Generally, when I visit a brand new city, especially one in a country that is totally foreign to me, I try to pre-book my excursions in order to maximise my experience. I didn’t do that for Moscow. My research had not revealed that many places that caught my interest and my hotel was quite close to everything I wanted to see so I decided to just wing it.
With traffic, it took about an hour to get from the airport to my hotel near the city centre. I checked in, dropped off my bags and set off. My intention was to change some currency at a nearby bank then take an exploratory walk to Red Square, which my map app told me was about twenty minutes’ walk away. I didn’t plan to do much except scope it out, as my plan was to spend the next day there and at the Kremlin. My exploration attempt failed spectacularly.
Oh, I got my money changed but about five minutes into the walk from the bank to Red Square, I found myself feeling exhausted and somehow just uncomfortable in my skin so I decided to head back to the hotel and rest. I was out like a light by 5:30 pm and I slept for twelve solid hours. The next morning, after some catching up with friends and family online, I had breakfast and was walking away from my hotel in the direction of Red Square by 8:30 am.
My route took me directly past the Bolshoi Theatre, the home of Russia’s elite ballerinas (as far as I know). It’s a beautiful building from the outside, with a water fountain and benches accenting the front. I didn’t go inside but I expect it’s at least as beautiful as the exterior. I sat by the fountain for a while just enjoying the morning, then I set off again.
Soon after that, I got turned around somehow and had to double back to get back on track, but I finally found Red Square at around 9 am. Even that early there were already a lot of tourists milling about. I wandered around a bit but most of the area was blocked off; I assumed it was for a concert because there were risers all over the place.
I continued my walk to the Kremlin, passing the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and joined the ticket line I needed by 9:45 am. Even at that early hour there were scores of tourists purchasing tickets already. With my ticket and map of the complex in hand, I proceeded to the entrance and walked right into the Kremlin.
I don’t know what I expected but it wasn’t what I experienced. I think in the back of my mind I had formed an impression of the Kremlin from Hollywood movies and expected to see muscular, seven-foot tall armed soldiers patrolling the entire place and menacingly staring down tourists. Didn’t happen. There were police ensuring that people stayed on the pedestrian paths but that was about it. No intimidating military presence in sight.
I spent the next two hours wandering around and inside of the main three cathedrals of the Kremlin. First, the Archangel Cathedral, which is the necropolis of “Muscovite princes and the first tsars of Russia,” according to the map of the cathedral that I picked up inside. The tomb of Ivan the Terrible is there. Next, the Annunciation Cathedral, which was the “private church of Russian grand princes and tsars for domestic and family ceremonies.” Then the Assumption Cathedral, of which purpose I have no idea since all the English language maps were done. Next, the Church of the Deposition of the Robe of the Holy Virgin, which was the “private church of the metropolitans and patriarchs of Moscow.”
I was unmoved by the interiors of all of these churches because I felt visually overwhelmed. They’re all covered from ceiling to floor in iconostasis. By the time 11:30 am rolled around, I was done with the churches and wandered out of Cathedral Square to see the Tsar Cannon and Bell, both of which were surrounded by tourists. Then the most delightful thing happened by accident.
I wandered back into Cathedral Square and noticed that people were standing on a few risers that had been placed around a section of the square. A group of police that I had noticed earlier were lined up forming an aisle into the resulting informal arena so I figured something was up and decided to linger there for a while. I got a pretty good spot near the police line and soon after that more people seemed to notice that something was imminent and wandered over to wait as well. At 11:45, a military band played into the square, followed by a parade of horses and foot soldiers. It was a great half hour show of sword twirling and precision marching while us spectators enjoyed it in the bright sunshine and cooling breeze.
After it was over, I wandered to New Kremlin Square and sat for a while people-watching and munching on cookies that I had brought with me. Then I walked around the gardens before re-checking my map to ensure that I hadn’t missed anything. I had, so I retraced my steps and visited the Patriarch’s Palace and Church of the Twelve Apostles. There were artefacts and more iconostasis so I didn’t stay very long. I bought some postcards from a nearby souvenir shop, had a sandwich from a food cart then left the Kremlin for Red Square, on the other side of the Kremlin wall. By the time I left, I felt like I had definitely gotten my 500 rubles worth for the more than four hours I spent there.
Back in Red Square, I decided to go in to see St. Basil’s Cathedral. It was also 500 rubles and I spent less than thirty minutes inside because there was just a lot of reliquary and more iconostasis. I did listen to beautiful singing of music of the Russian Orthodox church by a male quartet in one of the chapels but that was the only thing that held my interest there. Definitely not worth my 500 rubles. Honestly, if they had put on an hour-long concert, I would have felt like I got more than my money’s worth, their voices were that beautiful.
There was one other thing of interest in St. Basil’s and that was information on what used to be called Fools For Christ. Basically, they were ascetics who used to walk about naked in the street as a rejection of generally accepted norms of behaviour, faring ridicule and rejection as a way of overcoming their human pride, all so that they could become closer to God. I find that idea fascinating – not walking around naked in the street, but deliberately allowing myself to be stripped of fleshly pride in order to be closer to God.
Anyway, it’s said that they received the gifts of prophecy and wonder-working through their asceticism. Apparently, St. Basil was one such person.
From St. Basil’s I set off across the square again, stopping at GUM, a shopping mall on the square that is one of the must-sees in Moscow. I walked around for twenty minutes and left because the only thing of interest there is the beautiful architecture.
From there, I walked back past the Bolshoi to my hotel, then to a nearby post office to get stamps for my postcards. That night, I checked in online for my flight to Yakutsk, which would depart the next night, chatted with a few friends and caught up on news.
I covered 16.5 km walking that day. It had been sunny but not hot, a perfect day for sightseeing.