A Blue In Red Square

By Michael Hammond, Wed 06 November 2013 11:43

A Blue In Red SquareMike Hammond on a unique trip to Moscow

In common with (very) many City fans, my formative years were a study in masochism, upset and self-depreciation. ‘We never win at home and we never win away’ might seem now like an amusingly ironic song, but for many of us it happened to be the soundtrack to the first 20 years of our lives. At the same time, Liverpool, Villa, Spurs and Everton were conquering Europe and the TV would beam into our living room images from exotic locations of casually dressed young men living the high life following their club across the continent.

During this time (the glory years I’ll call them) the nearest I came to seeing City in Europe was….. Well there wasn’t a nearest. Let’s face it, we were shit. I did make myself a promise though – if we ever made it I’d be there. Looking back, this was an easy promise to make, like saying I’d leave my wife if Michelle Pfeifer ever turned up in my local. A possibility yes, not very likely though.

Fast forward a few years and I’ve been lucky enough to make good on my promise more times than is good for either my bank balance or my home life. It seems trite and (a little ‘small-time’?) to say it, but I’m having the time of my life (those of you who follow me on twitter may well have already worked this out - @Mikenumber5) and have made some fantastic friends on these trips. When the draw was made for the 2013/14 Champions’ League group stages there really was one tie above all others that stood out.

When you think of Russia and Moscow what’s the first thing that comes to mind? I’m thinking of queues for loaves of bread and thousands of tanks rolling through Red Square demonstrating the might of the USSR. I’m also thinking about bitter cold weather, Cold War spy movies and politicking that can divide families and nations. On the whole though, I’m thinking how god damn miserable everyone in the Soviet Block seems to be.

I don’t know about you but I’d never dreamed I’d go to Russia. It never even crossed my mind. It seems an exotic, bewitching and bewildering place to go. Add in the red tape and the expense and it makes it more of an expedition than a holiday. So first things first, we had to get there.

This proved, on the whole, pretty straight forward. Easyjet fly direct from Manchester for one thing! We also used a very small independent travel agency specialising in trips to hard to get to places to sort out the visa and accommodation. Lupine Travel could not have been more helpful and held our hand through the whole process from first e-mail enquiry to boarding the return flight home. Recommended.

So what’s Moscow like? First impressions: Chaos. The drive from airport to hotel was like a cross between the Indy 500 and a stock-car race. I’m not ashamed to say I was terrified. It’s also big – big 5 lane motorways, big buildings, big shopping centres, big statues of Lenin and big hotels. Big.

We arrived late, so after a quick check-in, it was time to explore. Our hotel was built on the outskirts of Moscow in preparation for the 1980 Olympic Games. Sitting on a Metro line, it was only 5 stops from Red Square so pretty easy to get about. That first night however was spent in an around the bars, restaurants and shops of the hotel, and I won’t lie to you, it was a shambles.

“Fancy another refreshing shot of ice cold vodka Mike”?

“No thanks Neil, I’m fucked”

“Don’t forget we’re 3 hours ahead – its only 02:00am at home!”

“ok pal, sling it over – and can you ask the belly dancer to jiggle a little more?”

This was the night we nearly stole a coach… Like I say, pretty poor show but I must say it set the tone for the trip.

So what of Moscow itself? Well, aesthetically it’s a bit of a curate’s egg. Part wonderfully ornate city part Eastern bloc chic, but it is evolving. The face of the city is changing at a blinding pace: Parks are being redesigned, trees are being planted, and a network of pavements is being created. Last year, the city saw a record number of tourists, with five million people visiting the Russian capital. It’s predicted that the figure will increase by another 500,000 visitors this year.

I’m sure this would increase even more if they made the visa process more accessible and user friendly - and there’s the dichotomy of this place - old habits die hard. One the one hand a progressive city open to inward investment and cultural tourism – on the other it still has an image problem which isn’t helped if your first contact with the country is an unfathomable and expensive visa process.

Moscow reminded me in so many ways of Paris. The Moskva River runs through the centre of the city and is an attraction in itself. You will know all about the Kremlin, Bolshoi theatre and St. Basil’s Cathedral (Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed) but I don’t think anything can prepare you for the beauty of the place – particularly at night. There are of course many examples of old school communist style grey buildings but the city has a modern and lively feel.

One of the highlights of the city is the area around the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour – not only is the cathedral one of the largest in the world with superb golden domes visible across the whole city, but the interior is truly awe-inspiring, which I guess is the purpose?

On the opposite bank of the river to the Cathedral is the Strelka area. Housed on a large ‘island’ this boasts a trendy (if expensive) series of bars and restaurants many of which are housed inside a renovated chocolate factory. You don’t get asked “how would you like your burger cooking”? (Medium rare ta) in McDonalds – but then you don’t get charged nearly £16 for it so swings and roundabouts…

Towering over the area is one of the largest (8th), and weirdest statues in the world. It’s a depiction of Peter the Great stood on a boat and it genuinely makes you laugh it’s so odd. To make it even better, Peter the Great hated Moscow and moved the capital to St. Petersburg, so the current mayor of Moscow is trying to find somewhere to take it off their hands. I love this place!

Getting around Moscow is pretty easy. Once you get beyond Cyrillic script, the Metro is not only efficient and clean, but it’s an adventure in itself. I should say that it’s busy though. Bloody busy. No matter what time of day or night it is the trains are invariably packed. But as there’s another train coming in 2 or 3 minutes it’s rarely a problem.

Many of the stations are works of art in themselves. The Moscow Metro was one of the USSR’s most extravagant architectural projects. Stalin ordered the metro’s artists and architects to design an underground communist paradise. It was a glorious and extravagant present to the people of Russia in return for their sacrifices. I spent a morning with my dad just hopping off and on at various stations (TRAIN SPOTTERS!!!) to check them out. I’m going to whisper it here but - it was one of the highlights of trip.

There are loads of city spaces and parks in central Moscow. Probably the most famous one to us westerners is Gorky Park. I think it’s more attractive in the summer, when the boating lakes and Ferris wheels are operating, but it’s a lovely place for a quiet walk in the middle of the city. It also boasts a full size Space Shuttle! Of course it does. The only downside to the place is that you will spend the rest of the day whistling ‘The Winds of Change’ by The Scorpions. Fuck! I’m even whistling it now.

There’s plenty of bars and café’s around, and Moscow is one of the most connected city’s I’ve ever been too. Virtually everywhere you go there is free Wi-Fi available so staying in touch with home and travelling companions is easy. This also means that you can maintain hourly contact with twitter – and it was through twitter that we met 2 very different and gracious hosts.

Firstly, we met up with CSKA fan Sergei after the match. We had been chatting on twitter for a couple of days since I posted some pictures and incorrectly identified the locations of them! We met him in Red Square at midnight (John Le Carré anyone?) and his first words were “We hate Manchester United”. From that moment on we got on like a house on fire. Sergei works for the government (and isn’t allowed to leave Russia - pretty quickly glossed over), but I’m not sure doing what. He is, however, a lovely fella and we spent the next 3 hours over a fair few beers getting to know a little more about life in Russia in general and Moscow in particular. His girlfriend lives 1600 km’s away, so it’s maybe not surprising he had time to meet up with a group of Mancs and show us around.

The drive back to the hotel was amazing. Granted I was leathered, but whizzing through central Moscow at 4am passing some of the great sights on (almost) empty roads was a real buzz. We’re in Moscow baby!

The following day we met up with the most generous and beautiful expat in Moscow. Ruth has lived in Russia for nearly a decade, and with only the most tenuous connection – a friend of a friend through twitter - she took us on a mini guided tour which ended up at the (non-descript) door of an amazing Georgian restaurant. Four Mancunians, some with hangovers, really appreciated the opportunity to enjoy an experience that we would never have found on our own. And FYI – Georgian food is tremendous – Try the spicy lamb soup!