It was a cold day in Moscow. Overcast and cloudy, there was a distinct grey over the city which reminded me a little of London. After breakfast at кофемания (Kofemaniya), I set out to explore the city on foot, and began to head down the street. Retracing my footsteps to the St. Regis, I continued straight on and took a left round the back of the hotel down a street called Никольская ул. (Nikolskaya ul.).
The street was straight and long. Large grey tiles lay underfoot, arranged neatly in a diagonal manner, and low-rise buildings lined the path on either side. People in long coats walked up and down purposefully, veering off into specific shops, often the cafes. On the right, I saw a neon “Subway” sign and took note of that, given that we’d established that Russian food wasn’t really to our fancy. As I continued walking, the row of shops on my left were replaced by a taller upmarket-looking building with display windows set in gilded frames and brass handled doors; the GUM mall – an upmarket mall which was started as a mall in the early 1900s, but was converted to office space for Stalin’s committee in 1928, and was now a high-end mall housing international luxury brands.
The street led right into the Red square, and suddenly, I found myself standing right smack in the centre of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, flanked on all sides by the iconic buildings I’d seen only in photographs – straight ahead, stood the high walls of the Моско́вский Кремль (Kremlin), the red bricks reaching upwards with hardly any semblance of windows, looking very much like an impregnable fortress (which, I suppose, was the point). To my right, the Государственный исторический музей (State Historical Museum) stood tall – Its façade was a mosaic of shapes – triangles, keyhole shapes, square shapes – in a complex dissonance which I now thought to be rather characteristic of Russian architecture. It looked like giant lego pieces had been joined together. I could see the different blocks and towers, each topped with a conical-shaped roof of light grey and a gilded ornament at its tip. And on my left, there it stood at the far end of the Red Square – a work of art, indeed – the Собор Василия Блаженного (St. Basil’s cathedral).
I hate to say this, but my first introduction to this building was through playing Forza Motorsport on the xbox 360. The game had a track set in Moscow which required drivers to do a circle around St. Basil’s, and I remember thinking cool building. I’d love to say that I was so mesmerized by it that I crashed the car, but really I didn’t – I was just having a lot of fun drifting and using the inner straight on the circle to overtake opponents.
Nonetheless, seeing the Cathedral in person felt rather unreal. It was the building I most closely associated with Russia, and there it was. It seemed to be a fabric of multiple inspirations – corbel arches of Byzantine architecture, while the domes reminded me strongly of the mosques I’d seen in the UAE. It was fascinating to look at, to say the least. From where I stood, I could make out 5 of the 8 smaller churches which surrounded the core. The inside was a labyrinth of narrow and winding staircases opening up into small (or on occasion, tall) rooms. One could easily get lost in the narrow corridors which joined together like interlocking loops. While I was visiting, a choir started singing in one of the chapels, their harmonies echoing throughout the halls, resonating off the bare stone walls.
I decided to navigate around the Kremlin on the side of the river so that I could get to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. On this side of the Krem, the red brick walls were uninterrupted, leading on for a good distance, embroidered with notches and punctuated with towers.
In the late afternoon, our Russian friend Galya brought us to the top floor of GUM to try some Russian sweets and drinks at a cafe. On the table, there was a little standing paper sign which read Пomorи, тoваpищ, нaм – yбepи пocyдy caм! I had no idea what it said, until I turned to the reverse which read Comrade, let us have a deal – clean your table after meal! I guess the Russians have a good sense of humour too.
We got a few traditional items to share including something called a Ptasie Mleczko (also known as Bird’s milk cake) and some colourful traditional drinks. The cake tasted like a giant less-springy marshmallow coated in a thin film of chocolate. The drinks tasted like the syrup with the jellies which we used to buy at the supermarket when I was still in elementary school, and came in the same bold colours. I thought the similarity was uncanny. Afterwards, we picked up our coats and headed back out into the streets, beginning our walk towards our dinner destination, Turandot.