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Sunday, January 23, 2022

Beyond Matryoshkas & Marshrutkas


With its fabulous museums, rich cultural life, breathtaking architecture and history in every nook and corner, Moscow, beyond doubt, will remain forever etched in your heart. By Saurabh Kumar Shahi
SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | Issue Dated: April 28, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Moscow | Red Square | USSR | Europe |

Sheer mention of the word Moscow evokes myriad of imagery among the Indians of all age group. For the people in their mid-50s and beyond, Moscow evokes the best of Soviet Union days. A mishmash of culture, literature, politics—both cladestine and otherwise—heritage and much more. For children, Matryoshka Dolls and Nikulin Circus evokes pleasant memories. But then, there is a sudden blackout. As USSR disintegrated in the early 90s and India started looking for greener pastures, the affect was seen widely. The flights between Indian cities and Moscow dwindled as their national carrier, Aeroflot, started making news for the wrong reasons. Lured by the post-Cold war Europe and further West, tourists started looking for more options. Amidst all these, Moscow started slipping from the radar. A decade or so later, it remained a shadow of its former self.

However, as it is said that one bounces back after hitting the rock bottom; the same stood true for Moscow as well. The over exposure of Western cities, the desire to explore what is near and the plain nostalgia has put Moscow back on the travel map. Meanwhile the city has added so much to its profile that a fresh look has become necessary.    
Basics first. If there is one carrier that has completely reinvented itself in the last few years, it is Aeroflot. Gone are the days of rickety planes, soggy food and torn carpets. Aeroflot now boasts of one of the youngest fleets of aircrafts in the world served by Boeing, Airbus and indigenous Antanov and Ilyushin. It has direct connections to almost all the big metropolises in India and has a sector leading luggage allowance.

Moscow, because of its sheer size and importance, is served by as many as four international airports. However, without exception, if you are not planning to take your private jet or sneak inside a commercial jet, you are most likely to use either Sheremetyevo or Domodedovo International Airports. The flights from India lands at the former, which is new and splendidly equipped.

AeroExpress serves the connection between airport and Belorussky Railway Terminal in the city centre that are half an hour apart. This is the cheapest and the easiest way to reach Moscow downtown. You can take taxi too but it is costly and will take much longer time amidst traffic snarls especially during peak hours. 

Going around in Moscow is a breeze. The city boasts of one of the most efficient and widespread metro networks in the world. The lines are laid out in such a way that one can see the entire city without being away from the metro station anywhere. There are cards for multiple trips and transfers are free. Stations, as well as the city, have destinations and roads written in both Cyrillic as well as Roman scripts, and maps are readily available.

Muscovite are interesting people. While at the first look they might appear as reserved, the people are actually very forthcoming and any request for assistance of any kind is enthusiastically accepted. The younger lot is more expected to know English than the older people.

Moscow is a huge city and is widely spread with attractions dotted all over the map. Therefore sightseeing needs a bit of planning and commonsense. Unless you are stopping there for, say, at least a week, it is advisable to make a priority list of attractions so that you fully enjoy them by spending time which they demand. While there are many tour operators who have customized itinerary to help you out, the more daring ones can go independently relishing the city.

The first place to start is of course Red Square. Right in the heart of the city, Red Square is city's biggest and the most important city square. Known for stunning parades during (and after) Soviet Union days, the place attracts lots of tourists any time of the day. Apart from the square itself, the place also has the iconic St. Basil Cathedral at one of its corners towards the Moskva river.

Cathedral's stunning onion-shaped domes have become a sort of establishing shot for the city and one needs to spend some time to fully enjoy its architecture from both inside and outside.

Right in the middle of the square, overlooking the long brick walls of Kremlin is the mausoleum of Vladimir Lenin, where his body is preserved. A visit is a must for everyone enthusiasm in history or a lack of it notwithstanding. At the opposite end of the Cathedral is the State History Museum.  The museum has a treasure trove of centuries of artifacts that will steal your breath. You also has an option to have your photos clicked wearing a Czar or Cossack dress.

The Kremlin, the seat of Russian executive, is another must. Situated at a walking distance from the square, the place itself needs a full day to fully appreciate. Particularly interesting is the antique weapons and gems collection in the Armory. One also has an opportunity to visit several beautiful churches that dot the landscape. There are ballet shows to catch as well. One can also spend time by just sitting in one of its numerous gardens and witnessing the time fly by. Another place to spend some quality time is the nearby Old and New Arbat streets. There are numerous eateries and cafes where one can spend time.     
Moscow is the city of museums and galleries. While it is impossible to visit all of them, one can pick some of the most important ones such as Pushkin Museum and Park Pobedy. Pushkin Museum and its annexe is dedicated to western art and has arguably one of the world's best Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collections. Park Pobedy or Victory Park is dedicated to World War II and has impressive collection from the era. This museum also boasts of some of the world's best Diorama by some of the best masters in the craft.

If you want to relax and spend sometime with your loved ones, Gorky Park is Moscow's trendiest place to be. Dotted with cafes, open air theatres, cinema halls, theme rides and what not, the park is a must visit if you have children accompanying you. Bibliophiles on the other hand will give their right hand to visit Moscow State Library and take a look from inside. At the end, you wont be able to decide whether the impressive collection of books or the intimidating architecture that left you stunned.

Of the cathedrals, Christ the Savior Cathedral and Novodevichy Convent are the most important one. The former was detonated during the Communist era, but following the collapse of USSR, it was re-erected exactly on the old design. It is on the banks of Moskva river so one can see the panoramic view of Kremlin from here.

Novodevichy Convent on the other hand was tolerated even during Stalin years and hence survived. Taking a stroll inside the convent is heavily recommended, but even more recommended is the adjoining cemetery. Apart from the Kremlin necropolis, this is probably the most famous cemetery in the world if one considers the profile of those buried. From comedian Nikulin to author Gogol, from Chekhov to Ilyushin, from Nikita Khrushchev to Boris Yeltsin; the cemetery is full of people who were not only respected in Russia but all over the world.

Any visit to Moscow can not be complete without a visit to Bolshoi theater. Grandest of all the theaters during the Soviet Union, the sheer architecture and acoustics of it will leave you mesmerized. Try to catch either a ballet or a performance by Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. Ticket prices vary depending on the program and often run out quickly.

Similarly, Nikulin Circus is bound to impress you. The sheer feeling that the modern circus started from this place leaves you overwhelmed and so will the Obraztsov Puppet Theatre that has performances during the winter in the evening.

Another aspect of Moscow that people are not well aware of is the architecture of its metro stations. Metro stations of Moscow system are arguably the best in the world in terms of designs and decor. Every station is designed over a theme and the murals, chandeliers and everything else signify that theme. There are several unique records that these stations boast of including deepest station, longest escalator and deepest underground bunker. The last one was a strategic bunker build during Cold war era to survive the nuclear holocaust. Called Bunker-42, it has been turned into a pub with paid entries.

Food in Moscow comes in all price and taste. Apart from the quintessential vodka and potato based Russian meals, one can enjoy cuisines from a range of restaurants representing ex-Soviet Union states. Particularly interesting are Uzbek and Georgian cuisines, both of which will definitely suit Indian pallets.

Moscow now has all the western food chains where one can grab a quick bite on the go, including world's busiest McDonald ironically (for some painfully) situated at the Red Square.

As far as souvenirs are concerned, apart from the Matryoshka Dolls that are still famous, one can buy lots of Soviet union memorabilia that are easily available at old and new Arbat streets. Fur and leather garments, especially caps and Ushankas, come in plenty and are at bargain. A couple of bottles of vodka is also a great gift idea and so are lacquer boxes. Those looking for international labels and hyper-expensive boutiques can venture in to GUM mall near the Red Square.    
Hotels and hostels are aplenty and come in all prices. The thumbrule is, the farther it is from Red Square, the cheaper it is. In fact, it is advisable to stay a bit far and save money as reaching downtown is not a problem considering the fabulous bus, metro and Marshrutka (mini-bus) service.

But having said that, one must not forget that Moscow is counted among the costliest cities in the world and it is advisable to keep more cash than say while visiting other popular Asian tourist destinations such as Bangkok, Dubai or Beirut. A little ingenuity and some plain common sense can save you a lot of pennies. 

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017