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Tales From Moscow

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Cutting It Fine In Moscow

These tales from Moscow chart the story of a last-minute dash to the Russian football World Cup semi-final in 2018. This is my story of how acting on impulse can often lead to a travel experience you will never forget. An impromptu city tour with strangers, to an overbooked hotel, and walking the streets of this great capital at 2 am. This amusing Russian story of frustration, perseverance, and timekeeping is one I look back on and smile as I spent the day cutting it fine in magical Moscow.

The start of any personal sporting adventure often isn’t as glamorous as the final destination. Sure enough, it was back in 2018 on a Sunday afternoon that I was mowing the lawn and deep in thought. England had just beaten Sweden in the quarter-finals of the football World Cup and not for the first time in my life I was dreaming of witnessing an England team lift one of sport’s greatest trophies.

By the time I had finished the last of the very non-Wembley-like stripes on my dandelion-riddled lawn, that feeling of missing out on England’s biggest game in 50 years had got too much. I fired up my laptop with little hope or expectation and I went on to the FIFA website to see if I could purchase a ticket for the semi-final in Moscow against Croatia. After a couple of aborted attempts, my screen remarkably showed some availability and I was suddenly in that position once again in my life. Do you think about the money, the time off work, the house repairs, the new kitchen or was it yet another case of JFDI – Just F’ing Do It!

Planning For Russia

Well, you can guess which of those won the day as otherwise, this blog would now be drawing to a close! In the blink of an eye, I had spent 285 USD on a match ticket to watch England play on Wednesday night in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. I immediately doubted my decision but hey I was once again smashing the targets in my job…. I deserved it right!?

Of course, one small matter I had yet to fully consider was that I needed to get to Moscow….. I started looking at flights and of course, every football fan south of Berwick had already booked so the only sensibly priced option was to fly on Lot Polish Airlines with an overnight in Warsaw, Poland.

When it came to accommodation I decided not to book a hotel in Warsaw as I was only going to be there a few hours. In Moscow, I just booked the one night as then I could get my bearings. I also decided to stay for seven days as even if we lost we would have another game in St Petersburg so I could turn this random trip into a two-centre or stay in Moscow for the week if we won. I promptly found a cheap bed for the night in central Moscow quite close to the Kremlin and the main tourist sights.

These tales from Moscow are a crazy story… here is how it all unfolded.

One Night In Warsaw

I’d never been to Russia. I never thought I’d go to Russia. This, of course, meant I was super excited however I was hopelessly underprepared but spontaneity is my favourite behaviour so bring it on!

On a Tuesday evening with a rucksack containing a passport, a printed match ticket, a spare pair of pants, a toothbrush and the all-important fan ID number which replaced the need for a visa, I nervously headed to Heathrow for the 3.5-hour flight to Warsaw.

Landing in Warsaw at 10 pm, my mind and my body wanted to go into the city centre and explore but tomorrow was the biggest football match in my lifetime. I, therefore, decided to get my head down at the airport. However it’s never that easy, is it? After a couple of beers and a very non-Polish meal of a club sandwich, I walked around an eerily quiet terminal in search of somewhere to get some shut-eye before the red-eye to Red Square the next morning.

Far away from the centre of the terminal, I found a two-tiered coffee bar with the area upstairs closed off however I spied there was room to sneak through the barrier and up the stairs. Realising the importance of a kip I was delighted to find a comfy leather sofa and a sprinkling of cushions. It was here that I was able to grab a few hours before being woken by a none-too-impressed Polish cleaner who pulled the rug from under my feet…. well actually the cushion from under my head. Good morning to you too!

Panini’s & Prayers

Despite my rude awakening, I was so excited and nervous at the same time. I was booked on the 10:45 flight landing at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport at 13:50 leaving me heaps of time to get to my hotel, freshen up, collect my official Fan Id pass and match ticket and then on to the stadium for a couple of pre-match looseners Russian style.

Well, that’s what I thought!

At 10 am it was announced the flight was delayed and at one stage I honestly thought it was going to be cancelled. I spent three hours pacing the airport, stopping for coffees and paninis that then turned into calming beers, Polish vodka chasers and prayers. I waited for news whilst staring endlessly out across an empty gate. To the relief of us all, a LOT Airlines aircraft finally pulled onto the stand and 200 Croatians, Russians and one rather concerned English fan sprinted on board. Before long we were finally on our way.

This delay completely threw my trip into disarray as suddenly I knew that getting into Moscow, finding my hotel and getting to the stadium would need to be seamless – in direct contrast to the trip so far!

Russian from Planes to Trains

I arrived at a hot and sticky Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport at 4 pm. With the match kicking off at 8 pm I rushed through the airport and headed for the train that would take me into the centre of the city and to Moscow Leningradsky station.

Thankfully the Cyrillic signs were supported by English subtitles so I bought a ticket and with a 45-minute train journey ahead of me I collapsed into my seat.

I caught my breath and then started to study a somewhat daunting subway map as well as try to establish the exact location of my hotel.

A European Union

Now opposite me on that train was a very well turned out elderly lady so in my finest English accent I said: “Excuse me…. do you happen to speak English”. To my surprise and relief, she did. I don’t remember her name so for the sake of this blog let’s call her Olga. I mean every Russian lady is called Olga….there was Olga Korbett and Olga….. hmm yes let’s just call her Olga! 

It turns out she used to work at the European Parliament in Brussels so I had chosen a well-travelled lady to ask for directions. I showed her my map and where I needed to get to. After a worrying pause that should have raised the alarm bells, she called her husband and suggested that he pick us both up and run me to the hotel. Now given my predicament I gratefully accepted thinking this would prevent me from having to hurriedly negotiate and understand the Russian subway.

We waited outside the train station in Moscow and with my blood pressure levels rising I nervously checked my watch every minute given that it was now just over three hours to kick off. After what seemed like an eternity Olga finally spotted and hailed down her husband whom I was rather expecting, given Olga’s previously high-powered role in Europe, to pull up driving a blacked-out Mercedes but no. Olga’s hubby rocked up in what can only be described as a poor man’s version of an East German Trabant – I suddenly questioned this offer to help but hey there was no turning back.

The Mayhem of Marlboro’s & Moscow

From the back seat, I was awkwardly introduced to the non-speaking, chain-smoking hubby. Olga showed him the map to which he scratched his head, lit a fag and then fired up the car although to be fair if the car HAD been on fire I would not have been surprised.

Now I was hoping to be at the hotel in just a few minutes but this was central Moscow at 5 pm. The traffic was heavy, there was no air conditioning and bizarrely Olga morphed into an all too eager-to-please tour guide and promptly took great delight in pointing out some of Moscow’s most famous sites. Her husband followed her lead and then started slowing down and pulling over so that I could get a great view of The Bolshoi Ballet, Red Square and the Kremlin. Now whilst I was in awe of seeing these sites and naturally not wanting to appear rude, all I frigging wanted to do was get to my hotel, dump my bag, have a quick freshen up and get to the game.

After an impromptu, 40-minute city tour I was a nervous wreck in the back of this clapped-out Russian overheating eggbox with two people I had never met. Mind you as a positive I suppose I had just witnessed some of the most iconic sites in the world. Finally, we pulled to the side of the road and my spirits lifted only for them to be dashed again when Olga admitted she did not know where my accommodation was but it was somewhere near where we were and along the banks of the Moskva river.

I saw my opportunity to escape and insisted I jump out. I gratefully thanked Olga and the driver who was lighting up his sixth Marlboro of the tour and hopped out with iPhone in hand ready to google my way out of this mess. Not without further stress, I deduced my hotel was just a couple of hundred yards of power walking along the riverside and then bingo I saw an entrance behind an unkept garden to what was surely my budget hotel.

No Room At The Innski

I nervously but without delay walked in to find a queue of three English lads at reception. Much like my transport all of them were overheated, all were stressed and all talking in raised voices as it would appear their booked accommodation was no longer “booked”. Oh my god!

As the guys in front were politely asked to step to one side when emotions got too high I got to the desk only to be told the same. There was no room at the innski however they could offer me their delightful sister hotel on the edge of the city.

I thought about it for 0.2 milliseconds and declined. I promptly handed them my bag of clean pants and toothbrush for safekeeping and told them that in my absence they were to sort it out as I had a football match to attend. I stormed out in a strop.

On The Right Track

Finding myself once again alone and lost on the banks of the Moskva River alongside the Kremlin with a map, a smaller bag, and the game kicking off in 2 hours I needed to get my skates on especially as I needed to get my fan ID validated before getting to the stadium and guess what – this checkpoint was in another part of the city!

It was finally time to tackle the stunningly ornate Russian underground system – where was Olga to explain the history? No, forget that I needed to move! In record time – well it was always going to be as I had never done this before – I navigated my way to a high-security gazebo a mile from the stadium and queued alongside hundreds of frustrated fans wondering why there was the need for this document to then be able to collect your ticket.

Finally, with a match ticket in my hand, I was en route to the stadium, and with an hour to kick off I was even contemplating that Russian pre-match loosener but I thought it best just to get to my seat, relax and take in the atmosphere of a World Cup semi-final!

No Paparazzi

As I arrived at my allotted stadium entrance gate I was confronted by a Russian security official who could have come straight from the film Rocky IV. To my horror, I was told that no bags, even small ones, were allowed in the ground so mine containing my camera would need to be taken to the left luggage – on the other side of the stadium!

I sprinted, well I walked fast, through the crowds – queued once again – I then dropped my bag in what can only be described as an oversized Elddis caravan that was about as secure as an Albanian hotel safe. I then hot-footed back to the gate and finally made it into Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium and to my seat just 5 minutes before kick-off – I even missed the national anthems.

From the moment I finished mowing the lawn, to the delayed flight, to the mad dash through the city, and finally to the iconic Moscow Luzhniki stadium – I had, just like the lawn, cut it mighty fine!

Defeat But Not Downhearted

As the history books will tell you we lost the game. Yet again my hopes of witnessing England win the football World Cup were dashed despite a brilliant free-kick goal from England. As a result, a trip to St Petersburg beckoned.

Like cattle, we all herded out of the stadium and as if life could not get any worse I then remembered I did not have a room for the night. It was 11 pm and I was hungry. As the crowds dispersed I walked and walked until there were no crowds, just shady characters on dimly lit streets. I recall smiling to myself when it was midnight in Moscow and here I was with nowhere to stay…. some of us would freak out – I just thrive on this type of adventure and adversity.

My marker was to find the Kremlin but first I found a seedy little smoke-filled late-night bar selling baguettes and beer – this lifted my mood. With my body refuelled I found the Kremlin, I found the river and I found my little hotel.

Unfortunately, they had not found me a room so I spent a few hours sleeping in reception on a cracked brown leather sofa that could have come straight off the set of a 1980’s chat show.

Tales From Moscow – The End

As soon as the sun came up I left the hotel in disgust but with a day ahead to discover Moscow at my own pace.

These tales from Moscow had so far been an incredible experience and the kind of chaotic trip I look back on with so much laughter, despair yet the fondest of memories.

The next few days were some of the most amazing travelling days of my life.

It did not take me long to fall in love with Moscow and with Russia – like so many things in life we just didn’t get off to the best of starts.

Contact Information

For further information on taking a trip to any part of Russia either contact your local travel agent, a specialist tour operator or the Russian National Tourist Office.

I hope you enjoyed these tales from Moscow.

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