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A fan's view of Moscow

Red Square is prepared ahead of the Champions League final

By Julie Tunney

There is an old Russian proverb that says a beaten man is worth two unbeaten ones, which basically means that experience is a great teacher.

I doubt whether the fans of the losing team in Wednesday's Champions League final between Manchester United and Chelsea will agree with that sentiment but I would like to think that in years to come their visit to the Luzhniki Stadium, and Moscow in general, will still stir up some good memories - of the city, if not the match.

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I sampled the hospitality of Russia's capital when seeing Ipswich play Torpedo Moscow in a Uefa Cup tie in 2001 and I came away from the country, and the same sporting venue, with thoughts of the famous tourist haunts, interesting people, an ornate underground transport system, passport fines, lavatories built for contortionists, vodka allergies, tips on how to avoid being shot by the nation's mafia or the president's protection squad, oh and a 2-1 victory for the Suffolk side.

My party stayed at the Renaissance Moscow Hotel, which I gather is where former United States president Bill Clinton met then Russian leader Boris Yeltsin in 1999.

What can fans heading to Russia's capital expect?

While their discussions were presumably of world importance, ours touched on the surprise of arriving in a country supposedly shackled by depression and with a hangover from the old Soviet regime, if you follow stereotypes, and one of the first things we saw on leaving the airport was a signpost flagging up the way to a certain Swedish flat-pack furniture store.

However, there were plenty of areas untouched by so-called western culture.

Red Square, overlooked by the Kremlin, was obviously first on the tick list and it did not disappoint.

You can visit the brightly coloured, onion-domed St Basil's Cathedral and Lenin's mausoleum, where the embalmed body of the first head of the Soviet state is on permanent display, before heading to the GUM shopping arcade opposite.

606: DEBATE
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While milling around one of the world's most famous parade grounds we succumbed to the inevitable and bought Russian hats - fake fur of course - but had to disappoint a number of local children who were hoping that these blue-and-white adorned strangers had also come supplied with football badges.

I learned from that mistake and have since indulged in memorabilia 'swapsies' with fans from various nations.

Our guide did tell us that some people driving "big, black Volgas" were perhaps not quite as friendly and if you collide with the Russian mafia as a pedestrian or another road user they may not be getting out of their vehicles to swap insurance details.

We did wonder if this was one of those stories used to spark the interest, or wind up, the 'gullible tourists', particularly as the speedy taxi driver taking us back to the hotel seemed unconcerned by their presence.

The metro system in Moscow is also worth a look, although I would suggest that you travel with someone who knows the Cyrillic alphabet because, if you don't, you will not know Smolenskaya from Siberia.

Moscow metro station
Moscow's metro stations are as ornate as many palaces

Many of the stations would outshine some palaces, with chandeliers, mosaics and sculptures almost standard fittings.

Sadly we were unable to fit in a visit to the Bolshoi Theatre for ballet or opera but a walk along the Moskva River, as opposed to on it, which you can also do when it freezes over, or a visit to the amusements in Gorky Park are other options.

Upon returning to the hotel though we discovered that not everyone's meanderings had been quite so fruitful. In fact, a number of supporters had been fined $50 by the police for failing to carry a passport on their person.

There was another shock at the stadium because the police and army, with riot shields and water cannons, seemed to be expecting an invasion, whereas the only moment of slight tension surrounded the non-admittance of a red-faced supporter. This was eventually resolved when our interpreter explained that his complexion was more likely down to an outdoor occupation than intoxication.

The language barrier did make for merriment when the cover-up provided by our hats and near-winter coats ensured that a few of us lucky females were initially searched ahead of the match by a gorgeous officer before he realised his mistake and reverted to male only candidates. We cracked a joke about it and neither of us knew what the other said but a smile means the same in any culture.

Once inside the ground we all headed to the 'facilities'. Female fans tend to be unfazed by lavatories inside grounds - or, remembering another excursion, total lack of them.

We have used the gents when the ladies has been locked, there has not been a female equivalent or when a queue was far too long and we wanted to get back to the action but the Luzhniki Stadium provided the female fans with an altogether different challenge.

At the Kremlin Amory Museum you can check if former Empress of Russia Catherine the Great did indeed once have a waist measurement to rival Victoria Beckham's

We knew it was part of an Olympic complex but had no idea that gymnastic ability was needed - the absence of locks on any of the doors and the fact you needed to be 7ft 2in tall to be able to balance on one leg while using the other to push against the door to keep it closed did create a problem.

However, we quickly came up with a different one-legged system whereby the next in line held the door closed with one foot, with the last in the queue maybe just praying that no-one came in.

What happened on the field is well documented but afterwards we were kept in a holding area outside the stadium as the 7,000 crowd dispersed - the capacity will be 69,500 on Wednesday - and the evening ended with fans having their photos taken with the police, by then leaning on their unused riot shields, and the offering of the odd cheese sandwich, which I think the officers became bored of after a while.

Our trip also included an excursion to the Kremlin Amory Museum, where you can see some of the famous Faberge eggs, check if former Empress of Russia Catherine the Great did indeed once have a waist measurement to rival Victoria Beckham's and scrutinise various weapons, jewellery, icons etc.

Russian dolls are traditional favourites for souvenir hunters
Russian dolls are traditional favourites for souvenir hunters

Our guide and interpreter again gave us a warning, this time that the then president Vladimir Putin was scheduled to leave the Kremlin during our visit and if we were in the grounds as he was driven by we should resist making any sharp movements, even if it was only to raise a camera, because his security team was told to shoot first if they perceived a threat and think about the consequences later.

Feeling this could again be another yarn for the benefit of the aforementioned gullible tourist but not being quite brave enough to risk proving our guide wrong, I left the camera in my pocket - as the chap behind me remained completely unscathed as he snapped away when the car swept by.

On our way back to the airport we were taken to a souvenir shop, where, we were told, we would be offered vodka and would be deemed rude if we refused it.

Keen to uphold the honour of England, and Suffolk in particular, I manfully downed a glass, and that of a fellow fan who was allergic to it (and beer, Ipswich fans often buck the trend).

You will not find that particular brand of vodka in your local supermarket, which is probably just as well as I did wonder if it was the same substance used to fuel our flight home.

So, armed with a set of Russian dolls containing several small versions of the nation's leaders - working back from the one whose guards had decided we posed no threat - I left Moscow, while the capital certainly left an impression on me.

I would definitely go back, with or without the football.




see also
Man Utd v Chelsea
19 May 08 |  Europe
Chelsea and Man Utd set for final
20 May 08 |  Football
Roman's Moscow homecoming
21 May 08 |  Europe
Champions League analysis
20 May 08 |  Europe
Routes to Moscow
19 May 08 |  Football
Real play down link with Ronaldo
19 May 08 |  Man Utd
Final is Ballack's golden chance
18 May 08 |  Chelsea
Blues trio set to play in final
17 May 08 |  Chelsea
Are you Moscow bound?
13 May 08 |  Talking Point
Ferguson turns sights to Europe
12 May 08 |  Man Utd
Russia gives fans visa reprieve
05 May 08 |  Europe
Chelsea 3-2 Liverpool (4-3)
30 Apr 08 |  Europe
Man Utd 1-0 Barcelona (agg 1-0)
29 Apr 08 |  Europe


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