Anyone versed in The Three Sisters, Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s work, knows the passion Olga and Irina have in getting to the big city. “To Moscow, To Moscow, To Moscow”…”Quickly to Moscow”…not to be there is a life “without poetry, without meaning.”
What is it about the Russian capital that was, and is, so poetic that, without visiting, life would have no meaning. Luckily, I had the chance to spend two days in Moscow to discover why it invoked such passion from not only Chekhov, but also Dostoevsky, Pushkin, and Tolstoy.
The Best Bits
Two Days in Moscow
When the stalwarts of Russian literature heap praise on a city expectations can run high. I am glad to say that Moscow was not a disappointment and everything I thought it would be – luxurious, romantic, monumental, and modern! Every Moscow restaurant, bar, hotel and cultural sight we visited in only two days made me want to return “quickly to Moscow.”
Journeying to Moscow by troika is not the most practical way to go in this day and age, but Aeroflot’s business class could qualify as just as luxurious, as well as, a bit faster and loads warmer! Even as we settled into Aeroflot’s uber-comfy Business Class seats, I knew everything in Moscow was going to be slightly larger than life. Normally there isn’t much difference between Economy and Business on short flights, except perhaps a hot meal. Although the flight is only 3:30 hours, our seat was almost a fully-reclining, the food was restaurant quality and we all received our own ipad with all the current movies and tv already downloaded. They even gave us a little parting gift of Russian tea!
FYI: When you arrive in Moscow, follow the taxi signs, and then, next to the information booth, there is a yellow cab company. We used that one and it cost about £12 to get into town. Friday traffic is dreadful so be prepared for a long journey. If you are unsure of any of this, have the hotel arrange a car to pick you up.
Your Dacha in Town
Set on one of the most famous streets in Moscow, Tverskoy Boulevard, the Intercontinental is a reminder that Moscow is alive and kicking in the 21st century. Slick and modern, our hotel room was the perfect spot for seeing over the roofs of Moscow – making counting the Seven Sisters, the Stalinist Skyscrapers that dot the skyline, super easy. All the mod cons I expect in a luxury hotel were aplenty: down pillows, lush towels, and great hair dryers. What made the Intercontinental special was the service. The concierges were fabulous – they talked us through everything we could do and more, and followed up with us to see how we enjoyed it! Very importantly though was the bar which makes a fabulous Old Fashioned. Also make sure to order Russian favorites, fruit-filled blinis and cheesy syrniki, for one of your breakfasts!
Shopping in Moscow
Once the State Department Store, GUM (Glavnyi Universáľnyj Magazín) is now ironically the home to the most luxurious brands in the world. Hermes, Fendi, Gucci, Burberry and the like all have a home in GUM. Restaurants and cafes were packed with weary shoppers ready to rest before starting all over again. GUM was all decorated for the holiday season and most of the shoppers were too young to remember the days before the name changed from Gosudarstvennyi (state) to Glavnyi (main).
A Restaurant Inspired by a Song
Some would say that the crooning of a 1960’s era Frenchman would make you fall in love with anything. Gilbert Bécaud had everyone dreaming of the hot chocolate served in the famed Cafe Pushkin off Red Square. Unfortunately for those seeking refuge from the cold, Café Pushkin was a figment of Bécaud’s imagination. Not until after Perestroika did Café Pushkin appear on the Moscow restaurant scene and is now an institution.
Our first Moscow dining experience had to be this once mythical restaurant. We did not sip the legendary hot chocolate in the cafe downstairs, but dined on all of Russia’s famous dishes in the atmospheric library upstairs. We were sure Boris Godunov might appear at anytime.
I was transported back to my days in New York when I would dine at the Russian Tea Room after concerts at Carnegie Hall, but this time I was in Russia for real! Caviar, borscht, beef stroganoff, homemade pickles, dumplings, all accompanied by the requisite vodka martini, delighted us! After all, we were in Russia.
Take in Monumental Russia
Beyond the foreboding red walls of Red Square lies the Kremlin, translated as the fortress inside a city, originally the Tsar’s home away from St. Petersburg. Never has it ceased to be the seat of Russian power. The Spasskaya Clock Tower greeted us as we passed the authoritative architecture of the Kremlin Palace of Congresses back in time to the world of the Tsars. It seems as if they got it backwards when translating Kremlin as it seemed to be a city inside a fortress.
A myriad of onion-domed cathedrals circle Cathedral Square – the main square inside the Kremlin. Five in all, each cathedral may seem similar with their icons and chandeliers, but each had its important purpose. The Assumption Cathedral saw the Tsars crowned, the Archangel Cathedral was where the Tsars were buried and the Annunciation Cathedral was the private chapel to the Tsars.
Hidden away in the Grand Kremlin Palace are the Armoury and the Diamond Fund. A museum that holds over 4000 objects can be daunting especially if you want to linger over almost every item. So pick the ones that mean something to you! For me, it was the objects made by master jeweller Fabergé. I made a beeline to those delicate, artistic wonders of pure heaven. (No photography was allowed inside!) Still, those are not the only fabulous jewels, trinkets, and silver on view. Everything is luxurious beyond comprehension. Within the museum are housed the official royal coaches. There is something to be said of the days pre-Uber. No one makes a vehicle quite like these any more.
Red Square & Saint Basil’s Cathedral
You’ve seen it so many time you feel you know it, but it’s not until you are in the middle of Red Square with the Kremlin on one side, Saint Basil’s on the other, GUM on the next and with Lenin’s Mausoleum never letting you forget who’s boss. It is the beating heart of Moscow, if not Russia itself. Ceremonies, coronations and concerts, parades, protests and Paul McCartney have all happened here under the watchful eye of the multi-colored domes of Saint Basil Cathedral, the most iconic building in Red Square.
The biggest surprise was that St. Basil’s Cathedral was technically eight smaller churches within one central church, giving it a maze-like feel inside. It actually was almost demolished by Stalin and thank goodness a few risked their live to stop it being razed. Red Square would not be the same without it.
Moscow Metro Stations
The various metro stations throughout Moscow are imbued with monumental Soviet Moscow design. Although originally planned before the revolution, the metro was part of the Stalinist propaganda machine and officially opened in 1935. As the Russian nihilist and one of Lenin’s favourite writers, Nikolay Chernyshevsky stated, “art is no use unless it serves politics” and, in most of the original stations, you can hear those words reverberating loud and clear. Here are few not to miss and their highlights:
- Mayakovskaya Station – don’t miss the “24 Hours in the Land of the Soviets” themed ceiling mosaics
- Belorusskaya Station – each mosaic tells of Belarus’s within Soviet history
- Novoslobodskaya Station – you can’t miss the fabulous stained glass windows of workers – we even found one for an architect!
- Kievskaya Station – Like Belorusskaya station – but this one tells the story of Ukraine.
- Ploshchad Revolyutsii Station – statues wherever you look – make sure to rub the nose of the dog (there are many) for good luck!
- Komsomolskaya Station – the most glamorous of all – with fabulous chandeliers!
Touted as one of the best shopping streets in Moscow, Arbat Street may only be of interest to those wanting tourist tat, especially Russian dolls, and architects. It is also very close to Melnikov House, one of the quirkiest pieces of architecture from the Stalinist era. Although associated with the Constructivists, Melnikov was definitely doing his own thing. He had made enough money working on civic projects that he could design his perfect house. A honeycomb of diamonds and circles all encased in white, Melnikov’s house was lucky enough to not be demolished or taken away from its owner by the government. Melnikov was able to live there without any problem until his death. You have no idea how excited the Cypriot was to visit it! NB: You have to book to see the inside and the tickets go very quickly. We missed them. The tour is in Russian only but at least you can putter inside and hope they might speak a little English.
As we had the Imperial Russian meal the night before, we wanted to see where the modern Muscovites ate. So on a snowy night, we walked through Moscow to find Delicatessen – not an easy task. You have to know which alleyway to duck into and find your way through a carpark and then find the sign that guides you down the stairs – but it’s worth it! Two seats were waiting for us at the bar and we were lucky to get them because in the next half hour there was not a seat to be had! Sergey Pushkin (yes really!), the famed bartender there, tempted us with amazing cocktails. Be warned, there is no menu – you just order a drink you know or have him make one up for you.
Also, the food is insanely inventive and delicious. I forwent the horse meat tartare for homemade potato chips with bacon, golden crab on eggplant chips with wild herbs and jelly, and cauliflower cacio e pepe. Of course, we had to try their deconstructed baklava for dessert and the Cypriot gave it his nod of approval.
We finished off our two days in Moscow with homemade cherry liqueur and a boisterous and touristy Nostrovia – which we were then informed was never said by locals! Our next trip, we will make like locals, clink our glasses and say “Выпьем за то, чтобы у нас всегда был повод для праздника – Vupjem za to, chtobu u nas vsegda bul povod dlya prazdnika (May we always have reason for a party)!”