The onion domes of St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, Russia.Photo by author
The Red Square defines Moscow - whether in picture books, travel shows or in fabled tales. So, as I stood in front of the onion-domed St Basil Cathedral, a palette of colours, at the centre of the famous square, I felt mesmerised. This is where so many events in Russian history took place, from tsarist times to the great revolution in 1917 launching the Communist Soviet Russia.
According to historical records, Moscow's primacy started in the 12th century. Its founder, Yury Dolgoruky ('the long-armed'), a prince from Kiev in present-day Ukraine, during one of his military operations, stopped by a village by the Moskva river, found it ideal for an outpost, and ordered the construction of a fort and a town.
Now on this hot summer day, hordes of tourists from across the world milled around, their cameras and selfies clicking constantly. Even then the sense of history of the place cannot escape you.
The Red Square, however, has nothing to do with 'red' or its connotation to the idealism of Communism ; it derives its name from the word 'krasnyi', which in old Russian means 'beautiful' (krasnaya ploshad: 'Beautiful Square'), but later came to mean 'red' in contemporary Russian.
Today's bustling Red Square was once a slum, clustered beneath the Kremlin walls; it was home to criminals and drunkards, and so, not allowed to stay inside the fort walls. In late 1400, 'Grand Prince' Ivan III ordered it to be cleared but the area still remained dubious where public executions took place.
Like no other
At the heart of the square is the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed, commonly known as Saint Basil's Cathedral, with its multicoloured domes. The first tsar of Russia, Ivan IV, better known as Ivan the Terrible, ordered the construction of the cathedral in 1552 to celebrate a victory over Mongol forces. Legends say that the architects Barma and Postnik Yakovlev were blinded by the tsar afterwards so that they could not repeat the design.
The cathedral is now a museum. I bought a ticket to check the interior. The central church with its beautiful high dome is reached by a wooden spiral staircase. Inside, the narrow, winding paths are skirted by walls covered in colourful paintwork which lead to different rooms. While I was admiring their intricate work, from somewhere a baritone voice singing a choir song filled the air, and instantly I was transported to the Middle Age.
In the past, Moscow was often called 'the Third Rome', the eastern centre of Christianity after the fall of Constantinople. The Russian rulers vied with each other to construct beautiful cathedrals which belong to the Russian Orthodox church.
Opposite the Cathedral is the imposing Kremlin (from kreml = fort) with its red-coloured walls. You think of the complex only in the context of the ruling class, of government officials discussing strategies during the Cold War, and the secretive dealings. But entering beyond the walls into the vast area spread over 27 hectares revealed a whole world. This was the official residence of many kings where they also built their own churches.
The most important is the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, the oldest church in the Kremlin and the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian emperors were crowned here; wedding ceremonies of kings were held, patriarchs of the church and bishops were also consecrated here. Inside, frescoes done by various artists in the 17th century depicting Mary & Jesus, and patriarchs rise from the base to all the way up to the ceiling. It's quite awesome. As you leave from the western-side door, tarry a bit to look up at the monumental composition of The Judgment Day, an important concept for the Christians when the time of reckoning will come.
Many paintings are missing though, due to its chequered history. When Napoleon attacked Moscow, his troops used this awesome complex as a stable. During the Russian revolution, it was damaged in the crossfire of opposing parties. Then the Cathedral was closed and its treasures requisitioned by the Bolsheviks. It reopened to the public only in 1990.
Kremlin also has a number of museums. The most famous are the Armoury collection and the Diamond fund. Alas! Due to the heavy rush of visitors, I could not purchase a ticket to enjoy this astonishing collection despite standing in the queue for 45 minutes. The authorities allow only a certain number of visitors at a time.There are so many other attractions to see in the Kremlin - the Lenin Mausoleum, the Eternal Flame commemorating the unknown soldiers killed inWorld War II, the Tsar Bell (the broken bell), largest in the world, and the Cannon - that it might take even a full day.
The majestic Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, not far from the Red Square, with its vast copper domes is worth a visit too. Originally commissioned after the defeat of Napoleon and designed in Byzantine-revival style, the interior is enormous and exquisite with intricate work... Photography is not allowed inside, so you can only bring back memories of its grandeur.
On the eastern side of the Red Square lies a completely different building, modern in style, but no less famous. It's Russia's most famous shopping mall, GUM, a state department store which was completed in 1893. With its steel framework and glass roof, it was the largest shopping centre in Europe at the end of the 19th century. It is now home to some of the most exclusive boutiques, which may not suit everybody's pocket. But the building itself, a covered market, is so pretty that walking around, window-shopping, buying food, even having a meal are worth it. Or you can lick on an ice cream cone, famous for its authenticity, from one of the kiosks. I assure you, the ice cream is good and available in many unusual flavours.
Though the problem of language could be a deterrent at times (most people don't speak English), try your ingenuity, and with a map in hand, do explore the Metro subway, which is really a cheap way to travel compared to the taxis.
Opened in 1935, it's not the oldest in the world (London's is) but ranked the most beautiful. Artworks, tiles and stones in different colours adorn the stations.
Take a walk on Old Arbat, a pedestrian-only street lined with souvenir stalls, artists displaying their work, and food stalls. Or just sit on a bench and enjoy the ambience. I needed more time to explore Moscow - to visit the Pushkin Museum, the Historical Museum in the Red Square, the Sculpture Garden with abandoned statues including those from the Soviet era, etc. I did not have that luxury. But there could be another time, and who knows...