Three long passages with three stories of shops run the length of the building. A glass roof covers each passage, and there are balconies and bridges on the second and third tiers. Another series of passages run perpendicular to the three main lines, creating a mazelike mall. In feel, it resembles a cavernous turn-of-the-century European train station. There are shops (both Western and Russian) aplenty!

This building is located opposite of Lenin’s Tomb and definitely commands Red Square, taking up most of the land. The funny thing is, despite the lengthy explanation above, it’s basically and simply…a mall. Granted, it’s one of the nicest and most formal looking malls I’ve ever been in, but still, its reason for existing – shopping. Claudia and I basically just walked in, checked it out and then walked right back out to explore a bit more, but we found it pathetically funny how when we first arrived, each of us had passengers run directly into GUM and probably not come out until it was time to re-meet. Some people’s priorities are still so surprising to me!

When we exited GUM, it was about that time to split up again and go with our respective tour groups. Go figure, this was exactly the time that we finally ran into Mariana. Apparently her group was the odd ones out, following a bit of a different itinerary so as not to overcrowd any place. We had enough time to just quickly grab some trio pictures before I was back with my group and heading towards the famous Moscow Metro.

Maybe famous isn’t the word, but when visiting Moscow or St. Petersburg, a trip on the metro is definitely recommended. The stations are unlike any I have ever seen. They are particularly ornate, most adorned with beautiful artwork, including chandeliers, sculptures, stained-glass windows, mosaics, and pink, white, and black marble. With its rich collection of decorative materials, the metro has often been called a museum; it’s even been said that no geological museum in the world has such a peculiar stone library.

Admittedly, this part of the tour was a bit more stressful for me as an escort because it was much more difficult to keep track of everyone. We actually rode the trains from station to station, and making sure everybody got on and off was definitely worrying to say the least. At this point of the tour, we hadn’t really had a break, and the only thing we’ve eaten (if you didn’t have a breakfast before you left the ship) was a boxed lunch on the bus ride from the Moscow Airport to the city. Needless to say, the last thing I wanted was a tired passenger to get stuck on a random underground train and not know where the rest of the group ended up. Luckily, when we reached our final station, all were present and accounted for. Whew!

One thing that I found particularly interesting about the hustlers and bustlers riding the metro was their sense of superstition and optimism. You see, in one of the stations, our guide Tanya pointed out a statue of a hunter and his dog. She told us to pay particular attention to the dog’s snout, which we all noticed was a different color. Apparently, it is said to be good luck to rub this area of the pup when you pass. Some people even make wishes when doing so! And since we were honorary Muscovites today, Tanya had us do the same, one by one, as we left the station and headed to our next stop.

Luckily, our next stop was to the Golden Ring Hotel, where we would have our first pit stop of the day. Coffee, tea and pastries were waiting for us in the ballroom of the hotel, where we had just about forty minutes to rest up and fuel up before venturing back out. And of course, there was also the hotel’s souvenir and gift shop, which, exhausted or not, caught the eye of many of the passengers. (At least here, in a hotel and not a historical playground, I understood the “shopaholism” more.)

I have to admit that it probably wasn’t until this part of the tour that I was actually beginning to feel awake from when I even first awoke. I can’t remember the last time I saw 5:30 in the morning, so it took me a bit of time to adjust. I was finally feeling energized. And it was a good thing because next we were headed for what was going to be the bulk of the tour, the Kremlin.

It stands to mention that on our way to the Kremlin we passed a few notable attractions. One was the old KGB building, and the other was the Peter the Great statue, something that’s been talked about a lot in Moscow. Now, before I explain why, I have to say that I really liked the statue. Granted, I’m not a local, but as a passerby, I was impressed!

The enormous statue of the tsar stands atop a base made in the form of a miniature ship. He’s holding the steering wheel of a ship, symbolizing his role as the founder of the Russian naval force in the 1700’s. The statue, measuring 90 feet high, has been a source of controversy since construction started on it in 1996. Most Muscovites agree that the statue, made by Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s favorite sculptor, Zurab Tsereteli, is not only an eyesore but also has no place in Moscow since Peter the Great was the one who moved the capital of Russia from Moscow to St. Petersburg. After citizens complained, a board of art experts was formed to decide if the statue would stay. They decided to keep it. The decision was made mostly in light of the fact that erecting the statue cost $20 million and dismantling it would cost half that amount. When you finally set eyes on the statue you’ll probably understand why common nicknames for it are “Cyclops” and “Gulliver.” The colossal statue is so tall that a red light had to be put on its head to warn planes.

Once inside the walls of the Kremlin, we headed directly for the Armory Chamber that holds an amazing collection of Russian treasures, including court regalia, jewelry, coronation gowns, armor, golden carriages and some of the fabulous Easter Eggs created for the tsars by Karl Faberge. All of it took my breath away. In most of the palaces I’ve visited in St. Petersburg, there has, of course, been artifacts and famous pieces of history, however, none of which has been as incredible as to what I saw in the Kremlin’s Armory Museum! There I was, standing in front of pure multi-karat emeralds which bejeweled elaborately decorated bibles, intricate Faberge eggs, one of which once had an actual working train set built inside, and the actual wedding dresses that Catherine the Great, amongst others, wore on their special days! We proceeded through the museum to see crowns, carriages, and even the thrones that the actual royalty used.

The oldest throne veneered with carved ivory, belonged to Ivan the Terrible. The throne of the first years of Peter the Great’s reign, when he shared power with his older brother Ivan, has two seats in front and one hidden in the back. The boys’ older sister, Sophia (1657-1704), who ruled as regent from 1682 to 1689, sat in the back, prompting the young rulers to give the right answers to the queries of ambassadors and others.

I was absolutely floored! I could have stayed in there for hours upon hours researching and observing, but eventually, we had to continue on to the 15th century Byzantine-style Assumption Cathedral, the Kremlin’s oldest and most important church. Here, tsars were selected and crowned, decrees were read, and solemn rites celebrated.

From there, we headed back outside to further tour and explore the Kremlin. We passed the Tsar Bell:

The world’s largest bell is also the world’s most silent: it has never run once. Commissioned in the 1730’s, the bell was damaged when it was still in its cast. It weighs more than 200 tons and is 20 feet high. The bas-reliefs on the outside show Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich and Tsarina Anna Ivanovna.

We also saw the Tsar Connon:

This huge piece of artillery has the largest caliber of any gun in the world, but like the Tsar Bell that has never been run, it has never fired a single shot. Cast in bronze in 1586 by Andrei Chokhov, it weighs 40 tons and is 17.5 feet long. Its present carriage was cast in 1835, purely for display purposes.

Our time spent inside the Kremlin was definitely a bit exhausting and, before we ended, a sporadic pit stop in a nearby park was definitely in order. After enough energy was restored to at least make it back to the coach, we did just that. Not only was everyone getting a bit restless, but also very hungry; myself included! We were all ready to get to the dinner portion of tour, but before we could, there was one last and final stop.

A relaxing drive through Moscow found us atop Sparrow Hill, a famous overlook that provides a great view of the city. Market tables and stands were lined up along the sidewalks offering the same traditional Russian trinkets you could find in St. Petersburg, except with the name Moscow displayed instead. I didn’t do any shopping, but I did get a few pictures of the view before getting back in the coach, anxious and starving for a good meal!

On the way to the restaurant we were lucky enough to see a bit of what the present mayor of Moscow is building up as a thriving financial and commercial district, the “downtown” of Moscow, so to speak. Currently there are seven sky scrapers that dominate the area which is filled with popular stores, neon lights, restaurants, bars, clubs, bold advertising, etc. I am definitely excited to hear how the project develops. Who knows! Maybe one day, I’ll even see how it did develop.

Finally, we made it to The Writer’s Club, the restaurant where we would be eating. It was absolutely incredible! The building used to be the home of a very wealthy family, and even looked as though it could have once been a church, but the fact of the matter was, presently, this was one of the most exclusive and elite restaurants in Moscow. And you could tell! The entire thing resembled a country club, complete with cigar bars, coat checks, stairs leading to random rooms, etc. It was amazing! There was even a piano player in the main dining room, entertaining us with his music, while next to him sat another bar, complete with the rarest and most sought after whiskeys and bourbons.

Claudia, Mariana and I were lucky enough to have a small table to ourselves in the main dining room and quickly ordered ourselves some wine. Everyone was having a blast! How could you not? The service was wonderful! The atmosphere was beyond impressive. And the food was out of this world! I cannot even begin to explain to you how delicious my main course was – Beef Stroganov in a bread bowl! It was HEAVEN!! I ate it extra slowly just so I never finished! Obviously, eventually I did finish, and fully satisfied and content, I sat in my chair and once again counted my blessings.

Before it was time to re-board our coaches one last time and head for the airport, I asked Tanya just how exclusive The Writer’s Club is. I wanted to get a better understanding as to where we just ate. And, to put it simply, she said, “This is where our president takes colleagues and famous dignitaries to meet and eat.” 

Wow! I couldn’t believe it! Reading the expression on my face (one of perplexity as to how we got to dine there), Tanya responded, “If this wasn’t off-season, and you weren’t with a group who paid as much as they did, this wouldn’t be a place where you’d be allowed or even welcome.”

What a treat…literally! What a delicious treat!

By the time we got back to the ship, it was 1:30am. I was exhausted, but completely ecstatic about the day I had just spent in Moscow. Thank you to Destinations for choosing me to escort! Thank you to Lorraine for allowing me the day off to escort.  And thank you to Tanya and Alex for providing us with an incredible day where everything went as amazing as it did!

I am so lucky! I am so blessed! And therefore, I have one more “thank you”.

Thank You, God!

Love,

Erich

*Italics - FODORS, Moscow


Pictures

Moscow
Moscow (2)
Moscow (3)
Moscow (4)
 
 

3 Comments

vera kniss:
September 3, 2010
Dearest Erich
It is so wonderful to follow you through Moscow. I can't believe how lucky you are to take part in this exclusive tour. It could not happen to a nicer fellow. from now on when you hear or see these places on the news you will understand everything so much better and you will be mad that we don't hear more news from the rest of the world. with love and kisses and the" best of birthday's ever".
as always Vera
JIM:
September 4, 2010
Thanks for the moscow tour Erich. Cannot believe how ornate everything is, and Happy Birthday wishes from all of us here. It will be one you'll always remember.
Love, Uncle Jim
MAMA:
September 7, 2010
Wow Moscow!!! You were so lucky to get this trip ERich. I can't imagine how excited you must have been. The restaurant which you would never have been able to even walk into, let alone dine there,
The Kremlin, Red Square, museums etc. The pictures were magnificant and the little boy in the uniform was priceless! I am so glad you had this experience. I can't wait to hear all about it in person.
Love you
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