Tuesday, April 9, 2019

A Denizen In Moscow

There's a scene in the BBC documentary "World's Busiest Cities" (streaming on Netflix) when reporter Dan Snow touts his "unprecedented access" inside the Kremlin.

His Moscow-centric self-aggrandizing is, what the locals might say, чушь собачья

Translation: bullshit.

It's pretty clear -- seeing as my girlfriend Valentina and I walked the exact route as Snow, standing at the same Moskva River overlook and other relics spanning many centuries -- that he entered the guest ticket plaza just like the other 2.7 million annual visitors to the Russian Federation's center of government.

One can appreciate Snow being impressed, however, as almost everything in Moscow is larger-than-life.

With my first of hopefully many visits to the megalopolis now complete, I'm here to tell you: If you love history, dramatic cityscapes, fantastic art, gourmet cuisine, architecture, cosmopolitan settings and conversations with cool and inquisitive locals, get thee to Moscow!

Valentina -- a professional interpreter/translator who lives at the north end of the city's Metro Red Line (one of over 200 stops) -- also tells me there are countless retail opportunities. 

Yes, there's shopping. And Olympic history, nearly 40 years in the making, to boot!

Consider the following, my longest-ever post, as a Tolstoy-sized blog summary of how I fell in love with another great destination. A proofreader friend suggested the section heads to split things into oblast-sized chunks.

Happy reading, and thank you to anyone who makes it to the end. Please share questions and comments.


Maybe journalist Snow just got confused, with the word "exclusivity" simply lost in translation.

The Kremlin does have a "secret" garden (Tainitsky) as well as a Grand Garden, Senate Square (smaller garden) and adjacent Alexander Garden (huge), site of the aforementioned ticket booth. Visitors enter through Kutafiya Tower and the Trinity (Troitsky) Bridge overlooking many densely wooded blocks. 

Did you know Moscow rose in what became an urban forest akin to Atlanta? Bring on the pollen!

Like trekking the Smithsonian, there's no shortage of walking to experience the cathedrals and museums inside the Kremlin's walls.

And like its District of Columbia counterpart, multiple days are needed to really study and appreciate everything inside the miles-long red stone fortifications of this urban citadel.

For example, I was in the Armory Chamber museum for 2.5 hours and barely covered its greatest hits (one room with 60 carriages!).

Thousands of guns, goblets and, well, suits of armor fill room after room.

One showstopper display celebrated works by Peter Carl Fabergé (see right) including some of those toy-filled nifty-gifty Easter eggs and an exquisite crystal dandelion with glass needles cut to resemble the springtime flower gone to seed.

Taking in some the churches near the largest cannon and bell ever made also took about two hours -- the cathedrals are also museums to countless silver- and gold-clad icons older than some other European cities. 

My visit to Moscow, now a city with the largest footprint and population in Europe, started with the long flight from New York and the longer visa application process (more on that later).

Descending through low clouds into Sheremetyevo International Airport (SVO) at dusk, the first sighting of a local Muscovite came from the glow of a lantern beside a carved ice fishing hole atop a nearby lake, reminiscent of winter landings in Minneapolis. 

A 30-minute airport train ride to the city's inner loop dropped us only a short taxi ride from the historic Metropol Hotel, chosen for its ties to a recent favorite book "A Gentleman In Moscow" and its proximity to, well, everything.

Red Square / Saint Basil's Cathedral / State Historical Museum / GUM

Loved this space so much, I returned to Red Square seven times during 12 days in Russia. It's simply gorgeous morning, noon and especially at night when the city's hum is a little bit softer.

The very first glimpse of Saint Basil's Cathedral and those onion domes aglow at midnight, first spotted when Valentina took me to the a main gate after a Metropol welcome dinner, is seared in my memory as one of the most vivid views of the entire Russian adventure.

The next morning we crossed the acres-long plaza (about 3.5 football fields) under blue skies and along the Kremlin's east wall with its red star-topped towers, passing the State Historical Museum, Lenin's tomb (an Art Deco mausoleum to behold), a memorial to tens of millions of Russians lost during war, and GUM (rhymes with zoom) department store.

With some obligatory St. B selfies confirmed, I treated myself to nearly two hours studying the interior of the cathedral, surprised and delighted to learn of the vivid religious portraits and scenes painted up inside each dome.

The State Historical Museum also filled my brain with more Russian history than possible to process (still doing personal follow-up research from notes taken there). See the "Olympic History" section below for this World Heritage Site's five-ringed treasures.

GUM proved to surprise and delight as the gourmet food retailers within this glass-topped mega-mall dished out generous samples of four types of caviar, fresh baked goods, wonderful cheeses and chocolate under arched skylights designed by "The Russian Edison" Vladimir Skukhov (his work is part of the neighboring Metropol architecture and numerous other historic sites).

The GUM store shelves and counters are like Whole Foods Market on steroids, with boxed sweet cherry juice proving to be a favorite tasty treat. Many of the clothiers at GUM are high-end Western luxury brands, with a Ferrari dealership around the corner, and one evening after dinner we spotted a red carpet VIP event in progress.

A red carpet on Red Square -- who knew?

Movie Studio Tour and Other Cinema

As of this blog post, I've not yet viewed any Russian/Soviet films from start to finish, but a good working list of great movies to watch, with many available online for free, took shape during a tour of Mosfilm Studios in the city's Sparrow Hill neighborhood.

Zero knowledge of the studio's big screen celebrities did not stop me from posing with some of the life-sized cutouts from hit films.

The 90 minute tour experience included an introduction to Russian film history, a step onto indoor and outdoor working movie sets, views of an extensive vintage car collection including several military trucks and tanks, costumes, miniature battlefields and naval craft, and a 1969 animatronic horror scene that would stand up to any Disneyland robot creeps of the same decade.

One section of the tour features two city blocks built to resemble 18th century Moscow and St. Petersburg, respectively, provided the cameras angle away from the modern skyscrapers across the main road on which the studio resides. The entire movie tour is in Russian yet maintained the interest of all local and international visitors. Also, gotta give 'em props for their props!

Across town, Valentina also introduced me to the art house Star Cinema (Zvezda) specializing in screenings for current films from Europe and USA. Seated in the nearly-full theatre in plush chairs around four- and six-top tables, we enjoyed fresh coffee and pastries (sorry, no popcorn at this upscale venue) while viewing Natalie Portman's recent performance in "Vox Lux" -- jolly, good show!

City Business Center 

Thanks to a gift box of Russian tea and some live WhatsApp conversations when Valentina's interpretation work took her there, during the 2018 FIFA World Cup I started to get a handle on "downtown" Moscow (my term) or what the locals refer to as Moscow International Business Center.

"Moscow City" refers to the collection of nearly 20 skyscrapers a few miles northwest of the Kremlin and Red Square. Most of its steel and glass towers would fit right in at Hong Kong, Chicago, Manhattan or other major global skylines, though in terms of the total number of skyward structures, Moscow is more similar to downtown Los Angeles' handful of landmark towers.

Our main destination in this district -- other than an erroneous, albeit serendipitous, bus stop that led us to an amazing riverside selfie spot -- was the new Ruski Restaurant on the 85th level of the "Eye" or "OKO" or "ONO" or the "Oh, no! My vertigo!" Tower.

Ruski not only delivers on unmatched vistas outside but also on elegant and ultra-mod design inside, including the world's highest ice bar.

We enjoyed an assortment of pelmeni (Russian dumplings), whitefish soup, Far East scallops, pumpkin soup with shrimp, local wine and a tasty glass of the bar's Sophia Punch -- a Catherine The Great-inspired concoction of apricot liqueur, dark rum, black currant, ginger-like galangal and strawberry puree, providing the right dose of "liquid courage" for the after-dinner attraction.

Just two levels up from Ruski's dining room, visitors can ascend a staircase to the highest open sky deck in Europe, High Port 354.

And on a clear or partly-cloudy evening, ONO delivered on "OMG!" with 360-degree views from 354 meters up. We could see the airports, stadiums, all of the Seven Sisters and the entire campus of Mosfilm Studios.

Standing atop this Russian feat of modernism, there's an oversized sculpture of a hashtag that aptly states #вышетольколюбовь.


Olympic History Across Town

As previously noted, the first Olympic treasure spotted in Moscow appeared in the extensive collections of the State Historical Museum at Red Square.

The main level galleries showcasing priceless platinum, silver, jewels and other treasures featured multiple examples of 1980 Moscow Olympic gold medals but, surprisingly, no Olympic torch.

As it was mid-March, the city was too cold for this hot-blooded Southerner to endure a hike to Luzhniki Olympic Complex and its centerpiece, one of the largest stadiums in Europe (site of the 1980 Olympic opening ceremony and key 2018 World Cup matches). Next time!

But we did experience another hub of Games history by staying at the massive Hotel Kosmos.

Opened in 1979 with more than 1,775 rooms to house the main press center and world's media for the Moscow Olympiad, we enjoyed panoramic views of neighboring Losiniy Ostrov ("Elk Island") National Park, Ostankino Tower (the tallest structure in Europe), the Cosmonauts Museum, Moscow Miniature Museum, VDNH Park, other 1980 Olympic venues and the Moscow Botanical Garden.

A stay at the Hotel Kosmos is, well, like traveling back in time -- many of the original federalist fixtures remain in place nearly 40 years later, akin to staying at the Las Vegas Hilton before one of its recent renovations.

But the Kosmos is clean and comfortable, and we highly recommend the two-hour couples Thai massage complete with a modern version of the traditional Russian banya steam bath and full-body sugar scrub -- it was рай (paradise).

We chose this hotel not only for its Olympic history (though I found no markers of its Games-time lore, the lobby shops include many curio cases filled with pins, Misha mascots and other tchotkes bearing the rings), but also for its walkable proximity to the convention hall that hosted the Russian Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions gathering named RAAPA Expo 2019, an organization to which we owe immense gratitude for helping facilitate a "tourist working" visa (thank you, RAAPA!).

It's surprising that "back in the day" the Olympic Media Center, or at least the hotel built to house the world's journalists, went up so far away from the main stadium. The site of the opening ceremony was not even visible from the hotel (the photo below is the vantage from High Point 354). Maybe a more detailed explanation will be revealed during future visits to both sites.

Pushkin, The Garage, Other Museums and Dining

During the arc of the Russian holiday, for no particular reason, I kept putting off a visits to the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in my schedule.

If there's any regret from the journey, it's only that I did not secure more time for the Pushkin experience, and that the hours enjoyed in the Main Building kept me from making it to the neighboring Gallery Building with its more recent works that I crave.

Weeks later, still bummed to miss their Picasso, Van Gogh, Léger and many other all time favorites of the 20th century. Spotting some of these works via the museum's virtual tour makes me kinda sick to have been so close but run out of time until the next visit. 

The Pushkin's many Main Building rooms, the arrangement of art and content brought to mind the Frick Collection in New York or the Phillips Collection in Washington.

Room after room contains old, beautiful and historic pieces, and I found myself noting many European artists who were new or new-ish to my eyes.

Some wintry scenes by Bruegel, with commoners donning ice skates circa the 1600's, got the "Slow Art Day" treatment (I studied one canvas for more than 10 minutes -- is that a skater or an ice fisherman at lower right in the image?).

There are also hundreds of sculptures in the collection, with an Olympian-inspired discus thrower standing out like its brother in The British Museum.

Down the street we toured the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and its Moskva Gallery of art built underground (there's no website currently but the collection of landscapes and portraits is definitely worth a visit).

Turns out the current structure is the world's largest Orthodox Christian church, with each stone installed from 1995 to 2000 helping to restore national pride after Joseph Stalin ordered the original church destroyed.

On a brighter day, Valentina joined me for an afternoon walk through Gorky Park to visit The Garage Museum of Contemporary Art.

The main attraction was an exhibition of edgy drawings, paintings, short films and objects created by Pavel Pepperstein, whose pen and ink illustrations would fit right in with B. Kliban, Saul Steinberg, Bruce Eric Kaplan or other New Yorker mag regulars.

Loved and laughed out loud at Pepperstein's take and social commentary in regards to Lenin's dimly-lit tomb ... or is that mood lighting for the pair of figures holding hands for eternity? (Photo secured thanks to "unprecedented access").

The museum's modest café served one of the best meals in Moscow: a savory grilled chicken breast atop cornmeal porridge with black truffle, parmesan and a cucumber side salad for fewer rubles than a gallery ticket.

Which brings to mind two other culinary home runs.

First, who knew an Atlanta boy would travel 8,000 miles to find some familiar, rich comfort foods of Georgia?

In this case, the menu at Mama Gochi (about a block from the Bolshoi and Metropol) features chef favorites from the former Soviet Republic.

If the dining room's open hearths and hot soups don't provide enough respite from Moscow's winter chill, the restaurant offers loaner yak fur coats as cozy as the lyrics to "Georgia On My Mind."

Second, for faster fare and Russia's response to the Chick-fil-A cows, check out the cafeteria-style fast food chain Mu Mu (looks like My My in Cyrillic but rhymes with moo-moo) for some scrumptious quick-serve borscht.

You won't find a smoother, creamier caramel than their dessert chaser handed out like fortune cookies at meal's end.

Marvelous Music Venues 

Valentina nailed it on booking shared music events.

In addition to securing tickets for a matinee of "The Nutcracker" presented at the Bolshoi Theatre's next door stage, The RAMT, we also enjoyed a small group tour of the main venue (their event tickets sell out months in advance), its salons and chamber music stage.

Whether you're a fan of classical music, ballet/dance, opera or architecture, the Bolshoi is a "must see" and hear on any Moscow itinerary. One nice surprise -- a rehearsal for the evening's three main dancers (two men and a ballerina) -- began during our well-informed guide's presentation.

Photos allowed? Nyet!

Since the return stateside, I learned the Moscow International House of Music opened as the area's first symphony hall built in more than a century, sort of the city's answer to Lincoln Center.

The venue hosted the final night of the 19th International Igor Butman Festival featuring modern jazz performed by Butman and the Moscow Jazz Orchestra as well as Richard Bona and Robert Glasper of the USA. Our seats were just behind the fellow attendee who posted this YouTube video from the show, and another audience member captured Butman & Co. here. More, please!

I can hardly wait to get back to Moscow to experience additional sections of its newest urban gathering spot, Zaryadye Park, recently named among the World's Greatest Places ranked by TIME magazine. This park is so new that many of its destinations still appear as construction sites via Google Maps.

In one brisk March evening we explored four of the park's hot spots: Zaryadye Concert Hall, Media Center, the food court-styled Voskod Restaurant (a.k.a. Gastrocenter) and the horizontally-arching River Overlook.

At the concert hall we enjoyed a baroque performance by Europa Galante with guest tenor Ian Bostridge, savoring the architecture and acoustics enhanced by the venue's submersion into an earthen berm piled near the park's northeast corner. It was a bit chilly and we were cutting it close with our concert arrival, so we did not take time to walk along the venue's glass roof, which is open to visitors.

The Media Center, also built into a hillside, offers many indoor activities, and we strapped in for a windy, airborne experience "Soaring Over Moscow" in a flyover theatre designed by Dynamic Attractions and Kraftwerk, each longtime exhibitors at client IAAPA Expo. The seating elevated before a wrap-around screen gives each rider breathtaking bird's eye views of the city's destinations cited in this post and more.

Prediction: When Dan Snow returns for more "unprecedented" access, he'll aptly sum up Zaryadye Park with one trademark British adjective -- brilliant!

For the record, I concur.

Additional Observations

Other Russia adventures for this blogger included a gig as guest speaker at the A.S. Griboedov Institute of International Law & Economics (they reported about it), day tripping to Kovrov, Russia, a city of nearly 150,000 about three hours east of Moscow, as well as the historic/restored village of Suzdal, site of "the original" Kremlin and other sites dating to the year 1040 A.D., and an evening with paintings of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, the Mexican artist super couple who spent time in the Soviet Union for a span of their careers and marriage.

Aside from the hotels, staying at Valentina's fourth-floor flat and her parents' apartment introduced me to the Russian urban residential experience. Millions of people live in modest Soviet-era block housing, but I found it at once quaint and cozy ... and warm (they got central heat right!).

My denizen doings also took me to neighborhood grocers, a flower shop, Бургер Кинг (Burger King), a bank and book stores, each with lines and local attitudes similar to any stateside visit from San Francisco to the Jersey Shore.

I did not once spot a post office (though was looking) and in 12 days experienced only one panhandler and a lone person who was clearly homeless. And only one time did a street hustler achieve nuisance status until rebuffed by my stink-eye and nonsensical reply in German.

The metro system is impressive, efficient and easy to navigate, never leaving me anxious nor "lost" even when I took a line in the wrong direction.

On surface streets the traffic is intense but the urban designers built-in underground crosswalks to prevent pedestrian injury and delays.

In other words, Russia felt completely comfortable, safe and "at home" so far away from home, and I cannot thank Valentina and her friends enough for their warm гостеприимство (hospitality).

About That Visa

For U.S. nationals, the application process is daunting. There are steps in the process that, even during my second application (the first for 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics) made little sense. With patience and time, it's do-able.

Start with the paperwork on the Russian Embassy website, then work with a visa processing service near the embassy or consulate assigned to your U.S. state of residence. The processing service has their own extensive paperwork (to help make sure you did not skip something asked by the embassy), then the payment, printouts, postage/tracking and patience ... all for something north of $300 (hint: use the expedited service to avoid one's passport languishing in a drawer indefinitely).

For travel insurance -- required along with proof of paid-in-full airfare and booked hotel reservations -- I recommend Karen at Travel Leaders in Delafield, Wis. For flexibility, I submitted bookings from Hotels.com, and for a few bucks the Kosmos Hotel offers an online service (iVisa) to provide a visa invitation letter affirming all hotel confirmations on one mandatory form.

I will gladly return to Moscow any time the schedule and visa process will allow -- Valentina and I already have a long list of "next time" sites to experience starting with more of Gorky Park, the Luzhniki Olympic area, and many more museums.

My hope is to next visit in summer months, and to also hop over to Saint Petersburg and Volgograd to check-out the world's largest sculpture of a woman, The Motherland Calls, and apt title for my new-found Russian wanderlust.

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver

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