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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

City Guides for the Accidental Tourist

It seems that every enclosed courtyard, quiet lane and old square in Moscow has its ghosts and legends.

On Pushkin Square dissidents and poets often gathered and tried to hold open meetings. Police regularly rounded up and arrested the attendees. The square, with its statue of the beloved national poet, Alexander Pushkin, has always been a magnet for young intellectuals and romantic couples.

Patriarch's Pond was the place Mikhail Bulgakov chose as the scene of one of the most memorable openings in Russian literature. In "The Master and Margarita" the devil descends on Moscow, unleashing untold mischief and mysteries. The book's fantastic tales have been incorporated into Moscow lore just as surely as if they had actually taken place. A series of violent mob hits, including a hand grenade explosion and a drive-by shooting, actually did take place around the historic neighborhood this summer.

These were some of the tales shared by Vera Trusova, a guide with the Moscow sightseeing group Patriarchy Dom, on a recent tour of the neighborhood around Malaya Bronnaya Ulitsa.

Whether fiction or -- even stranger -- reality, the stories hidden in Moscow do not readily reveal themselves to visitors -- even to members of Moscow's foreign community. An afternoon spent with a good tour guide can make Moscow feel less unfamiliar to the new resident, and for tourists can make the city live up to its exciting reputation.

Since the breakup of Intourist, several good private tour firms have emerged, offering many choices in destination, transportation and price, with guides who are fluent in English.

Milka Slesseman of Holland, who recently entertained her husband's visiting mother and sister, said she decided her Moscow history was not complete enough to lead her family unaided. The trio hired a guide from Patriarchy Dom and visited the Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy homes, then toured the Moscow metro, where they stopped to see architectural marvels like the Kropotkinskaya and Mayakovskaya stations.

"It is interesting because you take some things for granted," Slessman said. "To take people around without any guide or anything -- you know, I'm not very good at memorizing dates and historical information -- so I prefer to have somebody professional."

The least expensive option is probably the one Slessman chose, Patriarchy Dom, which schedules five or six excursions a week at a charge of about $5-$7 per hour for walking tours, more for those involving bus transportation. A visit to Zagorsk, a charming city outside Moscow built around a historic monastery, is a bargain at $12. The next trip is planned for Saturday, Jan. 29.

The company is unusual in that it schedules tours in advance, open to anyone. Individual tours cost a bit more and need a few days' preparation time. The company is a joint venture, started by a visiting American with a bright idea, Patrice Gantie, and her friend and Russian teacher Alexandra Lanskaya.

They try to offer creative excursions for those who live in Moscow and already know the old standbys. Cooking classes and day trips to cross-country ski areas are some of the more creative outings, and Lanskaya said they are always looking for new ideas.

"Recently somebody asked me if we are organizing sledding tours. It's a good idea, actually," she said.

If a larger group can be arranged, another recommended company, Moscow Tours, can plan cost-effective trips. Based out of the Danilovsky Hotel, the company has several guides who formerly worked for Intourist, and one has escorted famous guests like former U.S. first lady Pat Nixon. The firm's hosts know well the subject matter of their standard tours, and work professionally.

There is a flat fee of $40 for a guide, so it pays to have more people. A bus is an extra $14 per hour to arrange, a car is $6 per hour.

"People often ask why we call Ivan the Terrible 'the terrible,'" guide Tamara Romanovskaya said of the ruler, who is reputed to have blinded the architects of St. Basil's Cathedral to prevent them from again designing such an impressive structure. "And then they ask questions about modern life."

It is impossible not to mention modern life when touring Moscow. Trusova repeatedly apologized to her visitors for the unshoveled streets and an abandoned car that blocked their path.

"You see it would never have been like this in the past," she said with a tone of disapproval, and then quickly added, "But we are optimistic that things will get better with these reforms."

Her explanations of what happened to the city's grand six- and eight-room apartments after the Bolshevik Revolution, when whole families were moved from spacious quarters and confined to a single room, left a strong impression on visitors.

Many companies also serve as a travel agency, and Moscow Tours will arrange weekend excursions to cities throughout Russia and the former Soviet Union, or can provide simple services like escorts through the complex domestic-flight airports.

A third option, particularly pleasant for specialists in technical, artistic and literary fields, is Akademservice, a large private travel and tour agency with ties to Moscow State University.

Individual and group tours, either walking or by bus or car, can be arranged in Moscow or throughout the former Soviet Union. Here in the city, standard themes include "Moscow in Tolstoy's novel 'War and Peace,'" and "From the history of the two patriotic wars."

While they can arrange English-speaking guides for about $40 per day, there is no guarantee that anyone in the office on at a given moment can speak English to help you arrange your tour -- although persistence pays. They are accustomed to handling large tour groups, but will custom-design any tour.

The firm was created by Moscow State University to handle scientific and student exchanges, but it has since become a private institution, with about 40 employees, the general manager said.

And of course, Intourist is an option. Their Kremlin tours are reliable, running at regular intervals most days.

For more information:

Patriarchy Dom: 299-5971

Moscow Tours: 954-0674

Akademservice: 128-4997 or 128-8096

Intourist: 203-0142 or 298-1753.