|To Russia in Love|
Friday 20th December 2002
We didn't wake up until 8:45am this morning, after a very good night's sleep. I was looking forward to today's itinerary of a visit to the Kremlin, finding the best pizza in Moscow, (now we know where it is!) photographing Red Square at night, and finishing it off with an evening of opera at the Bolshoi Theatre.
We got down to breakfast by 10am and filled our boots. This morning we had the bonus of having the 'egg' chef preparing fried or scrambled egg, or an omelette at your request. I had two fried eggs. Julie commented on how much brighter the yolks were at the Astoria, as these Moscow eggs were a very dull yellow. I convinced myself that they were very unlikely to be free range eggs. They were probably eggs from factory hens that hadn't seen sunlight in their lives, cooped up in their tiny little boxes until they dried up and then executed. Guilt ridden I thought about not eating what egg I had left on my plate, but my solidarity with the chickens didn't last long as I gave in to the pressure of my ravenous stomach!
We took our time to digest our food, and I leisurely browsed the Moscow times. It was interesting to read about Putin's televised phone-in. One person asked him why he wore his watch on his right wrist. It was also a fascinating insight when he answered a question about the security measures in Moscow following the Chechen theatre siege. The public wanted to know what they were going to do to stop highly armed terrorists from just waltzing into the city unnoticed. He answered by saying that it would be "impermissible" for a modern capital with 3 million visitors per day to return to the fifties where secret police were patrolling the streets shooting on sight any suspected threat. At least my brush with the authorities only cost me a 1000 roubles and not my life!
I also read that yesterday Nursultan Nazarbayev, the President of Kazakhstan was in town to discuss the Soviet built cosmodrome. It's Russia's only launch pad to send manned flights to space, and with the break up of the Soviet Union the country of Kazakhstan now owned the site. They now lease it back to Russia, and yesterday they wanted to renegotiate the deal.
After breakfast we returned to our room for our daily constitution, don on our thermals, and headed for the Kremlin. On our way out, our favourite friendly doorman wasn't on duty today, someone far less genial had replaced him. In fact he hardly held the door open for us. It's not that we had developed a bad case of snobbery and expected the red carpet treatment; it was just a comparison with the far more attentive doorman.
Anyway, we walked to the entrance of the Kremlin only to find it was shut again today. How infuriating! We couldn't believe it! Why? Was the President of Kazakhstan still in town demanding some favours for the use of their launch pad? But we're going home tomorrow. You can't go to Moscow and not see inside the Kremlin! Dejavu of going to Bangkok and not seeing the Grand Palace came flooding back.
Our plans for today were now in disarray. We walked slowly back towards Red Square planning an alternative itinerary. We decided just to spend the day around the square and then go quite early to the Italian restaurant before getting ready for the theatre.
First up was a visit around Moscow's Historical Museum. It didn't cost much to get in which was fortunate as there wasn't anything of much interest to see.
There was a large stone age dug out canoe that was pretty cool, and some pieces of jewellery that were fairly interesting, but there were just too many similar rooms full of old things.
Perhaps we were suffering from museum fatigue and we didn't really appreciate what we were looking at. Then again, no, it was a tediously boring museum!
Next we returned to St. Basil's Cathedral and paid to go inside.
We entered the cathedral at the same time as an American family who had paid for a guide to take them around. We hovered for a while as we eves dropped to her reciting historical sound bytes but she had a poor grasp of English.
Most of her sentences descended into gibberish, so we left them to it and explored the cathedral on our own.
The interior was a collection of several smaller rooms or churches connected by dimly lit corridors. We had to climb a narrow stone staircase up to the central church from which the tallest tower rose.
Leading from this was a path that led all the way around to all the other rooms.
All the walls were painted in a floral ivy pattern and the whole ambience created was extremely rewarding.
You could sense that you were in a 500 year old building.
It wasn't at all busy either, with only one other couple wandering around at times it felt as if we had the place to ourselves.
It was really quite special.
On the way out, even here, they had positioned a small shop from which we bought a few postcards, and very pretty white and gold Russian doll, and a Christmas tree decoration.
From the cathedral I wanted to walk over Bol Moskvoretskiy Most Bridge to get a better view of the churches inside the Kremlin, especially with it being shut, it maybe the closest we could get to them!
Standing at a viewing point on the bridge we took a few photographs but we couldn't stay there too long as it was quite exposed and the wind was whipping down the frozen Moskva River shivering our timbers!
Further down the street on the other side of the river was the Tretyakov Gallery which houses the largest collection of paintings in Moscow but with museum fatigue having decimated our attention span we decide not to put ourselves through yet another room full of old things!
Instead we popped back to the hotel for some tea and coffee. Far more civilised!
For over an hour we had a very relaxed break from the city.
Sipping tea, and enjoying a chocolate cake.
The service was slow but it gave us an opportunity to just sit down and recharge ourselves. Julie read the guide book and we decided to head to a popular traditional food hall on Tverskaya called Yeliseev's, (Gastronom No1 during the Soviet era), to stock up on some cheap groceries to eat in our room.
It was quite literally around the corner from the hotel. It was a large room with magnificent chandeliers and ornate carvings on the ceilings. Different stall holders sold their specialities around the sides of the room, and the central delicatessen stall in particular had an excellent selection. I bought grilled aubergine wrapped garlic soft cheese, and a tub of beetroot salad. We also saw a pot of Miree garlic cheese, which Julie recognised from her mother's kitchen so we bought with confidence! At another counter we bought some baguettes, and through into another room we bought a bottle of Russian Brut. It was a wonderful experience shopping in this food hall. We left feeling very pleased with ourselves for successfully buying our groceries!
From here we decided to return to our search for the best pizza in Moscow. The Italian restaurant San Marco was on Utilitsa Arbat, and now that I had a map, and knew exactly where it was, we could not fail in our quest!
We walked up Tverskaya to Pushkin square, then turned left through a park, down towards Arbat. It took us a lot longer than we thought as it was extremely icy underfoot. But we eventually found the beginning of Utilitsa Arbat. It was a pedestrianised street with stalls selling all the touristy gifts. We were getting tired, cold and hungry but fortunately our holy grail finally appeared. San Marco, hallelujah!
With a spring in our step we opened the door where the wonderful aroma of beautiful pizza toyed with our senses, lifting our spirits. But before we could even get our second step into the restaurant a burly waiter came up to us as said that they were closed! What?! Distraught, I pleaded that we had walked for miles but to no avail. It was 4:15pm, what a bizarre time to be shut? But there were people eating? We didn't understand why? Did our faces not fit?
There was no use in arguing however, we just had to accept the cruelty of it all, and walk away. We were both totally crushed by this, dejected beyond words. Julie sped off, head down, in temper. I had not seen her move so quick over ice! Halfway down Arbat we passed another Italian called La Vera Italia, we stopped and pulled ourselves together, and decided to try our luck.
We were so glad that we did. They had an extensive menu with plenty of vegetarian choices. Julie ordered steak with mushrooms and fries. I went for pasta with garlic as a starter, followed by pizza topped with aubergine, peppers, mushrooms, and what was described as "marrow" but was in fact courgette. (They're from the same family I suppose)
Behind me, Julie could see the chef freshly preparing my pizza; rolling out the dough for my base. It gave us confidence in the quality and when it arrived it was perfect. It was quite possibly my favourite meal of the entire holiday! (The quality wasn't that spectacular just that I adore Italian food!)
Whilst we were enjoying our meal we noticed a table where several people arrived, shook hands, hugged, some ate, some didn't, some left without paying, and some shook some more hands. Now I know the so-called Russian mafia aren't Italians, but these were certainly a syndicate of some description, and acting suspiciously. I mean who sits down in an Italian restaurant, and doesn't eat?!
We finished our meal and were very satisfied by La Vera Italia. It was about 5:45pm by the time we returned to our hotel.
As we only had an hour to get washed and changed before having to leave for the opera, it was too late for me to pop up to Red Square to take some evening photographs.
I just took one quick snapshot of the Kremlin, again using Julie as my tripod!
All dressed up in our smart casuals and not our scruffy jeans and big boots we made a start for the Bolshoi theatre shortly after 7pm.
Julie's casual shoes had absolutely no grip whatsoever and it was increasingly getting icy. Fortunately we didn't have far to walk, just past the Duma, around the corner, and across Theatre Square.
It looked fabulous all lit up in the night. I was disappointed that I hadn't brought my camera with me because they weren't allowed inside the theatre.
(This photo was taken whilst walking back from the Mexican on Wednesday.)
We walked into the foyer where a large crowd were still gathered. We went through the turnstiles on the right, and went downstairs to a cloakroom. They looked at our tickets, shook their heads, and pointed up.
Confused we took our coats back and continued walking upstairs. The tickets had balcony 2 printed on them so we tried again on the second floor. Once again the cloakroom attendants at this level shook their heads and pointed upwards. Up we carried to climb until on the 4th floor, flustered and out of breath we found the right level! Next challenge was finding our seats!
I knew the location of our seats. Just to the right, level with the top of the Royal Box, but through which door did we enter? An extremely stern looking woman grabbed our tickets, opened a door with a key, and took us to our seats. She had to eject a couple who had sat in our seats; they just moved to one side and remained standing.
The seats were little wooden chairs, packed incredibly tightly together. I could hardly sit down as my knees bashed against the chair in front, and bashed the complete stranger to the left of me. Luckily Julie had an end of aisle seat which gave her a little more room. Once I had sat down I could not move my legs again. Three and a half hours sitting in this position would undoubtedly result in a case of deep vein thrombosis!
As we both settled into position, the lights dimmed, and the performance was about to start. It was as if they had waited for us! "The Owens have arrived, you may now begin."
We were here to watch an Opera by Pushkin called Eugene Onegin. The first act was quite tedious, and we spent it fidgeting, trying to get comfortable within the little space available for movement. These were without question the cheap seats! It took me most of the first act to work out how best to use the tiny binoculars supplied from the cloakroom. Using one eye at a time seemed to be my preferred method!
The most entertaining part of the first act was the couple in front of us. They both looked like school teachers. The man had a nervous neck twinge, either that or he was shaking his head as if to say "Oh no, no, no, no, no!" in disapproval. His partner on the other hand was extremely appreciative of the performance, enthusiastically waving her arms around as if she were conducting the vocals, and clasping her chest in admiration of the ear splitting crescendo of the final piece of act one.
The curtains were drawn, and the lights came back on for the intermission. We both thought about escaping and running away whilst we had the chance, but decided, how dare we throw away this opportunity to experience something quite extraordinary. Opera at the Bolshoi Theatre will be one of those treasured memories that we will take back with us from Russia.
We got up to stretch our legs, and bought a programme which did explain a little more about the story. We also queued for a bottle of mineral water to refresh us for the next instalment of the marathon that is watching an opera. When we returned to our seats we found someone sitting in mine! I politely asked her to move, and this she did without any complaints. It appeared to be common practice to steal other people's seats during the intermission. The entertaining couple in front had gone to be replaced by others. As the lights dimmed for act two they returned to their seats and had to evict the squatters. Julie reckoned that they were late returning to their seats because they themselves had been on the look out for better seats. What a peculiar practice, but then again, they probably have such a high drop out rate after act one that it makes perfect sense!
Act Two was much more entertaining than the dull first act. It was far more lavish and action-packed in its performance and stage props. A few of the scenes were actually quite spectacular. A small ballerina, appearing from a large lotus flower, was dangled on wire high above the stage. Another visually dramatic sequence took place when Onegin and Levsky were on top of a table scuffling as the cast spun the green table round and around at high speed. The second act certainly kept our attention more, and we even began to enjoy the opera.
One moment did distract us from the performance and that was a flurry of walkie-talkie conversations and footsteps running along the corridors. I could tell by Julie's face that thoughts of Chechen terrorists storming the theatre had entered her mind, but the noises went as soon as they came. The second act flew by and came to an end for another intermission. We stood up to stretch our legs but chose not to leave our seats for fear of having them invaded by opera lovers desperate to sit down! The odd couple in front of us got up, and they didn't come back. I suppose they must have found better seats elsewhere.
I noticed that many people were blatantly taking photographs during the intermission. Flash bulbs twinkled from every corner. How I wished I had brought my camera to capture the sheer elegant beauty of this theatre.
The third and final act began, and we settled back down into our cramped positions. This act wasn't as extravagant as the second act but it was still entertaining enough. The opera came to an end, although no fat lady sang! We stood up and applauded the cast as they all walked back on stage, followed by the lead characters, and then the main character of Tattyana, the object of Onegin's desires! We must have clapped for over five minutes as they all filled the stage. As they left, the applauding continued, and they came back on for a second encore. "Sod that" we both thought and headed for the exit whilst most people were still clapping away.
We shuffled back to our hotel, and ordered room service for some food. We also phoned home, especially to Julie's mother, to say that we had thoroughly enjoyed the evening, and hadn't been taken hostage! We were so glad that we made the effort to come to the Bolshoi Theatre as it was such a unique experience.
I had been writing in my journal and Julie watched a John Hannah film on Hallmark, when we had heard some loud noises like fireworks or construction noises, and Julie did wonder if it sounded like artillery fire! It made me chuckle!
I can kind of remember hearing Queen singing "Somebody to Love" on VH1 as I reached for the TV remote control and switched it off. It was late, almost 1am when we got to sleep. We're going home tomorrow.