Green Parts – the North
Text and photos by Ross Hunter
Spoiled for choice this month. Moscow boasts a wide variety of green spaces on its northern side, all closer to the Third Ring than the MKAD, and all handy by car or Metro. From The Botanical Gardens via VDNKh to Sokolniki there is plenty of variety, and is very easy to find: the TV tower is not pretty, but it helps navigation being Europe’s tallest structure.
The Botanical Gardens
Starting at the north, the huge, rambling, spacious parks and forests of the Botanical Gardens of the Academy of Sciences are without doubt the most cultured and upmarket of all Moscow’s great parks. Uniquely free of commercialisation, they offer more space per visitor than any other. At a bargain 50 roubles (and again for a bike) its emptiness can hardly be caused by price. Once inside, choose your landscape. The most popular areas are by the entrances: by the main building (NW), the Japanese Garden (NE) and the Orangery (SW).
The palatial classical styled HQ and laboratory is a prerevolutionary stately home, with stories to tell. The facade is imposing, unless you get too close, in which case the poor quality square bricks of the main house suggest the investment was not as lavish as hoped. Worse is to stand further back as the perfect setting, view and panorama are graced by a Soviet-era electricity pylon and power station chimney. Not even symmetrical! Communist aesthetics both ask and answer troubling questions. Do not be put off: this is a gloriously accessible and pleasant place, and a favourite with Moscow’s newly-weds doing their rounds, toasting each other and the views. The pond, the conifer collection and the ornamental bushes all add to the ambience.
The Japanese garden is tidily done, neat and about believable. It requires an additional entrance fee, which may explain its higher standard of upkeep. The Orangery is a magnificent greenhouse, a vast glazed hangar that somehow combines industrial and Russian heritages. It is the repository of the exotic tropical plants, including the finest orchids. Opening hours are limited, and only for pre-booked groups, so plan ahead.
If these areas are compact, the heart of the park is the vast, rambling interior. Managing a botanical garden is a hugely skilled and time consuming job. The entrance fees clearly come nowhere near covering costs, and the gardens are on a fragile cusp between a planned and manicured exhibition of managed nature, and reverting rapidly into living proof of nature’s chaotic exuberance. Odd corners are precise and concise and well tended, other tracts are going feral fast. This mixture affords endless quiet corners for picnics, and is pretty in dappled sunlight. With a spot of imagination, one can delve into oak forest fit for Robin Hood, dense pine stands for shielding gingerbread houses, and even enough birches for a Baba Yaga. The oaks look brilliant. The pines’ perfume is enveloping, so you cannot smell the bears, bats, Ents, wolves and witches which must be in there somewhere. Great for adventures, but you won’t find me there on a dark moonlit night.
Out of the woods, the busy chaos of the All Russia Exhibition grounds is a total contrast. All the fun of the fair, popular culture at its densest. Very commercial and very noisy with all manner of curious sights, from ethnic pavilions rockets to Soviet showpieces to gilded fountains. The last named are packed with impromptu bathers in the summer heat. There is no dress code. It doesn’t resemble water, but the occupants don’t care.
Something of a mixture of the previous two, with the advantage of being very handy from central and eastern Moscow, Sokolniki was once the Tsar’s falconry centre. It does not feel like a royal hunting ground today. Large and eerie woods hide a variety of incongruous public buildings, some bathing ponds, a few stagnant weedy swamps and footpaths. All roads lead to the central circles, where refreshments come in the form of fountains, cold drinks, donkey rides, bikes for hire and more besides.
Sokolniki bathing pond
I have run out of space. It looks good on the map, and if you know this park, I’d love to hear from you. Or your views on any of those already covered in in this series.