Thursday, August 15, 2019

A Moscow Art Museum Marathon, Saint Basil's Cathedral and the Kremlin

Wednesday, August 14, 2019  An Art Museum Marathon, Saint Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin 

I set the alarm for 7:15 and take a quick shower before our breakfast is served. At precisely 7:40 our soft spoken stewardess knocks and brings us our breakfast trays. We raise the shade and eat watching the grey outskirts of Moscow roll by. 

Breakfast on the Grande Express Train
The outskirts of Moscow

The outskirts of Moscow

Our driver meets us at the station

The Grande Express Train

The gates of the Moscow train station

Unfortunately, I have our arrival time wrong by 15 minutes and we are lolly-gagging when we pull into the station. We hurriedly zip suitcases and take stock of our belongings and disembark. Our taxi driver is waiting and he escorts us to a black BMW and whisks us across town to our Hotel Bulgakov in the Arbat district. According to the Lonely Planet Guide Book, the hotel I have reserved is perfectly located and has high ceilings and is a bargain for this district. Admittedly, it is a bargain at only $65 a night but the entrance is from a back parking alley and there is no elevator. The hotel is one flight up paint worn stairs to a tiny reception area and another flight up to our room which will not be available until 2:00 P.M.  The décor is funky and a fat black cat is curled on the reception sofa, apparently the hotel mascot. Cat prints and pillows are everywhere and a sign warns us to not allow the cat into your room under any circumstances.

The worn stairs up to Hotel Bulgakov 
The hotel's black cat mascot

Cat instructions

We stow our luggage in a tiny downstairs closet and head out to get our bearings. We are steps away from the main restaurant and shopping street of the Arbat and although in most situations, we prefer to go local not corporate for our coffee, we find a spacious Starbucks where we can sit and plan our day. 
Art getting our bearings

Starbucks in the Arbat district of Moscow

Planning our first day in Moscow

We set out walking towards the Pushkin Art museum, along stately back street with elegant buildings and past the occasional golden onion topped church. Naturally, there is a line at the museum but Art stands in it allowing me to sit and rest and within 20 minutes we are gliding across polished museum floors. We enter a monumental gallery with the fabulous Assyrian Gates, lines of Greek and Roman marble statues and a marble frieze of Saint George and the Dragon. 

Waiting in line at the Pushkin Art Museum, Moscow
Paster casts of Assyrian Gates
Plaster cast of man in dragon encrusted armor
Detail of dragon armor

Griffin paster cast

 I have seen these same pieces in the Louvre and in other world class museums and I am confused until Art points out that these are plaster casts of the originals.  We discuss this with mixed feelings and decide that this is a good insurance plan for these remarkable pieces of  art should the originals be damaged or destroyed in the future. Art surmises that in addition to theses plaster casts and with modern technology, the original sculptures have been digitally scanned. During Soviet times and even today, it is probable that many Russians have not had the luxury to see these works of art first hand.

Portrait of a Lady - Ter Borch
Saint Sebastian - Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio

Bacchanalia - Peter Paul Rubens
The Pushkin’s Italian and Dutch Renaissance art collection is wonderful and we see many exceptional paintings that we have not seen before and works by our favorite “rock stars.”  A jewel of a painting of Saint Sebastian as a boy by Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio and an exquisite “Portrait of a Lady” by Dutch artist, Ter Borch stand out. I immediately recognize the brush stokes and style of an El Greco painting of a female saint, but the palate is an unusual pastel cream, pink blue and purple.  There is a wonderful collection of of impressionist art, the highlight being an entire gallery of Gaugin. 

El Greco goes pastel
An entire gallery room of Gaugin

Across the street is the Pushkin's collection of modern art with a current exhibit funded by the Louis Vuitton foundation presenting a Frank Gehry exhibit.

About the Louis Vuitton Foundation
Frank Gehry fish sculpture

We wander stark galleries of Gehard Richter and Basquait work and collapse into an installation of deck chairs where we are lulled by the rhythm of a metronome.  

Jean-Michel Basquait
Gehard Richter
Interactive deck chair and metronome installation. 
Late afternoon, we take the Moscow metro back to our hotel and finally check into our tiny room. 
Our room at Hotel Bulgakov
Hotel Bulgakov Card 

After resting some and Art already savvy with the Moscow metro we ride it to Red Square. I laugh with delight at my first sight of St Basil’s Cathedral. Disneyland pales by comparison. The colorfully painted towers and onion domes of the Cathedral remind me of dragon scales and we wander the plaza looking at the Kremlin and St Basil’s from every direction. 

Saint Basil's Cathedral, Moscow
Marty - Saint Basil's 

It’s a warm and breezy evening and we witness a protester jump a barricade and quickly scale a monumental bronze sculpture of Minin and Pozharsky. He sits briefly in the lap of one of these two larger than life men, a commemoration to freedom of art, literature and science and he waves a triumphant yellow ribbon. Moments later, an officer approaches and peacefully instructs the man to come down, handcuffs him and leads him away. 

Bronze statue to Minin and Pozharsky
Protester climbs the statue and is arrested. 

Tents for a festival are in the process of being set up in front of the red brick walls of the Kremlin and a night market is opening. We wander the stalls of the colorful market and pop out into an upscale outdoor shopping promenade where fairy lights sparkle. 

The State Historical museum near Red Square
Elegant shopping street near Red Square
Gates near the market plaza

Shopping streets lit by fairy lights
Streets lit with fairy lights
Dinner in the Arbat district

Two hours earlier, a Maître-d in front of an elegant restaurant tried to entice us to dine there. We return to the restaurant and are disappointed to learn that they are now fully booked. We have a mediocre meal back in our Arbat district. The street is lined with cafes and restaurants but they all look touristy. We finally choose one with both an indoor and outdoor patio. Diners are drinking bottles of wine on the patio but when we sit down to order, I am told that the restaurant doesn’t have a liquor license and we must bring our own wine. Not to be discouraged, I ask where we might buy a bottle and pop around the corner to a state run liquor store. There is no chilled wine but I choose a room temperature bottle of something white which turns out to be awful. Nevertheless, Art and I enjoy the evening well enough and return to our simple hotel exhausted. 

Thursday, August 15th,  Visiting the Kremlin and the Armory.

Art and our "friend" Marina in front of he Kremlin Palace and Trinity Gate Tower

We didn’t realize that booking a tour to the Kremlin needed to be made weeks in advance. Against Arts wishes, I arranged for an expensive private guide to get us past the literal blockade into the Armory and the Kremlin. Marina, our young private guide meets us in the Arbat district and because of permits required, we agree that on the entire “tour” we will pretend she is a friend, not a guide. The three of us ride the metro together to Red Square and she navigates us to the remote entrance to the Armory. Another “friend” passes her tickets and we wait 30 minutes in line in a light drizzle. Although there are only about 30 people ahead of us, bag security checks take a long time. I didn’t want to visit Moscow and not see the Armory's treasures but we are not allowed to take photographs and although the opulence of treasures are staggering; royal dresses, robes, crowns, armor, weapons and carriages; the excessive bling eventually becomes boring.

The Assumption Cathedral and Ivan the Great Bell Tower
Archangel Cathedral
Golden onion topped spires

Annunciation Cathedral
Archangel Cathedral door fresco
Tsar Bell

From the Armory we walk to the Assumption, Archangel and Annunciation Cathedrals all of which share a common square tucked within the Kremlin walls. Golden onion topped towers glint in the sporadic sunlight and we wait in lines at all three to admire the soaring domes from within and view Russian iconic frescos and the royal burial tombs. Photographs were not allowed inside the Cathedrals.

A peek at Putin's helicopter pad
Surrounding Kremlin park

Kremlin park grounds

It is mid afternoon when our tour ends and our guide suggests we go for late lunch in the Gum shopping mall across from the Kremlin. The beautiful three story steel and glass roofed arcade was built over 100 years ago and is two football fields long. Graceful bridges and walkways span the structure filled with designer shop and upscale cafes. There are many dining options and we choose a bustling cafeteria on the second floor and find a small table on one of the bridge walkways where we can enjoy our meal, people watch and rest our legs.

Gum Department Store arcade
Gum Department Store arcade
Hotel Metropol Portico

We window shop and wander the short distance to Hotel Metropol, an Art Nouveau masterpiece built in the early 1900’s. I hope to splurge on a late afternoon cocktail in the bar of this historic hotel. Art and I straighten our clothes and our posture and mount the stairs to the hotel. A door man opens the door and we stroll through the elegant lobby trying to look as if we belong. I expect the bar to be under the soaring glass roof but it is just off a side wing of the lobby. One look at the designer clad women and well attired business men sipping their cocktails, plus a glance at the drink prices gives us pause. After circumnavigating the bar awkwardly, we make our less than graceful exit.

Caviar, wine and mushroom soup
Cnacckuu Restaurant

The palatial women's restroom

Earlier today Art made a dinner reservation at Cnacckuu Restaurant where we were enticed and then turned away from for dinner last night. We rest and freshen up at our hotel and return to the restaurant to be welcomed by the gregarious Maître-d and seated at a corner window table. The interior glitters with ambience and promise but the service is slow and they are out of both the steamed mussels and the moderately priced caviar. We opt for an inexpensive alternative which is ceremoniously served to us accompanied by thin crepes and several sauces but it is a disappointment. The mushroom soup is overly salty but the remainder of the meal is decent and we wash it down with a good crisp white wine. I pop into the bathroom before our metro trip back to our hotel and am delighted by golden tiles, crystal wall sconces, glistening mirrors and a red and gold brocade chair more suited for Catherine’s Palace. Our bill including tip is about $80.

An after dinner stroll 
Saint Basil's Cathedral illuminated

Flowers and fairy lights 
Saint Basil’s Cathedral is illuminated when we exit, the psychedelic painted towers popping in the night. The shopping promenade is lit with fairy lights and brightly colored beds of flowers bloom.  

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