There are many myths about Moscow. Krasnaya plosh-chad, for instance, has been mistranslated and should really be called Beautiful Square rather than Red. No blood was ever shed here under the watchful walls of the Kremlin — honestly, comrade.
But one myth that is about to be smashed is that Moscow is one of the world’s most expensive cities. And for visitors to the Russian capital, things have just become a little cheaper: easyJet started flights from Gatwick on Monday and its sister company, easyJet Holidays, is offering two-night B&B stays at hotels from as little as £137pp, including flights. But can you really visit Moscow without having the roubles of Roman Abramovich?
“You need the advice of a local. There are many places you can go where you get to see real people and pay real prices,” Airat Bagaut dinov, the owner of Moscow Free Tour (moscowfreetour. com) tells me as we tour the city.
Over the next two hours, Airat takes our group on a free trail around some of the city’s key sites. We gaze over Red Square to St Basil’s Cathedral as we’re told the his tory of the Kremlin while straining to peek over its high walls to see the seat of Russian power, and gasp at the beautiful colonaded façade of the Bolshoi Theatre.
The GUM department store, which backs on to Red Square, is only for window-shopping. Its three arched lanes covered with a glass roof were once the scene of food queues where people would wait for hours for a single loaf. Now they are home to the likes of Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton. A cup of coffee in a café on the third floor costs an eye-watering £8.
The only disappointment on our tour is that we do not get to see the world’s most fa- mous mummy: Lenin’s tomb is currently closed to the public while it is refurbished.
Russian customer service, perfunctory but dour, still has some way to go, but Airat and his team are in a different class. They enthusiastically work the free tours for tips and offer more detailed tours at a price — and I sign up for a tour of the Kremlin the next day. Key to their success is the patter: they have a wealth of interesting stories about the city and offer hip — and cheap — recommendations as you walk and talk.
It’s to one of these that I head next: the sprawling Red October complex overlooking the Moskva River. Once a chocolate factory, it is now a haven for artists, graphic designers and software companies — a little like a mini Soho. I spend an hour or so browsing art before realising it’s past lunch-time and I have spent the un-tsar-like sum of 28 roubles (55p). So far, so austere.
I decide to try and blow some of my budget by visiting the bar of the Strelka Institute of Architecture, Design and New Media, which is at the heart of Red October. But even that is a challenge. With a cool, urban feel that wouldn’t be out of place in New York’s Lower East side, it is staffed by slinky-hipped staff in skinny jeans and chambray shirts. While I tuck into a three-course set lunch — salmon with sea buckthorn, roast chicken on
creamed barley and Russian honey cake — for £8 — my fellow diners beaver away on shiny new MacBooks.
Later I explore Kitay-gorod and Chistye Prudy Metro stations. If Red October is Mos- cow’s Soho, these side-by-side areas are its Brick Lane and Hoxton. Bars are packed with hipsters and I spend most of the evening at DeFAQto. A live band plays East European new jazz and the beer is £5.50 a pint.
The Metro becomes my best friend thanks to the ease with which I can get around. I spend the next morning visiting some of the stations: Stalin vowed the Metro would be a “palace for the people” and many are bedecked with chandeliers, marbled walls and murals depicting Russian military glory.
Ploshchad Revolyutsii (Revolution Square) is the must-see thanks to the beautiful brass statues that line the platform. There are dozens of other cheap sights. I while away an hour outdoors in Gorky Park, pop into the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and explore the sprawling Izmaylova flea market. It has enough bric-a-brac to fill a year of car-boot sales, from watches featuring Lenin’s waving hand, to the obligatory Russian army hats. Later, I head back for the Kremlin tour, this time with my guide, Dmitry. We pass surly guards and a laborious security process to see Putin’s Presidential Residence (actually his office; he never sleeps there) and the Cathedral of the Dormition, which is home to a stunning icon of St George that dates back to the 11th century.
There’s also an indicator of where today’s New Russian largesse may come from in the form of the world’s largest cannon ( that has never been fired) and the largest bell (that has never been rung). Why did they build them? The reply comes with a smile: “Because we could.”
I complete my stay in the Petrovich restaurant in Chistye Prudy. It’s another blast from the Soviet past, its walls packed with propaganda posters and political cartoons of the day. It’s the kind of place to sling back Stoli vodka and tuck into seld pod shuby (er, herring in a fur coat), a colourful mix of fish, beets and carrots. As the night wears on, locals get up and start to sway to the in- house band. Po-faced Russians having fun? Bang goes another Moscow myth.
This article first appeared in The Times