Red Square, Moscow.
Red Square, Moscow. Rae Wilson

Seeing red in vast Russia

I KNEW it was just beyond the dominating red gate.

I just wanted a glimpse.

But instead, our tour guide Katya, who was otherwise brilliant, was explaining something about the statue of a man on a horse.

I am sure he was someone important, and I took the obligatory photo to document said statue, but I honestly still have no idea who he was.

My mind was lingering on the gates. Then, finally, those gates were above me as I walked into the Red Square.

No photo or video could have prepared me for the moment I fixed my eyes on St Basil's Cathedral.

The dizzying mix of colours, patterns and towers of various heights was intoxicating.

The building was magical, like a castle from a fairytale.

Had I entered Disneyland or Russia's most famous square?

It was hard to take in Lenin's Mausoleum and the Kremlin to the right, the majestic façade of the GUM department store to the left, let alone the Kazan Cathedral at the northern end as I walked in. The significance of the square in Russian history was not lost on me, but I was like a child waiting to be let loose in a candy store as I waited impatiently to hear more.

I learned Krasnaya Polshehad (Red Square) actually had nothing to do with communism as I had believed.

In fact, Krasnu in old Russian meant "beautiful" and only came to mean red in the 20th century.

I learned Red Square began as a market square but was also a place where celebration and castigations took place. Parades and military events, such as tanks rolling off for World War II, also were held here.

But eventually I had a closer look at St Basil's Cathedral, which was built to celebrate the fall of Ivan the Terrible.

It is truly magnificent and the inside, though not quite as impressive as its exterior, is a rabbit warren of chapels with myriad nooks and crannies.

Seeing Vladimir Lenin lying ensconced in a glass coffin was, however, an entirely sobering and creepy experience.

Having seen Good Pope (John XXIII) inside St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City a few years earlier and deciding the Catholics were a macabre bunch, I couldn't believe I allowed myself to see another waxy, dead man.

But Lenin was a powerful historical figure, and having studied the early 20th century Russian revolutions and his ascent into power, I felt I had to.

On two angles through the glass coffin, I thought I could see him throwing me a cheeky, sinister smile but he essentially looked like a wax museum figure.

The nearby Kremlin has associations with all the big names in Russian history: Ivan the Terrible, Napoleon, Lenin, Stalin, Gorbachev.

Nestled on the Moscow River, the 11th century Kremlin is foreboding with its high walls and even higher towers.

The churches inside are equally as impressive as the fortress surrounding them.

Because I was travelling as part of an On the Go tour through Russia, I was lucky enough to have a tour one day to Stalin's "seven sisters".

This group of Moscow skyscrapers, in stark Stalinist style of the 1940s and 1950s, were a combination of Russian Baroque and Gothic designs.

But the best part of touring these buildings scattered throughout Moscow city, and other important sights, was having a tour guide who had lived through the Soviet era.

Her tales and perspectives were so engaging, they made my experience that much more authentic.

She told us how she had to read about 500 books a year and no one was allowed to travel.

While she was at university, she was given the opportunity to leave Russia, but she had to join the Communist Party first.

She was given a year to memorise such literature as War and Peace, and Crime and Punishment, before an exam. She had one word wrong and had to wait another year before she could sit the exam again, join the party and leave for England.

I was surprised to learn how many people were sad when the Soviet Union fell because they had taken their housing, education and other services, paid by the government, for granted.

I can also recommend the Great Moscow Circus because the clowns, the high ribbon work, the cats and the ferrets are fantastic. But you may be shocked at the treatment of the bears and monkeys, so stay away if you are likely to become upset.

My tour group stayed in an enormous hotel at Izmaylovo, which I chose to remember as "is my lover" for ease.

It was right next to an amazing arts and crafts market where I bought my Russian fur hat, a Russian military hat for my dad and some matryoshky (nesting dolls) at a reasonable price.

The shopkeeper dropped his price by almost half when he realised I was Australian and not American.

To travel into the city proper, we used the Moscow metro: an attraction in itself.

When we descended into the metro, we found art in every direction, including the ceiling.

Bronze and stone sculptures, stained glass panels, chandeliers and paintings you might expect in a museum were visible.

My favourites, on the ring line, were Kievskaya, Novoslobodskaya and Taganskaya.

While in Moscow, make sure you have plenty of vodka.

Any time of day is acceptable, usually as a shot glass which you clink against your friend's and shout nostravia (cheers or literally "to good health" in Russian).

Russian food is delicious - you cannot go past the dumplings, borsch (warm beetroot soup), beef stroganoff, shaslicks, caviar and blini (pancakes).

Don't miss the nearby Golden Ring, and a trip to a traditional Banya (Russian sauna).

Being beaten with a birch stick in a sauna and then jumping in a cold river is the most surreal and relaxing experience you can imagine.