With an air of anticipation and excitement we landed in Moscow, the departure city for our “Waterways of the Tsars” Viking River Cruise. The warm spring temperatures, brilliant blue skies, and extended daylight hours of mid-June—referred to as White Nights—enhanced our first visit to the Russian capital.
While most theorists agree that the name Moscow derives from the Moskva River, our Viking guide suggested an alternate romantic theory. He claimed the original name came from Prince Musco and his reportedly cherished and beautiful wife, Via; ergo, Muscovia. Although this version is of little historical credence, whichever is correct, there is no disputing the fact that Moscow has had a storied past of wars, plagues, famines, and fires since its recognized official founding in 1147 by Russian Prince Yury Dolgoruky.
Moscow’s prominence really began with Dolgoruky’s building of the Kremlin in 1150. Kremlin means fortress in Russian, and the original construction was wood, a readily obtainable material gathered from the surrounding forests. Wood was an abundant resource and was used to construct buildings and bridges; even roads were timber-laid, making the city extremely vulnerable to fire. On many occasions Moscow was burned to the ground and rebuilt, which may account for its lack of an “old town” feeling.
Moscow appears to be a no-nonsense city where one neighbourhood is distinguished from another only by the way that its ubiquitous mid-rise apartment blocks are maintained. It’s a city of massive buildings with broad open spaces and a surprising number of landscaped parks and green areas. Stalinist-era monumental buildings are the norm, with skyscrapers only recently coming into fashion; Svetlana, our guide, proudly pointed out the group of five shining new towers that line the river.
Due to apparently endless open space, the grey soviet style five-story blocks of apartment buildings spread out from the center like a spider’s web. Farther out in a circular pattern are newer residential areas sprouting up, thankfully with more stylish architecture.
Moscow is considered the largest city in the world at 965 square miles, housing 12.5 million people—15 million when including the suburbs. It is the capital of the country and the center of culture, industry, politics, education, science, and sports. According to Svetlana, everything in Moscow is “the best, the biggest, the greatest.” Her civic pride punctuated almost every sentence.
Moscow’s Famous Metro
Having experienced subways all over the world, I was anxious to visit the highly touted Moscow Metro, where our tour began. It was a herculean task for Svetlana to navigate a group of ogling tourists into the rapid transit system which transports over 8-million passengers per day. The metro opened in 1935 with 13 stations; there are currently 214 with many more in the planning stage to extend into the burgeoning suburbs.
Unless you know where the Metro entrances are it’s difficult to find them as the only designation appears to be an “M” on the facade of one of the massive buildings. Once safely inside, thanks to Svetlana counting noses, we began the long, long, long ride down to the subway level. Apparently the Aeroport Station on the Green Line is not only the deepest but also one of the most decorated. The ride takes many minutes on a high-speed escalator so steep and deep you can’t see the bottom.
No expense was spared to make the Moscow Metro the most beautiful in the world. At Aeroport Station, seven different colours of marble and stone from the Ural Mountains line the walls, and at every arched entrance to the trains are stunning heroic bronze sculptures. One of the bronzes is of a soldier holding a gun so realistic that the barrel is worn shinny and bright from so many passing Muscovites trying to remove it.
The trains run frequently and we successfully navigated as a group to travel to Mayakovskaya Station, decorated with amazing ceiling mosaics depicting historical events. Our final stop was Teatralnaya Station, which led us out right into the center of the city, within walking distance of Red Square, the Bolshoi Theatre, St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Kremlin, and the famous department store Gum, pronounced “Goom.”
The Kremlin is considered the heart of the city. Rebuilt of crenellated red brick with 20 towers and 19 spires at the end of the 15thcentury, it remains an imposing complex of offices of state, palaces, and gold-domed churches. The Cathedral of the Annunciation alone has nine golden domes.
There are museums and monasteries to visit, bridges to cross, gold-domed churches galore to photograph against an unbelievably clear blue sky, and people to meet… people just like us.
For information on Viking River Cruises, visit www.vikingrivercruises.com
Barbara Angelakis is a seasoned international traveler and award-winning writer based in the New York City area. To read more of her articles and adventures visit LuxuryWeb Magazine at www.luxuryweb.com.