The cold, crisp air felt a million miles away from a sunny beach in the Caribbean, yet in reality it was more like 9,000 kilometres.
I’d just taken a breath of the Muscovite atmosphere in the heart of Russia’s capital. This grand and storied city would be my oyster for the next six days
Acting out the sequel to our African adventure of late last year, where we soaked up sun on the beaches of The Gambia, was, indeed, an option. Instead we found ourselves plunged into minus temperatures, swapping the bathing suits for base layers, thick coats, gloves and hats.
This was where I wanted to be.
Imposing, authoritarian, unsafe – say what you want about Russia and its drawbacks, but for me it served up a treat as one of the best places I’ve visited so far.
I don’t say that lightly, either. It doesn’t look out of place in the same crucible as New York, Rome and Paris – great destinations and global cities that have no shortage of attractions and tick most boxes for the average traveller, yet the Russian heartland extended further than my expectations.
I remember approaching Red Square – night had fallen, and we were cold and hungry. Straight ahead was the opening to a city centrepiece, on our right red brick fortifications extending from the Kremlin and left was GUM. No, not the kind you put in your mouth, chew and then spit back out again, but GUM – an infamous shopping mall renowned for its high-end stores and opulent architecture. Impressive even on an average day, it cut a stark contrast to the night’s sky, thanks to its wonderful beautification, elegantly laden with bright white lights. Class on class.
But on we marched like the Soviet soldiers before us, and within seconds we were subject to a breathtaking sight. Bereft of greenery but not decoration, pavement-lining trees were alive with the sparkle of baubles and lights. Beyond them was a Christmas market and ice rink – a prime location for such festive fare, as well as being an unexpected surprise. Across Red Square was the impressively imposing wall of the Kremlin, standing in all its majesty and enchantment.
It was all set against the backdrop of Saint Basil’s Cathedral – a building so beautiful that it’s said that then-ruler Ivan the Terrible ordered that its architect, Postnik Yakolev, be blinded so that he could never create anything so magnificent again.
That story alone is emblematic of the Russian enigma. Exciting, enticing and, still, very questionable. Before I went I was aware of the alleged LGBTQ rights abuses in Chechenya and Russia’s previous issues with race, as well as football hooliganism. People thought I was crazy when I decided that we would be going to a CSKA Moscow game. My girlfriend questioned the decision after she was told about the behaviour of certain Russian football fans.
Perhaps, though, she was right to be worried. Just last year there were clashes between England and Russia fans at the European Championships in France, and if certain documentaries are to be believed, there’s still some unfinished business.
Yet despite media portrayals and against the trepidation of those who have clearly been observing, I decided that we would go anyway. As I suspected, we encountered no problems other than missing the first couple of minutes of the game as my girlfriend had to queue in a women-only line to be searched by a female, and saw each of the goals as the home side duly dispatched of their opposition six-nil.
As for the issue of racism, I don’t think it is really deniable. There are videos, there are reports and there is a problem. But the select few always make the headlines over the bashful many, and it is easy to become consumed with the idea that Russia is a wholly racist nation. When I was there I saw tourists of various colours and creeds enjoying themselves and, on the whole, I found the Russian people to be helpful and pleasant – an oversight which also took me by surprise last year on a trip to Belarus.
Then again, we were clearly in the minority ourselves. Moscow is one of Europe’s two biggest cities by population, so there was always going to be a large local-to-tourist ratio deficit. But I wasn’t expecting the divide to be so vast. One of Moscow’s most redeeming features was how few tourists there are, which becomes accentuated when compared with its size. I remember getting a snap in front of Saint Basil’s Cathedral on the first night. Still on a high from seeing Red Square for the first time, we wandered on over to the famous building for an evening photo op. Saint Basil’s is one of the world’s most iconic buildings, but the difference between it and the likes of the Eiffel Tower and the Colosseum was the absence of crowds. We were able to get a photo together without unwanted photobombing by hundreds of other tourists. Fewer tourist numbers also meant little queuing for attractions and a Christmas market that could be enjoyed at a leisurely pace, creating an intimate experience.
Above ground, Moscow is surprisingly spacious and not the jam-packed Mecca I was expecting. But a few metres below the surface it’s a different kettle of fish. The Moscow Metro is one of the world’s oldest, busiest and most beautiful public transportation networks in the world, and we were able to sample its glory. From contemporary fittings and grand light fixtures to communist-esque murals, busts and statues of some of Russia’s most famous and revered figures, the city’s Metro stations are an attraction themselves. Trains are usually busy but are so frequent that a wait of over 120 seconds feels like an age, and each of its 14 lines contribute in covering the entire city so that you’re never more than a 10 minute walk from the closest station. It was also amazingly cheap, too. At just under £11 for unlimited and uncapped use over a seven day period, including access to buses and trams, it put the London Underground and the rest of the UK’s public transport to shame. Not that that’s saying much, of course.
The cost of Moscow is another drawing factor, but doesn’t cover the whole of the capital experience. Food and drink was a similar price to what I find at home, although alcohol was a fraction cheaper. Moscow has a great mix of restaurants which seem to be spread out across town, and while we didn’t have any proper Russian fare – sausage and mash potato cone aside – we tried Caucasian specialities such as Georgian Lavash and shish kebab at a restaurant called Tkemali, while also having time to fit in Butcher Steak House and Ryby Net - both of which served up delectable cuisine, while a trip to the Krispy Kreme café just had to be made.
But when it came to museums and attractions, this was where the real value for money shone through. Although they do have discounts for their own citizens, most places in Moscow where you have to pay for entry offer student discount or discount for young persons – and that’s on top of already low prices. Entrance to the likes of the Kremlin and Saint Basils Cathedral was reasonably priced, allowing us to splash out on cool, alternative activities like playing old arcade games at the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines. This is one of the most awesome things I’ve done on my travels and it felt great to mix things up and do something different.
But money is not just to be saved with student discount. Souvenir shopping is part and parcel of any Moscow tourist’s itinerary, and we made the smart decision to steer clear of the extortionate prices from the gift shops in and around Red Square, instead opting to go to Ismailovsky Market. We headed over there one afternoon not even realising that the market also opened on weekdays as well as the weekends as advertised online. With snow falling rapidly from above, we hurried inside the entrance to find a trove of matryoshkas, or Russian dolls to you and me, joined by a whole host of souvenirs from Soviet memorabilia to Vladimir Putin keyrings. We went a bit crazy and bought more than a few gifts and, in true market spirit, we bartered on price with warm and friendly traders, which made for a fun and enjoyable afternoon. It was a great experience and a heck of a lot cheaper than centrally-located establishments.
The market is, conveniently, located next door to the Ismailovsko Kremlin – an eclectic collection of buildings brought together to form an enclosed fairytale village inside Moscow’s city limits. Ironically, this winter wonderland turned out to be better than its bigger and more famous counterpart, and inside it had treats such including an orthodox church, chocolate museum and the most amazing gingerbread shop with tasty treats galore.
Having so much fun in our Moscow playground made it easy to forget about the hassle that is obtaining a Russian visa. Since early 2017 when neighbouring Belarus decided to permit visa-free travel for tourists for up to five days, Russia is one of only two European nations that requires UK passport holders to have a visa for short visits – the other being Azerbaijan. I detailed the process’ trials and tribulations in another post, but that was the real pain when it came to getting to Moscow. But if you are prepared to set a couple of hours of your life aside to fill out an application form and apply in person at one of three application centres which can be found in Edinburgh, London and Manchester, you’ll find out that it was a worthwhile sacrifice as soon as you step off the plane.
Moscow is a place that is steeped in history, has an incredible portfolio of ridiculously fascinating architecture and attractions and, without the visa conundrum, would easily be one of the most visited cities in the world, chalking up popularity akin to that of a Barcelona or Amsterdam. But, unfortunately for most, visa-free access isn’t a reality which for intrepid travellers like myself is both a blessing and a curse. Being in a big city without being inundated with fellow tourists was a breath of fresh air, and it is probably worth visiting before Moscow follows the lead of Minsk – even if that is a fairly unlikely proposition.
And while I could have been on a beach sipping mojitos and topping up my sun tan, I was still content in my own, personal paradise. Thank you, Moscow; we’ll see you soon.