Tag Archives: Travel

Northern Spain – The Caves at Altimira

Santillana del Mar in the rain

“I visited the Cave of Altamira while traveling in Europe with two friends in 1968.  Once inside, I was of course in awe, not only of the age of the paintings, but also of the delicacy and skill with which they had been executed. I think we tend to look down on our distant ancestors as primitive and stupid, but cave paintings like those at Altamira remind us that they were not.”                         Susan (Washington) – Blogger

On the final morning of our visit to Santillana del Mar the weather proved to be a disappointment, I could hear rain on the window as I started to stir and when I did the weather check I could only report back that the sky was grey and it was drizzling.

At breakfast our host confirmed the worst and informed us that the forecast was gloomy all day so we decided that it was probably a good day to go and do something undercover and perhaps visit a museum.

After breakfast we settled up and said goodbye and took the road out of Santillana Del Mar and then followed signposts to the Altamira museum on the edge of the town.   I wasn’t expecting a great deal to be honest so was surprised to find a very big car park and a large building built into the hills.  I was about to learn about something else that I was completely unaware of – Cantabria is the richest region in the world in archaeological sites from the Upper Paleolithic period (that’s the Stone Age to you and me).  The most significant cave painting site is the cave of Altamira, dating from about 16,000 to 9000 BC and declared, with another nine Cantabrian caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Well, you learn something new every day it seems!

Altimira cave painting

Around thirteen thousand years ago a rockfall sealed the cave entrance preserving its contents until its eventual discovery which was caused by a nearby tree falling and disturbing the fallen rocks.  The really good bit about the story is that it wasn’t discovered by Howard Carter, Tony Robinson or Indiana Jones but by a nine year old girl who came across them while playing in the hills above the town in 1879.  Her father was an amateur archaeologist called Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola and he was led by his daughter to discover the cave’s drawings. The cave was excavated by Sautuola and archaeologist Juan Vilanova y Piera from the University of Madrid, resulting in a much acclaimed publication in 1880 which interpreted the paintings as Paleolithic in origin.

So well preserved were the paintings however that there ensued an argument about authenticity and some believed the whole thing to be a hoax and it wasn’t until 1902 that they were eventually accepted as genuine.

We paid the modest entrance fee of €2.40 and went into the museum, which turned out to be a real treasure with interesting displays about the Stone Age, or the Paleolithic period if you prefer, with the highlight of the visit being a full size recreation of the original cave and its precious paintings.  Today it is only possible to see this copy because the actual cave is now closed to vistors.  During the 1960s and 1970s, the paintings were being damaged by the damp breath of large numbers of visitors and smoke from Fortuna cigarettes and Altamira was completely closed to the public in 1977, and reopened with only very limited access in 1982.


Very few visitors are allowed in per day, resulting in a three-year waiting list.  It would be nice to go into the actual cave but actually the replica allows a more comfortable view of the polychrome paintings of the main hall of the cave, as well as a selection of minor works and also includes some sculptures of human faces that cannot be accessed in the real thing.

And, let me tell you, these people were really good painters.  The artists used charcoal and ochre or haematite to create the images, often scratching or diluting these dyes to produce variances in intensity and creating an impression of remarkable and sophisticated contrasts and they also exploited the natural contours in the cave walls to give a three-dimensional effect to their subjects.

The painted ceiling is the most impressive feature showing a herd of bison in different poses, two horses, a large doe and a wild boar.  Other images include horses, goats and hand prints created from the artist placing his hand on the cave wall and spraying paint over it leaving a negative image of his palm.

Numerous other caves in northern Spain contain palaeolithic art but none is as advanced or as famous as Altamira.

The entrance to the real cave is not so impressive however…

Entrance to the cave of Altamira

Northern Spain – The City of Valladolid

Valladolid Spain

“The celebrated plateresque façades of Valladolid strike me as being, when one has recovered from the riotous shock of them, actually edible.”                              Jan Morris – ‘Spain’

The road to Valladolid and Palencia was just as dreary as the previous roads through Castilla y León as we entered the Tierra de Campos, an expansive fertile and arable farmland area, over seven hundred metres above sea level and to the traveller a vast desolate plain with virtually nothing but flat fields and open sky.

The road drifted north through a succession of characterless towns and villages but for naturalist entertainment they were flanked by swaying verges decorated with wild flowers – regal purple thistles, rigid and erect, sunshine yellow low-level daisies, shy and demure and blood red poppies, showing off and bending and bowing in the breeze like obedient courtiers.

The route today provided the opportunity for a short detour to the high plain town of Medina del Campo which had an especially fine castle.  Medina del Campo gained much influence  during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries because of its commercial and economic importance.  The main basis of this was banking, wool and textiles and in 1489 a great trade agreement united the Kingdoms of Spain and England with the reduction of trade tariffs, the recognition of France as a common enemy and the arrangement of the marriage of Catherine of Aragon to King Henry VII’s son, Prince Arthur – and after him to King Henry VIII which was the catalyst of tumultuous and irreversible religious reform in Tudor England.

As the medieval town slipped gradually from importance into obscurity over the next four hundred years the castle was abandoned and collapsed, but was restored after the Spanish Civil War with reconstruction pursued and financed by the Falange government of Francisco Franco, who had a nostalgia for structures having links to the Catholic Monarchs.  We walked around the castle and went inside but there wasn’t a great deal to see and I was disappointed that it wasn’t possible to climb the tower.

Medina del Campo Spain

Then Kim dropped a bombshell – she told me that she wasn’t that bothered about climbing towers anyway and this was on top of her announcement last year that she had had quite enough of Roman ruins.  I said not to worry because there would be a cathedral later and she said that actually, she wasn’t that bothered about them either.  Well, talk about kick a man while he is down and I felt guilty for a while that she had been feigning interest in all of the things that I like to do whilst at the same time I hadn’t bothered to show even the slightest glimmer of interest in shoe shops and jewellers!

And so we moved on…

The road took us past the town of Tordesillas but we didn’t stop to investigate.  It seems that the most famous thing about Tordesillas is that there was a meeting here between Spain and Portugal in 1494 and a Treaty was signed which gave Brazil to Portugal and all the rest to Spain.  This might have seemed like a good idea at the time but it rates as a serious negotiating disaster for Spain as it gave up the Amazon rain forest and all of its riches for the Andes of Patagonia!  This lack of bargaining skill must be similar to me own disastrous attempts at bartering in a Turkish bazaar.

It was still quite early so shortly after crossing the Duero for the final time, and as we were passing, it seemed impolite not to visit the city of Valladolid so we left the motorway and as the red poppies of the highway verges gave way to the red concrete of the city suburbs we headed for the centre.

Valladolid is a very crimson city, the reddest that I have ever seen, a sprawling industrial metropolis, the capital of Castilla y León, the tenth largest city in Spain but with its medieval heart ripped out and trodden under foot in the post civil war industrial boom and it does not feature on many tourist itineraries even though it was the city where Christopher Columbus spent his last years and died after falling out with the Spanish Monarchy over the question of royalties.

For a big city there was surprisingly little traffic and we followed signs to the centre and the Plaza Mayor and made our way to a convenient underground car park right below the main square.

It was midday now and  the expansive Plaza was really very attractive and all decorated and carefully colour coordinated in various complimentary shades of cream, scarlet and and crimson and to compliment the vivid colour scheme the sun was blazing down from above and made the whole place feel warm and hospitable.

We didn’t plan to stay long in Valladolid, it isn’t the sort of place that fills many pages of the Dorling Kindersley travel guide but because we were so close it seemed like a good idea. Our next stop was Palencia and there was just time to walk the main shopping street, admire some fine art nouveau buildings and have a snack and a drink in a café in the Plaza before it was time to go and return to the road. We felt a bit rude leaving so quickly but if we pass by again we shall pay it the courtesy of staying longer.



Russia, Final Day, Reflection and Assessment

St. Nicholas’ Cathedral Saint Petersburg

I was woken in the morning by the sound of squealing brakes and the unmistakable sound of metal on metal which means two vehicles have had a collision.

I leapt out of bed and from the eighth floor window I could see two cars joined at the bumper and blocking the busy intersection outside the hotel front door.  There was chaos all around and this was going to last some time because after an accident in Russia the drivers are not permitted to move their vehicles until after the police have attended the scene.

I imagine what caused the accident had something to do with the weather because overnight it had completely changed and instead of the blue sky and sunshine that we had become accustomed to there was a steely grey sky, pavement puddles steadily filling up with rain water and raindrops running down the window like tiny pearl drops but as this was our last day and we would be leaving by midday this really didn’t seem to be too much of a problem.

After breakfast Kim decided to stay in the hotel but this seemed a waste of the last morning to me so I decided to walk to the local shopping centre to have a final look around and so I set off in the rain and took the underpass route to the other side of the main road.  The underpass was lined with tiny shops, no more than kiosks really, selling a wide selection of goods – among them clothes, shoes, pastries, souvenirs and cigarettes and they seemed to be doing rather brisk trade – brisker trade indeed than the surface kiosks at the other end where the heavy rain was keeping people away as they rushed from the shelter of the underpass to the nearby shopping centre without looking left or right or stopping.

It was a modern shopping centre with a supermarket and a department store and although it was nothing like the boutique interior of GUM the prices were still quite staggering.  So staggering in fact that there were hardly any shoppers and I found myself alone amongst the merchandise except for a heavy presence of security guards and I think they were glad of something to do or someone to watch because wherever I went there was always one of these guys to accompany me – or perhaps I just looked shifty and suspicious!

I didn’t stay long inside the store but went back outside to see where all the people might be but the wet streets were still deserted and then I spotted some women with shopping bags going into a shabby building with blue swing doors and I followed them to investigate.  Here the mystery of the missing people was solved because inside the not very promising exterior was a market hall that was bustling with activity.  Rows of florists, dairy stalls, butchers and fish mongers and they were all busy because here the prices were much more reasonable and the local people were sensibly shopping here rather than in the pricey supermarket next door.  I walked around the stalls and enjoyed the sights and sounds of a real local market and then with time passing by returned to the hotel for check-out and pick-up.

The bus arrived on time and Galina explained that the reason we seemed to be leaving so early (our flight was not for another five hours) was that the traffic could be unpredictable and that she didn’t want to take the risk of running late and missing the plane home.  An hour later she rather sheepishly apologised for this being the quickest airport transfer that she could ever remember and this would mean longer than usual waiting in the airport departure lounge.

Nothing slowed us down – the automatic airline ticket machine dispensed our tickets and we were quickly through passport control and the security checks so we found some seats and while Kim enjoyed the unexpected duty free shopping opportunity I went over the notes of our holiday and thought about setting out the top five highlights.

And here they are:

1              Peterhof Palace and Gardens

Peterhof Gardens

2              The Moscow Kremlin

Kremlin Cathedrals

3              The Moscow Metro

Park Pobedy Moscow Metro

4              Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral

St Basils Moscow

5              The Hermitage in Saint-Petersburg

Hermitage Museum Saint Petersburg

That was a difficult list to compile I can tell you!

This had been a wonderful travel experience and one that only a few years ago I would never have imagined possible.  Saint-Petersburg was much as I expected, a northern European Imperial city with large squares and fabulous architecture but as I have said before I was totally unprepared for what I saw in Moscow which took me completely by surprise and I am left with one overriding thought – I’d really, really like to go back!

Russia, Moscow and Victory Park

Park Proberdy Metro Station Moscow

We planned to visit a few more Metro stations so we started at Prospekt Mira with its polished walls and vaulted ceiling and then the short journey to Arbatskaya with its cream walls and elegant chandeliers and designed to be used alternatively, should the need arise, as a nuclear fall-out shelter.

Our destination was Victory Park at Poklonnaya Hill on the outskirts of the city and this meant leaving the Metro at Park Pobedy which, at ninety-four metres, is claimed to be the deepest Metro station in the world. I know, I know, if you have been paying attention then several posts ago I told you that Saint-Petersburg was the deepest Metro in the world but, depending upon what measure you use, it seems that both claims are true.  Saint-Petersburg is the deepest overall on average and this Moscow Station has the actual deepest single point – so there you are!

Park Pobedy Moscow Metro

The escalator is one-hundred and twenty-six metres long, has seven-hundred and forty steps and takes three minutes to get from the platform to the surface.  We took the ride and left the station entrance into the fading light of the evening and walked the short distance to Victory Park.

In the United Kingdom it took over sixty-years to erect a monument to World-War-Two Bomber Command but in Russia the previous Soviet regime erected obelisks and memorials all over the place.  This huge open air museum commemorates victories in probably the two most misguided military adventures in the last few hundred years, firstly Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and having learned nothing from that catastrophe Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa a hundred and thirty years later in 1941.

I found it to be a strangely solemn sort of place and we walked through the flower beds and the water fountains with their crimson lighting displays (was that meant to symbolise blood I wondered?)  I was bought up on tales of the war told to me by my father, these were always gallant tales about impossibly brave paratroopers and square jawed commandos, about fearless desert rats and valiant fighter pilots, about courageous heroes and stiff upper lips, about medals and honours; I am certain that he never really understood what the war was like in its brutal reality.

He had books about the war; ‘The War’s best photographs’, ‘The Empire Youth Annual’ and three bound volumes of the weekly newspaper ‘The War Illustrated’. These told the stories of the sinking of the Bismarck, the Dam Busters raid and Montgomery’s victories in the North African desert.  The horror of the war in the East and the inhumanity of the Nazi concentration camps didn’t feature quite so predominantly and so fuelled by dad’s stories and patriotic British war movies starring Kenneth More and Richard Todd I grew up in some way thinking war was glamorous, brave and worthy.

At the centre of the park is an obelisk, exactly 141.8 meters, which represents 10 centimetres for every day of the War, a towering monument where St George (Patron Saint of Russia as well as England) slays a dragon below a monument that sets out the faces and instruments of war, soldiers, civilians and weapons are represented here to set out the horror, suffering and ultimate futility of it all. Starting at the bottom and reading upwards are the names of the besieged Russian cities until victory is finally reached at the top and behind the obelisk and the museum is a memorial to the victims of the prison camps and the sinking sun cast moody shadows of the suffering people depicted there.

It was getting quite late now and the shadows were lengthening and somebody somewhere flicked a switch and the fountains were turned off so we retraced our steps and left Victory Park, descending the elevator back to the Park Probedy Metro station and then took the short journey home where leaving the Metro at Rizhskaya, the scene of the 2004 Chechen suicide bombings that killed ten people, we were pleased to see that the old lady had finally sold all of her simple flower bouquets and was finally on her way home.

Russia, Caviar, Millionaires and Paupers

GUM Moscow

Red Square is a place that I think I would find difficult to tire of and we walked through Resurrection Gate and in the shadow of the red brick history museum looked down and marvelled again at the multi-coloured domes of St. Basil’s, at the granite blocks of the Lenin Mausoleum on one side and the cream facade of GUM shopping arcade on the other.

I think I would have been happy to wander around here for the rest of the day but it was lunch time, Kim was hungry and so we went again to No 57 CTOΛOBAЯ for something to eat and after the meal we walked through the malls to see the shops.

In 1996 when my son Jonathan was about twelve years old in I took him to London for the day and we visited the major sights and attractions.  On the way home I asked him what he liked most about the day and confidently expecting him to say the Tower of London or Trafalgar Square or Buckingham Palace I was taken aback somewhat when he declared the highlight of the visit to be the twenty minutes or so that we spent in Fortnum and Masons!

I was intrigued by that but he explained that he just thought the high prices were really funny – he wondered how they priced such an everyday item as Yorkshire tea bags and concluded that they must take the basic price, double it and then times it by ten before putting it on the shelves for the tourists.

Well, he would have found this place amusing as well then because the prices were truly astronomical and way off my scale of affordability.  In one shop a linen jacket cost £400 and that, I can tell you, is more or less my clothing budget for the entire year.

There was no doubting that they were nice shops, well laid out and all clean and tidy and clean and tidy no doubt because there were no shoppers inside them.  The prices everywhere were huge, in a food hall we bought some confectionary at massive prices and our knees buckled at the cost of champagne and vodka.  We took some photographs and were promptly told off for it.  The photographs were of the caviar where a tin about the size of a John West can of tuna was a heart-stopping 60,000 roubles and give or take a few kopecs that is about £1,200 and I don’t spend that much on groceries in six months!

Beluga Caviar GUM Moscow

Somebody must buy it though because it is apparently extremely perishable and will only last on display like this for a maximum of six weeks.  Worst still, once opened it has to be consumed within three days so if you are going to share a tin of this between two of you that is an eye-popping £600s worth of fish eggs each over a single weekend!

And herein lies the paradox because the gap between rich and poor in Moscow and Russia is huge.  According to research, the richest slice of Russian society has doubled its wealth in the past twenty years, while almost two-thirds of the population is no better off and the poor are barely half as wealthy as they were when the Soviet Union collapsed.  The wealthiest fifth of the population receive a pay cheque equivalent to nearly double its value in 1991, while the poorest fifth made only half in real terms.  In total, 60% of the population has the same real income or less than the average of twenty years ago and some people are now looking back fondly at the days of the managed economy.

Moscow is now officially the third most expensive city in Europe after Geneva and Zurich and whilst some people might be able to afford to shop in the GUM boutiques most have absolutely no chance of doing so.

It was late afternoon so we did some final souvenir shopping in the street market stalls outside Red Square and then took a Metro directly back to the hotel district.  After the GUM experience I took more notice of the people rather than the architecture.  Ordinary people trying to supplement their income by selling a few items – hand made crochet, second hand clothes or garden produce.  At the station an old lady at the entrance had a few bunches of ragged flowers from her garden or balcony, Kim gave her a 100 rouble note, which is only a couple of £s but the look of gratitude on her face was distressing, Kim turned down the flowers and she pushed the note deep inside her coat for safe keeping.

Two hours later when we returned to the Metro station to go back to the city she was still there so Kim gave her another 100 rouble note and I reminded her that the last time she showed an act of kindness like this thirty minutes later she was robbed on the Athens Metro.

Saint Petersburg Apartments

Russia, Josef Stalin – Despot and Visionary

Josef Stalin

It was our last full day in Russia and Moscow so we wanted to make the most of it and got up early, had a quick breakfast and then made our way to the Metro station where we took the line to the centre of the city and arrived at Novokuznetskaya which was opened in 1943 and honours the Soviet Armed Forces.

At street level we were unsure exactly where we were so we had to ask for directions several times before we were completely confident that we were walking towards the Moskva River and The Kremlin but we knew we were walking in the right direction when we saw the Peter The Great Statue which is the eight highest statue in the World and commemorates three hundred years of the Russian Navy.

I thought it looked good but perhaps a little unfairly this statue has been included in a list of the World’s top ten ugliest statues* and no doubt embarrassed by this, in 2010, Moscow offered the statue to Saint-Petersburg – who promptly turned it down!

Peter The Great Statue in Moscow

Our first destination was the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour which was first built on this site in the nineteenth century.  When Napoleon Bonaparte retreated from Moscow, Emperor Alexander I signed a proclamation declaring his intention to build a cathedral in honour of Christ the Saviour “to signify Our gratitude to Divine Providence for saving Russia from the doom that overshadowed Her” and as a memorial to the sacrifices of the Russian people.

As we approached it towered above us and blocked out the sun because with an overall height of one hundred and five metres to the top of its central golden dome it is the tallest Orthodox Church in the world and even though the guide in Saint-Petersburg had previously told us St. Isaac’s was the biggest I was prepared to believe anything now.  This isn’t the original building however because after the Revolution and during the dictatorship of Stalin, the prominent site of the cathedral was chosen as the location for a monument to socialism to be constructed which was to be known as the Palace of the Soviets.

On December 5th 1931 on the orders of Stalin the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was dynamited and reduced to rubble. It took more than a year to clear the debris from the site and some of the marble from the walls and marble benches from the cathedral were used in the construction of nearby Moscow Metro stations.

Approaching the Cathedral now and finding it difficult to understand how it could have been destroyed this was the time to think about Stalin the man, the monster and the visionary who created modern Moscow.  It is now generally agreed amongst historians that he was responsible for the deaths of at least twenty-million people, perhaps as many as fifty-million depending on the calculation criteria or almost twice as many as Adolf Hitler.


During World-War-Two he encouraged tactics which led to the deaths of about eight-million of his own soldiers.  Additionally about three-million German, Hungarian, Romanian, and Finnish troops were killed by the Red Army.  Stalin’s policies meant no mercy to prisoners, and huge numbers died after being taken captive during the war. Following the war Stalin instigated a policy of terror on the German people.  This led to about two-million German civilians being murdered outright and thousands more committing suicide. Stalin enforced brutal police states on all the peoples of Eastern Europe which he overran with his armies.  Tens of thousands died in these takeovers.  German prisoners were kept in horrible conditions for as long as ten years after the war, leading to the deaths of at least another million.

In Russia Stalin caused the deaths of people of certain races and nationalities -Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, etc. people of certain economic status  such as the wealthy farm owners called “kulaks” by relocating them to the gulags or concentration camps in Siberia where they died of malnutrition, overwork and exposure.  He murdered political opponents, actual and suspected, in the thousands usually by a single gunshot to the back of the head. He forced the repatriation of all Russian soldiers taken prisoner during World-War-Two and treated them as virtual traitors, sending many of them to the gulags.

I think it is probably safe to say that he was not a pleasant man!

Palace of the Soviets

But he was also a man of vision who planned to make Moscow a modern twentieth-century city to rival anything in the USA, especially New York.

The Palace of the Soviets was conceived as a Communist Party administrative centre and congress hall and when built was intended to be the tallest building in the World, which would rise in modernistic buttressed tiers to support a gigantic statue of Lenin perched on top of a dome with his arm raised triumphantly in the air.  This all proved a bit too ambitious however and construction was interrupted due to lack of funds, problems with flooding from the nearby Moskva River, and the outbreak of war. The flooded foundation hole remained on the site until in 1958, under Nikita Khrushchev, it was transformed into the world’s largest open air swimming pool, named, not very originally, Moskva Pool.

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was rebuilt to its original design in 1995–2000 and after walking around the exterior we prepared to go inside.

Cathedral of Christ Saviour Moscow

* The other nine in the top ten ugly statues list is:

Peace and Brotherhood Statue, Turkey (now demolished)

Kim II-Sung, North Korea

Victory Arch, Iraq

Tear of Grief, New Jersey USA

Michael Jackson, Fulham FC, UK

Rocky Balboa, sebia

Patient Zero, Mexico

Yuri Gagarin, Moscow, Russia

Johnny Depp, Serbia

Frank Zappa, Lithuania


Russia, The Moscow Metro

The Moscow Metro is the world’s second most heavily used metro system after the Tokyo’s twin subway. It has nearly three hundred kilometres of track, twelve lines, and one hundred and eighty stations.

Whilst visitors to London would be unlikely to consider the ‘Tube’ to be a tourist attraction, in Moscow the Metro is a ‘must visit’ place and not just for getting around the city because each station has a unique design using elaborate decorations and materials from all over the country, including granite, quartzite, limestone, twenty kinds of marble, semiprecious stones and are decorated with plus bronze sculptures, majolica panels, stainless steel columns, glittering chandeliers, bas-relief friezes, stained-glass panels, murals, and mosaics.

The first plans for a rapid transit system in Moscow date back in the times of the Russian Empire which were postponed by the World-War-One, the October Revolution and the Russian Civil War. The construction started in June 1931 and the Central Committee of the USSR Communist Party envisioned the stations as ‘Palaces of the People’ and used to illustrate the achievements that socialism brought to the Soviet Union’s workers in the cities and peasants in the country.

Planning the subterranean visit was a little daunting at first because the map of the Metro is like trying to make sense of a knitting pattern with the station names all stubbornly named in Cyrillic letters with no concessions to an English speaking visitor but after a while it began to make sense and we planned a route to see the best of the stations mainly using the brown circle line which acts at some point crosses all the other radial lines and making it difficult therefore to get really badly lost.

Moscow Metro

There is an interesting legend about the origin of the ring line rather like the Tsar’s finger on the Saint-Petersburg to Moscow railway line.  A group of engineers met with Stalin to inform him of current progress and as he looked at the drawings he poured himself some coffee and spilt a small amount over the edge of the cup. When he was asked whether or not he liked the project so far, he put his cup down on the centre of the Metro blueprints and left in silence. The bottom of the cup left a brown circle on the drawings. Interpreting this as a sign of Stalin’s genius, they gave orders for the building of the ring line, which on the plans has always subsequently been printed in brown.

Each line is identified by an alphanumeric index, a name, and a colour. On all lines, passengers can determine the direction of the train by the gender of the announcer: on the ring line, a male voice indicates clockwise travel, and a female voice counter-clockwise. On the radial lines, travellers heading toward the centre of Moscow will hear male-voiced announcements, and heading away will hear female-voiced announcements.  Clever.

So, with plans carefully made we purchased our tickets and took the escalator down in a journey to the centre of the earth and spent an unusual evening hopping on and off the trains as we ticked off the stations that we wanted to visit most.  After one stop on the orange line we joined the circle line at Prospekt Mira and followed the map to those we wanted to see.  Being underground we were immediately disorientated so I cannot be sure of the route we took or the order in which we saw them but these were our favourites:

Close to the Kremlin and Red Square Ploshchad Revolyutsii (Revolution Square) has a main hall with a series of marble-lined arches, decorated with seventy-six life size bronze statues each of which represents an ‘everyday hero’ from the revolution and the early Soviet state, workers, peasants, farmers, engineers, scholars, parents, sailors, soldiers and other proletarians who had a role in Russian history.

There is a legend that by rubbing the nose of the bronze dog of the Frontier Guard, you are guaranteed luck in passing an exam and this leads to a regular influx of students around the statue during the exams periods throughout the year. So, just in case I ever take another exam…

Ploshchad Revolyutsii (Revolution Square)

The trains come by every ninety seconds or so and soon we hopping on and off as though we had been doing it all of our lives.  We stopped at Mayakovskaya which won the Grand Prix for urban design in the New York World’s Fair in 1938 and with columns of marble and stainless steel is considered one of Moscow’s most beautiful.

Kievskaya built during a time of great famine, in the mid-1930s, the murals and mosaics depict idealized scenes of rosy-cheeked well-fed peasants enjoying the fruits of their labour.

The graceful Komsomolskaya with its yellow ceilings and bronze reliefs and then what I am prepared to declare my absolute favourite – Novoslobodskaya where stained-glass panels gave the impression of the interior of a cathedral but where ordinary people, factory workers, farmers, architects and painters, replace the Patriarchs and the Saints amid ornate flowers and stars.

We finished at Taganskaya decorated with fourteen large triangular majolica panels which include cameo portraits of heroes of the Red Army and intricate floral designs.

Curious as it may sound I am happy to confidently declare that the Moscow Metro was one of the highlights of the visit to Moscow providing a wonderful evening’s entertainment for just a few kopecs and so good we thought we might return the following evening and see a few more of the stations that we had missed tonight.

Park Pobedy Moscow Metro


Russia, Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral

St Basils Moscow

Like a lot of other people I suppose I used to believe that this was called Red Square because of the association with Communism but in fact the name has nothing to do with the link between the colour red and political philosophy or from the colour of the bricks of the buildings around it either.

Rather, the name came about because of the Russian word красная (krasnaya) which can mean either ‘red’ or ‘beautiful’. This word, using the meaning ‘beautiful’, was originally used to describe Saint Basil’s Cathedral and was subsequently applied to the nearby square, which incidentally isn’t even a square but rather more of an oblong!

Before moving on and just to finish this ‘red’ issue off, the association of red with communism is rooted in the general use of a red flag by European radicals and revolutionaries and was first of all used for this purpose by the Jacobins during the French Revolution. The obvious symbolism is that of blood and red flags and were used in medieval times to indicate that a castle, to the last man, would not surrender and later by pirates and others to indicate that when they won no one would be spared and blood would flow.  In the mid-nineteenth century the red flag was again raised to symbolise the 1848 revolutions in France and elsewhere in Europe and in 1871 the heirs to this French revolutionary tradition once more hoisted the flag at the Paris Commune.

Commune Red Flag

We had a couple of unsupervised spare hours now to amuse ourselves and with the sun beating down into the Square we decided that it was time to visit St. Basil’s Cathedral standing proudly in a riot of colour and shapes and resembling a penny confectionary tray in a child’s sweet shop and most accurately and delightfully described by the French diplomat and travel writer Marquis de Custine who wrote during his visit of 1839 that it combined “the scales of a golden fish, the enamelled skin of a serpent, the changeful hues of the lizard and the glossy rose and azure of the pigeon’s neck”.  It probably looked a bit different in 1839 but I like to think that I know what he meant.

The construction of the Cathedral was ordered by Ivan the Terrible to mark the 1552 capture of Kazan from Mongol forces. It was constructed by the builders Barma and Postnik Yakovlev and completed in 1560. There is a legend that upon completion, living up to his name and reputation, Ivan had them blinded so that they could not create anything to compare but I’ve heard that tale elsewhere about the Astronomical Clock in Prague and I didn’t believe that story either.

Religious and historical architects are unable to agree about the central idea behind the structure. Either the creators were paying homage to the churches of Jerusalem, or, by building eight churches around a central ninth (it is apparently normal to have five or thirteen domes in an Orthodox Church), they were representing the medieval symbol of the eight-pointed star but anyway what we see today would be unrecognisable to Barma and Postnik Yakovlev because the original building is buried deep within a labyrinth of later additions in the way of chapels, domes and covered galleries

For a time in the Soviet Union, there was talk of demolishing St. Basil’s – mainly because it hindered Stalin’s plans for massed parades on Red Square. It was only saved thanks to the courage of the architect Pyotr Baranovsky. When ordered to prepare the building for demolition, he categorically refused, and threatened to commit suicide on the steps of the cathedral.  The cathedral remained standing but Baranovsky’s theatrical conservation methods earned him five years in prison.

Red Square Parade

We paid the modest entry fee and followed the visitor route through the warren of tiny rooms with mosaics and religious artefacts on display and then climbed a spiral staircase in the centre of the building to a magnificent internal chapel with religious icons and symbols painted on towering columns that held up the roof and provided perfect acoustics for a choir to entertain and hopefully sell some CDs of Russian folk music.

There was a good view of Red Square from this elevated position and we walked around the gallery with its confusing collection or rooms leading off in random order and each with a tale to tell or a treasure to show off before reaching the exit and returning to the Square.

It was just after midday now so we returned to GUM (there is a good history at this web site link) and the restaurant No 57 CTOΛOBAЯ where we had lunch for a second time at the end of a gallery on the third floor and it amused me to think that we were sitting here in the historic heart of Moscow, the epicentre of Soviet era Russia, in a westernised shopping mall that represented everything that communism stood against: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’, a laudable but ultimately unachievable state of Utopia that could naturally be delivered without shops.  Lenin closed the mall and Stalin converted it into State administrative offices.  They must be spinning in their graves – well, Stalin maybe but not Lenin of course because we had seen him barely two hours ago laid out in his mausoleum in his own personal ‘groundhog day’ nightmare and patiently waiting for a spinning opportunity!

Lunch finished we returned to the Square to meet with Galina at Resurrection Gate from where we were going n the next stage of the visit – into the Kremlin.



Russia, Lenin’s Mausoleum

It was quite an early start this morning because our first visit of the day was to the Lenin Mausoleum in Red Square and we were warned that there was a strong possibility of long queues.

Since Perestroika fewer Russian people visit the permanently preserved body of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin lying in State in his glass coffin but there are still large visitor numbers every day which are swollen by several dozen coach loads of tourists because this is now a top Moscow visitor attraction.

It is only open for four days a week and the opening hours are short so if you get there too late then it is possible to line up for an hour or two and then reach the front of the queue only to coincide with closing time and be turned away so Galina was mindful of this when she hurried us from the coach and to the back of the queue lining up at the entrance to Red Square.

It wasn’t a long queue but the army guards on duty only allowed a few people through at a time and this was only to go through the first check point to get to a second three hundred metres in front.  This meant that progress was tediously slow and it was about now that we discovered that Russian people are equally as bad as French or Greeks when it comes to line discipline and waiting times didn’t really matter to them so we had to be on our guard to make sure people didn’t push in.

Eventually it was our turn to go through the gate in the metal fence and we made our way to the more rigorous checkpoint at the entrance to the mausoleum gardens.  Cameras and mobile phones are strictly forbidden because the authorities don’t want snapshots of Comrade Lenin turning up on the internet on WordPress Blogs or Trip Advisor reviews so they have to be left in a locker room and if anyone tries to defy this and is caught by the thorough security checks then there punishment is to be sent to the back of the queue!

Sticking to the rules we got through without incident and made our way through the gardens with their memorials and wall plaques commemorating the lives of previous Soviet leaders and heroes of the USSR and approached the mausoleum where there was a third and final check by army guards before being allowed to go through the entrance.

There was bright sunshine in Red Square but inside it was dark and gloomy so because of the contrast it took our eyes a while to adjust and this was rather dangerous because almost immediately we had to follow some black dogleg marble stairs down into the underground chamber where Lenin is lying in his glass tomb.

It is quite common of course for World leaders, heroes and famous people to lie in State in this way so that the public can pay their last respects but usually it is only for a few days or so until a proper funeral can be arranged but poor old Vladimir Ilyich Lenin has been on continuous display in this way for almost ninety years!

Exhibiting his body like this was totally against his wishes and those of his family but his successor Stalin overruled this and when he was satisfied that the preservation process had been successful arranged for him to go on permanent mawkish display with what I detected as “I’m a celebrity, get me out of here” sort of look on his troubled and chemically embalmed face.

Lenin Mausoleum

Queuing up like this to spend a few seconds looking at a mummified corpse might seem like a strange thing to do but I was fascinated to be able to do this and to be able to see for myself one of the men who shaped the twentieth century and the cold war world of my childhood – a world of spies and espionage, nuclear weapons, underground fallout shelters for the great and the good and the constant nagging fear of Armageddon.

Of course I wanted to see him, I’d go and see the preserved body of Adolf Hitler if someone hadn’t poured petrol on it and set it alight!

When Lenin died in January 1924 he was acclaimed as ‘the greatest genius of mankind’ and ‘the leader and teacher of the peoples of the whole world’.  Time Magazine named him one of the one hundred most important people of the twentieth century (Albert Einstein was first and Mahatma Ghandi and Theodore Roosevelt close runners up).

According to the article in Encyclopaedia Britannica: ‘If the Bolshevik Revolution is, as some people have called it, the most significant political event of the twentieth century, then Lenin must for good or ill be considered the century’s most significant political leader… he has been regarded as both the greatest revolutionary leader and revolutionary statesman in history, as well as the greatest revolutionary thinker since Marx’.

Lenin's Mausoleum

Russia chooses to continue to remember Lenin in this way where elsewhere the legacy is being systematically dismantled. During the Soviet period, many statues of Lenin  were erected across Eastern Europe but many of these have subsequently been removed.  Russian lawmakers from the ruling United Russia party and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) have agreed a proposal to remove all statues of Lenin from Russian cities, citing high maintenance costs and vandalism concerns as some of the main reasons. The proposal is being strongly opposed by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation.

Many places and entities were named in honour of Lenin. The city of Saint Petersburg, the site where both February and October revolutions started, was renamed Leningrad in 1924, four days after Lenin’s death but in 1991 after a contested vote between Communists and liberals, the Leningrad government reverted the city’s name to Saint Petersburg.

For a man responsible for the revolution and its legacy and the bloody elimination of the Romanovs he looked paradoxically rather gentle lying there with outstretched arms, one clenched in continuous communist defiance, in his black suit and favourite white spotted tie, his carefully groomed ginger beard and a slightly yellowing skin.

The body is removed every few months for running repairs, the application of more preservation chemicals and to be fitted up in a new suit.  There are rumours, stridently denied by the authorities, that this isn’t the body of Lenin at all and that the preservation process owes more to the technicians at Madame Tussauds than the skill of the laboratory embalmers but it would be impossible to do a detailed investigation or stop for a while and look for waxy evidence because if anyone pauses for even a moment there is a guard in the room who immediately instructs them to move on and this means that time in the chamber is no longer than a few seconds before ascending the stairs on the opposite side and emerging blinking back into the sunlight.

We left the mausoleum gardens and went back into Red Square and went to get our cameras.  This meant going back out of the security fencing and once I had retrieved our property was refused entry back inside without going through the queuing up and security process all over again all of which seemed a bit unnecessary but appeared rather dangerous to argue with the armed guards and thankfully it didn’t take too long.

Russia, Vodka and Arbatskaya

Russian Foreign Ministry Stalin's Seven Sisters

It didn’t take long to reach the Holiday Inn hotel which meant that we were a bit too early for room check-in but Galina stamped her feet and wagged her finger in an authoritarian sort of way and the prospect of an hours wait was reduced to a few minutes and very quickly we were allocated keys and soon we were in our room on the eighth floor with a good view of the surrounding area but with a locked down mini-bar which meant that I had to make an urgent visit to the mini-market next door.

Soon after this I joined some others from the tour and we walked to a nearby shopping centre with a modern supermarket complex where I thought it was time to purchase a small bottle of vodka.  Making a choice was difficult because there was a huge and confusing selection to choose from and rather like port wine in Portugal a massive range in prices from very cheap to very expensive.

I didn’t want something that would strip paint or anything from the top of the range connoisseur collection so I opted for a modestly priced bottle of ‘Russian Standard’ in a rather attractive bottle and much closer to the cheap end of the range than the expensive.

The Holiday Inn in Moscow was an immediate improvement on the Hotel Prybaltiyskaya in Saint-Petersburg but it was every bit as expensive and when one man on the tour paid £11 for a vodka and tonic that immediately ruled out a pre-dinner drink in the bar.  It was a good restaurant and the buffet dinner was excellent but we didn’t stay around chatting for very long because the plan now was to use the Metro to go back to the city and visit Arbatskaya Prospekt which is one of the oldest parts of the city and a popular place with tourists.  There was an optional organised tour available through the travel company but at £21 each this seemed rather expensive to us so we spent 50p each on a metro ticket instead and set off.


It was only a few stops on the metro and within fifteen minutes we were taking the escalator from Smolenskaya station back to street level and on to the pedestrianised main street lined with historic churches, timber houses and nineteenth century mansions all overshadowed by the nearby Foreign Ministry building, one of Stalin’s Gothic skyscrapers and the nearby Soviet apartment blocks built on New Arbat.

Arbatskaya was traditionally a place for professional, skilled artisans and intellectuals, scholars, poets, musicians and writers. Famous people who lived on this street include Alexander Pushkin, the composer Aleksandr Skyrabin, the novelist Andrei Bely and the radical free-thinker Aleksandr Herzen.

The street retains a bohemian atmosphere and style and on both sides squeezed in between the cafés and tourist shops are antique shops, quirky boutiques and book stalls all painted in pastel shades of blue, green, lemon and ochre. Every few metres or so there were street artists, buskers, dancers and entertainers and our visit coincided with what seemed to be a change of emphasis as the street traders who had been there all day were packing and making way for more and more impromptu entertainers.

Pushkin House Museum

We made a swift visit to the Pushkin House Museum which had an interesting exhibition of how Moscow may have looked before the Napoleonic occupation and great fire of 1812 and then we were enticed into a souvenir shop selling amber jewellery and Matryoshka dolls but not being in the mood for shopping even with the offer of 50% discount on everything we promised to come back sometime in the next two days.

The street is about one kilometre long and after we had walked three quarters of the way along we agreed that it was time to turn around and walk back to the metro station and return to the hotel.  The Moscow metro isn’t quite so easy to use as the one in Saint-Petersburg mostly because the city is reluctant to spoil its decorated stations with English place names so everything is in difficult to understand cyrillic Russian which is rather a challenge and so there is an element of ‘hit and hope’ when using it.

We got back safely enough though and walked from the station at Rizhskaya through a long concrete underpass lined with small underground shops and crowds of people making their way back and forth under the busy main road overhead.

On account of the prices we bypassed the bar on the way back to our room and before turning out the lights on a busy day sampled the ‘Russian Classic’ vodka in the Russian classic way of deep breaths and ‘down in one’ which was an interesting experience but I have to say that I would have preferred a gin and tonic!

Moscow Metro