Madrid was like a younger brother; fun and energetic but occasionally annoying.
Moscow is like the older brother; it'll teach you and reward you but often will be a bully.
Spring is struggling to arrive in the city. Winter won't let him in. She's having too much fun buttoning up coats, blowing away joie de vivre and reddening faces.
'I can't remember ever having an April like this' Dmitry said to me
Overcast, snowy, rainy, grey and hovering around zero still. It's April the 12th for the love of all that's holy. Everyone is getting grouchy. I'm getting pasty. I'm always tired. Richard flings two middle fingers at the sky one morning and I cry 'oh for f***s sake!' as some spring snow sticks in my eye.
I haven't got enough time left not to visit places. Russia - a country in which my love and hate for a place have never been so entwined - is temporarily forcing me to step away from my maxim of only doing tourism when it's sunny. I have a list of towns to visit and not long left to do it.
* * * *
One blustery, slushy and steel-grey Wednesday morning I boarded a rickety old electrichka local train to the town of Zvenigorod, 1hr 20mins west, at the absurdly complicated Belorusskaya train station. The ground around the station was a gloopy, muddy assault course. It was a 2km walk into the town. I psychologically patted myself on the back for having prepared so well. I was wearing boots.
In the centre of the rather ugly little town I kicked down my feet, sending slabs of mud onto the pavement, and followed my nose north and then west along the river - whose banks flashed brown with newly emerging grass. Over in the distance - another 2km away - were the spires of the Savvino-Storozhevsky Monastery. The town itself, not that you'd know, has been hanging around since the 12th century. So it's old. The monastery was built in 1398 and was set on a hill overlooking the Moscow river. A colourful, twee jumble of spires; an old cathedral containing icons from Andrei Rublev; and a view to the town below helped form a very quaint and peaceful place. Cats milled about - for every cat has its monastery - and monks shuffled about in fleeces shooing away crows.
A lot of monasteries have their own bakeries, and Zvenigorod was no exception. A lady with a scarf around her head stood behind a till in a small kiosk that smelled of bread. I bought an onion loaf, some squidgy little cabbage pies and some iced biscuits. Dogs were scratching around outside the monastery walls while visitors padded up to the entrance. The women wrapped their heads in scarves while men doffed their caps. Both genders crossed themselves.
I took a marshrutka back into the town centre but accidentally alighted too early, realising the little minibus would have taken me back to the station. I was left waiting for almost 45 minutes for a smart coach to arrive. It hauled into view, oversized in the small town, and took me back to Moscow, blasting across snowy plains dotted with spires and villages and up through overgrown hills that concealed minuscule dacha towns.
* * * *
'They are...' Boris searched his memory bank for the most apt description of what the seller had in her hands '...like big gypsy needles'.
Everyone burst out laughing. Everyone being me, Laura and Natasha. Natasha is a tall brunette Russian, quick to laugh and quick to take the piss. Boris is a wiry guy with mousy features and wild, curly hair. We were in good company. On the local trains a constant, illegal, but unstopped flow of sellers slide through the carriages. A word, yarmarka - travelling market, is the most appropriate description. From pens to branch cutters and from socks to magnifying glasses, seemingly every utterly specific, normally useless, occasionally lifesaving piece of technology was available.
'Oh look, the potato peeler lady has left her test cabbage on the seat' I noticed as some rough looking Russians turned away, not wanting to share the next hour with a naked vegetable.
In Balabanovo we got off the train, splashed through the epic slush, brushed the blizzard out of our eyes and caught a marshrutka to Borovsk - the only way to get there. Borovsk possesses a revered and beautiful monastery. The importance of both the place itself and the men running it are reasons for why the town appears different to most places of similar importance. They protected the settlement against development, insisting that it remain a calm haven for believers. The development therefore passed on to the town of Kaluga, which became the city of Kaluga, which finally became the provincial capital. So modern day Borovsk is quiet and none of the buildings exceed a few storeys. The main central area is twee and small and yellow, with little buildings, a little statue of Lenin and a smattering of little churches.
Speaking of churches, the town is full of them. According to our massively obese taxi driver, who ferried us through the wet to the monastery, there are 17 just in the town - impressive for a place with a population just over 10,000. The other thing that lifts Borovsk's image from just 'town with churches' is its many painted walls. Old, dilapidated buildings; schools; fine, classical structures; buildings everywhere, are spiced up with painted scenes. Some are from classical novels, some are in lieu of information panels and some are just there to look colourful and pretty. Even in the rain/snow they added a little something to the atmosphere and it became a game to try and find new ones.
At the entrance to the Pafnutiyev Monastery a man with a crutch stood blinking next to a legless man in a wheelchair. Little tins rattled around their feet hoping for coins. A dog was nearby, wet and motionless waiting, instead, for scraps. Or love. Old ladies on the other side of the entry track were manning stalls selling salted cucumbers and biscuits, while a man optimistically looked after a surreal table offering both a bag of fresh eggs or various pieces of armour which a visitor could be photographed with.
The monastery itself, perched by a little pond, was a standard affair, only this time the girls not only had to cover their heads with a scarf (platok) but had to put on a cloak thing round their mid section and legs (ubka). Probably to cover their jeans. A cat ran out of the rain, was denied entry into the toll-booth and jumped into the pile of ubki.
'Luke, you shouldn't take photos of monks. It's illegal' said Boris
'Boris, my good man, I literally don't care' I smiled as I took photos of a heavily bearded man in a black robe.
* * * *
Boris' mum, Galina, picked us up from Borovsk and drove us to Obninsk. Obninsk was the first Naukograd - Science City, built during the fifties as a centre for research and scientific development. It houses the world's first nuclear power plant as well as the training base for the Soviet Union's first nuclear submarines. It is not an attractive place, but it was interesting. It felt artificial or 'made'. Something akin to Milton Keynes. I had rarely been somewhere with no history. There was one place of age though and that was the first place that Galina took us.
A tiny village that was swallowed up by Obninsk, Belkino was the estate of a wealthy landowner of the same name. His two-storey mansion, once the subject of high-art and paintings, now stood, decrepit and wasted away to brick, splitting apart into two and held together by iron girders. Near it was the salmon pink Boris and Gleb church and a park with artificial waterfall cascades. It would have been lovely. Would have...
In Obninsk we passed the 315m meteorological tower, the main street that was built by German prisoners of war, and the submarine memorial - a submarine tower poking out the ground - next to which a young cadet in uniform was having his photo taken.
At Boris' flat his mother treated us to a feast of roast lamb, pork cutlets, feta salad (prepared by yours truly), potatoes, cakes and chocolates. We collectively collapsed in the chairs for the remaining part of the afternoon. Galina made pirozhki in the kitchen, for us to have in the morning for breakfast. We digested and waited as night fell in Obninsk. Then, over tea and cheese, we looked at photos of Boris as a young boy with his mother. He wasn't particularly amused but he wasn't really bothered either, so we carried on laughing. She then showed us photos of flowers. The whole flat was full of plants and pots and greenery. I supposed it was necessary to brighten up the place given the often bleak nature of the city.
'To new friends!' and chink went the vodka shots.
We were in a nice bar with some of Boris' friends. Three guys; Ivan, Vasya and Lyosha. Vasya and Lyosha were part of a fairly successful Bluegrass band called BandJammin. Indeed, over the course of the night, we saw that they seemed to be known to quite a few of the young of the city who would come over and shake their hands.
The bar we were in was depleted. It stocked one type of beer, a couple of varieties of snacks and we had just finished its last bottle of vodka.
'Right, let's move!' bellowed Ivan
In the next place we had more vodka and some nuts. The attractive bargirl seemed fascinated that at this table were sat an Englishman and an American girl. I shan't lie, I played up my accent and made sure I was heard. Later, some people at another table - some guys who thought they were God's gift to the male species - picked us out, thinking we were German and made some jokes by saying some Deutsch words. Knobs.
We finished the night in a cold flurry of English and Russian outside on the streets clutching beer cans with frigid fingers. It was Spring and it was zero degrees. The band were to play a gig in Moscow the following weekend, so Laura offered them to stay at hers. We parted around 4:00 in the morning and exclaimed how much of a joy it was to meet each other and how much we all looked forward to seeing each other again. Russians are lovely.
Galina's pies did the trick in the morning and that was it. Three towns in one week. I was shattered.
I'm addicted to travelling. Addicted to seeing as many places as I can before I leave. I have a magnet collection. I have a job that is killing me. I live in a country where I don't want to live much longer but where I want to travel eternally.
To live, Spain is simply better. To see, feel, experience and understand it takes a hell of a lot to top Russia.