Moscow metro’s heavily used Line 5, also known as the Circle Line, passes through Komsomolskaya (Leningradsky station) and Belorusskaya, the location of our hotel and our immediate destination. We expected to find a subterranean path connecting from inside the train terminal to the metro but did not see any signs so we braved the downpour to exit into the busy and wide open Komsomolskya Square. The station is located under Moscow’s busiest transport hub and servers Leningradsky, Yaroslavsky and Kazansky (long-distance) railway terminals. Straight across on the other side of the square stood Hilton Moscow Leningradskaya, one of Moscow’s Seven Sisters skyscrapers, built in the 1950s in the Stalinist neoclassical style.
More than just a means of transportation, the capital’s metro stations have a reputation of being part history lesson and part museum (no two stations look alike), and Komsomolskaya metro station was an impressive introduction. Many military leaders and historical figures appear in mosaic form on the ceiling while the main vestibule has stylized Corinthian columns, baroque ornamentation and grand chandeliers. The mosaics at the Belorusskaya metro depict Belarusian daily life and the platform is intricately tiled to resemble a Belarusian quilt.
The ladies at the reception of the Grand Beloruskaya hotel (located amidst offices buildings and restaurants), were kind enough to offer early checkin if we came back in an hour, so we used the time to get breakfast and prepare ourselves for a day of sightseeing.
Teatralnaya on metro line 2 (green line) is just 3 stops away from Belorusskaya and we emerged out into Teatralnaya square, the location of numerous theaters including the famed Bolshoi Theater.
The nearby Lubyanka Square is dominated by the forbidding facade of the (former) Lubyanka Prison, notorious for housing the headquarters of the KGB at various times. Currently it is occupied by the Federal Security Services of the Russian Federation (FSB).
We left behind the heavy traffic of the square and entered the area known as Kitay Gorod, a historic neighborhood just north of Red Square.
It is Moscow’s first suburb and located adjacent to the Red Square which was originally created as a market square beside the Kremlin. In the 16th century, a number of boyars, including Russia’s future rulers, the Romanovs, built their estates nearby. In the 19th century, it became Moscow’s financial district, home to the Stock Exchange and major banks.
The narrow streets were originally the hub for trading and even today its main streets are lined with upmarket stores, banks cafes and churches.
Commerce and religion go hand-in-hand in this ancient part of the city. On a side street off Revolution Square is the Chapel of the Epiphany, the oldest (maybe second oldest?) monastery in Moscow. The delightful building exterior is an attractive shade of pink and the tower is considered a Baroque masterpiece. Entering the monastery, we found a traditional room with iconostasis, icon pictures on the walls and pillars as well as other items associated with Russian Orthodox worship.
The pedestrian-only street that led from Revolution Square towards Red Square sported a very festive atmosphere. Throngs of people mulled around autumn themed installations and decoration and there were traditional fall fare on offer in makeshift food tents. A cluster of stately buildings, with red-brick facade in varying shades of burgandy and topped with green tiled roofs, host a variety of museums.
On the other side is the ornate Moscow City Hall and in between the two is the Resurrection Gate, the northern entrance to Red Square. With its twin red towers topped by green tent spires, the original Resurrection Gate built in1680 was destroyed because Stalin thought it an impediment to the parades held in the square. This exact replica was built in 1995.
We paused for a while, taking in these historic surroundings before setting foot into Red Square, the vast rectangular stretch of cobblestones surrounded by architectural gems. To stroll across the place where so much of Russian history has unfolded over centuries and where the past mingles with the present, is guaranteed to evoke a sense of awe. The iconic St. Basil’s with its colorful domes bookended the square on the far side.
At the northeast corner of the square is Kazan cathedral, a 1993 replica of the original 17th century church built in thanks for the 1612 expulsion of Polish invaders.
With the threat of rain looming over our heads, we strode quickly to the center of the square, one that has long been a stage for pageants and processions. Before the revolution, the patriarch of the ROC would ride an ass though the square to St. Basil’s to commemorate Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. Religious processions were abolished in the communist era and military parades took their place. Each year on May Day and the anniversary of the Revolution, rows of grim-faced Soviet leaders observed the parades from one side of the square and they were in turn keenly studied by kremlinologists from the West trying to work out the pecking order.
Lining the entire length of the northeastern side of Red Square is the impressive facade of GUM (pronounced goom), Russia’s largest department store. The name GUM originally stood for the Russian words for ‘State Department Store’. Even before the revolution, this was a covered market with three parallel arcades. With a skylight roof and three-level staircase, the spectacular interior was a revolutionary design when it was built in the 1890s, replacing trading rows that occupied this site. It was nationalized in 1921 and for a period during Stalin, some shops were requisitioned as offices. When it was privatized in 2005, the name was officially (and conveniently) changed to ‘Main Department Store’.
As we pondered the surroundings, the skies opened up and we quickly high-tailed it to the comfort of the temperature controlled GUM building and waited it out in the bright, bustling shopping mall with hundreds of fancy stores and restaurants. As the rain petered out, we were back in the square facing the Kremlin wall with its many towers. In the center, at the foot of the wall is the Lenin Mausoleum where the preserved body of Lenin has been on public display since shortly after his death in 1924! The decision whether we should go in and gawk at it out of curiosity was thankfully taken off our hands, it was temporarily closed to visitors - too much moisture in the air!
The Spasskaya Tower or Savior Gate is the most important tower on the eastern wall and is the official exit onto Red Square. It is used for processions since tsarist times and two white-stone plaques above the gate commemorate the tower’s construction in 1491.
Having covered the length of the square we were at the southern end in front of St.
The anarchy of shapes hides a comprehensive plan of nine main chapels. The tall, tent roofed tower in the center houses the namesake Church of the Intercession of the Mother of God. The four biggest domes top four large octagonal-towered chapels; and there are four smaller chapels in between, each consecrated in honour of an event or battle in the struggle against Kazan. The onion domes were originally green, most likely acquiring their characteristic colors and patterns during an 18th-century restoration. But the church has always been a spectacle. Dutch tiles and gilded rings embellish the tent roof and over 300 multi-colored semicircular gables adorn the upper tiers of the churches.
In front of St. Basil, is a bronze statue that depicts two heroes from the “Time of Troubles” in Russian history, the butcher Kuzma Minin and Prince Dmitriy Pozharskiy. We had seen statues of this duo in other Russian cities on this trip and so their names and deeds were becoming familiar to us. They raised a volunteer force to fight the invading Poles, and in 1612, led their army to victory when they drove the Poles out of the Kremlin. The statue was erected in 1818, in the triumphal afterglow of the Napoleonic wars.
We spent some time inside St. Basil, checking out each of the nine chapels including the Baroque-style iconostasis in the Central Chapel of the Intercession where light floods in through the windows of the tall tented roof. Luckily for us, the soaring voices of a men’s choir that was performing while we were there enhanced the experience. A gallery runs round the outside of the Central Chapel and connects it to the eight others and while most of it is covered, there are openings from which you have an view looking out into Red Square.
Contented with our visit, we exited at the south end on to Ulitsa Varvarka, a relatively small street filled with numerous ancient buildings and churches. We walked past the attractive pink-and-white St. Barbara’s Church (now converted into government offices), Church of St. Maxim the Blessed (now a folk-art exhibition hall, Chambers of the Romanov Boyars a museum devoted to the lives of the Romanov family, who were mere boyars (nobles) before they became tsars). We visited the Old English Court, a reconstructed 16th century house that was the residence of England’s first emissaries to Russia sent by Elizabeth I (Tudor not Romanov!) to Ivan the Terrible. It also served as the base for English merchants, who were allowed to trade duty-free in exchange for providing military supplies to Ivan. Today, it houses a small exhibit dedicated to this early international exchange.
Ulitsa Varvarka forms the northern border to Park Zaryadye an example of the “wild urban” design technique that merges historic city streets with wild natural habitats. It occupies a prominent site along the Moscow river and is one of Moscow’s newer attractions. The “wild” refers to 4 different outdoor areas representing Russia’s geographic zones - tundra, steppe, forest and wetlands - each flowing seamlessly into the other. In addition to the parkland, it contains a vast outdoor amphitheatre, museums built into the hillsides and showcasing Russia’s natural resources and richness.
Also in the park is a 70m long “bridge to nowhere” that cantilevers halfway over at the Moscow river and loops back to Zaryadye. The overlook provides an exceptional view of the city’s skyline including the Kremlin and Red Square. We did not let the steady drizzle deter us as we enjoyed views of the many bridges across the river and the rest of the city spread to its south. On the horizon was the Kotelnicheskaya (Embankment) Building, one of the famed Seven Sister’s alluded to earlier.
To round off and with dinner on our mind, we headed to the pedestrianized Ulitsa Arbat with is at the heart of Old Arbat. In the 19th century, it was the haunt of artists, musicians, poets, writers and intellectuals and some of their homes have been preserved and opened as museums. But unlike the bohemian atmosphere of the Arbat that we had seen in the other Siberian cities, on this late evening on a week day, Moscow’s Arbat was quiet and there were hardly anyone on the cobblestone street lined with tacky souvenir shops. Even the choice of restaurants (for vegetarians) was uninspiring. So we decided to head back to Belorusskaya where we had identified some promising options in the morning.
With the convenience of the metro made patently obvious to get around just about anywhere in the city, we determined it made sense for us to pitch in for a 20-ride preloaded card (which can be shared) rather than wait in a queue and transact at the ticket counter each time. (On hind sight this was a good decision since lines can be long during peak hours).
We switched from the Line 4 (Blue Line) to the Line 5 (Brown Line) at Kiyevskaya station and were almost pinned to the walls of the interchange tunnel due to the rush of peak hour commuters. While it is impossible for any system to beat Mumbai suburban train crowds, Moscow metro certainly is right up there with the top most used, not to mention clean and efficient, rapid transit systems. We rounded off our first day in the city with dinner at ‘The Daily Bread’, a vegetarian friendly establishment close to Belorusskaya.