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Time Off

Moscow from the River
Text and photos by Ross Hunter

uilt on seven hills it may be, but a good panorama of Moscow is hard to find. The Ostankino Tower is closed, new towers are mostly unfinished, and none of the other obvious spots affords a full view (apart from the Swissotel, which I can’t afford).

So, how to see the whole city without exertion? Simple! From the river. The Moscow River is as unhurried as the city is frenetic and cuts through it at most of the interesting points. Green views, clean air, fresh water – what more could anyone want? A brisk breeze? Consider it done!

The fleet of water boats that ply the bends are ideal for any purpose – a romantic getaway, exercise for the camera, a party, a sunset aperitif with moving scenery, a children’s expedition – any excuse, your cruise awaits you. There are several routes, boats, operators and prices, up river, down river and round trips. Most popular is to glide downstream from Kievskaya, although cruises do start further west under the towering cliff s of the new business areas.

Kievskaya is an ideal starting point. Get there early, and enjoy the views before embarkation. Behind is the fine railway station, the SAS hotel and an imposing, if curiously styled, shopping center; in front, the splendid fountains and fl ags. A spot of people watching is always entertaining here. Across the river, generous banks sweep up to the Hotel Borodino and behind it the imposing Stalin gothic squat shoulders and sharp spire of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: just one of the five ‘Wedding Cakes’ in view along the way. And then there is the pedestrian bridge that welds its way across the river. An amazing construction, looking well able to support at least a railway line or two, with seemingly every face and column in a different material and style: solid stone uprights; massive steel arches, crystal faceted glazing and riots of contrasting colour. Theme, pattern, or purpose? I can’t find it – happy hunting! It is the first of eleven bridges to play echo-ooohs under (16 on the full route, including passing under the Metro lines twice, as they break surface at Smolenskaya and by the university).

Cameras ready, the reel of photo ops spins ever faster...

All aboard with full naval honours and delicious anticipation: gangplank, smart uniforms, precession though the lower decks, past the bar (or pause – service is simple but good value) and up to the sun decks. The boat sets off with purposeful zest, and the hour and a half to come is full of relaxed action. Thanks to the sinuous meanders of the river, most great sights are seen a few times. Moskva-City recedes at the end of the unfurling blue ribbon of water, briefly assuming a Dubai-esque mirage. Then on the port side, the splendours of Novodevichy Convent are eternally inspiring. The double bridge of the 3rd Ring Road heralds change to a green swathe, and the long left hander under the Sparrow Hills belies being in the center of a city of 13 million inhabitants. This is Moscow’s best linear leisure park, and the grassy banks are thronged by sunbathers, picnic parties, courting couples, children, trick cyclists and skateboarders, walkers, musicians, readers and sleepers.

As the boat yaws steadily to port around the peninsula, the views are unique. Inside the bend is the imposing symmetry of the Luzhniki Stadium, the famous venue for many great football games involving Spartak, Russia… and last May’s match between a couple of English outfi ts painting the town red and blue. A wonderful stadium – another must-go venue. Opposite, enjoy amazing and unexpected views of Moscow University, the largest and second most elegant of the seven ‘Wedding Cakes’, peeking imperiously above the trees. In front of this paragon of rationality stands… the ski jump. Majestic in profi le, mad in prospect, this is a sport to watch often, but to try probably only once.

Round the bend (meaning the boat has moved, not a commentary on the previous recreational opportunity), and another imposing pair of sights fill both port and starboard sides: to your left, the statuesque apartment buildings of Frunzenskaya – arguably some of the best ‘des res’ properties in Moscow, aff ording great views of the river, and the morning sun, with the sophisticated areas of Park Kultury, Kropotkinskaya and Tolstoy’s house behind. To the right, Gorky Park beckons with its array of amusements to gawk at or squawk from.

Float on by. Next up, under the Garden Ring and past the brutalist cube of the New Tretyakov, assuredly better on the inside than out, flanked by the ever fascinating sculpture park, and watched over by the immense landmark of Peter The Great directing traffic, as here the river keeps left, but the canal takes a shortcut to the right (see color box).

Cameras ready, the reel of photo ops spins ever faster: what’s left of the historic Red October chocolate factory opposite the gleaming gold of the new Christ the Saviour cathedral, the pair linked by the splendid promenade footbridge. Salute the Kremlin and St Basil’s, and if you are lucky at dusk, watch the twinkles of GUM’s lights as they flicker on for the evening. The remains of the less than lovely Hotel Rossiya are cased in car adverts, facing a varied set of buildings on the right with churches, hotels, theaters and power stations elbowing each other. Ahead, the studied symmetry and elegance of the Stalin skyscraper at Kotelnicheskaya with its white limestone topped by aluminium Soviet sculptures. This former residence of the elite writers and artists rivals the university for location and beats it for beauty.

Alight here for Kitai Gorod on the city side, or Tretyakovskaya on the south side. Or carry on down to Novospasskiy Most, under the shadow of the Swissotel, and head for Paveletskaya or Proletarskaya. In 80 minutes, you have effortlessly glided past most of the best of Moscow’s sights, as unhurried as the river, a welcome break before the bustle of the city reasserts itself. Or turn round and do it again; or carry on downstream to Kolomenskaya... But that is another story. All that for 400 rubles.

Vodootvodny Canal

In Moscow’s ever turbulent history, while the left bank was repeatedly razed by fire, the right bank risked inundation in wet spells and swampy disease in the sticky summer. After a disaster in 1783, an inspired decision was made to dig out the Vodootvodny Canal and it was completed just three years later. Having saved the city, it is now one of its great treasures, worth an excursion in its own right. The smaller boats offer tours, with guides, along this delightful waterway. The western half is the more scenic, with the chocolate factory, Repin guarding his Bolotnaya Park, the fountains and the Newly Weds’ Bridge, and a cacophony of incongruous architectural styles. Being Zamoskvareche, the streets are tighter and less planned, and great views come as quick glimpses and pleasant surprises, making for better photos. A stroll along the canal is the answer to almost any question, whether on foot, bike or from a boat deck.

Round trips, clockwise, take an hour and cost 400 rubles. Leave from Repin/Newly Weds’ Bridge.

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