Moscow. It's so rewardingly Russian.
If St Petersburg is an extraordinary European confection parked on the edge of the Baltic, Moscow is full-on Slav. From the Soviet-era apartment blocks marching through the suburbs, to oligarch-style super-bling nightclubs, to the shape of battlements on top of the Kremlin wall (which are not like any battlements on top of a dinky European castle you've seen).
When you land at Domodedovo it seems that the airport is completely ringed by forests. And these are birch forests: a white-and-black-striped vista straight out of Dr Zhivago. There must be wolves...
Plenty of opportunity to reflect on such things on a 2-hour car journey into the city (best undertaken in a hotel limo). Our route through the city centre takes us along the embankment, and a first glimpse of the Moskva river is bloody imposing. Fair play: it's a tributary of the Volga, flowing all the way to the Caspian Sea (The romance of it all!). And, good lord - is that the Kremlin? It's a huge enclave stretching along the riverside: it makes the Tower of London look like teeny-tiny Lego.
It was December. We didn't get snow, but we did get to wear satisfying amounts of faux-fur. And in every other way Moscow's iconic Big Five didn't disappoint.
Number 1: Red Square
Neither red nor square, but it's a real sock-in-the-eye with the Kremlin walls towering over one side, the vastly opulent GUM shopping arcade opposite, and the candy-striped and turbaned St Basil's Cathedral at the river end.
It's not hard to imagine missile launchers and the massed ranks of the Soviet Army parading through on May Day. But in post-Soviet December the square hosts a jolly Christmas market and
an ice-skating rink.
When we first head out in the morning we're drawn by the sound of singing from a little onion-domed church off the top of the square.
We slide in at the back, and it's smoky, glittering and enchanting, with the congregation (all standing - no seats for softies here) chanting the Orthodox mass.
It's a shock to find out later that this charming edifice is repro: the Kazan Cathedral was bulldozed by Stalin, and it was only thanks to an architect who made detailed plans even as it was being pulled down, that it was recreated in faithful detail in the 1990s.
Number 2: St Basil's
Gaudy and extraordinary, it's a church masquerading as a funfair attraction.
But after we've paid for our tickets and found our way in we wander through a maze of narrow stone corridors, tiny tall chapels and up a winding staircase and we're just not finding the main body of the cathedral space.
Are we being short-changed here? Do we need to pay extra - or is it closed to tourists?
Eventually we get it: this is the cathedral. All these small, very tall churchlets reaching up into the domed towers - this is the space. Love the glittering icon screens, love the painted ceilings. Love it all.
Number 3: GUM
After that feast for the eyes we need hot chocolate. We weren't going to go shopping - honestly we weren't. But Number Three, the twinkling lights of the glass-roofed GUM arcades, beckon.
My god, the tsars knew how to do shopping. This place is enormous - it covers an entire city block. There are three wedding-cake tiers of luxury shops in here, linked by delicate bridges. The Italian-style hot chocolate is decadent, the cakes enticing, and the marble-lined "historical toilets" in the basement are well worth a comfort-call.
Number 4: The Kremlin
And now we're fortified we're a match for the red centre: the Kremlin.
What were we expecting, having failed to keep ahead of our guidebook-reading? Some imposing government offices, perhaps?
Inside those extraordinary red walls (designed, it turns out, by an Italian architect shipped in by Grand Prince Ivan III) there are 68 acres. Five palaces. Four cathedrals. A vast treasure-house in the Armoury. More glittering treasure in the State Diamond Fund.
Really - thank God less than half of it is open to the public. You could almost be grateful that Stalin knocked down a few churches and palaces.
His nastily modern State Kremlin Palace, the first structure you stroll past, is a brilliant foil to the imperial gorgeousness to come. So many glittering onion-domes. So much guilding-of-the-building. We wandered down avenues, hunting for entrances to churches and chambers (double-doors are very closed, it seems, to keep the cold out).
We nearly hadn't bought our add-on tickets for the Armoury. (Swords - are we interested in swords?) What chumps. We would have missed a museum stuffed with golden tsars' crowns, trimmed with sable. Bejewelled bibles. The fabulous Faberge eggs. All the booty brought as gifts by ambassadors to the Russian court.
And a wooden sleigh the size of a small bus and drawn by 23 horses, built to take Elizabeth the First from St Petersburg to Moscow for her coronation. A week-long journey achieved in a cracking four days.
Note to travellers: express travel requires plenty of horsepower: 800 of them, for the 800km trip.
Number 5: the Bolshoi
So now it was time to stroll back to our hotel to get frocked-up for our high-culture Number Five: an evening at the ballet.
We stopped at our concierge's desk to ask what time it would start, to discover: consternation! 'Madams, I have been trying to contact you all day! The ballet... it starts at 6pm on the weekends!'
It was six o'clock.
Hotel to Bolshoi Theatre accomplished at a run in eight minutes. Panting up the wide steps of the floodlit portico and across the echoingly empty foyer, we were fielded by concerned usherettes who conferred over our Stalls tickets.
They ushed us, shushing fingers on lips, through a small door. Past a velvet and gold-fringed curtain, and we were sitting on plush chairs in an empty box right next to the stage.
What can I say? It was magic. We reckoned we might have missed all of five minutes at the start. The production was fabulous (Ivan the Terrible - which seemed terribly appropriate, considering the gorgeous tsarist imagery we'd been drenched in all day). Members of the audience called out 'Bravo!'.
Note to ballet fans: it might be worth missing the first five minutes for chance of sitting in the best box in the house.
Number 5a: the Metro
That ought to have been it: the Big Five ticked off. We had checked out the sinister headquarters of the KGB / FSB in Lubyanka Square: it was closed for renovations. Likewise Russia's largest toyshop, ironically located right opposite the Lubyanka.
But we couldn't leave Moscow without seeing the Metro, and a few of its legendary stations.
Not easy plotting your Metro destinations stations if you can't read Cyrillic script. We managed with a kind of visual Charades ("Two words! First word, begins with backwards-N! Second word, begins with K!... Go!)
We found the vaulted marble hall at Ploshchad Revolutch, lined with bronze statues of earnest (but well-muscled) Soviet workers.
We found the hall at Mayakovskaya, with its delicate ceiling mosaics featuring fighter planes, and heroic parachutists blossoming down from the sky. You could spend an afternoon train-hopping and art-spotting.
But now it was time to scamper for the train to St Petersburg. We'll have to come back another time for the Tretyakov Gallery, and the State Museum of Fine Arts, and the quirky house museums of the Kitay Gorod district.
And we'll be sure to make time for thrashing ourselves with birch branches at the sumptuous Sandunovskiy steam baths. So Russian.
Jennifer Stevenson 11/12/13