Tag Archives: Moscow

Sketching Moscow – Part III

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, theTomb of Gogol 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 IAnton Chekov's Tomb 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.

Pavillion at Patriarshy PrudyLunching 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.

Tolstoy Museum EstateI 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 perhapsGeorgian Dinner at Khachapuri 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.




Sketching Moscow – Part I

Moscow’s architecture is awe-inspiring, art galleries, resplendent, churches opulent, parks vivacious and metro stations so grand that they have to be seen to be believed. To top it all, the city is big, vast, enormous, sprawling. In short, overwhelming for a first time visitor, who is unaware of its dimensions till she is dwarfed by almost everything around her.
When overwhelmed, draw a map – that’s my advice. It’s therapeutic, it simplifies everything and it gives the control back to you.  I always like to draw myself a rough map of the city I am travelling to, mainly to gauge the location of the sites I’d like to visit and their distance from my hotel. Turns out, if you walk straight on Ulitsa Tverskaya, that hits the red square in a tangent, you are all set to visit the major sights and get a hang of the city on the first day. Passing gigantic buildings, abnormally big arches that gain entry to such buildings, bronze statues and enormous squares like Tverskaya Ploshad, we reach the epicenter – Red square in about thirty minutes from Mariott Tverskaya, which is a hop skip and jump from Belarussky metro station, making it a great choice for lodging in Moscow.
My hand drawn Moscow map for reference

My hand drawn Moscow map for reference

Instead of heading straight, we turn left to view a historic cultural jewel of the 19th century – the Bolshoi Theatre, that has been getting a lot of bad press lately post an acid attack earlier this year, on its ballet director by a hitman hired by one of its dancers. Scandalous inside job maybe, but on the outside, this eight colonnaded opera and ballet theatre with a bronze quadriga looks imposing and shines a golden-yellow in July’s afternoon sun. An expensive six-year overhaul has returned it to its Tsar era splendor. Perched on the wooden benches facing the fountain in front of the theatre, are scores of people, gazing at its majestic beauty. Many take photographs but it’s not easy to fit it in the viewfinder, unless you back up quite a bit.
Not even an hour old in Moscow and I am compelled to pull out my sketchbook.
The famous Bolshoi Theatre

The famous Bolshoi Theatre

Away from the Tverskaya, we keep walking left and cast a passing glance at the diagonally opposite –  luxurious Hotel Metropole and a little ahead, the Lubyanka Building , which served as the headquarters of KGB.

Soon enough, metro travel beckons because in Moscow if you do not want your legs to unscrew and fall off your body from the brutal walking, you will learn to love the underground. And at 30 roubles a ticket, it is quite the value for money considering their grandiose art gallery cum museum cum theatre like look and feel. Try exloring Mayakovskaya, Arbatskaya, Kievskaya, Ploshchad Revolyutsii amongst many others to change your image of subway stations forever.
After a near 2 min decent on the escalator ( as per my stopwatch) into the bosom of mother earth, expect to find yourself amid high arched ceilings, splendid chandeliers, bronze and marble statues, walls and ceilings embellished with exquisite bas reliefs, friezes, stained glass and mosaic paintings. Though station names are in Russian, navigating isn’t difficult as the lines are colour coded and the metro map has the English translation for every station’s name in cyrillic. If confused, just ask a local. They might not speak English, but are very happy to help. When things are lost in translation, good old sign language works like a charm.
Wedding couples posing in front of Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

Wedding couples posing in front of Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

Taking the metro at ‘Lubyanka’, we emerge at ‘Kropotninskaya’ (3 stops on the Red line) and are instantly rewarded with the splendid view of Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, along the banks of Moskva river. Get one of those chocolate coated vanilla ice creams on stick – the summer totem of Moscow held and licked by every Russian in sight – to celebrate, because you’re now one among the 9 million commuters, who brave Moscow’s metros daily.

I murmur a hesitant ‘Dasvidaniya’ (Goodbye!) to the grim ice cream lady, while walking away and she flashes an iridescent smile – two gold teeth standing amid few rotten ones, glitter in the sun like the onion domes of the cathedral itself. A stretch limousines is parked on the kerb. The bride and the groom step out with flute shaped glasses in hand, toast with champagne and kiss blissfully.

We watch their merry-making and follow them inside the cathedral. If the interiors don’t hold your fancy for long, step out and head to the beautiful footbridge on the other side of the church and start walking away. The further you walk away, more irresistible it looks. Facing the cathedral, you can spot Kremlin on your right and the unmissable giant bronze statue of Peter the Great on your left. If the photographers hanging about the bridal couples and the endless tour groups spare you some space on the bridge, take a picture with the church in the background.
With such visual treats around, who has time for a sit down lunch. We settle for a snack sold by a babushka on the sidewalk. The spread of sandwiches, breads and puff pastries neatly laid out on the table may have been most delectable and the freshest, but if you ask me, it’s hard to choose when you’re clueless about the filling. I turn to the bearded local next to me and ask if he speaks English. “Oh! Yes”. “Can you ask her, what that one is?”. “But I don’t speak Russian”. He is from Berlin. Good to know. We buy our puff anyway. “Enjoy your surprise!” says the Berliner. Tuna and cheese filling was the surprise that we gobbled up before walking into the Tretyakov State Gallery, to enjoy Russian fine arts, including several masterpieces. If you’re fond of landscapes, don’t miss Isaak Levitan’s work.
Exiting the gallery, you hit Luzhkov bridge over the Vodootvodny Canal, beautiful and teeming

Locks of various shapes and sizes with sometimes names of the couple and dates engraved on them

Locks of various shapes and sizes with sometimes names of the couple and dates engraved on them

with bridal couples engaged in the de rigueur – sipping champagnes, kissing on cue, holding precarious poses for the photographer, flying white doves and fastening love padlocks with their names and vows inscribed. Countless locks in every imaginable colour, shape, sizes (some bigger than my head), hang from the iron trees that were built on the bridge for this very purpose.

At 8 in the night, the sun doesn’t show any sign of descent. So, we head towards the nearby Gorky Park to unwind but instead make several pit stops in between because what seems right under your nose on the map is actually quite a distance away. Cafe Parco serves us the last item left on their menu – fresh banana and strawberry smoothie in sealed plastic bottles.
Resting our tired legs at Cafe Parco

Sitting on garden chairs and resting our tired legs at Cafe Parco while their music band is getting ready to play.

Nothing under the Moscow banner is ordinary or average in its dimension or architectural style – is the wisdom gained at the end of day one. Standing in front of the massive gate of Gorky park, once again we feel puny, ant-like, inconsequential.
Couldn't resist a 5 min sketch of this imposing gate to enter Gorky Park. isn't it just a park?

Couldn’t resist a 5 min sketch of this imposing gate to enter Gorky Park

Gorky Park

Gorky Park

But the atmosphere is electric. Loud, thumping music is gushing out of a concert in progress. Hundreds of people of all ages are engaged in every kind of sport/recreational activity in this 300 acre park, either playing table tennis, badminton, or riding Segway, rollerblading, bicycling, throwing frisbee, rowing in the lake or just sunbathing.

Children in prams are licking lurid pink cotton candies while their parents are lining up at the ice cream or hotdog counter. The smell of hot corn on the cob slathered with butter and salt gets me brisk walking towards the stall in a blink. Couples and families are lounging on communal bean bags under enormous trees. And right at the center, is a grand musical fountain that’s spraying water to the beats of an orchestra. The sun isn’t going anywhere and Moscow seems golden through my tinted sunglasses.
How do you tear away from all this? We do because, just across Gorky Park, on the other side

Church of St. Nicholas of the Weavers

Church of St. Nicholas of the Weavers

of the river, sits another magnificent church that supposedly rivals St. Basil’s on Red Square in its beauty. Church of St. Nicholas of the Weavers , a late 17th century parish church for a weavers settlement, is a stunner all right with its onion domes and a tented bell tower, but we arrive when the evening service has ended and the church is about to close.

The orthodox priests in somber black cassocks are conferring on the church grounds, women are quickly removing their headscarves and leaving and families are bidding goodbye to each other. I cover my head and manage a quick peek inside the church and a hurried sketch before being ushered out.
Just outside, a signboard says, Leo Tolstoy’s house turned museum is only 400 meters away but we resist the temptation and reward ourselves instead with these juicy chicken shashlik for dinner.
Chicken Shashlik with salad and a truckload of dill

Chicken Shashlik with salad and a truckload of dill

Singapore – Moscow – St.Petersburg – Moscow – Singapore

Itchy feet strike again.

I am accompanying my husband on his official trip to Russia for 9 days and that up there will be my itinerary. The plan is, on the days he doesn’t work, we’ll explore the sights together and the days he works – which is most of the time – I will be on my own on the streets of Russia with a sketchbook and a map. Mixed feelings! On my own I’d amble along the streets without an itinerary, direction or purpose, just soaking up history and culture as it comes. But trying to record the sights and experiences in sketches, requires planning and a certain amount of alertness. The former is convenient, the latter is revelatory.

Packing for Russia

Packing for Russia

However, this isn’t the first time I plan to sketch while travelling. I’ve done it before in Cambodia, Japan and Malaysia, though with trepidation and on a very small scale. I was disorganised, clueless and conscious of people watching me and judging my craft. It was more like testing the waters before taking the plunge. If ‘testing the waters’ mean everything from timing my sketches, revising the itinerary to include that time to analysing the patience threshold of my travel companion while I take sketch breaks every 2mins; by ‘the plunge’ I mean an exhaustive record of my trip in sketches, no matter what.
And I am consciously moving towards that other end of the spectrum because for travellers like us, who prefer gallivanting across cities on tight itineraries, adding another element such as sketching slows us down no doubt, but isn’t counter productive.
‘Travelling is like pressing the reset button’, said a travel writer on TV the other day. So, I’m banking on Russia to clear my mind and reboot my machine, so I return home fresh and renewed. Catching a glimpse of Snowden would have been a bonus but we’re landing at the Domodedovo airport.