After our late night out till midnight last night, opera followed by dinner on the way back, and a night with Roger’s cough taking over, we finally got to sleep just around 7.00 am, and woke up to find the clock saying 8.38 am – we were due to meet Irina and the rest of the group at 9.15, panic ensued! Grabbing an exceedingly hasty breakfast, we just made it, our first stop was the Cathedral of Christ the Savour, with 5 gold plated domes and gold leaf work on the outside. There was a huge number of young men in uniform gathering outside.
Irina told us that these were members of a special force recruited to deal with emergencies. They had come for a blessing, but as there were too many of them to fit into the Cathedral, the doors would be opened and the blessing given to them by the priest whilst they stood outside. Some of them had brought their families, and there were some enchanting children running about too.
The cathedral was commissioned to commemorate the victory of Russian nation over Napoleon in 1812. It took more than 40 years to be built and became the most important Orthodox church of the Russian State
The story of this church was that Stalin had had it blown up, intending to replace it with a huge skyscraper with a 30 metre statue of himself on the top. This hadn’t been built, and only a large hole in the ground remained, which was turned into a heated swimming pool, Irina said she often used to swim there.
But with the fall of communism, the church was rebuilt, and it is incredibly beautiful inside. It is good to see a church being built and used for worship, and because of that we could only tiptoe round and marvel, no cameras, there was a service going on.
Our next stop was the Kremlin, not at all what I had expected. I guess I imagined severe brick walls and a history museum inside. In fact the Kremlin is effectively the size of a small town. Everything in Russia has to be bigger than anything else, and that goes for the concert hall for 5000 people, a very modern design. There was a smaller parade ground to Red Square, (the Kremlin wall runs along one side of Red Square, but access is from outside it) The queue was the longest we had seen and hearts sank, but it moved quite speedily and probably took only about 20 minutes to reach the door.
We had been introduced to our new guide, as we were too big a group for one guide to take on the tour. Violet was as different from Irina as it is possible to get, a stout firm Russian lady who made it very plain who was boss. She started off warming up whilst we were queuing getting us to sway and exercise, testing out the sound equipment with her own, rather ruder, versions of English nursery rhymes. She told us that Russians appear to be giving orders because it is not in the nature of Russians to use phrases such as ‘when you are ready’, ‘if you like’ ‘please wait here’ etc. She also said that Russians appear dour because it is not customary to smile at anyone unless you have been introduced. Indeed if a stranger smiles at you it is probably because you have something like bird poo on your shoulder!
We were then instructed to go through the green arrow lane ‘for instant brainwashing’! By this time some of the group were hoping for the toilets, but this was just for entry inside the walls, and her ‘only 15 minutes before a toilet stop’ turned into an hour and a quarter!
Apart from the Concert Hall and the Parliament buildings, the rest of the Kremlin seems to be made up of different churches, which surprised me, and also an armoury, which is actually the home of all the gold treasures and gifts amassed by the Romanovs and the presidents. Just walking round the grounds, one of the churches, and the Armoury took over three hours, with Irina gleefully pointing out anything that she deemed bigger or better than the British version, whether it was weight of armour, gold goblets, number of royal crowns, or gilt carriages. The church was covered with medieval murals, all the walls and ceilings richly decorated, it made us realise what St Albans Cathedral must have looked like 400 years ago, before they were destroyed.
From the end of the tour we were on our own, so after a quick huddle, some of us decided to head for GUM, the enormous department store (everything in Russia is bigger and better). This store is probably at least twice the length of St Pancras station, and several stories high. That is just one third of it, there are three identical malls side by side. It was crowded, but we found one of the cafes selling sandwiches, cakes, and a very welcome beer!
Somewhat restored, we had to look at St Basil’s Cathedral, the church at one end of Red Square that is similar in style and beauty to the Church of the Spilled Blood in St Petersburg. However the inside could not have been different. Two floors of individual tiny churches linked together like a rabbit warren.
The entrance took you past the shrine of St Basil. There were small museum rooms running ahead of you, interlinked, and filled with gold leafed icons. Then there was a single narrow stair winding upwards, with steps 30 cm or more high. There was no big central space upstairs either, the centre church could only have been about 30′ across. The ceilings had lovely floral decorations. in one small room there was a small group of singers making the most of the acoustics with a sound that brought out goose pimples.
By now it was raining, so back to the hotel to change for dinner. A lovely meal in a Georgian restaurant with Carole and Trevor, but the restaurant had run out of desserts by the time we had finished first courses. (Other U3A diners had obviously got there first, and were bragging about the doughnuts!) We therefore gave up and went back to Red Square for pictures at night.
We ended up in the Bosco Cafe attached to GUM for tiramisu and blueberry tarts. Not traditional Russian, but very enjoyable!