Kitay Garod, Red Square and Park Zaryadye

Thursday, October 04, 2018
Moscow, Russian Federation
As we walked into the platform at Moskovsky Rail Terminal (St. Petersburg) around 10pm, we found ourselves amidst a sea of Chinese, a large tour group led by a 3 or 4 of trip leaders. This was not surprising; the Chinese were the most numerous among all the nationalities we had seen in tourist hotspots in St. Petersburg. They occupied every single compartment in our coach barring our own  which we shared with two middle-aged Russian men.  Given the late hour there was no socializing; it was lights out as soon as the train left the station and at day-break we were in Moscow. Angry grey skies greeted us as the train pulled into Moscow's Leningradsky Railway Terminal at 6:45am. Reluctant to venture out of the station in pouring rain, we tarried in the waiting area to freshen up and sought warmth from the coffee vending machine. Thus far, train station vending machines had been a reliable source of decent coffee in the country (we could attest to that after a string of early morning arrivals into a new city), and we expected nothing less here.  For the first time we came across one that ate our dubloons but did not present us with a hot beverage in return. Pressing random buttons to coax it to spit out the coins did not work either. Recognizing the futility of standing in front of a machine and pointing an accusatory finger at it, we sought satisfaction from one of several others distributed around the waiting level. 
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 on this later).
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. Across is the historic Hotel Metropol, a grand edifice built at the turn of the century. It is claimed that it has 365 rooms, each different in shape and decoration.
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. We strolled down the pleasant Nikolskaya ul. rubbing shoulders with well-heeled shoppers carrying large bags with premium brand names. 
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.  Among them are the large State Historical Museum and the War of 1812 museum, both exhibiting neo-Renaissance grandeur. A statue of WWII general (and hero) Georgy Zhukov stands stoically in front.
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. Three hundred years after it was built, the cathedral was completely demolished, again allegedly because it impeded the flow of celebrating workers during holiday parades.
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’. The words for ‘state’ and ‘main’ both start with a Russian G!
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. Basil’s Cathedral, an icon of not just of the city of Moscow, but Russia itself. This crazy confusion of colors, patterns and shapes is the culmination of a style that is unique to Russian architecture. In 1552, Ivan the Terrible captured the Tatar stronghold of Kazan on the Feast of Intercession and commissioned this landmark church, officially the Intercession Cathedral, to commemorate that victory.
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.  The centerpiece is the Media Center, which has purpose built theaters where short Virtual Reality programs are presented. We fastened our seat-belts in a theater with a semi-sphere screen and wind/water spalsh effects for a program named Soaring over Moscow. It simulates the the sensation of flying over all the well-known landmarks of the city in some kind of aircraft completely open in front of you and with your feet dangling. Special effects create the sensation of speeding up while passing through clouds (with mist spritzed on the face) evoking minor shrieks.
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. They were built on the demands and direction of Stalin, as part of his plan to make Moscow the “best city in the world in terms of architecture and comfort”, and the design was selected after a protracted architectural competition. The seven towering skyscrapers came to life over a period of several years and they still define Moscow’s skyline.
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.
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2019-01-18