This is part two of the same trip (because I can’t deal with the massive image galleries). If you’re interested, read St. Petersburg, Russia 2016 first.
I loved, loved, loved St. Petersburg. Every day I passed fascinating-looking places that I wished I had more time to explore, but by the time I got to Moscow, I was exhausted. I’d been spending 12-14 hours/day walking by myself, cramming in as much as I could, and I was a little ready to collapse, so excited as I was to see Moscow, I spent the first few days mostly catching up on email while holed up in the hotel or the dark back of the theater where David was in tech.
The first night, we were both desperate to do laundry, which was not easy at the hotel for some reason, so David had struck a deal with a wardrobe person at the theater. He carried over our enormous duffel bag of dirty clothes, but he couldn’t connect with the person he needed to until pretty late in the day. At the end of tech, the (English) director and (friend of David’s from back home) lighting designer invited us to dinner. David told me to walk ahead with them while he returned the laundry to our hotel, and then he’d catch up with us. Otherwise our laundry would have gotten locked in the theater over night. Neither of us had local cell phone service, but there was wifi in the hotel, and the lighting designer had bought a local plan, so he could send the info.
We walked about 15 minutes to an incredibly fancy restaurant called the Bolshoi and texted David where we were. We told the staff we were waiting on a fourth person, saved him a seat and place setting, and kept a menu for him. He didn’t show up. After a while we ordered without him, and we wound up eating our whole meal—appetizers, entrees, and dessert. Eventually he texted that he was there and couldn’t get in, and I ran outside, but by the time I did, he was gone. He’d made it to the right restaurant immediately, and the guard at the door wouldn’t let him in, saying they were closed! David didn’t speak and Russian, the guy didn’t speak any English, and nobody had tipped the doorman that we were holding a fourth spot expecting him. David even tried knocking on the windows, but we never heard it, and they never let him in. Even though the restaurant had free wifi, he couldn’t get on it to contact us, so he walked back to the hotel and gave up. The meal was the nicest I’d had since entering the country, actually even quite nice by New York standards, and cheaper than it’s quality at about $60 each, but I was pretty sad that David and I were finally reunited after three weeks apart, and we spent our first night in the same city separately, me eating a luxurious meal without him and him frustratingly traipsing the city in vain.
The next day there was a press call. About 30 media outlets showed up to check out the rehearsal. Mostly they wanted to talk to the director and film the actors, but David did an interview with a national kids television network called Carousel. I sat on my computer in the back of the theater, reminding myself that I’d come to see David as much as to see Moscow and that I really did need to catch up on all the work I’d been neglecting. Oh yeah, even though I’d been able to connect to the network, I’d never gotten my computer to connect to the Internet in St. Petersburg. When the same thing happened in Moscow, I searched it on my phone and found a solution that worked immediately. In any case, I had plenty to do, but I was still pretty annoyed to spend two days sitting in a theater instead of out being a tourist, even though it was totally my choice.
David had discovered that one of the translators had a circus connection, and he’s already introduced us by email, but when we met in person, Boris contacted someone at the Nikulin circus and made arrangements to bring me there for a tour. He was going to take me himself, since the contact didn’t speak English. I felt pretty guilty since he was already working such long hours on Cinderella, but he insisted, and I was super grateful. He didn’t get a break till late, and we ran out of the theater to the subway, but he called them on the way and learned that we were too late; the circus was done with rehearsals for the day and there wouldn’t be much to see. Drat! So we were about to turn around and head back into the theater, when Boris said, “oh well, since we have an hour anyway, would you like me to show you around?” Hells yeah I did!
He proceeded to give me a whirlwind walking tour of many of Moscow’s major sites, with background information on city politics, the Russian orthodox church, and lots of other fascinating tidbits, both personal and public. He pointed out City Hall, nutty propaganda type signs (it said something like “Soviet federation of the federal assembly of the Russian Federation”), the former KGB headquarters, the Bolshoi, the Hotel Metropol, the main street Tverskaya, the State Historical Museum, the GUM department store, and of course, Red Square, the Kremlin, Lenin’s tomb, and St. Basil’s cathedral. He explained the difference between the ecumenical churches that allow you to sit and the Russian orthodox churches that require parishioners to stand. He reassured me that the people wearing uniforms that said “Tourist Police” were signalling that they spoke at least one foreign language, not that they were just there to get me. It was fantastic. On the way back, we stopped in a department store with a gorgeous beaux arts interior, where he wanted to buy some classic Russian candies to give to the foreigners back at the theater, and I wanted advice on non-chocolate candy for my sister. I wound up buying a gingerbread, which I’d also read about and wanted to try, but decided not to get anything for my sister till it was closer to time to go home. I paid for both, which surprised him, but he’d given me such a great tour! I assured him, I’d hand the Russian candies back to him so he could hand them out back at the theater, which he did. They were sort of like fudge only not chocolate and even sweeter if that’s possible. I definitely wanted to get them for my sister but never found them again.
The next day, Boris and I raced to the Nikulin at lunch instead of waiting till dinner break. We were met there by a manager named Mikhail, who gave us a tour in Russian that Boris translated. We saw the lobby displays on Yuri Nikulin, the ring, the rehearsals in progress, the stables, and everything. It was great, and I was profoundly grateful to them both. After that I kind of gave up on seeing circus stuff and never made it to the big circus building or to the circus school. Next time.
After our tour, Boris raced back to the theater, but I hopped on the subway to the Kitai Gorod district. The name literally means Chinatown, but it’s never had a significant Chinese presence. I heard a few different explanations for the name, but who knows. Anyway, I went for the amazing concentration of mostly seventeenth century churches. I might have visited a dozen. Each had a tiny, old woman attendant with a headscarf and apron or penny and a gift shop, but beyond that some had fantastic onion domes, some had fascinating relics, and many had amazing frescoes and iconostases. They were mostly empty, but definitely still in use, with dotted worshipers throughout. Many posted signs asking visitors not to take photos, so I didn’t.
It’s been two months since I got home, and I will never finish this if I don’t start taking some short cuts, so here’s a quick list from my notes:
- Church of All Saints: tiny and full of gold, incense, and people lighting candles at various saints’ altars. It had an old chandelier with electric candles that looked like candy canes. One woman knelt with her head touching the floor.
- Church of the Trinity in Nikitniki: amazing exterior, only tiny lower chapel open. Gold framed saints, bronze (?) chandelier, bare white walls join at the top.
- Church of St. George: icons, frescoes, exterior of blue cupolas with gold stars.
- Museum chambers of the Boyars Romanov: I paid about $5 to enter this museum even though I hadn’t figured out what it was. I saw a few rooms, and then exited to a trash bin full of booties, so I tore mine off, disappointed that the whole visit had only taken five minutes. But wait! The docent came running up to me with a new pair of booties. Although the path led by an exit, there were several more floors to see, and I actually loved this former mansion showing the 16th and 17th century furnishings and explaining the lifestyle of its former occupants, among them the first tsar of the Romanov dynasty. Best parts included mica windows, ornate stoves, a joinery loom, and separate parts of the house for men and women.
- World’s tiniest gift shop cafe: I stepped off the sidewalk through one door into a vestibule only as deep and as wide as that door. It opened onto two other doors. On my right was a bakery, and in front of me was a tiny church gift shop. The vestibule of doors made it great.
- Cathedral of the Sign: Passed it, but didn’t go in. Signage was too confusing, it was surrounded by construction, and I couldn’t tell where the entrance was, but it looked like it was down a steep staircase and behind the street. By the time you go, maybe the renovations will be complete and it will be awesome.
- Church of St Maxim: where the holy fool Maxim is buried. Tall bare walls lead to vaulted painted ceiling.
- English Court: skipped. Didn’t feel like walking down an alley behind the street to see an attraction that the book said well, maybe English tourists might be interested.
- St Barbara’s Church: paneled dome ceiling
- Gostiny Dvor: giant merchant arcade, but the main room was closed. Looked like maybe they were loading in a show. I kept trying different entrances, but they just let to hallways of offices and shops. I never found a way into the great hall. One of the little shops was pretty great for its variety and randomness. It sold lots of merch with Putin pictures and sayings on it, nestling dolls, chandeliers, oil paintings, body piercing jewelry, pool cues and cases, painted boxes, vape supplies, and magnets. I think it also had a chair for piercing/tattooing, but nobody was working there at the time.
- Church I can’t figure out what it’s called: Temple Prophet God Pani on Novgorod
- GUM: Walked by but not in this giant Soviet-era department store.
- Forest Wonder wild meats: Street vendor was selling cans of this delicious-sounding treat.
Subway trains come every 90 seconds, do I took a few trains to various stops just to check out the platforms. Stops are very deep (they double as bomb shelters), perfectly clean, and very far apart.
By the time I got back, a small festival had appeared in the park in front of the theater. I watched a band for a while. A few people danced. I tried to get pilaf but couldn’t for some reason I don’t remember. I tried to get into the theater but couldn’t because it was first preview, so security had popped up and was only admitting ticket holders. The guard at the stage door wouldn’t let me in even when I translated various pleas on my phone and refused to contact any of the producers whose names I showed him. Luckily, David walked up with the director and lighting designer before I got too frustrated, and I enjoyed the first preview. I was very surprised how little it mattered that I couldn’t understand a word of the show. It was beautiful, and I got the idea. Plus, I’d read the script.
Saturday I took a bus to Gorky Park. It was huge, and I was under-dressed for the cold. On the bus I passed a few of the Seven Sisters, which all look like squashed Empire State Buildings or giant old Sears stores. As the bus approached I could see a humongous nutty pirate ship, which turned out to be a controversial and relatively new monument of Peter the Great made from an old Christopher Columbus statue with a new head plopped on. I passed the Central House of Artists and the Park of Arts Muzeon, but mostly just wandered through the park, first along the river where even toddlers cruised on pedal-less bicycles, and then back through art that seemed to be grouped by subject matter: nude women, people in groups, giant Gorkys. I passed back over the main road to the other side of the park, which was completely different. I got some kind of wrap sandwich and sat and watched a fountain programmed to recorded music. Then I tried to find the modern art museum called the Garage, but I got too frustrated following signs that I swear kept pointing me to the wrong building. At the library, I picked up a brochure on current exhibitions, and by the time I found the main museum building, I’d decided there was nothing I wanted to see, but I did enjoy the lobby, where I took off my shoes, curled up in a comfy chair, watched kids playing on a slack line with a rope overhead to hold onto, and caught up on email and texts. Afterwards I went back to the theater for another Cinderella preview. Apparently I didn’t keep track of all the places we went out after shows.
On Sunday, David agreed to come out with me for a few hours, even though the crew was threatening to call him back into the theater. As soon as we started walking, I made him turn into a tiny church we’d passed all the time, just so he could see the interior. I hadn’t been in it either, but by now I was getting an appreciation for the Russian orthodox style. Only this one surprised me too because it was full of people! It was Sunday, and while every church I’d been in all week had been empty, today they were all full. Now remember, the churches don’t have seats, so we wove through crowds, standing to pray to different icons. It was such a different feeling from an American church. People chatted and kids ran around and played underfoot while other people kissed icons, chanted, or kneelt to touch their heads to the ground. A few blocks later, we turned into what we thought was another church, but it turned out to be a complex of several churches, or as David put it, a church mall, with old stone walls, a cylindrical tower, and a set of bells that you could ring. We ignored a sign on the door of one building (because we don’t read Russian) and interrupted a priest presiding over one family in a ceremony we couldn’t interpret fast enough as we apologetically closed the door back up. Across the street was a courtyard filled with large sculptures of modern art. We walked from there to the Moscow Art Theater because across the street was a factory store where I wanted to buy some classic Russian shawls for presents. I’d been told the store was nextdoor to the hidden bar, which seemed like a strange marker until I saw a big sign saying, “Hidden Bar.” The woman in the shawl store really didn’t speak English, and I had some difficulty negotiating the hundreds of permutations of fabric, size, pattern, and color, but I think I got some great stuff.
The walk was the best part. I thought David would enjoy Gorky Park, but I didn’t want to go back two days in a row, and we didn’t have enough time to do any of the side trips I’d been contemplating, so I took him to Arbat, which I thought would be a quaint historic street with interesting architecture and a lively shopping scene. One of those things turned out to be true. First we stopped to warm up and get some caffeine, and we snacked on rabbit pelmini. Then we hit the Arbat. It was all tourist shops, farther than the eye could see, and they all sold exactly the same merchandise. Well, almost. I found some dolls I really wanted to buy for David’s kids because they converted into little jewelry boxes, but they didn’t have one blue and one pink, so I figured I’d get them at the next store, and of course the ones at the next store weren’t as good, and neither were the others or the others. Oh well. We did buy a ton of gifts, but we both hated the scene and the bargaining and the crowds, and it just wasn’t that much fun unfortunately. So back to the theater for him, and I remembered I don’t work there so I skipped the preview and went back to the hotel for a bit. Afterwards though, we met up with a ton of other folk from the show and went to a bar and then a Chicago-themed diner. We got sort of separated from everyone else though and sat with the lighting designer, who’s a good friend of David’s from NYC (David had actually brought him to Russia to help out the show at the eleventh hour), which was fun and relaxing but I was hoping we’d sit with and shmooze up the producers or something. I think maybe the lighting designer was thinking the same thing.
The next day was our last day in Russia. It was David’s first day off in 27 days, although the crew at the theater said they were coming in to work on his set and would call him if they needed something. He kept checking every time he could find wifi, but I don’t think they ever called. Phew. Anyway, we met up with the lighting designer and walked to the Kremlin. I won’t get into the confusion of the ticketing system, but even though we had bought tickets in advance, it was hard to find and took forever. Eventually we went in. The complex holds buildings of state, churches, and a giant plaza that you can’t step foot in. I know because I tried to cut across it, and guards started blowing whistles angrily. It was a little difficult to tell what was where from the maps, but it didn’t matter because everything was cool once you went in, even if the churches do start to blend together after a while. On the grounds we also saw the world’s largest bell (for once this is just fact, not me exaggerating) and a giant cannon.
We exited, walked by (but not into) St. Basil’s Cathedral, and stopped for lunch at an outdoor cafe. I had rabbit, which was gamy and nasty, and they both ate pizza. Then we walked back for our afternoon admission to the Armory Chamber, which was nine large exhibition halls of jewelry, armor, treasure, clothing, Faberge eggs, and amazing wagons that were more magnificent than even special effects had been able to create in Cinderella.
That night David and I had a date at Cafe Pushkin, the glamorous restaurant I’d most wanted to try in all of Moscow. We sat in the library section (as opposed to the pharmacy). David marvelled at the odd architectural choices while I marvelled at the menu and wondered whether it was actually useful for the waiters to speak a pre-romanized Russian. The homemade pickles, a selection of different vegetables, were excellent, as was dessert, but the food in between was fancy, bland, and greasy. We decided it was Moscow’s equivalent of Tavern on the Green, a fancy once-in-a-lifetime local classic with amazing decor and just sort of bad food. Oh well. David was so ready to be home by that point I don’t think there was anything he would have enjoyed anyway, and I was just happy to bask in luxury and get out of the hotel/theater for a date with my favorite guy. It was perfect and anticlimactic at the same time. We were both happy to go home the next day.
Gallery is just a lot of pics. For captions, please see my Moscow album on Facebook. Or just ask.