This Sunday, 25th January, is the birthday of the iconic singer, actor and songwriter, Vladimir Vysotsky. This week's excursion - effectively three short walks joined by trolleybus rides - crosses town, seeking out places associated with Vysotsky and other Soviet-era ‘bard-poets', like the more lyrical Bulat Okudzhava. The trolleybus is a particularly appropriate way of getting around since it is the theme of one of Okudzhava's most famous songs: "...the midnight trolleybus sails through Moscow, and Moscow, like a river, dies down". The "blue bus" he lovingly described is still in evidence on the streets and is a great way of seeing the city: from the theatre where Vysotsky acted in Taganka, along the river to Arbat, which features in so many of Okudzhava's songs, to the cemetery where they are both buried.
The Taganka Theatres are directly across the street from Taganskaya Metro Station (brown line exit) and both have connections with Vladimir Vysotsky. In the older building, he acted a guitar-playing Hamlet wearing jeans, in a production which is now part of theatrical legend. Vysotsky would have been seventy this year, but died nearly thirty years ago. To celebrate his birthday, the "Taganka Drama and Comedy Theatre" has a special showing of their play "Vladimir Vysotsky" which has been playing to packed houses here since 1981, although until the advent of perestroika, the play was officially forbidden.
The red brick building next door is the "Community of Taganka Actors" who have their own birthday tribute: "V.V.S." If you peer through the glass doors, you can see a statue of Vysotsky in the landscaped courtyard and there is a museum dedicated to him on Nizhny Tagansky Tupik, the little lane immediately on the right after the theatre. The Vladimir Vysotsky Centre (open Tues-Fri and some weekends 11-5.30, 50 rubles) contains Vysotsky's guitar, costumes and posters from his plays and a reconstruction of the study where he died, all of which give a flavour of the short, but intense life of this charismatic figure. Go on along the lane to come out again on Verkhnaya Radishevskaya Ulitsa. Turn right to find a bus stop opposite the "Metro" diner. The number 16 trolleybus runs roughly every twenty minutes, so if you've just missed one, it might be worth popping into Metro for a pint to enjoy the nostalgic interior.
The 16 trolleybus takes you on a scenic route across the Yauza and along the Moskva River, passing the skyscraping Kotelnicheskaya Appartment block. The area sloping down to the river from St Basil's Cathedral is known as the Vasilievsky Spusk. It was here that Alexander Gradsky, another Moscow bard and rock musician, first performed his "Hymn", which he proposed should become the Russian National Anthem, in 1998. The bus passes under the towering walls of the Kremlin. In one of his caustic lyrics, "About out Meeting", Vysotsky sings:
"I would have stolen skies for you, And stars off the Kremlin Towers..."
When the bus terminates at Kropotkinsakaya, continue on foot along Gogolyevsky Bulvar, passing monuments to Sholokov, author of "Quiet Flows the Don", and to Gogol. The Boulevard Ring features in Okudzhava's songs, but the road he refers to most often is Arbat.
The second turning on the left after the statue of Gogol, is Stary ("old") Arbat, the popular pedestrianised road that is now full of portrait-artists, cafes and fur-hat-sellers. Okudzhava called it:
"Arbat, my Arbat... my vocation, ... my joy, and my misfortune". Half way along, opposite the oldest Moscow Pet Shop, with its eye-catching windows, turn left into Krivoarbatsky Pereulok. A wall covered in Graffiti commemorates the death of rock singer, Victor Tsoi, who died in a car accident, aged 28. The home of constructivist architect, Konstantin Melnikov, is further on along this lane. A double cylinder with hexagonal windows, built in the late 1920s, this is one of the most original buildings in Moscow.
Bulat Okudzhava lived at 43 Arbat and fans still gather here every year on his birthday (May 9th) to sing his songs. There is a slouching, bronze monument nearby with the lyrics of his "Song about Arbat" engraved on the arch behind him. Go on along Arbat until it emerges onto busy Smolensky Bulvar and then turn left to find a bus stop cowering beneath the ornate Foreign Ministry, the second of Stalin's towers encountered up close on this tour. The number 79 trolleybus will take you from here almost to the gate of the Vagankovskoe Cemetery where you can pay your respects to the bards. If you have time, however, a longer walk through the Presnensky area will uncover some interesting sights.
This road lives up to its name: at the far end are the red brick dome of the Georgian Church and a monument to the poet, Rustavelli. Georgian sculptor, Zurab Tsereteli, also has his workshop here in Gruzinskaya Ploschad (5). One side of the square is lined with his colourful mosaics and supersized statues, including the recognisable figure of Vysotsky with his guitar. Turning left beyond the sculptures, walk along Ulitsa Klimashkina until you reach Malaya Gruzinskaya Ulitsa. Number 28, opposite the elegant gothic facade of St Mary's Cathedral, is the house where Vysotsky spent his last five years.
A modern columbarium stands beyond the Resurrection church. Behind it, next to a row of sculpted heads, an inscribed cross and photo are dedicated to the singer-songwriter Igor Talkov. Okudzhava's grave is a simple, often flower-decked, boulder nearby. Opposite the cemetery gates, a kiosk sells Vysotsky's tapes and posters. 1905 Goda Metro is at the other end of this road. Beyond the metro on Stolyarny Pereulok, the Banya Na Presne might make a perfect end to this wintry pilgrimage. Vysotsky's "Ode to the Bath House" praises its purifying qualities and compares the banya to the Garden of Eden where "you can only get in if you're naked."