Moscow’s Kremlin may have been the beating political heart of Russia for 800 years but as I enter its spacious grounds it makes a surprisingly peaceful sight. Broad lawns and bright flower beds are overlooked by sumptuous palaces and tall trees shelter sun-dappled paths. Visitors fill the Kremlin’s Sobornaya Place (Cathedral Square) which is bounded by a medley of 16th and 17th century churches. Sheer walls are topped by elegant onion domes and inside the churches harbor a host of treasures; richly coloured icons, shimmering shrines and a wealth of Russian history. Centuries of tzars and tzarinas worshipped here and were crowned and buried in their dark and incense laden interiors. Nearby, the Armoury, is packed with hoards of gold and silver plate, weaponry, Faberge eggs and antique costumes and I can’t help but linger among the fairytale carriages of the Tsars.
Outside the Kremlin’s formidable walls, the vast Red Square, framed by St. Basil’s Cathedral at one end and Kazan Cathedral at the other, is humming with life. The city’s iconic emblem, St. Basil’s Cathedral, topped with its strikingly coloured domes, is a labyrinth of nine chapels, each with its own array of miraculous riches. From its outdoor galleries I gaze out into the far reaches of the city below. Across the square lie the tombs of Lenin, renowned founder of the Soviet Union, and his formidable successor, Josef Stalin. On the other side of the square I discover Moscow’s most elegant shopping mall – GUM – a 19th century monster where I wander among the designer shops and cafes. Beside the square, the Alexander Gardens are a serene oasis, garlanded with beds of flowers, where locals families stroll and where I watch the impressive changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
While St Petersburg to the north is renowned as Russia’s glamorous cultural heart, Moscow is a dazzler in its own right. The city centre is airy and well stocked with imposing buildings and broad squares. The Bolshoi Theatre lies on one, a stone’s throw from Red Square. The city is easy to navigate with major sites mostly within reasonable walking distance of each other. Despite my almost non-existent Russian, the locals are eager to help with the young especially happily communicating with translation apps on their mobile phones. Meanwhile, the Metro, Moscow’s underground system, is an astonishing draw in its own right. Many of its stations are perfectly opulent, clad in marble and adorned with bronze and porcelain statues and mosaics. And while you can take tours of the Metro, it’s easy and cheap to explore on your own.
Since the city has a huge array of museums, you must choose carefully. I opt first for the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow’s premier art and history museum. Here I gaze on Egyptian mummies and the golden hoard of Troy. Upstairs, one of the world’s greatest collections of Impressionist and Post Impressionist paintings, dazzles the eye. Heading across the Moskva River, I find the Tretyakov Gallery and take its vast collection of Russian art. Historic museums also abound. I spend a happy afternoon in the Museum of the Patriotic War of 1812, which chronicles the turbulent era of Napoleon’s invasion of the country and the Russians’ triumphant defence of their homeland. Paintings of epic battles, weapons, military costumes and the sleigh on which Napoleon escaped the country, all paint a vivid picture of the times.
Lovers of Russian literature can make pilgrimages to the homes of their favourite authors so I seek out one of mine. A short ride on Moscow’s Metro takes me to a leafy suburb and the State Leo Tolstoy Museum. A spacious manor house, it was the city home of the Tolstoys and as I stroll around I feel as though the family has just left. Here is the bicycle Tolstoy rode, the nursery of their youngest son, the grand piano Tolstoy played, the desk he wrote on, the bedspreads Sophia Tolstoy sewed. More exciting still is an excursion to his country estate, Yasnaya Polyana where Tolstoy wrote his great masterpieces War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Lying just outside the provincial city of Tula, it can be visited in a day from Moscow. I choose instead a short stay in Tula which allows me a full day on the estate in the verdant Russian countryside. Like the house in Moscow, the family home where Tostoy’s sizable family grew up, is comfortable place, filled with family mementoes. But this is a working farm too, preserved as it was in Tolstoy’s day, still with its stables, hay sheds, orchards and wide stands of birch trees where you are free to wander. In a shaded forest, I find Tolstoy’s grave.
Back in Moscow I visit Pushkin’s Memorial Apartment, the home of Russia’s revered poet, on the renowned Arbat Street which provides an engaging contrast. A magnificent 19th century home, it is a perfect example of aristocratic refinement. Arbat Street, a hub of city life, is the ideal place to view the passing parade of Muscovites. There are plenty of attractive shops and boutiques here and elsewhere too. Then, there’s the food. Moscow’s restaurants offer every kind of cuisine but try the local specialties like fish pie, and sweet and savory pancakes, along with the refreshment of choice, vodka. To savour it in style, visit the bar of the famed Metropol Hotel, opposite the Bolshoi Theatre, an Art Nouveau masterpiece and the focus of the best-selling novel A Gentleman in Moscow. Be careful how much you have though. Moscow to my delight, has myriad attractions – best seen with a clear head and bright eyes.
Kirker Holidays offer city excursions and cultural tours in Moscow and can arrange excursions to Yasnaya Polyana and stays in the Metropol Hotel.
020 7593 2288
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Kirker Holidays.