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Moscow - more than just another city

by Mariette du Toit-Helmbold on 25.09.2013

Travel enriches. Connects us. Broadens our perspectives on the world. Travel challenges our perceptions and preconceived ideas. This is what makes the endless waiting at airports worth it - even if there is no Wi-Fi despite the brightly advertised hotspots and a glass of average Spanish wine costs R100.

I feel it necessary to sip on a glass of wine while I reflect on my meeting with Moscow.

I was invited to speak at the 2nd UNWTO Global Summit on City Tourism hosted by the Moscow City Government and the Russian Federal Government. Getting to Moscow turned out to be a challenge and a test of nerves, patience and negotiation skills.

It would appear, in hindsight, that the local organisers did not have the faintest idea where destinations like Cape Town and Melbourne were located on the globe in relation to Moscow. They did not think it inappropriate to make their guest speakers and delegates fly at obscure times in the morning, wait at airports for 15 hours or stay at the Cosmos Hotel for a night before the conference started despite what the official itinerary says. Bruce from Australia tells me the Cosmos gets full marks for authenticity. That is if disco lights, stretch limos with suspicious looking Russians, exotic dancers and grimy carpets are your thing…Needless to say, delegates and speakers had interesting tales of travel woes to share over our first shot of Vodka on arrival in Moscow.

Moscow is vast and impressive.

Moscow State University on Vorobyovy Gory (Sparrow Hills) - one of Stalin's seven Gothic-style skyscrapers built by captured German soldiers in the aftermath of World War II.

The sheer scale of the city is overwhelming with everything appearing larger than life, from Stalin’s skyscrapers to the black 4x4’s battling for right of way on the freeways and the portions of mash potato dished by the sullen ladies behind the buffet tables.

Moscow has seen some of the finest construction in the world over nine centuries.

Cities fascinate me. I love walking a city’s streets, getting lost in its layers of history, stories, grit and glamour.

Moscow has plenty of grit and glamour. Its history is rich and its story wildly fantastic and heart wrenching at the same time. It is the capital of a country full of misconceptions - perhaps the biggest one of all is that Moscow is unattractive.

There is great beauty beyond the obvious...

I found the contrast between citizens’ deep pride in the city’s imperial powerfulness and an apologetic embarrassment about the remnants of oppression and communism that still linger in the air fascinating.

I learned later that 27 million Russians were killed in the period of the Second World War of which 18 million were civilians. That is one in every four people. It ripped out the heart of the nation, robbed Russia of its strongest, youngest and brightest young minds.

The defeat of Germany in 1945 has become a form of state religion, evident when you visit the stunning Museum of the Great Patriotic War dedicated to World War II. It's set at the heart of Park Pobedy (Victory Park) and includes an art gallery, a hall of remembrance and some fantastic exhibits.

The eager young volunteers who met us at the airport were keen to know what we thought of Russian travellers. “You see,” they said, “we are not all like that.” Before I could answer one young volunteer turned to me and made an observation of his own: “I guess I was wrong about you too,” he said. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Well, you are not black. And you are very young for someone so esteemed.” Not so sure about the esteemed…or the young for that matter, but his point and a new friendship were made.

We had a lot of time to talk during the two-hour journey to our hotel. We spoke of politics, religion, war, corruption, ultimate power, our hopes and our deep fears for the future. We connected, we listened, we shared something about ourselves and we all understood each other a little better.

On the day after the conference we explored Moscow. First accompanied by a group of officials from local and national government who kept to themselves whilst we sailed along the river in luxury. We snapped a gazillion and one pictures, posted them along with our thoughts on Instagram and Facebook and wondered what lay behind the impressive buildings, the forests and the murky water of the Moskva.

Sailing down the Moskva River one cannot be blamed for getting the impression that Moscow is larger than life...

We were thankfully joined by Elena at some point during the day – I think it was as we were negotiating with a barely 18 year old security guard at the Kremlin who despite our official invitations, passports and the presence of the sharply dressed tourism officials ordered us out back into the rain. In Moscow a uniform commands obedience and authority matters.

After a few minutes of heated negotiations and a new security guard, we were ordered back in and then led through the Kremlin by the lovely Elena. She politely reminded us to stay on the carpet and to only take pictures when told so by the ever-present security guard.

In the heart of the Kremlin

Her eyes glistened, she was breathless with excitement and her passion for her city poured from her lips as she told countless stories and led us deeper and deeper into the heart of the Kremlin and into the soul of her city. We covered the whole of Moscow, walking through her streets and the pages of her history - taking a moment to admire the art nouveau ceilings of a hotel, the glory of the Red Square, the lights of the city, the beautiful underground and having a bite to eat in a cafeteria straight out of the communist era. We were hungry, the food was deliciously simple and the vodka warmed our bodies.

Along with grand architecture and magnificent cultural treasures, the Russian capital also boasts exquisite restaurants and cutting-edge bars.

Moscow might not be the most visitor friendly city on first introduction, but it gets full marks for authenticity and soul.

The Russian Academy of Science

A warm hospitality lies somewhat hidden underneath the cold surface and steely resolve to survive no matter what. The city and her people are kindred souls – one has to look a little deeper and make an effort to connect. Moscow is more than just another city. The real Moscow might escape many visitors, but to those who look deeper she reveals a heart of gold tucked away underneath all those years and layers of history, power and pain, grit and glamour.

Spread across 180 stations, Moscow's underground rail system is a tribute to Soviet engineering and new Russian efficiency. The earliest stations are architectural masterpieces, with Ploshchad Revolutsii, Kievskaya and Komsomolskaya really standing out.

It is a city waiting to be explored, but come with an open mind and leave your preconceived ideas at the airport on arrival. She will teach you many things about the world and yourself and enrich your life. My advice...connect with and spend a few days in the company of local Muscovites who love their city and you may fall in love too…

St Basil's Cathedral with its colourful domes that shine out from the top of the cathedral marks the eastern border of the Red Square. Napoleon's troops ransacked the building, and it was once scheduled for demolition by Stalin. Today it's the jewel in the crown of the Russian Orthodox Church.


Read more about my thoughts on why cities are the new super brands of destination marketing.