We woke in our tiny Moscow room and wrapped up as best we could ready to face the subzero temperatures outside. We really weren’t prepared for the weather and had to wear two pairs of trousers, two T-shirts and two jumpers each. Once outside we walked back towards the city centre with the intention of visiting the Kremlin. As we hadn’t had a chance for breakfast, we spied a cheap deal in an American diner and popped in.
By the time we reached Red Square, it was nearly lunchtime. The Aleksandrovsky gardens were closed for a military parade where carnations were laid at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier (where the body of a soldier who fought in the battle of 1941, that stopped the German advance on Moscow, is buried), so we circled around by the road to the Kremlin ticket office. Luckily we’d made it in time to buy tickets for the 12:30 slot at the Armoury and had to rush over to join the queue at one of the corner towers to pass through security. The Armoury chamber is a small museum housing an incredible collection of Tsar bling, from golden goblets to diamond encrusted thrones, ornate helmets and beautifully engraved weapons, with a small and slightly disappointing collection of Fabergé eggs. Our tickets allowed us an hour, wandering from room to room before it was time to exit and head over to the main Kremlin entrance.
The Kremlin is the heart of Moscow and the seat of the Russian government. It’s a walled citadel that houses senate buildings as well as a number of cathedrals, built over several centuries and in a mixture of styles. It’s all a bit strange when you enter as there aren’t many signs and no obvious route. We got shouted at by a guard for crossing the road not at a designated crossing point and decided to play it safe and head straight to the central square to see the golden domes of the 15th century cathedrals. We stopped to explore the Cathedral of the Assumption, the traditional place for the coronation of Russian Tsars, the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael, a burial chapel for the Tsars, and the Cathedral of the Annunciation, the Tsars private chapel. All were gloriously decorated with every inch of wall space painted and gilded.
|Rhys and the Tsar Cannon, Kremlin, Moscow.|
|Ivan the Great Bell Tower, Kremlin, Moscow.|
We had time to stop by the Palace of the Patriarch (the head of the Russian church) and to see the 200 tonne Tsar Bell, the heaviest in the world, and the huge Tsar Cannon, the largest calibre cannon in the world, before heading back out to Red Square. Most buildings in the Kremlin aren’t open to the public and even those that were were eerily quiet.
The sun started to drop as we wandered over to Red Square, passed Lenin’s Mausoleum (although he didn’t seem to be home), to see St Basils Cathedral in the light and to wander around it’s mazelike corridors. As it was cold, we decided to detour through the GUM shopping arcade, a glass roofed pavilion containing row after row of high end shops before walking back towards the hostel. Popping out again later to brave the cold for dinner in a nearby pub.
|St Basil's Cathedral at dusk, Moscow.|
Walking around Moscow it’s clear that there’s a lot more money there than elsewhere in Russia, every other car is either a Mercedes, a BMW or a Maserati and the streets are lined with elegant boutiques and restaurants - average wages are 6 to 20 times higher than cities in Siberia.
We had to check out of our room the next day but our bus wasn’t due to leave until late that night. We put our bags in storage and wandered over to see the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, on the riverfront. The route took us along side the Kremlin to a junction where we were stopped by police and sent back to walk the other way around the block where it was impossible to cross the road and we had to find a whole new route walking through a metro station - crossing roads in Moscow is a right palava, you either have to wait for 10 minutes for the traffic lights to change or walk miles to try and find a crossing point. The building is a 1997 replica of an earlier cathedral that had stood on the same spot, but that was bulldozed by Stalin to make way for a Soviet Palace, a project that never came to fruition.
|Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow.|
By this point, we were close to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and decided to pop in to the 19th - 20th Century European and American Gallery. I was keen to see the collection of Impressionist and Post Impressionist works it held and although a lot of the rooms were closed, it was well worth the visit, and gave us a chance to thaw out in the warmth.
|Rhys admiring a Monet in the Pushkin Galleries, Moscow.|
Our last stop of the day was ‘The Arbat’, a pedestrianised street that my guide book described as ‘one of Moscows best loved streets’ and that we thought would work to pass an hour or two. We were disappointed to find all it offered were rows of shops selling tourist tat at extortionate prices, stalls selling oil paintings and horrific caricatures and a few chain restaurants. We were getting hungry so stopped for lunch at a smart little grill before catching the metro back to our hostel, passing a supermarket where we bought cheap Russian vodka to take with us in to Latvia.
We still had a little over an hour to waste before leaving to find the bus station and ended up in the basement kitchen, counting down the minutes. Finally, it was time to leave and we grabbed our bags and headed out in to the cold. We enjoyed Moscow, it had a real buzz and some architectural gems, random buildings on street corners and wide avenues punctuated by the Stalin ‘Seven Sisters’, giant Soviet style skyscrappers.
The metro got us to the bus stop with plenty of time. As it wasn’t a bus station, just a layby, we walked over to the bus companies office to check we were in the right place, then had an hour of sitting on a cold wall in the dark until the bus pulled up.
It was a decent journey after we’d worked out how to make Rhys’s seat recline and the bus was of a good standard despite us having the only seats where the screens in the seat backs didn’t work. The further we got from Moscow and the closer to Latvia, the more windy the roads became. We were expecting a motorway but we found ourselves on rough country roads. We were both feeling a little queasy and ended up taking Rhys’s super strength sea sickness tablets and had both managed to sleep before we reached the border at 4am.
The border guards weren’t too impressed with Rhys’s passport for some reason but after a quick phone call and some discussion they signaled us through. Finally we were back in the Eurozone where our magical EU passports give us a right of passage. For the first time in two years and over 30 countries, we no longer had to feel apprehensive when crossing borders.
Back on the bus, we still had a fair old drive until we reached Riga. We arrived just after 9am and consulted our map for the short walk to the hostel. Tim was due to fly in to meet us after lunch and we took the opportunity to nap and freshen up in our room.
Rhys was still in bed when Tim arrived and bundled on the bed to wake him. It had been 8 1/2 months since we’d seen him last and we had lots of catching up to do. We cracked open a bottle of the Russian vodka and spent a few hours chatting in the comfort of our room before changing to head out in to Riga Old Town.
Our hostel wasn’t far from the city wall and it didn’t take long to find an Aussie Pub i’d read about that had great reviews. It was nearly dark when we went out and it wasn’t until we checked our watches that we realised it was still only 4pm. After a game of foosball and pints of cranberry beer and super sweet cider, we continued to find a new pub. The old town was packed with souvenir shops, boutiques, bars and restaurants and every hundred metres, the windy cobbled streets opened in to another square headed by a church with a towering spire, filled with Christmas markets and Christmas trees.
|St Peter's Church, Riga.|
We had cups of mulled wine, peered into strange brews in huge cauldrons, chatted to a few locals (Latvian people are so friendly and they seem to like British accents) and found ourselves in a British pub where we ducked in to get out of the cold. By that point we were starting to get hungry and spent forever walking around trying to find a restaurant that was on the cheaper side but offered Latvian food. Struggling, we ended up at a pizza restaurant. Calling it a night, I jumped in a taxi back to the hostel. The boys followed me back shortly after.
The next day we were late to rise and only made it down to breakfast just before it was tidied away. The kitchen was hectic but the breakfast spread was one of the best we’ve seen in a long time (although a hostel buffet was below Tim whose preference was for a MacDonalds). We decided we should explore Riga a bit before going to a bar and headed in to the Old Town, map in hand to explore the twisting alleyways and the photogenic buildings, stopping to buy hot cider at the Christmas markets. It was much colder than the previous day and a light rain followed by freezing temperatures had turned the cobblestones in to treacherous passages. Tim had swanky boots on without an ounce of grip and spent most of the day literally skating down the roads yet I was the only one who actually managed to fall over, right in the middle of a square for the whole of Riga to see.
|Rozena Street, Riga, where you can apparently touch both sides, but only if you have ridiculously long arms.|
|Rhys and Tim with warm cider in Riga Old Town.|
After leaving the Old Town, we wandered north to the Art Nouveau district. The city has the largest and most impressive showing of art nouveau architecture in Europe with more than 750 buildings adorned with gargoyles, nymphs and goddesses. We didn’t spend long in the area as the wind had picked up and it was starting to get too cold to explore. Tim popped in to a pipe shop and came out with a new cigar and after walking the length of Alberta Street, we circled back to Elizabetes and the KHL Sports Bar, in the basement of the Radisson hotel. After asking the hotel manager a couple of times where the door was we realised it had two names and was closed for 15 minutes. We braved the sleet outside and found a cute little coffee shop where Tim was manly enough to drink the espresso that arrived instead of my cappuccino. By then, the bar was open and we settled in to a nook with leather couches and a huge flat screen TV for pints of cherry flavoured beer.
|Art Nouveau building on Alberta Street, Riga.|
We watched some football and a bit of rugby over lunch before realising they didn’t have the channel with the Spurs game on and deciding instead to relocate to the hotels roof top bar, the Skyline. By then it was dark and the lights of the city, including hundreds of Christmas lights, were twinkling below. Tim went to the bar and reappeared with a bottle of Taittinger as a special treat. For a minute, we forgot how scummy we are at the moment and instead just enjoyed the light show in the classy bar with our glassed of champers.
|Champers courtesy of Tim in the Skyline Bar, Riga.|
We decided to make a stop back at the hostel to freshen up before walking back into the Old Town for an evening of bar hopping. To not make the same mistake as the previous night, we started by searching for a restaurant and ended up at a lovely traditional Latvian place. We’d arranged to meet a friend of a friend in town and were a little disheartened when they text to say they were in TGI’s, since we’d seen hundreds of beautiful little wine bars and pubs during our day time exploration. We weren’t in TGIs long before they called last orders and along with our two new Latvian friends we walked around the corner to a Cinema Bar, again, not one of the cute bars we’d seen in the day. We didn’t stay for long before we twigged our new friends had only wanted to meet us because being British, they assumed we had money and wanted us to treat them all night. Ditching them, we ended up in a British pub again, for a final drink before again, last orders were called and we realised the city was closing for the night. After a cold walk back to the hostel, we climbed in to bed at about 3:30am.
Tim had a 11am flight and was up and dressed and out of the hostel in no time, leaving a trail of promises to visit us in Austria in a couple of months. We’d had an epic couple of days but were tired and shaky from lack of sleep and excessive alcohol. Nevertheless, after breakfast, we checked out and wandered out to find a flea market that was highlighted on our tourist map. When we got there we were surprised to find rows of tatty market stalls selling mostly second hand TV remotes and old tools. We left quickly and walked to the Central Market, a much better find. The market is located in four adjacent warehouses that resemble aircraft hangars and is full to bursting with all kinds of food stuff, fresh fruit and veg, cured meats, smoked fish, cheeses, dried nuts and pulses and piles and piles of pickled, grated cabbage.
By then it was time to walk back to the hostel to pick up our bags and head to the bus station. The bus left on time and this time our seat screens even worked. The journey to Vilnius was due to take 4 1/2 hours and when we left Riga the sky was turning blue, having been white and full of snow for the duration of our stay. We arrived 30 minutes early and hadn’t even realised when we’d crossed the border. We had a vague map to get us to our hostel and after a few wrong turns, found the main road leading through the Old Town. We’d booked a dorm bed to save a bit of cash and found we were sharing with an odd Russian boy.
We were both pretty shattered and it was already dark when we arrived. We dropped off our bags and headed straight out to find somewhere easy for a quick dinner before bed.
We were woken the next day by our strange Russian room mate and spent the morning drinking coffee in the common room. Just before lunch, we donned our coats, grabbed a map and went out to see what the city had to offer. Rhys came to Lithuania for his stag do and although they stayed in a different city, they spent a day in Vilnius, shooting guns and working up a thirst on a communal beer bike. Despite that (or probably because of that), Rhys didn’t recognise a thing in the city so it didn’t feel like he was just revisiting somewhere he’s already been.
We walked to the Cathedral Square, near our hostel before climbing up the Gediminas’ tower on a hilltop at the south of the old town to see the view. It was a shame it was so foggy as there are literally hundreds of cathedrals scattered throughout the city and we could barely make half of them out. Walking back down towards our hostel, we made a photo stop at the red brick St Anne and Bernadine Church Ensemble, before finding ourselves in Uzupio. Uzupio is a bohemian area that, tongue in cheek, declared itself an independent state and posted it’s constitution on a wall in 9 different languages, listing things like ‘everyone has the right to look after a cat’ and ‘everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday’. Compared to the main road running through the Old Town, the buildings in Uzupio were more rustic and run down and we found a lovely little pub on the river for lunch.
|The Bell Tower in cathedral square, Vilnius.|
|St Anne and Bernadine Churches, Vilnius.|
Walking back into the centre, we wandered along Literatu Street with some beautiful wall art, before passing the Town Hall with it’s rubbishy Christmas Market and the southern border of the Old Town at the Gate of Dawn. By then we were ready for some apple pie. We struggled to find a coffee shop with apple pie and settled on a shop with rows and rows of calorific cakes in an area known as the Ghetto with quaint cobblestone alleyways.
|Walking through the ghetto, Vilnius.|
We made one final stop at the Presidential Palace before deciding it was time to head back to the hostel to defrost. It was still in the minuses and we were starting to get fed up of being constantly cold.
After a couple of hours in the hostel it was time to wake Rhys from his nap to head out for dinner, to a Lithuanian restaurant i’d found on trip advisor. The meal was great value and atmospheric, sitting in a brick vaulted basement, but the Zeppelins (potato dumplings) were extremely heavy and we didn’t stand a chance of finishing them.
The next morning we were woken by our strange room mate clunking around on the wooden floor in his clogs. Neither of us had slept particularly well and we’d hoped for a lie in before our hellish journey to Berlin via Warsaw. We spent the morning drinking coffee in the common area before stopping by the supermarket to pick up lunch and some dinner to eat on the bus. Leaving Rhys in the hostel, I rushed out to squeeze in a visit to the Museum of Genocide Victims in the 2 hours we had before we had to leave for the bus station. The museum is based in the old KGB/Gestapo building and I figured it would be educational to learn a little about the atrocities that happened there, sadly, the museum was closed, I spent a few minutes reading the names of Lithuanian’s who had been executed there on the memorial wall before heading back down the sweeping main shopping avenue Gedimino. With a bit of time left, I turned back in to the Ghetto to wander the twisting cobbled streets. The more time I spent in Vilnius, the more I liked it, the back streets being far more appealing and filled with small wine bars and cake shops, than the repaved high street that cuts through the Old Town.
|Back streets of Vilnius.|
It was an uphill walk back across town with our bags to reach the bus station where we boarded our 11 hour bus to Poland. We had to change in a small town close to the border but other than that the journey was painless and we arrived on time in Warsaw at just after 11pm. We took a cab straight to our hostel and checked in for the 6 hours until we had to leave again. It was a shame we couldn’t stay longer since the hostel, Oki Doki. looked right up our street.