Exploring the UK: Edinburgh.

Edinburgh – the city in the North of the UK. With 493,000 inhabitants it is the second largest city in Scotland (number 7 in the UK, apparently). The city is famous for bagpipes & kilts, the castle, the sheep Dolly (the world’s first cloned mammal) and being the birthplace of Harry Potter (the books’, not the boy’). And it seemed to be a very popular travel destination in 2017. A few years ago, during the time when I was living and studying in the UK, a few friends and I decided to take a trip up North to take a closer look at the city ourselves.

The city

Edinburgh is located in the Northeast of the UK, but actually more or less in the South of Scotland, and lies on the Southern shores of the Firth of Forth. The Old and New Town of Edinburgh are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Edinburgh (and Scotland in general) has a rich history, and you’ll be able to find numerous books and papers on this topic. The city’s history began thousands of years ago (around 8,500 BC), and – as it was the case with so many other bigger cities – during the Middle Ages, a hill fort was established and became a royal residence for the Kings of Scotland. Since the 15th century, Edinburgh has been known as the capital of Scotland and used to be the biggest city in the area until it was outgrown by Glasgow at the beginning of the 19th century. In 1707 Scotland was united with the English Crown and from that on it had the same sovereign, flag, and parliament as England. At the end of the 20th century, a referendum lead to the creation of a Scottish Parliament with its seat in Edinburgh.

The sights & stories

I’ve mentioned this before in other city trips, but a great way of getting to know a city and its history and stories is by taking part in a (free) walking tour. This might also be a good way of getting to know other people, and the local tour guide will give you great tips on what to do and where to eat. So we joined a free walking tour and lucky us, the weather was quite alright even though it was January and thus mid-winter. Only a bit rainy at times, but not too cold, and the sun was out from time to time.

We spent some time on the Royal Mile, which is the main street of the Old Town, saw the typical tourist spots like the City Chambers & Royal Exchange, St Giles Cathedral, the Scotts Monument, and so on. The most memorable points & stories of our walking tour were definitely Greyfriars Kirkyard and Elephant House (and a story about the Stone of Destiny).

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As mentioned before, the city is the birthplace of Harry Potter as it is the hometown of J.K.Rowling. There is one café, the Elephant House, where the author spent many hours there to write the first book of the magnificent story of the boy who lived. In this café, one has an excellent view over a cemetery and other great buildings, and if you visit the graveyard you’ll be able to spot many names that were used in the books, such as McGonagall, (Mad-Eye) Moodie, Riddle etc. According to our guide, other buildings of the town were also a great inspiration for her, the nearby school with its four towers is one example which she apparently used as a basis for the school of wizardry and witchcraft.

Despite all the fame the cafe receives, it does not sell any kind of merchandise and there is no Harry Potter theme in there (or at least there wasn’t any back then when I was visiting). So it’s rather a normal café with just many elephants in there (which is not so ‘normal’ I guess). The only probably not regular thing for a café in there was that every table had a drawer in which you’d find pencils and pieces of paper so you could start your own novel there. Many people had left notes, poems, or short stories in those drawers and we joined them with our own piece of paper.

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The graveyard near the café, Greyfriars Kirkyard, where Rowling got her name inspiration, is also associated with the tale of Greyfriars Bobby. He was a very special Skye Terrier, very loyal to his master as he stood guard over his grave for 13 years in the 19th century. Now, the little dog has his own headstone at the entrance of the cemetery, which marks the actual burial place, and a statue of the dog stands opposite of the graveyard’s gate plus a pub with his name. Cool, huh? The dog statue has a golden snout, and rubbing it brings luck apparently. It so happened that on the day that we were visiting the graveyard, it was the dying day of the dog, and a school group, bagpipe players, the mayor of Edinburgh, and other people were there to celebrate the whole thing.

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A visit to the Edinburgh Castle is a definite must if you ever visit this city. The castle thrones over the city, and from up there one has a great view over the city and the nearby sea.

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The bottom line

We stayed a total of three nights and four days in the city, and we took a very cheap bus from Sheffield to Edinburgh. Despite it being a rather exhausting trip (6 hours one way) I’d recommend checking the busses and coaches in the UK if you ever wanna travel there and can’t catch a direct flight to the city. We stayed in a cheap hostel in the centre of the city right next to the Royal Mile. The hostel was nothing special, but it wasn’t bad either. We were really lucky with our room, and as we were spending most of the time outdoors exploring the city anyways, our accommodation didn’t really matter to us (plus, we were all students so we didn’t want to spend too much on it).

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The capital of Scotland is very very beautiful and I immediately fell in love with it. The mix of the gloominess of the winter season and the architecture of the city was what I liked best. I just loved the dark facades of some buildings and the feeling there in general. I definitely want to come back to Scotland to see more of the surroundings, especially the highlands, and I want to revisit Edinburgh. There are a few places in town that I would not go to a second time or activities that I wouldn’t do again (like going inside the castle… a bit too boring for my taste). But back then when I was an undergrad student, my way of travelling and exploring a city was so different to the way I’m travelling now, so I guess I’d be seeing the city from another point of view :D

University in Moscow

When travelling I like to visit university buildings as they are usually among the oldest buildings of the town and therefore quite impressive. Being a student myself it is always interesting to see other facilities and how well-equipped or not so well-equipped educational buildings in other countries are. As I was taking part in a student exchange in Moscow, I got to see this up close on a daily basis!

Apparently, there are almost 900 universities in Russia, and Moscow is the educational centre of the country, which has been like that since the USSR. There are more than 200 institutes of higher education and 60 state universities and 90 colleges. Most of them are centred around one specific field (i.e. aviation, economics, medicine) and only some of them have a wide-spectrum, such as the State University of Moscow. Russian universities are (mostly?) tuition based, which depends on the subject studied. It starts from 64,000 roubles a year (around 1,000 EUR) to 344,000 roubles a year (5,400 EUR) for the most prestigious universities.

Most of the universities also offer dorms for their students on their campus or near the universities at a relatively or very low price in comparison to the rent of a standard apartment in the city. Another great advantage of the universities in Russia is that they typically have their own sports facilities in order for the students to participate in uni sports teams or  just to work out.

The beautiful one

The Lomonosov Moscow State University – short MSU (or in Russian МГУ because of Московский государственный университет имени М. В. Ломоносова) – is one of the most impressive buildings that I saw in Moscow or even in Russia. The university itself was founded in 1755 by Mikhail Lomonossov, hence the name which the university received in 1940. It offers a wide-spectrum of programmes, so it is not centralised around one specific field.

The main building of the university was designed by the famous Lev Rudner, erected in the 1950s. Not only is it supposedly the tallest educational building in the world, but also the highest one of the famous seven Stalinist skyscrapers of Moscow. Apparently, inside the building there are a total of 33 kilometres of corridors and 5,000 rooms – quite impressive and a lot to walk if you’re an unlucky student. The university itself is home to around 47,000 students.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to just go inside the building as you have to work there, be a student, or have a special entry card, as security in such buildings is taken really seriously. So I only got to see it from the outside which was still worth the time it took to get there. I had to take the red line on the metro to the station ‘Universitet’ and then walk for another 15 minutes in order to reach the main building.

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My host university

My host university from my semester abroad was, however, not the grand State University but the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics, short PRUE (Российский экономический университет имени Г.В. Плеханова). It is also one of the public universities of Moscow, and opposed to the MSU the university is one with a narrow specialisation, as the name already tells. The university’s foundation dates back to 1907, so it is not as old as MSU, but it was the first finance-specialised college in the Russian Empire. In the course of the Soviet era, PRUE became bigger and recognised as one of Russia’s most prestigious universities.  PRUE even has its own TV channel which is called ‘Plekhanov TV’!

Plekhanov university has around 14,000 students – not a lot in comparison with the State university – but the building/campus is rather small and the university is specialised. Also, in my opinion the location of PRUE is much better. The university has 8 buildings which are right next to each other, and it is situated in the city center and only two metro stations away from the Red Square. So I could not have been more lucky with its location as I wanted to see as much possible from Moscow without having the need to spend a lot of time on public transport.

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I must say that I was not very impressed by the university building itself, but I was being spoiled with mostly attending ‘brand-new built’ universities so far, and it unfortunately did not have the charm of the ancient universities such as the MSU. Nonetheless, it is the inside that counts, right? When entering the main building (which is building number 3 funnily) you are first greeted by safety gates and columns with mirrors, so students can make themselves pretty for classes I assume ;) Right next to the entrance is a small memorial with an ‘eternal flame’ which can be found on so many places throughout Russia. In general, the building is not bad for a university, but also not impressive in my eyes. I also think that the interior – especially some of the old and very very very uncomfortable wood benches – should be replaced.

University Life

In general, university life in Russia is similar to other universities in Europe, as we had lectures and seminars, presentations, group works, tests and exams. However, in my opinion the academic level is still lacking behind in comparison to the universities that I have attended so far in Western Europe. The system for graduates at PRUE was slightly different as master students only had classes in the evening (Russians usually work full-time during the day) and there is no mandatory attendance (but it helps getting a better grade sometimes).

What I especially liked:

  • My programme coordinator / my programme in general. The people responsible for my programme and us international graduates seemed to be very laissez faire in comparison to the bachelor student’s coordinator. We had more freedom in terms of negotiating certain administrative things and my coordinator even made the schedule in accordance with my wishes of doing additional courses to get more credits. At other universities abroad something like that would have never been possible and I wouldn’t even have dared asking that.
  • Location. My university & the dorm were situated right next to one and very near to another metro station, so travelling was very easy and comfortable for us. Plus, there were many supermarkets, restaurants and bars nearby.
  • The Buddy system. I already touched upon it in this blogpost in which I explained that some Russian PRUE students take responsibility for us internationals and take us places, help us out when needed, and just try to make the best out of our stay. With them we got to see cool places in the city and watch ballets and musical for almost free. Plus, in the end some of us became friends as well!
  • Nothing is set in stone. Just one example: even though we were supposed to have one presentation, a test and en exam in a course that we weren’t even able to attend, it turned out that we only had to listen to a few presentations and do a short test on principles of management. I’m not complaining. Also, I was lacking a few credits (as I couldn’t take one course) they just fixed it for me.

 

What I especially did not like:

  • The complex university building. I never got the knack out of it in which direction inside the main building I have to go in order to get to the room that I had been going to for weeks. Of course I remembered which floor to get on (most of the times) but I could never recall if I should turn left or right. Plus, come on, where were the toilets? There was none for women on the fourth floor, there was one on the third (or was it on the fifth?) that was always locked, and one did not have a sign. Or am I mixing it all up now? See, I am still confused with the stupid building and yes, I know, it is probably just my own fault and the poor university cannot take responsibility for stupid people like me.
  • Bureaucracy. A major downside of Russian universities that we exchange students experienced was the immense bureaucracy of the country / university. Getting something done like getting a signature, extending our visa, or even paying for the dorm could take hours, days, weeks or even months! I ended up not applying for the ‘social card’ which is a metro card for a very cheap price for students as my peers only got theirs at the beginning of/mid-December and I was about to leave by then already.
  • Nothing is set in stone. Up until one week before the end of one course no one knew how we would get our grades – not even the professor as someone else was giving instructions to him but they neglected to do that in a timely manner. So one week before the last class we got the news that we had to write a group paper and prepare for a presentation plus something like an oral exam/questioning thing. Fun times.

 

There are lots of other things that I liked and disliked but I just picked the ones that stick out in my head the most. I met great people, and I had a few really interesting courses with interesting professors. I also had courses that I did not like, professors that obviously had no idea what they were talking about or who did not once accept a different opinion on a subject. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t want to miss it for the world. For me, a study exchange should never only be about the academic side of it but more about experiencing and getting to know another country and culture and the people who live there!

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Looking back at the adventures of 2016.

We are already more than a week in 2017 and only now I got around to looking back at 2016. I ended 2016 sick and started 2017 sick – the flu got me. I mostly slept through Christmas and New Years and only now had time to review my past year – what I’ve been up to, what I have accomplished and what my plans for the future might be.

January & February

The first few months of 2016 started with taking a step back from all the things that have been bothering me for such a long time. I realised that it’s not a big deal to blank an exam and just re-do it a couple of months later. I spent a lot of time with my family, my friends and my pets to get the needed motivation for my studies and my life in general.

March

After a personal setback in February I managed to get back on track with everything. At the beginning of March I went on my first travel adventure of the year with my boyfriend: Budapest, one of my favourite cities. It was my second time in the city and my boyfriend’s first, so we did a lot of exploring and a lot of sightseeing. We also got to enjoy some really delicious vegetarian dishes and desserts in some really cool places in Budapest – my favourite still being Mazel Tov where I had the best hummus in a great location.

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April

In April my sister and my cousin came to visit me in Copenhagen and I had to be a tour guide and show them the most interesting sights in town. I hope I did a good job! I also flew home to Austria in April to host my sister’s bachelorette party, attend the ‘Long Night of Research‘ at the UNO headquarters, and celebrate my own birthday in Vienna.

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Birthday

May

In May two of my best friends came to visit me in Copenhagen, so I was back in my role as a tour guide. May was also the time when I finished my classes at university, moved out of my apartment in Copenhagen and back home, and helped my sister prepare for her big day in June. So May was full of university, enjoying my last days in Copenhagen with my friends, saying goodbye to my favourite places, but also catching up with my people in Vienna. May was also a ‘big month’ for Austria as the presidential election mayhem started. (Summary of the mayhem: we voted from a pool of 7 people, 2 weeks later was the run-off vote, the good guy won, the result was very tight though, the ‘losing’ party sued, elections were supposed to be held again in October, something was wrong with the envelopes so they rescheduled again, the final election was in December and the good guy won again.)

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June

June was the big month for my sister. She had her wedding and I was her maid of honour. What an honour. haha. I had my first manicure & pedicure (didn’t like it), I got to drive a Tesla car for the first time, and I got to ‘enjoy’ all the wedding traditions for the first time. Even the stupid ones. yay. However, June was also the month where I had to finish all my exams and I had to return to CPH for oral exams. This was my final time in Copenhagen for 2016 as I wasn’t returning in fall. June was also the month in which the EURO 2016 happened and Austria was part of it for a little while. And it was the month in which I finally got to spend some time at home and not worry about university or life.

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July

July was my big travel month. Together with my boyfriend I managed to travel a lot through Austria. We spent a few days with his grandparents in Carinthia where we could explore the southern parts of Austria – something I haven’t managed to do before. I visited Klagenfurt and Lienz for the first time, I saw some beautiful lakes such as the Wörthersee and Weißensee. My boyfriend and I also travelled to the western end of Austria – Bregenz and Feldkirch, which also gave us the perfect opportunity to go on day trips to our neighbours Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Vaduz turned out to be a very cute but really expensive city located in a valley which is surrounded by beautiful mountains. Zürich was really really beautiful and one day wasn’t enough. Not at all! At the end of July, my sister, my bf and I took my mom to Italy as she has always dreamed about going to Venice. On our way there we also spent some time in Udine and on the beach in Caorle. Our family trip has been great and my mom really enjoyed it.

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August

August was a bit calmer, more relaxing, not so hectic. I still managed to travel to another neighbour and see the Czech town Brno. We were just a day there but it was totally worth the trip. In August I spent a lot of time at home with my family and friends. Enjoying the nature and good food was the motto of the month. Plus I had to organise a lot for my exciting plans for the rest of the year.

September

September was the month of the big move and the start of something exciting: my exchange semester in Moscow! It was a thrilling first month in Russia – full of new impressions, meeting new people, adapting to the local culture, trying to speak Russian after some years again. Really exciting I must say but also hard as I had to say goodbye again to my home, my family, my friends and my boyfriend.

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October

October was the month in which I truly arrived in Russia. I had settled in, established closer bonds with the people that I felt most comfortable with and did a lot of sightseeing already. I also went on my first trip to another city in Russia. I hopped on a train to see Nizhny Novgorod with my friends, a good place not too far away from Moscow and perfect for seeing something less polished and more ‘real’.

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November

November was my real travel month in Russia. My boyfriend came to visit me and despite all the sightseeing we did in Moscow, we also spent some time outside of the city and explored part of the ‘Golden Ring’ (towns near Moscow). We saw the snow-covered Yaroslavl with its beautiful promenade along the frozen Wolga and we also spent a day in Rostov Veliky to see the white kremlin that is located on the then frozen lake Nero.The most exciting adventure in November, however, was the trip to Murmansk – the biggest arctic city in the world and the northernmost place I have visited so far.

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December

In December my family came to visit me in Moscow. I was once again a tour guide and showed them the most interesting sights and of course the local cuisine. I also went on my last city trip and saw Kazan with its beautiful white kremlin and the amazing mosque inside it. Of course December was also all about looking at beautiful decorations and going to Christmas markets. I also managed to see a ballet in the famous Bolshoy theatre. Unfortunately, December was also full of saying goodbye to a beautiful city, an interesting country, and – moreover – some great people that I will deeply miss. However, it was also great to see my family, friends, pets and boyfriend again. I have missed them.

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Even though I had to end the old year and start the new one in bed with the flu and a sick boyfriend beside me (and some other sad things on my mind), I could only think positively about 2017. All the good memories that I made in 2016, all the great places that I travelled to, all the great people that I met. I already have a lot on my mind what I want to do and where I want to travel to in 2017.

So here’s to the new year and to new experiences!

Exploring Russian cuisine.

I have always been warned that I will be having a hard time finding vegetarian or vegan dishes, especially traditional / local food. As I have travelled to Russia before I knew that it might be tricky sometimes but having a sweet tooth anyways made it a lot easier for me to find dishes that I liked.

In the past four month I was able to try various local dishes in various restaurants not only in Moscow but also in the cities that I’ve travelled to. As a food enthusiast I am always open to try new dishes. However, being a vegetarian has it made a bit difficult sometimes but I never went hungry. Except that one time. But that was just an unfortunate event. So in my opinion there are several places that one should definitely check out if they are vegetarian or vegan, or just want something without meat or fish.

Favourite local food

Blinchiki

Bliny – or блинчики (blinchiki) in Russian – are thin pancakes made from buckwheat flour. They can be served savory or sweet, with sour cream, butter, or even caviar.

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Varenyky

Varenyky – which are also known as pierogi – are filled dumplings. Inside the wrapping dough pockets there is either a savory or a sweet filling. I usually had them with a potato filling and Smetana (sour cream) served on the side.

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Pelmeny

Pelmeny – пельме́ни – are dumplings that are usually filled with minced meat and made out of a thin, unleavened dough. These dumplings seemed to be the most popular ones among us foreign students as you could buy them everywhere. Some could eat them every day. Even twice per day. But I won’t say any names on here. It wasn’t me.

Khachapuri

This traditional Georgian dish is a bread that is filled with cheese in the middle. It comes in various shapes and sometimes contains eggs and other ingredients.

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Syrniki

Cы́рники are fried quark pancakes that are usually eaten with sour cream, jam, or honey. I’ve got to know them on my first stay in Russia a few years ago when our host grandmother made them for us. Since then I have even tried them a few times myself but I still haven’t perfected them. Syrniki are my go-to dish in a restaurant where I don’t want to ask too many questions about ingredients and such or when I am just in the mood for something small.

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Another thing that no one should miss out on doing is getting ice cream at the GUM – the department store on the red square. It is the most legendary Soviet ice cream that comes in various flavours and is served in a waffle cone. It is sold inside the GUM at various ice cream counters year round.

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Favourite Restaurants and Bars

Cafe Sok -Кафе СОК

Cafe Sok is not only a café but they also offer a wide variety of Russian, Georgian, Indian, and Italian dishes. All of them are vegetarian and some are even vegan. It is located opposite of the famous Tretyakov Gallery, more or less in the centre of Moscow.

This restaurant has become my favourite place as every dish that I have tried so far turned out to be delicious, the food arrangement was perfect as well, and the staff has always been very accommodating and helpful. When my boyfriend was visiting we even saw part of a wedding dinner there, so we could see some traditional stuff there as well.

In Cafe Sok I was also able to try Borscht, the famous beetroot soup that is popular in various Eastern European cuisines. As soups in Russia usually either contain meat or are made from a meat stock, I can never just order soup in ‘normal’ restaurants (or at least I don’t trust to). I’ve become a beetroot fan so I recommend everyone to try this soup at least once.

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Phala

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Borscht

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Vareniki with potatoes and mushrooms

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Raw cakes with figs

Jagannath

Кафе «Джаганнат» – Jagannath – is a vegetarian restaurant/buffet in the centre of Moscow. It exudes a somewhat hippy style due to the interior design and the music that is played there.

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Jamie’s Italian

Right next to the Red Square is the location of one of Jamie Oliver’s restaurants – Jamie’s Italian.

City Space Bar

The bar is located inside the Swissotel on the 34th floor. The City Space Bar is one of the highest bars in Moscow and from up there you have a beautiful panoramic view over the city. Even though that the drinks are a bit pricy it is very stylish and fancy there, and the view is really amazing!

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Cafe Pushkin

The Café Pushkin is actually not a café but a five-star restaurant, that is open 24 hours a day. The waiters speak very good English and the service is excellent. The restaurant is located on Tverskoy Boulevard and serves historic fare of Russian nobility. Everything inside looks really fancy, the waiters are educated in the perfect manner. Prices are slightly high, but it’s definitely worth the location and the food and drinks.

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Coffee House culture in Moscow

Coffee Shop Company

There are quite a lot of coffee places in Moscow, and it is even possible to find some Viennese among them. The Coffee Shop Company chain is one perfect example for that. Regarding the prices, it has a level of around Starbucks, and the choices are relatively similar as well. But it is Austrian! They even offer Sacher Torte there. It is possible to find them all over Moscow (and in other cities of Russia as well), and there is one right next to my university.

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Schokoladnitsa

The Шоколадница is one of the biggest and most famous coffee shop chains in Russia. The price is very good in there, and they have a variety of drinks and dishes to choose from. You can even order a cup of pure melted chocolate. Very delicious but very heavy!

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Coffee House

Кофе Хауз is yet another Russian coffee shop chain. Prices are very low, they have a good variety of cake and the cafés are also located all over town. There is also one located near where I was living and it used to be the place that we sometimes went to for having a birthday cake. However, the staff is very slow to respond and sometimes forgets half of the order. The cakes are delicious nevertheless!

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Foodwise there is a lot to explore in Russia, even if you don’t eat meat. It is true, sometimes it is a bit more work or effort – you always need to double or triple check and ask the waiter for specifics.

 

East meets West: Kazan.

A while ago when doing research about potential travel destinations within Russia I came across Kazan. I haven’t really heard much about the city before, I only knew that it was one of the megapolises of Russia. A quick google search told me that the architecture was supposed to be different from other Russian cities so of course I was hooked immediately and the decision was made to go there at some point. Some friends were easily convinced to tag along, so my old travel pal Madlene and I abandoned our former travel group members Frederik and Marcel and got us a new crew. Together with Monika, Viktoria, Daan and Ghezal we spent a weekend in Kazan.

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Part of the new crew

Kazan

Kazan is the capital and the largest city of the Republic of Tatarstan. With a population of around 1.14 million people it is also the eighth largest one in Russia. The city lies at the confluence of the Volga and the Kazanka River. The most special aspect of Kazan is the mix between East and West / Muslim and Orthodox. Apparently it is also one of the most tourist-friendly cities of Russia. Yay!

People are proud of their culture and try to preserve it, which can also be seen on state level. Tatar language is official – students must learn it at school. Signs are written both in Russian and Tatar. In that sense it is not a typical Russian city which makes it even more interesting. In 2009 Kazan got the right to brand the city as the ‘Third Capital’ of Russia. The city has a rich industrial side, and is a cultural and educational centre. Kazan federal university for example is the oldest university in Russia.

Due to its continental and far inland position, Kazan has a humid continental climate which includes long, cold winters (it’s even colder than in some areas further west in Europe, eg Moscow). In December the average low is -11.4°C and the record low is -42.9°C. Freaking cold!

Exploring the city

While driving from the airport to our hostel we already passed many beautiful buildings that gave us a first impression of the city. Even though our cab ride was ridiculously overpriced (for Russia at least) our driver was very nice and tried to explain most of the buidlings and told us interesting things of the city. Some we understood and some we didn’t, but Google our friend and helper filled the gaps. The thing that sticked out the most were all the sports related buildings in the outskirts of the city. We learned that in 2013 the Summer Universiade – an international multi-sport event for university athletes – was held there (also referred to as World University Games, or World Student Games). It is the largest multi-sport event in the world apart from the Olympic Games. Apparently it was the most northern held Summer Universiade thus far. Also, in 2009 the city was chosen as the ‘Sports capital of Russia’.

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First look at the Kremlin

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Our first expedition in the city lead us to a viewing platform on the other side of the river on which the Kazan Family Center is located. This tower has the shape of a huge cauldron and is a place for weddings. Unfortunately, the viewing platform on the tower itself is closed in the winter season. We had a nice view over the city nevertheless.

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Within the Kazan Kremlin walls

As in many other cities in Russia there is also a Kremlin (or in Tatar kirman) in Kazan which was declared a World Heritage Site in 2000. The skyline of the city is dominated by its beautiful fortress. Inside the white walls of the citadel there are various major monuments such as the Annunciation Cathedral, the leaning Soyembika Tower, or the Qol-Şarif mosque. Also, the central government of the republic is located within the walls. The kremlin is located on a relatively high point of Kazan so we also had a very nice view over the city and the frozen river.

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The Mosque Qol-Şarif

The Qol-Şarif mosque is the biggest mosque in Europe. Before Kazan was conquered by Ivan the Terrible in 1552, there used to be a white mosque with blue domes and minarets, and it used to be the capital of the Kazan Khanate. In the years after that the native population, Tatars, were massacred or forcibly christianized. In 2005 the mosque was rebuilt in honor of the Kazan’s Millenium Jubilee (yes, apparently the city is one of the oldest ones in Russia). It represents a new symbol of Kazan and Tatarstan – ‘a bridge connecting the past and future’. The mosque got its name to honour the imam who was killed by Ivan the Terrible’s troops in 1552 while trying to protect the city.

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Annunciation Cathedral

The cathedral inside the Kremlin was built in 1561-62 and is the only 16th-century Russian church to have six columns and five domes. Interesting fact, right?

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The Ministry of Agriculture

The building of the Ministry of Agriculture is a magnificent work of architecture. Very eclectic with a beautiful massive wrought-iron tree in the centre of the building. The building is located across from the Kremlin, so it can already be spotted from within the Kremlin walls.

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Group picture!

Tatar Food

Unfortunately, I cannot tell much about Tatar Food as most of it contains meat. However, I tried soft manti dumplings filled with pumpkins and something else that I can’t remember at the Dom Tatarskoy Kulinarii (House of Tartar Cuisine) where we were able to listen to local live music for some time. We also tried chack-chack – a pastry coated in honeyed sugar syrup – at the Tatarskaya Usadba (Tartar estate). I did not really like the dessert, the place was very nice though and the waiter was very good at English, which is a rarity sometimes.

Christmas Feeling in Kazan 

Kazan was covered in snow and it was freezingly cold. Some streets were covered in ice which made it really tricky to walk without slipping. Nonetheless, the city was magical as parts of it were illuminated in fairy lights. There was even an ice skating rink on next to the river and it was the most beautiful one I’ve seen so far in Russia. Christmas was all around us and we even had a cup of hot cider in a cute little café near the ice rink.

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Kazan was a lovely city despite the harsh wind and the freezing temperatures. We explored as much as we could while trying to stay as warm as we could by spending a lot of time inside restaurants and cafes, or taking an uber from A to B.

The Kremlin of Kazan makes a strong statement by having a (orthodox) church next to a mosque. It shows that is possible to live peacefully next to each other despite representing different religions. It was my first time ever inside a mosque and it was really interesting to see it and learn more about it.

Exploring the Golden Ring: Rostov.

The Golden Ring near Moscow has several beautiful cities to offer. Their importance in history has made me want to explore not only Yaroslavl but also a small town nearby: Rostov.

Rostov (Ростов) is one of the oldest towns in the country with a population of around 31,000 people. The city lies on the shores of the Lake Nero. The city’s official name is Rostov, but to Russians it is also known as Rostov Veliky (to not mix it up with Rostov-on-Don). It is located around 200 kilometres northeast of Moscow, and it is quite easy to reach the city by train from there.

First people settled down at the place from 4,000 BC. Finn-Ugors people were living there until the 11th century, and the city of Rostov was founded by them. Officially it is known since the 9th century, making it one of Russia’s oldest towns. In the 13th century Rostov was one of the 5 biggest towns of Russia. Its importance was based on the fact that people living in the town were educated and worked very hard to make the town even better. The city’s political and cultural growth, however, came to an end with the Tartar invasion as many people were killed, the town was ransacked and partly destroyed. Nowadays Rostov is quite a small town with old buildings and a Kremlin.

When my boyfriend was visiting me, we spent a few days in Yaroslavl, and on our way back to Moscow we thought it might be a good idea to make a quick stop in Rostov. We took an Elektrichka (a local train) as it was the easiest and probably cheapest way even though it took some time (despite being really close to Yaroslavl) and it was also very cold inside the train. Nevertheless, we made it safely to Rostov. Some other passengers unfortunately already really hurt themselves when leaving the train by slipping on the ice. A very warm welcome to the city I must say!

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We made some great feline and canine friends in the city. At the train station we met a lovely white cat that was living at the station. At least we assumed that she was as every employee greeted her like an old pal. Also, we met quite a lot of stray dogs, and one of them started following us as he saw us eating something. He followed us from the train station to the city centre, which was almost an half hour walk.

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Our first view at the Kremlin / church

Lake Nero

After reaching the city centre we decided that we first wanted to walk around for a bit and not go directly into the Kremlin. Our route lead us to the shores of the lake. The Nero lake (Не́ро) is shallow, with an area of around 55 km². Apparently, it is around 500,000 years old, which makes it one of the pre-ice age lakes in Russia. It was very nice to walk there, as there were no people or cars on the streets. Some of the buildings next to the lake looked deserted. However, there were some fancy mansions next to half-collapsed buildings in which there were still people living.

At the end of the road that lead along the lake we could spot another monastery. Due to the ice and snow it took us such a long time to gain ground so we decided to skip this monastery as we just would not have time for it.

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Near the Kremlin there was also a souvenir market and as it was the weekend it happened to be open so we had a quick look at it. It was kinda really sad as no other people were there but we also did not want to buy anything from there.

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The Kremlin

The main sight of the city is of course the fortress with its Assumption Cathedral, which dates back to the mid-16th century. When visiting the Kremlin we even heard them as it was exactly 12 o’clock. There are several other churches within the walls, also tower bells, numerous palaces, and belfries. The bells rank among the largest and most famous ones in Russia, and everyone has its own name.

In order to see the whole area you need to pay a small entrance fee (I think it was 50 rubles). There is also the possibility to go inside some of the churches and museums there, but we decided not to do that. The area and the gardens were enough for us.

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So far, Rostov is the smallest city that I’ve visited in Russia. It was really interesting as it was so extremely rural. The city was covered in snow (and ice and some dirt) which transformed it into a winter wonderland. True, there is not much to do or see in the town, but it is perfect for spending half a day there just as we did.

 

Parks and Recreation: Gorky Park

A park in walking distance from my current place in Moscow is Gorky Park (officially Gorky Central Park of Culture and Leisure / Центральный парк культуры и отдыха имени Горького / Tsentralny park kultury i otdykha imeni Gorkogo). The park got its name from the Russian and Soviet writer Maxim Gorky (1868 – 1936), a founder of the socialist realism literary method (whatever that is…) and a political activist.

Opened in 1928 and the first of such kind back then, the park stretches along the bangs of the Moscow river with an area of 300 hectres. It is divided into two parts – the first one more dedicated to entertaining kids with funfair rides and such things. It is also possible to rent boats or horses. During summer there is a ‘beach’ area that is also an open air club in the evenings, and in winter part of this area becomes a vast skating rink. The other part of the park is more restrained and consists of formal gardens and woodlands. It is also home to some old buildings that date back to the 18th/19th century.

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Ministry of Defence

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Pushkinskiy most (bridge)

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Snowy park landscape

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The thing I like most about this park is that it stretches along the Moscow river and you see grand buildings on the other side of the river. Also, the bridges over the Moscow are beautiful and nice to look at. The park has plenty to offer for everyone, regardless of the seasons. Obviously, the pictures from above are more than a few weeks old, and the park is wrapped in snow (more or less). I can’t wait to go there and try myself at ice skating there.

First real Russian travel adventure: Nizhny Novgorod.

After finally getting my passport back from the international office I was able to travel within Russia. I seized the chance immediately and together with three friends we went to the nearest ‘megacity’ of Moscow: Ни́жний Но́вгород (Nizhny Novgorod).

Nizhny Novgorod is a 1.2 million city (5h biggest in Russia), located 400 km east of Moscow (around 3-4 hour train ride), in the Nizhny Novgorod Oblast of Russia. The city’s name used to be Gorky (Горький) from 1932 til 1990, as the writer Maxim Gorky was born there. The city is located where the Oka river empties into the Volga. The main center is the Kremlin, which is home to the main government agencies of the city and the Volga Federal District. The Kremlin has never been captured, and during the Time of Troubles (Polish invasion in Russia, early 17th century), Nizhny Novgorod ‘saved’ Moscow and Russia.

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We took a train and arrived on a Saturday afternoon. Exiting the train station we were already greeted by a totally different feeling than the one in Moscow. It was still busy on the streets, especially near the station, where there were shopping centres and such. However, one of the first buildings that we noticed was a skyscraper that looked a bit shady…

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Our river accommodation

Due to the spontaneity and the problems we had when trying to buy train tickets online (impossible to do that) we booked a place to stay very last minute without having a proper look at it. The deciding factors were that it should be close to the train station, have a good price, and fairly good reviews. Found one, booked it. Upon arrival we realised that we had booked a room on a houseboat. The hostel was on the river. In hindsight I should have comprehended solely by translating the name of the hostel into English. My ‘mistake’. It was a great experience nevertheless – it was super super cheap, the location was great, the rooms were clean, and we had a room to ourselves as there were hardly any other guests. The staff didn’t speak English to (but we managed) and it took them quite some time to have us checked in though.

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Pedestrian street

On our first day in the city we decided just to take a walk along the Rozhdestvenskaya Ulitsa, where many cafes, stores and clubs are located.

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Monument of Minin

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Monument of Chkalov, a famous Soviet pilot

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Panorama of the Volga & the Chkalov Stairs

For dinner we went to a place called Moloko (Milk) which is also located near the main pedestrian street. The interior is very stylish, with sofas and aged wooden panelling. Afterwards we went for beer that did not taste like beer in a beer brewery thing, and later to a British Pub.

Russian Breakfast

As none of us has already had a typical Russian breakfast yet, we wanted to try one in Nizhny. We read about a Russian place, Bezukhov, which was supposedly known for good breakfasts. It is a literary cafe with antique furnishing and a stucco ceiling. However, we were disappointed as they did not have Kasha (more or less porridge). Nevertheless, the scrambled eggs, Syrniki, and freshly pressed juices were still very delicious and nicely presented.

Exploring the city

After having breakfast we actually wanted to take a tram, namely the oldest Russian tram. However, we failed doing so as there was no start or end or station. Or at least we could not find any. So we just decided to walk along the road, which was also fine. It was another big ‘broadway’, the Bolshaya Pokrovskaya ulitsa, which is full of old merchant mansions, theatres and statues. Also, the building of the State Bank can be found there.

Of course there also had to be another ‘Памятник Минину и Пожарскому‘ – monument dedicated to Minin and Pozharsky. It is the same monument that is in front of the St. Basil’s church on the red square.

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A monument dedicated to the heroes of the Volga fleet

The Church of the Nativity of Our Lady can also be found on this street. The coloured onion domes resemble those of the St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.

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We thought it would be nice to climb a steep 400-meter hill – the Fedorovsky Embankment. Even though the stairs were not safe and it was kind of slippery,  it was definitely worth it. From up there we had a breathtaking view of the city and the river.

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Another cool thing that we stumbled upon was a monument dedicated to Jules Verne, a writer that I happen to like. The bronze-painted plastic sculpture measures around 10 metres in height and was unveiled only in 2015.

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Успенская церковь – Dormition Church

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Kremlin

The kremlin (fortress) of Nizhny Novgorod was built between 1508 and 1515. The city used to be a guard city, where troops were gathered for the war against the Khanate of Kazan. After the fall of Kazan, the Kremlin in Nizhny Novgorod lost its (military) importance. Now, it is home to city and provincial authorities.

Along the Kremlin wall thirteen towers survived. The Tower of Demetrius is the main entrance to the fortress. The only church that survived the passing of time is the Michael the Archangel Cathedral located in the centre of the Kremlin. It is also the oldest building in the Kremlin, as it was erected in the 16th century. In the Archangel Cathedral there is the tomb of Kuzma Minin, who together with the Prince Pozharsky became a national hero after the Polish invasion the the 17th century. Nizhny Novgorod citizens who died in WW II are honored in a memorial site.

 

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A red deer is part of the city’s Coat of Arms

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Archangel Cathedral

Coffee Break

Some of our group were not well equipped for such a cold weather, so we had to take a coffee and cake break. And yes, it was me. As we were fairly close to the pedestrian streets, we just walked and decided for one of the coffee shops. However, as we were unsure how to enter it, a friendly Russian gave us the recommendation to go to another (better) coffee place, so we ended up going to Mishka (teddy bear). Good choice! We even found a photo booth next to it, so we couldn’t just walk past it, could we?

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Cable Car Adventures

Nizhny Novgorod has its own cable car that opened in 2012 which stretches over the Volga river for more than 3.5 kilometres, connecting Nizhny Novgorod with the small city Bor. Before arriving in the city I already knew that taking the cable car across the Volga river was on top of my agenda. The crew was quickly persuaded to do so. We took it already on our first day in the evening, but we also wanted to take a ride during daylight and further explore Bor on the other side of the river.

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Cable car selfie

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BOR

Бор has a population of around 78,000 people. It was founded in the 14th century. The most prominent local industries are shipbuilding and glass-making. Bor can be reached (from Nizhny Novgorod) via car over a bridge, ferry, or the cable car!!

Near the exit/entrance of the cable car station in Bor, there is a Площадь Победы – a victory square. It is in remembrance of the fallen soldiers from WWII, and depicts heroes of the Soviet Union.

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Train adventures

The train ride back was another adventurous part of our trip. The persons responsible for buying our train tickets (not me, hah!) bought the ‘wrong’ tickets by accident so we ended up taking a very long train (6+ hours) back home plus it was a sleeper. Very interesting experience, and not too bad after all :D

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The city trip to Nizhny Novgorod was a great experience (I guess for all of us?). This city is what you’d expect from Russia. Not the polished Saint Petersburg or grand Moscow. We finally experienced a true Russian city, at least that’s what we felt like.

 


Wow, I just realised that this was a massive photo-dumb. If you’ve made it so far – congrats! ;) If you’re also interested in following me elsewhere, head over to facebook or instagram :)

Inside Moscow’s Kremlin.

On the day that I left my parent’s home to start my Russia journey my dad told me to send his best regards to Putin. Of course I had to try my best, and a visit inside Kremlin was a must! On a Friday noon a few friends and I went on our mission to see Putin in his home.

The Kremlin in Moscow

The Moscow Kremlin is a symbol of two imperial cultures – the medieval Muscovy and the Soviet Union. It contains a mixture of lavish opulence and austere secrecy. Two thirds of the citadel complex are closed to visitors, but the remaining third is open to the public. The Kremlin is also the official residence of Putin.

The history of the Kremlin begins in 500 BC with the first human habitation, but Moscow’s history really begins around 1147 when the Grand Duke of Kiev built a wooden fort there. Moscow grew rapidly and was soon powerful enough to attain primacy among the Russian principalities, so the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church moved there from Vlaidimir in 1326. The citadel was fortified with stone walls, and under Ivan the Great the kremlin was remodeled and became the centre of the unified Russian state. Also, the magnificent cathedrals and other buildings were added. Peter the Great moved the capital to St. Petersburg. After the Revolution in 1917, Moscow became the capital again and the Kremlin the seat of the Russian government. The Communist era is still visible in the red stars that are on top of many towers.

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Entrance to the Kremlin

In order to enter, you should NOT try to enter from the Red Square but go to the other side of the complex. Before you enter, you need to buy a ticket. It took us forever to buy tickets, and they refused to give us student discounts even though we knew for sure that we’d get one. So usually it is possible to get a 50% student discount, but we had to pay the full price of 500 rubles to go and see the museums on the church square. Apparently the cheapest way to enter the complex is by buying the bell tower ticket. Unfortunately, there is no ticket available that just lets you go onto the grounds.

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Ivanovskaya Square

The square’s name originates from the pillar of the Ivan the Great Bell Tower. It is the biggest square of all the Kremlin squares, and was the site of the so-called Prikazy (Offices), which is more or less equivalent of today’s Ministries. Public announcements of various decisions of the state were made there.

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Sobornaya Square

At the very centre of the Kremlin is the Cathedral square, which used to be the junction of all the main streets of the Kremlin. On this square there are the big cathedrals of the Kremlin. It also used to be the place for official parades that marked the coronations of the tsars, and massed religious processions on church holidays.

Several churches are located here, and some of them are museums or contain exhibitions. In order to enter some of them, a ticket is needed, but into some you could enter without one. Unfortunately, I don’t remember which were for free…

IVAN THE GREAT BELL-TOWER ENSEMBLE

The bell tower Колокольня Ивана Великого is with 81 metres the tallest tower of the Kremlin complex, and it was built in 1508. The tower adjoins the Assumption Belfry. To climb the tower, a separate ticket is needed, and you can only do so at certain times of the day.

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ARCHANGEL’S CATHEDRAL

This cathedral –Архангельский собор / Arkhangelsky sobor – is a burial church of Mosvocite Princes and first tsars of Russia, and it is dedicated to the Archangel Michael, patron of the Russian army. In 1340 Ivan I Danilovich kailta ordered the building of the first stone church on this site, which was the start of the history of the greatest Russian necropolis of the Moscow dynasty of Rurikides and first Romanov tsars. There are more than 50 graves inside the necropolis, also the famous tsar Ivan IV the Terrible. Kind of spooky in there I must say!

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ANNUNCIATION CATHEDRAL

This cathedral – Благовещенский собор / Blagoveschensky sobor – was the private church of Russian grand princes and tsars destined for domestic and familial ceremonies that was founded in 1484. Inside the cathedral is a multi-tier iconostasis which is one of Russia’s oldest. An iconostasis is a wall of icons and religious paintings, which is very common in Eastern Christianity.

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CHURCH OF THE DEPOSITION OF THE ROBE OF THE HOLY VIRGIN

The Церковь Ризоположения was a private church of the metropolitans and patriarchs of Moscow and of all Russia, erected in 1484. Inside the small church is an exhibition of Russian wooden sculptures and carvings of the 15th – 19th century from the great cultural centres Moscow, Novgorod, Rostov, and Russian North.

 

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The tiny one between the big building & church

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I’m not too sure to which church this belongs to…

ASSUMPTION CATHEDRAL

The Успенский Собор / Uspensky sobor was the main cathedral of the tsardom of Russia, burial place of Moscow Metropolitans and Patriarchs. The cathedral was linked with the most important events in Russia such as the coronation of the Grand princes and tsars. Several Metropolitans are buried there.

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PATRIARCH’S PALACE

The palace was founded in the 16th century during the reign of Fyodor I. The patriarchate was established in 1589 when the Metropolitan Holy Hierarch Job was chosen without waiting for an approval from Constantinople, making it a complete independent entity. Inside the Patriarch’s palace is also the private church of Russian Patriarchs, which was dedicated to the Synaxis of the Twelve Apostles. Now, the patriarch’s palace is part of the museum, dedicated to the Russian 17th century culture, where you can see objects of worship and everyday life that belonged to the Patriarchs or to the Tsar’s family members.

 

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This is the Tsar Bell, also known as Tsarsky Kolokol or Royal Bell, that is displayed near the church square. It was commissioned by the Empress Anna Ivanovna but it has never been in working order, suspended, or rung. The reason why it is displayed there is that before the last ornamentation was completed, a major fire broke out that spread to the wooden support structure of the bell. Guards threw cold water on it as they feared damage and a huge 10 ton (!!!) slab broke off.
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A fun little story.
We were walking on the grounds trying to find the second exit/entrance of the Kremlin. I tried to find our location on Google Maps but my phone couldn’t find our location. I didn’t think much of it, I just thought that my phone wasn’t working as it was quite cold outside. Later that day I stumbled upon this interesting article from the Moscow times that explains that geolocation inside the Kremlin isn’t working due to a transmitter that spoofs the signals, and devices think that the current location is Vnukovo airport. So now all the pictures that I took near there have the geotag of Vnukovo airport… :D
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Other entrance/exit

Even though that our start was rather annoying (buying tickets), but you just have to get used to such things in Russia when you are a foreigner. Also, I had the feeling that some of the churches just look the same from the inside, but I am just not used to iconostasis and I am not really into religion in general. I just admire the architecture and the art itself. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed it. The Kremlin complex is vast, beautiful and interesting. I could have spent more time there, but the cold weather (and other plans that we had) unfortunately prevented us from spending the whole day there.

Parks and Recreation: Kolomenskoye

I have already reported in my first edition of ‘Parks and Recreation’ in Moscow that the city offers a great amount of parks and places where Muscovites and non-locals can enjoy their free time and just have a stroll. In this edition I will share my trip  to another grand park/estate here in Moscow – Kolomenskoye (Коло́менское).

The 390 hectare park is located in the southeast of Moscow on the ancient road that leads to Kolomna (hence the name). The former royal estate overlooks the Moskva River. The village of Kolomenskoye was first named in a testament in 1339. It was founded by refugees from Kolomna, a city not far from Moscow. However, pre-Slavic civilisations dating back over 2,500 years have been found in this area. Between the 15th and 17th century the village transformed into a favourite country residency of a Grand Prince and several Tsars such as Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, or Alexander I.

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In 1923 was the Museum of Wooden Architecture was founded in Kolomenskoye. Various wooden architecture examples were brought to the museum from all across the country, for example Peter the Great’s little house from Arkhangelsk. People were still living in Kolomenskoye as it remained a normal village, that became part of Moscow in the 1960s. Only after 1985 the villagers were resettled and it became the museum and park complex that it is now.

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Probably the most noticeable and famous building is a great white church in the middle of the park. The Ascension church was built in 1532 in order to commemorate the birth of an heir to the throne – the future Ivan the Terrible. The church is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage monument. Right next to the Ascension church are other ‘old’ buildings – the St. George the Victorious Bell Tower (16th century), the Water Tower (17th cent.) and the Hunting Pavilion (19th).

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Another beautiful building in the park is the Church of the Icon of Our Lady of Kazan. It served as a family temple for royalties and is devoted to the Our Lady of Kazan icon, one of the most respected icons in Russia. This church was built in the 1630s, first as a wooden church and two decades later replaced with a brick one. It has the typical domes and plenty of gold which is a very familiar image of Russian religion.

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What also really struck me was that the Moskva river is really beautiful here. You can take a stroll along the riverbank and have a beautiful view over parts of Moscow.

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At one end of the park is the reconstructed palace of Tsar Alexis I, representing beautiful Russian architecture from the 17th century. Tsar Alexis I had all the previous wooden structures demolished and replaced with a new great wooden palace in the 17th century. Due to its fairytale roofs foreigners referred to this palace as an ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’. During Peter the Great’s reign the court was moved from Moscow to St.Petersburg, as a result the palace fell into disrepair and was demolished at the end of the 18th century. Luckily, detailed plans of the original palace survived so it was reconstructed in 2010.

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Actually, I have been there twice – once during the day and once in the late afternoon/early evening. So I also got to see the park during that special time of the day that I really really like! Especially when the sky turns pink/violet.

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The park is really huge and there is a lot to see and do. There are playgrounds, cafés and other recreational activities offered. However, there is also more than enough space to find tranquility and solitude – something that is often needed in a megapolis such as Moscow. It is the perfect place for people who want to escape the big city noise. I definitely want to go there again when there is snow – I’ve heard that it is beautiful and quiet place to be during winter.


General information about the park:
The park is open daily from 8am to 9pm – free entrance to the park, small fee for the some sights to see the inside. To get there you just take the metro to Kolomenskaya Station, from which it is a ten-minute walk.