Another surprise awaited us when we went downstairs for breakfast, as on giving our room number we were diverted to the Executive Lounge which was a raised area along one side of the restaurant. Here we found lots to tempt us, setting us up for the day ahead. Using the coffee machine initially appeared problematic as all the options were in Russian but a helpful waitress came to help me find the cappuccino button.
Also on offer in the Executive Lounge were vodka and sparkling wine. I spotted several business men mixing vodka with tomato juice which didn’t appear to be the best start to a working day. I, on the other hand, was more than happy with freshly squeezed grapefruit juice which was delicious!
At around 9.30 a.m. we wrapped up warm and wandered across the road to the Sokolniki metro station from where we took the train to Red Square’s Oxhotny Ryad station. It was so much easier using the metro without our heavy luggage and as we left the station it was snowing lightly. Red Square was looking festive with its ice rink, huge Christmas tree and Christmas market in front of the GUM department store.
We decided to start the day with a visit to Lenin’s Mausoleum which we accessed from the far end of the square. The Mausoleum opens at 10.00 a.m. and although we’d read about lengthy queues, there was no wait at all to go inside. After passing through a security check we were directed along a pathway beside the Kremlin wall where we paused to view several war memorials and a statue of Stalin.
On entering the Mausoleum, men must remove hats and all visitors remain silent and respectful in the dimly lit hall where photography is forbidden. As long as the queue is not overly long, I would suggest adding a visit to the Mausoleum which is free to visit.
Moving on, we admired the beautiful St. Basil’s Cathedral with its magnificent onion shaped domes. The Cathedral was completed in 1560 and is now a museum with only one church service taking place in October each year.
Leaving there, we walked around the perimeter of the Kremlin along the banks of the Moskva river returning to its entrance in Alexander Park. On one of the snowy paths I lost my footing and fell backwards, landing in thick snow. I was perfectly all right but needed dusting down as I resembled a snowman with large flakes of snow stuck to my dark grey coat. After my minor incident we continued to the Kremlin ticket office where we bought two tickets for the Cathedral tour which also included all the external sites. This option cost 500 Roubles (£6.30) each. I suggest checking out the Kremlin website before visiting as there are so many different ticket options available that it can be quite confusing deciding which to choose. Again, there were no queues at all and after another security check, we were soon crossing the bridge to enter the Kremlin through the Troitskaya Tower.
As might be expected, the Kremlin covers a large area overlooking the Moskva river. We started our self guided tour viewing the Tsar Bell which was cast in 1735. In May of that year a huge fire broke out and spread to the Kremlin buildings, cold water fell on the bell which was still in its cast. This sudden change of temperature caused it to crack resulting in a huge piece weighing 11.5 ton breaking off. The Tsar Bell is considered to be the biggest bell in the world weighing approximately 202 ton with a height of 6.14 metres.
Standing near the bell is the Tsar Cannon which is a unique item of the Kremlin’s artillery collection which was created in 1586. It has never been shot or used in war and is adorned with decorative cast figured friezes.
Our walk then took us alongside the Grand Kremlin Palace which was originally the Tsar’s Moscow residence and is currently the official residence of the President of the Russian Federation. We then viewed the Kremlin Cathedrals including the Cathedral of the Assumption which is the oldest and most important church in the Kremlin. The interior was magnificent with much intricate detail. Photography is not permitted inside any of the Kremlin cathedrals.
Leaving the Kremlin we caught the metro from the nearby Aleksandrovsky-Sad station to the Universtet station in the south west of the city as we wished to visit Moscow State University. This iconic building was designed by Lev Rudnev and is the tallest educational building in the world. Its central tower is 240 m tall and has 36 floors. It is flanked by four huge wings of student and faculty accommodation and is the tallest of seven Stalinist skyscrapers in Moscow.
From the university, we walked through the adjacent park to Sparrow Hills which is one of the highest points in the city. On a clear day it offers panoramic views but having arrived in a snow storm our views were somewhat obscured. Fortunately, we were able to make out an outline of skyscrapers in the Central Business District. We also viewed Luzhniki Stadium from the metro station platform, where the final of the 2018 World Cup football tournament will take place.
From the viewpoint we made our way down the steep and slippery path through the Sparrow Hills nature reserve to the Vorobyovy Gory metro station to return to our hotel for a short rest and a relaxing sauna.
Feeling refreshed, we caught the metro back to Red Square and wandered around its Christmas Market which was an enchanting experience with its extravagant festive decorations looking even more beautiful in the snow.
Dominating the eastern side of the square stands the GUM department store, its facade looking stylish and sophisticated with its gold coloured lights stretching along its vast 242m exterior. Stepping inside, it’s now an opulent palace of capitalism with many designer stores, restaurants and cafes. Featuring a glass roof, the building is divided into galleried sections and no expense has been spared in decorating it for Christmas with its trees and decorative hot air balloons. It’s not to be missed and even if you don’t intend buying anything, I believe a visit to Moscow should always include a visit as it’s an absolute delight to wander round.
Up on the top floor there are a collection of moderately priced restaurants and cafes. We dined in Stolovaya 57 which was tucked away in one corner and our two course meal was good but served lukewarm which was a little disappointing as we like our food piping hot.
Leaving GUM we hopped back on the metro to take a look at some of its grand stations. Whilst navigating the Moscow Metro it’s easy to determine the direction of travel as trains heading towards the city centre have male announcements whilst those heading away from the centre feature female announcements. On the Circle line, clockwise announcements are male and anti-clockwise female. The system was initially intended to assist the visually impaired but is helpful to all commuters.
I would recommend picking up a metro map which displays both the English and Cyrillic station names as the majority of stations have signs only in Cyrillic and most of these bear little or no resemblance to the English translation.
Visiting some of the metro stations is a definite must see on any visit to the Russian capital. The incredible, luxury underground made of marble and granite is a special place filled with impressive artworks and chandeliers dating back to the era of socialist realism. We toured Kievskaya station, here we found exquisite mosaics embedded in frames with motifs of Ukrainian ornaments, telling the story of the mutual relationship between the Ukraine and Russia.
Before returning to our hotel for the night we took a look at one final station, Ploshchad Revolyutsii (Revolution Square) which features 76 bronze life size statues. All the stations we passed through were immaculately clean with no litter or graffiti and we felt completely safe and at ease both on and off the trains. It was then time to return to the hotel for the night after a splendid day exploring the Russian capital.