Saturday, 20 March 2010

Moscow’s Arbat

There's more to the Arbat than a tacky tourist trap - with something for everyone, from Irish bars for St. Patrick's Day to bakeries, house-museums and monuments around the pedestrian-friendly street.

Follow the signs to "Arbat" from Arbatskaya metro, to emerge opposite the extraordinary House of Friendship. Turn left along the little row of cafes, under the underpass and over the crossing towards the Praga restaurant. This Moscow landmark is over 100 years old. The symbolist poets Alexander Blok and Andrei Bely had a series of dramatic meetings here in the 1900s where they quarreled over Bely's affection for Blok's wife, finally patching up their differences over an all-night dinner in 1908. A meal there today is unlikely to produce such happy results, but just round the corner to the left of the restaurant, the Praga bakery is worth visiting. Their Boston cream pie is particularly fine.

Artists, souvenir stands and old-fashioned streetlamps set the tone for the Arbat in 2010. It's a lively oasis from Moscow's relentless traffic. The origin of the name is uncertain, but may derive from an Arabic word for "suburb". The street has seen medieval traders and carriage makers, destruction by fires, gentrification by 19th century poets and merchants and house-to-house fighting in 1917. It was pedestrianised in 1986 on the initiative of Boris Yeltsin.

Take the first right, past the ridiculously over-themed Genetsvale Restaurant, for a contrasting view of Novy (new) Arbat. The Zhiguli bar on the corner offers dirt-cheap food and Zhiguli beer in an authentic 60s stolovaya ("canteen") setting, with a view of the Church of Simeon Stylites.

The 18th century Count, Nikolai Sheremetev, married the serf opera singer, Praskovya, in this church. Turn left under the shadow of the brutalist tower blocks, passing the Shamrock bar on the upper floor of the shopping arcade. There are several Patrick's-day tipples here, including Harp, Guinness and Jamesons. The shop in the basement of this arcade is still known as the "Irish Supermarket" after the original owners from Ireland. Turn left again immediately after Shokoladnitsa down some steep steps and along Serebryany Pereulok ("silver lane") back onto Stary Arbat.

Looking left, you can see a tram that sells bliny and a blue trolleybus bar; near the remains of the Wall of Peace is a section of painted bricks dating from the détente era. The trolleybus, a tribute to one of bard-poet Bulat Okudzhava's best-loved songs, promises concerts every evening, but couldn't deliver any drinks when we dropped in. If you're thirsty, you'll find Doolin house a few steps to your right. This basement Irish bar comes complete with an authentic pub smell. Straight ahead on Starokonyushenny Pereulok ("old stables lane"), you can see a nineteenth century izba, a carved wooden house, where the actor Alexander Porokhovshikov lived. On the next corner of the Arbat, the knights and art nouveau details on the Samotsvety souvenir shop reflect the taste of the merchant who built it.

The Vakhtangov Theatre opposite, with the gold statue of princess Turandot outside, took a direct hit from a German bomber in 1941. The right turn immediately after the theatre leads to the house-museum of avant-garde composer Alexander Scriabin. It is an atmospheric place even if you have no interest in his work (open Weds-Sun, noon-4 pm). You can see the experimental light keyboard with which he tried to produce synaesthetic colour music. Number 30 was once the home of the painter Sergei Ivanov, who died 100 years ago this year. Later the short story writer, Yury Kazakov, grew up here before the house became Moscow's first pet shop.

The next right turn leads to the beautiful Saviour Transfiguration church, the Spasa Preobrazhenia na Peskakh, whose name ("on the sands") recalls the sandy site of the first wooden church on this spot, burnt down by a votive candle in 1493. If you want to get an idea of what the area looked like in the 19th century, check out Vasily Polenov's idyllic painting in the Tretyakov gallery. "A Moscow Courtyard" shows this whitewashed tent-roofed church standing in a grassy field where children play. The neo-classical Spaso House beyond it has been the US ambassadors' residence since 1933. The nonchalant Bulat Okudzhava memorial outside Mu Mu embodies the spirit of the street.

Okudzhava's famous ballad to the street, "Arbat, my Arbat" is engraved on the back of the bronze archway. The house at number 51 is where Anatoly Rybakov, author of "Children of the Arbat" grew up. The blue house just beyond it was home to Pushkin and his wife, immediately after they got married in 1831.

Pushkin is the big name, but it's actually more fun to visit Andrei Bely's house next door (open 10am-6pm, Weds-Sun). The lesser-known poet was a friend of Rudolph Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy, and the walls are decorated with Bely's new-age life charts, elegantly mapped out in coloured pencil.

The next right turn takes you Smolenskaya metro station. A weekend market near the station sells beautiful apple cakes decorated with leaves and lattices of sweet pastry.

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