It didn’t take long to reach the Holiday Inn hotel which meant that we were a bit too early for room check-in but Galina stamped her feet and wagged her finger in an authoritarian sort of way and the prospect of an hours wait was reduced to a few minutes and very quickly we were allocated keys and soon we were in our room on the eighth floor with a good view of the surrounding area but with a locked down mini-bar which meant that I had to make an urgent visit to the mini-market next door.
Soon after this I joined some others from the tour and we walked to a nearby shopping centre with a modern supermarket complex where I thought it was time to purchase a small bottle of vodka. Making a choice was difficult because there was a huge and confusing selection to choose from and rather like port wine in Portugal a massive range in prices from very cheap to very expensive. I didn’t want something that would strip paint or anything from the top of the range connoisseur collection so I opted for a modestly priced bottle of ‘Russian Standard’ in a rather attractive bottle and much closer to the cheap end of the range than the expensive.
The Holiday Inn in Moscow was an immediate improvement on the Hotel Prybaltiyskaya in Saint-Petersburg but it was every bit as expensive and when one man on the tour paid £11 for a vodka and tonic that immediately ruled out a pre-dinner drink in the bar. It was a good restaurant and the buffet dinner was excellent but we didn’t stay around chatting for very long because the plan now was to use the Metro to go back to the city and visit Arbatskaya Prospekt which is one of the oldest parts of the city and a popular place with tourists. There was an optional organised tour available through the travel company but at £21 each this seemed rather expensive to us so we spent 50p each on a metro ticket instead and set off.
It was only a few stops on the metro and within fifteen minutes we were taking the escalator from Smolenskaya station back to street level and on to the pedestrianised main street lined with historic churches, timber houses and nineteenth century mansions all overshadowed by the nearby Foreign Ministry building, one of Stalin’s Gothic skyscrapers and the nearby Soviet apartment blocks built on New Arbat.
Arbatskaya was traditionally a place for professional, skilled artisans and intellectuals, scholars, poets, musicians and writers. Famous people who lived on this street include Alexander Pushkin, the composer Aleksandr Skyrabin, the novelist Andrei Bely and the radical free-thinker Aleksandr Herzen.
The street retains a bohemian atmosphere and style and on both sides squeezed in between the cafés and tourist shops are antique shops, quirky boutiques and book stalls all painted in pastel shades of blue, green, lemon and ochre. Every few metres or so there were street artists, buskers, dancers and entertainers and our visit coincided with what seemed to be a change of emphasis as the street traders who had been there all day were packing and making way for more and more impromptu entertainers.
We made a swift visit to the Pushkin House Museum which had an interesting exhibition of how Moscow may have looked before the Napoleonic occupation and great fire of 1812 and then we were enticed into a souvenir shop selling amber jewellery and Matryoshka dolls but not being in the mood for shopping even with the offer of 50% discount on everything we promised to come back sometime in the next two days.
The street is about one kilometre long and after we had walked three quarters of the way along we agreed that it was time to turn around and walk back to the metro station and return to the hotel. The Moscow metro isn’t quite so easy to use as the one in Saint-Petersburg mostly because the city is reluctant to spoil its decorated stations with English place names so everything is in difficult to understand cyrillic Russian which is a bit of a challenge and so there is an element of ‘hit and hope’ when using it. We got back safely enough though and walked from the station at Rizhskaya through a long concrete underpass lined with small underground shops and crowds of people making their way back and forth under the busy main road overhead.
On account of the prices we bypassed the bar on the way back to our room and before turning out the lights on a busy day sampled the ‘Russian Classic’ vodka in the Russian classic way of deep breaths and ‘down in one’ which was an interesting experience but I have to say that I would have preferred a gin and tonic!