IF there’s one thing the Russians are good at, it’s opulence – that, and drinking vodka by the bucketload.
That’s why getting lost in Moscow is no great chore, bar struggling to understand the Cyrillic alphabet, because beauty is everywhere. Around every street corner sits another striking domed citadel, over-powering monument depicting a particular political figure or jaw-dropping cataclysm of architecture waiting to be discovered.
Here, decadence can be found in the most unlikely of places, with even the shabbiest of buildings hiding a haven of elaborate baroque décor, high stucco ceilings, sculptures and walls coated in rich-coloured murals and paintings. And the extravagance extends underground to Moscow’s sprawling metro system.
Rumbling deep in the capital’s belly, sits Stalin’s present to the people. Made up of a maze
of gently arched tunnels, reflective marble floors, grand columns, intricately tiled mosaics covering the stretching ceilings, shimmering chandeliers and bronze statues, this is no ordinary tube system, it’s an underground museum.
Stunning these things may be but they are just the tip of Moscow’s towering ice-berg of architectural delights and pale in comparison next to the breath-taking landscape that sits above ground on the fringes of the Red Square.
Stepping onto the historic cobbled stones, where much of Russia’s turbulent and brutal
history has been played out, is a bit like stepping onto the set of a fairytale. At one end sits the Kazan Cathedral; a bulbous building coated in gold, red, mint and cream. Next to it, the State History Museum looms, its snow-capped spires and twisting turrets piercing the sky.
The Kremlin Wall dominates the length of the square, its towering red bricks, broken only by the cold slabs of Lenin’s Mausoleum, hiding the Kremlin – a fortified city and home to the country’s
political centre that takes in four palaces and four citadels filled with an extensive collection of murals, icons and Faberge eggs.
But it’s the iconic St Basil’s Cathedral with its almost edible architecture and giant multi-coloured onion domes that hog the limelight. Standing in all its splendour and resembling something out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it’s easy to believe the urban legend that its creator, Ivan the Terrible, had the architects’ eyes gauged out so they couldn’t duplicate it.
Built between 1555 and 1561 and designed to resemble flames licking the sky, the striking structure offers an even more dazzling confusion of colours and grandeur inside. Linked together by a network of narrow tunnels are nine main chapels and a series of secret rooms and hidden nooks and crannies where ancient icons adorn the walls.
Sitting comfortably alongside historical Moscow is an exploding contemporary culture and a pounding heart where ultra-chic restaurants, bohemian art cafes, underground clubs, glitzy cocktail bars, designer boutiques on Bond Street’s Russian rival, Stoleshnikov Lane, and huge outdoor markets keep Muscovites occupied around the clock.
These inspiring surroundings have attracted a fresh wave of artistic minds, with hundreds of hip galleries opening up across the city. But you don’t have to be a lover of the arts to appreciate the Pushkin Fine Art Museum, Bolshoi Theatre, State Tretyakov Gallery or any of the other many world-class venues that call Moscow home.
Moscow is an intriguing city of contrasts, where communism sits next to capitalism; old next to new; rich next to poor; historical next to contemporary, and it’s a city that is rapidly on the rise.
The spluttering, beaten and battered Ladas that choked the city’s streets on my first visit a decade ago have been replaced with shiny BMWs, Mercedes and Audis, prices have spiralled, making it one of the most expensive cities in the world, and the glamorous, fur-clad Muscovites are flashing more bling than ever before.
If there was ever a time to visit Moscow, it’s now.