A VISIT TO MOSCOW
8 - 12 July 2016

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We thought we had mentally prepared ourselves for Moscow by agreeing that we should expect a 3rd world country from the service point of view. We were, however, still surprised by an hour’s wait at passport control.  And then, as we left the Arrivals Hall, we were confronted by men wearing tags that said ‘Official Taxi’. Seeing no other signs pointing to a taxi stand, after some haggling we managed to bring down the price with the help of a young woman wearing Mickey Mouse ears who said that ordering through Uber Taxi was much cheaper. After a long walk we arrived at an unmarked car, rather dusty. I balked and didn’t want to go inside. The driver, seeing my suspicions, announced: “Business Class.” Running my finger along the dusty outside and snorting ‘business class’ was of no help and we were bundled inside. As we left we saw a long line of yellow cabs waiting to pick up passengers. Even with a GPS the driver twice tried to let us off at the wrong hotel.

By this stage all we wanted was a quiet dinner and some sleep. Following the receptionist’s advice to eat at a nearby Uzbekistan restaurant, we, without much hope of a decent meal, traversed a parking lot, some garages and an all-male club, Virgin’s Club, promising pole dancing. Our fears were immediately dispersed when we entered Uryuk Restaurant. They didn’t speak English but welcomed us warmly. The restaurant was partitioned off by gauzy material into cubicles, but they led us to the main area which was richly decorated, from ceiling to floor, by carpets and woven throws. We declined the offer to sit on the lounging sofas and chose a table with an interesting woven tablecloth. A waiter who spoke a little English came and helped us choose food, including delicious crispy round bread, hot beetroot soup, perfectly prepared grilled denise and an Uzbekistan pilaf-style dish. All in all a delightful relaxed evening with good food.

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The next morning, like all tourists, we decided to go to Red Square. Wisely Anthony printed out the Cyrillic alphabet with the Latin equivalents. Trying to buy a ticket at the metro station was a hassle as no-one spoke English, and all the ticket instructions were in Russian. Since there were no signs in English at the metro stations along the way, we anxiously counted off the stops and got off at the fourth station. There we were happy to find that the woman at the information desk spoke English and helped us buy a 3-day pass and directed us up stairs and through a narrow passageway to Red Square.

Red Square, an elongated oblong, is truly impressive. This is where all the grand Russian parades take place. The huge square is covered by large cobblestones. Lenin’s Tomb is to the east and behind it bounded by a high red brick wall is the Kremlin. The fanciful St. Basil’s Cathedral is to the North, the massive Gum ‘store’ to the west and the National Historical Museum to the south. Red in Russian means beautiful but you can be forgiven for thinking it refers to the red brick of many of the surrounding buildings. We were delighted to see a sign in English pointing to a Tourist Information Office at the entrance to the Museum. We went there and a young man from Poland who spoke Russian told us that the tourism office was no longer located there and the woman behind the counter didn’t know if there was one nearby. We all agreed that Moscow was overwhelming with its lack of English and that they were not geared to independent travelers; getting around was so difficult.

We considered visiting Lenin’s Tomb which didn’t look too busy and were just about to cross over the low chain fence when we saw the guards’ stern reaction to some children who touched the chain fence. We looked and saw that at the end of the Square there was a long line of people waiting to enter the complex. We wondered at the status and importance of Lenin today if people were willing to wait an hour to walk silently (no hesitating, no photos) past his embalmed body.

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 We crossed over to the Gum building instead. It is not a department store but three enormous arcades three stories high with boutique stores and coffee shops, toilets (a necessity by this time), an historic toilet and as we were later informed, the tourism bureau.

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Walking back to the Metro we remarked at the number of people eating ice-cream; the adjoining square was lined by numerous little wooden huts, all offering different flavors. It definitely seemed like a Russian craze. We also looked longingly at open barbecues where various meats and vegetables were being grilled. But for lunch we were to meet Denis, the president of the Moscow Bridge Federation, so we returned to the metro and counted two stations. We were delighted to find a tourist office, in a not-touristy area, in front of the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall where a young woman spoke a little English. Lunch with Denis was in the restaurant inside the concert hall. We were surprised to learn that Moscow with over 12 million people only had 2 bridge clubs with tournaments only twice a week.

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That evening, smartly dressed (Dad even wore a tie!)  we went to the Bolshoi Theatre.

A number of years ago we attended the Bolshoi ballet in St. Petersburg and were disappointed, but this evening was magical. The theatre itself is impressive; the whole building is richly decorated, and in the main hall the ceiling towers above six tiers. We sat in the orchestra just below the royal box. While we were enjoying the formal dress of the people, a very tall woman with a neckpiece of encrusted stones extending over her shoulders and up her long slender neck entered. When she sat in front of me I saw that her hair was gathered into a bun that sat high above her head, completely blocking any view of the stage. Thankfully, she reluctantly agreed to change places with her son. (After that, whenever we saw someone with a topknot we joked that they were on the way to the ballet.)

The ballet being performed was Balanchine’s Jewels, unusual in that it is a three part ballet without a storyline. The jewels were emeralds, rubies and diamonds and the costumes and stage reflected the jewels. Each part was very different, giving the dancers a chance to show their skills; Diamonds was Russian ballet at its very best.








That evening looking out of our hotel window we enjoyed a fine view. In the distance the tall imposing building is one of the Seven Sisters, skyscrapers built during the Stalin era and today housing the Foreign Ministry, Moscow University, an hotel and apartment blocks. Circling the city they would also appear to have been a powerful reminder of Soviet power.

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The next morning we joined a free walking tour that was both informative and interesting.  We were surprised by the amount of building activity around the city. It seems there are two reasons. The one is that Moscow is snow-free for only 6 months of the year, so all building needs to be done during the summer months. The other reason is that in 2018 Moscow will host the FIFA World Cup. That explains the number of stadia that are being built, with work continuing around the clock. The Russian Orthodox Church is flourishing in Moscow; there are some 600 churches many of them lovingly restored. We also learnt that Cyrillic is named after St. Cyril. He and his brother St. Methodius devised the basis for the Russian alphabet in order to translate the bible into a language that the Slavs could read. 

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During a quick stop at Gum we were delighted to see a woman making fancy gazoz. For our grandchildren: when we first came to Israel there was no coca cola nor other soft drink that we are familiar with today. But at a kiosk you could buy gazoz: different flavored syrups with soda water from a metal sypholux.




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We ended our tour at Alexander Gardens where the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is placed. Despite my unease at the goose stepping of the guards of honor, it is a sobering thought that some 20 million Soviets, soldiers and civilians were killed during WWll. It was the bitterness of the Russian winter that finally saved Moscow, defeating the Nazis just as it was winter that defeated Napoleon in his siege in St Petersburg in 1812.

After the tour we made a long hike in the heat through lots of road construction up Tverskaya ulitsa, one of the main shopping streets, to a sumptuously decorated delicatessen, Yeliseyevsky Food Hall, that is situated in a former aristocrat's home. The interior of the shop was grandiose although the contents, besides outrageously expensive Beluga caviar and Beluga vodka, unremarkable. If this was the home of a wealthy Russian at the time of the tzars, one can only imagine in what luxury the tzars themselves lived. 

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That evening we made our way to Café Pushkin. A guard in the metro had told us to go up the stairs and walk straight, but coming out of the metro we were not sure how to proceed, whether to turn sharply left or cross the road to the other side. No-one spoke English and all were unhelpful. After crossing the road (straight) and walking for about 10 minutes we finally got the idea that something was wrong. When we asked some people they could only shake their heads unable to direct us in the right direction. We finally hailed a taxi who drove and drove. Something was definitely wrong. Anthony again showed him the address, this time in Russian. He again GPS-ed it, turned around and after 5 minutes dropped us at the metro exit where we had pondered 30 minutes prior. He pointed past some construction and a minute later we were in Café Pushkin, a delightful 18th century house.
The food was excellent and what a pleasure it was that the accompanying classical music was played by four young women dressed in white and obviously enjoying themselves

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I took a picture of the wooden toilet seat in order to tell my grandchildren that my grandfather (of whom I have no memory unfortunately) was a wood turner. Before the advent of plastic he made egg cups, vases, headboards of beds, and toilet seats. He won prizes for his work and cousins tell me that his eye was so exact that he never had to measure anything.

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On our last day my plan to visit the museums was abandoned because museums are closed on Mondays; so no Russian icons, Faberge eggs or fabulous diamonds. Instead we made our way to the Choral Synagogue, the main Moscow synagogue. Incised in my memory is the visit of Golda Meir to the Moscow synagogue in 1948. When we visited Cuba in the 1990’s we were told that under communism there are no telephone books. I’d imagine that it was the same Moscow. But somehow news of Golda's visit was passed around and not only was the synagogue packed but also the street outside. It was an amazing display of identification at a time when religion was seriously frowned upon. Today at the entrance to the synagogue is a flashy modern mezuzah, brought by Netanyahu on his visit earlier this year (2016).  Happily Choral is a functioning synagogue and the guide’s voice could hardly be heard above the groups of men studying on either side of the main hall.

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We walked to St Basil’s Cathedral. Although the guide books name each of the many domes, inside it is like a maze of tiny churches and quite impossible to know where you are. Although interesting, it is much more impressive from the outside.  We continued to the square by the main metro station and watched as people stood on a metal circle by Resurrection Gate and threw money over their shoulders. We shall never know if it was for good luck or for ensuring eternal life. Whatever the reason it was a source of income for two women who quickly picked up the coins as they fell to the floor. We looked for the barbecue stalls, but it seems there had been an ice-cream festival and all the ice-creams stalls and barbecues had all been dismantled. We stopped at Bar BQ café instead. Before we even tasted the food we saw that we had made a most fortunate choice. The owners of the restaurant have founded the Tigrus Fund and work towards the preservation of the endangered Amur snow tiger. They donate food towards feeding boars and deer that are the food of the tigers. Certain dishes on the menu have a little tiger next to them. The markup on these items goes toward the tiger fund. Of course we choose those items and sent a picture to our granddaughter Lotem who is crazy about tigers. A welcome addition was that the food was tasty.

MoscowOn our frequent use of the metros we could not help remarking on the beauty of the underground metro stations. We joined a metro tube tour which we highly recommend.

Not only does Anthony love undergrounds but I have a very clear memory of my mother enthusing about the Moscow metros. That takes a little explaining. My mother was an intrepid traveler who, with her friend Toby Kahn, visited Russia at what must have been the height of the Cold War. How she managed this must unfortunately remain a mystery. There are only two stories that I remember her telling us. The one was when she and her friend booked an overnight train (to somewhere). While they were preparing for bed a man walked into their compartment to claim his bunk for the night.  My mother literally pushed him out and locked the door. His enraged shouting and the banging of the carriage warden could not persuade my mother to open the door. The other story embedded in my mind is her amazement at the Moscow metros where chandeliers hung from the ceilings. Even today they are unique and worth visiting. So for me this tour was paying homage to her memory. (I also ate a lot of smetana, a kind of sour cream, to honour my father!)

Today there are 14 different lines (with a 15th to be inaugurated soon), with over 200 stations that transport over 7 million people daily.  Trains arrive every 1-2 minutes. The oldest stations are deep under the ground with very long escalators with a person sitting in a booth at the bottom in case of emergencies. They are very spacious and clean. Despite the lack of English, once you get the hang of it – and don’t forget to count the stations as the names of the stations are not prominently displayed – they are very convenient to use. It was Stalin who instructed the building of the first metro, overriding fierce opposition; Nikita Khrushchev was one of the upcoming communists who oversaw the construction.  The metros were, as our guide put it, to be palaces for the proletariat showcasing the achievements of the people and giving expression to the different professions and trades of Soviet society. The Red Army, communist youth and men and women from all over the Soviet Union were drafted to help build the metros. Each metro has a different theme, including larger than life statues, frescoes, marble, granite, steel, even stained glass windows and always chandeliers.  The oldest stations were used as bomb shelters when the Nazis in 1941 were at Moscow’s door, posing a real threat of overpowering the city. The metros became the headquarters of the anti-aircraft defense. They were used at night as living spaces with beds, hospitals, libraries and youth clubs.  Stalin’s death in 1953 brought an end to the terrible terrorization of the people through purges and executions. After that Stalin’s image was removed both in the metro system and outside of it and replaced with that of Lenin, seen as the great founder not only of communism, but the modern Russian nation.


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Moscow is an enormous sprawling city. It is very clean and everywhere there are parks with flowers and fountains. The museums, eye-catching churches and of course the Kremlin and surroundings make it an interesting place to visit. We stayed for three days and found that we needed more time to see everything.


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