Gosh I laughed! Silly laughing!! Love laughing on the plane. Just finished watching 'Bridal Wars' enroute to Moscow ... and although the movie is totally ridiculous ... I laughed!
What will also be ridiculous is the Eurovision Song Festival finals that we're going to see this Saturday. That is our raison d'etre for coming to Moscow. Plus one must see the Red Square and the Kremlin at one point. If you're a European you will know what Eurovision is. Otherwise, I doubt you've heard of it. It's basically a song competition between all the European countries, where each country first has a national competition to select the song that will represent them at the finals. And then through a very complex judging system, a victor is selected during the final show, which is always hosted by the country of the previous year's winner. Thus last year Russia won ... and now ... Moscow!
It's really Euro trash at it's best. It's basically what the Oscar's are for the Americans. For one night, all of Europe sits in front of their televisions, hosts parties, drinks too much and roots for their own country. No matter how tacky the song or the outfits! ABBA, with Waterloo, rose to world stardom by winning at Eurovision. And Celine Dion won ... for Switzerland! Don't ask me how that happened. But mostly ... the winners are forgotten a few months after the finals. But that's not the point. Partaking in this Euro Trash experience is what it's all about.
The event was held at the indoor Olympic Stadium and was very well organized. It actually went by much faster than any one of us anticipated. You should see how quickly they changed the sets in between songs. And the stage was impressive, with massive video projection screens. I think the best part of this event is to see Europe stand together as one. Even though the countries compete fiercely with each other, and everyone bitches about the Eastern Europeans and how they stick together when it comes to voting ... at the end though, the crowd is full of different European flags waving in unison, side-by-side. That diversity is what makes Europe so special. And the song that won? Don't get me going on this. It was a 23 year old Norwegian with a violin. It's not that he was bad ... but he was pure, too wholesome and a Harry Potter look-alike! Eurovision needs an anthem that is trashy and pop-aliciously fun. I was rooting for Moldovia, Ukraine and Turkey.
Now let's get back to Moscow!
Moscow is totally different than I expected. I guess I still assumed that there will be a lot of heavy-massive communist buildings, lacking design and inspiration. I expected to feel power in the capital but expressed in a lacklustre way. I was totally wrong. Firstly, Moscow is a very green and clean city. Full of manicured little parks, the park board obviously obsessed with tulips for you see them planted everywhere. As you land you will notice that Moscow is surrounded by beautiful forests. And the streets, walkways, metro stations are very clean. The architecture in the centre of town is impressive. Old Russian renaissance buildings beautifully renovated, large avenues and stunning churches. You will see gold-plated onion domes of the iconoclastic Russian Orthodox churches sprinkled all over the centre. And the interiors are just as ornate as the exteriors. Gild, beautiful artifacts and inspiring artwork which is very different than what you would find in catholic churches. And the people seem to be deeply religious. The churches were full of praying citizens, bowing deeply to the ornate relics and kissing various artifacts. The Russians are surprisingly devout citizens. Moscow a magnanimous city. And contrary to what you hear, a safe city.
I later found out that a lot of the old beautiful buildings that you see in the centre are not restored buildings, but completely re-built following the original design. As you can imagine, that has the heritage preservers up in arms. Nonetheless, they do look stunning.
You always read that Moscow is one of the most expensive cities in the world. I'm not sure if it's actually expensive, or the fact that it's a cash society, and given that you go through your cash very fast for you're continuously using it, is what makes it seem expensive. In any case, your home-away-from-home will be the bankomat .. the bank machine.
Coming from Singapore we immediately realized how light it still is at 2000. Living on the equator, where it's dark by 1930 all year round, being able to see the long days in spring time was lovely. The weather was variable which made the evening sky very dramatic. Big, heavy, saturated clouds with the soft evening sunlight penetrating through the cracks in the sky and illuminating the tops of church steeples was ... well, dramatic. It was cold though. And I don't handle cold well anymore.
I have to make a comment on the Russian women ... for they are something to observe. They're beautiful in a different way. They're striking, perhaps also due to the way they dress. Loud clothes, I could say nearly overly stylish ... and I have never seen so many outrageously high stiletto heels on the streets. How do they walk? I think they take first place from the Italian ladies ... donne Italiane, you need to come to Moscow to learn how to wear your high heels!!
And what differentiates the Russian women from the men? This is coming from the mouth of a Muscovite: the women here work all day, are very hard-woring. And the men, I asked? The men drink all day, he responded!
The biggest downside to Moscow is that no one really speaks any other language other than Russian. You get the impression that the society is still very insular, focused on itself. Not totally ready to accept foreign tourists and people from the 'outside'. There is no signage in English, no one speaks or understands English, and they use the cyrillic alphabet thus it's always adventurous moving around. Of course I'm being ethnocentric here and implying that English is the international language. Yet any country that I've been to that is trying to internationalize itself, will try and make it somewhat easier for foreigners to manouver around. You will see what I mean when you try to click on the restaurant links below. The whole website is in cyrillic, so as a tourist you will never be able to find the given place, if you don't speak and read Russian.
To end ... a little side-story ... a funny paranoia story. So ... remember the H6N3 flu?? Swine flu?? That the whole world has gone paranoid over? So, we're flying on SQ from Singapore to Moscow and we don't get any hot towels. Not before take-off, or after, or before a meal, or after waking up. We thought that was a bit strange. We kept getting little packaged perfumed towels instead. Until Robin asked the flight attendant 'where are the hot towels?' Are you ready for the answer? On flights to the USA (this flight goes on to Houston), the airlines have been requested to stop using hot towels to prevent the spread of swine flu! WTF!?!? Has everyone gone mad!?
HOW TO GET THERE:
> Visa: Russia is one of those countries that requires you to get a dreaded visa. And they're not even cheap. There are two things you will require for your application: a return flight and a letter of confirmation from your hotel that you're staying there. If you're staying with friends, like we are, then the process gets a bit more complicated. You need to get a Visa Support Letter which proves that you're staying with friends. I highly recommend that you don't try getting a Russian visa yourself. Instead, go to a travel agent, and let them go through all the hassle. It will cost you ... and getting a Russian visa is not cheap (actually the most expensive visa I can think of) ... but you will be grateful and calm at the end.
> Airports: there are no less than four airports in this city of up to 15 million people. However, Domodedovo and Cheremetevo 2 are the two main international airports. Flying directly from Singapore on Singapore Airlines, we landed at Domodedovo, which has a brand new and very modern terminal. The main airline there seemed to be the first private Russian airline Transaero. Cheremetevo 2 is much older, and you can see that when walking through the terminal. Yet it's not all bad. This seems to be the airport for Aeroflot and other international carriers. BTW ... we flew Aeroflot to Copenhagen ... and they were very decent. At par with several European airlines. And no more load and polluting Tupolev's, at least not on the EU routes. All Airbuses :-)
> Taxis: even though there are registered taxi companies in Moscow, you never seem to see them. Instead, you have random cars stopping by on the road, with which you negotiate a destination and fee ... and then you just hop in and pray that you get to your destination. If you don't speak Russian though ... basically, take a metro! Keep in mind that these drivers are not necessarily doing anything illegal, it's just that Moscow has no taxi license requirement.
> Metro: Moscow's metro system is one of the most extensive in the world ... and is superb. Many beautiful stations, many lines, regular trains. This is truly a mass people mover machine. The only problem you will have is that all signage is in Russian! And that actually is a big problem :-)
WHAT TO DO:
> Red Square: when we entered the Red Square, Robin remembered that many years ago a pilot landed his small Cessna on the square. It was big news of course. Especially since this is the main square in Moscow. Flanked by the Kremlin, St. Basil's Cathedral, the Goum Shopping Mall and the Historic Museum, this square attests to the very rich and powerful Russian history. It's imposing. It's grand. It exudes power. Although not as big as Tianemmen Square. As you look around, don't overlook the Kazan Cathedral on the corner between Goum and the Historic Museum. Go inside ... it's a very active church and a little gem.
> Kremlin: of course the first thing we wanted to see when we came to Moscow is the Kremlin. So off we go ... and find out it's closed on Thursdays. It was Thursday! But we came back the next day and it was beautiful. The rain had just subsided when we arrived and the sun appeared. It was gorgeous. The enwalled area, the old home of the czar and now the seat of the government, is a citadel in itself. Beautiful old renaissance buildings, perfectly manicured gardens, large evergreens and six imposing Russian Orthodox churches are situated all within the grounds. Besides going into the Kremlin, make sure you walk around it as well. The views from across the Moscow river of the Kremlin buildings are especially momentous.
> Lenin's Mausoleum: it's just one of those things you have to see! The mausoleum is located right on the Red Square, and within it you will see the embalmed body of Lenin, lying in his open-casket. Nearly looks like a wax figure. Beware that you have to check in all cameras and phones with cameras prior to entering. And when inside the dimly lit mausoleum ... complete silence and no stopping and lurking. As the guard indicated to us ... keep moving! The mausoleum is open from 1000 - 1300, every day but Friday and Monday.
> St. Basil's Cathedral: as you approach the Red Square, you will immediately recognize the outline of the famous cathedral. Somehow it looks like a wedding cake from Alice in Wonderland! Several towers topped with onion shaped domes, painted in swirls of all different colours. It nearly seems like a caricature. It's not as big as one would imagine, and the interior is more like a labyrinth that an impressive cathedral. When you're inside you realize that there really is no one central domed area, instead, each tower that you see from the outside has a corresponding small chapel on the inside. To get from one chapel to another you have to go through small hallways, and the entrance to the actual cathedral is very non-descript. Actually, I guess that's what makes it fascinating. It's built like a non-cathedral ... looking at it from a catholic perspective!
> Goum Shopping Mall: this arcade with beautiful glass covered galleries is located right on the Red Square and is the most ornate and luxurious shopping mall in Russia. The interior is impressive and full of designer stores. What seems ironic is that such an ostentatious symbol of consumerism is just a stone's throw from the Kremlin, the home of the communist party ... which used to be staunchly anti-capitalistic.
> Cathedral of Christ the Saviour: a stunning Russian Orthodox church right on the Moscow river. The grounds are large and the interior very opulent and beautifully maintained. I later found out that the reason the church is in such great condition, is that it was totally rebuilt ... and completed in 2000. Reason being that Stalin had totally destroyed it in 1931, to make room for a monument to socialism.
> Bolchoi Theatre: we were looking forward to seeing this renowned theatre, and we did ... but it was being extensively renovated. It will look astounding though, when it's finished in a couple more years.
> take a ride on the metro: Moscow's metro stations have got to be some of the most grand in the world. Beautifully decorated in Russian renaissance style, taking the metro feels like you're going to the museum. The escalators, which are adorned with beautiful quasi art-deco lighting, are the longest I've ever seen. The metro journey though is full of suspense. Why? Well, none of the signage is in English. And the letters are in cyrillic. So, finding the right metro, right direction of the train and when to get off is like a mystery game. You have to guess the pictograms and decode the signs amidst the terrible signage, to find your way to the right staion. But that is half the fun at the end. Kievskaia station is definitely one to see.
> Novodevitchi Monastery: an enclosed monastery complex which they commenced building in the 16th century, also contains a cathedral, bell tower and hospital. Right next to it is the Novodevitchi cemetery where Boris Yeltsin is buried.
You may expect to eat a lot of heavy Russian borscht in Moscow. Russian cuisine may have had a reputation of unsophisticated meat and potato dishes ... but you will be surprised. Nowadays, Russian cuisine is done in such a way that it has become a delicacy. Now they add rosemary to the mashed potatoes :-)
What will also surprise you is that you can smoke everywhere ... and that as you're listing through the menu, there's nearly always a page dedicated to cigarettes. It's part of the total experience.
> Dymov1: a very funky and modern restaurant right across from the Kremlin on Sofiskaia Naberejnaia. Great food!
> Belo-Russian Restaurant (Nikitskaia Road): This was a typical Belorussian restaurant with tasty and heavy Russian food. Started off with borscht and dark bread, and continued with a layered pancake dish, with potatoes, mushrooms and garlic in between, with a side-dish of sour cream. Doesn't sound great but it was very tasty. And filling! A shot of honey vodka is a mandatory starter to this meal.
> 1927: if you go to the Novodevitchi Monastery, this restaurant is right across from the metro station Sportivnaia, which is the stop you take to go to the monastery. Very Russian interior. Heavy wooden furniture, melancholy Russian music from the 50's and great Russian food. We even had a gramophone right next to us.
> have no idea what this restaurant on Nikitskaia Road was called, so will just describe the experience!!: we went here just prior to heading to the finals of the Eurovision Song Festival. This time it was steak with a mushroom and plum sauce as the main dish. I've also noticed that several places have live music during dinner. And the performers are not buskers ... but entertainers that are there to make your evening and dinner more enjoyable. They never ask for money thus you don't feel inconvenienced. A very nice touch to your dining experience. And drinks? This time I tried another vodka drink ... horse-radish infused vodka. Fantastic! This was followed by a very good and light Siberian beer. The Russians definitely know a thing or two about their booze.
> Pain Quotidien: This Belgian chain of restaurants brings back memories from the days I lived in Brussels. A great place for breakfast or lunch, where bread and communal tables provide the primary dining experience.
You may have noticed that all the website links above have no English translation. And since the writing is in cyrillic you may never be able to find these restaurants for even I can't figure out where the street names are mentioned. It will though, give you an idea of the type of food we ate.