28 July 2013
Tatyana Leonov loses herself in a city going through a 21st-century renaissance.
I’m lost. I’ve swapped lines, changed trains twice and bought a colourful trinket from one of the many women all selling the same thing in the Moscow metro’s underground labyrinth.
As it turns out, getting lost within the metro network is not a bad way to start seeing the Russian capital. Far from being an ordinary railway system, its stations are opulently designed and home to an array of socialist-realist art. Some of the most historic feature ornate chandeliers, brilliant stained glass windows and elaborate mosaics.
Mayakovskaya is one of the most beautiful. Named after the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, the grandiose station features majestic marble walls, elegant pillars, arcs and a distinctive white and pink marble floor. But it’s the 34 intricate mosaics on the ceiling that are worth craning your neck for. Created by Alexander Deyneka, they are designed to depict a “24-hour Soviet sky” – the idealistic future once envisioned by Mayakovsky.
Metro stops offer a glimpse into classic Moscow: the city of Leo Tolstoy, the Bolshoi Ballet, the Kremlin and the Tretyakov Gallery. But there’s no better place to take in the magnitude of the city than Red Square. This is where you will find St Basil’s Cathedral, perhaps Russia’s most emblematic building. The red-brick pillars with colourful swirling cupolas look exactly like the postcard depictions – a gloriously vibrant kaleidoscope from every angle.
The story behind the cathedral reads like a horror novel. It was built under the rule of Tsar Ivan IV (infamously known as Ivan the Terrible) between 1554 and 1560 in honour of the conquest of Kazan. According to legend, upon its completion the architects were blinded so as never to design anything as beautiful again. It is stunning; an architectural masterpiece made up of nine chapels spread out on one foundation.
Today it’s a museum, not a bad one to visit, but if you’re in Moscow for such things, the Kremlin is the place to go. The historic complex has everything from royal carriages and gold collections to religious icons and manuscripts on display. Also worth checking out is the State Historical Museum facing Red Square.
Moscow is a history buff’s paradise, but it’s the new Moscow that has everyone talking. Moscow today is a mishmash of old and new, traditional and modern, glamorous and conventional. The swanky skyscrapers, boutiques and yoga studios lie in stark contrast to the cupolas of Russian Orthodox churches. Dreary apartment complexes have been restyled as lavish penthouses, and new Bentleys, Lamborghinis and Hummers clog the streets in even average-wage suburbs. Spending money is in, and if you want a taste of the bling-crazy capital, you’ll need to live like a local by frequenting spas, restaurants, bars and nightclubs.
The culinary scene caters to every taste and whim, with Japanese and Georgian food as easy to come by as Chinese in Australia. For authentic (and gourmet) fare, the famous Cafe Pushkin on Tverskoy Bulvar, not far from Pushkin Square, is one of my favourites. It’s located in a building renovated to look like a Russian aristocrat’s home circa 1825, and is open 24/7. The list of notable guests is long: Bill Clinton, Will Smith, Meryl Streep, Quentin Tarantino and Angelina Jolie, to name just a few. Start by ordering the Russian classics – pelmeni, blinchiki, borscht – but be sure to leave space for one of the luscious desserts.
For a “new” Russian meal with a price tag to match, Varvary by Anatoly Komm offers a unique molecular experience. It was the first Russian restaurant to make the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (in 2011); expect to be impressed with Komm’s experimental approach to Russian food. Here the borscht might come deconstructed, the herring as a gel mix squeezed into a capsule, and the sour cream infused with liquid nitrogen.
The most expensive places in Moscow are its nightclubs, where even flashing cash and designer threads may not get you past “face control”. Large men with stern faces carry out the ruthless policy: just a fleeting look determines whether you’re in or out. Be prepared – more often than not you’ll be out.
I don’t get past face control after lining up at the riverfront Soho Rooms on the Savvinskaya embankment – but I’m confident it’s only because I left my Prada outfit at home. A taxi ride later, I settle for a drink at the glamorous 02 Lounge, located on the 12th floor of the Ritz-Carlton on Tverskaya Ulitsa (one of Moscow’s busiest streets), and dine on exorbitantly priced sushi washed down with Beluga vodka. This is the place to see Moscow from above. The panoramic views over the city and into Red Square and the Kremlin are unrivalled.
As more beautiful women arrive, greeting each other with air kisses, I decide to move on. I’m not as tall. Or as rich. And I lied – I don’t own any Prada. I find myself lost again and approach a babushka (Russian for grandmother). These elderly women with faded headscarves tied loosely around their chins are everywhere: selling wildflowers, vegetables, sunflower seeds, magazines. They may not be able to direct you to the hottest nightspot (new Moscow is alien to them), they probably won’t even understand what you’re saying (most don’t speak English), but you’ll get a laugh, an armful of whatever they’re selling (for a price) and perhaps a memorable photo to take home.
Qantas (qantas.com.au) code shares flights with Emirates to Moscow via Dubai from Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide.
WHERE TO STAY
For a luxury stay seeped in history try Hotel National (national.ru). Built in 1902, it’s located next to the Kremlin (request a room with a view), Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral. The rooms are furnished with quirky antiques that take you back to another era. For design devotees, the Golden Apple (www.goldenapple.ru), about 15 minutes’ walk from main attractions, will provide an inspirational stay. Each of the seven floors correlates to a rainbow colour and Philippe Starck fixtures set the tone in the Loft and Penthouse suites. A sculpture of a seagull hovers in the Chekov Deluxe room, a tribute to the playwright and former guest.
WHAT TO WEAR
Neat and comfortable will get you through the day, but dress to impress at night.
WHAT TO DRINK
Vodka shots with a pickle chaser.
Excuse me please. Izvinite pozhaluista.
How much is this? Skolko stoit?
Thank you. Spasibo.
Standing in Red Square and simply taking in the magnitude of it all.
A set of hand-painted matryoshka dolls.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.
Organise your visa in advance at sydneyrussianconsulate.com. For tourist information, go to moscow.info.