Patriarch Ponds

It’s 9.54 am and this expat is rushing for an appointment at 10:00; Mrs Expat called shotgun and is, as ever, in charge of the GPS. (this expat, who, at 13, was the only one in the house who could set the timer on a video recorder, is now a bit of a technophobe – is is that ‘technofool’?) Svetlana, the woman in our GPS, tells us to turn right in 120 meters, forgetting the slight lag in satellite time, we duly obey only to hear – ‘you have left [the] route’. I pause to hear the next instruction, fortunately it was one of the very few left turns allowed in Moscow. A quick left turn and suddenly a gap in the tall Stalin era buildings and a small park around a pond. But more astonishingly, a gap wide enough for a car to park; this gap about 50 meters from my appointment, this gap in the shade of a silver birch – the trifecta Muscovite motorists long for, but rarely get.  We had made it to Patriarch Pond by accident and not a tram smash in sight! (readers of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita will be sniggering to themselves at this literary reference – or not!)

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Appointment over, we went for a walk in the park. Sadly the restaurant on the lake was closed, even the swans and ducks were having a lazy morning, almost not caring that an eager toddler was throwing bread at them. But then the park is a lazy place; children playing on swings; couples promenading; mothers perambulating with their new born, bohemian types sipping coffee and reading and a few tourists with their oversized cameras that may (or may not) be over compensating for something. However, perhaps the most dangerous thing of all in the park were the octogenarians power walking forcefully doing laps around the park, armed with ski poles, iPods blasting away, leaving a trail of dust, small children and barking dogs in their wake.

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Although Patriarch’s Pond is the setting for much of The Master and Margarita, the park is mostly dedicated to Ivan Krylov, a writer of fables, much in the style of Aesop; and grower of incredible sideburns. Along with a statue of Ivan there are some sculptures depicting scenes of his writings. Including a rather nice one of an elephant’s bottom reminding this expat of an old British folk song – the hole in the elephant’s bottom, which, depending on the version, is amusing or simply risque! [various versions can be found at] As people pass by the sculptures various parts are rubbed for good luck and so retain their brass look whilst, like Ivan himself, the rest is aging and weathering well.

As we walked back to the entrance, which, I guess, would now become the exit, we paused to brush off the dust raised by the lapping, aged power walkers, whilst owners pulled back on the leashes of their dogs encouraging them to cease barking. Brushing off the dust, four things were considered by this expat:

  • that these octogenarians caused more havoc and debris than the tram crash at the beginning of Bulgakov’s novel;
  • that we should leave before they circled round to us again;
  • whether Mrs Expat would appreciate Krylov style sideburns and;
  • that this expat didn’t get to use the phrase ‘elephant’s bottom’ nearly often enough

So, getting into the car Mrs Expat and Svetlana were treated to a tuneless verse or two of that folk song.


Kuskovo Estate

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Driving on the Ring, a road that circumnavigates Moscow, watching on all sides for traffic that could damage your health – and there are a lot of them and then taking the clover leaf off an overpass to the road below we checked our GPS and it said 3.3km; the traffic so jammed the estimated length of journey (based on current speed) was about 56 minutes – this expat began to wonder whether we were really heading to the idyllic surroundings of Kuskovo. But then, as quickly as the traffic built up, it was gone and, as we turned off the busy main road into a quite lane, you suddenly find yourself driving through the relative silence of  a beautifully maintained deciduous woodland, hard to imagine we were on the edge of the hustle and bustle of Moscow. Once we parked our car in the small car park, we crossed the road, lined up with white wedding stretch Hummer-limos and proceeded to the ticket booth. After trying to decipher yet another large Russian sign board, we concluded that there is more than one museum which you can enter within the estate and if you wanted to take photos or require filming, there would be a charge (this expat got caught out and told off at the Hermitage). Charades ensued whilst we tried explaining to the cashier lady that we wanted 2 tickets for everything within the estate and would like to purchase a pass that would enable us to take photos. What we ended up getting in return was the opposite, with a wry smile, a re-assuring nod about the photos, we were supplied a single piece of paper that gave us entry into the estate and its park, but, as we later found out (when a reasonable walk away from the ticket office), it offered no entrance to other museums and seemed only to rile those ladies who jealously guarded the entrances to various sites who, we guessed, thought we were trying to blag our way in.

The estate features beautiful large gardens, the Kuskovo Palace as the main building once you enter the main gate, the Grotto, which is adjacent to the Dutch House; and the Orangerie at the far end of the estate, declared as the State Museum of Ceramics in 1919.

It was when we tried to enter the Palace we found out the ticket we bought at the main entrance was only valid for the park/garden areas. Luckily the official spoke some English and invited us in to buy a ticket. After purchasing a ticket and becoming licensed to take photos we got down to some serious sight seeing with our self tour around this large wood and plaster structure once owned by the Sheremetev family. Each room had a sign on the door describing what we would find inside and a little about the history and artists who contributed to the rooms’ ambiance and beauty.

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Standing in the room, the Ballroom, we turned towards the view of the gardens outside and took in the last few views of the Palace ballroom before making our way to the ‘Grot’ (Grotto). The building was situated behind a small pond and all that was inside represented an underwater, sea-like theme. The initial idea was a cooler, tranquil spot for the family to entertain in the hotter summer months. Walking through the smaller interior,enjoying the coolness after the hot sunny walk through the avenues of trees, the walls sparkle as light is reflected off the tiny pieces of glass in the concrete. Everywhere you look, walls, ceilings and artworks are a combination and symphony of thousands of small shells and pieces of mother-of-pearl. The detail and delicateness in each of these is incredible.

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Leaving the Grotto behind us and making our way slowly through the confusing maze of a garden, we came across the Dutch House which looked very neat and quaint. Eager to go inside, we were shoo’d away by a short, annoyed looking, babushka (Russian for grandmother, but is often used for an officious woman of a certain age)  after she asked us for our tickets, which of course we didn’t have thanks to the lady at the main gate. We tried asking if we could buy tickets from her (as we had done in the Palace and Grotto), but soon realized it’s probably best to make our way to the Orangerie before the whips out a broom and starts chasing us with it.

When me made it down to the Orangerie on the opposite side of the estate, it was under renovation and we turned to the American Conservatory (next door) where all the porcelain was temporarily being housed. Sadly no photography was allowed here. The collection included some of the most precious of Western porcelain in Eastern Europe, all collected by the Sheremetev family over generations. Also included are collections assembled by Empress Maria Fedorovna before the Russian Revolution. Some of the most creatively hand crafted items with the most intricate details are embellished with gold. Some pieces create the illusion of containing engraved gold. It was interesting to see how designs and fashions changed and evolved between the 18th an 20th centuries.

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Gorky Leninskye Estate: Lenin’s Dacha

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With the early morning sun during the summer come the reluctant early rises, we are two of them. Today’s reason? An early morning haircut appointment. To make the most of the day, plans were afoot to dare to travel outside the Moscow city limits, trusting only our temperamental GPS, our Russian map book and a misplaced trust in our own sense of direction.

It took a little over an hour by car to get to the neighbouring settlement, including one wrong turn, a pit stop and being pulled over for not having our headlights switched on during the daytime. After reaching the settlement of Gorky Leninskie and finding no clear signage to the estate, we pulled over at a nearby grocery store to do what no real man would do – ask directions. Armed with our Russian map book and the word “G’diea” (meaning ‘where’), we approached a shelf stacker, showed him the map, pointed at where we wanted to be and unleashed our Russian word. He looked puzzled, said he spoke English a little bit but seemed unable to point; gesticulate or help in any way. This seems odd in hindsight as Lenin’s museum was in plain sight, had we turned around – it was, in fact, like asking where the Kremlin was whilst standing in Red Square.

Once parked, we walked to Lenin’s museum; a large mausoleum-like structure in the middle of a field of green and yellow – now known as the Political Museum of History. The interior was dark and a throwback to soviet days. It is now used as a conference center although houses a daunting statue of Lenin and other photos and artifacts; but sadly nowhere to buy entrance tickets (we later found the ticket office at the ‘New House’ next to the Dacha at he opposite end of the estate).

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We followed the signs to the Dacha and walked along paths though meadows and along the edge of a woodland enjoying the breeze to the main gate. A short walk through what appeared to be an orchard bought us to the main houses: the Dacha and the New House. As we entered the New House, we found a souvenir shop and the elusive ticket office. As in the majority of internationally known attractions within Russia, no one spoke any other language other than Russian. Equally no foreign language signage (except the one proclaiming “Souvenir”). A clumsy dialogue followed – we believe the gist seemed to be that in order to enter you needed to be part of a group and that groups were only allowed at certain times during the day.

Disappointed but not beaten, we went to enjoy the sun, the gardens and the view down to the lake. Although there was a walk down to the lake, we paused at one of Lenin’s favorite spots to contemplate and to enjoy just being away from the city, in the countryside. Listening to the birds, watching out for woodland creatures and swotting mosquitoes. All whilst tying to remember what exactly a tick looked like if they bore encephalitis, where they would be and if my inoculation was up to date.

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We made our way down to the far end of the estate to a freestanding house, envisioning how horses use to trot along the very road we were walking on, transporting one of the most historic names in history. Pausing for a few moments we enjoyed the beauty of the green whilst appreciating the generous shade of the very large trees in the very hot weather. Slowly making our way back to the main entrance, we passed the very large museum at it’s rear, and were amused watching a bus trying to maneuver out of the car park whilst avoiding the only car that was parked on the whole of the estate; parked with, apparently, the sole aim of preventing the coach from leaving. Quietly amused by the to-ing and fro-ing, we stopped en-route back to our trusty Russian automobile at a vendor selling semi firm, over sweet, ice creams on the way out, we desperately reached for a hundred Roubles to help quench our thirst on the journey back on what were surely the most expensive ice creams in Russia!