Here’s my report on a long weekend I took in Moscow last month that appeared in the Mail on Sunday (24th Feb) ahead of new easyJet flights that are launching there from Gatwick and Moscow, with a few added photos that I took.
Tatiana likes Vladimir Putin and fur coats but thinks Napoleon is a total wimp. ‘Everyone talks about the harsh winter finishing off his army in 1812, but they only made it as far as October,’ says my Moscow guide. ‘Pathetic!’
As I stared across the frozen Moskva river, the sun glinting off the golden roof of the Archangel Cathedral in the Kremlin, I had a trickle of sympathy with the diminutive Frenchman. At least I was bundled up under half a dozen layers, thermal gloves, thick socks and a bobble hat of which Benny from Crossroads would have been proud.
Come appropriately dressed and the Russian capital can be a year-round destination. On my visit, temperatures never climbed above minus 11C during the day, but fresh snow added a charming dimension to my long weekend.
From next month (March 2013) Moscow will be easier and cheaper to get to as easyJet launches flights from Gatwick and Manchester which should bring down prices on a route historically dominated by BA and Aeroflot.
I was a student when the Soviet Union collapsed. I visited Russia twice in the Nineties – on one occasion I was pickpocketed by a drunken train guard on the St Petersburg Express; the next time I danced in Red Square at dawn with a mysterious brunette after a vodka-fuelled night.
Since then, companies such as Costa Coffee, TopShop and M&S have sprung up in Moscow, but the city and its inhabitants remain undeniably different, defiant and proud, more sure of themselves and of the future than at any time in the past few decades.
St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square
I spent my time with Tatiana in Red Square and at the Kremlin, which is an absolute must. You can easily spend a day at the latter, but arrive early to get a timed ticket for the fabulous exhibits housed in the Armoury.
My guide, Tatiana
We also explored quirkier sites such as Novodevichy cemetery, where Sergei Prokofiev, Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s wife Nadezhda Alliluyeva and Boris Yeltsin are all buried. ‘You English love cemeteries,’ said Tatiana as she tried to hurry me along. ‘I find that very strange.’
In the afternoon I was let loose on my own and tackled the city’s famous metro system, with its ornate stations bedecked with chandeliers, mosaics, stained glass, frescoes, murals and tributes to glorious Soviet workers who, history eventually showed, weren’t quite so glorious after all.
Moscow metro - it's quite a revolution
One trip cost me just 28 roubles (60p) and trains arrived at least every three minutes. Prepare to get lost unless you can read the Cyrillic alphabet, although after the first few trips it becomes easier.
Park Kultury (ie Gorky Park) station
Eventually I found my way back to my hotel, the imposing Radisson Royal which, in the Fifties, was the tallest hotel in the world.
The Radisson hotel (formerly the Ukraine - in the 1950s it was the world's tallest hotel)
Later, I met up with 24-year-old Maria Motyleva. Last year, she and several advertising industry colleagues set up It’s Sooo Russian to guide visitors around unusual sides of the capital. The team organises everything from jam sessions with local musicians to trips to suburban flea markets, and are busy organising their own music festival this autumn.
My guide Maria Motyleva in Zvenigorod
Like many young Russians, Maria speaks excellent English and has travelled widely. She helped me buy a ticket at Moscow’s Belorussky station and we set out for a 75-minute trip to the town of Zvenigorod.
Our journey took us past endless rows of functional Seventies-built tower blocks, before the scenery changed to fields and then birch forests.
After arriving in Zvenigorod, Maria and I hopped on a bus that took us to the spectacular 14th Century Savvino-Storozhevsky Monastery and – even more jaw-dropping – the golden Rozhdestvensky Cathedral.
Inside, bearded monks went about their business while groups of fur-clad babushkas prayed in silence.
A nearby cafe served cheap and delicious borscht with sour cream, and we bought bread and pastries from the bakery next door for the return journey. That evening, back in Moscow, we met up with Maria’s friend Lena to visit an exhibition on Soviet life during the Fifties and Sixties.
Most of the paintings were of women with mournful eyes, while political posters revealed that Russians were as paranoid about the US as Americans were about communists. We ended up in Kamchatka, a retro bar on Ulitsa Kuznetsky Most, serving nostalgic snacks, beer and Soviet ‘champagne’ from behind a canteen-style counter.
It was packed to the rafters with youngsters singing along to Russian pop music from 20 years ago, the kind of cheesy stuff that would water the eyes of even the most ardent Eurovision fans. My eyes welled up too. The Nineties? Retro? Already? Moscow is a city that seems proud of its past, increasingly confident about its future but still uncertain about how it should reflect on a turbulent 20th Century – all in all, plenty to keep you going for a weekend.
The arrival of easyJet doesn’t just mean we’ll be unleashing groups of stag party lads dressed as Bat man and Robin on unsuspecting Muscovites. It also means we get to welcome more ordinary Russians to Britain with the lure of Primark, Marmite, Boris bikes, baked beans and One Direction.
I’m not quite sure what Tatiana’s going to make of that lot.
Me and a snowy statue of Tolstoy
Regent Holidays offers three nights on a B&B basis at Hotel Izmailovo Gamma-Delta from £360pp including easyJet flights from Gatwick or Manchester. There’s a £220pp supplement to stay at the Radisson Royal. It’s Sooo Russian offers tailor-made guiding in Moscow from £85 per day for up to three people. EasyJet flies to Moscow’s Domodedovo airport. Aeroexpress trains run frequently from there to Paveletsky station in about 40 minutes, from where you can transfer to the metro. A one-way ticket is £7. A tourist visa for Russia costs £75