Monday, September 20, 2010

Russia, last day

Subtitled: Kremlin crawl, changing of the guard groupie, underground strings and the tears that they bring

Last full day in Moscow dawned again bright and sunny, and blissfully remained so all day. We were in and out of doors for most of the day. I started the day off as I did yesterday, with the massive breakfast buffet, learning it is better to stick with the mixed berry granola, and a cappuccino at my local Starbucks. Irina showed up right at 9:30 and we walked to the Kremlin for our pre-assigned entrance time of 10:00.

I thanked Irina profusely for the recommendation of last night’s dinner and said that I was contemplating a return tonight. She shook her head and said “ah, no, you leave it be; you cannot repeat perfection.” And she promised to come up with something good for me tonight.

I should preface my telling of the Kremlin tour by saying the Kremlin is not Red Square. It is where the president works first and foremost, so security is tight and very strict. It is not free and open to the public at any old time. There are permitted entry hours and you can book ahead. You also have to go through quite a few metal detectors. We waited in line sandwiched between two elderly tour groups and I silently thanked the travel gods for gently nudging me in the direction of MIR. Bullet dodged there!

Our first stop in the Kremlin was the Armory. This was a fanciful trip through the history of Russia’s tsars and emperors, where they had collections of silver, ostentatious gifts from other countries, original carriages that they used. You can tell with my rather brief description that, while I did enjoy seeing it, it was not the highlight of the visit. What I enjoyed quite a bit more were the dresses worn by Catherine the Great and Alexandra, the last Romanov tsarina. Catherine’s in particular were particularly noteworth because those she wore when she had just come from Germany had about a 12 inch waist (not kidding!) and after 20 years of Russian cooking and good living, well, it was quite a bit bigger. The other part of the collection that was just beautiful was the Faberge egg collection. There are so few in the world (I believe 36?) and about a half dozen are here; the rest are in private collections. They were stunning. That’s all I can say about them without using every other insufficient superlative in my vocabulary.

An unexpected side trip in the Kremlin occurred when Irina got access for me into the Diamond Fund, which ordinarily has to be booked ahead. This is a vault deep under the Kremlin that houses, among other things, the crown jewels. She felt it was important that I see them since I’ve seen Great Britain’s and they are compared to those and the Shah’s Jewels in Iran. Since it was timed entry, there were maybe 20 people total in both rooms. After getting buzzed through two vault doors by security guys who looked like Secret Service, I found myself in the first room which held uncut and cut gems that are part of the collection, not in any particular jewelry settings. It was almost unbelievable that these were actually real because they were so big. Any gem you can imagine was here in one way shape or form: emeralds as big as a plum, gorgeous smoky quartz, rubies, diamonds, sapphires, amethysts, lapis, jade, opal, pearl…it was endless. This room also contains jewels set into pins, tiaras, brooches in the last 20 years or so, but those are only for exhibition and no one wears them.

The Emperor’s Crown though, and the scepter and orb, were just incredible. It was so hard to comprehend they were real. I cannot even begin to describe how blinding the diamonds were, how beautiful the Orlov diamond on the tip of the scepter was. And I got to stand there by myself and just admire. It was surreal. (In London you get whisked by the crown jewels on a moving staircase and cannot get so close or spend any time admiring them).

After the Armory tour, we walked along the Kremlin walls and found Cathedral Square, so named for the several churches that border it. (I learned that they call their churches cathedrals if they have an iconostasis separating the worshippers from the altar. If there is no iconostasis, it is just a chapel, and usually only has one dome.) There was only one church I had my heart set on getting into, and it was the one that is on the cover of my guidebook. I was anxious to see if I’d have to ask to go or if that was on the itinerary; surely we would not visit all 7 churches. I was thrilled to discover that Assumption Cathedral was the first we were to visit, and that was my church. The exterior of the church is pretty unassuming: mostly white with a few golden domes. But inside, the frescos are floor to ceiling, wall to wall and they are exceptional. On top of that it has one of the most impressive iconostasis that I’ve ever seen (not that I’ve seen many ever, but I’ve seen quite a few this week). Taking it all in was almost sensory overload but still very impressive. I was thrilled. Irina said that this is “pretty typical” of Russian Orthodox church, which seems like a lot of work to me given how many churches there are, but it’s an interesting fact.

We walked the rest of the Kremlin area and she took me into one more church only to show me the special exhibition of Lalique glass that was there. That was pretty interesting and nice that she thought that I would like to do that.

I was growing weary as by now it was nearly 1:45 and it had been a long time since the fuel from breakfast was running out. So we walked to GUM and went upstairs to their food court (which, thankfully, is a far cry from the food court in the malls at home). She suggested an “Asian” place but I sort of balked at it. Then I realized that their idea of Asian is actually Turkish, not Japanese or Chinese like I expected. So I had what she had: mutton on a spicy rice pilaf with tomato and onion and I ordered a side of Russian potato salad, which was pretty much like ours.

Fully refortified, we headed back out and did the rest of the tour of Red Square. There wasn’t much I didn’t already know about it, so it was a brief pass through and she left me at the Historical Museum, which we agreed I would see on my own. This was the end of my time with Irina, and she hugged me and thanked me. She said that clients like me are the reason she keeps doing this; it was a pleasure for her to show someone so mentally and emotionally invested what her country is all about. I think Mom and Dad would be proud, because both of my guides said this about me. It’s sort of like bringing home a report card that says “Amy is a joy to have in class.” But really, it is just my natural inquisitiveness and passion to learn. I asked Irina for her address because I want to send her the book Make Way for Ducklings, since she showed me those statues yesterday and had never read the book.

Anyway, I did go through the History museum, but without a guide it is sort of useless. None of the exhibit labels are in English. Some of the rooms have one card explaining everything in every case in the room, but it’s tied to the wall, so visitors can’t walk around the room with it. I considered it a wash and left after the second floor. If you’re vaguely interested, it seemed to trace the history of Russia back to Paleolithic times; I am not kidding, there were displays of rock from thousands of years B.C.!

One of the things we passed by earlier in the day was the eternal flame which is in Alexander Garden and commemorates all who have fallen while serving the country. It is guarded by three guards, two of whom do not move an inch the entire hour they are on duty. At the top of every hour, they change guards. Irina suggested that I come back for that later in the day, as it had just happened when we were strolling by.

So at 4:00 I was there, in the spot Irina said was best. At about 10 of 4:00, the main guard comes out from near his guardhouse and inspects the two on either side of the eternal flame. Then he returns to the guardhouse and from way down the path on the right, three freshly rested guards come goose-stepping down the long path. I will tell you, the silence when they approach is deafening. And seeing them march gave me chills. The sound of their feet hitting the pavement just resonates in you. They swap out the two immobile guards, who then goose-step back the way the new guards came. In all, it takes about 6 minutes total. Not like in London where there are bands and a parade, more like Arlington National Cemetery where it is subdued and serious. But I was hooked. It’s sort of an adrenalin rush for me to see them approaching that way. And I noticed that when the old guards retire, they go first to the flame and pay respects, turn and face front and center toward the crowd, then goose-step off. Oh yeah, I decided right then that I was coming back, front and center.

So left to my own devices then for an hour, I went shopping because while I didn’t want a Faberge egg before I saw them, now I did. Fortunately I only had to look in two shops in GUM before I found the replica of the one I liked in the Kremlin collection. And feeling a bit peckish, I stopped at a blini shop and had a blini filled with chocolate. Sigh.

I was back and in my appointed spot at 4:50. I saw the first inspection of the outgoing guard. I also made friends with two older Canadian businessmen while we were waiting. I managed to give them the skinny on what they needed to see in the 6 hours they had before they were jetting off to St. Petersburg, but I convinced them that they needed to stay 5 minutes to see what was about to happen. And the changing of the guard happened again, just as before, and I snapped a marvelous photo of it when the guards turned forward. Just awesome.

So at 5:00 I headed back to the hotel and scoped out the restaurant that Irina suggested, a Russian place called Kitezh. It was less than a block from the hotel, so I went back to change and spent some time organizing my bags for tomorrow. It turns out I am in better shape than I thought and shouldn’t kill my driver tomorrow (or leave him with a hernia) the way I’ve redistributed my loot between suitcase and carry-on.

Dinner at Kitezh was nice. It was not nearly as good, or as expensive, as last night’s meal, but this was really a great way to end my trip. The d├ęcor is old Russia, very rustic with thick wooden tables and farmhouse style walls and ceilings. The waitstaff all wear linen rustic “costumes” which were sort of cute. I started with a glass of kvass, which is a non-alcoholic drink made from fermented bread. It tasted like an apple cider but not as sweet and not like apples, if that makes sense. I decided the rest of the meal would be a greatest hits experience from this trip, so I had salmon caviar, again, and beef stroganoff, again. I know, not terribly creative and not daring (there was bear, moose, bunny and deer on the menu, but come on now!) but I wanted a meal I would savor and enjoy, and who knows how long it will be until I have either of those again. Dessert was the “Kitezh fruit roll” which on its face sounds a bit non-specific. It turns out it is like a jelly roll with sour cream (bless their hearts) and strawberry and kiwi in it. With espresso and a glass of wine, the bill was 1640 ruples, or about $55 plus tip.

I decided to end my stay where I started it, at Red Square. The sun had just gone down and I made my way through the underpass the gets pedestrians across the 8 lane thoroughfare separating the neighborhood my hotel is in from Red Square. I was not even halfway through the underpass when I heard the string octet. I had heard them several times during my stay in Moscow but somehow never seen them. Tonight they were right where I would pass them twice. And twice, I stood and listened, for just one more. Again, and again. They grabbed me with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, kept me with Beethoven and some Mozart. Once I empted my change into their hat. A second time I threw them some bills. But Vivaldi started the emotions rolling and I realized that this was it. Tomorrow at this time I will be closer to home than I am to here. These 8 guys and girls in torn jeans, baseball caps and sneakers, all playing classical music’s greatest hits, will be here when I’m not. And that really overwhelmed me.

But I shook off the tears and continued my way back to Red Square, and realized it was 7:50, 10 minutes before the last changing of the guard. You guessed it, I went back. I wanted to see what happens at the end of the day. Long story short, the flame is brighter in the twilight and all the guards go home for the day. So in that sense it is very unlike Arlington National Cemetery, where they guard that tomb day and night.

I took one more long lap around Red Square, taking mental pictures this time more so than digital pictures. It was a long, drawn out goodbye, but I figured I’d waited so long to get here, I needed to leave when I was ready.

Back here in the hotel in the rock hard bed, I am extremely thankful for these 10 days. They far exceeded my expectations and my dreams. There is not one single thing I would have wanted to be different. Now I just want to hug my family and my boy and sleep in my own bed tomorrow night. With a mere 17 hours of travel between now and then, I bid Rossiya a fond “do svidanya”!

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