I had the opportunity to visit one of my favorite destinations, Moscow. Given I have not been there since 2008, I was looking forward to seeing the progress and changes. Surprisingly, from an economic standpoint, Russia is experiencing a recession which is fueled by corruption and cheap oil; these factors have caused Russia to become an unprecedented value, the rouble exchanging at 50% less than in 2014.
The devalued rouble might motivate those who have never considered Russia as a destination to consider. Moscow is sometimes skipped by travelers, who focus more on the European- influenced St. Petersburg during their cruise’s shore excursions. But please wait no more; consider Moscow for the vibrant blend of old and new in this cosmopolitan capital.
Luxury hotel accommodations rival any European city; especially the Four Seasons Moscow, located in the former Hotel Moskva and opened in 2014, directly at the entrance of Red Square and the Kremlin. The service levels are excellent; the rooms quite spacious and the daily breakfast buffet was exquisite with a variety of juices, fruits, caviars, and champagne along with full American and Japanese hot and cold breakfast entrees.
For a great view of the Kremlin and Red Square, I recommend visiting the O2 lounge in the Ritz Carlton Hotel and enjoying a drink on the rooftop terrace bar.
Moscow offers many diverse cultural themes ranging from history, art and architecture to science, music, ballet and handi-crafts.
When planning an itinerary in this sprawling city, one must consider the motor traffic and defer to their expert destination specialist on crafting the right balance of activities for each day.
The Moscow traffic system was never designed to handle the mass automobile usage; so it is no coincidence that one of the highlights of Moscow sight-seeing is a metro tour. The metro is one of the most efficient and undoubtedly most beautiful undergrounds in the world; with construction starting in 1935 by creating “palaces of the people” merging art deco with Socialist themes – a three hour tour will expose you to magnificent mosaics, chandeliers, marble and stain glass at some of the most famous stations.
My first day of touring focused on 20th Century history, the Soviet period. With an expert guide and driver, I was able to navigate around and see many museums.
The newly opened Gulag Museum, which is housed in a five story building, illustrates the enormity of the Soviet prison system. On entering the museum, visitors hear the chilling clank of cell doors being shut and loud footsteps in prison corridors; up to 170 inmates were crammed into one cell.
Next I visited Victory Park (Poklonnaya Hill), a memorial complex that celebrates Russian triumphs over Napoleon and World War II. The central avenue leading to the Great Patriotic War Museum is called “Years of War,” displaying five terraces, symbolizing the five years of conflict and there are 1,418 fountains, one for each day of the war. The museum is quite impressive and the exhibitions include authentic weapons, military vehicles, uniforms, medals and letters from the battlefield. I had the opportunity to observe various military bands practicing for the annual May 9th Victory Day parade which was quite remarkable.
A truly moving site worth visiting in the park is the Holocaust Memorial, which encompasses a sculpture representing the plight of the Jewish population during the Nazi reign. The synagogue includes a sanctuary and exhibits showcasing various archival materials and artifacts of Russian Jewish history.
As a guest of Exeter International, I was able to experience private access to several venues which Frontiers can arrange for you. Few Russians and tourists have been given the opportunity to see the interior of the Grand Kremlin Palace, but I was able to explore the magnificent chambers dating back to the 15th century to the earliest czars – including Ivan the Terrible. In addition, I had access to the Romanov’s Throne Hall and St. Alexander’s room – no wonder President Putin entertains and hosts state dinners and visits in this spectacular palace.
Another private access visit which offers a fantastic 360 degree view from all four sides of the dome is the Christ of the Holy Redeemer Cathedral. The stunning frescoes that fill the interior were breathtaking.
Lastly, there is a Cold War museum and bunker that can be visited with a pre-arranged appointment that is highly recommended. I was transformed to the top secret bunker 18 floors beneath Moscow in the Taganskaya area, complete with KGB rooms, raid sirens and hidden tunnels. Ironically, today the bunker is rented for heavy metal band rehearsals and laser tag and paintball parties. Good-bye Communism, hello Capitalism!
For those who love art, Moscow is a rich depository of talented Russian painters’ works. The Tretyakov Gallery includes unique masterpieces which span a period of a thousand years. The museum offers a precious timeline of Russian wooden icons to 18th century paintings to contemporary sculptures. My private guide, Eleni, was incredibly knowledgeable and fascinated me with the “back story” behind so many wonderful works.
I am often asked about the quality and variety of dining choices in Moscow and Russia in general. Russian cuisine is distinctive and unique since it evolved under diverse environmental, social, geographic and economic factors.
Some of my favorite dishes are the pancakes or crepes (Bliny) which can be served with sour cream, jam, honey or caviar. Other noteworthy dishes are the pelmeni (meat and fish dumplings) originating from Siberia and “herring under the fur coat” – a traditional layered salad with salted herring, chopped onions, potatoes, carrots, beet roots and dressed with mayonnaise.
Borscht is a very popular soup in many Eastern European countries, but nowhere can you get the variety as in Russia; the basis is always red beets but there are many versions which include cabbage, carrots, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, kidney beans, apples and turnips, depending on which region the cook originates.
Georgian food and wine was quite popular during Communist times and has recently become quite popular in Moscow. Many restaurants are popping up in Moscow with a hip local chain called Café Khachapuri which specializes in different varieties of the namesake khachapuri, traditional Georgian bread stuffed with melted Georgian sulguni cheese. If you have never tried Georgian cuisine, you will be rewarded by the delicious blending of Eastern European and Middle Eastern cooking techniques.
Consider Russia and Moscow in particular for your next European adventure; it is thoroughly modern, affordable and packed with history and unique venues – you will be surprised and mesmerized!