The beating heart of Mother Russia
As crowds of Muscovites brush past me in the bowels of the gigantic Russian capital, it’s hard to know where to point my camera: at the stained-glass windows. The chandeliers. The marble and bronze statues. Or the murals laced with hammers and sickles and the mosaics of muscle- bound workers.
Built during Soviet times, and creakily antiquated in parts, the Moscow Metro is one of the world’s most striking subterranean transport systems — especially on the circular Koltsevaya Line.
Also known as Line 5, or the “brown one”, its opulently decorated stations have been dubbed “palaces of the people”, and for a single fare (30 roubles: about $0.67), you can see them all on a self-guided hop-on, hop-off loop. Yet while the Metro — quick, reliable and cheap — is a great way of navigating Moscow and avoiding its horrendous traffic jams, you can increasingly enjoy the city on your own two feet.
Pedestrian-friendly policies are at the forefront of a multimillion-rouble civic drive that is transforming central Moscow, with city planners keen to ease the motorised mayhem which gripped the capital following post-Communist Russia’s turbo-charged embrace of consumerist capitalism (and mass car ownership) in the early 1990s.
Moscow’s planners have even sought the advice of renowned Danish urban design architect Jan Gehl, who helped turn Copenhagen into one of Europe’s most livable and gridlock-free cities. As a result, some observers claim Moscow is being “Copenhagenised”.
With my back to Novaya Ploshchad, one of Moscow’s myriad multi-lane boulevards, where shiny Porsches, Ferraris and Maseratis roar past bulky SUVs and spluttering Lada Classics, I stroll, in exhaust- fume-free pleasure, along Nikolskaya Street. Peppered with benches, lampposts and flowerbeds, and lined with lovely old refurbished buildings (like a baroque wedding-cake church), a string of well-heeled fashion stores (among them Roberto Cavalli and Philipp Plein) and abundant pavement cafes (most Muscovites, at least by day, are more prone to imbibing caffeine than vodka), this serene thoroughfare is just one of the historic downtown arteries recently repaved and closed to traffic. Boosting its allure further, Nikolskaya is also a portal into Red Square.
One of the world’s great (traffic- free) public spaces, this breathtaking spectacle is home to an array of not-to-be-missed sights: the decadent GUM department store, the technicolour onion-bulbed St Basil’s Cathedral, the Lenin Mausoleum (where the Communist icon’s embalmed waxwork-like body rests) and the Kremlin, the fortified citadel which has served as a power base for dozens of Russian rulers, including today’s President Vladimir Putin.
Close by, I find a number of other vehicle-free stretches that are a delight to wander along, including a 1.9km route that encompasses Stoleshnikov Pereulok, Kamergersky Pereulok, Kuznetsky Most and Rozhdestvenka Street. It’s flush with cafes, bars, restaurants, embassies, galleries and boutiques packed with everything from paintings and books to gem-encrusted shoes and bags.
I find more evidence of the city’s regeneration on the southern side of the cruiseboat-dotted Moskva River. Named after the Soviet writer Maxim Gorky, Gorky Park descended into crime-riddled decay in the early 1990s but has re-emerged as a popular oasis following a huge face lift. In summer, Gorky’s neat, exercise-friendly embankment, grassy picnic lawns and tree-shaded boating ponds draw all sorts of Muscovites (from leggy blondes in teetering platform heels to exotically dressed folk with links to Russia’s former central Asian satellite States). Gorky also boasts the acclaimed Garage contemporary art complex, where the eclectic revolving exhibitions are curated by Dasha Zhukova, partner of Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich.
Another appealing, pedestrian- friendly riverside space is Bolotny Island, which faces the Kremlin across the water. Here, I find the Red October “village”— a multipurpose space housed in an old chocolate factory.
As well as industrial-chic galleries, offices and TV studios, there are lots of trendy places in which a diverse cross-section of Muscovite society eats, drinks and mingles. I take a seat on the sun-kissed bar-bistro terrace of the Strelka Design Institute, which sits opposite the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (where the now- infamous punk rockers Pussy Riot performed a controversial anti-Putin protest song).
Later, I pop back over the river and tour the Kremlin’s grounds. What strikes me most about this, the beating heart of Mother Russia, is not just its stunning cluster of gold-domed cathedrals, Italianate palaces and parked presidential limos with blacked-out windows, it’s the tranquillity. Relaxing on a bench amid pretty gardens — studded with leafy trees and colourful flower beds — I never imagined the “big, bad” Kremlin would be as beautiful and peaceful as this.
Then again, Moscow has been a pleasant surprise in many ways — though I must admit; after all this walking, my feet are a bit sore.
A trip to one of the city’s famous banyas — public baths and saunas — should sort me out nicely.
- For tourist information on Moscow, including details on accommodation and sightseeing opportunities, check out moscow.info.
- For help navigating Moscow’s Metro, see engl.mosmetro.ru.
- Australian visitors usually require a visa to visit Russia. You can apply online with the Russian Embassy — australia.mid.ru — or go through Australian operator Bentours, which offers tour packages — and visa support — for Russia; bentours.com.au
© The West Australian
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