Moscow Must-Dos

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Having visitors is the perfect excuse to be a tourist in your own city. With my parents in town for a week, I made great headway on my Moscow bucket list and learned a lot more about this country I now call home.

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I arranged a Kremlin tour in English and off we went for a full four hours. Lidia, our extremely kind and knowledgeable guide, gave us a real run for our money. Helping to timeline all of those World History classes (Were Catherine and Peter the Great related? When did the Romanovs first come to power?), she wove us through the wealth of Russian history inside the Kremlin walls.

Much less intimidating inside than the exterior lets on, the Kremlin grounds contain a number of incredibly ornate Orthodox churches, multiple museums, and other government buildings including the Senate Building (constructed in 1776…). With our heads full and spinning, it was time to enjoy another of Moscow’s delights – the gourmand scene.

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View from the bridge above Strelka Bar
Starting at Strelka Bar, one of my personal favorites, we enjoyed plates of cheese, pickles, mushrooms, and other Russian delights. Seafood is prized here, despite Moscow’s inland location, and the port of St. Petersburg plays a pivotal role in Moscow’s foodie scene.

Reservations are key – it’s the first question you’ve asked upon arrival in any restaurant. Most allow you to reserve online through English translation. Little kindnesses await – from locals on the train who volunteer their knowledge of local spots to doting waiters.

We took advantage of Moscow’s culinary delights all over town with dinners at White Rabbit, Jaime’s Italian, and LavkaLavka – a farm-to-table spot dedicated to clean eating.

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While the weather proved challenging (it snowed on May 11) and remained chilly throughout the visit, we certainly made the most of it.

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Taking in my first ballet on the Bolshoi Theatre’s New Stage proved every bit as magical as advertised. I’m looking forward to my next visit already.

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My parents also had the chance to observe the country displaying all its military might. May 9 marks Victory Day here in Russia. Celebrating the end of the Great Patriotic War (known as World War II in the US), the holiday is a very big deal here in Moscow. A huge parade takes place on the day itself, preceded by weeks of traffic jams due to parade practice road closures.

From jet flyovers to the debut of the new Arctic ATVs, Victory Day is intense. The whole event is full of pride and military regalia, made clear as we sat watching the events in Red Square online.

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One of the cooler activities of the day is the Immortal Regiment March, a relatively new tradition in which the people gather to commemorate those who served in the war. In Gorky Park, near my house, the parade ends with surviving members holding their various regiment numbers aloft, allowing descendants of their brothers-in-arms to locate them and pay their respects.

Clearly we packed a lot into our time together in Moscow. But perhaps the highlight of the whole visit was yet to come with a weekend visit to St. Petersburg. Stay tuned for tales from the Venice of the North ūüôā

 

A week in Moscow

I welcomed my first visitors to Russia this past week – my friend Meg came from Korea and her boyfriend Niek from Holland. They were ace guests and we had a fantastic time catching up. They covered a great amount of Moscow while still enjoying a chill vacation. They didn’t even let the lingering snow squalls get them down! Inspired by their wanderings, here is my Moscow Top Ten.

Roll into town on one of Moscow’s fabulous Aeroexpress trains – there’s one from each of Moscow’s three airports.

Make your way down to Red Square fairly quick for selfies in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral (bluebird day on order, of course).

Explore the ridiculously ornate confines of St. Basil’s itself (not what I expected, I’ll admit!) with special ambiance from a men’s choir who just happened to be performing inside. 300 rubles to get in – no line, no waiting.

Book a cruise on the Moscow River out of the Radisson Ukraina Hotel – fine dining and a 2.5 hour tour of Moscow’s sites from the water. Highly recommended: the early evening cruise to watch the lights come up over the city in dramatic fashion.

Not to be missed Рdrinks at the Mercedes Bar on the 31st Floor of the Hotel Ukraina. Book a comfy couch and enjoy the 360 view of Moscow, including the Russian White House and new Moscow City.

Strelka Bar in the student¬†neighborhood¬†of Bolotnyy is always an exciting spot. From the rich but casual decor to the fabulous food and drink, it’s a stop not to be missed.

After you’ve had your dinner fill, enjoy the breathtaking views across at Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Once the world’s largest outdoor swimming pool, this site has been restored to its original trappings, in all it’s golden glory. Don’t miss the views from the top deck nor the surprisingly cool crypt below – discovered by Meg & Niek!

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Be sure to tour the Kremlin. With a private guide, my friends hopped in and out of the churches on the Kremlin ground. I’m told you absolutely cannot miss the incredible riches of the Armory. PC: @meg_hayne

If the snow is falling, a tour of the Moscow metro is perfect no matter the weather! My four favorite stations not to miss – Komsomolskaya, Arbatskaya, Elektrozavodskaya, and Novoslobodskaya.

Gorgeous stained glass at Novoslobodskaya

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The Khokhloma handicrafts are not to be missed. I just came across this fabulous video about them today. A trip to Izmailovo Market, in all it’s touristy glory, is not to be missed. Also check out the small but friendly Museum of Vodka while you’re there!
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Gorky Park hosts ice skating in the winter, bike riding in the summer (bring your passport to rent!) and is also the home of my favorite contemporary art museum, The Garage.
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A winter palace of lights outside the Bolshoi Theater

And, finally, #10 – a ballet at the Bolshoi. Although I have yet to accomplish this one, I have a feeling that all may change with the arrival of another set of visitors next month… Book your tickets decidedly in advance! In the event they’re all sold out, the theater offers tours of the venue in English on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I’m told the line for English forms on the left. God speed ūüėČ

A few other items of note before endeavoring to visit Moscow…

  • Learning the Cyrillic alphabet really helps – with many letters similar to English, it’s really not hard!
  • Downloading wayfinding apps like Uber (yes, they have it!) and Metropolitan (metro map) will go a long way
  • Buying a SIM card also helps for wayfinding – 700 rubles (roughly $11) for 1 month is available at any airport

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this virtual tour of my current home city – and that my attempts to entice future visitors will not be in vain (direct flights from JFK, just sayin’…)! I’ve really come to appreciate Moscow and all of its wonderful surprises. Please come see what all the fuss is about – I have plenty of room!

Let’s drink for three

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As seen on the streets of Moscow.

After¬†a wonderful week getting to know my new school and preparing my classroom, I was dying to get out and explore this beautiful new city!¬†My new school has really taken great care to help us settle in. After a MS happy hour to celebrate our first full week, we were shuttled to dinner at a relaxed restaurant (—Ä–Ķ—Ā—ā–ĺ—Ä–įŐĀ–Ĺ) called Scandinavia. It was nice to have some downtime to talk and get to know everyone a little better. After¬†dinner, a few¬†of the Russian staff members offered to show some of us¬†around town.

After a quick metro ride¬†(a new train arrives¬†every two minutes – they clock it in the station), we surfaced¬†not 100 yards from¬†the absolutely stunning Cathedral of Christ the Savior. I couldn’t get over the contrast of the beautiful white marble against the inky night sky.

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Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

An extremely historic venue,¬†the original Cathedral dates back to the 19th Century. This was the site of the debut of Tchaikovsky’s¬†1812 Overture. This may cause my Boston friends to¬†note how curious it is that¬†every Fourth of July we¬†celebrate the birthday of our country with a song written by a Russian composer. The Motherland, indeed.

The Cathedral was dismantled in 1931 at Stalin’s command (dynamited, actually). It was, at the time, the largest Orthodox Christian Church in the world. As the USSR adopted a policy of atheism, the church had to go. The plan for it to become a legislative site never came to be, however, and the massive foundation hole was transformed into the world’s largest open air swimming pool under Khrushchev.

Then, in the 1990s, it was decided that an exact replica of the original church should be built on the site. In 2012 a now infamous concert was staged there by Pussy Riot.

Back to present day. The rain decided to let up and our coworkers took us over the bridge to Strelka, a roof top bar which proved an idyllic setting. Located on the island of Bolotny (also known as Balchug), the area is home to scholars and hipsters alike. As we enjoyed the views of the Cathedral just across the water to our left, a full moon rose to our right, echoing the warm light bathing the Cathedral. As an architecture lecture went on down below (in English!), we drank in the wealth of information our coworkers had to share about the city they now call home.

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A view from the bridge next to Christ the Savior. Red Square glows in the distance.

As I¬†seem to have moved from one major drinking culture into the next, I knew I had a lot to learn.¬†The ladies tell us¬†that “let’s drink for three” is a¬†call to arms for thirsty Russians across the land. They also took time to share the tale of how a drunken night in the 1600s led to a nationally recognized flick of the chin.

It all started with that tsar of tsars, Peter the Great. Peter and his buddies, including were out drinking one night. After they were well in the bag, one of his buddies¬†demanded Peter stamp him with the official seal to allow the guy¬†to drink for free wherever he might wander within the city limits. Drunk as he was, Peter missed his¬†mark and the stamp landed on his friend’s¬†neck, leading Russians everywhere to give their friends the high sign on a Friday (or Tuesday) afternoon with a quick flick of the index finger below the jaw and a raised brow, indicating¬†it’s five o’clock somewhere.

Update:

I mentioned that the¬†phrase “let’s drink for three” is a popular way to call friends together for a drink. I recently discovered where the “three” comes from. The glass tumbler, birthed in Russia, was the perfect size to handle exactly 1/3 of a 500ml bottle of vodka. Therefore, friends would get together and split the vodka three ways, minimizing spending and waste (though I can’t imagine vodka going to waste here). To read more on this phrase and the invention of the tumbler (fascinating stuff), click here.

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A view of the river by my house. My apartment lies to the right and downtown is some ways off to the left.

After a quiet¬†morning, I set off on my¬†Saturday journey with the goal of exploring the city on foot. I had an intended destination of the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, just over 3 km from my house. Along the way,¬†I was thrilled to encounter an old favorite – Le Pain Quotidian – only a mile from my home. Unlike knockoffs in Seoul, this one is the real deal, with a number of locations around Moscow. With breakfast served all day on weekends, you know where to find me ūüôā

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Breakfast at Le Pain.

The MMOMA is a¬†museum that I’ve been following on Instagram over the past year to get a vibe for the art scene here in Moscow. Situated in 4 main buildings, the museum features work that clearly pushes the envelope. As this work is from current day¬†artists, it seems the name would be better suited to include the word “contemporary”. Art teacher moment – most people don’t realize “Modern” denotes a time period in Art History (as broad as the 1860s to the 1970s), whereas “Contemporary” is art produced by a living artist. Since modern, we’ve seen the Post Modern Period and Neo Expressionism take hold. As for what artistic time period we are living through now… only time will tell.

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The Moscow Museum of Modern Art is made up of a number of buildings surrounding a charming courtyard.

While in the museum, minders stuck to me like glue, following me from room to room and showing me where to meander to next. Once I got over their vigilant presence, I enjoyed the visit.

As I dip my toe into the pool of Russian contemporary art, I observe it to be much more on par with art coming out of the States these days. Themes included suppression, life philosophy, and the examination of life at its simplest, and/or most perverse. Shock value, experimentation, and a multitude of mediums (markers, sculpture, found objects, lighting, installation, textiles, and digital work) made up the bulk of the works on display. Sketches my experimental drawing teacher would have loved were among the fray.

Having had my fill of contemporary art for the day, I walked home through a public greenway, set up for artists to peddle their wares under a plastic covering. Birds flew past. The red clay underfoot popped against the lush green grass, made fresh from the early morning thunderstorms.

The last memory I have of waking up to thunderstorms is in Lugano, wild in ferocity as the storms rolled through the alpine valley we¬†called home. I can’t think of many other places I’ve lived with thunderstorms just after dawn.¬†As¬†I’m still spending a lot of time on my own these days, memories of my former homes seem all the more vivid. Comparing and contrasting these places¬†helps to get me grounded here in my new city.

This whole process of getting to know a new place and meeting new people often feels like I’m taking two steps forward, one step back. I heard a good quote today – “it’s like casting seeds, you throw water on them and see which sprout”. During times like these, it’s good to pound the pavement, see what you can while the weather is good. Just like with people, you invite a new city to show itself and see what sticks. Thank you to those of you along for the ride – your notes and Skype calls are the best company I could ask for.

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As for my new ‘hood – Moscow West seems to be a great little pocket of the city. I’m lucky I can walk from my home and so happy to have gotten a taste of the art scene. I can’t believe my good fortune in arriving here in Moscow. I hope some of you will¬†make the journey and see it for yourselves. Until next time…

Update: I recently discovered where the “three” in “let’s drink for three” comes from. The glass tumbler, birthed in Russia, was the perfect size to handle exactly 1/3 of a 500ml bottle of vodka. Therefore, friends would get together and split the vodka three ways, minimizing spending and waste (though I can’t imagine vodka going to waste here). To read more on this phrase and the invention of the tumbler (fascinating stuff), click here:¬†http://rbth.com/arts/2016/09/10/nothing-humbler-than-the-tumbler-5-facts-about-the-legendary-soviet-glass_628651

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