As a result of the intermittent WiFi availability on our current trip, this (and future blogs) will suffer a few days delay in publication! We apologize for this – and for the minimal editing (therefore extensive prose) of the posts. Nevertheless, we hope you enjoy. The tour started on Thursday June 12.
We are currently(June 15) in Moscow on the first leg of a twelve day visit to Russia with two English friends of ours, Keith and Zena. Keith was a high school friend of mine but we lost touch for almost fifty years, only “finding” each other again about eight years ago. Since that time all four of us have become good friends and we see them every time we visit England and spent a three week vacation together in the Western United States in 2011. We had arranged late last year to take this Russian river cruise together, so here we are on the Viking Rurik about to sail for St Petersburg.
On our first day (Friday) we booked our afternoon tours of the city of Moscow: Molly and I choosing the bus tour and Keith and Zena opting for the walking tour.
Our bus took us on a quite extensive tour of the center of Moscow from which we saw the Kremlin, the Bolshoi Ballet Theatre and many more public and private buildings – the most spectacular of which were the dozens of onion domed churches. Obviously we had seen pictures and TV programs about these magnificent buildings but the “real life” versions are so much more impressive. I think that the most distinctive difference between the images we had had and the sites we saw today were twofold: first the size and secondly the number. We must, in just the few hours we were downtown, have seen dozens of absolutely marvelous churches (usually with five domes representing Christ and the Four Apostles) and we were told that the country has 50,000 such buildings.
The colors are the same as we had seen on photographs but so much more vivid and spectacular as we got close and were able to look at them in a little more detail.
While still on the bus we stopped at an overlook where we had a great panoramic view of the city – churches, the Kremlin, the KGB Building, civic and government buildings and ultra-modern skyscrapers; and so much more. Crisscrossing the entire city was the Moscow River which essentially loops the downtown area and over which span numerous wide bridges span, each providing another perspective.
After this two hour plus tour, we got off the bus and were ushered into the Metro system to travel for about 15 minutes and four stations in distance. The Moscow Metro is the largest in the world and, in addition to being a major mode of transport (as many as 9 million passengers per day) it is something of a work of art in itself. Each station is built in a different style and each has its own character, architecture and art work.
We climbed up from the underground (as much as 100 feet below street level) and were close to the Bolshoi Theatre and only five minutes’ walk from Red Square and the Kremlin. We were led by our guide to the center of Red Square and then into the three storey exclusive department store, GUM, containing many store brands, ranging from Gucci, to De Beers and including every name that might be found in Paris, London or New York – and probably many more besides.
Molly and I chose to spend most of our time walking around Red Square (rather than GUM) where we saw the magnificent St Basil Basilica, one side (about a quarter mile in length) of the Kremlin wall, Lenin’s Tomb mausoleum, a magnificent History Museum and several other onion-domed churches – as well as the outside of GUM, a beautiful stone edifice that could grace any European city as a civic or government building.
The Kremlin is much more than the austere walls that one normally sees; much more on that later. Red Square itself – a cobble stone plaza – is also enormous and much more appealing than the iconic setting for Red Army parades and Soviet display of strength. It is much like many similar open areas in other European cities (Vienna sprang to my mind) but on a much larger scale.
After walking all around the Square we left and walked a short distance to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
This is guarded by two army officers (presumably 24/7) and fronted by an eternal flame. We arrived in time to witness the changing of the guard and saw the two new arrivals replace those that had been on duty for an hour – the march in and out being in the high-stepping form that we associate with Russian (and other eastern European) armies.
We were then taken to a theater where we were to see a “local musical evening”. Molly and I were somewhat apprehensive as we have experienced several of these on previous tours and, while of some interest, have generally been of rather amateurish caliber. Not tonight, however. We were treated to almost 1 ½ hours of absolutely first class musical entertainment by the Moscow Folk Orchestra.
The ensemble were young (I thought perhaps students at a musical academy) but were of the highest quality and amassed an amazing collection of authentic Russian instruments. We were given a number of solo performances, which were excellent; there were several duets (like “dueling balalaikas!) and an amazing “competition” for supremacy between two xylophone players. In addition there was a comic musician who played (amongst other things) a saw and wooden spoons, and a beautiful soprano who sang two very graphic and enthusiastic love songs. It was a truly magnificent, beautiful, interesting, unusual – and amusing – end to our day.
Saturday was to be a day of sightseeing on our own and the bus was available simply to ferry us back and forth. In fact, the four of us decided ahead of time that we would return to the ship via the Metro so that we could leave town at our convenience.
We first went to the magnificent Cathedral Church of Our Savior, not too far from the Kremlin.
This church was built (in only four years) at the end of the 20th Century on the same site that had housed a 19th Century cathedral before Stalin ordered it demolished in the thirties. It was actually blown up and, as the plans also were lost, the “restoration” was a complete re-build based on photographs and, presumably, memories. The site had been designated by Stalin for an enormous “Palace of the Soviets” but funding issues stalled the construction and a swimming pool was built there instead!
When the USSR fell and the Russian Federation was formed, the then mayor of Moscow was instrumental in the decision to build a cathedral here again. Apparently the designers and builders did as faithful a reproduction as possible, even to the extent of persuading the Italian quarry to be re-opened to obtain identical red marble for some of the inside walls. The Cathedral is now the tallest Orthodox Church in the world and dominates the skyline, despite the whole city it seems being a sea of onion domed churches, and is capable of accommodating as many as 10,000 people. The central dome above the main sanctuary is 103 meters tall and is decorated with what must be an enormous Christ figure, surrounded by many Biblical paintings. The rest of the church has dozens of wall paintings, many icons and a beautiful marble floor. It is very open, very light and very inspiring.
The high altar is not seen from the sanctuary and in its place is a very ornate building within the church itself. There is what appears to be a communion rail in front of this baptistery-like structure and that is really the only clue to the existence of an altar. Nevertheless, the cathedral is an amazingly beautiful building and, in my opinion, loses nothing as a result of it being a “copy” of the original.
We then walked to Red Square where we had wanted to visit Lenin’s tomb but as we reached the end of the line, security personnel were indicating that only those actually in line would be able to get in before the appointed closing time. So, we missed it – just as we had on our visit to Temple Mount in Jerusalem a few weeks earlier! As Molly said – we shall just have to come back again. And, indeed, a return visit to this city would be a worthwhile objective as it clearly has a lot more than we have been able to cover in this visit.
We returned to the ship via the Metro, stopping at one very ornate station before completing our journey. After dinner on the ship we left by taxi for downtown once again to start our “Moscow by Night” tour from the water. The Moscow River essentially does two U-turns in the heart of the city; hence we saw most of the monuments, churches and other historical, cultural and civic sites that we had already seen in our two bus tours. However, the views from the water obviously gave another perspective and, at least towards the end of the ride, the approach of darkness and the illumination of the buildings provided yet another dimension.
On Sunday (our final day in Moscow) we went on a tour of the Kremlin. We started by walking through one of the many gates of the Kremlin on the side opposite Red Square.
Once inside the Kremlin walls (which are two kilometers in circumference in a roughly triangular shape) we saw just how different it was from the pictures we had received over the years whenever this institution was mentioned. First, its size is perhaps an order of magnitude bigger than the image I had had and, secondly, inside the walls is a small but very impressive city. We saw at least five cathedrals of various sizes (some designated for Royal Family use only when built, others in honor of various saints), many colorful and beautiful civic and reception buildings and some beautiful gardens and parks. Each was approached via broad streets (now essentially devoid of traffic) and, as a result of the location on one of Moscow’s higher hills, with great views over the rest of the city and the Moscow River on which we had sailed last night.
The first cathedral we entered was the Cathedral of the Assumption and, of course, was built in the Russian Orthodox style with few pillars but with every inch of wall space decorated with either frescoes or mosaic, painted or metallic relief icons. Apparently all Russian Orthodox churches are very similar in design but the icons and frescoes added the individuality.
The second cathedral we visited was dedicated to St Michael and also contained the tombs of most of the Czars of the past six centuries. The guide gave us an interesting perspective on the pre-Revolution royal history as well as describing some of the changes that resulted during the Soviet years when religion was banned and many icons, and even buildings, were destroyed. Apparently, however, a goodly number of these decorations were saved by moving them to “safe houses”, although whether this was a sanctioned or covert operation was not clear. In any event, the post-Soviet era has seen a tremendous resurgence in religion and church attendance (even amongst the young) so perhaps these glorious edifices will be around for future generations of locals and tourists to enjoy.
Once again, we felt that no matter what your Faith (or level of its intensity), it is difficult not to be moved by the beauty of these buildings and the “story” on which they were built and decorated and how much we owe (in architecture, art, design and music) to those whose faith did indeed inspire such expressions of beauty – all of which have provided generations with such emotion and awe.
Our final half hour within the Kremlin walls was spent walking through the park and garden areas where beautiful flower beds, trees and grassy areas provided an oasis from the hustle if the city proper and a wonderful setting for the cathedrals and civic buildings.
So are leaving Moscow following an amazing three days during which our impressions of the city (and to some extent the entire country) had been totally transformed. We had arrived with an expectation of a dour, drab, perhaps dirty (probably matched by its inhabitants) and left with a picture of a vibrant, clean, stunningly beautiful city with a wide variety of European and Asian architecture and, for the most part, a population that mirrored that image. Yes, there are still the non-smiling toilet attendants and eye contact in busy public places is minimal but on every occasion when we had direct interface with the locals it was a pleasant, helpful and rewarding experience. We were yet again so grateful that we are in a position to experience other countries and cultures and see just how different – and so much alike – we all are.