Izmailovsky Market

Sunday, September 22, 2013

I'm writing this on Saturday and it's cold and wet (again) and I've got a bit of a head cold that's added a vague cotton-wool effect to the last few days, so I'm taking the day to relax. I'll hole up in my gilded cage and watch Moscow roll past from the rain-spotted window of the 16th floor lounge, while I think about attempting a large pot of stovetop Boeuf Bourguignon later this afternoon.  Perhaps after a bit of a nap.  Luckily, I was very industrious last weekend and so I have something to tell you about today.

Last week was also cold and wet, but I had more energy and a purpose and less cotton wool in my sinuses, so I made the trek out to Izmailovsky Market.  Izmailovsky is a huge outdoor souvenir and flea market that's open all week, year round, but is definitely most popular on weekends.  The market is, like many things in Moscow, a bit large for comfort.  (Like the streets, for instance.  I suppose if they didn't need them 16 lanes wide they wouldn't build them that way, but that reasoning doesn't make it any easier to cross when you feel like you should stop for lunch half way through.)  Similarly, the market just keeps going and going, and being the thorough and dedicated blogger I am, I explored almost all of it.  I was also doing some very early Christmas shopping, so it was a good excuse to get into a lot of the nooks and crannies.

By far the most common item at the souvenir market seemed to be the traditional Russian stacking dolls called matryoshka. (Sort of pronounced ma-TROOSH-kuh.  Not to be confused with mashrutka - pronounced ma-SHROOT-kuh - which are privately run minibuses that operate alongside the larger public buses, but are cheaper and generally have terrible safety records.  Though come to think of it, it would be fun to have a matryushka set made up in the shape of mashrutka.  Ha!  A mashrutka matryoshka!  That would be excellent!  Ok, I'm finished with my little Russian spoonerism… back to the matryoshka.)  You know the ones I'm talking about:

This is actually a picture I took the first time I visited the market… in 2009.
More on that later.

Tradition states that there should be an uneven number of dolls in a set.  Five is the most popular number, though I saw sets at the market that may have been ten or more.  And while the traditional matryoshka are painted with a female figure dressed in a colourful peasant dress, it's popular nowadays to paint them in all kinds of different themes.  Russian leaders are a common subject, and you often see sets that start with Lenin and work their way in through Stalin, Khrushchev, and Gorbachev, ending with a tiny little Vladimir Putin, which I find hilarious.  And the souvenir sellers definitely pander to the tourist market because you can get matryoshka for basically any NFL team you want, and Premier League football, and NHL hockey.  I even saw matryoshka of Star Wars, the Simpsons and Spongebob Squarepants.  I strongly suspect that it's not actually legal to leave Russia without purchasing matryioshka, so I stocked up to avoid any possible trouble.

Soviet-era memorabilia is also popular - stuff like reproduction propaganda posters and fridge magnets and postcards and such.  And there's a whole section of military stuff too.  Like if I'd wanted to pick up a handful of empty shell casings I'd have had no trouble at all.  The vendors tended to be reasonably friendly and open to a bit of haggling, though I'm terrible at that kind of thing and generally prefer to pay more than to press the point even a tiny bit. Still, even I got "a deal" on a few things.  And I was hugely impressed with the language skills of a lot of the stall holders.  I was shuffling through some posters or books or something and trading a few words of English with a seller, and then he turned to negotiate with another patron and switched seamlessly into Spanish, and spoke Russian with his boss.  Other sellers were the same.  I suppose it just makes sense, but I still find it impressive.  I recall this from my travels a few years ago, running into service people in the poorest places where a waiter or hotel clerk would hop around through English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, whatever. It's humbling, I tell you.  Especially when I have trouble just remembering my tiny Russian vocabulary.

(Language-related aside:  I am trying to use what Russian I have, but often when I do I'm stymied by my tiny vocabulary and I feel very inadequate.  Sometimes when this happens to cheer myself up I'll construct the sentence in my head in French, which is much much easier, just to prove to myself that I'm not as thick as I feel at the moment.)

A lovely, helpful vendor who actually didn't speak much English, but was infinitely patient with my halting Russian

Back in the market, I was pleased to discover the more interesting upper level, which is built up on a huge wooden platform accessed by semi-hidden stairs from the more touristy lower level.  Making large structures like this out of wood seems to be pretty common here, and it gave the whole place a really cozy feel.

Here's a shot of the upper level

That higher level is where the real flea market part is - lots and lots of smaller stalls that seemed like the world's biggest Garage Sale (for UK readers: Car Boot Sale, or kind of like the tatty northern end of Portobello Road).  Some people were quite organised, in proper divided booths.  Other smaller traders just had their wares spread out on a sheet on the floor.  And there was a whole section I skipped that was all framed artwork - paintings and such.

Spot the cartoon copper diving helmet!

I made one or two small purchases in the flea market, but the best part about the upper level was that it also led to a whole different attraction - the Izmailovo Kremlin.  Those of you who haven't read my my other blog may not remember that "kremlin" is actually a somewhat generic word for castle or fortress.  So while we refer to The Kremlin and mean the-big-walled-fortress-in-the-middle-of-Moscow-next-to-Red-Square, in fact there are kremlins all over Russia.  So asking someone who's visited Russia, "Did you see the kremlin?" is a but like asking someone who's visited England, "Did you see the castle?".   Izmailovo Kremlin is a bit weird.  I definitely don't recall this kremlin from my visit in 2009, but it turns out there is an excellent reason for that.  A quick consultation with the Lonely Planet Moscow reveals that the whole Izmailovo Kremlin complex is completely fake and has only been there for a few years. This goes a long way to explaining why the whole place feels sort of like Medieval Russia Disneyland.

It's all much too new, clean, and brightly coloured to be anything but fake.

Then again I was quite charmed by it all, probably because I wasn't expecting it and it made a nice change from the endless miles of people hawking tea towels with Lenin's face on them and kalishnikovs and such.  The Izmailovo Kremlin is a series of connected buildings arranged around a big central courtyard that you enter through a whitewashed tower.  Inside are shops and restaurants, and an outdoor stage, more small market stalls, and a water feature and bridge and pony rides and people dressed up like Cossacks and, well, all kinds of odd and quirky things.

Like the blacksmithing demonstration.

And the Vodka Museum

And the giant wooden… er hotel? Conference Centre?  I dunno.

And the metal tree provided for loving couples to attach padlocks to, and then throw away the key.

And though the translation escapes me a bit, I'm pretty sure this is a wedding chapel.
This assumption is also based on the fact that the place was positively heaving with newlyweds and wedding parties.

I really enjoyed soaking up the crazy atmosphere in the Izmailovo Kremlin, and bought a few more trinkets, and a nice cup of very sweet hot spiced mead with honey, and paid 20 roubles to use the toilet.  I even poked my head into the Vodka Museum, though I didn't bother to pay the entry fee for the whole deal, I just nosed around in the gift shop.  By that time I was getting tired, and my wallet was almost empty, and my shopping list was taken care of, so I started to wander back to the metro.  It was only then that I realised the market is right next to the hotel I stayed at when I visited on an Intrepid tour in 2009.  I'm not sure how I managed to NOT notice this on the way in considering that I think the hotel is the biggest one in Europe.  It was a bit weird looking at it all again from this new perspective.  I distinctly recall visiting the souvenir market with my roommate from the tour group when we had a few hours to spare.  That was back when I was in No-Souveniers mode, so I contented myself with getting a tiny keychain matryoshka which is still with me today.  And I remember going for a run in the park across the road from the metro station, and I remember the little shop where I bought beer and potato chips on my first night in Russia.  What an odd thing... to be living in Moscow in the first place, and then to end up stumbling into a wistful moment of deja-vu.

And now it's time to fire up the stove and get a big pot of something warm and filling on to simmer.  And there's also the small matter of that nap...


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