Tuesday, 19 April 2011

From Russia with Love

I’VE always dreamed of going to Russia, home of Anastasia, Rasputin and Dostoyevsky. The best time to go is during the Easter season when it is unfortunately still freezing (about 0-3 degrees Centigrade) because you practically have most of the tourist spots to yourself, except for the Hermitage. I would recommend a week’s stay—4 days and 3 nights each in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Here are my top picks:

Moscow musts
1. Go around town via the subway primarily to beat the horrible traffic and view the artworks! Established in 1935, there are 132 stations, each of which is made of marble and granite. Each station has a story to tell, from communism to revolution. Some stations are dedicated to the Russian victory over the Nazis. The subway is so far the deepest that I’ve ever been into. It is designed to withstand a nuclear attack and seems sturdy enough to pass for a bunker. My favorite stops are Revolution Square, where you can rub the nose of the bronze statues for good luck, and the pre-World War II Mayakovskaya.  

2.  Visit Izmailovsky flea market on Wednesday during the wholesalers’ day when the prices are a steal and there are few shoppers; try to go early because it closes at 1 pm. There are matryoshka (nesting dolls) which vary from decreasing sizes of 3 to up to 20; music boxes shaped like the iconic St. Basil cathedral; icon paintings on lacquered boxes; and fur, the staple wear in Russia to withstand harsh, freezing temperatures which can go down to negative 30-40 degrees during winter. Nearby is Stalin’s secret underground bunker which I found out too late.

3. Spend the whole day at the Red Square to view the iconic St. Basil Cathedral. I kept going back! It was built in 1555 and named after Basil Fool for Christ, an Orthodox Russian saint. At the center is the mausoleum of Vladimir Lenin, the first head of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. His body was mummified shortly after his death in 1924.  Before heading next door to Kremlin Square, light a candle in the Orthodox Church which will be to your right, at the end of the square.  Don’t be surprised with the absence of pews, the Russians don’t sit in church, they move around, praying at each icon. Then, go through the Resurrection Gate and stop at the circle to toss a coin and make a wish. Turn left and go to the torch to visit the memorial's Eternal Flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier before the Kremlin.
4. There are over 200 museums in Moscow. The best for 20th century art is the Tretyakov Gallery; the State Historical Museum at the Kremlin for its armory, fine art collection and crown jewels including Fabergé eggs; and Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts for the gold treasures from ancient Troy that Russia allegedly stole from Germany in 1945.
5.  Pectopah is Russian for restaurant. So, book a table at the high-end Café Pushkin; queue with locals at My My (pronounced “moooos”) for authentic Russian; Mr. Lee for that cute, kitschy vibe; and Vogue Café and Il Forno for Western cuisine. If you want something familiar, the place to go is the deli at the ground floor of Tum.
6. Catch an opera, ballet or chamber music concert at the Bolshoi Theater.

My favorite city: St. Petersburg
And now to my favorite, St. Petersburg. Due to traffic, it is better to take the express train from Moscow which takes only 5.25 hours and goes direct to the city center. Try to book OlgaMiheya, an excellent English-speaking guide, for her customized tours to these spots:
1. Top of the list is the Winter Palace, now known as the Hermitage. Built in 1732, it houses the best art collection, including some Impressionist art allegedly stolen from Germany, lavish interiors and furniture, etc. Olga has a 'secret' entrance that would avoid the long queue.

2.  Do an visita iglesia starting at the Church of the Spilled Blood which was built on the same spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated; the gothic pink wedding-cake like St. John the Baptist Church;  St. Isaac’s Cathedral for its malachite columns, and Peter and Paul Cathedral built by Peter the Great in 1712 which houses the remains of almost all of the Russian czars.

3.  Take a drive to the countryside to visit the Palace of Catherine the Great. Built in 1717, this is the opulent summer residence of the czars. It is located 25 km away in Tsarskoye Selo (Pushkin). The last resident was Czar Nicholas II who abdicated following the revolution in February 1917. The Easter eggs displayed in the Palace are strikingly different and quite simple compared to the imperial Fabergé eggs.
4.  My favorite is Yusupov Palace for its drama and history. This is the home of five generations of Yusupovs from 1830 to 1917 and the site where Felix Yusupov shot Rasputin in 1916.

5.  For pectopah, book a table at Ginza Project’s “Marsada” with a view of St. Isaacs and also “Terrassa”. And also try the local fare—bread stuffed with salmon, rabbit, mushrooms or meat.

6. And lastly, see a ballet by the Kirov Company in Marinsky Theater. We were lucky to see the Black Swan during the International Ballet Festival.

Don’t forget to tip a glass, literally, to Russian vodka and now my favorite, Beluga bottle (yup, same name as the caviar). Na zdorovie!

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