Moscow Stories and Tips

MOSCOW- Russia’s showpiece capital

Arrival at the Moscow airport after 17 hours of airplanes put us in bad mood, a 115-minute wait at passport control, unclear signs, and pushy mobs of Russians. When we finally reached the arrival hall, things began to pick up. As promised, a person holding a sign saying "MS Tolstoy" was waiting right at the door. Transfer was handled by a driver and an English speaking member of the crew. When we finally arrived at the ship, about 10:30pm, dinner was still being served in the dining room.

Moscow’s 9 to 12 million people, depending on which source is right, live in a city covering nearly as large an area as los Angeles, 390 miles²  versus 450, making it an usually spacious city for Europe. Green space is further increased since most of the people live in high-rise apartments.

Moscow was founded in 852 A.D.
and became capitol of what would become Russia more or less in the 16th Century in 1157. In 1712, Peter the Great moved Russia’s capital to St. Petersburg where it remained for 300 years until the 1917 Revolution. The Communists restored Moscow as the capital in 1918.

Moscow Day One. It rained all day. That morning, we got on one of four busses for the approximately 130  passengers and met Masha, our excellent English speaking guide, for a tour of Moscow. After driving around seeing
the sights form the bus, we disembarked and rode Metro, stopping at four of the most notable Metro stations, finishing close to Red Square. We entered Red Square by the National Historical Museum, revealing an impressive view of Red Square, GUM, Lenin’s Tomb, and, at the far end stood grand St. Basil’s Cathedral. After Masha did her thing, she turned us loose, to meet in 30 minutes in front of St. Basil’s. We immediately headed for the small, wildly colored church on the corner behind us, where a full blown Russian Orthodox Service was in progress. Seeing and hearing the service, contestant chants by the priests and choir, was a not to be missed experience.

Then we entered GUM for our first encounter with a Russian restroom, a type we call a squat toilet—no seat, just two steel pedestals where you stand and squat.

After a brief lecture on recently repainted St. Basil’s and lots of picture taking, we reboarded the bus behind the Cathedral and headed to an impressive view of the Novodevichy Convent from the shores of Swan Lake, the one Tchaikovsky wrote the ballet about.

Back to the ship for lunch, then off to the Tretyakov Gallery to spend the afternoon visiting what is by universal acclaim, the greatest collection of Russian art anywhere. That said, if this is the best of Russian art, I can think of a lot of better ways to spend my time than looking at Russian art. We quickly abandoned the guided tour, walked through the place in quick time, and went outside to explore the streets until bus departure, a much better use of our time than looking at Russian art.

Dinner aboard was preceded by the Captain’s Reception and Cocktail Party. Having experienced this traditional absurdity twice before, we went early, grabbed a glass of the invariable cheap champaign, some hors d’oeuvres, and left.

Moscow Day Two. The morning tour of the Armory and Kremlin was a highlight of the Moscow visit, once it finally got started. Unfortunately, like passport control, the Kremlin is run by a government seemingly devoted to making tourists miserable—73 minutes to get inside the Kremlin walls. With hundreds of visitors lined up in the Alexander Garden, the government had one metal detector operating at the gate. The Kremlin is an old fortified city within the city. The red brick walls of the Kremlin extend for 1.3 miles, rising to 240 feet at some of the towers. About half the original towers are now gone. They were built a regular intervals spaced at twice the maximum range of guns in the 15th century so that gunfire from the ports in the towers could cover the entire wall. Inside the walls, the Kremlin, as the original Russian seat of government and religion, is a city of palaces and churches. The Armory Museum was built by the Tsars to display their wealth—Faberge Eggs, porcelain table settings for a couple dozen people, royal dress, Ivan the Terrible’s throne, Catharine the Great’s State Carriage, armor, guns—an altogether staggering display of conspicuous consumption. Unfortunately our tour did not include a visit to the diamond collection.

Then we had a guided tour across the grounds of the Kremlin, with a visit to St. Michael’s Cathedral. We left the Kremlin into Red Square, and walked past St. Basil’s to the waiting bus.

That afternoon, we took an optional tour to the Pushkin Art Museum (also offered, an optional tour to the grounds of the Novodevichy Convent). Almost all the people on the Pushkin bus went to see the Museum’s noted collection of French Impressionism (one gallery had a dozen Monets, the next room, 11 Renoirs), and some of them ran into trouble trying to find it. A reception had closed the route the guide directed us to take, and the floor plans were only in Russian. I had Baedeker’s, with a floor plan in English, so we maneuvered directly to the Impressionist Galleries. On our way back for quick walk through of the rest of the museum, we rescued some of our group who were still floundering about trying to find the Impressionist galleries with time running out.
Other than the Impressionist collection, there are some Kadinskys, Picasos, and a nice collection of artifacts from ancient Egypt. Much of the museum is given over to copies of great works from around Europe, originally made for use in art training programs.

After dinner, there was a choice of optional tours to the Moscow Circus or “Moscow By Night.” We took Moscow By Night, which turned out to be another highlight of the Moscow visit. First stop was some of the city’s newest contemporary buildings and a walk across the bridge over the Moscow River with views of the Kremlin.

Next stop, the Victory Monument, a vast memorial to Great Patriotic War (WWII) located on a hill with a panoramic view of the city. The Monument includes all sorts of monumental stuff, a war museum, 3 to 4 churches, and 1,400 fountains lit from below by red lights arraigned in a series of pools descending Victory Hill.

Our final stop was the city overlook atop Sparrow hill, the highest. place in Moscow, and here we learned why the tour brought us into Moscow on Friday. We met Moscow traffic in a midnight traffic jam on a bridge. We could see our destination from the bridge, perhaps ¼-mile away. It took 45 minutes to get there. We got back to the ship about 1:am.

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