Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Must go to Moscow

Our daytrip to Moscow starts so early in the morning it’s almost the day before. I’ve had a yen to visit Moscow for ages, I envisaged myself strolling around the Red Square in a big Russian hat and dining exotically on blinis and caviar. It is way too hot for a furry Russian hat of any size so instead I grab my black wide brimmed hat and sunglasses and make a sleepy way to St. Petersburg airport. This is the first time I’ve realised the need for Roubles, I only have Euros and US Dollars, and even a street vendor selling fridge magnets and guide books will happily accept dollars. In fact that is their preference! I had totally forgotten that a state owned establishment i.e. an airport would be insistent on being paid in their national currency and my hopes of grabbing some bottled water are thwarted.

We fly to Moscow on Russia airlines, not one I’ve had heard of. One of our party tries to take pictures of our little plane before take-off. Hmm not entirely wise, the end of the cold war and the birth of perestroika may have meant that we have so much more liberty to visit this wonderful country and explore their treasures but freedom is still a new experience for many and the police and military do like to keep a wary eye on these foreign visitors. So take as many pictures of Saint Basil as you’d like (and I did) but forget recording our inaugural visits to Russian airports, they just don’t like it!

Moscow was full of surprises for me, the first being we were supplied with headsets so our brusque little guide could speak into a J-Lo style microphone and we could still hear her even in the inevitable crowds. This meant that we could explore the Moscow Metro without fear of being separated. And the Moscow Metro was the second surprise. I use the London Underground daily and as ours is worlds oldest it suffers from extreme numbers of passengers, is somewhat ragged around the edges and is prone to engineering issues due to its elderly structure (I am being as kind as I can here) but I have a curious affection for it. If we were still allowed to explore the abandoned ‘ghost’ stations and tunnels, I’d be first on the list. Unfortunately the necessary increased security in our modern world has meant that particular “avenue of pleasure” is closed.

Our Muscovite guide revels in their Metro and is keen to point out the both the grandeur and the efficiency. The stations decorations were indeed a revelation. As well as the suitably stoic figures and slogans urging industry and good honest toil there were fabulous friezes studded with diamonds and other precious stones, stunning ceilings with adorned with gold Soviet emblems and art deco lights. It flashed through my mind how long such a diamond studded frieze would retain its diamonds on the London Underground despite it being seemingly inaccessible over the tunnel to the escalators. Hmmm, maybe moments I think!

Another surprise is St Basil's in Red Square, it does somewhat look like it was coloured in by children, it almost doesn't seem real and it does inspire my Moscow fridge magnet. I'm not entirely sure which has the crazier colours!

After a stop in a hotel for pineapple pastries and tea we headed off for the Armoury and the Kremlin. I was in two minds about the Armoury.

I am not deeply fascinated by guns, cannons or tanks and if that’s all there was I am not sure if I really wanted to bother but I couldn’t have been in for more of a surprise. The Armoury Chamber is a treasure house forming part of the Kremlin Palace, and houses a huge collection of gold and silver, thrones, carriages, horse ornaments, dresses and to my total delight some utterly fabulous Fabergé eggs.

These were not the egg shaped pendants I had been lusting over during my Russian stay but some of the original remaining Imperial Easter eggs extravagantly adorned and containing a surprise (so now I know where Kinder Surprise comes form!) And the surprises? Well how about a miniature solid gold wind up steam train with carriages. I could have pressed my nose against those cabinets for ever but there was so much more to see. Such a lavishness and show of wealth I have ever seen, many of these bejewelled offerings were a sweetener to the Tsar hoping he’d permit trading or a foreign monarch sending a little show of appreciation. A tiny thing like a massive hand carved diamond studded, gold carriage. Which once delivered would never perform the duty it was designed for but just add to store of ‘pretty trinkets’. It was all rather mind blowing!

After positively gorging on all that opulence, we headed off for a taste of local cuisine in a ‘typical Russian’ restaurant. Or we tried to, our day had been occasionally interrupted by coach problems, it seems that Russian coaches aren’t as reliable as their Metro system. And awaiting a new coach in the searing heat makes us very late to arrive at the restaurant.

I did wonder how we’d manage with understanding the menu, but there wasn’t one so one less thing to worry about. Everyone in the restaurant had exactly the same meal and each dish was a surprise.

M and I were seated by our taciturn waiters in a little balcony for two with a magnificent view of the restaurant, the musicians and the diners below. Our starter was some very welcome fluffy blinis and sour cream with a smattering of caviar (not Beluga I hasten to add, but salmon roe). Not a bad start! I break my usual rule of photographing food in restaurants by using a flash. It is so dark and everyone is taking photographs anyway of their surroundings so I can’t imagine I could be accused of disturbing anyone, always a fear nowadays. Next we had a vivid salad of pepper and tomatoes which I decide to pass on, but I have to admit that it looks colourful. Next it is the Russian classic of Beef Stroganoff with some fried morsels of potatoes. It’s not bad at all; we have had a fabulous day but are somewhat fatigued now so some good food is most welcome. We wrap up with some fruit and ice cream which we polish off quite promptly as we have a plane to catch.

We head for the airport hearing more about the history of Moscow on the way, board our little plane again and drag our weary bones back to the ship in St Petersburg. A truly glorious day but I am really looking forward to a sleep now. I think I can guarantee diamond encrusted dreams tonight!

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