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From Russia with Love: Part II St Petersburg

 

St Petersburg, Russia

 

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Saint Petersburg is the second largest city in Russia.  Peter the Great founded the city in 1703, but the name is in honor of St. Peter, not Peter the Great.  An interesting tidbit - St. Petersburg, Florida was named in honor of St. Petersburg, Russia.

 

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In 1914, the name of the city was changed to Petrograd and in 1924 to Leningrad in honor Vladmir Lenin.  In 1991, it went back to being Saint Petersburg and is often referred to as the Venice of Russia because of all the canals.

 

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St Petersburg is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the most cosmopolitan and Western of Russia's cities.

 

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It reminded us a lot of Vienna with its baroque and neoclassical architecture.  Interestingly, it was Italian architects who built most of the buildings in the 1700.  During WW II, the city experienced quite a bit of damage, but today it has been restored to its pre-war Imperial glory. 

 

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St Petersburg is legendary for its White Nights….long summer days when the sun barely goes down.  While we were there, it stayed light outside until well past 11 pm.  We stayed at the hip “W” hotel where they delivered a very special treat for me on my birthday.....the beautiful cake below, along with other goodies.  Stop by my art blog and see everything they gave me. 

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Donald worked most of the time we were in St Petersburg, including Sunday.  But I was out and about and explored the city.  It was easier than Moscow to get around as there were signs and menus in English.  More people spoke English, but still not as many as we would have thought.  On Sunday, I went to the Udel’naya Flea Market and met up with a new Russian friend, the lovely Svetlana.  Click here to read all about my flea market adventure.

 

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The city has the deepest underground metro systems in the world and the stop by our hotel was one of the deepest.  It took 3 minutes to ride the escalator down to the station and that was only one leg.  Supposedly, they were built to serve as bomb shelters.  The architecture in the stations was amazing; built in 1935 it holds its old world charm.

 

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AND......the signs were in English!

 

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The Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood

 

 

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Gorgeous * Gorgeous * Gorgeous.  The Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood, or the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ, was simply amazing inside and out.  The construction was started in 1883, but not completed until 1907.  It was modeled after St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow.

 

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Why the unusual name ? The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood was built to honor tsar Alexander II of Russia.  On March 13, 1881, as the Tsar’s carriage passed along the embankment, a conspirator mortally wounded him with a bomb. Hence, the reference to "spilled blood".  The section of the street on which the assassination took place is enclosed within the walls of the church.

 

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During the Russian Revolution of 1917, the church was ransacked and the interior was badly damaged.  In the 1930s, the Soviets closed the church, as they did with most churches in Russia.  The interior is magnificent with everything made of mosaics: icons, pictures, walls, columns and arches, ceilings, floors; even the cupola.

 

 

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During World War II, it was used as a storage facility for food. It suffered more damage during the war; and afterwards, was used for many years as a storage space for a local opera company.

 

 

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In 1970, new management took over the church, and after 27 years of restoration,  it was re-opened as a museum in August 1997.

 

 

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I love how the outside colors of the domes are reflected on the inside.  This is a must see when you visit St Petersburg.

 

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St. Isaac’s Cathedral

 

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Saint Isaac's Cathedral took 40 years (1818 to 1858) to build.  The exterior is in a traditional Russian-Byzantine style with a Greek-cross floor plan with a large central dome.  The cathedral's facades are decorated with sculptures and massive granite columns (made of single pieces of red granite).

 

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The dome is gilded with 220 pounds (100 kilos) of gold.  During World War II, the dome was painted gray to avoid attracting attention from enemy aircraft. 

 

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The interior is adorned with incredibly detailed mosaic icons and paintings.  It was originally decorated with paintings by famous Russian painters. When the paintings began to deteriorate due to the cold, damp conditions inside the cathedral, they were painstakingly reproduced as mosaics.

 

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Internal features such as columns, walls, and the floor are created out of multicolored granites and marbles gathered from all parts of Russia.

 

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A large, brightly-colored stained glass window of the "Resurrected Christ" makes up the main altar.  The church was designed to accommodate 14,000 standing worshipers.  Today, it is a museum and church services are only held on special holidays.

 

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You can climb up 300 steps to the top of the church for a fabulous view of Isaac's Square and the city.  

 

 

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The Hermitage Museum

 

I spent the better part of a day in the stunning Hermitage Museum.  Click here to take a tour of the Hermitage Museum on my art blog.



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The Hermitage is on the Palace Square along with the Alexander Column.  The column was erected between 1829-34 on the square in front of the Winter Palace at the command of Nicholas I, in memory of his brother Alexander I, the victor over Napoleon.   

 

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The General Staff building was built between 1820-30. The arch is the symbol of the triumph of Russia and the war against Napoleon.

 

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 Peter and Paul's Fortress

 

 

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The Peter and Paul Fortress is the original citadel of St. Petersburg, founded by Peter the Great in 1703 and built 1706-1740

 

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The fortress contains several buildings clustered around the Peter and Paul Cathedral (1712–1733), which has a 404 ft bell-tower and a gilded angel-topped cupola.

 

 

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The cathedral is the burial place of all Russian tsars from Peter I to Alexander III; including the last of the ruling Romanov family, who were assassinated during the Bolshevik revolution.

 

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The Buddy Bears were in town while we were visiting.  Buddy Bears are life-sized, fiberglass bear sculptures from over 143 countries.  The Buddy Bears were created to convey a message of peace, international understanding and tolerance among the nations, cultures and religions of the world.  If you want to read more about the Buddy Bears visit my art blog.

 

 

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D with the "United States Bear"

 

 

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Me with "Russia Bear"

 

 

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D with "Singapore bear"

 

 

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D with "Belgium Bear"

 

 

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Interesting things we saw around town...

 

Sometimes it's the little things that amuse us.  Like these portable toilets we saw all over the city.  What we found interesting was that each set had a woman who took care of them.  One of the toilets was used as her office and as a place for her to reside all day.  I was told that they were owned by the Russia mafia.

 

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We did not see any outdoor markets, but they do have cute little shops like the ones shown in the photo below all over the city.

 


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How about this stand selling melons?


 

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And our normal food photos - were you getting worried that we did not eat in Russia?   The food photos are from both Moscow and St Petersburg.

To find truly local cuisine, you had to go to Soviet-style self-service cafeterias.  More for the student and budget conscious traveler, but we were attracted by the traditional food.

 

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Blini (filled pancakes) and beets (I love beets!).

 

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One night we had all salads, or should I say we had all cabbage and beets!

 

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More Blini - filled with cabbage.

 

 

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It was from the little Tepemok shop shown below and found all over the city.  Did I mention this was breakfast?

 

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D and his quest for the perfect street food.  What is it you ask?

 

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A hot dog, wrapped in a burrito type shell with warm potato salad, pickles, and crunchy onions.  And a squirt of Mayonnaise!  Sounds gross, but I have to admit, I took one bite and it was really good.  D LOVED it, especially that warm potato salad!

 

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I opted for the baked potato with a trio of salads on top:  potato salad, pickles and mushrooms, and a hotdog cheese mixture    :  )   Odd, but very tasty.  D was amused that you could buy a potato, topped with potato salad.


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Yes... we did eat at nice restaurants too!  This was the standard menu in Russian.  Basically close your eyes and point.

 

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We were in a sweet little restaurant where the waitress could say three words - meat, stroganoff, and cake.  Seriously - this was all she knew.  I immediately raised my hand when she said stroganoff.  D randomly pointed to a dish for his main course, and the waitress said "cake". Oops, let's try again.   So he proceeds to do sign language for his meal.  Can you guess the animal?  Neither could the waitress.  Next, he pushed up his nose and said "oink oink". 

 

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The waitress guessed it, as he was served a delicious pork dish with a mustard sauce with prunes and walnuts.  And of course cabbage.


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And we did get cake!

 

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It was SO GOOD!  A chocolate creme layered with lots of thin pancakes.

 

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We also ate the very nice MiXin restaurant at the W hotel.  Owned by Alain Ducasse, a French, Michelin starred chef we follow.  This was not one of his Michelin restaurants but it was still excellent.

 

Appetizer:  Pumpkin soup

 

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Main:  Fish with artichokes

 

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Dessert:  a perfect little chocolate cake with mocha ice cream

 

 

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Our eating philosophy....low-end or high-end....no in-between!  Unless it is for pie!  Svetlana (flea market friend) introduced me to the Stolle cafe and we ended up there several times for their incredible pies!  They served both savory and sweet.  Oh could I go for a piece right now!


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And I leave you with my very favorite Russian icon - the Matryoshka nesting dolls.

 

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We found St Petersburg to be a modern European city.  It was very clean and we felt safe.  Many reviews will tell you that you must have a guide to visit St Petersburg.  We did not agree.  You do have to be a little more patient with the lack of English, but it is easy and fun to explore on your own.

 



From Russia with Love: Part 1 - Moscow

 

 

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One of the countries I was hoping to visit while living in Europe was Russia.  But it never happened.  Much to our surprise, D came home two months ago with the news that he had a conference in St Petersburg.  I was thrilled.  Mysterious and intriguing was what I had always read and heard about Russia.  It did not disappoint!


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We flew into Moscow, Russia's capital, a city that now claims the largest community of billionaires in the world (79 of them).  Yes, Moscow is very expensive, but compared to Brussels or Singapore, it was on par.


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Having been hidden behind the Iron Curtain for decades, we found Moscow to be fascinating on so many levels. But what really stood out to us was how little English was spoken - including a lack of English signs/menus etc.  Not only is there no English, but also their alphabet is Cyrillic – completely different from our alphabet.  Here is an example:  Благодарим Вас за посещение нашего блога!  It says: "thank you for visiting our blog".

 

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Moscow turned out to be one of the most difficult countries for us to get around because of the lack of English and the different alphabet.  But, this made it that much more of an adventure!  This is the sign we had to work with.  If they were written in our alphabet, we could have at least matched the letters!

 

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Other things that stood out were how many super-tall, super-fashionable, super-beautiful Russian women live in Moscow!  We have traveled to Paris many times and have never seen women like this.  We both enjoyed the fashionable women….but I am guessing for different reasons   :  ) 

 

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and the shoes....oh the shoes!  I have never seen such high high heels.  But those Russian girls were working them!

 

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We were also impressed by how clean we found the city.  There very few beggars, bums, gypsies, and graffiti.  We actually felt very safe.  Much safer than other European cities we have visited....or any large U.S. city.  


Red Square


The gate to the Red Square, built in 1996, is a replica of the 16th century gate.  Stalin had the original torn down to allow tanks easier access to the square for military parades.


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Once you walk through the gates there is the most magnificent view of Red Square, which is not red and it is not square.  It lies in the heart of Moscow and on its four sides stand the Kremlin, GUM Department Store, the State Historical Museum, and St. Basil's Cathedral.   The square is also home to Lenin’s tomb.


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Red Square was established in the 15th Century and was meant to serve as Moscow's main marketplace.  

 

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The square's name comes from the word 'krasnyi', originally meaning beautiful and red in “old” Russian.


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St. Basil Cathedral

 

St. Basil's Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox Church, is one of the most recognizable images of Moscow.  It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990.  The variety of crazy colors and shapes of the structure are amazing and in a style that is unique to Russian architecture.


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Ivan the Terrible built the Cathedral between 1555 and 1561. According to legend, Ivan had the architect who designed it, Postnik Yakovlev, blinded to prevent him from creating the masterpiece anywhere else.  It wasn’t until 1670 that the domes were colored and patterned, giving its multicolored appearance we know today.


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I love this shot of D trying to capture the perfect photo.  It was very early in the mornig when there were few visitors in the square.  The photo he took is the very first one on this post - I'd say he did a pretty good job capturing it!

 

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We are lucky St Basil's is still standing.  Napoleon ordered it to be destroyed in 1812, fortunately, his troops did not have time to complete the task.  And it was nearly demolished under Stalin, who considered it an obstruction, and wanted it torn down.  Architect Baranovsky protested the move. He stood on the steps of the cathedral and threatened to cut his own throat if St Basil's was destroyed. Stalin backed off, but for the "act of heroism", Baranovsky earned five years in the labor camp.

 

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Sergiev Posad

 

We wanted to see a town outside of the Moscow so we took a 1 1/2 hour train ride to the town of Sergiev Posad to see the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius Monastery.  The train ride was quite the adventure.  It took us over an hour to purchase the tickets at the Yaroslavl Station (Metro Komsomolskaya). 

 

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Again, there were no signs in English and no one spoke English – not even the people selling tickets.  Just when we were ready to give up, we found the correct window, and the purchase only took 3 minutes!  Cost – $6 each, round trip.  It was a local train, which provided for a fascinating ride.  We were on the train early and secured a bench seat to ourselves…little did we know the train packed 3 or 4 to a bench!  Something we had never seen was the “selling” of a variety of items on the train.  Not just a beggar selling candy but a full-blown presentation at the front of the train.  They took turns yelling down the isle trying to sell their goods.  One man had a fishing rod, which he opened fully by casting it down the middle of the isle.

 

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As you approach the Monastery, you get a breathtaking view of the large religious complex.  The Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius is the most important Russian monastery and the spiritual centre of the Russian Orthodox Church.  It is a working monastery and a UNESCO World Heritage Sight.


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The entire complex had a very special feel that is hard to explain.  Most people visiting were Russian, coming for a pilgrimage, not as tourists.  If you look closely in the photos, all of the women had their heads covered in scarves; even the small girls and infants.


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The Trinity St. Sergius Lavra was founded in 1345 by a local monk named Sergius, who was canonised as a Saint in the early 14th Century.  A Lavra is the highest rank of the Orthodox monastery and is equivalent to the Vatican.  Today, it is the home to over 300 monks.


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Assumption Cathedral

 

The largest building of the monastery is the Assumption Cathedral, which was built in 1559 by Ivan the Terrible.  This beautiful cathedral is very similar to the Assumption Cathedral in Kremlin.


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Inside was an amazing array of art.  People were kissing the tombs to show respect and dedication.

 

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Holy Trinity Cathedral 


The Holy Trinity Cathedral, built in 1422, is a four-pillar single-domed church.   It's interior is decorated with stunning frescoes.

 

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Holy water from the well was also popular, especially among the pregnant women.  The well was built at the end of the 17th century over a spring, which appeared in 1644.  It is believed that the water from the well cures the sick.  The first person cured was a blind monk, whose eyesight returned after using the “miracle” water.  Still today, people believe it is special water and they could be seen drinking it, washing their faces in it, and filling up very large containers to take it away.

 

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We both had a taste - who knows, it may bring us good health. 

 

 

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The Church of the Holy Spirit, located in the centre of the monastery, is one of the oldest monuments in the complex.  It is a four-pillared church  and a single dome built from white limestone in an onion shape.  The Belfry is the highest building in the complex.

 

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 The Bell Tower

 

The bell tower was built between 1740–1770 and it is one of the tallest in Russia.   It replaced the bell tower of the 17th century.  The clock with chimes was installed in 1905.

 

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The refectory of St. Sergius is painted in dazzling checkerboard design.  

 

 

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 ahhhhh - wouldn't you love to sit and paint this amazing sight?

 

 

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 I am so glad we did not give up on purchasing those train tickets.  The Trinity St. Sergius Lavra would be high on our "what to do" in Moscow list.

 

 

The Kremlin


The Kremlin, dating back to 1156, is a self-contained city with a multitude of palaces, armories, churches, even a medieval fortress and it is amazing.  Since 1991, the Kremlin has been the official residence of the President of the Russian Federation. The entire Kremlin complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight.


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The Trinity Gate Tower, built in 1495, is the tallest of the tower fortifications. It was under this gate that Napoleon’s troops both entered and fled from the Kremlin.  The basement was used as a prison in the 16th Century. 

 

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As we entered through the gate onto the Kremlin grounds it was one of those moments we just looked at each other and said - who would have ever thought we would be standing in the middle of the Kremlin!  Very cool.

 

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The Cathedral of the Assumption, built in 1479, is the oldest church in the Kremlin.  The gabled frescoes were added in the 1660s, otherwise the exterior has remained almost unchanged to this day.


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The Church of the Nativity - the Kremlin includes small domestic churches built from the 14th to the 17th centuries. Originally, there were eleven of them, but only six remain.  The oldest of these is The Church of the Nativity.

 

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The Cathedral of the Annunciation - the present building dates from 1484 but it was badly damaged during the Revolution.  In 1918, the cathedral was closed as a place of worship and now it operates officially as a museum.

 

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Built in 1600, Ivan the Great Bell Tower was the tallest building in all of Russia for almost 400 years.  It was always the first bell to ring on church holidays, a signal that started all the other church bells in Moscow.  In 1918 the last Easter service in the Kremlin took place, and the bells of Ivan the Great did not ring again until 1992.

 

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Archangel Cathedral - built between 1505 and 1508 is the most Italian of the Kremlin's churches and the last of Ivan the Great's contributions to Cathedral Square.  One of greatest treasures of the cathedral is the burial vault of Ivan the Terrible.  And I always thought these "characters"...Ivan the Terrible and Ivan the Great were made up.

 

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The Tsar Cannon was cast in 1586.  It was never used in war, but historians say it was fired at least once.

 

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Bolshoi Theater

 

The Bolshoi is the leading ballet company of Russia, noted for elaborate productions of 19th-century classical ballets.  This building was built in 1824.  From July 2005 to October 2011 the theater was closed for restoration.  They say 700 million dollars was spent on the restoration.  Unfortunately it is closed in July so we did not get to go inside.


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Novodevichy (New Maiden) Convent and Cemetery

 

The Novodevichy Convent, also known as Bogoroditse-Smolensky Monastery  was built in 1524 as a fortress.  Through history, it served as a shelter for many ladies from the Russian royal families who had been forced to become nuns.

 

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In 1812, Napoleon's army made an attempt to blow up the convent, but the nuns managed to save the cloister from destruction.

 

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The oldest structure in the convent is the six-pillared five-domed cathedral, dedicated to the icon Our Lady of Smolensk.  Records show it was built in 1524–1525; however, its unique proportions and projecting central gable are typical of monastery cathedrals built by Ivan the Terrible.   

 

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The Cemetery

 

Russian nobility considered the monastery to be a special burial place so the cemetery holds the tombs of Russian authors, musicians, playwrights, and poets, as well as famous actors, political leaders, and scientists.

 

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It is so interesting to see how cemeteries vary from country to country.  Russia had elaborate headstones with unique fonts.

 

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And beautiful elaborate sculptures.

 

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Just a man and his dog....

 

 

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Gum Dept Store

 

GUM short for "Glavnyi Universalnyi Magazin" or its old name, State Department Store, was built in 1893.  For some reason, Donald remembers this from his childhood and he wanted to visit it.  He said he remembered that it was "the department store" during the days of the Soviet Union.  It was famous because there weren't any other options in the USSR at that time.  So it is one of the few remaining icons of the soviet days.  Of course, the products available now are very different.

 

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And I leave you with a few random shots of the city....so you can see just how pretty Moscow really is!


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D enjoying the local drink - Kvass, a fermented beverage made from black or regular rye bread.  Icky.

 

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Check back next week to read about part two of our Russia trip -

St Petersburg!