Kolomenskoye and Tsaritsyno
Exploring Moscow’s Green Parts (1)
Text & photos: Ross Hunter & J. Harrison
‘It’s much greener than we imagined’ is a frequent new ex-pat remark. The MKAD is shorter than London’s M25 but with 13 million inside it, Moscow’s population density is exactly double London’s. Amazingly, green spaces abound at all scales – behind every building, local parks, riverbanks and huge forest parks. Over the last eight months, Passport has explored the preferred ex-pat residential areas, so now we offer a four month themed guide to Moscow’s greater green spaces.
This month, the historical treasures of Kolomenskoye and Tsaritsyno, both south on the dark Green line, only 4 and 7 stops from the centre.
Westwards in May to Victory Park, Gorky Park and Sparrow Hills. In June, north and east for nature and recreation at the Botanic Gardens, Sokolniki, Izmailovo and Kuskovo. And in sunny July, let’s spread towards the MKAD, south to Troporevskiy & Bitsevskiy Parks, east to Kuzminki, west to Serebryaniy Bor and north to Pokrovskoye-Glebovo.
Pack your hat, shades, picnic, bicycle and sun cream, and let’s go!
A royal park with boundless views, wooded and grasses parkland, amenities and river banks. Centuries of history sitting next to cafes and adventure playgrounds, listening to church bells pealing, birds singing and children frollicking. All this just a gentle boat cruise or a summer cycle-ride along the riverbank. Too good to be true? No. Kolomenskoye, yes!
Nestling along a sweeping curve in the Moscow river, Kolomenskoye park sits atop an unusually steep hill. But the Metro and car park both deliver you near the top of the ridge, so only eyes and children roll down towards the water. It is a splendid recreation area, ideal for a romantic stroll or with energetic youngsters or dogs to exercise, for a weekend hot meal and cold glass, making one’s own fun or partaking of the attractions.
Your feet are walking over three centuries of Tsars’ footprints. This was the Grand Dukes’ green playground, before they even promoted themselves to ‘Tsar’. Surrounded by oak forests and hunting grounds (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the 1532 Ascension Church gives us 500 years. Here, you can play with the spirit of the young Peter the Great, listen out for the coronation festivities of Catherine I, Peter II and Empresses Anna and Elizabeth, and look for Peter II hunting in the woods. Catherine the Great brought her grandchildren, how about you?
The park is planned to help you along the path of destiny. Your grand entry through the Gate of the Saviour leads first to the elegant 1653 Church of Our Lady of Kazan, built by Tsar Alexei to commemorate the centenary of the capture of Kazan by Ivan the Terrible. Wood was the builder’s choice then, as in the Bratsk stockade tower, and the 1702 House of Peter I. The esteemed palace of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich from 1668, remains only as Smirmov’s exquisite 1867 model, to be enjoyed along with the Clock Tower, Guard’s Quarters and Cooking House. All is dominated by the Church of the Ascension, celebrating the birth of Ivan the later Terrible. An early stone edifice, it is also the first ‘tent’ style (kokoshnik) church in Russia , supported only from the corners, freeing up floor space, and making an arrowhead to heaven with its spire.
This is only a taste of the history on offer. You will be ready for a taste of something fresher. Fear not! On any day, you can step into separate worlds of honey, shashlik kebabs, bliny pancakes or modern fast food. Special days include Maslenitsa, pancake week before Lent, Easter itself, Victory Day (9 May) and Peter The Great’s birthday on 31 May. Babje Leto is a folklore festival at the end of September, seeing out the long summer with traditional Russian music, dance, costumes, food and games, and of course plenty of liquid refreshment.
Or pick a quieter day, and simply enjoy the stroll, nature and the views. It is a fine place to unwind.
Percy Bysshe Shelley cannot possibly have visited Tsaritsyno, but his warning is etched in the stones like the Blackpool in rock:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
His sonnet of 1818 pictures the remains of a Pharaoh’s huge sculpture, with its arrogantly carved boast guarding the entrance to the endless, timeless desert. All else of his empire has drifted and sifted back into the sands of time.
Thrice over, this is Tsaritsyno’s story. Four hundred not four thousand years, but the plot fits. An imposing estate already in the fifteenth century, it passed from Tsarina Irina and brother Boris Godunov through Peter the Great and on to Catherine the Great in 1775. Each time it was remodelled but, typically, Catherine’s dreams were the most grandiose. And costly. When she died in 1796, the funding stopped, the forest marched back and ‘The Tsarina’s Garden’ sank into its former and future self, ‘Black Mud’ (Chornaya Gryaz). Until our day, this is how it stayed. The Bolsheviks had no place or cash for this imperial ruin, so every child adventurer’s dream El Dorado it remained: walls to promenade, creepers to grab, towers to scale, memories of grandeur to kick into dusty, ghostly life.
Catherine was never happy with what she was offered, and few seem happy with the nouveau-kitsch ‘reinterpretation’ that has been thrown onto the old edifice. Fear not: no need to wait for the sands of time, this is crumbling as you watch it. Little solace for today’s refugees of Rechnoi, but each imperial arrogance will rot, first quickly, then eternally.
So go quickly, and see history become pre-history before your eyes. Enjoy the forests, walks, ponds, fountains and gardens. Imagine each re-working of Catherine’s then dreams now nightmares; walk like a king, a queen or a royal pretender and savour your greatness, wave your imperial wand – enjoy yourself; all will be back to Black Mud ere long. Tsaritsyno has a fantastical side to it. The edifices are suspiciously clean and bright, as if ashamed of their history, and the sheer variety of architecture is bewildering. Unlike the great palaces of St Petersburg, it is hard to imagine the Tsars arriving and walking back
into the buildings. Especially if you visit on a Monday, when everything is shut – even if it is a public holiday.
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder, and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours ... Spot on.
Desp ite all this, it is an epic outing for the romantic, the wannabe explorer, the melancholic and the poet. Shelley’s friend Horace Smith penned his own version, which I borrow by way of epitaph: