Friday, October 17, 2014

Луна над Москва (Moon over Moscow)

Saint Basil's Cathedral
Russia, home of onion domes and Czars, palaces and Red Square, poets and dictators, contemporary art and traditional ballet, the dour and the goofy, the ancient and the modern: it’s a study in change and one of the places I’d go back to simply to see how much it has changed, again. Since I’ve been three times in that number of years, I’m consolidating those trips into the next few postings. Right now Moscow is a sad place, with the people nervous and anxious, their welfare hanging on how the world sees them and how they can interact with neighbors who supply them with food and something as nebulous as that missing southwestern influence that seems to soften hard edges. At least that’s how it appears to me, having been there before and during the war with Ukraine.

Before you travel learn at least how to say, ‘Please’, ‘Thank you’, ‘Hello’, ‘Pardon me’, ‘Where is…’ and so forth. Most folks you’ll interact with will have some English, particularly if they are less than 40 years old; as with all places you visit, people appreciate your efforts to be polite. Russians may appear dour and unfriendly, but given a chance to interact, most are helpful and have a good sense of humor. Currently, the country is experiencing unrest so the people are not as out-going as in previous years, but they still want travelers to like their home.

First, some logistics. There are extra steps for getting into and out of Russia. Russia has
rules: you must have an invitation to enter the country from at least your hotel if not from an institution or tour group; your passport can’t expire within a month after you enter Russia; you must have at least two pages left in your passport and they can’t be the ‘Notes’ pages; you must enter and leave the country on the dates that are on your airline ticket ~ no staying a couple of more days on a whim; a letter from your ‘hosts’ to the Russian Consulate nearest your home; and do not, under any circumstances, lose any papers you’ve been given, particularly by the officers at passport control. You've also got a very long form to fill out that asks such questions as ‘Parents’ last names’ and ‘Do you have any relatives living in Russia’. My favorite was, ‘List all of the countries you’ve visited (using your passport) in the last 10 years and the dates you visited.’ Whew! My best advice is to go through an expediter, a group that will take care of getting an invitation and walking the paperwork through the Russian Embassy. I always use A Briggs because they are attentive to details, they get things done on time if not a bit early, and they know and practice the fine art of communication with the client.
Domodedovo Airport
Another consideration is how you’ll get from the airport to your hotel if you don’t have someone picking you up or an excellent grasp of Russian. The easiest method is to hire the taxi before you travel (I use Taxi Mario, but there are several that can be contacted through the internet ~ read the fine print); Moscow traffic, even during off-peak hours is a nightmare so it will take at least an hour to 90 minutes to get to your hotel. In Moscow, at least, you can take the Metro from the airport, but if this is your first time to the country and you do not speak and read Russian, it’s a bit of a struggle particularly if you have been on an overnight flight and you have more than one or two bags. The Moscow airport, Domodedovo, is a crush of travelers, families, taxi drivers, buses, and what appear to be folks just meandering
Airport Crush
about. Get rubles from a cash machine at the airport ~ you’ll need money for tips, food, and so forth; your hotel may or may not have a cash machine. Most of the places you’ll go would rather have cash than credit cards, the exception being high end restaurants and your hotel. Unfortunately, Russia is one of the places in the world that your credit card information is vulnerable. Having noted all of this, I really enjoy Russia, even though the documentation to get there is a pain.

There are two hotels I’ve used in the Moscow area. The Aerostar Hotel is not particularly close to anything except the Metro, but the staff treats you
Aerostar Hotel
fairly and the rooms are air conditioned. Breakfast is included, but any other meal is expensive. There are a couple of small restaurants and a really good grocery store within walking distance, but you might need someone to help you translate since the workers’ grasp of English may be limited. If you must stay at the Cosmos, watch your bill and make sure that you have something that says that your breakfast is included in your room cost (wandering con men will tell you to pay when you should not and hotel ‘security’ ignores them). This hotel isn't particularly close to anything other than the Metro, either. Rooms are not air conditioned and the staff may ignore your requests and/or be fairly surly. The hotel is large with multiple eateries that are open most of the time. Most of the staff speak English. Given a choice, I will never stay at the Cosmos again.

If you’re going to be touring Moscow on your own, use the Metro; it’s the cheapest, most efficient way to get around. Even if you don’t speak any Russian, go to one of the ticket
Subway Marker
windows and hold up the number of fingers representing the number of trips (I assume I’ll use at least four trips per day, so I get at least 12 trips). Trains arrive every two to three minutes and the stations are relatively easy to navigate, particularly since the 2014 Olympics. Most Metro stations now have floor panels that direct you to the lines most tourists use and these panels have the English translation of the Russian name of your destination. Even prior to these helpful signs, we had little difficulty navigating using a Russian language Metro map; we simply matched the symbols on the map with the signs and off we went. When we did get a bit confused, we showed our map to one of the security personnel and she put us on the correct train headed in the right direction.

The first place most people want to see is Red Square, and the Near-Normal Travelers were
Red Square with Wellness Festival
no exception. The name doesn't come from the color of the surrounding buildings nor is it a link between the color red and communism. The name comes from archaic Russian meaning ‘beautiful’, which was originally applied to Saint Basil's Cathedral but later included the square. Two of the three times I’ve visited, the square has been host to large events. This time it was the beginning of the Spasskaya Tower festival, complete with international military bands and honor guards. Last year, a wellness/athletic festival took over the area, making it a challenge to get to Saint Basil’s through the crowds. We did go into the cathedral to see its wonderful decorations and numerous small chapels; a subsequent blog shows details of our visit and of visits to other churches near in and near Moscow.

Lenin's Mausoleum
Many visitors come to Red Square to see Lenin’s Mausoleum. A number of our group braved the line to get a glimpse of the preserved monarch. They reported that they were not allowed to stop at any time or take any pictures; they were also requested to remain silent once inside the building. While it was a solemn occasion, they were much more impressed by the Novodevichy Cemetery where other Russian leaders are entombed. The Cemetery and its associated Monastery will also be the subject of one of the Near-Normal Traveler blogs.

Adjacent to Red Square is the Kremlin. This is actually a fortress housing current government officials, monuments, churches and museums. The most famous of the museums, here, is the Armory with its collection of Fabergé Eggs, royal carriages, royal clothing, State silverware, armor, and crowns. Next door is the gem museum with the royal jewelry and precious stones. These museums are tightly controlled as to entry times and photography is strictly forbidden. The grounds, however, are full of monuments, gardens, churches, and interesting exhibits; outside you can wander freely, taking all the pictures you desire.

Also next to Red Square is the famous State Department Store, GUM. Although once highly regulated, it now houses high-end shops, a variety of restaurants, and pleasant sitting areas. Our first night in Moscow we ate at the Stolovaya 57, a traditional Soviet-style cafeteria. I was surprised at the variety of offerings, particularly the desserts and the wine bar. The entire
Comrade, let us have a deal -
clean your table after meal!
group enjoyed the setting and the amount/quality of the food; the beef stroganoff was my favorite. And the sign on each table made us all chuckle. Members of the group returned several times to the GUM, several having a meal at Stolovaya 57 or coffee at one of the many small cafés. Moscow is fun, easy to navigate and once the government officials leave the other countries alone, it will be a great place to visit again.

Stay tuned for more Near-Normal Russian adventures!

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