Sunday, 17 July 2011

Moscow City Tour

Saturday 16th July 2011

I got up at 6.00 a.m. and went for a buffet breakfast at about 6.50 a.m. I was surprised that the Opera Restaurant was already crowded. Later, there was the usual messing about trying to get my Notebook Computer to talk to the ship’s Wi-Fi but eventually, with the help of the reception staff, I succeeded and checked e-mail before disembarking at 8.30 am for our Moscow City Tour. A number of modern coaches were lined up on the promenade. Sorting everybody out took some time but we set off about 8.45 a.m.

Moscow University.

Our first stop was at an Observation Point, high on one of the Seven Hills of Moscow (I thought that was Rome!) overlooking a curve in the Moscow River and with the Stalin-era Moscow University building behind us. There were already a number of tourist buses there and the broad promenade sported a large number of souvenir stalls. Having observed the view and taken a few photographs, we piled back on the bus and drove towards the centre of the city. The coach dropped us off on the main street, within a few hundred yards of Red Square. Just outside the entrance gate leading to Red Square we stopped to look at the ‘Zero Kilometre’ marker, a brass plate set in the cobbles from which all distances in Russia are measured. A short uphill section of cobbles led us into the huge expanse of Red Square, with Lenin’s Tomb and the forbidding walls of the Kremlin on the right, the GUM store on the left and, at the far end of the square with its multi-coloured domes shining in the morning sun, the fairy-tale bulk of St. Basil’s cathedral.

Our guide took us into the famous 'GUM' Store. It’s now divided into a series of separate up-market shops representing all the designer labels you’ve ever heard of. Visually, it’s quite attractive with (I think) three parallel glass-roofed arcades each with shops on a number of galleries reminiscent of, say, Milan. There are numerous opportunities to sit and drink (no doubt expensive) coffee. There was a window display I rather like with a collection of twentieth century radio and television sets, wind-up gramophone, slide projector and a movie projector. We checked out the Rest Rooms before returning the Red Square.

Next to St. Basil's I could see a large mobile crane. As we came closer, a loop of cable dangling from a platform held aloft by the crane suggested a bungee jump, but the platform held a small car. Our guide expressed the view that Red Square was too important to the Russian people to be used for such trivial purposes. As we walked away, the car was launched from the platform to bounce up and down on what was, indeed, a bungee rope. It was only much later in the day that I was able to examine the area closely, discovering that the set-up was a stunt for 'Top Gear Live', at which point I decided that I shared our guide's disapproval.

We left Red Square by retracing out steps, pausing to make a brief visit to the Russian Orthodox Church near the gateway. Returning to the coach, we carried on through the streets of Moscow. Since it was a Saturday, there was very little congestion. We passed the headquarters of what was formerly the K.G.B. The building looked more suitable for the headquarters of a rather conservative bank than a feared organ of the State.

The coach stopped under a railway bridge crossing the Moscow River. We got off the coach and a short walk led to a promenade with steps leading down to a quay where a fairly large trip boat was waiting for us. The downstairs cabin was laid out with a series of 8-seat tables and chairs for taking lunch and a well-stocked buffet bar. I didn’t have to queue for long before I was able to assemble a simple meal, but some of the passengers boarding behind me had a fair wait.

As soon as everyone was aboard, we set off at a fair speed along the curving river through the wooded hills we’d looked down on during our first stop that morning. The bank on our right was a public park and we could see lots of Muscovites enjoying a sunny Saturday morning. We passed what appeared to be a River Police station and another quay with ferry boats frequently coming and going. The ski jump was not in use but the associated chair lift seemed to be giving rides.

One bridge over the river appeared to be an abandoned railway bridge, now serving as a pedestrian river crossing. A massive glazed roof had been erected over the top, so it was a curious-looking affair. Another improbable sight appeared on the river bank – a Soviet Union Space Shuttle. Although there are significant design differences, at first sight you would be certain that you were looking at an American Space Shuttle. Just a coincidence, I’m sure. We then passed a fun-fair which appeared to be closed. All the rides were modern – a pirate swing boat, Ferris Wheel and a number of variants of steel roller-coaster. I was puzzled by a tall vertical pylon (which presumably shoots its passengers straight up) which had been carefully decorated at the top to resemble the familiar London landmark always called ‘Big Ben’ (properly, only the name of the large bell).

By this time, I’d completed my lunch and made my way to the open, upper deck. This was about the limit of our tour and, having waited for various trip boats to pass, the boat turned around and started to make it’s way back. I noticed a large pleasure boat moored which had an elaborate covered deck at the stern and a large illuminated sign reading (in Russian) ‘KAPAOKE’. I don’t think I need to translate that.

There was a large floating crane moored together with a tug. The deck of the crane carried various grab buckets. It appeared that continuous dredging of the Moscow River is necessary – dredging was actually in progress just opposite the quay where we boarded our trip boat.

A huge, fantastical statue now reared up on the starboard side. Situated on its own little island, with a pedestrian access bridge and pumps gushing water from all around the base so that it looked afloat, it seemed to represent a number of wooden ships hulls piled on top of one another, reminiscent of a car scrap-yard, surmounted by a much largest sailing ship with three sails on a single mast complete with all the rigging. The heroic figure of a man held the ship’s wheel with his left hand whilst his right hand brandished a scroll. I believe the figure represents Peter the Great and it was erected as recently as 1997. I was going to say it was ‘Disney-esque’ but, on reflection, I think ‘Only in Russia’ would be a better comment.

Of course, the various massive Stalin-era Government Buildings (like Moscow University) are themselves pretty improbable in appearance. I was intrigued by the unlikely architectural treatment that Power Stations around the city have been given, being made to look vaguely like upper-class apartments. We passed one such power station near the river which now additionally sports a huge television screen used for advertisements.

Quite near to the Kremlin, a large site was being redeveloped and massive temporary walls about 40 feet tall shielded activities from view. Not to waste this wall space, the wall carried advertising for Lenovo computers, extolling the fact that there is ‘Intel Inside’. Passing under a road bridge, we had a brief view towards St. Basil’s Cathedral and Red Square, before sailing past the part of the Kremlin wall which faces the river. We continued past the park, around the bend in the river and docked at our starting point after a pleasant interlude.

Our coach took us back to central Moscow and we disembarked within sight of the Kremlin at a pedestrian bridge over a drainage canal which is popular with newly-wed couples as a site for picture-taking. There’s a small, modern statue and I tried to capture a romantic shot of one couple but although the bride was posing decorously around the statue in her fluffy white wedding dress, her morning-suited groom was rather ostentatiously turned away and engrossed on his mobile telephone. I give it six months.

From the bridge, a short walk took us to the State Tretyakov Art Gallery. Pavel Tretyakov was a private collector who assembled a major collection of purely Russian artworks from the 12th to early 20th century. The gallery opened in 1856 to make Russian art accessible to everybody and, although now state-owned, the gallery preserves the founder’s intentions. I imagine the icon collection is unsurpassed and, moving from one famous icon to the next, I started to understand the appeal of icons. I didn’t expect to appreciate the 19th century works but, again, there are a number of famous paintings.

I found a new hero in the works of Vasily Vereshchagin, whose works have an almost photographic realism. He was involved in a number of foreign military campaigns and recorded the horrors of warfare in a compelling manner. Although involved in numerous acts of personal bravery, he refused all honours. You can see one of his more famous works 'The Apotheosis of War' here.

Emerging from the gallery, we returned to the pedestrian bridge, still crowded with sight-seers and wedding parties. The bridge carries a number of ‘trees’ made out of metal. The branches are covered with specially-made and engraved padlocks, placed by couples to ‘lock-in’ their happiness. I hope it works.

Our coach then delivered us to Smolenskaya Metro Station for a short trip on Moscow’s main public transport system. This underground system opened in 1935 and is famous for the grandeur of some of the stations. Descending 70 metres by escalator, we travelled one station to examine the different architecture and then we travelled one further station, so that we’d seen three different styles. With trains running every 90 seconds, it was a simple matter to return two stations to Smolenskaya. From here, we walked to Albert Street, a pedestrianised area popular with tourists, and then to the Stalin-style Foreign ministry building where we re-boarded the coaches to return to the boat.

Pictures of our 'Moscow City Tour'.

But I was not yet finshed for the day because, after dinner on the boat, I’d booked for the optional ‘Moscow by Night’ tour.