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Russia Travel Essay – Part 1 – Moscow – St Petersburg – And The Old World

It started off the way a trip to the Old World should.  Got my boarding pass from Aeroflot.  Checked seat number 26C and figured it was a large aircraft.  Walked through the business class expedited security line.  Passed two checkpoints, with staff matching up and ticking off my passport and boarding pass.  Same thing at the Business Class Lounge.  And then boarded the plane, again, two checkpoints, with staff matching up and ticking off my passport and boarding pass.

Only upon boarding and being directed to make a sharp right towards Economy Class did I realize I was given the wrong boarding pass – as I showed my ticket invoice and explained I had purchased a business class fare, my boarding pass was sharply taken away from me as an investigation ensued.

Supposedly I had the wrong boarding pass and I should have checked my name.  I was scolded rather than apologized to.

The aircraft was an old one.  Assume tit-for-tat, given the souring relationship between my disembarking country and Russia.  There were 5 rows of business class, and I couldn’t tell whether the slightly wider 1st row was meant to be First Class.  In any case it was left empty as I was ultimately seated in 5C.

I recalled an earlier flight to the same destination disembarking from Hong Kong to be a double-decker brand new aircraft, even comfortable in Economy Class, and made a mental note to ask my husband who would be arriving two days later from Hong Kong.

Shermetevo Airport had much changed since my last journey here 15 years ago.  No more lineless swarming towards passport control but an orderly system.  Upon exit I was able to locate a Bankomat and get cash right away.  Then the journey into town, which, from the taxi window, did not look as if it had changed too much.  Impressive and dusty buildings.

I enter my Stalin-era hotel which is named the Peking Hotel.  It had more security guards than necessary in a small lobby, checking documents and other things for any outside guests.  The room is sparsely appointed but the bones are grand – tall, high ceilings with plaster crown moldings, deep window sills and aristocratic windows, thick doors and large carved door-frames.  Wide hallways with red carpet and muted oil paintings decorating each framed wall.  An obligatory grandfather chiming clock in front of a grand staircase.  Loved it.  It was a little slice of Soviet heaven.

I met up with a friend and started to walk down memory lane.  Staryi Arbat was where we would go for coffee and cool hanging, mixed in with a little bit of souvenir shopping and perhaps portrait painting.  Now you saw a Starbucks and a few other fast food chains, it didn’t seem this was the gathering place of the young and cool anymore.  As I was quite obsessed with replacing my Russian fur hat (back in those days you bought these from peddlers on the Red Square, and haggled them down from US100 to 20 bucks), I started immediately looking at the options and found an old fashioned woman’s hat made of black and white Siberian fox. Given it was 25 degrees Celsius outside, I don’t think I got ripped off as much as I normally would have on tourist row.

Dinner was at White Rabbit, on top of a shopping mall at Smolensky on the Garden ring.  With the Russian White House ahead and the Church of St. Christ the Saviour behind you, it was an impressive, full 360 view of Moscow.  The Russians had learned the value of a view, something I did not recall from my earlier sojourn.

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whiterabbit
Photo Courtesy of White Rabbit

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We ultimately ended up at Time Out Bar, a rooftop bar on top of the Peking Hotel.  This was a beautiful bar with tall cathedral ceilings with impressively tall windows and again the 360 view, along with eco-friendly furniture and a multi-page creative drink list.  It was definitely the end of a great night.

Kofemania, a chain but what a wonderful one, had a special dish with generous slabs of Omul fish roe from the Baikal Lake with poached quail eggs on top of moist black bread.  Perfect. Made a mental note to stop by a supermarket and buy a few jars of Omul fish roe to take home.

After this I decided to meander through memory lane, Spiridonovka and Malaya Bronnaya, going back 20 years ago to where I used to work. This entire area had changed dramatically, presenting indoor outdoor cafes and fun looking restaurants heaving with young and good looking people that seemed not to have a care in the world at 4pm in the afternoon.  Back then there were only two cafes in this neighborhood, Café Margarita and Café Donna Klara [+8-495-690-6974], both of them still standing, to my pleasure.  Patriarch’s Pond seemed to have gotten a facelift and a new transplant of geese and ducks, adding to the lazy aura of the days gone by.  I spotted Uilliam’s, one of the hot spots recommended by a friend, and noted their opening hours at 1030a for Sunday brunch.  Little did I know I’d be here already twice by the next day and this place would become my new hangout/stop-over spot.

Now waiting for my husband to arrive while eating a Duck a l’Orange salad at Uilliam’s accompanied by first a glass of Prosecco and now a glass of Valpolicella red wine, I wonder if I need to stock up on some supplies.  We have a free bottle of Lambrusco in the hotel, courtesy of management who is apologizing for placing us on the side of a construction site.  Quite an improvement from the Soviet-era service.  I have some bread I’ve picked up from Uilliam’s.  Maybe I’ll stop at Eliseevski Gastronom and pick up some caviar and sour cream along with more Russian bread.  Best thing to do at a neo-baroque grocery store that was built as a palace and converted to a grocery store by a 19th century Russian millionaire tradesman, and popular, in the true sense of the word, throughout the Soviet era as many other aristocratic items of the Russian Empire.

Dom Karlo was an upper crust restaurant that reminded me of New Jersey in the US.  Elaborate columns and balconies were constructed in the main dining hall, and perfectly cooked pasta was served in skillets.  The outdoor patio where we sat was much classier in décor and reminded me more of Florida on the Gulf of Mexico with its wide tables and striped gazebo awning.

It was my husband’s first morning in Moscow and I wanted him to start off with a good impression and took him straight to Café Pushkin, the notoriously luxurious and elaborate classical Russian Restaurant.  The Baroque building was absolutely gorgeous both inside and out, and seemed deliberately tattered at the edges to depict the struggling aristocracy holding onto its pride while living through their demise.  When I bent below the table to pick up a napkin I had dropped, I was confronted with a baby cockroach on the stone floor, furthering this image in my mind.  A pricey meal but totally worth it to show my husband the luxurious decadence of this land, and we walked down Tverskaya, as proud as the Karenins, straight onto the Red Square.

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Photo Courtesy of Café Pushkin

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I told my husband he had to imprint upon him the first time impression of seeing the Red Square, a complete fairy tale of a scene, when you get to see it full 360.  Most Americans only see the Red Square in its imposing threat of a shadow, with tanks crossing it and jets flying over during May Day ceremony, a clip frequently recycled by all major news networks when showing Moscow.  But the Red Square – originating from the word “Beautiful” Square, rather than the color “Red” for Communism – is flanked on each side by the most amazing and gorgeous architectural structures, and lined yet again by the state department store GUM that, like the Eliseevskii Gastronom, recalls of a palace than a mere location for commerce.  Beyond the red walls of the Kremlin poke out gold domes and peaks of a cathedral located within the Kremlin walls, adding to the mystery and allure of this city center.  What people don’t realize is that Communism was more about sharing beauty and luxury amongst the commoners, rather than demolishing it.  In the Soviet Union, supermarkets, commercial buildings and subway systems were all built with a glorious imperialistic flair, not mere utilitarian eyesore.

We then made our way to the Pushkin Museum by walking along the embankment, and chanced upon a Russian diner, aptly named Pelmeni Pelmeni, for all the different types of dumplings it offered.  We order a dish or traditional pelmeni with lamb and a dish of Khinkali, the large Georgian version with soup within, like a super-sized Xia Long Bao.  I decided we would need to add this to our list of recommendations in our Dumpling Olympics.

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Photo (Pushkin Museum) Courtesy of Gilmanshin / Shutterstock.com

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The Pushkin State Museum houses one of the richest collections of impressionist art, abundant in Monets, Renoirs, and Cezannes, all suspiciously ending up as State property after World War II.  While there are some questions asked about the genuineness of some of the masterpieces, this collection never fails to amaze me.  I used to tell all my friends back in the U.S. that you can’t compare a collection accumulated through power with a collection accumulated by wealth, the former being much more convincing.  The collection here is second in my mind only to that of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, which we will get to shortly.

That evening we went to the new and trendy Ugolek, which upon seeing the three-stationed open kitchen layout and tasting the salad dressing I correctly guessed was a sister restaurant of Uilliam’s.  And of course the same beautiful crowd dining there.  By this time it is my third time at one of these establishment and I decide I’m not as fond of the food as much as the atmosphere in this chain of establishments.

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NEXT WEEK: To St. Petersburg!

THE WEEK AFTER: A Few More Recommendations…

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Lead-In Image Courtesy of Nikolay Sachkov / Shutterstock.com