Moscow: Red Cobbles, Red Walls, Red skin

Trip Start Aug 01, 2009
Trip End Nov 08, 2009

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Flag of Russian Federation  , Central Russia,
Monday, August 31, 2009

The name Red Square has nothing to do with the chosen colour of the Communists... I never knew that!  I always assumed that it just went naturally with the Red Army!  But I learned, as I wandered around this area which is the very heart of Moscow, that its real name translated as 'Beautiful Square' but that, as the original cobbles were red, it morphed into its current form.  I got quite a thrill just to think to myself that I was standing on the cobbles which, from their early days as a market space went on to act as backdrop to all those scenes, familiar from television screens, of military parades and rolling tanks.  Entering through Resurrection Gate, St Basil's is visible through the arches, and Lenin's Mausoleum in the shadow of the Kremlin's walls, with the impressive bulk of the State History Museum to one side. 

   Inextricably linked with Red Square in my mind were St Basil's Cathedral, with its famous 'onion' domes, and the Kremlin, and I had a good look at both as I ambled around the square- one was exactly as expected: the riot of colours, patterns and shapes make its domes instantly recognisable; the other surprised me totally - I suppose I never really knew just what the Kremlin was, and assumed it to be simply the building where 'the Party' were based - but far from it: it is, in fact a walled citadel which has existed in one form or another since the 12th century.  It certainly was the base for the Soviet dictatorship, but only after hosting Ivan the Terrible, serving as centre of the Orthodox Church, and failing to hold back Napolean's troops.  The presidents offices are housed within the red walls, but are visually secondary to the four cathedrals dating from as far back as the 1320s, and offering a range of interiors from faded murals to elaborate icons, as well as stunning golden domes. 


There was a further display of gold and other objects of great value in the Armoury, where I studied Tsars' crowns, ludicrous jewellery, faberge eggs, thrones, coronation costumes, carriages and sledges, and armour through the ages.  It was all very interesting but now, with a list of Russian cathedrals and museums under my belt, I'm quite looking forward to my imminent thirty hour train journey, to give my brain a rest... there's only so much information I can take in and, right now, I'm overflowing!

   After a few hours of sightseeing, as well as my head, my feet also needed a rest and I fancied a lie-down.  An hour or two on my bunk seemed sensible until I read, as I scoffed my baked spud with salty cheese and dill, about the Sandunskaya Baths, a very old and traditional public bath house in the city centre, and, remembering the relaxation of my Finnish sauna, I thought this would be far more enjoyable than a nap on a bed. 

I strolled along, following the map, struggling to decipher street names in Cyrillic script, and passing the street of pricey, designer shops, apparently popular with the 'New Russians' (ie the young rich), glancing at expensive outfits on skinny manequins.  This only heightened the contrast when I arrived in the elegant changing area for the baths, to find myself surrounded by mainly late middle-aged and extremely large local ladies!  I was shown to my place, a numbered seat on a brown leather seat for four, facing the same to create a seating area for eight.  I rented a towel and entered the large communal shower room to rinse off before braving the sauna, crammed with a huddle of women dressed in nothing but felt hats, sitting on benches on a wooden slatted floor above the wood furnace-heated stones.  I actually gasped as the heat hit me and had top cover my nose and eyes with my towel to block the punch of the air.  I like hot... I like really hot... but this was the kind of heat I had only associated with biblical descriptions of hell!  I squeezed my bum onto a bench and looked totally baffled as the woman beside me began pointing at her head, whilst babbling in a language of which I had only yet learned one meagre word.  I needed a hat, it seemed, though I have no idea why: a hat in cold air to keep in the heat - comprendo; a hat in a place hotter than conceivable? - no comprendo.  The woman was determined and rearranged my towel from under me, wrapping it round my hair, so that my acclimatising thighs burned on the wooden bench.  She smiled - all was well!

A few minutes and a cold rinse later, we met again, as I gasped again, this time at the opposite heat extreme of the plunge pool.  God it was cold!  These women are tough - they showed no visible sign of registering the numbing temperature, and as my new friend demonstrated how I should hold my nose and sink my head below the surface, and I used body language to communicate how little I wanted to do so in this icy pool, the assembled heads burst into laughter.  Eventually I summoned up the nerve to duck, much to the locals' appreciation - I got the feeling they would not have let me emerge from the water until I proved myself!

Three times I put myself through this sequence, watching my skin turn redder and redder, before I surrendered, deciding that it was more traumatic and exhausting than relaxing.  I retired to the resting area to slump on my chair and wait for my limbs to lose their jelly-ness.  It took a while. Finnish saunas win, Paivi! 

Unable to find the strength to walk back to my hostel, I fought the bewildering metro map and took the train.  Taking the metro in Moscow for the first time can delay a journey somewhat: while the trains are as noisy and crowded and bumpy as in London, the stations are decorated in a grand style, all different, but all equally impressive, and when I changed lines I felt the need to wander around instead of simply jumping to another platform.  But, metro trips are over with now, as I head off to the overland station for my long ride to Ekaterinburg.   

P.S. The whole 'Does my bum look big in this?' question is very satisfying when the 'this' under discussion is a Moscow bathhouse!   I felt miniscule in the assembled company!

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Where I stayed
Napolean Hostel
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