The name of our new guide was Galina and she welcomed us to Moscow and invited us to follow her to the coach which was parked nearby. Luckily this time it was a full size coach so this meant that we didn’t have the same pantomime accommodating all of the luggage and it wasn’t long before we were on our way and joined the long lines of traffic which were equally as bad as those in Saint-Petersburg.
It was early morning and this meant that we couldn’t drive directly to our hotel because check-in time wasn’t until two o’clock so the travel company had thoughtfully arranged a welcome to Moscow morning bus tour but didn’t seem to take into account the fact that most people hadn’t had a good nights sleep and were tired, hadn’t had much of a breakfast (a small omelette and only one cup of tea) and were hungry and hadn’t had a proper wash and so would have liked some proper bathroom facilities.
As we drove Galina provided us with background information on the city and just like Anna in Saint-Petersburg tried to persuade us to book the expensive add-on tours. I think most people had got wise to this by now so there wasn’t a great deal of interest but that didn’t stop her keep trying. Finally some people decided that they would like to go and see the ballet but it was £80 each and they wanted to pay by credit card. Galina explained that it was a cash only deal so everyone changed their minds!
To get us closer to the city centre the coach driver used a wide four lane ring road and we started to pass by tall skyscrapers soaring into the sky above the building line. These are Stalin’s ‘seven sisters’, built between 1947 and 1953, a personal monument designed by the man himself as an arrogant vainglorious memorial to his rule and which surround the city in prominent locations and are used as Government Departments, housing accommodation, a University and a hotel. It could easily have been eight sisters because there were plans to build another one but this didn’t happen because Stalin died before it could be constructed.
This final skyscraper was due to be built close to the Kremlin and the architects feared that it would be inappropriate and would spoil the central area, but presumably hadn’t felt comfortable raising their concerns with Stalin himself, now did so with the new leaders who were already busy discrediting the previous regime and they were convinced with their case, so no eighth skyscraper.
The first stop was close by to one of these monsters, the University building close to a tourist trap area called Sparrow Hills on the banks of the Moskva River, where coaches pull in to provide passengers with a panoramic view of the city and in particular the Olympic stadium and facilities built there for the 1980 games. I wasn’t especially blown away by this but close by there was a charming little church which was almost worth a visit even though what we really wanted to see was something much grander like St Basil’s Cathedral which we could see from the viewing platform in the distance.
After the brief stop we moved on and Galina announced that the next stop would be Swan Lake – the very Swan Lake no less that allegedly inspired Tchaikovsky to write his famous ballet. I’m not doubting this piece of information but just a couple of days before Anna had made exactly the same claim about a lake in Saint-Petersburg.
The coach pulled up alongside a busy main road and we followed her down to the waters edge. This was seriously disappointing! On one side was the Baroque Novodevichy Convent but on the other was a high rise housing block and worst of all no swans! Apparently they have all been removed to the Moscow zoo so that people can’t kill them by overfeeding them. There were a few drakes, mallards and bitterns swimming around but really there was no way of getting away from the fact that this was a completely underwhelming and pointless stop to see a duck pond.
Back on the coach Galina told us that our next stop was Victory Park, an open air museum dedicated to the great Patriotic War and this at last sounded worth a visit but there was another disappointment as the coach drove straight past without stopping but with an invitation to sign up for an optional tour later which she promised would include a proper visit.
We had been on the coach for almost two hours now and everyone was looking forward to a stop and some toilet facilities so a collective sigh went up as it appeared we were to be disappointed again. Eventually Galina had to give in and respond to the swollen bladders problem and the bus pulled in so that those who needed to could dash to the facilities in a nearby café.
At last Galina broke the news we all wanted to hear that the tortuous sightseeing trip was now coming to an end and that we were driving towards the centre and Red Square. The coach nudged its way through the traffic but when we arrived at the drop off point the pavements were all closed and there were armed guards every few metres to make sure no one slipped through uninvited because today in an conference hall next to the Kremlin was a Communist Party Convention which all the top people were attending for an important meeting to elect the new leader of the Party.
Plan A was in tatters so whilst Galina worked on another the coach drove around the circumference of Red Square and the Kremlin to give her time to think and when she had decided on the alternative the coach pulled up and stopped at a place it shouldn’t pull up and stop and Galina prompted us to hurry up and get off so that the driver wouldn’t get into trouble.
As we made our way to the main entrance we could see that a lot of the Kremlin gardens seemed to be inaccessible due to the conference and we were worried that this might spoil the visit…