We emerge in a square fronted by 16th century walls, the Hotel Metropole and the Bolshoi Theatre and with a statue of Karl Marx in the centre. We haven’t got far before my face – the only exposed portion of my body – begins to ache with cold. It’s a bright day but there is snow on the ground and the wind is icy. We walk towards Red Square (the name actually means “beautiful square”) and enter through the Gate of the Resurrection. I immediately recognise St Basil’s Cathedral at the far end with its candy-coloured domes but the outdoor skating rink is less familiar and blares out “Gangnam Style” as we pass. To one side of the square are the red walls of The Kremlin, with Spasskaya Tower and the so-called Secret Tower from which Ivan the Terrible would covertly watch the action in the square. The other side of the square is flanked by the grand façade of Gum, the famous department store.
We explore St Basil’s Cathedral, which is actually a cluster of churches, each dedicated to a different saint; St Basil (or Vasily) is simply the most highly revered. Irena explains the traditional layout of the orthodox iconoclasty, which has the church’s nominated saint to the right of centre and a strict hierarchy of icons. Frescoes also adorn the other walls, again following a specific format with judgement day on the wall facing the altar. In the central chapel a 3-man choir sings – the size of their sound and their vocal range are impressive. Apparently choirs always sing acapella in orthodox churches so the booming low notes we associate with church organs are created with the voice.
Our next stop is Gum, which turns out to be more of a mall than a department store and populated mostly by the more upmarket global brands. We explore the rather exclusive delicatessen on the ground floor – which feels like it comes from another era and smells divine – and then have a rather more modest lunch of Porhzovski (traditional pies) at Café 57 on the first floor; these come in both sweet and savoury flavours, encased in a kind of glazed bread.
The afternoon begins with Alexander Garden where we see the tomb of the unknown soldier and its eternal flame and then walk along the opposite side where there are statues depicting fairy tales and four lifesize horses outside what used to be the state riding school. We take the metro once again, this time to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour which is a modern reconstruction of an earlier cathedral which was demolished to make way for an ill-fated soviet civic construction project and now has a basement church beneath it – The Church of the Transfiguration – where a swimming pool briefly existed.
There’s a walking bridge next to the cathedral, which has great views of the upper parts of The Kremlin in one direction and the ridiculously huge Peter the Great memorial in the other. From here we can also see the former Red October chocolate factory and a soviet apartment block so large it has its own power station. The next stage of our tour is by tram; the 5-journey ticket I bought for 135 Rubles (about £3.50) is good for any length of journey on any form of public transport. I think it’s really good value but Irena remembers when a journey cost 7 Kopeks. We finish at a mall where Julia and her colleague have arranged to meet me for some shopping before the ballet. There are few stores I don’t recognise and the prices are pretty high – a fur hat (not that I would buy one!) is anything upwards of 200 Euros and a large proportion of people wear them. Fur coats are also worn by a large proportion of women - and they start at about 2,000 Euros.
Julia recommends a snack before the ballet and proposes pancakes which are traditionally eaten in the week before orthodox lent begins. Then it’s back on the metro to travel out to the theatre where we are meeting Maksim’s wife for the ballet. We see Spartacus, which is remarkable for its raunchiness and the brevity of the male dancers’ costumes – plus, of course, the artistic interpretation of a classic legend! After the show Julia and I travel back towards the hotel and stop at a restaurant called Yiki-Palki which serves traditional Russian dishes. It’s pretty late by the time I get back to the Garden Ring but before I can go to bed I have to pay some attention to my face which has red, swollen blotches from the cold.