Inside the Kremlin

Moscow, Russia

After all of the schedule shuffling, we woke up early, packed and got ready to demolish our final day in Moscow. On deck was the tour of the Kremlin that we had booked on our own yesterday. Even better, the skies were blue and the sun was out. Not like that would have any impact on the thermometer. “It’s cold today,” the front desk receptionist called out. “Even for us.”

With the mercury barely above -10 degrees, we nearly froze on the walk over to the tour office. This was an absolutely bone-chilling cold, with an occasional breeze that literally took your breath away. It was the first time that the three of us — guys who braved truly brutal winters in Ithaca — could not stay outside for more than a couple of minutes. It’s safe to say that it’s the coldest weather that I’ve ever experienced. And it made me long for those sweaty days in Egypt.

We moved quickly with our guide onto the Kremlin, the enduring symbol of the Russian state since its founding in 1147. This is where it has all gone down: from Ivan the Terrible’s wrath and Napoleon’s burning of Moscow to Lenin’s communism, Gorbachev’s perestroika and Yelstin’s New Russia.

We past the tight security and the Kremlin’s official government buildings; fully-armed military police quickly yelled at tourists straying off the appointed path while fleets of Mercedez Benz and BMWs with tinted windows floored by the streets.

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The government buildings are closed to tourists, so a visit to the Kremlin largely consists of Cathedral Square, where the Patriarch’s Palace, Assumption Cathedral, Archangel Cathedral and Annunciation Cathedral are all located. These impressive places of worship were built by various tsars as private worship areas. Individually, each is unique and different. Taken as a whole, the entire area is almost difficult to digest in its grandeur.

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On the square’s eastern side, the Ivan the Great Bell Tower soars above all else. It is the Kremlin’s tallest structure; before the 20th century, it was forbidden to build any structure higher than this in Moscow.

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Lastly, we saw the Tsar Cannon & Bell, which aptly describe the largest cannon ever cast in Russia and the largest bell in the world. The 40-ton cannon dates back to 1856, it was never fired; the monstrous 202-ton bell dates to 1737, it has never been rung.

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Given the extensive Soviet history lesson, it was only appropriate for us to have lunch at the McDonald’s just outside of the Kremlin walls in Pushkin Square. This was the first to open in Russia and today is the busiest McDonald’s in the world.

We hustled back to the hotel and caught a taxi to one of Moscow’s five train stations for our 6-hour journey northwest to St. Petersburg. It was relatively uneventful and we were able to catch a cab through the crowded streets to our accommodation, the Grand Hotel Europe.

This is one the world’s great hotels — and has been in operation since 1875. Tchaikovsky spent his honeymoon here. It’s also played host to a laundry list of politicians and celebrities, from former French president Jacques Chirac to Elton John. The rates fall considerably in the off-season, which is how we found ourselves entering the lobby of this absolutely stunning place.

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“Would you like the long tour?” the concierge asked as she led us to our room. “Sure,” we replied, passing the elegant lobby bar, an open mezzanine café, breakfast room with original stained glass and black-tie vodka and caviar bar. The interiors were a beautiful combination of marble and gilt, with sweeping staircases and elegant antique furniture.

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Our room on the second floor overlooked the Russian Museum. It felt a bit tight after having had the living room in Moscow but was still very comfortable, with heated marble bathroom floors, super soft beds and a world newspaper menu — the first I’ve ever seen at a hotel.

Meanwhile, the service was practically tripping over itself. After our tour of the hotel, the concierge told us that she was available for whatever we needed. And, unlike Hotel Savoy, she truly wasn’t kidding.

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Settling into the lobby bar a few minutes later, oligarchs to our left and cigar-smoking politicos to our right, we agreed.

Our luck had officially changed.

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