Moscow in a Whirlwind
08.08.2013 - 10.08.2013 29 °C
Arriving in Moscow at 9am, some of us were really longing for a shower, while Josh and I decided to forego personal hygiene and be real backpackers for a day in order to just go straight into the city from our hostel.
Here's the thing: I'm pro-walking tours. A lot of people can't stand them because they'd rather explore a new city on their own. I think they both have their merit. I like walking tours, especially free ones.
I've done free walking tours in more European cities than I can count (probably around ten, though) and now one in Moscow. We only had two days here (plus a few hours on Saturday, but those went mostly towards checking out and train shopping) and a walking tour just makes it easier to get a sense of orientation in a new city. Plus, reading info in a guide book is great, but I don't absorb it as well as when someone actually tells me directly in front of a sight. And if I don't like the tour, I can always leave, or choose not to leave a tip. (This has never happened to me.)
The http://www.moscowfreetour.com-tour in Moscow was well worth the 2.5 hours and 250 roubles I decided to give them. Our tour guide, Irina, was enthusiastic, funny, very sweet and really knew her stuff, plus she greeted me in German, which is a nice touch. She cracked a few Putin jokes, told us little anecdotes about all the sights we visited, and was an all-around great guide. Even when her microphone gave up towards the end of the tour, we had no trouble understanding her. Also, she didn't aggressively push for tips, which is always a risk with these tours, just mentioned casually in the beginning that tips are great but it's up to us. Overall, the tour left me with a feel for this city, and a sense that I know more or less where everything is, as far as the city centre goes.
Aside from a few sights, the tour focussed on the Red Square, a large part of it was closed because they were erecting some structures - a stage? maybe some stands? - for a military music festival in September. One of the highlights there was definitely the GUM department store, an impressive 1893 building, which reopened after the death of Stalin in 1953. I had trouble understanding why people in the Soviet Union would queue for up to three hours to get in until I actually entered the building, probably the most beautiful shopping centre I've seen, with an enormous glass ceiling. It's celebrating it's 120th opening, and 60th reopening anniversary this year - "So, happy birthday, ja?" as Irina put it - and even though it's your run-of-the-mill luxury department store, it's definitely worth seeing.
However, Irina isn't the only one getting a shout-out here. Our Moscow honcho, Anastasia, thankfully turned out to be much better than the St Petersburg one. She could answer basically all our questions immediately and ended up spending all day with us (keeping the rest of the group company while we were on our tour). She gave us an impromptu tour of the most beautiful metro stops in Moscow when we asked, after we'd checked out St. Basil's Cathedral on the Red Square. The layout of it is actually quite weird, because it consists of numerous small rooms/chapels inside - there isn't one big open space like in most churches. Again, it was quite nice and cheap to get into - for me, as a student - but not the highlight of our trip.
Anastasia also helped us get tickets for the ballet. I have a feeling that going to a Tchaikovsky ballet in Moscow is like going to one of those Mozart and/or Strauß concerts that are being held for tourists in random palais in Vienna. Still, the others wanted to go, and I can't even remember the last time I went to a ballet. (I may have done so once or twice when I was a kid?) We saw the Nutcracker, which was pretty nice, very happy and colourful, and we had a good view on some extremely shapely male arses. I swear, ballet dancers male and female are nothing but bone and muscles.
Finally, I can really recommend the TripAdvisor City Guides app, which is great for offline maps and listings for large cities. It's no google maps, but you can find a lot of tourist-relevant places (hostels, sights, resturants), save them as favourites, and then see your own position on the map even without data turned on. This is basically what got us home quickly after a few beers in the pedestrian street behind the Bolshoi.