Travel Blog: Moscow in March

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Yep, it’s cold at this time of year.

But that’s not why you should stay away from Moscow in March.

It’s an awful month to visit the Russian capital, famous for the Kremlin and Red Square. Moscow is currently struggling to emerge from a biting winter. Last time I visited, six years ago, it was winter proper. I didn’t get the relatively long hours of daylight that March affords you, but at least once I returned home I was able to capitalise on bragging rights about the temperatures I endured (“-25C? Phwoar”). To that extent winter is fine. But you should really visit in summer.

March, sadly, is caught between the two with little to recommend it. The temperature has inched close enough to zero for the ice to start thawing. And the consequences are gross: sludge, greyed by exhaust fumes, greases the pavements. It’s also dangerous. Chunks of ice that line rooftops and balconies start to disintegrate and tumble down onto the street below. It’ll rarely kill a man, but it’s bound to ruin some poor sod’s evening.

Moan over (or at least suspended for the time being).

Moscow is a sprawling metropolis and it has all the best features of one. Unlike St Petersburg, which is commonly characterised as Russian’s ‘European’ city, Moscow – provincial, gritty and industrious – feels distinctively otherworldly. Georgian cuisine (extraordinarily delicious) and Russian jazz are two evenings out that I’d recommend to those who have never visited countries within the former Soviet bloc before.

The menu of tourist attractions is impressive. Aside from the Kremlin and Kitai Gorod (a central area near Red Square) there’s plenty to keep you busy. The Pushkinskaya Art Gallery, the State History Museum and Gorky Park each easily consume half a day, and it’s a half-day well spent too.

By contrast, avoid the places that stink of cliché. The grandiloquently titled ‘Museum of the Soviet Union’ was as tacky, tired and tedious as its subject matter and the contents of its gift shop were so overpriced and shitty that I briefly entertained the possibility that the museum had seized upon a brilliant post-ironical metaphor. Unfortunately I don’t think it had: it was just overpriced and shitty.

Right – prices. Tickets for Moscow’s metro system – itself an experience not to be missed – are fantastically cheap (about 50p a journey anywhere on the map). Museum entry is also great value; a bit of eagerness with your Bod card will get you in on a dirt-cheap student tariff in most places.

The problem is that Russian cafes, restaurants and bars all understand the aforementioned government-subsidised largess as a licence to rip you off. Expect to pay close to 500 rubles (£10) for a latte and a hot sandwich, say, in a decent café. Street vendors will charge up to 100r for a soft drink. There are greasy spoons and, of course, value supermarkets to go to instead, but the fruit&veg from such places is invariably poor quality and the meat is of dubious authenticity.

There’s also the issue of being copped by the transit police who, as the notorious wheeze goes, will demand documents that they know you don’t have in order to ‘fine’ you extortionate sums. The government doesn’t issue a corruption price-list but the going rate can be quite high. Apparently though the practice – a tacitly sanctioned means by which law enforcement officials ‘top up’ their wages – is being cracked down on, but nonetheless attempting not to look like a clueless foreigner will serve you well.

I’d promised myself not to give Moscow a withering write-up and, darn it, I have done. Like any city break however, if you have the money, company and curiosity to enjoy Moscow, then you will.

Just don’t go in March.

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