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Over the Top in Moscow

O2 Lounge

Photos by Denis Sinyakov

O2 Lounge at The Ritz-Carlton, Moscow.

"That restaurant is very popular with the elite,” says Nadja, pointing at an Asian eatery whose lacquered doors are manned by dour-looking, oxen-sized gents in black. Our fur-wrapped guide ticks off other “elite” go-tos as we walk through the center of Moscow. “And this is where the elite shop, and that hotel is very popular with both foreign and local elite.”

I find myself counting Nadja’s exuberant use of the word elite. I give up after about 150 and make a mental note never to use the word in conversation.

Ah, the elite, or the so-called New Russians. The film stars, the oil executives, the magazine editors and the fashionistas, the top tier of whom zips about Moscow’s ring roads with ease thanks to police sirens strapped to their hermetically sealed Mercedes sedans. They shop at the glass-roofed GUM department store with its chichi boutiques and café society eateries, dine at pre-Revolution-styled cafés and mix and mingle in high-flying lounges and clubs atop silvery skyscrapers.

But that’s only one side of Moscow, and though it’s certainly eye-opening to experience the go-go glitz and glamour that evokes Russia’s pre-Revolution hoopla, there’s much more to the Russian capital than perusing the latest from Ralph Lauren and ogling gilt-clad hotel lobbies that would put Versailles to shame.

 

       
The Tretyakov Gallery.        

Babushkas, Bureaucracy & Bling

There are several must-dos in Moscow for the first-time visitor, of course, including The Kremlin, The Bolshoi Theatre, The National Pushkin Museum, The Tretyakov Gallery and The New Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsky Val. Moscow is a terrific walking city, and it’s easy to navigate the neighborhoods that surround The Kremlin without having to brave the city’s heaving traffic snarls. The metro is an architectural masterpiece, but the signs are in Cyrillic and the staff doesn’t speak English, so you’ll need a guide to hop between the marble-clad, statue-laden underground palaces.

My partner, John, and I spend a morning wandering about The Kremlin, the fortified citadel with its red turreted walls that houses the former czar’s palace as well as various government buildings and myriad cathedrals. We check our coats first. You will soon learn that you cannot enter a museum or a restaurant with your coat on. All coats—including the ever-present furs—must be checked.

Speaking of curious protocols, get ready to experience the babushkas that preside over the ticket counters at every museum and palace and are a staple of the tourist-trade landscape.

“Nyet, nyet, nyet,” says this particular babushka, a gimlet-eyed granny with her arms folded just so.

Happily, Nadja gives it right back to the paper-pushing elderly woman in blitzkrieg Russian punctuated with plenty of grimaces and hand gestures. Apparently, Babs—my nickname for the collective coterie of babushkas—wants our tickets to be triple-stamped and dated because it is Tuesday.

Nadja rolls her eyes and stamps her feet, and we reach a détente.

And so into The Kremlin museums we go.

There are heaps of weapons and Russian regalia and silver saltshakers and oversized pitchers and Catherine the Great’s glorious china and her balloon-skirted coronation gown. Don’t miss the astonishing jewels that once belonged to the star-crossed Nicholas and Alexandra in the diamond vaults. But don’t talk too loudly or the guards who watch over the egg-sized diamonds and sparkling tiaras will give you a Gulag-worthy comeuppance. We take in the lofty interior of the Assumption Cathedral, the site of the tsar’s coronations, and visit the Annunciation Cathedral with its soulful-eyed saints who look down from golden screens.

“And that’s where Putin works,” Nadja notes dryly, pointing a gloved finger past an enormous, fractured bronze bell. “They close down a lane of the highway so he can get to The Kremlin in the morning.”

       
Vogue Café.        

Next up, Red Square. It is bitterly cold—it is late winter, after all—but crowds—including leggy teenagers in miniskirts and open-toed heels—mill about in the massive square that unfolds in front of The Kremlin. Lenin’s mausoleum is under restoration, so we walk past GUM's Technicolor-hued windows (Louis Vuitton! Etro! Paul Smith!) to The Wizard of Oz-like onion-shaped domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral. There’s the usual assortment of grandmas running the show, and we explore the mazelike interior crafted by Ivan the Terrible in 1561. And then it’s a spin through the Historical Museum and a peek at the soon-to-open Four Seasons hotel just outside the Square’s main gate.

Later, over dinner at Vogue Café, we savor the first of many vodkas that accompany every meal except breakfast. An artist friend, a Brit who has lived in Moscow for a decade, joins us after our third shot.

“It used to be the thing to name your bar or restaurant after a magazine or a car, so there’s the GQ this and the Tatler and Mercedes that,” she tells us. “And did you drive by the Cathedral of Christ the Savior today? That’s where the band Pussy Riot got into trouble. And don’t miss Tolstoy’s House. The city has terrific house museums that often get overlooked.”

We turn back to the menu and our other—albeit uninvited—dinner guest, supermodel Linda Evangelista, whose massive photo stares down at us in fur-trimmed splendor from the wall.

 

       
Diorama of Moscow at the Radisson Royal Hotel.        

Next Stop, Wonderland

After a few days exploring Moscow’s central Tverskaya, Arbatskaya and Kitay-gorod neighborhoods, John and I decide to venture farther afield, traffic be damned. We hire a driver, and head for Kuskovo, a rainbow-colored assortment of buildings that sparkle in the snow like Jordan almonds and were once the seat of the über wealthy Sheremetev family.

Once manned by a slew of serfs, the Kuskovo complex includes a glorious wooden palace, vast gardens, a grotto, a church, an orangery and Italian, Swiss and Dutch cottages. Kuskovo originally sat miles from Moscow but the city’s East District has since enveloped the surrounding countryside. However, the estate still feels miles and hundreds of years away from the hustle and bustle of the contemporary capital.

Of course, we have to brave the babushkas who watch over the ticket booth and serve as guides. The 18th-century, pink-painted Kuskovo palace has maintained its imperial splendor, and fans of the decorative arts will lap up the gorgeous furnishings and fabrics that fill the neoclassical rooms. The palace isn’t heated, so for once we are allowed to keep our coats as we shuffle about in massive leather slippers given to visitors to protect the wood floors.

We ooh and aah over the stunning dining room set in rococo splendor and marvel at the shell-covered and dome-topped grotto. Finally, nearly frozen but absolutely inspired by the dramatic visuals, we pile back into the car. Nadja warms us up with a stop at the nearest Starbucks.

During our lugubrious drive back into the city center, we stop at one of the so-called Seven Sisters, the star-topped, Russian Gothic skyscrapers crafted by Joseph Stalin in the mid-20th century that ring Moscow. We zip to the top of this one, the Radisson Royal Hotel, Moscow, and take in the 360-degree views from the Mercedes Bar on the 31st floor.

“You can do karaoke here,” Nadja informs us as Journey’s “Faithfully” blasts from the speakers. We pass.

From there, it’s a quick spin through billionaire art collector Dasha Zhukova’s Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in its new Gorky Park location (the Garage is “between exhibitions,” we are told) and then on to the amazing Tretyakov Gallery that houses the largest collection of Russian art in the world. We are entranced by landscape painter Isaac Levitan’s images of the Volga River and drink up the portraits of various czarinas and czarevitches.

That night, we dine with a friend of a friend, the fabulous and feisty Eugenia Mikulina, the editor in chief of Architectural Digest Russia, at Café Pushkin. Pushkin emulates a 19th century nobleman’s house, and the staff wears period costumes. It’s a bit contrived, but the 24-hour restaurant packs in the crowds who dine on chicken Kiev in circa 1825 splendor. Mikulina chain smokes, and the vodka flows freely. It’s a typical night on the town in Moscow.

We mention the city’s gorgeous architecture and how Moscow’s edifices seem to be overlooked in favor of St. Petersburg. We remark on the stunning villas that still stand among Communist-era flats, the unexpected pistachio hues that pepper the city and the glass-skinned skyscrapers that dominate the city’s International Business Center. And we gush about the chinoiserie-styled tea factory, the Perlov on Myasnitskaya Street, and gourmet store Eliseevsky with its stagelike, baroque décor.

“I adore Moscow and its architecture,” says Mikulina, sipping a tall tropical cocktail. “The city has an amazing ability to take things in and make them part of it. It is a very tolerant city architecturally, and it is also very diverse. The city is so old and has seen a lot. Moscow has a charm of character, and it is a surprisingly cozy metropolis for the sheer size.”

 

       
Moscow Metro.        

An Elite Retreat
John and I go on to explore a flea market and stock up on nesting matryoshka dolls. We tour a former Cold War-era bunker, cruise the icy Moscow River and dance up a storm at an underground club that mixes house music with ’70s-era funk. We wander through Tsaritsyno, Catherine the Great’s reconstructed palace, and we walk for miles. We especially enjoy a late-night tour of the stunning Moscow subway system, with its vaulted ceilings, massive chandeliers, marble benches and oversized statues that celebrate the proletariat. And we have a behind-the-scenes tour of the refurbished Bolshoi Theatre (in an “only-in-Moscow” moment, we meet the minister of culture and actor-cum-recent Russian citizen Gérard Depardieu in the lobby).

After a week in Moscow, we’re ready for some R & R. Happily, mutual friends invite us to spend the weekend in Plyos, a charming village on the banks of the Volga River that’s a favorite of well-heeled Muscovites. Plyos is part of the so-called Golden Ring, a circuit of ancient villages around Moscow that are throwbacks to another time. It’s like a diminutive Hamptons village, albeit populated with 19th-century izbas, or cottages, done up with fanciful fretwork and look-at-me paint jobs. The journey requires a train ride to the city of Vladimir and a two-hour car ride through dramatic wintry landscapes dotted with birch trees and onion-domed churches.

When we arrive in Plyos, our charming and unassuming host is a former oil bigwig who now owns much of the village. He tells us he has a surprise: “My friend owns a village across the Volga and has sent his private hovercraft over to fetch us.”

Owns a village? Private hovercraft? Count us in.

In the new Russia, we have discovered, it’s good to know people. John and I pile into the petite hovercraft and zip across the ice-covered Volga River, where a fleet of green chauffeured Range Rovers awaits us. We climb a steep hill and arrive in a remarkable 18th-century village complete with a flour mill, church and woodworking shop. “It’s like that scene in Dr. Zhivago,” John whispers. “With the ice-covered dacha at Varykino. Just cue ‘Lara’s Theme.’ ”

“Welcome, welcome,” says the jolly, gracious gent who owns the entire town. “Please join me for a sleigh ride.”

As we glide up the main street under fur blankets with bells tinkling, we take it all in. Think Disney’s Main Street meets Colonial Williamsburg, but here there are actual residents who add authenticity to this feudal fantasy.

“And here is my home,” says our host, who apparently earned his considerable fortune in construction. We climb out and into a gingerbread-decorated dacha, where a massive buffet awaits in the dining room: borscht and pickled vegetables paired with cumin-scented vodka, caviar and blini, salmon and pork, and, of course, vodka glasses that are never empty.

We learn that our host (whom we’ve dubbed Mr. Big) splits his time between a Moscow skyscraper (“the best building,” he informs us) and this small slice of pre-Revolution Russia hunkered high above the Volga. “Look through the woods,” he says. “There, across the river, that’s [prime minister Dmitry] Medvedev’s dacha, the one with all of the lights on.”

We tour the snow-covered garden with its sculptures and fruit-filled orangery and come upon our host’s pride and joy, a life-sized replica of Russian fairy tale character Baba Yaga’s hut.

“Push the button,” Mr. Big says, passing me a remote control. When I do, the rustic hut, perched on wooden stilts shaped like chicken feet, starts to rotate. “The guests just love it,” he says, eyes twinkling.

And with that he punches the remote control and the hut shudders and stops, and we return to the Range Rovers that have suddenly materialized in true Baba Yaga style. Oh, those fun-loving New Russians!

Back across the river in Plyos, John and I spend the next two days hiking through snowy woods where Levitan once painted his moody landscapes and relaxing on overstuffed sofas with ever-present bottles of Russian Standard nearby. Our breakfasts arrive in large baskets via Range Rover, and dinners are glittering, multicourse affairs served in a series of atmospheric villas accompanied by homemade flavored vodkas.

We wonder what Nadja would say about this Alice in Wonderland-like fantasyland. Our Plyos adventure—much like our experiences in Moscow—is over the top.

“Here’s to Nadja!” I toast. “And here’s to the quixotic, complex and contradictory New Russia.” //


EDITOR'S NOTE:
Remarkable Russia!
No one knows Russia better than Exeter International, the go-to for travel not only to Moscow but also anywhere within this vast country as well as Central and Eastern Europe. The team at Florida-based Exeter can arrange a personalized adventure, whether it’s a private tour of the palaces outside of St. Petersburg or an after-hours visit to The Kremlin or a curator-led visit to a leading art gallery in Croatia. You want tickets to the Bolshoi Ballet or the Kirov Ballet? No problem. The Exeter team can also craft unique day trips for cruise-goers who dock in ports such as St. Petersburg. “Our goal over the past 20 years has been to bring experiences to life that are not easily accessible to the general traveler,” says Greg Tepper, Exeter’s charismatic owner. I worked with the Exeter team to create a Moscow itinerary that would allow me time to visit museums, shops and other attractions off the beaten path—not to mention the side trip to the Golden Ring and Plyos—and that would still give me plenty of free time to explore on my own. Exeter handled every detail, from transfers to guides and VIP access to all cultural sites (as well as all dealings with the endless babushkas!). The experience was seamless and magical. —J.O.N.

Spill It: Tell Us What You Think!

Nataly Yagur
I have been on 4 DL fights this week, so I had enough time to be disappointed with DL Magazine's article about Russia. Cyrillic letters were used in a number of titles, but these letters were not Cyrillic! Sorry, but Russian is my 1st language, and I must admit those phrases made no sense at all - just a mix of weird letters that were neither Latin nor Cyrillic. Having offices with Russian-speaking staff, DL could have run a better check before printing this nonsense out. Now most readers would think that our language is even more complicated than it seemed to be.
Thanks for your time.
10/11/2013 10:29:58 PM

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