Making travel itineraries for the last five years have led me to a displeasing yet profound axiom. It states that the number of sites and activities that you want to visit or experience in a place will inevitably exceed the number of days that you stipulate for them. Be it 3 days or 3 months, you can never fit in everything you want to see and do. After hours of handwork, persistence and deliberation, you may pat your back on birthing a befitting itinerary, customized to your very needs, but there in it’s shadow will always lurk a nasty ‘waiting list’, of sites that were your second and third choices – those that couldn’t make it to the list but are dangerously sneaky. While you pet and fawn over your prized itinerary, they’ll plot and scheme to wriggle their way in. Most of the times you surrender. Is it worth it? Sometimes it is.
Like in the case of the historic Novodevichy Convent , that wasn’t in our itinerary simply because we didn’t have enough time to fit it in plus it was a bit far off from the cluster of sites we were hanging about. But we squeezed it in, on an early morning even before the ticket counter opened, when the men were still cleaning with huge water hoses, mopping and dusting the place, the gardener was still trimming the bushes and nuns were hurriedly moving in and out of the many churches in the expansive compound, prepping for morning prayer, when people were still walking their dogs along the river outside its red and white fortified walls, and when the air was cool and there was dew on the grass and every tree, when you could still hear the song of the birds piercing the meditative silence, that only such an hour of the day can claim.
Hands down this is the perfect time to visit because, you have the place to yourself. In an hour or two, the tour buses and tour groups will appear with their guides speaking all at a time and over each other. The transient magic will be lost. While you are allowed to roam inside the fortified compound amid greenery and beautiful golden domed churches free of cost, a ticket worth 250 roubles will gain you entry inside some of these churches, like the breathtaking Smolensky Cathedral (dating back to 1524) and the Assumption Church.
Behind the Cathedral, within ten minutes walking distance is the Novodevichy Cemetery, the resting place for Russia’s many stalwarts from different walks of life – poets, playwrights, political leaders, academicians and many more. Admission is free and the absolute lack of English signs turn the grave hunting for Russia’s who’s who into a guessing game bordering on frustration, if you are running on a schedule. After combing through rows upon rows of fascinating stone sculptures decorating the graves – a life size dog resting at his master’s feet, a sensuous ballerina holding a precarious pose, a swan taking flight – we hunt down the glass covered grave of Tchaikovsky. It’s unpretentious, unseemly modest in comparison to its neighbours. Seeking help from the resident gardener on the grounds, we further hunt down the resting place of Chekov, Bulgakov and Gogol – all impressive in their austere simplicity. Tour guides make hurried stops and even before their patrons can absorb the solemnity of their surroundings, they leave. I take my time and sketch in peace.
What is fascinating and peaceful to one may seem depressing to others. “Excuse me, how do I exit from here?” ask two women. The frown lines on their face give away their distaste for the necropolis. “We don’t like graveyards. Which way is the convent?” We show them the way out, but linger around. The sun has climbed, but the cool serenity of the manicured garden, keeps us comfortable. A forlorn woman dressed in a flowing gown is poised on a gravestone, her head slightly tilted, eyes downcast and with a delicate hand she’s touching her heart.
The sun shines a side of her face, but casts a melancholy shadow on the other. The flowers at her feet have dried and there’s gut-wrenching sadness in her eyes. If she weren’t in stone, I would beseech her with questions. The Cyrillic alphabets at her feet mean nothing to us. I wonder who she was, what was her sorrow and how she passed. Did she leave somebody behind? But, sometimes, knowing less, is feeling a great deal more. Such is the beauty and majesty of the stone sculptures here, that they bring the deceased as close to life as possible to strangers who can’t even read their names. The language of hammers, chisels, rasps and rifflers on these stones transcend the need for anything more comprehensible and for now this seems enough.
Lunching at the exquisite “Pavillion” on wooden chaise set up on a summer patio, overlooking a tree-fringed lake at Patriarshy Prudy (Patriarch’s Ponds) was a fantastic idea. The food is good and a bit expensive, but you’ll lose your heart to the still unchanged 19th century locale – where Michael Bugalov’s The Master and Margarita is also set. The author himself lived nearby and so did many prominent Russian poets, singers, painters, scientists and authors. No wonder the area has been stamped as the cultural heritage of Russia and is protected by the government. While noshing on bread and chicken Kiev, you’d almost feel like floating on water. And if you hint the ducks and the two majestic white swans that you might have something for them to nibble at, they’ll happily glide right to you seat, clacking all the way. Walk around the pond lazily or spend hours sitting on one of the benches beside the ornate lamps, under the cool shade of trees. Feel the breeze on your face, unwind and think nothing.
I arrive at the Tolstoy Estate Museum with barely an hour to spare before it’s closed for the day. A handsome yellow ochre house of mediocre size with green windows and a small patio ensconced by ivy, sits amid a small garden with large shady trees. A bottle green picket fence goes round the estate. My mobile phone and hand bag is stowed away before I start touring Tolstoy family’s winter home since 1882.
How does it feel to step inside someone’s private domain? Well, I paid 200 roubles for the privilege and am wearing protective cover over my shoes, but the feeling is that of uneasiness and repressed excitement as if I am about to trespass into private property. But that is a good thing in this context because the 6000 original exhibits of the family has been curated so well that together they lend the house a character that was once its own and get it to tell its story. Short descriptions in English tell you about the display, what the room was used for and stories of their domestic life. The visual imagery is strong and your imagination runs wild. This is how museums should be – not just educational and academic but engaging and inspirational too.
The dishes laid on the dining table where the author had meals with his family, the recreation room where his children played games, the wooden bed where the author and his wife Sofie slept, her desk where she transcribed the author’s manuscripts, the children’s toys splayed on the floor of the nursery, the portraits painted by his eldest daughter adorning the wall, their gowns hanging in their closet with matching shoes, a huge piano standing upon a bear skin in the drawing room and Tolstoy’s study table with his writing paraphernalia and his chair that he trimmed to be closer to the desk (being short-sighted), his clothes, boots, dumbbells, bicycle and such inanimate yet intimate details will get you many folds closer to the author as a man. Later, I sit on one of the benches in the garden and sketch the house. One by one all the visitors leave and I am left with a fidgeting guard with a padlock in his hand, lingering near the gate and staring in my direction. I collect my things and put him out of his misery.
For dinner, we pick Georgian and “Khachapuri” at Bolshoy Gnezdnikovsky per 10, is perhaps the most cheerful place to deliver that in a warm, unassuming, homely atmosphere. The strong aroma of fresh coriander wafts out from the spicy yet heartwarming Chicken Chakhokhbili (although later I learn that it has parsley, tarragon, basil and dill as well) – unexpectedly reminiscent of my mother’s Indian curry – and the rack of lamb seems quite contemporary but what surprises us is the addictive Khachapuri – freshly baked cheesy bread or “pizza of the 21st century” as per the cafe’s website! We order lemon tea, munch on the sheep-shaped cookies and head back to the hotel around midnight under a semi-dark summer sky.