No Tanks Today

May 4, 2011. Moscow — Not sure where they went. The streets are open, but Red Square is closed. Maybe that’s where they’re hiding.

With Red Square closed in preparation for the Victory Day celebration, most of the access points to the area were blocked off. So, it was either go to a museum, ride the fabled Moscow Metro and risk getting lost (all of  the maps and signage are in Russian), or wander around the city on foot in the rain. Easy choice for us – we love to walk semi-aimlessly around new, unfamiliar cities. Many of my favorite urban memories are of all-day walking explorations of Toronto, Paris, Venice, Rome, Edinburgh, Taipei, etc.

Semi-aimless is the key. Armed with a decent, readable, easy-to-handle map and a vague idea as to where you want to explore – plus comfortable walking shoes, a guidebook (Lonely Planet is our favorite) and a rain shell and/or umbrella if necessary, head off on the intended route or toward the intended destination. The idea is to use the route or destination as a guide not a goal. Revise plans often as you come across interesting buildings, sites, stores, cafes and galleries.

That’s pretty much what we did. First, we stumbled upon the tre’ opulent Gum department store, which makes stores in Beverly Hills look like stores in Dogpatch (where did former communists get so much money?). We then veered out of the store and headed toward the Moscow River. After peeking through the barriers into Red Square along the way, we crossed the bridge to Bolotny Island, a bohemian, artsy, hipster haven that is rapidly emerging from the crumbling architectural masterpieces being restored by oligarchs and foreign investors.

The centerpiece of this development is the conversion of the old Red October chocolate factory into a rabbit warren of bars, cafes, galleries, studios, and high tech start ups. The island is also home to a controversial sculpture of Peter the Great by Zurab Tsereteli that looks like a whimsical Salvador Dali fever dream, as executed by Walt Disney. You can stand on the pedestrian bridge that connects the island with the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and look in one direction toward the statue, perhaps symbolizing Moscow’s future, and in the other direction toward Moscow’s past, the classic designs of the church sitting at the end of the bridge between two rows of 19th Century style gas lamps. Quite a sight!

By this time we were wet, tired and hungry, so we grabbed a taxi at the church for what I thought would be a quick, inexpensive (wrong!) ride to the Café Pushkin, an elegant historical relic of old Moscow. After a bowl of the best mushroom soup I have ever had, we stumbled back to our hotel just a couple of blocks away, took off our wet shoes, and settled in for a nap.

(to be added later – photos, hotel info, and a description of our evening tour of the Moscow Metro and the area around Red Square)