Russia’s Magnificent Metros (16.01.15)
You could be forgiven for thinking that this is not a good time to visit Russia. Politically, the loss of trust between the West and Russia is greater than at any other time since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Even former president Mikhail Gorbachev, interviewed by Spiegel Magazine earlier this week, has said he feels that “the world is on the brink of a new Cold War”.
Well… when it comes to choosing a good time to visit Russia I would beg to differ, wholeheartedly believing that this is now one of the most opportune times to visit the country. Although the political environment may be strained and tourist numbers are substantially depleted, this allows for excellent opportunity to visit some of the country’s most exciting sites, exhibits and destinations in as crowd-free a state as it was when I first visited Russia in 1985.
Moreover, the recent fall of the rouble, compounded by the 50% drop in oil prices, has caused visiting costs to drop dramatically. To top it all, the Russian tourism industry is even more welcoming, and keener to offer their best services. As highlighted in my recent blogs ‘Spilled Blood – Heart of St Petersburg’ and ‘Catherine Palace’ there are countless extraordinary destinations ready and waiting for even the most seasoned of travellers.
One of most exciting aspects behind a visit to Russia is the diversity of attractions. Whether you are a fan of the country’s culture, dramatic history or its modern day vibrancy, you do not have to look far for a memorable experience.
Indeed the first time I arrived in Moscow thirty years ago, I experienced an unexpected delight as I journeyed underground, taking the metro to Belorussky train station. Descending the first escalator I, like many others before me, was bowled over by the grand and garish underground system. To this day it feels as if you are entering some sort of movie set, complete with a cast of thousands as Moscovites travel the 203 miles of track over twelve lines between 196 stations.
As old as my parents, the Moscow Metro has seen four stages of development since its 1935 launch. Each stage has brought a new style and sense of artistry. Some of my favourite stations today reflect the various periods of design and influence: art-deco, socialist celebration, war insignia, Stalin’s svet radiance and Soviet bling – often bedecked with high ceilings, intricate black and gold paintwork, ornate lamps, colourful ceilings, proud statues, chandeliers and all manner of decoration more akin to a museum or palace than a public transport network.
My top Moscow station recommendations include Mayakovskaya, Dostoyevskaya, Kiyevskaya, Ploschad Revolyutsii and Prospekt Mira.
Saint Petersburg Metro is equally impressive, offering traditional, as well as Soviet designs. Travelling through the second city’s underground system a few months ago I was transfixed by the impressive variety of station entrance halls, platforms, escalators, walkways and transit halls. Sprinkled with an array of exhibits including marble statues, bright frescos, mosaics, golden carvings, ornate pillars and Russian art.
Opened in 1955, two decades after Moscow’s Metro, Saint Petersburg’s underground labyrinth is also one of the world’s deepest, with Admiralteyskaya station at 86m below ground. Smaller than Moscow’s metro, it has five lines and 67 stations. Favourite stations of mine include Avtovo, Kirovsky Zavod, Polozhad Vosstaniya and Zvenigorovosky.
So, however long you have, and however enchanted you are with the attractions above ground, I recommend you make time to explore either, or both, of these iconic Russian underground systems. For the cost of metro train ride you can become an enthusiastic train-station-spotter. Both cities offer visitors a chance to experience everyday Russian life to the back drop of a palatial setting.
With the elegance of both Metro systems enhanced by the dress sense of Muscovites and Peterburgtsy, a trip underground gives you a feel for modern fashion which is many miles away from the harsher parts of ordinary Russian society – not to mention history or present day politics.