Moscow’s Des Res Districts: (8) The West End – Around the Arbats
Editor’s Welcome: The concluding part of our gilded guided tour round Moscow’s central residential areas. We hope you have enjoyed it – judging by your kind feedback, the series has proved interesting, and maybe even useful – great! JH
The Arbats – Key Features in Cameo:
B Surrounded by Metro stations, but none close enough – and the big one is a nightmare
C Cafés and restaurants for every taste and budget. Foreign sports matches are on TV, somewhere
D Old Arbat is delightful, or a tacky tourist trap stage set or museum, according to taste
E Well served by kindergartens and child care clubs, with just a few Embassies
F Must-sees aplenty: Gorky’s house, Melnikov’s house, Pushkin statues
G Unmissable: people watching. – enjoy the varied throng on a summer’s evening
Z Too bustling and built-over to be family friendly. New is a warning how to ‘do modern’ badly.
The Arbat vies with Tverskaya as Moscow’s best known sybaritic street. It is the expat’s magnet, lavishly treated by artists, the first pedestrianised street, lined with tourist-orientated retail and entertainment palaces, handily between the Kremlin and the river, and surrounded by the more (self) important classes of embassies. And not without abundant expat watering-holes, the archetypal TV sports bars where the great god Cyclops (in the Sky?) is worshipped with tribal chants and beery offerings.
The two Arbat streets could not be more different in appearance, architecture or amenities. The pedestrianised original is civilised, mostly. Reflecting much of Moscow’s history, it is lined with notable buildings and sculptures, and thronged with humanity. The New is a later creation, resolutely modern, in its time, unencumbered by history, tradition or arguably taste. Even if full of folk, it is really a machine-space not a people place: traffic is heavy, tedious and smelly. Still, packed traffic makes cycling inviting. Beware of self-important migalka-mounted black limos. On the pavement, outdoor liftmuzak mars the malls, while young ‘entrepreneurs’ may be eyeing your pockets.
But the true value of the Arbat area lies behind the commercial facades. The enduring memories are to be had behind the bright lights and free of the tourist traps. One of Moscow’s most famous scenes, the courtyard and church painted by Polenov (1878) when this area was the edge of Moscow, has survived urbanisation all around. The square is tucked in on Spasopeskovsky Pereleuk. The view is restricted by the now mature trees more than buildings, but the feeling is still there. Step forward an era, and Moscow’s most futuristic and most neglected building hides on Krivoarbatskiy Pereleuk. The great architect, Melnikov, was allowed to build his own house in 1927, a rarity in the fledgling Soviet state, and its two interlocking cylinders with honeycomb hexagonal windows was years ahead of its time. Sadly, it is neither open to view nor restored, yet, but there is now hope. Whatever you do, do not miss Gorky’s House, both for its glorious Art-Nouveau architecture, décor and marble staircase, and history.
The area is an architectural kaleidoscope and the many, splendid pre-revolutionary buildings are best explored during a gentle stroll, with a tourist guide book to hand. Navigating the Arbat is easy, as the eye is constantly drawn to the dominating, gothic bulk of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Arguably the least attractive of Stalin’s Seven Sisters, its odd proportions are explained by the fact that the squat tower design did not please the great leader, so an ill-fitting spire was hastily gummed on top to appease him.
Apart from the touristy restaurants and bars, mostly with prominent brand names, there are unique small places off the beaten track. Culturally there’s plenty going on, with lots of theatres and music venues, especially if you stretch your legs to Bolshoi Nikitskaya, adding a host of elegant and delightfully individual boutiques and antique shops. At any time of day, or week, there is plenty going on.
The special bits
Buildings & statues. There is a statue for every taste on The Arbat. Gogol’s, just off new Arbat (behind 7 Nikitsky Blvd.), is the most evocative. Best building is the hidden-away and tragically un-restored avant-garde Melnikov House. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is imposing, and is an ever-present compass point.
Best Metro stations. The star-shaped Arbat and the exit from dark blue Smolenskaya are both iconic. Nearby the only 4-line station is worth an hour or two, which is as well, as it always takes me that long to find my way out of it. Smolenskaya is also two stations with one name, on a system where usually one station has two names.
Where to live? You have plenty of choice, from all eras and qualities: top tier and dodgy pre-revolutionary, Stalin-soviet, sixties brutalist and brand new. So much so that in each direction, there is a seamless transition into another top quality area: Prechistenka and Ostozhenka to the south, the various embankments to the west, Barrikadnaya and the zoo are NW, and towards Patriarshy Ponds to the N and NE. Together, one can safely predict that this is the largest concentration of expats in Moscow. With plenty of renovation already complete, this could be your chance of a pre-revolutionary house in good shape with well-renovated façade and entrance, and near the Arbat.