MOSCOW: City of Surprises

Normally I write about Italy, with a little bit of Ireland thrown in every now and again. This time I am writing about Moscow, capital of Russia. These are my own impressions of a very unusual city that not everybody has an opportunity to see and can now enjoy a visit to Red Square, the Kremlin and the famous GUM department store vicariously with my words and photographs.

Moscow: having read so many novels and movies full of grey skies and sinister men in trench-coats with hats pulled low, in my mind’s eye lingered a strong impression of an austere and inhospitable city. I could not have been more wrong.

I arrived in Moscow with my husband Tom Weber, aka The Palladian Traveler, on the Sapsan high-speed train from St. Petersburg, that golden city on the banks of the River Neva.


After five days of sight-seeing in glorious weather, we were whisked to our Moscow hotel; a lavish five-star Radisson housed in a renovated Stalinist ‘wedding cake’ tower – one of seven to dot the city.

Radisson Hotel

Passing a memorial to Yuri Gagarin, the world’s first man in space…..

…we pulled into the hotel car-park, where I felt as though I had arrived at a luxury vehicle showroom. Sleek black cars with tinted windows were crowded together, while equally sleek and wealthy-looking people emerged from leather interiors and swept into the hotel foyer. I wondered: was this a gathering-place for the famous oligarchs I had read about?

Obviously, the interior was the absolute pinnacle of luxury. Gilded columns rose majestically from highly polished marble floors in this enormous foyer. The atmosphere was hushed and the air was scented by an expensive breeze generated by tall, exotic, designer-clad women as they drifted by. Standing there in my jeans, T-shirt and walking shoes I felt the word “tourist” was probably written all over me.

A golden, mirrored lift ushered us to the carpeted hush of the fifteenth floor where we found our room. Not huge, I must admit, but quite luxurious all the same. These Stalinesque towers, known as the seven sisters, were built as apartment blocks between 1947 and 1953 and some of them have been successfully converted into hotels and office blocks.

On our first evening there we were driven around the city to see Moscow by night. We left the hotel as darkness was falling and the busy city seemed to come alive. Below is a photo I took of one of the Seven Sisters.


It was dark by the time our coach nudged its way into a parking space close to Red Square. My first impression was of hundreds of tourists, with crowd control barriers and a lot of security police in evidence.

Moscow’s main square is formidably interesting and steeped in history.  Facing us as we approached was the iconic, brightly lit St. Basil’s Cathedral with its colourful onion domes.

Along the left hand side as we approached sat the walls of the Kremlin. These walls and towers were built by Italian architects over ten years beginning in 1485.The high domed roof of the Kremlin Palace overlooks the square and Lenin’s Mausoleum containing – under a bullet-proof glass shell – the body of Vladimir Lenin.

Along the right hand side I could see the enormous GUM department store, while we were informed by our guide that the building at the far end was the Imperial History Museum.

Next day, accompanied as always by our Tour Director Gennady, and our local guide Vera….

….we returned for a proper look around in daylight where Vera told quite a bit about the square’s history. It is the site where all major public ceremonies traditionally take place. Nowadays it is even used for pop concerts and festivals.

The square has evolved into its present day form over several hundred years, having begun its life as a type of shanty town, then a market square which was gradually transformed from wooden structures into stone buildings, from which the famous GUM department store finally arose.

For fact checkers, Red Square was not originally named because it is red in colour. Its name in Russian is ‘Krasnaya Ploshchad’ and the word ‘krasny’ means ‘beautiful’.

Another interesting snippet of information is that beautiful St. Basil’s Cathedral was almost demolished in the 1920s to allow for a bigger square to be formed, as it was felt that it was in the way of the large military parades and national celebrations that regularly took place.  Stalin was, apparently, very unhappy about this and when he saw the scale model of the proposed new square, with St. Basil’s Cathedral missing, famously said ‘Put it back!’

In 1990 Red Square and the Kremlin together were one of the first places in Russia to be proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is due to the fact that they have been deeply linked with Russian history since the 13th century.

A Visit to GUM

I am sure that most of you will have heard of GUM, the gigantic Moscow department store that fronts one entire side of Red Square.

I often wondered about this famous shopping centre and, upon arrival, our guide pointed out a massive building directly opposite the Kremlin Palace and Lenin’s Mausoleum, telling us that the sign on the roof and over the entrance which looked like RYM was, in fact, GUM itself, pronounced goom.

Since 1953, during Soviet times, the initials ‘GUM’ stood for State Department Store, whereas now, since the early nineties, it is known as the Main Department Store. The words in Russian for ‘state’ and ‘main’ both start with ‘G,’ so they were able to keep the iconic name the same.

We were encouraged to enter and to spend a couple of hours looking around. I needed no second invitation and off I went to check it out.

First of all, it is huge. Apparently, the limestone façade is 240 metres long and is built on three levels.

The roof is domed and glass and there are hundreds of different outlets and restaurants to be seen. Although the glass roof looks light and delicate, it is apparently very strong and designed to carry a great weight of snow, as this is Russia where, as we know, it snows a great deal.

The location of GUM has been the site of a large market for hundreds of years, developing from wooden stalls to stone shops. In the late 1700s, Catherine the Great commissioned Italian architect Giacomo Quarenghi to design a huge trade centre on its current site, which was then known as the Upper Trading Rows. This building burned down during the brief occupation of Moscow by Napoleon in 1812 after the battle of Borodino.

The present structure was rebuilt in the 1890s by the architect Alexander Pomerantsey and engineer Vladimir Shukhov and the trapezoidal structure, with its steel frame and glass roof, was designed and constructed to resemble the 19th century railway stations of London, which were considered masterpieces at the time. All the same, the building combines many aspects of Russian medieval architecture which makes it quite unique.

At that time, it was the largest shopping centre in Europe. In 1917, by the time of the Russian Revolution, there were more than a thousand shops located in the Upper Trading Rows. It was then nationalised, made into a State Department Store for all the people of Russia and renamed GUM.

In 1928 Stalin closed GUM and had it converted into offices. In 1932 it was even used to display the body of his late wife, Nadezhda, after she died.

In 1953, GUM reopened as a State Department Store which was famous for its long queues which used to stretch across the square, as in those days in Moscow it was the only outlet that had a good stock of consumer goods.  It was privatised in the early nineties, at the end of the Soviet era, and was quickly occupied by up-market retailers from the West.

On entering and looking up, I could see that each arcade is linked by walkways and reached by a variety of stairs and escalators.

The stairs have wrought iron balustrades and the steps themselves are grooved and worn down by the generations of shoppers who have visited.

It is interesting to see the colourful coffee shops and restaurants perched high on these walkways….

….giving the patrons a birds’ eye view of the large fountain, a suspended model of a jet fighter and the busy Champagne and Beluga bars below….

…not to mention the mannequins displaying the latest high-end fashions strategically placed where the aisles come together.

Whether you are in the mood to shop or not, if you manage to visit Moscow, a look around GUM is a must.

The Kremlin

Number one highlight of our day had to be our visit to the Kremlin gardens. The Kremlin is an enormous complex of office buildings, gardens, monuments, museums and churches on the north bank of the Moscow River. It is enclosed by more than 2 kilometres of high walls, with Red Square on its eastern flank.  It was quite unlike what I was expecting as it was colourful and very pleasing to see.

Queuing up with hundreds of other visitors, we were escorted through a glass-fronted ticket office, crossed the Trinity Bridge – there used to be a moat here up until 1813 – and entered the Kremlin via the Troitskaya Tower.

Exiting from under an arch, we found ourselves in a huge open space with, we were told, President Putin’s office building in the Kremlin Palace on our left hand side. Apparently, he arrives every day for work by helicopter in order to avoid the traffic jams that were previously caused by his motorcade and all the attendant security. A special helipad was installed a few years ago.

Passing by the Kremlin Palace we were greeted by the sight of a huge bronze cannon which was cast in 1586 and has never been used in battle. It is called the Tsar Cannon and is a popular tourist attraction, as indicated by the fact that visitors were about three deep around it and I had to struggle to get an unobstructed photograph without an eager onlooker getting in the way.

Just ahead, yet another gaggle of tourists indicated the presence of the Tsar Bell; the largest bell in the world at more than 6 metres tall, which was cracked during its casting has never been rung.

Strolling further we were greeted by the shining, golden onion domes of Cathedral Square. This is the central square of the Kremlin, where coronations and funeral processions of the Tsars were carried out. Here we saw and marvelled at no less than three cathedrals. We were able to visit the beautiful Cathedral of the Dormition with its five golden cupolas, which was the main cathedral for the Tsars of Russia….

….and the Necropolis of the Archangel Cathedral which contains the tombs of the early princes of Russia.

We were also shown the exteriors of the Cathedral of the Annunciation….

the Church of the Twelve Apostles, the Church of the Deposition of the Robe and the Ivan the Great bell-tower, said to mark the exact centre of Moscow.

We were in Russia as guests of Insight Vacations on their Easy Pace Russia tour.  For information click HERE.

Orna O’Reilly

Ostuni, Italy.

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