“Here we are, Arbatskaya!” said my driver dropping me off.
“Is this the centre?” I asked.
“Yes, there’s Novy Arbat, and parallel is Old Arbat and that way’s to the Kremlin.”
“Right, thank you!” I said, thinking: How peculiar!
This was my first taste of the city centre but the huge Novy Arbat was unsettling to say the least.
Walking up and down this enormous long, wide road looking for a bookshop, I thought it unattractive and quite bizarre. Here I was on one of the Capital’s principle roads but its pavements were practically deserted. Only the noise of passing vehicles and cheesy pop music streaming from the casino-turned-shopping-mall accompanied me. I entered a few clothes shops where I was pretty much the sole customer; the bookshop was slightly more popular. Compared with the bustling streets of London, the emptiness and vastness seemed strange and unnatural. I felt out of place, as though I were at the edge of the city not its centre. Even with time I have not acquired a taste for Novy Arbat.
Old Arbat, on the other hand, is completely pedestrianised. There are portrait painters, buskers and entertainers bringing the place to life.
As one of Moscow’s oldest streets, it has a more soulful aspect. Although not as beautiful as some in Paris or London, it resonates with the same chirpy, poetic tune.
At first, I would gravitate towards this street, drawn by its convenience. When I had no internet, Old Arbat came to my rescue as most cafés there have free wifi. You can also count on Old Arbat for a bite to eat and a hot drink whatever the hour. However, it does have TOURIST written all over it so I’ve gone in search of more authentic places.This search has turned rather into a treasure hunt.
Aside from the obviously beautiful parts (Kremlin, Red Square, Christ the Saviour, etc.), everything is very much the same: Big buildings divided by even bigger roads, spacecraft-looking shopping centres with flashing disco lights, bold cafés and restaurant chains, and block after tall flat block on outer residential streets.
Despite this uniformity, Moscow is actually full of quirky nooks and crannies. Some of my favourite places are found up alleyways or in secluded courtyards. I’ve only uncovered these gems being led to them by Russians and I’m always getting lost finding my way back.
Vera and Dim, my trusty guides, took me to a delicious restaurant buried amongst the city’s buildings. The decor was cosy with a Russian twist. There were shelves lined with preserving jars of pickled onions and gherkins and some others with books and rustic Russian crockery. The food was very tasty and all sorts of tea was available. I felt as though Moscow had opened up its secret ‘Sesame’. Indeed, I would never have spotted the place myself even if I’d walked past the courtyard entrance!
Muscovites are the key to inner Moscow (Dim is a walking A-Z of fantastic places to eat out! – Of course I’ll be picking his brain). I’ve been fortunate to meet a number of them, not only through my contacts but also through The English Club, another nook up an alley, where Russians speaking English gather over tea and biscuits. If you can’t speak Russian, clubs like this are a perfect way to make some Moscow friends.
Without a Russian guide, you’d better do your homework! It’s almost impossible to just happen upon a quaint place to eat and drink. Even with simple things such as changing your money or getting a passport photo, you’ll have a job knowing where to go. Money changing is done in mini booths located at the back of shops, up pathways, down underground walkways and near metro and train stations; talk about shady dealing!
Moscow is certainly big, broad and full of hidden surprises. Having been here five months, I have now befriended the Giant. But sadly my tale must come to an abrupt end as to London I return. Mark my words I will be back! There are many more secret passages to discover and Russia’s never-ending land still awaiting me.