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Monday, December 16, 2013

Ice Skating in Gorky Park

A few weeks ago we went to buy ice skates since we had been hearing about the great places to ice skate. Snow was late this year, so last Friday we decided there was finally enough snow to go. Elena brought along a friend, and we took a bus several stops over to Gorky Park.

The first thing we saw was a huge Christmas tree made of draping white lights in the middle of a square. Just when we were about to take a picture in front of it, two Russisan guys came over and hopped in our picture! It was very funny, but we were disappointed because the picture didn't come out well.

Past the Christmas tree were arches of lights that formed tunnels. It was so pretty to walk through the colorful tunnels of light. Once again we wanted a picture. We stood in a tunnel and got ready for our picture, and to our surprise, more Russians hopped in our picture, this time holding a baby over our heads!
The Russians must have been happy that night.

We payed the entrance fee and put our skates on. I walked over to the ice thinking "This shouldn't be hard!" but when I stepped on, I was surprised at how slippery it was! My skating was simple and rusty, but at least I didn't fall. It was Elena's friend's first time, so Mom and I left them pretty quickly. There were large paths of ice through trees. A few benches, lights, and restaurants were sprinkled around. The paths were a lot of fun to skate down...much better than going in circles! There were many Russians who whipped by us, and definitely knew what they were doing.

I was tempted to try some tricks from my few years of skating lessons, but I didn't do any except turning 180ยบ because I knew I would fall! After an hour or two, we stopped at a little coffee shop and ordered some hot chocolate. We had to sit outside, but the hot chocolate kept us warm and the snow was very prettily falling around us—we actually had a layer of snow covering us when we got up. After one more lap we took the bus back home.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Krutitskoye Podvorye

Beautiful white flakes of snow were falling outside my window.  I knew I couldn't stay in on such a fabulous winter day so I bundled up and grabbed my camera and the "Moscow Walks" book ready for an adventure.  My destination was the Krutitskoye Ecclesiastical Residence a short distance from Proletarskaya metro.  

 A small monastery was built on this hill (kruta, from which the name is derived) in the 13th century to protect against the Tartar-Mongo invaders.  The monastery was rebuilt in the 16th century when  the residence for the Moscow metropolitan (Orthodox bishop) moved here.  The history of this property becomes very interesting at this point.  Catherine the Great closed the monastery  in 1788 in her move to secularize many church buildings.  It then began to be used as army barracks and it's even believed that the Russians who began the Moscow fire of 1812 were tortured here by Napoleon's army.  More recently in the 20th century the Soviets turned the barracks into a military prison which is still on the grounds.  Today it is back in the hands of the Russian Orthodox church.

Tucked away in a neighborhood I approached the large iron gates surrounding the monastery, carefully watching a few wild dogs mingle in the courtyard.  Not interested in me, they turned and ran out a gate at the far end.  Walking through the door the place looked deserted.  Some colorfully painted clapboard houses looked deserted, yet the steps were shoveled.  A few people cut through the yard from one street to the next.  I walked on in silence gazing up at the red brick domes of the Uspensky Sobor (Assumption Cathedral).  This monastery has a completely different feel than any of the other monasteries and cathedrals I have experienced in Moscow so far.  Built in the Moscow Baroque style that was popular at the time, the Russian architecture began pulling in Baroque elements that were popular in Central Europe.  I think the red brick gives the monastery a heavy Russian feel.  

I turned to the left and walked around the cathedral.  A small orchard and pine trees greeted me in the back.  Ironwork patterns protected the windows.  Continuing around, a heavy lattice gate led back into the courtyard.  This section where the gate tower is surprised me.  It was built in a different style than the heavy brick architecture.  Fresco paintings on exterior walls had survived the weather of hundreds of years.  
I circled around to where I had begun and made my way up a flight of stairs for a better view.  At the top the door knocker was wrapped in old strips of fabric that were tucked into the door.  I pushed, it creaked open.  I stepped into the dim room.  As with all cathedrals an old woman was sitting at a counter selling long, thin, beeswax candles.  A couple stood together as they lit some candles.  I looked around in awe at the gilded art around me.  I never would have guessed this abandoned place was still used for worship.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Novospassky Monastery

Claiming to be the oldest monastery in Moscow the NovospasskyMonastery, or New Savior, dates back to the early 14th century.  Of course none of the original buildings remain and it is actually in a different location, which is slightly disappointing when you read "oldest" in a book, but the buildings there today date back to 1645 so in my mind it still carries a place of distinction in history.    Ivan the Great had the monastery moved to its current location.  The Sheremetev and Romanov boyars took over patronage, then when Mikhail Romanov became Tsar in 1612 the buildings went through a complete overhaul.  Many early Romanovs are buried in a building here.  Today the monastery appears as it did in that period.

Thick stone walls fortify the monastery containing an array of buildings.  A massive yellow neoclassical bell tower (1750-1785) is easy to spot from across the Moskva River.  There are several buildings on the property including the Pokrovsky (Intercession) church and the House Of Loaf-Fiving hospital and monks' living quarters.  During the Soviet years it was used as a prison camp then as a police drunk tank with cells to hold arrested intoxicated citizens.  

I wandered around the compound with the snow gently falling, dotting my hair with a soft, downy layer.  I gazed up at the pale blue onion domes with brilliant gold stars shimmering in the grey sky.  The central gold dome stood out on this bleak day.  I stopped to take a picture of some red berries hanging from a tree, then quietly watched a monk walk by.  This is a working monastery/convent.  I'm actually a bit confused as to which it is because I found it called both in my books and online.  An aura of stillness hung in the air created by more than the weather.  This is a place of quiet meditation, worship and respect.  

 Feeling the coldness of the air begin to permeate my body I wandered into the main cathedral.  As I stepped through the door I pulled my scarf over my head as the Russian women do.  My breath caught as I gazed at the frescoed walls of the long hallway.  With soft footsteps I slowly followed the women, bent over with age and laden with heavy coats as they traveled down the hallway, pausing to stop at  golden icons and kiss them.  I followed up some steps and around a corner until we ended in the main room.  

I had to pause and collect myself.  I did not expect the brilliant blue walls and frescos to be in such good condition.   These walls were created in the mid 1600's.  Thousands of fingers have traced a profile and lips have kissed a saint.  I stood unable to move, there was so much to take in.  The room was lit by a few windows and stands of thin beeswax candles where visitors were quietly igniting the wicks in symbolism of forgiveness of sins and to glorify God.  I found a seat by a window and sat down.  A row of monks sat opposite me defined by their long black robes and beards.  Nuns huddled together as a gypsy woman entered with her baby tightly bound in a pile of blankets.  She approached the monks, begging for a blessing.  

My attention was pulled to the center of the room where a monk, surrounded by a group, stood chanting.  I could smell the incense coming from the gold ball he was swinging.  I heard a tinkling sound like money dropping in a bowl.  I never figured out what it was, but the metallic sound reverberated throughout the room creating an eerie song with the priest's monotone voice.  A woman stood alone in the corner weeping.  A feeling of aloneness swept over me.  The people in the center crowded in to look at something.  They bent and kissed and cried.  A woman passed me kissing the wall as I rose to understand what attracted the group of people.  I could see a body covered in lace laying on a short table.  I would not have known it was a body except for the two hands outside the lace, crossed on the woman's chest.  

I've asked around trying to figure out what was going on.  Did I stumble upon an Orthodox funeral or did I witness the worship of a dead person?  I was ready to leave the atmosphere of complete desperation  behind.  

Heading out of the compound I noticed a cute looking restaurant located in the courtyard that looked like a cozy place to stop in for lunch.  I will return when the sun is warm and life springs from the ground to this quiet Orthodox church.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Russian Museum

Several people, Russian and American alike, commented that they preferred the Russian Museum over the Hermitage.  Considering that I was looking for inside activities while in St. Petersburg, this sounded like a good option.

The Mikhailovsky Palace was originally built in 1819-182117 by  Alexander I for his fourth son, Mikhail.  In 1898 Alexander III bought the palace and converted it into a public museum.  Sadly, most of the interior looks rather institutionalized with plain plaster walls covering what I would guess were ornate crumbling ones.  But when you go up the main staircase to the first floor exhibits, the interior has been beautifully restored.  Frescoed ceilings and gilded plasterwork took my attention away from the art.  I really have no idea what was displayed in those rooms because the setting was so beautiful.  

Over 300,000 items ranging from thirteenth century icons to textiles, to folk art are on display throughout the palace.  What I discovered here was that I love Russian art.  Russians are considered a non-expressive people, but in their art depth and feeling comes through.  Faces radiate joy, pain and sorrow.  Exquisite detail is depicted in costume and dress.  The embroidery  on peasant dresses and head scarves looked realistic.  Bold color made even the dreariest winter scene enticing.  Russia truly has her art masters.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

So Russia

A friend showed me around St. Petersburg the first day I was in town.  While we walked around chatting she showed me historic places, drilled my on my bearings to be sure I could get around myself, and shared some of her experiences from her 9 years living there.

We came upon a park that she used to take her kids to when they were little.  She recalled the "old days" when the park had outdated, Soviet era equipment.  Today the park is filled with brand new, bright toys for the kids to play on.  She stopped to read the sign at the entrance to the playground and started to laugh.  Each piece of equipment was listed followed by the age the children must be to use the equipment!  So to go down the slide you must be between 3-10 and to swing on a swing 3-12 and so on.

So Russian!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Marble Palace

St. Petersburg is a city that came to life during the dark days of winter.  Balls filled the city keeping spirits high during the long season.  To have a proper ball there must be proper ball rooms and in a city of palaces, there seems to be no lack for opulent interiors.  
Catherine the Great had this palace built for her favorite Count Grigory Orlov because he helped her ascend to the throne in 1762.  He responded to gifting her with one of the larges cut diamonds in the world (189.6 carats) which was later mounted in the royal scepter.  He died before the palace was completed in 1785 so she ended up giving it to her grandson.  
The exterior is quiet impressive with the smooth, pink marble giving it a royal feel.  

The Grand Marble Staircase and the Marble Hall are the only two areas that remain virtually untouched and unchanged since Catherine's day.  They are magnificent.   I love the soft blue walls contrasted with the white ornamental plasterwork as you ascend the green limestone staircase to the main floor.  The Marble Hall has a beautiful wood inlaid floor.  Patterns on the walls are created with 33 different types of marble that reach to the gilded ceiling.  Two huge crystal chandeliers grace the open space.  I can only imagine women in beautiful balls gowns floating and twirling through this room, warmed by the two fireplaces and flushed by the excitement of the gay evening.

Cathedral of the Resurrection

This amazing cathedral is one of St. Petersburg's main tourist attractions.  It was modeled after St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow with a bit different feel to the color and decoration.  Commonly known as Our Saviour on the Spilt Blood it was built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was murdered in 1881.  In fact a small canopy chapel area was incorporated on the exact spot of his death.  

I spent an hour simply walking around the exterior of the cathedral with my camera in hand.  Built in a decorative pattern with red brick, small squares contain mosaic panels and majolica insets.  Nine onion domes reach towards the sky, four gilded and five covered by jewelry enamel.  Orthodox double crosses top each dome.  

I was not prepared for the ornate interior which took my breath away.  Not a single space was left unadorned with mosaic made from semi precious stones.  Scenes from the Bible along with geometric and floral patterns are composed of brilliant blues, oranges and golds.  I spent another hour inside just gazing up at the beauty.
This gaudy church is now tied with Sainte Chapelle in France as my favorite church.

In Georgia

I have discovered that I love Georgian food!  Bordering Russia to the south on the eastern side of the Black Sea, it is one of the old Soviet countries.  Georgian food seems to be popular in Russia. 

While following bad directions from the hotel to a different restaurant we passed this place and made a mental note for "another night".  Eventually we realized we were never going to find the suggested restaurant so we headed back to "In Georgia".

No English menu was available, but our waitress spoke fairly well and gave us suggestions.  We decided to let her order for us and were not disappointed.  We enjoyed different types of kebob while being entertained by locals around us. The two men seated at the table next to us were vastly enjoying their bottle of vodka.  Round after round we watched as they finished an entire bottle.  In a booth sat a foursome.  We were startled when the woman moved onto the man's lap and began passionately kissing him.  Really, what was going on should only happen in the bedroom and what made it more awkward was that what appeared to be one of their sets of parents was seated directly across from them.  This was not a short birthday kiss, rather he must have crossed a milestone.  Now this was not some seedy little joint we popped into.  Rather, well signed on a major road, it seems to have a good reputation.  I think we just happened to hit birthday boy's big night.

Church of St. Panteleimon

Not particularly a tourist attraction, this church became a landmark for me each day confirming I was headed in the correct direction.  A plaque on the side of the building states that it was built in memory of Russian naval victories at Gangut and Grenham that were won on St. Panteleimon's Day.  It was built by Peter the Great in 1721 at the Particular Shipyard.

The simple red and white exterior captured my attention and a glimpse through the window drew me in.  I pushed the wooden door opened and was greeted with the echoing song of a choir.  Although only a recording, the music filled the room.  A service was going on so I stepped to a wall and watched quietly.  

Around 15-20 people stood in the room, men and women with their heads covered, young adult and elderly.  There were no chairs or pews, just an open space.  They did not stand in a row but each person seemed to have their personal space that was not to be invaded.  The air was heavy with the scent of incense floating out of the metal balls the priests would swing back and forth from time to time.  

There seemed to be an order to the service.  Choral music then the monotone song of the priest. The people would bow at the waist with stiff legs in unison.  A priest dressed in long robes would walk around with a gilded cross then the incense ball creating the sign of the cross with his movements.

Observing people worship gives me a glimpse into the society.  Who is there?  How many are there?  Are they sincere?  

Another reason I love stopping in churches and cathedrals is the architecture.  Even a simple church that is there only for the worship of the people can be amazing.  This church was painted in pastels of deep hues from floor to ceiling.  Arches met creating a vaulted ceiling.  Gold stars with simple lines filled the space.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Cafe Michel

Every time I pass this cafe I think how nice it would be to have a meal here.  Maybe it's the carved gargoyals that draw me in or the cozy seating just inside heavy brocade curtained windows.  It just appears warm and inviting.

Vetran's day, one of the American holidays that Chad has off but the girls have school, provided the perfect opportunity to check it out.  This restaurant actually is close to the embassy, only a 15 minute walk!  

The menu, in English, was exquisite.  It felt like I would be dining in true Russian style.  A chilly day on the outside, the heavy, hot meals seemed to complement the season.  A special menu featuring "pumpkin" caught our eye.  We shared a plate of pumpkin risotto and a bowl of steaming hazelnut soup.  I never could have imagined up a soup made from nuts, but here in Russia where life can seem a bit cold and bleak, it seems appropriate.  The creamy, nutty flavor was softly bland but intriguing.  

We left satisfied but agreed that splitting two entrees was the way to go.  It would be a pricy meal out if we were planning on a filling dinner, but lunch didn't manage to break the budget.


A friend showed me this little cafe not far from the embassy.  Maybe a 20 minute walk going past the zoo it will be on the left.  It's the sort of place to go with a friend for lunch or just a cup of coffee.  They had a menue in English which always makes me smile.  I like to know what I'm ordering!  I had a nice ceasar wrap that was the perfect size for lunch.  Not particularly fancy, but nice and cozy. 

Centrale Pizza

"Just a short walk from the embassy." we were told as our group set out for dinner.  I guess it was.  In this city anything under 30 minutes is a short walk and we were just at the 30 minute mark when we arrived at the door.  Simply straight up Novey Arbat, across the river and past the Radisson on the other side of the street.

Yummy pasta!  Yummy pizza!  This Italian restaurant is one we will definately return to.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Izmaylovo Park

There is a fabulous collection of 4 books by Phoebe Taplin outlining walks around Moscow.  She is a British Journalist who wrote a weekly column of walks through Moscow for the Moscow times.  These  articles have now been collected into volumes by season.  I love walking and seeing cities but I don't do a good job of wandering.  My goal oriented personality has ruined the ability to wander the streets around my house, so I do very well with something like this that gives me direction, points out all the interesting facts, tells me Metro stops and gives me an itinerary.

With Chad off today we decided to do the October walk "Imperial Izmailovo".  We wanted to get out of the city (or at least pretend we were out of the city) and kick some fallen leaves as we walked along a path.  Our destination was Izmaylovo Park.  One of the largest parks in Europe it is rich with history of Tsars hunting, living and growing up here.

We decided to take our dog which was his first trip in the metro.  I must say that he is acclimating very well to this large city.  He handled going up and down the escalator well, going through the turnstile and on and off the metro.  He got a bit antsy on the subway, but then I did too.

We exited the train directly onto a trail.  We immediately knew it was going to be a good day.  We wound our way through the birch forest past many ponds that Tsar Alexi created by damming up little streams.  The trail was busy with people enjoying the sunny day.  We noticed two main groups, the moms pushing their prams along while smoking a cigarette and elderly women in groups.  People were not out to do hard core exercising, rather they were strolling in the woods.  A few joggers and bikers passed but mainly the atmosphere was one of relaxation.  
Beekeepers house

A side trail to the left took us to a 19th century beekeeper's cottage that was adorned with lovely wood carvings.  The area was closed so we had to peak through the fencing to get a peak.  As we circled past Krazney Pond, we stumbled upon a group of old men working out.  There in the middle of the woods they had created a gym made of old tires.  Different "stations" gave opportunity for different skills.  A  rusted chin-up bar; an old tree trunk with tires dropped over it gave a man a place to practice boxing; old metal bars with tires and various steel pieces created barbells; there was even a barbell made with two old stumps.  Men were busy doing their work-outs moving from station to station, conversing with a friend.  Only in crumbling Russia would this have ever fit in.  We were delighted by this gem of a find.

We continued on, deciding to circle back to our original metro station rather than complete the hike.  We were thrilled with our lazy frolic in the woods with Carbon running free.  We barley skimmed the surface of all there is to discover in this park, but

A street sweeper on a dirt path in the woods - brilliant.

Woods on right, barbed wire metro tracks on left.

hungry from the adventure we found a great stall just beyond the metro where we feasted on chicken and ham filled bread for a scant $3.00.
Pulling our lunch out of the circular oven

- Kris