Russia is a country that has always fascinated me because of its turbulent history, longstanding tradition of art and politics, and its many representations in fiction. Over time, it became larger than life in my mind and I started mixing it up with some fabled land. In 2014, when the value of the rouble dropped dramatically, Russia seemed accessible to me. Last year, I took advantage of an opportunity that arose and finally made my way to Moscow.
CRIMSON TIDE – All the photos I’d seen and descriptions I’d heard didn’t quite prepare me for the imposing architectural beauty of Moscow’s Red Square and surrounding areas. However, I caught my first glimpse of the glory of Russian Revival architecture in the heart of the city at Manezhnaya Square, which connects Red Square with downtown Moscow. On one end of Red Square is the large and splendorous State Historical Museum, in a deep, rich Moscow red brick. A few steps north, along the main street of Tverskaya, passing under a bridge, I was once again surrounded by beautiful red. The crimson towers of the Kremlin, a sprawling fortified complex with palaces and cathedrals, spiral as high as 62 feet towards the sky.
Its bulky walls, some 21 feet thick, line one side of the square. The blue, yellow, and green domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral built in the typical Eastern Orthodox architectural style stand out, looking fairy-tale-like besides the formidable red buildings. During winter, there’s an ice-skating rink built right in the middle of Red Square. So when you fall on your back, as most first-timers will, you can stare at the motionless beauty around. Inside the Kremlin is a world of winders, with sprawling gardens and magnificent buildings, including Putin’s official workplace. You could easily spend all your time in Moscow between Red Square and the Kremlin complex, visiting its museums and admiring its Russian Orthodox cathedrals of which the Cathedral of the Annunciation is one of the most beautiful. With walls covered with frescoes dating to the 17th century, it is like walking inside a painting.
SOUL WARMERS – Moscow has many food options, and I strongly recommend that visitors indulge in local food. LavkaLavka, on Petrovka street, is a farm-to-table restaurant that is also a design-lover’s delight. Here, you can get rustic Russian food such as fish pies and sbiten, which is a hot winter drink. The decor incorporates lots of warm wood brightened by lanterns made of red milk cans. In this place full of design quirks and hipster cool, my glass of wine cost only RUBI 195 and a meal for two costs as little as RUB1,150.The food store outside has a heady array of cheeses, meats, pickles, and preserves.
The Camembert-like artisanal cheese I brought back was delicious and I ate it with walnuts. Another fabulous dining experience is to be had at the White Rabbit, celebrity chef Vladimir Mukhin’s rooftop restaurant that broke into the World’s 50 Best Restaurants at number 23 in 2015. The 12-course tasting menu at this Alice in Wonderland-themed restaurant was priced at about RUB 8,000 per head—before the rouble dropped in value, this would have meant about 35,000—and I went for it. The meal included unforgettable preparations and presentations: caviar on biscuits lying on solid rocks of pink salt; red mullet with pickled bamboo; calf sweetbreads and deconstructed liquid grapes, and many other delights. Not everything was fancy, but it was uniformly good.
Another lovely spot in the centre of town is Cafe Pushkin, which feels like an exclusive “members only” club from the 1820s, with old-world wood decor, stiff upper lipped waiters, and silver cutlery. My typical Russian breakfast comprised pumpkin porridge, baked milk, which tasted like cheesecake, and kefir, a fermented milk drink. One of my favourite Moscow memories was sitting on the cafe’s terrace under the glass roof topped by entwined creepers, sipping a strong coffee. With all this fare available at affordable prices, for the first time I felt empowered as a spender in Europe. From preserved apples or pickled cucumbers at the Danilovsky food market to pelmeni (Russian dumplings) and fish or meat pies at a cafe, you can eat heartily in Moscow7 for about RUB690 for two.
BROWSE AND PICK – GUM is a shopping mall on the Red Square that could be mistaken for a monument. GUM’s facade is lit up year-round with decorations even more spectacular around Christmas. Inside, you can find everything from clothes to curios, vodka to chocolates. Definitely stop at the quirky art gallery and store Shaltai-Boltai, for cat cushions, fun art prints, mugs, and more. At the general store Respublika, I found beautiful souvenirs made by the company Heart of Moscow and at the Zhostovo, boutique lacquer trays and plates with bright, folk-style floral paintings.
VIEW FROM THE WING – Don’t return from Moscow without visiting the Bolshoi Theatre. The theatre building opened in 1856, and has seen many renovations over the years, the last one in 2011. Take a guided tour of the lavish neoclassical architecture and fascinating interiors and spend at least an hour inside, going from room to ornately crafted room, ending at the stunning auditorium. To catch a ballet performance bookings can be made online. On my last night in Moscow, I had drinks at 02 Lounge, the rooftop bar of the Ritz-Carlton Moscow, which has, undisputedly, the best view of the Kremlin and Red Square. Walking onto the terrace to take in the view, I stood gaping at the length of this marvellous old fortress, lit up against the night sky. At that moment I felt lucky to be in Moscow.