Monday 10 December 2018

Moscow: Red Square in the sunset

Holidays in Russia

St Basil's Cathedral and Red Square in the dawn
St Basil's Cathedral and Red Square in the dawn
Simon Rowe
Moscow's underground is impressive - just check out the Kiyevsskaya metro station

Simon Rowe

Moscow: the name instantly conjures up images of Cold War intrigue, Soviet-style architecture and Red Square.

But Russia's capital has so much more to offer than cliched stereotypes.

Like a famous Russian matryoshka doll - a set of wooden dolls of decreasing size placed one inside another - Moscow is a sprawling cosmopolitan city of many layers.

Practically at every turn visitors are reminded of the capital's rich history and culture - whether it's the city's grand sweeping avenues ordered by Stalin, ornate onion-domed Orthodox churches that dot the skyline, monuments honouring the heroic sacrifice of Russian citizens in World War II (The Great Patriotic War), and the bustling book stalls where locals indulge their love of reading and literature (only the Chinese read more books than Russians).

Moscow wears its culture proudly on its sleeve. This is the city of the Bolshoi Theatre, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky. This is the country of world-renowned literature, ballet, painting and classical music.

For first-time visitors, Moscow can make your head spin. First, it's the capital of the largest country on earth - a country that covers over one eighth of the earth's land mass and encompasses 11 time zones.

Simon Rowe
Simon Rowe

Second, Moscow is big. In fact, it's huge - about twice the size of New York and London. So, you will do a lot of walking.

The super-efficient metro is the fastest way to get around. Be sure to avoid driving in Moscow during rush hour as traffic is mental.

Although Moscow is famous for defeating invaders (including Napoleon and Hitler), the city is gearing up to welcome armies of football fans for this summer's 2018 World Cup - the first time the tournament has been held in eastern Europe.

Russia is spending $10bn on hosting the tournament, which will be held in 11 cities in three different time zones. Five new football stadiums are being constructed and another four being upgraded or rebuilt.

The first stop for football fans visiting the Russian capital will likely be the city's metro system - a veritable subterranean cultural treasure trove.

Built in the 1950s, the city's vast underground network of rail stations are a must-see. They are tourist attractions in their own right.

Moscow's underground is impressive - just check out the Kiyevsskaya metro station
Moscow's underground is impressive - just check out the Kiyevsskaya metro station

For good reason, the Moscow subway is called the most beautiful in the world - 44 of the nearly 200 stations are listed as cultural heritage sites.

Designed to showcase the work of Soviet artists, ideals, and icons, the metro stations are works of art, incorporating marble walls, bronze statues, high ceilings and grand chandeliers.

Standouts are the metro stops Kievskaya, Komsomolskaya and Ploshchad Revolyutsii (Revolution Square) near the Kremlin.

What is equally impressive is that the subway stations and platforms are kept in pristine condition - not a drop of spray paint graffiti to be seen anywhere. This is no mean feat given that Moscow Metro transports up to nine million people a day (in comparison, the London Tube carries five million passengers daily).

These "palaces for the people", as Stalin called them, were intended to remind the often hungry, downtrodden masses that their tax roubles had been well spent.

Buy a Troika card (like a Leap card) if you're spending a few days in Moscow. It beats queuing for tickets and is great value with each journey costing just 40c. Download the super Yandex metro app, too, to navigate the network.

History buffs will enjoy a visit to Pobedy Park (Victory Park), just a short Metro trip from the city centre. The park is a long promenade surrounded by water fountains, which leads up to a 142-metre high obelisk covered in representations of scenes from World War II. The memorial site was built in 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of the war. Behind it lies the crescent-shaped Museum of the Great Patriotic War. At night, the fountains are illuminated red to symbolise the blood shed by Russians in the war - approximately 20 million died.

During my stay I stayed at the five-star Radisson Royal hotel which overlooks the Moscow River. This sumptuously elegant hotel has been chosen by FIFA to be its headquarters during next summer's tournament. Even if you're not staying at the hotel, a visit is well worth the effort.

The hotel's huge marble-floored foyer and ground floor is home to high-end boutiques selling furs, diamonds, and top fashion brands. To top it all, there's even a Rolls-Royce dealership at the entrance.

Take a peek too at the 'mini Moscow' exhibit, an elaborate 400ft model of the city located beside the lobby bar.

The Radisson Royal is a famous landmark on the Moscow skyline. It has 35 storeys and its spires soar 675ft high.

Built in the 1950s and designed in a Stalinist-gothic style, the former Hotel Ukraine is known as one of 'The Seven Sisters' of Moscow - a group of seven skyscrapers built under Stalin's orders during his reconstruction of Moscow.

The hotel's presidential suite, a sprawling two-level apartment complete with bullet-proof glass windows and a white grand piano, recently hosted Chinese president Xi Jinping.

The hotel's rooftop Mercedes bar and restaurant is well worth a visit, too, as it offers impressive panoramic views of the city.

If you like exotic food with a Persian twist, then visit the Farsi Restaurant on the hotel's third floor. Popular with Iranian and Middle Eastern guests, the restaurant offers authentic food in an ornate setting with arched ceilings and rich oriental fabrics.

I recommend booking a Moscow River evening boat cruise. The 2.5-hour round trip departs from the Embankment in front of the Radisson Royal Blu hotel and is the best way to see the sights (including the 98ft monument to Peter the Great, the Kremlin, Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and the Russian 'White House') from the comfort of a luxury cruiser, all the while being wined and dined. An unforgettable evening.

Top of any visitor's list has to be Red Square. Few places in the world hold such historical resonance. As the backdrop to any selfie, Red Square, the Kremlin and St Basil's Cathedral offer an unbeatable combo.

Sitting on a whopping 800,000sq ft site, Red Square is beautifully framed at the southern end by the incomparable St Basil's Cathedral - the architectural wonder that is the country's national icon. The cathedral's bewitching blend of colours, patterns and shapes is uniquely Russian - however that it was designed in 1555 by an Italian who, according to local legend, was blinded by Ivan the Terrible to prevent him ever building anything as beautiful. Comprising nine different chapels, this labyrinth of vaulted corridors and ornate ceilings is a must-see.

If you've time to spare, check out the ceremonial Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Kremlin in the Alexander Garden. The soldiers, in full dress uniform, march using slow traditional high goose-steps to guard posts beside the Eternal Flame dedicated to the Soviet soldiers killed during World War II.

For nightlife, check out Strelka and Ruski. Both offer fantastic night-time views of Moscow. Strelka is often voted one of the best bars in the city. Located centrally on Bersenevskaya Embankment, its art deco interior incorporates elements of Italian and Scandinavian design from the 1960s and 1970s. Drinks cost a little extra on the terrace area but it's money well spent as the bar boasts great views across the Moscow River and it overlooks the beautiful gold-domed Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

Ruski, on the other hand, is located in Federation Tower in Moscow's glittering business district. It claims to be the highest restaurant and bar in Europe.

The interior offers panoramic views and the view from the restaurant on the 84th floor is impressive. The top floor viewing platform at 374 m (1,227 ft) is the best spot from which to see the city at night.

Finally, a few tips for first-time visitors to Moscow. Becoming familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet will help you decode street and metro signs, maps, timetables and menus. A little effort to learn Russian will go a long way too.

It will be especially appreciated by locals who may appear indifferent to foreigners (don't take it personally!) but they will appreciate your efforts to speak their language.

Get there

There are no direct flights to Moscow. Simon flew CityJet to Paris Charles de Gaulle and then with Aeroflot from Paris to Sheremetyevo Airport, Moscow.

Simon stayed at the five-star Radisson Royal Moscow, visit radissonblu.com/ru/royalhotel-moscow.

A tourist visa from the Russian Embassy in Dublin costs €86.

Sunday Independent

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