May 9 and May 10
F1ight B256. Left JFK at 3:15. Weather cold, drizzly. Announced Moscow temp to be 85 degrees -- whole plane cheers. Shannon at 4am. No! 9am. Walking and shopping only. What a lush, verdant green impression from plane. Leave at 5am (NY) for Moscow. Clouds all the way. Expected temp: 19C (68F.)
We arrived at 4pm Moscow time at Sheremetyevo Airport north of the city. Passport control smiled, customs officer looked at my copy of The Final Day and shrugged, rolling his eyes to heaven...then passed me through without a check. Ah, the joys of being twenty-three and female!
We were parceled onto buses for the ride in along Leningrad Highway passing many old wooden houses of villagers -- workers on the cooperative farms apparently. Most looked pretty ramshackle. Mention was made of the fact that these were private homes and that the garden produce could be sold on a free market. Otherwise ignored. Came past many new apartment complexes of the 50s-ish-mediocrity school. Still, everything is bustling and everyone looks thoroughly normal. I expected something more exotic I guess. The drive in took us past the Soviet Army Sports Complex and other sights including the antitank obstacles marking the furthest penetration of the "Fascist Germans" during WWII. That is really spooky. Eventually Leningrad Highway becomes Gorky St., one of the major arteries in Moscow. Other sights on the way: Tchaikovsky Concert Hall and the Byelorussian Railroad Station. Gorky St. runs straight into Red Square and our Intourist Hotel (across the street from the square; around the corner from the Bolshoi). I got a quick glance at St. Basil’s and the towers of the Kremlin before piling out into the hotel. Find me in room 703 complete with Russia- muzak. I can't believe I’m here!
Dinner was served in one of the dining rooms at 7:30. The main course was mystery- meat and vegetables. Dessert pastry was very nice, not too rich. At 9:30 we were escorted over to Red Square (through some underground pedestrian passages.) We walked up a slight hill and there was St. Basil’s spotlighted. Lenin's tomb and the Kremlin were on the right. It's a fairy tale setting. GUM stretches along the entire long side of the square. The windows look a bit like Alexanders -- cheap (poor quality) but bright and surprisingly fashionable. I suppose supply and price keep most away, but it wasn't as dreary as I'd been led to believe. At ten we saw the changing of the guard. Awesome. It is reverent and impressive like the British, but there is a sense of foreboding as well. Not a hint of gaiety or pageantry. The guards and an officer goose step to the steps of Lenin's tomb and, as the chimes ring from Saviours Tower the guards exchange places like mechanical dolls, then goose step away at processional pace. Only five people are involved -- two pairs of guards and the officer, but it is chilling and breathtaking in its perfection. Then we (Id joined forces with three other girls traveling as singles) strolled back to the hotel. I managed a side sneak down the street to get a glimpse of the Bolshoi Theatre. It's a tremendously impressive building set on a park, yet it seemed human, it fit so well in its site.
I'm really here, in the world I've daydreamed about for months.
We devoted the morning to a tour of the Kremlin. The Armory was fabulous -- a set of porcelain dishes from Catherine the Great to one of her lovers -- 3200 pieces. Then there were weapons, clothes (like at the Met) and carriages. Fabulous gifts from all countries. I mean, a rococo carriage?? From there we went on to Cathedral Square -- four cathedrals (or more.): Assumption, for the tsars’ coronations; Annunciation only for the tsars; Archangel Michael where many of the tsars are buried, and the Tower of Ivan the Great. Inside there was an icon wall, floor to ceiling where the doors to the sanctuary opened and each of the other walls was covered with frescoes of the lives of the saints, etc. We also saw in the Kremlin the Tsar Bell and a HUGE cannon, never fired, used to scare off foes. Then back to the Intourist for lunch.
The afternoon took us on a bus tour of the city hitting Moscow University (30,000 students), the sports complexes, the New Maiden Nunnery and other high points. I didn't stay for much of dinner since I was off to the circus at 6:15. Gloria, Cynthia, Robin and I grabbed a cab and buzzed off. The circus was breathtaking: tumbling, tigers and tightrope. I'm just starting to breathe again. We met other General Tours groupies and we all came back en masse on the Metro. Super -- like an older, equally impressive version of Montreal. Everything smooth and immaculate. Miraculously we got back smoothly. Our only falter missing the most convenient exit from the Red Square stop. Brave us, if I may say so myself.
The morning started slowly with the trip to Lenin's tomb. The lines stretched all through the Kremlin gardens. Apparently they send all the tourists through at 11:30. We stood for about an hour winding through Red Square. Once inside all is silent and cool. You only get about a minute viewing the body. As for the real/wax debate, who knows? He certainly looks VERY well preserved. The whole "ceremony" has a strong reverent overtone. Very interesting. It only took about an hour so I walked back through Red Square and GUM by myself. What a crazy store!! The shops are awful. Cheap and dreary. Still, I'm so glad I got inside. After lunch we were bussed off to the Exposition of Economic Achievement. We had a guide named Viktor who was delightful. He took us through the space pavilion very fluently. (I understand that the other exhibits are considerably less lavish). He kept making little jokes ("each figure of the fountain has 500 grams of gold; any lady would like to be covered like that!") and was full of smiles and laughter. Then a 360° travelogue movie.
In the evening we had a (mediocre) ballet performance at the Stanislovsky Theater. Snow Maiden by Tchaikovsky. Not great dancing, but enjoyable.
In the morning we were bussed off for a shopping tour in the large Berioska Shop. Wasn’t a whole lot to get -- mostly trinket-type stuff.
After that we were taken on a whirlwind tour of the city's Metro system. Talk about impressive!! The trains run quickly, quietly and often. Everything is immaculate AND the escalators are terrifyingly fast (and therefore efficient). We spent the afternoon on the bus to Kalinin. Ugh. It's an overgrown mill town that would make Oneonta look good. The motel is their pride and joy -- eight years old and it looks as if it’s ready for the junk heap. Everything is cracked, shabby, dirty looking (but in reality clean). The water smells so strongly of something that it literally makes your stomach jump. I guess that everyone had the same reaction. I headed for the bar with Gloria, Cynthia, Robin, and Ronette and quickly tossed down two vodkas with lemonade. (Then I finished, correction, drank Robin's). There was hardly room to get in the bar. The dinner was in keeping with the surroundings. Afterwards there was music, Western style, sung mostly in Russian. I had yet another vodka and joined in the dancing. Only women, so I stuck to the foot-stomping ring dancing type. I joined in a lively hora that earned me a glass of champagne from the Cutlers, a Jewish couple from Philadelphia.
Kalinin is a great place to get bombed.
The whole group got much chummier after the party; everyone really loosened up. [Added later: During the party I locked myself in the stall of the ladies' room. Must have spent 20 minutes fiddling with the door and debating whether I could go over or under the door. Robin finally came in to check on me and was able to talk me through getting the door open. Much later, waking up in my room in the early morning (maybe 3-ish), I was so discombobulated by the light outside that I thought I'd slept through the morning and that the group had gone on without me.]
Our tour of Kalinin generally confirmed first impressions -- grey, dreary, and smoggy. We did have a chance to touch (Mother) Volga and also to see a bridal couple laying flowers at the local war monument. During a tour of an industrial exhibition in a former cathedral, someone asked Valentina our guide what was being done about the air pollution problem. "We have no problem" was the stiff answer. We all coughed.
After lunch we had a six-hour train ride to Leningrad. Very similar to our old trains if you ignore the slightly shabby Oriental rug in the aisle. In Leningrad we were bussed off through a dusky city to our hotel the Hilton of the north. A cheer went up as we pulled into the driveway. It's glossy, pseudo Swedish modern, clean and looks GREAT. My room looks directly out at the cruiser Aurora, then over the Neva to the main city. Glorious. It is simple lovely.
The first thing I did this morning was head for the ticket bureau. My other single companions went to a folk music performance, but I snagged the opera -- La Traviata -- at the Kirov. More later.
The morning was devoted to a bus tour of the city. It all seems very old, surprisingly gracious and elegant. Old Peter built his cities well. The highlight of the touring came in the afternoon when we went through the Hermitage. What treasures!! The artwork is dazzling (even several van Dongens) but the palace itself is beyond belief. I'm not a huge museum buff, but this is truly something special. Our guide Ludmilla was an art buff herself with a real gift for giving the highlights tour -- she made no bones about the fact that you can't possible see everything, so it was "hang on for the ride" as we flew through. And she could say the right two or three sentences in each room to point out the important works and put them in perspective. Quite a performance.
The highest part of the day though came with the opera. The Cutlers were also going, so I shared a cab over. We sat in the front row of what is by far and away the most exquisitely beautiful theater I've ever seen. White and blue, blazing with ornate gilt design work. All the seats are blue velvet armchairs. The orchestra pit is deep, so our seats were some of the best in the house. Fabulous. And all my ballet-connected thoughts about this theater were fulfilled. The performance was fairly good, particularly after the first act or two. The soprano started weakly, but picked up notably later. She died with a frightening convincing collapse. (I'm convinced she knocked herself out hitting the stage -- she was awfully wobbly at curtain calls. Strange hearing an Italian opera about a French courtesan sung in Russian.)
We had some trouble getting a cab later, so I rode back with Mr. Cutler's mother, a sweet dizzy lady of about 75. We were sharing a cab so we first went traipsing off to a railroad station. It was all a bit nerve-wracking, but we all got back in the end. Then Mr. Cutler insisted on buying me a drink ("you've been so good with mother") so we hit the hotel bar for an hour or so before falling into bed.
I've decided that Catherine the Great had my kind of taste. Our bus trip this morning was to Pushkin, outside Leningrad, to see the Summer Palace. Incroyable! The place was almost gutted during "The Great Patriotic War" by the Germans, but the restored sections are breathtaking. It's as impressive as Versailles and that's saying a lot. Room after room of pure opulence. (History note: it was originally built for Catherine I, the first wife of Peter.) I have never, EVER seen anything like it.
The afternoon was devoted to a tour of the SS Peter and Paul Fortress where political prisoners were held under the tsars. It's grim, but so bustling now that it doesn't seem very threatening. There's a beach - - sunbathers, swimmers and all -- around the walls of the fortress, along the Neva.
Before dinner I took a long walk with Cathy Clinton, a great loop around the Neva. Have fallen in love with Leningrad. It's old but it's so gracious and elegant. The day finished up with a gala dinner at Savdo ("Sardi's"). The food was GOOD. Not quite the Russian Tea Room, but very enjoyable. The restaurant is definitely a pure tourist operation. At our table for six we had: a decanter of vodka, a decanter of red wine, a bottle of red wine, and TWO bottles of champagne. What a send-off!!
Later notes: (much later!)
1. Armed soldiers at the foot of the plane ramp, guiding you inside the terminal.
2. The flight out of Leningrad: Circling above the airport for a 12hour until we reached cruising altitude and flew off -- too high to see much on the ground.
3. Cheers on the flight home when they announced that the water and ice had been put aboard in Shannon and were safe! (After brushing our teeth with vodka since leaving Moscow.)
4. Men coming up to us on our Leningrad evening walk asking to buy makeup – “1ipstick”
5. Robin meeting a Russian guy in Leningrad and being followed on their walk. He was then turned away at the hotel door. Next day when they rendezvoused at the Hermitage, she was allowed in; he was not.
6. Almost White Nights. In Leningrad especially, light until 2am then light again by 4.
7. Somewhere a war cemetery chilling in its size and solemnity. They do keep the memory of their suffering alive and it may be a tempering force.
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