Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Mooching around Moscow...

Inside the grounds of the Kremlin, Tuesday 7 October 2014.
Nobody can accuse me of not making the most of my one day off in Moscow. Yesterday – billed as a free day on my business schedule and much welcomed – I managed to get inside the Kremlin, thanks to a Russian colleague, and, later in the afternoon, enjoyed a traditional Russian feast – they certainly like their meat over here, although the night before last I attended an official dinner where a lot of the food on offer was of the cold variety and any bread rolls that found their way on to my table were, disturbingly, filled with something or other. With all the cold food on offer, I was rather looking forward to a decent bread roll, but unfortunately for me, while the rolls in question looked pretty harmless, they were, in fact, filled with 'stuff' – nothing sinister, it's just that when you're handed something that looks like a bread roll, you're kind of expecting it to be a bread roll and not a bread roll filled with onion (in my book, an unpleasant surprise, especially if the onion is cold).
Going underground – underneath the city on the Moscow Metro system
The Russians like to fill things. At a rushed buffet breakfast this morning (back on business again) on the outskirts of the city there were some interesting-looking pastries and every one of them was in some way filled with something. This time, however, it was different; they weren't savoury but sweet – and anything filled with sweet stuff is fine.

Touching the statue is supposed to bring good luck!
The Arbat House Hotel
That said, I've been rather impressed by the food in my hotel, the Arbat House, a well-positioned establishment down a quiet street, but very pleasant in so many respects, especially the room. I don't know if you believe in the concept of feng shei (is that how it's spelt?) but it seems to work in my case. Let me explain what I mean: normally when I stay in a hotel I dread the moment when I have to switch off the lights and get some kip. This is because I'm in an unfamiliar place and, therefore, prior to bedding down for the night, I mess around. I might have the curtains pulled back a little bit to let in some light, I might leave a light on in the bathroom for the same reason, but invariably there's a noisy fan that automatically goes on every time I switch on the light, so this is often a problem and I end up relying solely upon the curtain being pulled apart an inch or two. I can't stand a room plunged into total darkness. Call me a baby, I don't care, but when I open my eyes I want to be able to see stuff, not just blackness.

And when I'm lying there – normally testing things out, by having the TV on and then switching it off to check the light levels when the room is finally in sleep mode – I feel strange knowing that, for instance, there's a lot of room between where I'm sleeping and the front door. I sometimes feel uncomfortable if there's too much space that I can't see (I hate sleeping in overly large spaces). Small spaces are best as there's less to be in command of, which I prefer. And that's what was great about my room at the Arbat House. The feng shei was right. It wasn't a huge room and my bed (a double, but not a huge double) faced the window, which was about six or seven feet from the foot of the bed. Behind the bed, separated by a wall, was the bathroom. I slept with a small gap in the curtains and, surprise, surprise, there was no fan in the bathroom so I could leave the light on and then virtually shut the bathroom door, allowing just a tiny sliver of light to filter through without a noisy fan disturbing the peace.

On Red Square...
Two minor complaints...
In fact, where the room was concerned I only had two complaints. The main one was the lighting. Apart from the light in the ceiling, there wasn't any. No bedside lamp. Very annoying if you fancy reading after dark as the overhead light was gloomy and it made me feel the same way. It was certainly impossible to read so that meant I had to go downstairs to the bar/restaurant, which in turn meant that I had to buy something to warrant sitting there. Last night, for example, I was dog tired. So tired that I came back to the room around 4pm, switched on Radio Four and fell asleep listening to PM online. When I awoke around 8.30pm I found myself wondering what to do. I wanted to read, but the light was so gloomy there was only one option: head downstairs for what turned into a late dinner – no complaints whatsoever about the hotel restaurant except, perhaps, that it's not part of the hotel, but under separate ownership. Unaware of this, when I wanted to charge my meal to the room I couldn't! So I had to remember to take my credit card with me, but this was a minor inconvenience when you consider the excellent food, the efficient service and the fantastic ambience – and what's more, the BBCafé was open until midnight so that awful problem surrounding the retort, "I'm sorry, sir, the restaurant is closed," never raised its ugly head.

Where great Russian leaders have waved...on Red Square

My final, albeit minor, complaint was the fact that the key to the room was small (and so was the lock) and the hotel corridors were very dark. Every time I left or tried to re-enter the room it took an age to get the key in the lock. Oddly, one of those modern key card entry systems would have been preferable, but then they have their problems too.

But enough of the hotel other than to say I'd definitely return and I've loved every minute of my stay.

The Kremlin...
Moving on to the Kremlin, which just so happened to be no more than 10 minutes' walk from the hotel. On my day off yesterday I went there with a colleague who lives in Moscow and, well, what can I say? What a fantastic place! We paid a visit to the Annunciation Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin and the Archangel Cathedral. The Annunciation Cathedral has nine small domes and is described as the home church of Old Russia's great princes and tsars. Weddings and baptisms took place here and way back in the 14th Century a small one-domed Annunciation Church stood on the same spot.

I've seen it all before at Covent Garden in London...
The Archangel's Cathedral, also on Cathedral Square, has five domes. According to legend, a wooden church built in the name of the Archangel Michael was built in the same spot back in the 12th Century. The Archangel Michael was the leader of the heavenly host and the guardian of the Russian princes. It was demolished in 1333 on the orders of Prince Ivan Kalita and a new white-stone cathedral was built in its place to commemorate Russian's liberation from famine. In 1340 Kalita was buried in the church, which became Russia's first state necropolis. The current Archangel's Cathedral was built between 1505 and 1508 by Ivan lll. It was designed by an Italian architect known in Russia as Aleviz Noviy.

A Yamaha with a V-twin – very impressive!
We moved on to Red Square and then, after a few photographs, it was time to eat. My favourite pastime. The Russians love their meat and their bread and we soon tucked into some beef and lamb, not forgetting traditional dumplings filled with meat and followed by some cheesy bread.
Boris Yeltsin bikes – but instructions only in Russian

Just prior to eating we had wandered around GUM, an upmarket shopping mall full of the usual high street brands you might find in London, plus a few more exclusive ones.  What I found amazing, however, was a Yamaha motorcycle with a V-twin engine. It looked just like the old Harley Sportster, but it was definitely a Yamaha so it's probably cheaper and more reliable.
Bike Share Moscow – too cold and too dangerous in my opinion...
I decided to check out where to pick up the train to the airport on Thursday (tomorrow). Why waste money on a cab when the chances are I'd get there quicker by train? It's going to mean a little walk from the hotel, but once underway it'll be smoother. So, I hoofed it down to Paveletsky railway station and bought my ticket, stopped off for a cup of tea and a cake in a local coffee shop (click here for more details) and then headed back towards my hotel, using the metro both ways to and from Arbatskaya metro station.

Going underground in Moscow...
When people talk about 'feats of engineering' they tend to cite famous bridges, but the Moscow Metro system has to be seen to be believed. Not only is it cut very deep into the ground underneath the city, the stations are the most wonderfully ornate places I've ever seen – millions and millions of times better than what you will find on the London Underground and offering passengers not only much more fresh air than London – the ventilation system is brilliant – but bigger and roomier trains. It's hard to comprehend the scale of the job facing those who built the Moscow Metro back in the late 1930s, but wow, did they do a great job. It is literally a work of art. Anybody charged with the task of building a new Metro system should fly to Moscow first to see how it's done.

Rush hour begins in Moscow...
Arbat Street was next. I'd heard a lot about it, but to be honest, I wasn't really that impressed. Think Covent Garden, think human statues, street artists, buskers and men handing out leaflets and you're almost there. The street was lined with restaurants and pubs and fast food joints and yes, it was fine and I was possibly a little tired having trampsed over to Paveletsky station to buy my Aero Express ticket, but I decided to head back to my hotel for dinner where I could at least read my book in peace. The alternative was sitting in one of those 'trendy' restaurants where everything was a joke. "Our beer is as cold as your ex-girlfriend's heart" being a good example of the genre. Oh, ho, ho, ho!

In fact, you'll be pleased to know that my last meal at the Arbat House Hotel was absolutely amazing, even if they didn't have everything I wanted: no vegetable soup, no tuna steak, the refusals kept on coming until I settled on the mushroom soup followed by the chicken curry and rounded off with an apple strudel (I'd skipped lunch today so I deserved to have a pig-out).

I had my book, I'd ordered a beer and I was feeling relaxed. What else could one ask for?

Now I'm back in my room with little to do other than go to bed, which I plan to do just as soon as I finish this post. At least I don't have to get up at the crack of dawn like this morning.

Moscow's bike share scheme...
Perhaps a brief word about Moscow's bike share scheme, which I toyed with describing as 'Boris Yeltin Bikes' – geddit? Boris Johnson/Boris Yeltsin? You can't get wittier than that, can you? Anyway, while I state above that it was too cold and too dangerous to ride a bike around Moscow, that was a little misleading. Yes, it was fast and busy and yes, it was cold, but the main reason behind not using the bikes was the Russian language. I did not understand a word of it and there was no English language availability on the machines that ultimately 'dispensed' the bikes.

Looking at a map of Moscow, the scheme was certainly well-established with bike stations dotted liberally around the city.

I awoke later than usual, it was nearly 9am. I rushed downstairs for breakfast (fried egg on toast plus cereal and tea and orange juice) and then I noticed something that I hadn't noticed over the last three breakfasts I'd enjoyed here: there was a small bird in a cage plonked right in the middle of the breakfast food display in amongst the bread rolls and the hot food. I felt sorry for the bird as he had to spend his time looking at an array of breads, none of which he could gain access to (thank the Lord). It was odd noticing it for the first time as, I thought the quiet tweeting I could hear occasionally was somebody's message alert on their mobile phone. Still, there you have it, a bird, in a cage, in amongst the breakfast offerings – I wonder what Health & Safety would have to say about that?

Postscript 2...
A brief word about the Russians. Excellent people and don't let anybody (or any government) tell you otherwise. I found every Russian I met to be very friendly. Even those in cars were courteous to pedestrians. Great country, great people.

Room 504, Arbat House Hotel, Moscow
And to conclude, here, in good old NoVisibleLycra tradition, is a shot of my hotel room, Room 504 of the Arbat House Hotel, Moscow.

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