Feelings at the Tchaikovsky House Museum in Klin

One of the interesting aspects of trying to impart nuggets of wisdom to others is that you cannot entirely control what they take on board. Unless you repeat your message over and over in different ways, preferably in 30 second slots, with excellent visuals. For six months.

So there Mama and a group of other parents were, standing in the garden of the Tchaikovsky House Museum in Klin, idly wondering what, if anything, their children would remember after a tour of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s house.

The Tchaikovsky House Museum is a grey wooden house at the end of a path covered in autumn leaves, with bushes on either side, covered in yellowing leaves.

And so they decided to ask who the children thought Tchaikovsky was.

A poet. Said one child with incautious briskness. Nonono, wait, he added, when all the adults responded with that deadpan stare that Russians are particularly good at and his friend elbowed him. A… musician?

This is not a mistake Mama’s children would have made. Mainly because Mama and Papa had demonstrated the Dance of the Swans in the kitchen while humming the tune loudly and (in the case of Papa) off key only a few days before. That sort of thing sticks in the mind.

Still, Mama was now interested in what we had retained.

Confidently, I stepped up.

Tchaikovsky died. In St Petersburg. The doctors were unable to help.

Yes, said Big Brother enthusiastically. He never made it back to this house.

Mama blinked. She hadn’t previously suspected her children of developing goth sensibilities. But Mama was also on the Tchaikovsky House Museum tour, and recalled that death was indeed how it had opened. And openers do tend to be memorable.

Items relating to Tcahikovsky's death, including a conductor's baton

Of course, and the almighty uproar the death caused at the time does serve to underline quite how famous Tchaikovsky was even in his own lifetime. It’s not everyone whose family has to issue what amounts to a press release exonerating his doctors from negligence or incompetence. It’s also not everyone whose death spawns rumours of suicide years later (drinking a slow acting poison that mimics the symptoms of cholera so as to protect a member of the royal family from scandal. As you do).

Still. Mama does perhaps think that the morning tea-drinking habit in the pleasant annex off the main room might have been a nicer way to kick off. Especially on a child-focused tour.

A small round table covered in a white table cloth in a conservatory with a small tea cup and saucer and a vase of purple flowers.

Now at this point Mama is imagining people looking shifty and wondering if they know enough about Tchaikovsky to satisfy her, so here are some of the reasons why you may have heard of him.

Tchaikovsky was one of the first internationally celebrated Russian composers, as well as hugely well regarded at home. Mama has always considered him a very Western influenced composer, and indeed he was classically trained in St Petersburg’s newly opened conservatory, and later taught in the also newly opened Moscow one, which still bears his name. But it seems that everyone else feels that while he did not go as full on down the path of Slavic folk music influenced harmonies as people like Mussorgsky or Rimsky-Korsakov, he did nevertheless manage to annoy the crap out of his old teacher, Rubinstein, by sticking unmistakable sounds of his motherland into his tunez. With added harp. Which wasn’t for the likes of recently graduated students, apparently.

And in fact Mama is forced to admit that if you listen to the very opening of the 1812 Overture, to take just one example, you can hear exactly what they mean, which is no mistake as Tchaikovsky wrote it to be as over the top nationalist as possible. Which is probably why he scored actual cannons in it.

This habit of innovation likely contributed to the fact that almost every one of his new works seems to have opened to mixed reviews, despite generally going on to become phenomenally popular later. Problematic, because Tchaikovsky felt things. He felt all the things. Well, you can probably tell that if you listen to his music.

Luckily, he also seems to have had enough tenacious self-belief to push on regardless. This is important because he found the process of creating new masterpieces often tortuous and it exhausted him.

As a result of his widespread fame he travelled. A lot. In fact, even the location of the Tchaikovsky House Museum is testament to that as it is on the main highway between Moscow and St Petersburg on the outskirts of Klin. Although he only occupied this particular house for the lest year or so of his life, he’d been renting houses in the area for some time previously, because it was both convenient for travel, but also discouraged visitors. This house was the best though, being a little bit harder to get to, so cutting down on the number of times he was forced to stop writing music and attend to his groupies.

A display cabinet at the Tchaikovsky House Museum which has a Statue of Liberty souvenir in it.

And indeed, the Moscow-St Petersburg main road still roars past right outside the Tchaikovsky House Museum, and the train you can get is one of the super-fast lastochka ones, being on the main line between Russia’s two biggest cities. But it is a bit of a slog from the station if you decide to walk, and Mama would not say the route was particularly scenic, apart from the bit when you go across the river Sestra. There are buses, however.

A wide slow moving river flowing between two tree covered banks in autumn. In the right hand foreground a man is fishing.

You probably also know, because tediously this is still a controversial thing, that Tchaikovsky was gay. Quite how Tchaikovsky felt about it is also the sort of thing people argue about. Opinions range from it tortured him and possibly contributed to his death, to actually he was content, thanks, sod off.

A black and white photo of two men arm in arm in long 19th century coats and top hats.

He did attempt to get married at one point. It did not go well. Aside, of course, from the fact that the person he married was a woman, Mama thinks that Tchaikovsky does not sound like a very monogamous sort of person. At all. A dramatic person, yes. When he realised it was not going to work, he stood in the rain, hoping he would get pneumonia and die.

You can see how the suicide rumours got started to be honest.

As well as composing and falling in and out of love, letter writing was also something Tchaikovsky did prolifically and well.

A selection of handwritten letters and photos on display at the Tchaikovsky House Museum. Some of the letters have extracts of musical scoring in them.

The Tchaikovsky House Museum holds 1200 letters between him and his wealthy patroness, Nadezhda Von Meck. These are lengthy, philosophical, wide-ranging, introspective and only stopped when Von Meck cut off his whopping great 6 000 roubles a year allowance somewhat abruptly.

An oval black and white portrait of a woman in Victorian era clothes

To be fair to her, at this point Tchaikovsky was really very famous, and he even had another pension incoming from the Tsar, Alexander III. Von Meck’s finances, on the other hand, were increasingly in trouble, and her family were increasingly unhappy about her artistic subsidy eating into their precarious situation. This did not stop Tchaikovsky moaning bitterly about the loss of income, however.

Mama feels that Nadezhda Von Meck is worth a digression, not that much was made of her on the tour.

Married to a minor engineer in the civil service, she spotted that railways were the future and argued her husband into quitting his job and getting involved . Hundreds of miles of track later, the family was extremely well off, and then Von Meck’s husband died, at which point, she took over the whole enterprise – it was handing over the reins to her sons that seems to have caused problems in the cash flow – and looked about her for new causes to get off the ground, Tchaikovsky being the lucky recipient of her energy. Her stipend allowed Tchaikovsky to leave his job at the Moscow Conservatory and devote himself to composing full time.

But!

They never met.

At Von Meck’s insistence. Well, actually this is not true. They saw each other briefly from a distance by accident a couple of times.

Mama feels that Von Meck’s idea here was absolutely right, as finding out about people you admire is often disappointing, at least when you don’t have the opportunity to mitigate their more irritating tendencies with the warmth of friendship. She also admires the fact that Nadezhda Von Meck sounds like a woman of absolute commitment to eccentricity and strong mindedness. She was, broadly speaking, against marriage for example. She was also an excellent judge of musical artistry – the person she hired to tutor her children was a young Claude Debussy.

If there were a house museum about her, we would totes be on our way there now. Even though we might have to travel into Europe as she had estates there as well as in Russia, which Tchaikovsky often stayed at.

On a less well documented note, Mama learnt that Tchaikovsky wore slippers. Here they are in Tchaikovsky’s bedroom, which leads directly off the main living area.

Tchaikovsky's bedroom with a single iron frame bed on the right. On the floor is a redish Persian style rug with green embroidered slippers. There is a wooden glass fronted cabinet. In the background is a simple wooden desk and chair under a window. On its right you can see part of a sofa. The walls are pink, there is a green patterned wall covering next to the bed, and beige curtains tied back over the window. The floor is brown linoleum.

See that table under the window? That’s where Tchaikovsky did all his composing although given the short time he was in the house all he actually wrote here was the Pathetique Symphony, as well as revising a few bits and bobs. It was this piece of music that did for him – he went to St Petersburg for its opening performance and that’s where he incautiously drank unboiled water in a restaurant afterwards.

It doesn’t help allay the suicide theory that some musicologists point to its early echoing of the Russian Orthodox requiem liturgy. That said, the name in Russian is better translated as passionate rather than sad. And there are a number of sections which are much more aux anges than melancholic. It seems, in short, that it might after all be fitting epitaph for a highly emotionally charged individual, whether it was intended as one or not.

After Tchaikovsky’s probably not all that mysterious passing actually his brother, Modest, was the one who started the Tchaikovsky House Museum. He continued to live there himself, along with Tchaikovsky’s nephew, ‘Bob’ (no, I don’t know why he’s called ‘Bob’ either. It’s not his real name. A whim of Tchaikovsky’s apparently).

Modest and Bob did add an extra wing, though, so they could keep living there without disturbing Tchaikovsky’s stuff. Lots of wood panelling. Splendid.

A wooden panneled room with a wooden floor. There is a desk and chair on the left, a wooden wardrobe in the middle and a very large house plant to the right.

And thus it remained until the revolution when it was occupied, briefly, by an anarchist and his family, before being turned back into a museum again. Did I mention that Tchaikovsky is really very very famous and beloved in Russia? This is much more important than overthrowing the elite and occupying their stuff.

Such was his status that despite the quite desperate struggle the Russians were having in World War Two, they took care that Tchaikovsky’s effects were evacuated in anticipation of occupation by the invading Nazis. Sensible move in the event, as indeed the building was taken over by the German army, who parked vehicles on the ground floor.

Birch trees in autumn in the grounds of the painted wooden Tchaikovsky House Museum (on the right) in Klin

Now it is fully restored as a memorial to Tchaikovsky’s life, with added concert hall and art gallery complex off to one side, only troubled every now and again by winners of the International Tchaikovsky Competition, now gearing up for its XVII’s round, coming and playing on his personal piano, and planting a tree in the garden.

Brief pause on the tour at this point while we all listen to some of Tchaikovsky’s piano music while standing in the really very pleasant living room where the piano actually is. This would be the only place you would hear him play. He wasn’t a great one for performances in public, although he would entertain friends.

Tchaikovsky's living room with a round wooden table bottom right foreground, which has a vase of purple and orange flowers on it. Wooden chairs stand around it. There is a large wooden desk on the right with a green leather top and a number of items under glass on it, as well as a 19th century lamp. On the wall are a number of black and white photographs of people from Tchaikovsky's life, and an silver icon is in the corner. There is a Persian style carpet on the floor and a window with long curtains framing it in the background to the right. A plant is on the windowsill.

To be honest, Mama could have done with a lot more focus on the music during her visit to the Tchaikovsky House Museum. As a former bass player, Mama’s view of Tchaikovsky is somewhat limited, and admirably summed up by this video and its concern for accurately counting the rests, obsessing over whether it should be der duuum or der duum, and a magnificent attempt to pretend the twiddly bits don’t exist.

I dunno, perhaps we Russians are all supposed to have Tchaikovsky’s Greatest Hits on loop in our heads or something, but both Mama and Papa would have quite liked it piped over a loudspeaker as they wandered round the house and grounds. As it was, in addition to the piano recording, we got herded into a room and forced to watch the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies, which was nice, but still a little bit thin compared to the richness of the available oeuvre. Mama understands that possibly the audio guide tour, as opposed to the face to face tour, is a little more music focused, so she recommends giving that a try.

Anyway. Tchaikovsky’s House Museum in Klin. He’s one of the greats, is Tchaikovsky. His house is very pleasant indeed. It’s easy to get to from Moscow. There is a cafe on site. And there’s a cat.

More information

The Tchaikovsky House Museum’s website (in Russian).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1.

Address: 48 Tchaikovsky Street, Klin, Moscow region, 141600

Opening: 10 am – 6pm Friday to Tuesday (closed Wednesday and Thursday, and the last Monday of every month).

Admission: 550 roubles for adults who cannot pretend to be Russian, 300 roubles for adults who can pretend to be Russian (or who are, y’know, Russian), 190 roubles for children. You will need to buy a photography permit for another 200 roubles to be able to take pictures in the house.

Getting there: You need a train from the Leningradsky train station, found atop the Komsomolskaya metro station on the red and brown lines. If you get a fast, lastochka train you will be in Klin in an hour. Buy return tickets in Moscow if you have children, as concession tickets cannot be bought in Klin and you’ll have to pay full price for your kids to return to the capital. The trains run around every one to two hours, more during peak times. If you get a slow train it will take at least 30 minutes longer. One way tickets for adults will be around 300 roubles. You can easily buy them at the Leningradsky station itself, but don’t lose the rather flimsy paper – it’s what opens he gates to and from the platform, and it will be checked on the train itself.

You can drive (or get a taxi). Head for St Petersburg. The Tchaikovsky House Museum will be somewhere on your left, between Moscow and St Petersburg.

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Suitcases and Sandcastles

Gorky Park in Moscow is not what you think (probably)

Mama was recently startled to find that despite her best efforts on Instagram, at least two of her UK-specific friends seem to have a very Soviet view of the centre of Moscow. Don’t they know that the monumentally ugly Rossiya hotel was pulled down and is now the most hipster of hipstery parks IN THE WORLD?

For example.

We now have trees and specially widened pavements on what used to be an unrelievedly grim multi-lane highway, Tverskaya Street, barreling down to Red Square.

The massive pedestrianisation project of the rest of Central Moscow is almost complete.

Cafe culture, albeit strictly in the spring and summer months, is a thing (in the winter it’s all outdoor skating rinks, light shows and street parties).

Not only this, but you can hire not only bikes but, god love us all, scooters, the better to idly tool your way round the leafy, flower-infested boulevards, past the restored facades of pre-twentieth century mansion houses, factory buildings and churches, or around the ponds. As well as gasp at the monumental Soviet architectural doorway architecture, constructivist balconies and such like.

At night, it’s all lit up!

And at any given moment you are very likely to find the whole of central Moscow putting on some kind of festival. New Year, spring, jam, history, fish, teachers, singing, war – we celebrate them all.

I’ll grant you that some of the residential tower blocks in the suburbs are a bit grim. But if the Moscow Mayor gets his way, many of these are not long for this world either. Of course, this demolition project has prompted the Guardian to publish a series of articles explaining how these are not monstrous carbuncles with inconveniently small kitchens, out of date wiring, inadequate sewage systems and nowhere to put a washing machine, but charmingly well thought out residencies and one of the pinnacles of communist social and engineering achievements, which all the former Soviet states were lucky to benefit from. Why oh why would anyone think of pulling them down? And rehousing the inhabitants!

Although they are right about the fact that the replacement of the generously sized leafy courtyards and five floor blocks with 24-story high rises and concrete forecourts is less than ideal. And that this has proved a lot less popular with Muscovites than perhaps Sobyanin was expecting. Possibly because in addition to the loss of pleasant surroundings, the developers and city hall have also found a clever dodge so that the city government does not have to keep its infrastructure provision in line with the proposed quadrupling of residents.

However.

As a result, Mama is of the mind that perhaps y’all have entirely the wrong picture of Gorky Park, Moscow’s most famous outdoor space in your heads. Which is a shame.

In the foreground on the left are some spiky palm leaves. On the right some formal flowerbeds made from low clipped bushes and some deep red flowers. In the background is a rectangular white stone structure. Two pillars and six pairs of columns hold up a roof of the gateway to Gorky Park in Moscow. It is a bright sunny day and the sky is blue.

So what is Gorky Park like?

In summer, you can lounge around on the free cushions, benches and other seating admiring the flowers.

Selection of white, pink, yellow and red flowers in close up
A circular flowerbed with a swirly pattern made of different coloured flowers, especially red. In the middle an urn made of a clipped bush rather than stone rises up, with spiky leaves growing out of the top. The flowerbed is surrounded by trees and benches, and there are people sitting or walking around it.

Or you can hire all sorts of modes of personal transport: bikes, scooters, tandems and so on and enjoy a lengthy run along the Moscow River embankment.

A white structure holds bikes for hire. Hanging from the ceiling are some skateboards and scooters. On some shelves to the left are roller skates. Two people are talking to the assistant in the centre. They are dressed mostly in white and the assistant has a yellow T short on. In the background are trees. The sky is blue.

Or get a pedalo and drift around the lakes (there are two).

A pond surrounded by some reeds with some pedalos drifting around it. There is a small arched bridge and trees in the background, as well as a sculpture of white boxes stood on one another in a 3x3 grid

You can take part in other sports too, with a beach volleyball area, and plenty of free outdoor yoga classes and the like.

A group of men are bunched under a basket ball hoop, looking up. Another man to the left in green shorts has shot, and the ball is about to go though the hoop. Other players are distributed around the court. A spectator watches from the side. In the background there are people playing beach volleyball in swimming costumes on an artificial beach in Gorky Park.
To the left there is a red stage with Reebock written over it. On stage people in exercise gear demonstrate moves. In front of the stage, some people in aerobics gear are copying them, while others watch. They all have their back to the camera. It is a rainy day, and everyone is dressed for that weather.

There are children’s play areas, which are pretty cool no matter what the weather.

In the Gorky Park playground there is a large wooden blue cruise liner style ship, slighly heeling to one side as if sinking. There are handholds so children can climb the sides and lots of small round portholes because you can climb inside and look out. At the back is a large white sphere, which you can also climb inside and a round red pipe. In the foreground are some wooden steps in the form of waves to climb over or sit on. In the background there are trees without any leaves on.
Behind some bushes there is an area with swings set in a circle suspended from white metal frames. Some of the swings are traditional, some are less so. You can see adults, teenagers and kids in the swinging equipment. In the foreground are some bushes and in the background a concrete building with lots of windows.

Food and drink stalls, cafes and restaurants abound.

There are five food stalls. The signs are all in Cyrillic. The nearest has tea urns with bread snacks a bit like pretzels handing. Stallholders are busy preparing food or standing looking out. One customer is leaning on the stall and chatting to the stallholders. It has been raining and the customers are wearing warm coats, hats and boots.

And! There is a dancing fountain!

In the foreground are spikey blue and white flowers and in the background, out of focus, a fountain arcs water straight up, left and right. A man is looking at it with his back to the camera.

In winter the whole place turns into a giant outdoor ice rink. It’s not quite as big as the one out at VDNKh usually is, but it’s just as cool.

You can also climb on top of the entrance gates to a viewing platform. And visit Gorky Park’s very own museum (it’s on our list. Obviously).

The Gorky Park gateway from underneath. You can se white stone columns on either side and sandy coloured stone above, with large round indentations cur into the stone. The sky is a strong blue colour to either side.

There is even a highly regarded modern art gallery, Garage, to look round.

Delicate blue, purple and white flowers with on tall thin stems with frothy frondy leaves in the foreground. In the background are some trees and grass surrounded by paths, and behind that a silver rectangular building that is Garage art gallery.

And an observatory.

Partially hidden by trees is a small cylindrical red and white building with a shiny silver metal dome that the sunlight is bouncing off. In the foreground there is long grass and a plant with bushy broad leaves. There are some white globe lamps dotted around, close to the ground.

Gorky Park always gets in on any of the big city wide celebrations happening in Moscow, so it’s a definite place to consider going if you want to join in.

Two men and a woman stand around a small forge next to the Moscow River in Gorky Park. The woman is looking down, with her hood up and her hands in the pocket of her coat and operating bellows with her foot. A man opposite her is smiling and holding a long metal rod in the fire. He has on a beanie hat and a cagoule and some gloves. The other man stands between them with his hands in the pockets of his trousers, looking at the fire. He is wearing a hoody and a bodywarmer.
There are a whole bunch of people climbing over tanks parked on the embankment of the Moscow river in Gorky Park
Two large men have picked up a large tractor tire and are carrying them in parallel in a rage. Straw bales mark the area they are racing in. Other people are standing and watching them. It is a wet day.

But you also probably don’t realise how big it is.

Neskuchny Gardens are not boring

The bit with the organised fun, the bit actually called Gorky Park, is really only the start of it.

If you amble further along you get to Neskuchny Gardens, which literally translates to ‘Not Boring Gardens’. These are the remains of the formal gardens belonging to the mansion houses of aristocrats, which after the revolution were commandeered to form the backbone of the new proletarian leisure facility.

This isn’t a mansion house though. It is a library.

A classical looking yellow and white  building with a columned frontage sits on top of a steep hill covered in brown autumn leaves. The trunk of a willow tree leans in from the left, and dangles its thin branches down from the top of the picture.

There are also grottos, statues, pleasant grassy knolls and a continuation of the embankment to continue to stroll along. Somewhere there is also a round pavilion where What? Where? When? is filmed. A quirky and very beloved TV show, it is something like what would happen if you crossed University Challenge and QI, let the participants wear evening dress and had members of the public setting the questions.

And! Mama and Papa came here for their very first date. Which seems to have worked out quite well all told.

Sparrow Hills are quite hilly and might have some sparrows

If you keep going, you will find yourself in the midst of the wooded Sparrow Hills. Through which you can walk and walk and walk, and take in this fabulous building.

It’s the Russian Federation’s Science Academy. Isn’t the architecture just perfect for an academy of sciences? And if you nip across the bridge here you can go to the Moscow Art Deco Museum.

However!

You are still not done and can continue walking though woods, next to the river, past the urban beach, which Mama does not really recommend you swim from, right round to the Luzhniki football stadium, Novodovichiy convent and Moscow City. Although you’ll have to cross the Moscow River to get to them.

Luckily, a brand new method of doing this has just started up – taking a cable car. Which doubles, in winter, as a means of getting to the inner city downhill ski run.

So, Gorky Park. Well worth a visit, especially if you are in Moscow for any length of time, in summer or winter. Not much to get back to the USSR with (you want Muzeon, just over the road, for that) but a lot of other things to see and do.

And for more information about the man behind the name, see this post.

More information

The park has its own website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Terry Pratchett, author.

Address: Krymsky Val, 9, Moscow, 119049

Admission to the park is free.

Opening: 24 hours. Allegedly.

Getting there: For the main entrance, you want either Oktyabrskaya metro station (orange and brown lines) or Park Kultury (red line). But there are a number of other entrance points, notably Vorobyovy Gory (red line), which will give you a walk through the Sparrow Hills wooded area, through Neskuchny Sad/ Not Boring Gardens and on to Gorky Park.

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How and why to get lost at the Russian Forest Museum

Mama once got lost in a forest in Russia (as well as Kolomna).

It was a decidedly worrying thirty minutes, until she and Papa were able to follow the sounds of dacha land back to civilization, popping out of the trees some considerable distance to where they went in to pick a few mushrooms.

This experience was rendered not less freaky by the story their neighbour then told of getting turned around on a similar mission and being stuck in the trees for three days.

Which just goes to show you that Muscovites may know how to fix the central heating system with a bent paperclip and a hammer, but are not at all wilderness ready.

This is a problem because the Russian forest is a wilderness. And huge. And largely left to its own devices.

So Mama was very surprised that the Russian Forest Museum in Moscow is one of the Russian captial’s best kept secrets, which she only stumbled upon by accident.

It’s a bonus that it turned out to be something of a find, and is now one of our favourite museums in Moscow.

Some of this is because of fabulous detailing of the interior, like this traditional wooden window carving.

Undoubtedly more of it is because of the room full off stuffed animals, mimicking a forest glade. Complete with the pleasant sounds of soft bird calls and running water.

The bird calls are recorded, but the water music is because of the actual stream flowing through the diorama. It is CHARMING. We were all CHARMED.

Plus, they have an excellent natural stone floor.

It’s called the Temple of the Forest. Quite right too.

The rest of the Russian Forest Museum is a bit less quirky but no less interesting to poke around, managing to impart all sorts of facts about trees and the other plants and wildlife that you can find among them.

Forest management.

Some tools and other items representing forestry in the Russian Forest Museum Moscow

Fruits of the forest.

Leaves.

Also, Baba Yaga.

The docents in charge of the Russian Forest Museum have also been particularly welcoming and very happy to cater to my and my Sylvan Big Brother’s enthusiasm when ever we pitch up.

They also told us that the Yolka, the children’s show at New Year, is particularly fabulous.

Even the cave where the coats are kept is cool. Noticing the owl is a sign of being a child at heart, the cloakroom attendant explained, because all the kids do, but none of the adults. By and large.

So quite why it is not heaving with interested visitors is a complete mystery to Mama. Although her accompanying Russian friend did point out that if, in fact, Russians want to commune with the silver birches, the ceder trees and the many varieties of fir and wotnot, all they have to do is walk about 200 yards outside of any given town. Even right next to Moscow is a nature reserve which is home to elk and wild boars. Elk! and wild boars!

So, vast expanses of (nature filled) trees, continually on your doorstep. Not as thoroughly exotic as they are to Mama.

Anyway.

It may have been our visit to the Russian Forest Museum which gave Mama the chutzpah to go back into the woods some fifteen years after her first disastrous visit.

Or it may have been the fact that every other tree on the trail to the local swimming hole was marked. Mama’s fellow urbanites may be Russian, but have clearly learned to take no chances.

Since the walk takes about 40 minutes and one tree does start to look much the same as another after a while, at some point the locals have gotten creative, and added signage. There’s only so much excitement to be had from the soft sunlight streaming though the leafy canopy onto the floor of moss and blueberries, the crack of a tree falling over 50 metres away, the smell of damp earth and greenery, and wondering if you will tread on a snake while realising it is more likely to be a frog.

This one says ‘mosquitoes’ and is accurate.

Others hint at the delights of the swimming area ahead.

Swimming costume nailed to a tree

There’s a waterproof visitors book.

And other witty remarks such as ‘sun this way’.

Or, for the way back, ‘your dinner’s getting cold’.

It was fun. But so is the Russian Forest Museum in Moscow. Well worth adding to a walk around the attractively buildinged area immediately south of the Moscow River down from the Kremlin. Which is clearly the subject of a post for another day.

More information

The Russian Forest Museum’s website (in Russian).

Address: Building 4, 5th Monetchikovsky Pereulok, Moscow, 115054

Opening: In summer, Monday – Friday (closed weekends) 10am to 6pm. At other times, the museum is closed Monday and Tuesdays, but open on weekends.

Admission: 150 roubles for adults, 100 roubles for children over seven (under sevens are free).

Getting there: It’s close to Paveletskaya Metro station, on the green and brown lines. You can also walk down from Teatralnaya/ Novokuznetskaya (green, yellow and orange lines) which will take you past a lot of interesting buildings in this older district.

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Suitcases and Sandcastles

What to do in Kolomna, Russia in a snowstorm

Our visit to the town of Kolomna in the Moscow region is an object lesson in why you should pay attention to your surroundings in an unfamiliar place, as well as keep your mobile in the back pocket of your jeans and not an outer area of your coat when it is minus 15 degrees.

Because at some point Mama got separated from her party and found herself in the middle of the biggest snowstorm in seventy years in the dark with no clear idea of the direction she should be going in. And her phone had died from the cold.

Kolomna near Moscow in Russia

She could have retraced her steps – we are not talking serious levels of peril here. Mama is not that kind of travel blogger. But she was tired, and was also attempting one of those complicated parental manoeuvres where you and your Significant Other swap over which child you are looking after in the middle of an excursion. Tracking back down my Oblivious Big Brother, happily scoffing pancakes in the warmth of a cafe, would have meant this relay would not have happened.

So she asked the first person she saw for help.

Now the problem with asking a local for help is that they don’t know the name of the hotels.

And although Mama had previously clocked with amusement it was on a street with a very typical name for a street in a town in Russia, she couldn’t at that moment remember what that was. Lev Tolstovo Ulitsa? Leninskaya? Pushkinskaya? Unfortunately, all of these also exist in Kolomna, so this insight was not helpful.

Locals also don’t necessarily know the location of every random museum Mama might have happened to visit nearby to where she was staying. And saying to someone ‘it’s on the street with the really attractive houses’ is really not a helpful thing to say in Kolomna. At all.

Kolomna Streets in Russia

But luckily ‘it’s next door to the McDonald’s’ is. Thus, Mama was escorted ten minutes out of the Russian man’s way back to the street Oktyabreskaya Revolutsia, and was able to successfully take over supervision of my pig-headed determined effort to lounge around at the Hotel Kolomna rather than engage in tourism.

Mama thinks I have watched too many episodes of the (admittedly excellent) travel show Oryol i Ryeshka (Heads or Tails), in which one presenter gets to experience a destination in luxury and the other has 100 dollars to spend for three days. I was distinctly more interested in exploring the facilities in our accommodation for the whole of our first day, and decidedly frustrated every time we didn’t get further than the lobby before sauntering back out again to visit some other attraction. Eventually I flatly refused to go anywhere else.

Which is how Mama and Papa came to be at opposite ends of the town in the first place.

Well, to be fair, it was very cold, and a free excursion courtesy of the hotel didn’t really sound that interesting. Mama begs to differ though as she found out quite a lot about the history of Kolomna.

The history of Kolomna and its kremlin

Kolomna is directly south of Moscow and on the Moscow River, and thus of some strategic importance in Moscow’s long struggle for dominance in the area. It was officially first recorded as existing in the 12th Century.

There’s a socking big statue of Dimitry Donskoi outside one of the remaining walls which commemorates the time he gathered his troops in Kolomna before marching actually some considerable way away to have the battle of Kulikovo in 1380. Which he won, and although it’s one of those victories which has definitely grown in the telling, in the Russia origin story it marks a sort of turning point both in the decline of the power of the Mongols in the area, and also in Moscow beginning to claw its way up, in a sea of competing small Eastern states.

Russian armour

Worth a statue, then. Not that Mama has a photo of it because at that moment in the tour she had lost the feeling in her toes and was wondering if perhaps I hadn’t made the right choice after all.

The Kolomna kremlin is also worth gawping at as it eventually graduated from being a wooden construction to more durable walls a bit more than a hundred years or so later, some of which still remain. Quite impressively.

‘Kremlin’ being, you understand, the Russian word for fortress, not something special to Moscow. There’s a whole set of them scattered along the border of medieval Moscow’s influence, mainly as a protection against the raids of Crimean Tarters.

Kremlin walls and tower in Kolomna

The next big skirmish Kolomna was involved in was during the Time of Troubles in the 16th Century, when the succession to the throne was contested by a succession of False Dmitrys pretending to be the son of Ivan the Terrible (the name is a clue that they did not, in the end, win the argument). Maria Mniszech, who was, optimistically, married to both of them, took Kolomna during the fight and harried Moscow from there, until she herself was captured and imprisoned in one of the towers that is still standing. Today it still bears her name. And, apparently, her ghost.

Marinskaya Tower Kolomna

The kremlin walls are incomplete now, not because of their failure to keep anyone out, but because during the 18th and 19th centuries the building materials were re-purposed by Kolomna inhabitants for other things. But as well as some walls, there is a gatehouse and those towers to admire, and you can tour the top of the walls too if you join the right excursion.

Gatehouse front and back in Kolomna Russia

There are a number of churches and monasteries inside the kremlin territory or scattered around the town. So if you are into your Orthodox ecclesiastical architecture, Kolomna is a great place to visit.

Monastery in Kolomna Russia

Churches inside the Kremlin In Kolomna Russia
Yellow Russian orthodox church
Church of St Nicholas Posadsky in Kolomna Russia

Mama would like to draw your attention particularly to this church, Krestovozdvizhensky Cathedral, and especially to the splindly red and white towers you see surrounding it. Look familiar? They should if your read our blog as they are by the same architect who was responsible for the Gothic gingerbread palace for Catherine the Great in Tsaritsyno in Moscow (not that Catherine appreciated it).

Krestovozdvizhensky Cathedral inside the Kremlin in Kolomna Russia

Mama, however, was more interested in the wooden village style houses.

Wooden house at night in Kolomna Russia

Many of which have gone full on quaint, especially if they are near to or inside the kremlin.

Wooden houses in Russia

Of course, pausing to take another photo every few minutes probably didn’t help the problem she had keeping up with the Russians in her party. Mama is unclear if she is just terminally unfit or has not yet developed enough of an irritation with wading through ankle deep snow to have worked out the best way to do it.

Wooden Houses in Kolomna near Moscow in Russia

Museums in Kolomna and other attractions

Aside from photography there are a number of museums to choose from when you visit Kolomna.

We went to the main Kolomna history museum, which started off in prehistoric times and the natural world and worked its way up from there, as small local museums are wont to do.

Mama has clearly been in Russia too long – she no longer finds the idea of bears, wolves and so on particularly exotic as part of the local wildlife scene. But she did get quite excited by this odd looking creature. It’s a wolverine, apparently.

Wolverine

Anyway, aside from walls, what Kolomna is mostly known for is industrialism, so there are a number of exhibits about that, especially the locomotive factory.

Mama was more distracted by trying to take a photo of the model of the centre of town from every conceivable angle – she was determined never to get lost when visiting Kolomna again – and by the discovery of an English grandfather clock. This shot shows where she was standing while taking the two kremlin wall pictures above. The haunted tower is on the right.

Model of the Kolomna kremlin

That said, what they do not seem to make much of in the museum is the reason why Kolomna is still not officially on the list of Golden Ring towns – the recommended list of places in the Moscow region which tourists might like to go and visit if they fancy a few days away from the capital. Despite it being super pretty and relatively convenient to get to.

This is that it was a closed town until 1994.

Closed towns were the ones which had some kind of strategic military importance, and so there were restrictions on foreigners visiting.

The strategic importance of Kolomna were the armament factories.

This history is hinted in the Museum of Military Glory (fabulous name. Mama says, dubiously). Observe the diorama of shell making!

Armaments factory worker USSR

The museum is small, but the guide was enthusiastic about pointing out the equal participation of women in the death and destruction industry in the Soviet Union generally, and the Great Patriotic War (World War Two) in particular. Hurrah!

It is also one of those museums that takes a personal approach to history, with most of the exhibits being illustrated by pictures, stories and artefacts of real Kolomna natives and residents.

Mama was particularly determined to draw my attention to the photo and letters of one of the Night Witches. This was a squadron of lady bomber pilots, fabulously nicknamed by the enemy as somehow it was much much worse to be killed by females than by your regular Red Army fly boys. Kolomna has an aerodrome nearby, and the flying club attached to it has a long and venerable history. Currently it has a reputation for being a particularly good place to go and learn about parachute jumping and sky diving. If you are that way inclined.

The Night Witches

This is one of the first instructors at the aerodrome.

Female flying instructor Kolomna aerodrome

Of the other places of interest available on your Kolomna visit, the one that was enthusiastically mentioned as a top attraction by everyone Mama spoke to about her trip is the Pastila Factory Museum. Pastila is a fruit sweet, and the museum is very well worth the fuss, being interactive, immersive and ending with a guided pastila tasting and tea. We all echo the recommendation therefore. Here is what we wrote about it in more detail.

Demonstrating how to make traditional Russian fruit pastille sweets

And then there’s the museum to the life and times of the local writer, Ivan Ivanovich Lazhechnikov, who in theory is famous for being one of the first writers of historical fiction in Russia (think Walter Scott).

However, because finding a connection to Alexander Sergevich Pushkin, the (greatest) poet (who evah lived), is a national obsession, much is also made of the fact that he also saved Pushkin from a duel by getting the other guy to apologise.

Bust of the writer Lazhechnikov

But didn’t Pushkin die in a duel, I hear your cry? Yes, indeed he did. Just not this one. Clearly toxic masculinity is not a new phenomenon.

The museum is mostly just a collection of odds and ends and a few dressed up dummies in Lazhechnikov ’s reconstructed family home, and Mama did not, if she is absolutely honest, find it all that interesting. But it does have some nice furniture and she has made a mental note to see if there are any translations of the great man’s works.

Books by the writer Lazhechnikov

Other museums that caught our eye were the one about a type of gramophone, the one about life on a communal farm, and also the ones more dedicated to crafts such as soap making, and honey production. Also with very tempting shops attached.

Soap museum and shop in Kolomna

If all of this history, culture, boutique shopping or parachuting palls, you can check out the fancy new sports centre, which is mainly there to house a top of the range speed skating rink. Even if you are not into speed skating, you can hire skates and whiz round the rink in the comfort of indoors.

Ice rink in Kolomna Russia

Or you can do what my Oblivious Big Brother particularly enjoyed, and slide on your tummy down the moat of the kremlin walls. Over and over again. At least someone enjoyed the snow.

There are also a number of pleasant cafes and eateries dotted about, in addition to the MacDonald’s.

But what about the hotel, I hear you cry? Did it live up to my expectations?

Hotel Kolomna

In Mama’s view the Hotel Kolomna was a perfectly respectable three star hotel. The communal areas were pleasant, and they have such facilities as their own gym, restaurant and cafe.

The rooms included sturdy examples of the sort of furniture you usually find in hotel rooms. The beds were comfortable, the en suite bathrooms were fully equipped, and the carpets were thick. Everything was clean.

Hotel Kolomna in Kolomna n

Check in was smoothly accomplished, and reception was able to lend Mama a charger to revive her dead phone, which she was particularly happy about.

Hotel Kolomna was, in short, a bit better than some of the motel chain hotels she has experienced in the UK and decidedly less grubby and with better fitting windows than a couple of the B&Bs. Also, being a pretty large hotel building and able to do economy of scale, it was also cheaper, especially off peak in a blizzard.

Mama isn’t sure how good anyone’s English is, but she can definitively say they didn’t have any trouble coping with her wayward Russian, which is a good sign. And all of the information, hotel services, rules, general information, comes in English as well as Russian as standard. So they can probably manage foreigners.

In short, Mama quite recommends it, especially as it is within a reasonably short amble of the pretty bits of Kolomna and the station.

On Oktyabreskaya Revolutsia street. Remember this. It might come in handy.

Obviously, other hotels, hostels and sleeping arrangements are available. Not that you absolutely need to make an overnight stay of it.

Getting there

Getting to Kolomna to experience all of these things is simplicity in itself even if you do not have a car as there are regular trains from Komsomolskaya station. You can get the basic local train, the electrichka, which will have hard benches to sit on and stop in more places, or the express, which shaves only a few minutes of the approximately two hour journey, but will definitely have better seats and free wifi as well as a refreshment trolley.

So you should definitely visit Kolomna. Mama thought that the off season in winter was a perfectly reasonable time to go, especially if you like to photograph wooden houses in a layer of freshly laid snow, but doubtless Kolomna will be equally as pretty in full summer. And there will be all sorts of festival-type celebrations for major holidays such as New Year, Maslenitsa, Easter or the May holidays too.

More information

The Hotel Kolomna’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the Night Witches, Russian combat pilots of World War Two.

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Kolomna is a town about two hours from Moscow, Russia. It has history, a kremlin, traditional wooden buildings, museums, sky diving and a sweet factory.
Suitcases and Sandcastles

A sweet treat at the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum in Russia

One of the things everyone recommends when you say you are about to visit Kolomna in Russia is a look around the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum. Which does not initially seem like and incentive to get on a train and travel for two hours out of Moscow.

Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum in Russia

But then you find out that pastila is a type of sweet.

Pastila is, in fact, the same sort of sweet as a (Rowntrees) fruit pastille. Name a bit of a give away there. Except pastila is a lot softer, a bit more gourmet, with more variation in the different types. And originally at least, a lot less mass produced.

In French, they call it Pate de Fruit. Immediately makes it sound even more enticing, non?

Essentially, for those who have never considered how their fruit pastilles are made, to get pastila you concoct a fruit puree and then allow it to turn into something jellylike.

Examples of Russian fruit pastille sweets at the Kolomna Pastila Museum

Apples are involved, partly because Kolomna seems to have been particularly abundant in apple orchards, and partly because they are a good source of the setting agent pectin. But other berries and soft fruits can be used too. Mama particularly likes the blackcurrant flavoured ones.

But then the makers of Kolomna pastila started to get fancy. And not just because pastila was often made with honey in Kolomna. Honey was cheap. Sugar was not. That’s it. Honeyed pastila is tasty though.

No, classic Kolomna pastila was different from the French and English versions because the addition of eggwhites to the puree and a long drying process in the traditional Russian clay oven added a certain marshmallowy quality to the sweet. Which became beloved of the Imperial court on down.

Adding eggs to the Pastila puree

Shame the original historical recipe got lost somewhere between the revolution upending everything, including, for some reason, the apple orchards. And the attempt to produce pastila as an fully industrial process did not go as well as hoped either. Still, they seem to have got it mostly worked out again now.

This doesn’t quite explain the popularity of the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum, however.

Even though everyone is careful to tell you they will serve you tea and conduct a tasting session, Mama was bemused by the extreme enthusiasm she encountered from tourists and locals alike.

I mean, every cafe in Kolmna serves tea and pastila, and the museum itself has a particularly fabulous one next door to the main building. What could possibly be so gripping about a few glass cases and some explanatory placards?

Cafe at the Kolomna Pastile Factory Museum

But it turns out that the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum tour is much more than an exhibit-ridden succession of rooms enhanced by fifteen minutes of a guide droning in front of each one.

No, it is an interactive, immersive experience in which the history of pastila making in Kolomna, the cooking process, and all the different types of pastila are demonstrated by costumed actors playing out various roles of 19th century cottage industry workers.

Demonstrating how to make traditional Russian fruit pastille sweets

And also the factory owner and his wife.

Tea party hostess at the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum Russia

Even the embedded advertisement for all the related products sold by the Pastila Factory Museum shop (fruit syrup, herbal tea, jam, and preserved fruit, in case you are wondering) is exuberantly done. And Baba Yaga herself has a cameo appearance.

Baba Yaga makes a surprise appearance

You get to make your own pastila, from washing and coring the apples, through stirring the puree, to sticking the pastille on a hook to allow it to be dipped in syrup and hardened.

You also get to visit the cellar full of apples. The smell alone was worth the price of admission.

Apple cellar in the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum

Mama and Papa seriously considered locking my Appleloving Big Brother in there and coming back in a few hours to see who had won. Particularly as he was having a bit of a sulk at the beginning of the tour over a clash between Mama’s desire to photograph all the very attractive Kolomna buildings, churches and houses, and his desire to go and slide around in the record amounts of snow that had fallen that weekend.

He had thoroughly cheered up by the end though.

We did both also score an apple to munch as we went round the rest of the tour of the Kolomna Pastila Museum though and I must say that every museum tour should consider this method of keeping their young visitors happy, as well as ending with a sweet tasting.

If you are dithering about which Kolomna pastila museum to choose (there are two), or whether to go to a pastila museum at all, we heartily recommend this one. One word of warning – the tours are all run in Russian. But you can find yourself a guide to translate without too much difficulty, if you are not able to nudge your children sharply at significant moments and demand key words. Like Mama. Ow.

Actor on the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum Tour

If you cannot make it out of Moscow to Kolomna yourself, then the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum has a shop actually in Moscow, near Smolenskaya, and is available to order goodies from online.

And if you are not planning to visit Russia at all (really???) here are two recipes Mama is planning to follow to make her own – one for the denser fruit pastille-esque stuff, which will probably be most familiar to Mama’s UK readers, and a more Russian version involving 10 hours in an oven.

My family spent two days in Kolomna, so if you want to visit Kolomna, here is a fairly comprehensive guide to what you can do.

More information

The Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum website (make sure you have the right one).

The Kolomna sweet shop in Moscow.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about apple bobbing.

Address: 4 Ulitsa Polyanskaya, Kolomna, Russia, 140415

Opening: 10am to 8pm (on a tour).

Admission: Different tour packages at different times of the year cost different prices, which start at around 400 roubles for adults and 200 roubles for kids.

Getting there: Kolomna is about a tour hour journey from Moscow by train from the Komsomolskaya station. You can drive too. Kolomna is dead south from Moscow.

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Find out why everyone recommended the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum when we said that we were visiting Kolomna, a picturesque town near Moscow, Russia.

THE Guide to Moscow for First Time Visitors

Coming to Moscow and not sure what there is to see and do beyond the famous onion domes of Red Square? I am a Brit but I’ve lived in Moscow for well over ten years off and on since 1996. Currently I’m bringing up two Anglo-Russki kids in the capital of Russia, and I’m married to a native Muscovite. This is my guide to the most essential sights for first time visitors to Moscow, as well as other cool, interesting and unusual things you might want to look out for if you have a bit more time to look around.

You can’t miss Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral

Obviously you are going to have to visit Red Square, with St Basil’s Cathedral, the iconic image of Russia as its focal point. You can even go round the church, built in the 16th Century by Ivan the Terrible. St Basil’s is colourfully painted throughout, with tiny winding staircases leading to a succession of dimly lit, atmospheric chapels, all richly highlighted in gold leaf. Sometimes there are also singers.

Red Square Moscow

If that experience is not spooky enough you can also visit the mummified body of Lenin, still in his stylish boxy tomb next door to the cathedral. Shuffle past Lenin, ignore the smell, and don’t try to talk or pause or the guards will… frown at you. Then you can go and see the graves of other famous revolutionaries (and Stalin) in the walls of the Kremlin outside.

Want to see what high-end shopping looks like in Moscow? Nip into GUM, the former Soviet state department store, now thoroughly revamped. Its pre revolutionary roof is a work of art, as are its ice creams. Eating one is a Russian tradition, one of the things you must do in Moscow whatever time of year you visit.

GUM Moscow

Red Square is freely accessible most of the time, except when Lenin is receiving visitors or there is a public holiday which requires celebrating with a parade. The opening hours for St Basil’s are 11am to 6pm in summer and for Lenin’s mausoleum, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday 10am to 1pm. Read more about what to see and what (not) to do on Red Square here.

The Kremlin vs St Basil’s

Of course, one thing you may have discovered while visiting Red Square is that St Basil’s is not, in fact, the Kremlin, and the dead centre of Russian political power is also somewhere you can’t miss on a visit to Moscow.

Inside you can admire cathedrals with Tsarist connections, neo-classical government buildings, a cracked bell, some formal gardens, lots of cannons, a really hideous Soviet-era concert hall, and the Russian president’s helipad.

Kremlin helipad Moscow

On Saturdays from April to October you can also watch an elaborate changing of the guard ceremony, although there is also a more modest version every hour or so outside the Kremlin walls at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Lots of high kicking marching and saluting.

If you pay a bit extra you can go to the Armoury and look at national crown jewels type treasure. You might be thinking the communists would have got rid of it, but you will be wrong. There will be a lot of bling. Some Faberge eggs. It will all be exceeding shiny.

The Kremlin is open every day except Thursday. The Armoury costs extra for entrance at two-hour intervals. You need to book your visit on the day, but you can do this via the internet as well as in person.

Experience ‘wild urbanism’ at Zaryadye Park

Prefer some fresh air? If you wander down to the river you can check out Moscow’s newest public open space, Zaryadye Park. It is definitely one of THE spots to go and get your Instagram on – in particular you should head for the bridge that sweeps out into the middle of the river for an uninterrupted shot back up towards Red Square and the Kremlin.

Kremlin from New Zaryadye Park Moscow

Designed by the same people who are responsible for the High Line in New York, it also contains an open air amphitheatre, an underground glacier and a multimedia experience showcasing Russia’s manifold beauties. And the park itself is designed in zones to represent the different climates and flora of the very large territory Russia currently encompasses.

This post covers what happened just after it was opened, and why it lived up to its tagline of ‘wild urbanism’.

Cruise down the Moscow River and see it all

Just up from the park in the summer season you can catch cruise boats which will allow you to drift comfortably down the Moscow River taking photographs of many of Moscow’s top attractions as you go. Sail past Zaryadye Park again, the Kremlin (the best views are from the river), the reconstructed Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (see below), the former Red October chocolate factory (it’s very red, you can’t miss it), the GIANT statue of Peter the Great (there are no words), and get off at Gorky Park, although you can choose to go on for longer too, and admire one of the main stadiums for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, some of the tallest skyscrapers in Europe, as well as a lot of trees.

Read more about cruising down the Moscow river, including what to look out for and why, here. Cruises also run during the winter too, but those only start and finish in Gorky Park.

The old meets the new in Gorky Park and Muzeon

Gorky Park is a much bigger space than Zaryadye Park and in the last few years has been completely renovated. It now has a large number of (variously) cafes and food stalls, flowerbeds, artfully scattered lounging cushions, boating lakes, open air theatres and cinemas, playgrounds, free yoga and dance classes, fountains, sports facilities, random hip happenings, places you can hire bikes, and a huge outdoor ice rink (in winter).

Gorky Park Moscow Fountain

You can also nip back towards Peter I (you can’t miss him) and check out the park, Muzeon, directly opposite Gorky Park. This started out as the dumping ground for defaced Soviet busts, figurines and towering 3D representations of people like Felix Dzerzhinsky, the first head of the KGB, which were torn down at the end of the Soviet period. But it has mutated into something a bit less bitter over the years and now has all sorts of other sculptures for you to wander around and wonder about. Still, if you want to get a selfie with Lenin, this is the place to come.

Lenin Bust Muzeon Park Moscow

Both Gorky Park and Muzeon are free to enter. Opening hours are roughly equivalent to daylight hours. Read more about the delights of Gorky Park here, and the origins of Muzeon can be read here.

Want to find out more about how the statue of Peter the Great came to be imposed on the Moscow skyline? Read this.

A tour of Soviet Moscow

Travelling around Moscow, you will have already noticed that the fact that there is a park to deposed Soviet statues does not mean that there aren’t any hammer and sickles on display elsewhere around the city. If you are looking for traces of Moscow’s communist history, it’s easy to find them.

Leave Red Square, for example, along Nikolskaya Ulitsa at the far end of Red Square from St Basil’s, and at the top of this attractive pedestrianised street you will find a giant mustard-coloured building. This is Lubyanka, the former headquarters of the KGB and now the actual headquarters of the FSB. No, you cannot visit. But you can look at the monument to the many people who died in the Gulags off to the right, on the spot where the statue of Dzerzhinsky used to be.

KGB Headquarters Moscow

Look out over the Moscow rooftops at Detsky Mir

More cheerfully, to the left (yes, right next door) is the Central Children’s Department Store on Lubyanka, which back in the USSR was much more snappily named Detsky Mir, or Children’s World. Even if you don’t have kids along, you might want to pop inside because you can go outside on a viewing platform at the very top of the building, giving you an excellent view over Lubyanka, and the rooftops back towards the Kremlin and Red Square.

Rooftop View of Moscow

The fact that you can indulge your inner child on the way up with one of the bigger Hamley’s stores, a number of child-oriented attractions such as a room of anamatronic dinosaurs, and all sorts of interactive games in the corridors is surely just a bonus.

The Central Children’s Department Store on Lubyanka is open from ten am every day and closes at ten pm. Read this post if you want to find out more about this venue.

Explore VDNKh, the Soviet theme park

If you want a real USSR experience, though, you should head out of the centre to VDNKh. Begun as an exhibition space to show off all of communism’s finest achievements from the small (breeding a lot of pigs) to the large (first man in space), this very enormous park is dotted with all sorts of pavilions to things such as Armenia, honey and electromagnetic engineering, which are both very Soviet in design and extremely attractive.

Pavillion VDNKh Moscow

It’s fun to wander around and admire the architecture, but nowadays the pavilions also contain a number of very visit-able attractions, including an aquarium, an interactive science museum, an illusion factory, an urban farm, art and history exhibitions, and a space shuttle you can go inside.

In addition (but do you need an addition?), right next door to VDNKh is a whole museum devoted to space exploitation, which is an absolute must-see for anyone with any kind of interest in space rockets, space dogs, space chess sets and space ice cream and has the added bonus of having the most fabulous roof-top sculpture of any museum on the planet.

The rocket sculpture above the Memorial Space Museum of Cosmonautics in #Moscow

And! In winter they build one of the largest outdoor ice skating rinks in the world so you can skate past the pavilions of VDNKh, and then whizz down a tubing run that winds round an actual space rocket.

VDNKh is found a fifteen minute journey from the centre of Moscow half way up the orange metro line, and is open all day. For more about the history of this remarkable space as well as what you can do there, read this post.

Visit the Museum of Contemporary History

Of course there is always the actual museum to the revolution, including its build up and its consequences right up to the present day, although now it bills itself as a Museum of Contemporary History rather than out-and-out devoting itself to the formation of the USSR.

This means that there is a Putin room. There is a collection of pipes sent to Stalin from around the world. And there is a Yeltsin Spitting Image puppet. In addition to Lenin related items and similar.

It is also cheap and central, being on the main drag down to Red Square Tverskaya Street, just up from Tverskaya/ Pushkinskaya/ Chekovskaya metro stations. And since it is housed in the former English Club, a gentlemen’s hang out for expat Brits and Anglophiles in Tsarist Russia, it’s in a really nice-looking building.

Closed Mondays. Do not ever try to go museum visiting in Moscow on a Monday. This is almost always the day they have off. The Kremlin is the exception. The last Friday in every month is also often not a good idea, as this is also usually another closed day. On the upside, if you are in town, on the third Sunday each month and some public holidays, a large number of museums are free. There will be queues for the more popular ones, however.

Go underground and visit Bunker 42 and the Gulag Archipelago

Top of the list of more off-the-beaten-track Soviet-related locations to visit is Bunker 42, where you can relive the Cold War. Be prepared to walk down many many stairs, and go deep deep underground to find out where the Soviet leadership intended to ride out any attack the West could throw at them. To visit you have to be part of a tour, and it’s pricey compared to many of the other museums and experiences in Moscow at over 2000 roubles per person for the English language excursion. It may nevertheless still be worth it. To fortify you for the slog back up the stairs, there is also an underground cafe down there.

Another museum which aims to look at the less palatable aspects of the Soviet Union is the Gulag Museum, about the extensive network of labour camps for political (and other) prisoners. Open every day (except Monday) from midday, it is between Dostoyevskaya and Tsvetnoi Boulevar metro stations.

Tanks, planes and guns

If you want to look at really big guns, then the Central Armed Forces Museum is for you. It covers the whole history of the Red Army, although the Second World War dominates. Called the Great Patriotic War in Russia, this might give you some understanding of how brutal it was on the Eastern Front.

But as well as some very sobering dioramas of the horror that was Stalingrad, triumphal collections of captured Nazi flags and other such aide-memoires, you should be able to find all the uniforms, tanks, planes, armoured vehicles, and weapons big and small you could possibly want, and the actual American U2 spy plane shot down by the USSR in 1960 to boot.

U2 Spy Plane Powers Moscow

There isn’t much English language support, but its appeal is very visual even if you don’t know your AK47s from your AK74s. There are handling opportunities too, although not going so far as to let you actually fire the things on display.

The Central Armed Forces Museum is to the north of central Moscow near metro station Dostoyevskaya or Prospect Mira and open every day except Monday and Tuesday.

Victory Park and the Napoleonic Wars

Somewhat further out from the centre is Victory Park and another museum which is closed on Monday. This time it is exclusively about the Second World War. In case you weren’t sufficiently convinced by the Central Armed Forces Museum about just what a big deal it was to the Soviet Union, Russia, and the allied victory.

In fact, although it celebrates the end of World War Two with a giant monument designed by the same person who did the humongous Peter the Great statue you will not have missed on the Moscow River, the park was actually only completed in the 90s. But there are even more tanks round the side of the museum as a reward for coming out here as well as the deepest metro station in Moscow, Park Pobedy. Enjoy the ride up the escalator!

The park also hosts various events during the year, many of them entirely unwarlike, such as the Ice Sculpture Festival in the New Year holidays.

If you want to find out more about the other disastrous land war in Eurasia, then right next to Red Square is a museum devoted to the incautious invasion of Russia by Napoleon Bonaparte. It’s not actually the blood-red gothically detailed State Historical Museum which dominates the other end of Red Square to St Basil’s, but a subdivision next door.

The State Historical Museum is itself interesting for those who want to look into pre-twentieth century Russian history. Right back to prehistoric times. For non-Russian speakers it is essential to get the English language guide, as most of the objects in the museum have been selected because they have an interesting story attached rather than being merely representative. You will want to hear about them. This museum is, wonder of wonders, NOT closed on Monday or any other day.

Historical Museum Red Square

Read this post for more about what you can see at the Historical Museum, and why you shouldn’t tell your children that most things from deep history are found in graves.

Travel round and round the Moscow Metro

It’s not often that affordable, everyday and extremely practical means of travelling around are recommended in a guide to the top things to do in any given city, but there is a reason why it keeps coming up for the Moscow Metro, and that is the outstanding station design. You don’t need an interest in trains to appreciate the ceiling shapes, the light fittings, the many and varied artworks, the marble, the statues, the door details, and the columns.

Komsomolskaya Moscow Metro

The project began with the intention of building a series of people’s palaces (and to glorify the Revolution through the medium of public transport) and you have to say that it was a success, although they throttled right back after the first wave of construction. What this means is that most of the really spectacular stations are along the circular brown line, so it is simplicity itself to tour them.

Other notable stops are Ploshchard Revolutsii, the nearest stop to Red Square on the dark blue line (Soviet superpeople and animal statues, rub dogs or chickens for luck), Mayakovskaya on the green line (look up), and most of the stations on the dark blue line going East, which conveniently takes you to Vernissage souvenir market (see below).

However, the Moscow Metro is still under construction, and some of the newer stations in the south have also been decorated with an eye to making a functional space delightful once again. To compare the old and the new, the southernmost stations of the red line might be worth a journey, plus you’ll get to go through the station which is actually on a bridge of the Moscow River!!! And also right next to the 2018 FIFA World Cup stadium.

Troparevo Moscow Metro

To find out more about how to use the Moscow Metro, its history and what stations are essential viewing, read our guide.

The modern, the traditional and the trendy art galleries

If you are interested in seeing the Soviet Union through the eyes of its artists, you can visit the large rectangular box like building you will not have failed to notice while you were visiting the fallen statues of Muzeon. This bit of uninspiring architecture houses the New Tretyakov Gallery, a museum to the Soviet avant guarde and what followed it. Really worth a look if you have any interest in Kandinsky, Malevich and enormous canvases of Stalin twinkling avuncularly down at you.

The New Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsy Val

If you prefer your art more contemporary, just inside Gorky Park the Garage art gallery is one of the most likely spaces in Moscow to find out what Russian artists are up to now although it also has a lot of exhibitions by international names. It’s not very big, so easy to pop in and out of, and there is a pleasant sort of cafe, if none of the ones in the rest of the park appeal.

There is also the relatively new Moscow Museum of Modern Art, which has five locations all over the city and a wide variety of exhibitions, as well as the Moscow Multimedia Museum, which has Lego stations in the foyer.

Their websites will tell you if there is anything on which you feel particularly drawn to, but for a flavour of what you can see at any of them, click on the links in the text above, which also give more information about the locations, costs and the fact that they are closed on Monday.

And if you want to see just how hipster Moscow’s trendy art and design scene can get, check out the former Red October factory just down from the Kremlin and next to Muzeon, although this is rather better for hanging out in cafes and bars. So also go to Winzavod or the ARTPLAY complex in the east, down from Kurskaya/ Chkalovskaya metro, or Flacon in the north near Dmitrovskaya metro.

That said, when it comes to art, as a tourist, you’ll usually get directed to the Old Tretyakov Gallery which is back up the river a ways, on the south bank not that far from Red Square. Its building is much more attractive than the New Treatyakov Gallery’s, and its art is pre revolutionary.

Old Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow

You are unlikely have heard of any of the artists, but if you get hold of one of the many-languaged audio guides, by the time you come out, you will have a decent working knowledge of the whole of the history of Russian art, and a serious bear and birch trees addiction.

Or you could go to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, which is full of the paintings the Soviets acquired in the Second World War, among other things. Lots of Impressionists and Picasso and so on. Also, many life sized plastercasts of great works of art from around the world for the edification of Soviet citizens who were unlikely to be able to see them in person.

The Old Tretyakov Gallery is at Tretyakovskaya/ Novokusnetskaya metro stations, and for an overview of what you can see there and why it is interesting, read this post.

The Pushkin Museum of Fine Art is near the Christ the Saviour cathedral (see below) at Kropotkinskaya metro station.

Both of them are closed on Mondays. Of course.

Admire Moscow’s pre-revolutionary architecture

As well as visiting the gallery, you might also want to have a wander around the area surrounding the Old Tretyakov Gallery, the south bank . This being one of the places you can see what Moscow looked like before the revolution, full of low-lying pastel-plastered mansion houses, sometimes even still wooden or partially wooden. There are also 19th century factory buildings, as well as a whole bunch of churches. Walking away from the Kremlin down either Novokuznetskaya or Bakhrushin Streets towards the metro station Paveletskaya will give you an overview.

Moscow mansion house

Prefer a more art nouveaux vibe? Then the back streets near the Old Arbat street are where you should attempt to get lost. Maxim Gorky’s house is a particularly famous building, having been designed by the architect Fyodor Shekhtel for businessman Stepan Ryabushinsky in the early 1900s before it was handed over to the writer by Stalin himself. You can go round it, and if you do, be prepared to be particularly impressed by the staircase.

Peep into the lives of famous Muscovites

In fact, there are quite a lot of flat, house and country estate museums dedicated to the writers, artists and performers who lived in them, so if you have a favorite look them up and see if you can go and see where they ate, slept and worked. One of the most enthusiastically celebrated is Mikhail Bulgagov, of Master and Margarita fame, as there is not one but two quirky house museums to his life and works in his former apartment block. One of them is the place where Bulgakov located the Devil’s abode in Moscow. Graffiti covered stairs, art installations, theatrical performances and a bus tour of the area are also available. Read about our visit here.

Of course, if you are a tourist in Moscow you should almost certainly take a walk down the Arbat street itself – it’s that kind of place.

Why is the Old Arbat famous?

Well, it is one of the oldest streets in Moscow, and one of the major routes in and out of the city for friend and foe alike. Originally lined with artisan’s workshops, eventually all the aristocrats had their palaces here. Later it developed more of a middle class medical and legal vibe before the artists, writers and poets moved in to make it the bohemian quarter.

More recently, in the 1980s this is where you could go to help kick start Moscow’s headlong jump into the wild waters of capitalism by getting involved with the black marketers exchanging jeans and foreign CDs for Soviet memorobillia. It was, therefore, a cool, edgy hangout, and the posibility of having a run in with the police, high.

Scruffy teens still to this day occasionally persist in turning up and trying to look cool by playing rock songs on their guitars. But they are fighting what is probably a losing battle with the pleasant cafes, souvenir shops and stalls, and professional street entertainers of the type you might find in Covent Garden in London or along the Royal Mile of Edinburgh.

You might want to check out the Kino wall, though, a much graffitied monument to Russia’s most famous underground rock star, who died unfortunately young. If it is still there. What with clashing with the new genteel vibe and all, there are rumours it is about to be painted over. Catch it while you can.

Victor Tsoi Wall Arbat Moscow

To get to the Old Arbat, you can either get off the metro at Smolenskaya and walk down the street towards the Arbat metro station (another one of the pretty ones). Or do the trip the other way. This experience is equally as fun in the evening as during the day.

To find out more about Soviet underground rock, read this post.

Shop for souvenirs at Vernissage in Ismailovo

Another great place to shop for your matryoshka doll is Vernissage at Ismailovsky Market. This sprawling outdoor complex combines a large number of arts and crafts vendors, souvenir emporium, fine arts gallery and a flea market, and is housed in a colourful fairy tale wooden kremlin recreated from the 17th Century. The main buildings are popular as a wedding venue, but there are also little museums to vodka, bread, folk art and child delinquency if you have had your fill of admiring the attractive wooden stalls and their contents, and there will also be outdoor entertainments such as live action blacksmithing for you to enjoy.

Kremlin in Ismailovo Moscow

Vernissage is open from 10am all week, but for souvenirs and shopping you really want to go there at the weekend as during the week the number of stallholders is much reduced. This post tells you a lot more about how very very fabulous Vernissage is, and what else you can buy there.

What more can Moscow’s parks offer?

Vernissage is right next to one of Moscow’s many excellent and very extensive parks, in this case Ismailovskiy Park, although this particular urban wilderness is probably of more subtle interest to the casual visitor than others with more obvious tourist attractions.

Such as Tsaritsyno in the south, which has a full sized replica of the original 18th century royal chateaux built for Catherine the Great, striking orange and white outbuildings, and a dancing fountain.

Bridge Tsaritsyno Moscow

There is also Kolomenskoye, which has one of the oldest churches in Moscow, Peter the Great’s modest cabin and a full sized replica of the original 250-room wooden royal palace of Peter the Great’s father to go round, as well as horse drawn carriage or sleigh rides (depending on the season).

Horse and carriage ride Kolomenskoye Park Moscow

These parks are situated quite close to each other in the south of Moscow along the green line, but that doesn’t really mean you should attempt both on the same day. You’ll want Tsaritsyno metro station for the gingerbread gothika, and Kashirskaya or Kolomenskoye stations for the 8th wonder of the Medieval world.

Read more about each location in this post for Tsaritsyno, this one for Kolomenskoye, and this one for the palace.

Be observant of Russian Orthodox churches

Moscow’s architecture is very much bound up in its churches. Moscow was once known as the city of 500 000 000 cupolas (at least), especially in comparison with its more secular and classically inspired neighbour, St Petersburg. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the Orthodox church took back many of its buildings from their communist occupation by libraries, cinemas, museums, housing, communal gyms, public toilets, factories, storage facilities and other community projects returning them to the gorgeously decorated places of worship they are again today.

The biggest restoration project in Moscow of this kind is the Christ the Saviour Cathedral on the Moscow River, just downstream from the Kremlin.

The cathedral was demolished by Stalin to make way for a giant revolutionary monument and Soviet palace, which was to be the biggest such structure in the world.

Unfortunately, the soggy banks of the Moscow River proved unsuitable for building something so large and so the foundations were turned into an outdoor swimming pool. Today, it is once again a huge, gleaming, white marble-cladded gold-topped cathedral, built to the original specifications. You can visit it and admire the frescoes and icons inside. As well as the religious space, there is also an art gallery in the basement.

Christ the Saviour cathedral Moscow

The cathedral is open 9am to 7pm throughout the week, services willing. As with many religious establishments, they prefer tourists to dress modestly. It is traditional for women to cover their hair, and if you plan to be looking around a lot of churches, a head scarf might be a useful thing to have in your bag, should you be of the female persuasion. Men should remove headgear, and no-one should hold hands. It’s bad luck, apparently.

Further along the river, near the 2018 Fifa World Cup football stadium, is Novodevichy Convent, which as well as remaining one of a number of working Orthodox Christian monastic orders in Moscow, is notable for its cemetery, which contains the great, the good and the extremely notorious, as well as very striking headstones all round. Krushchev, Chekov, Gogol, Eisenstein, Bulgakov, Molotov, Mayakovsky, Shostakovich, Ilushin, Yeltsin and many more are buried here. You can buy a map of the graveyard at the entrance.

Moscow City, Skyscrapers and TV Towers

You will not have missed, while looking round Novodevichy, the towering glass buildings of Moscow City, or the International Business Centre as it is supposed to be called, as these are right next door. There are some genuinely striking bits of modern architecture here, but the real area of interest is that this complex houses the second tallest, the third tallest, the fourth tallest and the sixth and seventh tallest buildings in Europe (the tallest is now in St Petersburg, and the fifth tallest is in London). And you can go up the skyscrapers and look down over Moscow from unfeasibly high up, if you should so wish.

City of Capitals Moscow City

Decide if you want to spend the money, and read about our experience on one the tours to the Moscow City viewing platforms here.

However, the classic place to go if you want to stare at Moscow from above is the Ostankino TV Tower, still the tallest structure in Europe, even if it has been eclipsed by buildings with proper floors in lists of such things. As a bonus, it is lit up at night, and has a revolving restaurant, as well as a glass floor in the 360 degree observation deck.

Find Ostankino Tower close by to VDNKh, where it is virtually unmissable if a bit of a walk from te metro. Bring your passport as they won’t let you in without it and check the weather before you go – clouds may well obscure the top of the tower.

Enjoy expert performances of ballet, music, opera or the circus

Russia is deservedly famous for its ballets, and there can be no better location to see one than the Bolshoi Theatre just off Red Square. The historic stage is the one for the full on gold leaf, red velvet, boxes and balconies experience, but other venues under the same company’s umbrella are available, if less prestigious and lacking in really sumptuous architectural detailing. Booking is now possible online, and really needs to be done well in advance.

Bolshoi Theatre Moscow

If you want the thrill of walking into the Kremlin as more than just a tourist, try getting tickets to the Kremlin Ballet, which is housed inside the Kremlin itself. The only downside is that it is held in a considerably less visually attractive building than the Bolshoi.

Performances in either the Bolshoi or the Kremlin are unlikely to be radically innovative, but there will be virtuoso spinning and jumping, which is what you want really unless you are really into your dancing. Both of these also do opera for those who prefer singers to dancers.

If classical concerts are more your thing, the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall and the venue attached to the Conservatory are also both lovely spaces, central and chock full of performances, also on the more traditional end of the spectrum.

Less highbrow but equally as essential in order to experience the full range of authentic Russian entertainment options is a trip to the circus. In Moscow these have permanent, specially constructed buildings, such is the seriousness with which this art form is taken. The Nikulin Circus on Tsvetnoi Bulvar is bang in the centre, and the Great Moscow State Circus on Vernadskogo is rather bigger but further out in the south west, near the University.

Both have all the acts that you might expect, traditional and less so, visually spectacular, breathtakingly nerve-wracking and laugh out loud funny, with no need to understand Russian to enjoy them. But be warned; those have opinions about performing animals should steer clear.

To be honest, there are so many venues big and small all over Moscow for all sorts of shows, that if none of the above appeals but you want a dose of the performing arts then there will be something out there for you, even in summer when traditionally the big companies go on tour abroad. You want ice dancing? Indie bands? Puppet theatre? A musical version of Anna Karenina? A-tonal string quartets? Elton John? Depending on the season and day of the week it will be there.

Finish your day with people watching, cafe culture and nightlife

There is also a thriving nightlife in Moscow with cafes, bars and clubs to suit every taste too. When the weather is nice in the summer months you can just stroll around the pedestrianised centre, starting at, say, Tverskaya Street just behind Red Square, immediately making a sharp right along Kamergerskiy Pereulok, and then you just keep wandering along from there, investigating any side streets that look interesting. The evening will be awash with venues that have spilled out onto the broad and accommodating pavements so just take your pick. There will be buskers of all kinds and all sorts of people watching opportunities.

Moscow street musicians

In winter, well in winter just get indoors.

And finally

Hopefully, this has given you ideas about what you can do to fill your time in the capital of Russia both if you are visiting Moscow for the first time or if you have been here before and want to find something a bit different.

Of course, it is not an exhaustive list of things to do in Moscow.

I haven’t even mentioned the Darwin Museum of Evolution, the theatre of performing cats, the zoo, the train yard with full sized locomotives to climb over, the many many escape rooms (some in English), or the fact that whenever you turn up there is highly likely to be a festival of some kind in the centre with extensive decorations, stalls, games, craft workshops and street performers. For example.

Nikolskaya Ulitsa Easter 2018 Moscow

But you’ll need to go home eventually, so it might be better to just plan to come back to Moscow another time.

Any questions, comments, or suggestions for about what I should have included in my list of top Moscow attractions but didn’t?

And if you need some ideas of where to eat traditional Russian food at an affordable price, try here.

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This is THE #guide to #Moscow for first time visitors and those with more time looking for cool, interesting and unsual things to do in the capital of #Russia

Tin Box Traveller

Why Vernissage in Ismailovo is the best place to buy souvenirs in Moscow

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a foreign tourist in Russia, whether or not in possession of a fortune, must be in want of a matryoshka doll.

And this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding Muscovites, that it is not at all difficult to find one’s rightful aide memoire in the various souvenir shops, stalls, or by walking down the Old Arbat, albeit at a price.

But if you want more of an experience, Mama’s top tip for the best place to buy souvenirs in Moscow is to travel a bit outside the centre to Vernissage in Ismailovo, next to the idyllic Ismailovsky Park. There you will find the largest affordable souvenir market in Moscow along with arts, crafts, antiques, and a flea market. Which also has the advantage of being part of the very attractive wooden Ismailovo Kremlin complex.

Art Market at Vernissage in Ismailovo Moscow

Look, ‘a kremlin’ is a fortress in Russian, OK? There are quite a lot of kremlins dotted around Russia.

In fact there are two of this one alone, as it is the second replica of the Tsar Alexei Michailovich’s summer palace in Moscow. The other one is a bit closer to the original location in Kolomenskoye Park.

Palace inside the Kremlin in Ismailovo Moscow

The Ismailovo Kremlin doesn’t really pretend to be anything other than a complete tourist trap, not that there is anything wrong with hanging out in a Slavic theme park in Mama’s opinion.

Inside you will find various small museums on crowd pleasing themes such as folk art, bread, vodka and child delinquency, many with the potential to attend master classes in… what? Matryoshka painting, bread eating, getting tiddly and the correct way to stick chewing gum on the underside of a school desk? Or something. I dunno. I wasn’t there, and Mama and Papa weren’t going to find out, having seized on Babushka’s offer to look after us at the weekend to get up at 6am and go and stand around in freezing conditions in front of tourist attractions that weren’t open yet.

Great time to get some uninterrupted photos though. Fabulous buildings, huh?

The Kremlin in Ismailovo Moscow

Being there so early and winter also meant that there were no brides wondering about looking photogenic – the other thing the Ismailovo Kremlin is for, aside from having a lot of entertaining space for hire, is hosting weddings. There is even a registry office inside and dedicated, suitably decorated buildings to retire to afterwards. If gawking at brides is your thing, Mama recommends coming in summer, when there will be queues of limos and big white dresses.

Mama missed out too on the live action blacksmithing and whatever else they do in the courtyard that leaves behind straw and a brightly coloured stage.

But that was OK. Mama and Papa were not really there for the Ismailovo Kremlin, not actually being tourists.

No, Mama and Papa were there to recreate their pre-children youth looking at the more pre-loved items on display in the upper sections of the market next door devoted to random second-hand tat likely to bemuse the foreign tourist, genuine antiques in the form of things like silverwork, samovars and icons, and other items of rather obsessive interest. Like stamps. Or coins. Or badges.

The flea market at Vernissage in Ismailovo in Moscow

Or, in Mama’s case back in the day, Soviet porcelain figurines, the idle collection of which she would have been considerably less blase about had she known what eye-watering prices they go for now. Still, at least you all know what present to get her.

Flea Market in Ismailovsky Market Moscow

Mind you, her most memorable purchase was a double bass. Look, it was minus 15 that day and she felt desperately sorry for it. Yes, the joinery did all spring apart as soon as she got it inside and it warmed up. It’s more a decorative item than actually something you can play when you live in a flat with paper-thin walls anyway.

More recently, Papa bought her a toaster for her birthday here.

Love is not dead.

Anyway. This Vernissage is the authentic heart of the complex, and has its origins in the makeshift flea market and informal hobbyist swap meet on the grounds of Ismailovsky Park proper that sprang up when perestroika both ushered in a more relaxed attitude to, well, everything and also tanked what was left of the Soviet economy to the extent that selling off your prized possessions became a necessity.

Or your paintings. The name Vernissage is actually French for ‘varnishing’ and is what you call the pre-exhibition showing of artworks, presumably because you are walking around sipping champagne while the pictures are still tacky.

At this time in the morning, then, everyone knows each other and its a toss-up whether it’s all the fascinating little items on display that are the main attraction or people watching the camaraderie of the stallholders as they catch up with friends, do a bit of inter-trading and see what new acquisitions everyone has brought along this week, along with getting set up for the day.

Enjoy, too, wandering around the winding alleys which curve here, there, and down and back up over each other, surrounded by carved wooden structures such as the souvenir sellers’ huts, a windmill, galleried verandas and covered walkways.

Vernissage in Ismailovo Moscow

It may have started in a very modest way, but it’s definitely not a temporary set up now. Although you’ll still find people spreading out their wares on the ground rather than specially provided tables.

Should you actually be wanting to buy a little something to remind you of your trip to Russia, however, then you want the lower sections of Vernissage in Ismailovo, where you will also surely be able to find the perfect gift from Russia for people back home.

There are, of course, fur hats with ear flaps aplenty. Every possible colour, many with a little star on the front and probably all made out of rabbit. It will still keep your head warm, of course.

Soviet kitsch is a lot less evident than it once was, which means that either visitors to Russia have finally decided that having small busts of mass murderers like Stalin and Lenin humourously perched on their mantelpiece isn’t as amusing as it was in the 90s, or they have cleaned out the former Soviet Union of such things already. Not completely disappeared though, and anything Red Army related is still quite popular, so never fear, hammer and sickle stamped items are here.

Red Army memorobilia at Vernissage Souvenir Market Moscow

But what Vernissage really excels at is showcasing the full range of traditional Russian decorative arts, many of which are actually either practically useful or genuinely attractive in their own right beyond just being a way of remembering your trip to the Wild East.

So what are the best souvenirs from Russia?

There are the aforementioned matryoshka, or Russian nesting dolls, of course. Practically compulsory. But you can choose between very small sets or giant ones, between rather simply painted ones and ones decorated with infinitesimal delicacy, artistry and patience. You can get ones with your football, hockey or basketball team immortalised, or the full set of Soviet/ Russian leaders. Or, if you commission one in advance, your own family.

Matryoshka dolls at Vernissage Market in Moscow

Whatever kind of matryoshka you want, you will be able to get it here at Vernissage in Ismailovo.

However, this is not the only handicraft available.

On the more practical end are the soft, so soft cobwebby Orenburg shawls, made from goats hair, and splendidly warm for those cold Russian winters. Mama also recommends the woolen socks and gloves, and these days they are even making highly decorated felt slippers in the style of the traditional felt boots that were once so ubiquitous on the feet of Russian babushkas.

Russian Felt Slippers at Ismailovsky Market in Moscow

I am pretty sure I know what Granny and Grandad are getting for next Christmas to add to their already vast collection of gifts from Russia.

Lace is still crafted by hand in parts of Russia, and can be found trimming linen tablecloths and napkins, tablecloths which Mama possess at least three sets of, but cannot bring herself to use in case someone spills red wine on them.

She does regularly bring out her sets of wooden napkin rings, painted with various scenes from Russian fairy tales though. These are riffing off the more traditional lacquer boxes, where the colourful scenes overlay a strictly black background.

Lacquer boxes in Ismailovsky Souvenir Market in Moscow

More wooden tableware? Try the cheerful Khokhloma spoons, bowls and trays and so on where red and gold flowers are painted over a black background (see the theme here?). Or more delicate porcelain cup and saucer sets from the Lomonosev factory, which also makes animal figurines. And teapots.

Fancy something a bit more frivolous? You will notice necklaces, bracelets and rings made from various stones throughout Ismailovsky Market. Russia is famous for its orange amber and green malachite, but almost any colour is available, and in a variety of styles.

Amber at Vernissage Market in Moscow

Is you house looking underdecorated? Then if you don’t share Mama’s taste in figurines, you could try the blue and white designs of the Gzhel factory, or the colourful, naive style of  Dymkovo. Which look a lot like children’s toys made out of clay and then painted because before the advent of plastic, that’s exactly what they were.

You can, of course, get actual wooden toys, handmade fabric dolls, and outfits in a traditional Russian style for kids. Who can resist those fabulous headdresses?

And at any time of your you can find some lovely carved wooden Christmas (New Year) tree ornaments, including large Father Christmases (Ded Morozes), who are designed to sit under your tree and guard the presents. Do not be alarmed if they are not dressed head to toe in red, this is normal. Think of it as an interesting Eastern quirk.

If you go to the flea market section you might be able to find some of tree decorations from the fifties too, which have their own unique charm. Mama’s pride and joy, which is inherited rather than sourced from Vernissage, is an ornament in the shape of a pickled cucumber.

There will also be all sorts of things, including pictures, made from silver birch bark, and there is always the fine arts market at the very top of Vernissage if you want to take home an actual painted picture imitating the works of great Russian artists, countryside scenes, urban landscapes and lovingly depicted flora.

And if all of this crafting activity is inspiring (and Mama has really only given the highlights), you will also be able to buy all sorts of supplies in order to have a crack at it yourself, a hangover from the days when Vernissage was, along with the flea market, a wholesalers market where the people who sold the items more directly to the public met the artists who produced them, and the artists met the people who produced turned wooden eggs.

Whatever you decide to get, have a go at haggling. It’s expected. But do also be aware that many of the items on display are not mass-produced and take time, effort and skill to produce. So they stallholders will resist past a certain point.

A word of warning if you are thinking about buying an antique – there are rules about taking items out of Russia that have both age and cultural worth, and you need a special chitty to be able to do so. If you really want an old icon, therefore, it might actually be better to get one from the more established shops on the Old Arbat. It is also prohibited to buy or sell medals of any age.

Icons at Vernissage Antiques Market Moscow

But that’s OK as you can get a magnet instead. They are plentiful. Although you won’t find much else made of plastic. If you want a model St Basil’s it will probably have to be painstakingly hand crafted from wood and lovingly painted. Sorry.

By this point you will probably be hungry. Luckily there are any number of snack selling kiosks dotted about, who will also be sending carts around the walkways if you can’t last until you find their permanent location, as well as cafes and restaurants back in the Ismailovo Kremlin. And if you fancy trying out some street food, there are people cooking up some plov and shashlick near the entrance.

If this doesn’t sell the place to you or if you are not convinced by our recommendations about the best things to buy as gifts from Russia, or that Ismailovsky Market is the best place to shop for souvenirs in Moscow, the best place to come to relieve the pressure of high culture sightseeing, AND the best place to discover a fascinating new line of collectibles, perhaps you will be tempted by the news that the same team behind the trendy Flacon art and design complex have purchased land right next to Vernissage. They seem to be planning to turn it into the sort of up market hipster hangout that is proving popular elsewhere in the capital.

One can only hope that this doesn’t send the whole place too far into tasteful blandness.

Just make sure you get off at the right metro stop on your way in. Oddly enough, Ismailovo Kremlin and Market is not at Ismailovsky Park.

Want to know more about what to do and see in Moscow? Check out Mama’s comprehensive guide to Moscow here.

More information

The Kremlin in Ismailovo’s website (in English. For a given value of English).

More about Flacon’s plans for Vernissage.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about tourists.

Address: 105187, Moscow, Ismailovsky Shosse, 73

Opening: Vernissage is best to visit on Saturday and Sunday after about 10am and before about 6pm. The market is much reduced during the week, especially the antique, art and flea market sections, but if you must go then go on a Wednesday.

Admission: It’s free to get into the market and wander around the Kremlin in Ismailovo territory.

Getting there: You need the metro station Partisanskaya (dark blue line) NOT the one called Ismailovsky Park. It’s a five-minute walk, tops, from this station.

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We think the best place in Moscow to buy affordble souvenirs in Moscow is Vernissage in Ismailovo and we also explain what makes a perfect gift from Russia

T ravel Loving Family
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Gazing upwards at Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire, UK

The problem with visiting Anglican cathedrals is that you spend a lot of time bending awkwardly backwards so you can stare at the ceiling. Ely Cathedral is no exception to this, although there is plenty to see at less crippling angles.

Ely Cathdral Roof

Notably the stained glass windows.

Ely Cathedral Stained Glass

In fact, to celebrate this, Ely Cathedral has a stained glass museum. Which we didn’t go to (it cost extra).

The other thing we didn’t do were the Tower Tours (it cost extra. Plus there were steps). This may have been a mistake as it is how you gain access to the upper walkways, bringing you nose to colourful window, and giving you the chance to see the fabulous space that is the cathedral from another angle.

Actually, perhaps with two under tens in tow that’s not such a good idea. You wouldn’t want centuries of craftsmanship to be destroyed by one enthusiastic bounce. The kids might suffer a bit from taking a header through the glass too.

Luckily, Ely Cathedral has other dedicated activities for its younger visitors. Mama tried to interest in us in the quiz, which encouraged us to contemplate key architectural details and their historical significance, but we quickly abandoned this for the sticker scavenger hunt. There is a map. There are locations marked on the map. There are locations marked on the map, which if you can find them, have stickers for you to collect and add to your compendium of interesting things to note about Ely Cathedral. We had a high old time galloping about what is quite an expansive site, and Mama got to take many many photographs in peace while we did so.

Flowers Ely Cathedral

The only downside was that when we arrived at the relevant spot the stickers were not actually there. Mama was not entirely sure this was a down side though as it meant that we got twice as much exercise and some useful practice in polite interaction in English, as each time we failed to find our reward we trotted back to the helpdesk to collect it there. Although after this happened for the 200th time, the very obliging staff did just hand us over the whole set. After which we lost a bit of interest. It’s the hunt that’s the thing, you see. But they did then go round to top up the displays ready for the next underage visitor. You are very welcome.

Mama is welcome too. She lost her purse while in Ely Cathedral. It’s one of those things which marks you out is a tourist is losing key belongings while on a trip out. That and getting pickpocketed. Mama was quite shocked at the thought she might have been pickpocketed inside a religious institution in the UK, but almost as the thought crossed her mind she realised that she had probably just dropped it.

And thankfully for the reputation of respectable cathedral-going visitors in Britain, this was exactly the case and somebody had handed it in, so she got her purse back (if not her dignity) entirely intact.

After which we got back to admiring the building. One of the great attractions of Ely Cathedral, apart from the ceilings, the windows and the stickers, are plaques to the great and the good of Ely and the surrounding area stating their main purpose in life. Apart from dying, which seems a popular achievement to mention, there appear to have been a lot of Cambridge University professors in the area.

Plaques Ely Cathedral

Occasionally, you get statues of people sleeping. Why sleeping, I do wonder. Is being good at snoring particularly impressive? Or something that the UK is particularly known for? I think we’d better book my Babushka a place right now because her penetrating buzz-saw whiffling is surely outstanding in its class.

On the other hand, I have no idea what talent this guy thinks he is showing off.

Reclining Victorian bishop Ely Cathedral

What Mama particularly liked about Ely Cathedral, however, was that it is clearly not just a carefully preserved monument to days gone by, but a working space.

Anglican vicar at work Ely Cathedral

Mama, in fact, spent a happy twenty minutes dragging my Long-suffering Big Brother, who has a much higher tolerance for being lectured at than I do, about the cathedral demonstrating the changing nature of Christian worship in the UK over the last five centuries or so.

Admire the craftsmanship and sheer effort of erecting this huge, gorgeous building in the middle of nowhere at a time when humanity was still constructing everything by hand.

Ely Cathedral

Nothing was more important than God!

Ely Cathedral Architectural Details

See the painstakingly ornate carvings, the colourful windows, the walls which would once have been covered in paint! And contemplate the impact that having a nice place to hang out in once a week and the prospect of a brighter future might have had on the Medieval mind.

Chapel Entrance Ely Cathedral

Thrill as you recognise the moment when Catholicism gave way to Protestantism in the decision to preserve the figures in the Lady Chapel with their faces smashed off.

Note how the rood screen, with its symbolic and actual separation of the congregation from the place where the most important God veneration used to take place, is now ignored in favour of a nice plain altar on the side where the great unwashed sit.

high altar Ely Cathedral

Modern Altar Ely Cathedral

Talking to God was a specialist job at one time. And people were assumed to need a bit of visual help in interpreting the stories. But now one is supposed to take a bit more responsibility for one’s own post-death safety. And be able to read.

Yet observe the moment that history comes full circle as the modern church decides that contemporary society demands that they try to convey the concept of the divine through the medium of interpretive art.

Ely Cathedral Modern artworks

And of course, there is also the serious business of the flower arranging rota to enjoy. Mama says you couldn’t get any more Anglican unless there was quiche, stewed tea in a tea urn, a jumble sale and people bickering over who gets to babysit the vicar’s son.

Flowers Ely Cathedral

And in fact there probably was quiche in the cafe near the entrance, although we opted for the generously sized portions of cake instead. No tea urn though, but then Mama does prefer coffee.

Basically, we enjoyed our trip round Ely Cathedral, which we completed on the same day as we visited Oliver Cromwell’s House Museum. Given that the two buildings are practically next door and all. Definitely a must see for anyone visiting Ely. It’s big, it’s relatively empty, it’s full of welcoming well-meaning people, it’s got lots of interesting things to look at and there are refreshments. What’s not to like?

More information

Ely Cathedral’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about stained glass windows.

Address: Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire, CB7 4DL

Opening: 7am – 6.30 pm, although the best time to visit  is 9am – 5pm Monday to Saturday. Bear in mind that if there is a service going on then access will be restricted. There’s a page on the website where you can check potential closures out.

Admission: 8 GBP for adults with 6 GBP concessions. Kids under 16 are free. It’s 15 (or 13) GBP to add the Tower Tour, and 12 (9) GBP to visit the Stained Glass Museum and the cathedral together. To do it all and get a free cup of tea is 18 (15.50) GBP. People who live in or go to church in the area can get a free pass.

Getting there: Ely is a bit farther north of Cambridge up the A10 or the A14. There’s no dedicated parking for the cathedral, but there are a number of free car parks in Ely and the one we were in was just a few minutes’ walk away.

Ely also has rail connections to Stanstead Airport, Kings Cross London, Birmingham, Norwich and Peterborough. The station is 10 minutes away from the cathedral.

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Ely Cathedral is historically interesting, visually stunning and welcoming to visitors

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Is VDNH, Moscow just a memorial to a Soviet never-never land?

Russia is one of those countries which every foreigner has an opinion about.

Of course, what people think about it changes. A bit. When Mama first came to Moscow, it was all food lines, bears on the streets and year round snow. Ten years later it was more about the super rich owning football clubs, bears on the streets and year round snow. Twenty years earlier, it was the stone-faced communists and their threat to the world, bears on the streets and year round snow. We are back now to super villain status – bare-chested, riding on a bear, in year round snow – but through all of this what people have seen as a handy symbol of whatever they think of the country is Red Square and the Kremlin.

They are where gold leaf is frowned on in favour of severe granite blocks and lots of marble, and then plastered back again twofold and with added malachite in the government buildings and state apartments.

Where churches are demolished to make way for the tanks, and then rebuilt with a super large statue of St Vladimir the bringer of Christianity to ancient Rus round the corner for good measure.

Where conspicuous consumption conspicuously isn’t in the State Department Store GUM, and then returns at conspicuously high prices, supplemented by advertising that takes the form of a giant Luis Vuitton suitcase slap bang in front of St Basil’s.

Where military parades now jostle for their place with extravagant firework displays, exclusive rock concerts and public skating in the winter.

Where Lenin still hasn’t been moved out of his mausoleum, but is can be covered by a jaunty awning if his presence is inconvenient, such as when Easter coincides with the 1st May.

Sort of thing.

So of course, you need to visit both. But there are other places which represent the changing face and fortunes of Russia in the 20th Century.

One of those is VDNH.

The Soviet exhibtion complex VDNH VDNKh Moscow

Or VDNKh, because the last sound doesn’t transliterate very well into English. Try doing the ‘ch’ in the Scottish ‘loch’ and you are close. Mama prefers the second spelling, but the Russians themselves seem to have given up.

VDNH (VDNKh) stands for ‘the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy’ (they tried to rename it ‘the All-Russian Exhibition Centre’ for a while. It didn’t stick). It began as the Soviet equivalent of the Great Exhibition in 19th Century London or the World Trade Fair in the US in the 50s and it is remarkable for the amazing set of buildings, or pavilions, each representing some achievement unlocked by the hero supermen and women of the Soviet Union.

Mama used to be particularly delighted by the fact that if you come in the front entrance of VDNH, the buildings start out being to really grand things like electromagnetic engineering! Armenia! And space!

Armenian pavilion VDNH VDNKh Moscow

And then work their way to the back with the more modest structures where it’s all pigs! Meat! And honey!

meat production pavilion VDNH VDNKh Moscow

She found out later that the agriculture section is where it all started, so it’s not surprising that it is curiously well represented if less epic in scope than later offerings.

A tad tasteless, too, given that this part was begun not long after a large number of people had starved to death due to the famine brought about at least in part by Soviet agricultural policies.

Told you it’s representative.

Today there are over 500 permanent buildings, 49 of which have been designated as listed buildings.

Pavilion at VDNH Moscow

What that means is that it has a very very big territory. Mama is itching to suggest that out of all the World Exhibition Great Fairs, Moscow’s is probably the biggest in some way, but she has no evidence to back this up. Wikipedia does say that the area is larger than the whole of the principality of Monaco though, so that’s something, right?

Belarus pavilion vdnh vdnkh Moscow

Anyway. Up until the dying days of the Soviet Union, VDNH (VDNKh), as the name suggests it ought to, did indeed host actual exhibitions, conferences and scientific meetings and so on. As well as being a pleasant spot for your average Muscovite to come and stroll around and have popular music piped to them over the outdoor loud hailer system, while eating ice cream and boggling at the architectural masterpieces.

Architectural detail at VDNH VDNKh Moscow

Then came the 90s, and the buildings were leased out to a random collection of ramshackle hawkers. The whole place became like a large, well-appointed and peculiarly eclectic pound shop. You could buy anything in the way of random tat here from one of the huge number of higgaldy piggaldy stalls crammed into every available corner in every possible building. Mama’s favourite find was a two dollar double bass bow. No it wasn’t a music specialist shop at all. They also sold plastic cutlery, cheap alarm clocks, tea and clothes.

So, in fact, also very representative, this time of the 90s in Russia. Rampant but basically ill-conceived capitalism.

They still piped out the latest hits around the park though, and if you weren’t to be lured inside by the thought of browsing for a new fridge, a pot plant and a bottle of not-best Crimean champagne, it was still worth going for the vast number of outdoor side shows and fairground attractions, as well as the large number of barbecued meat stalls.

And then all that changed. Since 2014, the governance of the area has been taken firmly back by the Moscow city authorities, who have evicted the kiosk holders and started a major overhaul of what were increasingly crumbling pavilions.

Today it is home to permanent spectacles you may even want to visit, such as the Moskvarium aquarium, the Polytechnic Museum’s not very temporary anymore exhibition, the Museum of Illusions, the Russia, My History multimedia extravaganza*, and the City Farm.

VDNH (VDNKh) puts on more and more performances, art exhibitions and the like every year, and there’s also space now for really large events such as comic conventions, travel shows, education fairs and lift exhibitions.

And, of course, it has a giant skating rink in winter, sports an urban beach in summer and is the backdrop for some of Moscow’s better firework displays on major holidays.

ice skating vdnh moscow

There is even a thriving equestrian centre. You can go on a tour of the stables, ride a horse or just hang around and watch people putting their steeds through their paces!

horses at the equestrian centre vdnh moscow

The next phase of renovations has just kicked in, and, once again, mirrors the re-beautification of all of Moscow under the current Mayor. This phase will see, among other things, the particularly large and fabulous Space pavilion totally revamped and, if Mama understands correctly, the collection from the current Cosmonautics Museum may well be moving there when it’s finished.

The current museum is too small, apparently. Mama is biting her tongue in an effort not to giggle, but not succeeding very well.

This does mean that an awful lot of things are swathed in scaffolding right now or being dug up, so if you visit this summer, the place will not be looking at its most impressive. But in a year or so’s time, wheeeee!

Restoration at VDNH Moscow

It’s hard, and it’s particularly hard for Mama, who loves the place, to think of any down side to this, aside from the ever-present tension between public spending on the cosmetic upkeep of a city versus pumping extra cash into the welfare and social support system. At least VDNH (VDNKh) is a space that can be enjoyed by all.

Even with the debate about the appropriacy of keeping public memorials to historical regimes or figures which now represent ideals or behaviours we condemn, the thing about the sort of Soviet propaganda which VDNH (Veh. Deh. eN. Kh) is a particularly large example of, is that it celebrates human achievements which are largely positive.

This fountain, for example, which is portraying the gold-covered harmony in which all Soviet peoples lived may not be terribly accurate, but it’s not as if it isn’t something that should be true.

Friendship of Nations Fountain VDNH VDNKh Moscow

There are undoubtedly some difficult corners – Mama finds the statues to the children who denounced their parents for unSoviet behaviour disturbing round what used to be the pavilion celebrating children and childhood – but broadly speaking it is good to have a vision of humanity to aspire to sometimes, as well as reminders of when we have failed to live up to that.

And if you just simply and purely want to see a bit of Soviet kitsch, which isn’t really that much in evidence in the Kremlin and Red Square, then this is the place to come.

Soviet detailing VDNH Moscow

Mama does rather mourn the disappearance of her favourite by the glass wine bar (bar snacks included blue cheese on sticks and olives. Mama is so seventies, yeah?). But luckily they still play you cheesy pop songs over the loudspeakers, which Mama thinks has probably always been the best bit.

Nonsense, Mama. It’s the actual rocket, the real life space shuttle and the cosmos themed playground that’s the best bit.

Rocket space shuttle and playground at VDNH Moscow

All in all VDNH (or VDNKh. Do have a go at the rasp) is not something to miss out if you are ever in Moscow, and if you live here there is plenty to keep you coming back and back.

*Actually, don’t go to Russia My History. No, really, you have been warned. But if you want to know where you should go, then read THE guide to Moscow, here.

More information

The park’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the Millenium Dome, mediocrity on a colossal scale.

Address: VDNH Estate 119, Prospect Mira, Moscow, 129223.

Admission to the territory is free.

By public transport: The VDNKh (VDNH) station is on the orange line and you will go in through the rather splendid front gates. You can also come in the back by getting off at Botanichisky Sad (the orange line, and also the new Moscow Central Circle Line) and if you don’t want to walk, there’s a shuttle minibus that takes you from this station into the very heart of VDNH too. There are also numerous tram, trolleybus and bus routes going past the park.

By car: Car parks exist.

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VDNH in Moscow is a Soviet exhibition space full of architectural masterpieces

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Untold Morsels

Moscow City Day Street Party 2016

Moscow was 869 years old on this year’s City Day, and that’s official.

I think it must be very hard to decide what to give someone who is 869. There are only so many My Little Pony dolls, accessories, houses, ice cream parlours, DVDs, costumes, card games and apps out there, whatever Mama might think. The Moscow authorities looked at the profusion of round numbers and gifted the capital of Russia a new circular metro line encompassing the more outlying areas of the city. Which was nice of them. A train set is always acceptable, even if it isn’t actually pink or covered in unicorns. But despite Mama’s keeness to ride the rails, we decided it might be a bit busy on its first day of opening. Instead, we went to the giant street party in the centre.

Living fountain of friendship Moscow City Day 2016

There’s always a street party for City Day.

But as it turned out, this one was not transport related. 2016 is the Year of Film in Russia and so instead we had  pop up cafes, stage shows, cosplayers and street performers all working around the theme of movies set in Moscow. You could even hunker down and watch the films themselves in tiny temporary cinemas if the other entertainment on offer got too much for you.

Now, by films set in Moscow, of course I mean those made by the very prolific Soviet and Russian film industry. Surprisingly, that means virtually none of them feature Brucik Willisov speeding around fighting the mafia and/ or the KGB among grim tower blocks and dilapidated nuclear power stations or fighting off prostitutes in seedy nightclubs.

Says Mama.

So what we had instead was the circus, time travel, Tolstoy, precocious children, singing in the rain, time travel (again), vampires and hipsters. Naturally.

There’s a running joke in the excellent (if very short-lived) Mitchell and Webb series the Ambassadors, set in a Former Soviet Country, which all expats in the Former States really should watch if only to cringe at the spot on portrayal of their foibles. This gag’s about the propensity of the natives to offer the circus as a high treat to any and all visiting foreigners. And the propensity of the expats to cringe with horror at the paucity of this unsophisticated entertainment.

Not a view shared by us, let me tell you! Even if Mama doesn’t have the faintest clue what the film it was referencing was, you can’t go too far wrong, in our opinion, with colourful costumed stilt walkers prepared to lift you up for a selfie, acrobats prepared to teach you some of the tricks of their trade and unicycle riders who took my Jammy Big Brother up with them and rode round the assembled audience, to his everlasting delight. Except I didn’t get to have a go.

Says Mama.

Circus performers at Moscow City Day 2016

Next up was Ivan Vasilievich Changes his Profession where, in a freak accident, the very medieval medieval Tsar, Ivan the Terrible, gets swapped with a lookalike petty criminal from 1970s Moscow, with predictably hilarious results. That one’s based on a story by Bulgakov, in case you didn’t think the Master and Margarita was obscurely satirical enough. But it meant that the organisers of this event could dress people up in robes and fighting gear and trot out the people doing live action metal work again, so that’s alright.Medieval Guards Moscow City Day 2016

Plus, the rather fabulous costumes from the actual film were on display, and that was definitely worth a gawk.

Ivan the Terrible robes Moscow City Day 2016

One of what I can only assume is War and Peace’s many iterations, saw the interactive fun themed around members of the public being invited to dress up in early 19th century dresses and hang out with the main characters whilst admiring the uniforms of the soldiers sitting around staring moodily into the distance or playing on their iphones. Mama says that Russians admit to skipping the War bits in the novelisation. This must be why. Not much happens.

War and Peace Moscow City Day 2016

Mama, being British, particularly enjoyed the installation where you could stand underneath umbrellas and have water poured on you. A bold choice, she thought, given that it’s mid September and last year’s City Day was a bit of a washout. And you thought Russians don’t have a sense of humour. I, on the other hand, was delighted to be able to show off my performance skills as this was the bit of the street devoted to the musical film, Here I Go, Walking Through Moscow, the title song to which I learned in school! Singalongs! With actions! That’s what every good party needs!Singing ion the rain Moscow City Day 2016

Then it started to get weird, otherwise known as Soviet sci fi.

Soviet cosplay Moscow City Day 2016

Now, they weren’t celebrating Mama’s favourite film in this genre, about a robot boy who takes the place of his lookalike human counterpart at school (The Adventures of an Electronic). Which goes about as successfully as you might expect but also gives a surprisingly interesting insight into what Soviet childhood was actually like in the 80s. No, this one, Guests from the Future, was the one where visitors from the future end up fighting for control of a little black box, to be ultimately thwarted by upstanding members of Muscovite youth culture. I gather from the rolling interactive performance of the main scenes which this area of Tverskaya Street consisted of.

Sci fi street theatre Moscow City Day 2016

Frankly, my Jammy Big Brother and I were decidedly sceptical about the fabulously dressed people milling around, although Mama, who you may have gathered is a bit of a geek, didn’t really see this as a problem as it allowed her the opportunity of getting her photo taken for once. More than once. More than twice, actually. But we enjoyed playing tug of war with the bad guys (we won) and chasing them through the streets of Moscow on our imaginary motorcycles (we won) and generally contributing to the triumph of the gentleman dressed in silver lame over the men in yellow (we won). I mean, who wouldn’t?

We also enjoyed taking part in the obstacle course races, the aim of which, was to act as good Soviet pioneers (like the scouts/ guides but more…. compulsory), and carry the milk in string bags home to Mama through tunnels, and so on. We both won our rounds in that one too. Mama notes we seem to have become a tad competitive over the summer.

Pioneer obstacle course Moscow City Day 2016

In fact, as you can see there was quite a lot going on for us kids, despite the fact that they didn’t seem to be celebrating any of the excellent Soviet cartoons we have been brought up on. And while it was crowded for Moscow, we’d recently attended one of the cultural hat tips on Trafalgar Square, and believe you me, you haven’t experienced packed until you have been to Maslenitsa, Diwali, Eid, a Japanese Matsuri, St Patrick’s Day and Pride in a space which can comfortably fit about a tenth of the people attending it, and you definitely haven’t felt frustrated until you have seen the queues for the interesting looking food or waited in line to get you hand hennaed for ages and ages and ages and ages and ages.

In contrast, for Moscow’s City Day it didn’t take us long to get the obligatory ice cream, or find seats in the obligingly comfortable bean bag chill out zones when our stamina started flagging about half way down Tverskaya.

Chilling out Moscow City Day 2016

Mama wasn’t, inexplicably, all that keen on experiencing food from a mock Soviet café. But we could have popped into any of the usual eateries which line the street had she not promised us fast food as compensation for indulging her love of spectacle – Moscow city centre is amply provided for refreshment options.

Soviet dining Moscow City Day 2016

Buoyed by our break, we hit the final film sets and were away. There were a few at this point Mama didn’t recognise, including the one which involved a giant Christmas New Year tree and ice/ roller skating rink. So we ignored them. Especially as Mama feels we will have had quite enough of Christmas New Year trees, snow and ice rinks in a few months.

The first one Mama was interested in neatly combined one of the mock ups of Moscow architectural landmarks dotted up and down the street with an actual scene from the film involved. Members of the public were climbing the archways to stand and survey the city. Just like the vampire members of the Day Watch police force, tasked with making sure that the magical forces of Light don’t take advantage during the times when most upright citizens of the Dark are having a well-earned nap from drinking blood, promoting the evil agenda, and so on.

Night Watch Moscow City Day 2016From the films (and books) called the Night Watch. Which are pretty bloody good, says Mama, and widely available in English. Hint hint. And the films are worth it for the subtitles alone, Mama says. Hint hint HINT. But as Mama feels that the plot of this one isn’t really very suitable for our ears and as we think vampires are to be avoided, perplexed is what we were.

Day Watch Moscow City Day 2016

Stilyagi (Hipsters), which ended the film parade, is another fairly recent film. This time, about the people who listened to that alternative underground music of the West,  RocknRoll. It’s another pretty good film, and does a very neat balancing act between the jauntiness of the soundtrack and colourful musical numbers and a glimpse at what happened to non conformists in the Soviet Union back in the day. But there’s also a refusal to turn them entirely into entirely righteous martyrs to individual freeeeeeedom and the American way. And a frankly odd ending. Mama thinks they just ran out of plot, or possibly money, but it’s still worth seeing.

Of course, for the perspective of a giant street party, it’s an excellent excuse to have beautifully dressed people performing energetic, hysterically happy, highly danceable music. And have beautifully dressed people mingle energetically with hysterical happiness with the crowd. Carrying a double bass! Mama was cross that at this point her camera battery died and she didn’t get to hysterically happily mug at us with correct hand positioning on the fretboard. You’ll just have to imagine the big skirts, the fifites hairdos and the hysterically happy grinning.

So, will you enjoy City Day, should you be in Moscow sometime in September next year? Will you enjoy a saunter down a street full of colour and distraction with the occasional snacking opportunity? Even if you are not the target audience and may find whatever theme they have a bit incomprehensible? Well, we certainly did, and so we can highly recommend Tverskaya Street on City Day to anybody. Other venues for celebration are available, but this is our top pick.

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Celebrating Moscow's birthday with a city day street party.

 

More Information

Had your interest in Soviet and Russian films whetted? Have a look at this website, which has links to Russian language films dubbed or subtitled into English.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about temporal mechanics in TV and the movies.

Address: Tverskaya Street, Moscow

Metro: Okhotniy Ryad (red line) Teatralnaya (green line) and Ploshard Revolutsii (dark blue line) are at one end, and Chekhovskaya (grey line), Pushkinskaya (purple line) and Tverskaya (green line) at the other.

By other means: What part of the centre is closed to traffic did you not understand?

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Suitcases and Sandcastles