17 July, 2011. Zurich to St. Petersburg
Arrived in St. Petersburg around 2 pm. with a Swiss flight, eliminating all possibilities of flying on a Tupolev. The image of St. Pete’s airport is as expected: not so much has changed since communism, at least in its design, architecture and decoration. I mean, I wasn’t here during Breshnev but one doesn’t need to make a C14 test to recognize that the airport is intact since then. The immigration hall smells of cigarettes. The lady from immigration looks like a lobotomized housewife. She sits in a booth decorated with wall panels with fantastic designs from the 60s, which makes me very excited, because it’s totally my thing! The people in the arrivals hall wear funny clothes, weird hairdos and many of them have flower bouquets to receive their loved ones. The flowers are wrapped in colored metallic wrapping paper. We wait for about 2 hours and jump then to our bus in direction to our boat, the MS Maxim Litvinov. The old Swedish bus is not fashionable for chic Stockholm standards but they’ll do here. Skål.
We drive to the pier, where the MS Maxim Litvinov is waiting. We check into our 12 square meters cabin. I particularly like the avocado-green telephone and the ovals design of our refrigerator’s door, they fit very well with the dark beige laminated panels of the wall and the olive green flowered carpets.
There is a supermarket across the pier. We recognize it because there are these huge blown up photographs of tomatoes outside on the street. Just tomatoes. I would’ve chosen bananas or something more exotic. In communist times in the GDR, the expression gibt’s denn Bananen was coined (it roughly translates to ‘do they have bananas or what?’). They still use that whenever there are crowds waiting in line for something precious – rare bananas came only from comrade-country Cuba. Tomatos or bananas it was a funny experience, both in the peculiar and in the ha-ha way. I cannot imagine how it was in times of Communism when the were no such places, and I think they cannot either. A lady from the staff whose job is to weight the fruits and vegetables, waits patiently for her next assignment. Here it comes: a lady hands her a plastic bag with strange looking cucumbers; she weights them, puts a sticker on the plastic bag and gives the cucumbers bag back to the consumer. There is no exchange of either verbal or non-verbal communication, just the most essential body movements. For the rest, the supermarket looks a bit like the basic Aldi supermarket from my university times in Belgium. I’m glad we bought goodies here, as the subsequent experiences with breakfast on the ship were not very pleasant, or I’m just not used to eating müsli with milk that probably came out of an old goat.
The panorama around the pier consists of old block houses, and across the road there is what looks to be like at old port terminal. Very big, rectangular windows, with massively high ceilings, combined with rectangular marble tiles. There is a humongous old wall clock outside and the inscription in Cyrillic letters “Sankt Peterburg”. Crossing the street, a beautiful dilapidated tram. I really like this atmosphere! I feel teletransported to other times, and I love the feeling. Massive, open spaces. Huge constructions.
18 July, 2011. Saint Petersburg
Oh dear, my breakfast is indeed teletransportation, but I’m not sure where to. Elastic bread, purple salami, and scrambled eggs with a uniform whitish color that swims in a dubious liquid. I opt for some cheese, which is not bad, and decide to round it up with the bowl of cereal with the revolting milk I already wrote about, and just writing about it again gives me the creeps, so I’ll change the topic.
We go on our sight seeing tour. Smolny Cathedral: beautiful, neo baroque style, painted in white and cobalt blue. Church of the Spilled Blood: like a little Saint Basil: super cheerful with colors. There’s construction works going on outside of it. The construction workers are very sui generis: there is a group of Asian looking guys. “They come from the Republics,” somebody tells me. By “the Republics” they mean Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, etc. There is a guy who drinks out of a 2.5 l bottle and is probably drunk, and another one wearing a tight, black sports t-shirt and split-jogging shorts. The workers from the republics carry heavy stone slabs. The jogger and the drunk one accommodate cobblestones. Next stop is St. Isaac’s cathedral, also from outside. People who go to Pushkin Palace, go on one bus. We don’t, so we jump on the other. The bus was decorated with a questionable sense of taste. It once had darkened windows, but in the meanwhile the black film has peeled off in regions. From the outside and inside it irradiates a worn-off out-of-space rococo aura.
We take the metro into the city center. The metro is very efficient. It runs tenths of meters down inside the ground. If you haven’t been to a mine, this will give you a similar feel. After five stations we get off in the middle of Nevsky Prospekt – the main avenue of Saint Petersburg – and go for a toilet visit at the Grand Hotel Europe, one of the best hotels in town – ran by Orient Express – and then on to the Café Singer, a beautiful art nouveau building, which now houses a bookstore and a coffee house that overlooks the town. We enjoy a delicious apricot strudel and a ham and cheese omelet and walk around a bit. The Winter Palace of the Hermitage is impressive. We then stroll our way meeting interesting characters of fashion: a woman with green, bright leg warmers and another one with a black mesh outfit and bright pink, can only make me think they got inspired by the Zurich Street Parade. Wonderful. We then walk through the Admiralty Garden, where people are chilling out and we enjoy an open-air photography exhibition.
It seems that everybody who is idle in St. Petersburg reads, so we interrupt the reading of a young lady who works in a street kiosk and ask her for directions to the Mariinsky Theater. She very nicely gives us instructions in Russian, but we somehow understand her and make it to our destination. The theater is as I imagined: fantastic. I think it’s the most beautiful theater I’ve seen after the San Carlo in Naples. Our seats are even more beautiful, I even want to write them here in case I’m ever there again: parterre, row 13, places 7 and 8. They are in the center and have legroom, and are very comfortable as well. We decide to get a glass of champagne, but a glass was exactly what we got when we recognized that the price for it was the equivalent to 30 CHF, and told the guy at the bar to keep it at that. We ended up downing half a glass each as the last call rang.
Prokofiev’s Cinderella begins. Incredible contemporary scenography and a great choreography by Ratmansky. Coincidentally, I was reading an article about him on the New Yorker during the flight. The first act goes by in a blink. It was truly fantastic. People were dressed nicely in general, albeit lots of polyester and unusual combinations. On a different point of the fashion spectrum there was a guy tracksuit-clad, a tank top and sandals. I’m all pro comfort in cultural spaces, but for some reason I’m very traditional in classical performances. The three acts go by and we leave the theater. It’s 22:00 and bright light outside.
We have dinner at Sadko – a restaurant across the theater recommended by my dear friend Natalie, whose recommendations are to be trusted blindly. We order some warm starters: potato patties and cabbage rolls (cabbage seems to be the ubiquitous vegetable in Russia). As main we got a veal fillet and beef stroganoff. Delicious. We charmed the waiter, who was extra nice with us. The dessert was also good, and we rounded up the meal with vodka. A chilled shot of Beluga and Mamont vodka from Siberia. Very nice. Natalie’s recommendations are – always – very good.
Happy after iur vodka shots and a bottle of wine, our driver Roman picks us up from Sadko and we drive oligarch-style, chauffeured through the beautiful streets of Saint Pete in a brand new black limousine to a small pier where we embark on a canal cruise. Amazing. Amazing. Amazing. Saint Petersburg in the night is a dream. I understand why my mother always said it is the most beautiful city on earth. It is majestic, beautiful, full of history. We drove along the Neva river and waited until the bridges opened for big ships to navigate by. There are several boats waiting for the same, and some yachts of young people partying and enjoying the beautiful night. Lines of people observe the spectacle on the shores. The sun never really sets in. Roman picks us up and drives us through Nevsky, the Fontanka river and other beautiful places, and we finish at the pier. During the drive he enjoys and proudly talks about his city, in a true loud mix of Russian and English. We understand anyway. We go to bed around 2 am with a hint of sunlight behind the block houses across the river.
19 July, 2011. The Hermitage and Petrodvorets
The Hermitage is as expected: impressive and full of history, but a bit of the same old song in terms of how many kilos of gold were used to cover so and so, and how heavy the white Carrara marble such and such, and bla bla bla bla bla. Hordes of tourists taking pictures at nowhere, sporting elastic-waist flood-pants and thick-soled white New Balance shoes, move like a wave. There are lots of ladies who have these typical sun caps that hold on to the head with this kind of coiled up elastic cables like from an 80′s telephone. It’s really claustrophobic. Some babushkas take care of the exhibition rooms, sitting there expressionless or falling asleep. There is one who particularly looks from another planet. Her hair is one single block tied up with a pink ribbon and her lips are bright red. I’m sure in a different universe she would be some sort of beauty queen, because indeed there was some utterly bizarre beauty in her.
My highlight was a side room full of ancient roman statues and one single baby blue statue Nature Study by Louise Bourgeois. Beautiful. I love ancient and contemporary art contrasted. You can appreciate both much better.
Claustrophobia and patience maxed out in the Rembrandt room, which indeed was about 547 degrees so we escape the crowds and leave almost panting. In the afternoon we drove to Petrodvorets. I guess it’s one of those places you-just-have-to-see, kind of. Gold gilded fountains, with beauty standards I cannot really relate to, are the norm. And hordes, hordes of tourists and locals enjoying the tropical, 100% humidity heat that turns us into zombies. We drive back passing the state house of the Russian president and sleep through the traffic jams we knew about because of our guide’s commentary upon arriving to the ship.
After a visit to the supermarket we set sail.
20 July, 2011. Mandrogi
During the night we crossed Lake Ladoga, the largest lake in Europe. We wake up and make it to breakfast 15 minutes before the end of it. It really is foul. Plain revolting. The so called omelette consists of this coagulated liquid, cut into squares of 3×3 cms. When we were kind of waking up, the boat alarm went off indicating we had to prepare ourselves for a drill. The drill consisted into putting on the life-vests and stepping out of the room. “Leidees ant’ gentelman, tenk you vari moch, de dreel is ouver” says a voice with a Russian accent and a bunch of confused retired vacationers stay in the corridor with the life vests stuck on their necks and straps tangled up down their crotch.
There is a speaker in the shoebox-sized cabin we don’t manage to turn off. In the morning at some point, there was a japanese person giving instructions. I swear he had had too many Smirnoffs until an hour prior. I pictured Doctor Chun-Ga dragging his voice on the microphone. When Russians who sound like they are practicing an online language course are not speaking, there is ambient music from the 80′s. It reminds me of Comercial Mexicana, the supermarket I loved to go to with my parents when I was a kid. They always played that kind of music: Ray Conniff and so. We can’t get the thing to turn off, so it’s like the holy spirit, always with us.
After the drill and a little siesta, I went with the rest of the grandmas and grandpas to a “Russian language lesson”. Quite entertaining. Right after, we sat and enjoyed the sun while sipping a bottle of Russian sparkling wine. It cost about 5 USD and it was quite o.k. I must tell.
We pulled into Mandrogi – a village on the shores basically made for tourism. It lies between the forests and the river. After a BBQ with Russian folklore music, we walked around the village and bought some matrioshkas. We then walked to the river shore and saw a family bathing…aaaaaaah I really wanted to do the same. I dipped my legs only and walked back to the boat with the intention of later getting my swimming suit. I tried to get into the water later on, but the access points close to the ship were just not as nice as before so we just went back into the boat and sailed away.
We got back on to the ship and rested for a while. We got up right on time to go to the captain’s cocktail. Oh god. We got there totally underdressed wearing shorts, flip flops and a Bugs Bunny t-shirt, contrasting with metallic deux pieces and western suits of our fellow “cruisaders”. So inappropriate. We felt awful and ran back to the cabin and change. We come back in time. The captain and the crew is standing there. Full in white, puffy hair, sunglasses. Our pensionist fellows enjoy every moment of it and take pictures with the captain. The captain and this other random man pose proudly. A keyboard player called Galina (sorry, I have to think always of the Spanish word Gallina: hen) animates the septuagenarian crowd. A cheerful woman sways her hips supporting herself on her walking stick. They all walk down to dinner, with Love Boat facial-expressions (and hairdos) and a couple claps frantically. Galina and her accordion buddy are happy.
In the afternoon we sat and enjoyed one of the most beautiful landscapes we’ve ever seen. Miles and miles of untouched woods and charming huts next to the river. Now and then there were people and children bathing who enjoyed waving at us. We chilled until sunset, which took place almost at midnight.
21 July, 2011. Kizhi Island
Early in the morning we stopped at the island of Kizhi – the biggest island of lake Onega, the second largest lake in Europe. The town is inscribed in the world heritage list of UNESCO, and consists of settlements and buildings made of wood. An enormous wooden church with onion domes dominates the landscape of rolling hills and flowers. The church and other wooden structures were built without using any metal nails. There is a cute windmill as well. Tiny islands and marshes are everywhere. We escape our herd and make our way to a little pier where a father is fishing and his little girl is playing. She takes worms and tries to feed them to fish that are still alive. She sometimes goes next to the father and cuddles up to him. The father doesn’t really have an expression but it is easy to tell he is probably a patient man who is keen on meditating while waiting for the next catch. We then leave and walk around a bit through the tiny island and sit by one of the wooden houses with no one around. It smells of wood and of fresh cut hay. Quite idyllic.
The rest of the day we spent at leisure on the boat. We go at some point to listen about some optionals on sale. There is this woman called Ellie, who we are sure works for the KGB. We haven’t really discover what her role is, but she is always with the group. Her fashion sense is also the good old times of the KGB-meets 18th century peasant life-meets a doily curtain. She gave also a talk about the development of Russian state. After a time of speaking about the Tsars and Lenin, she talks about how her grandfather was sent to jail because of supplying ice cream for a state dinner where the official government guests got upset stomachs. She finished her speech by saying that she tried to give a picture of factors that influenced Russians’ behavior and why we should not judge them.
22 July, 2011. Goritsy
I discover that the fruit salad at the breakfast buffet is actually made of fresh fruits. Happy happy. The rest of the morning we sail in direction of Goritsy, a small town on the Volga river with a huge old monastery. We didn’t want to come back to our cabin before they made it, so we spent some time talking to some people from Minnesota before going to a talk given by Olga. Olga is a very nice lady who works in the ship, kind of what Ellie does but less KGB style. She tells some stories about when she lived in communism. Very emotional and slightly sappy, but very good.
We stop in Goritsy and pass some cheap fur stands before taking our shuttle bus to the monastery. Apparently they ran out of English-speaking guides, so we end up with a lady who whispers unintelligible things in Russian at 5 db and then our dear Ellie translates. We shoot a picture and in a blink a big mama comes with a little card written with a blue ball pen “100 RUB”. We just stop taking pictures. The whole situation and the baking temperature just becomes unbearable so we wander on our own through the beautiful monastery which is right on a lake. We go pipi. The toilettes are in a little hut guarded by a lady inside a booth behind glass who controls the access to both ladies and gens. We pay the 15 rubles fee and get a printed контроль – control receipt. We get out next to the lake where the beautiful monastery walls can be really nicely appreciated. The locals are bathing there, and again we forgot our swimming suits, so we read a bit, take some pictures and continue walking. There are three kids who stop to take a dip, and continue on playing. Local people seem to really enjoy their lake; they undress, take a dip and continue on with their tasks.
I buy honey from an old man who still wears his beekeeper hat, and I also get a honey comb, which makes me think of how much my mother enjoyed chewing on the wax. Luki buys two stickers, those that when one moves them sideways one can see two different pictures, depending on the angle one looks at them. The two images are Putin and Medvedev. There is a pretty horse trotting around on the street. It’s branded and it looks it would have an owner, but the owner doesn’t seem to be around, or else the horse is stable-broken and is allowed to take a walk throughout the neighborhood on its own.
We buy some goodies at the supermarket, among which Russian Champagne (it really is called like that). We are fans of it. It costs around 5 USD and it’s very good. There is a drunken guy mumbling something outside the shop. On the way back to the boat, we pass through a stand of a lady who sells salted and smoked fish outside her house. She has about 5 salted fish and 4 smoked ones. Nobody buys anything. Is that her job? We stop at the tomb of the unknown soldier: a shiny silver sprayed statue of a man on his knee, carrying a Kalashnikov on a pedestal decorated with colorful plastic flowers.
23 July, 2011. Yaroslavl
We spend the whole morning on the ship, as we cannot get off because it’s loading fuel. From the windows it looks like a beautiful place on the banks of the Volga. We get off after lunch and jump onto our bus, which looks more like a dilapidated coffee maker from an old Mexican government office, than an actual bus. We decide to sit all the way in the back but the noise of the air conditioning is way too loud. Our guide is a terrible one and he looks like a dead muppet. He gets on the mike but the only words we hear are bla bla century blabla century blabla church blabla century blabla exhibition blabla factory blabla we go there blabla toilets blabla shop.
We go to the city kremlin, which is very nice and he gives us free time. It’s about 38 degrees. Our guide takes us to see a bear they have been keeping for about 20 years. The bear is the symbol of the city, so we learn. The poor thing – named Masha – is lying on top of a little metal box inside a cage. There is nothing to play with, no real hay, nothing. We all pay 40 rubles to get in there, and if one wants to take picture, one has to count on further 100 more. Her guardian, or however one calls her, gives her instructions and with a long pole she puts little pieces of smoked salmon in different parts of the cage so that visitors can see how cute Masha is when she climbs up the cage to get the pieces. The highlight is when using a special thing to hold PET bottles, they give her a bottle filled with water and honey. Masha takes the bottle with her two paws, lies on her back and drinks from the bottle as if she was a little baby.
Amongst the visitors there was an old man who looked like the crazy old man from Back to the Future. He was old and looked sophisticated. He spoke perfect Russian, French, German and English. Apparently his grandmother was a very rich woman whose chateau was confiscated by the Stalin regime and owned her own train carriage for trips to Germany. Both he and his cousin, who now lives in Norway, tried to get the property back, but after being converted into a children’s hospital it was just ran down, and nowadays it’s just in ruins. The man lives in Lugano now. I wonder what he does – or did – there.
After our free time with Masha the bear, we meet back again and the awful guide takes us to the typical tourist scam. This time it was supposed to be an “exhibition” and a shop (shocking) so we just left and walked around the place. We saw quite interesting stuff, amongst which an old lady who was charging 7 rubles to people who wanted to get their weight on her scale and lots and lots of drunk people, as it was the yearly “beer festival”. The shop windows showed hideous things, it seems that the fashion for men’s shoes at the moment is this sort of moccasins made of mesh which come in ivory, white and pine nut tones. We drank this drink called kvas made of rye bread, which tastes like a flat afri-cola sort of brand B product. It apparently gives an upset stomach when drinking a lot of it and the stomach is not used to it. It’s anyway not very good, so there isn’t much risk anyway.
We join the group again in order to be driven about 100 meters to another church. We decided to take off on our own, which was probably the best idea that day. Because of this beer festival the whole city was closed to traffic, which was the reason why the group was taken to the outskirts of beautiful Yaroslavl. Of course, if one can enjoy this precious city with wonderful gardens, buildings and churches and a magnificent quai on the Volga by foot, the obvious thing is to ride around on a dilapidated bus. Poor people from the group. The good thing is that they will probably never know what they missed. We walked along the river and came back to the ship on time.
That day we had “Russian” dinner, so they gave us blinis with caviar and sour cream and things of the sort. The highlight of the dinner was our friend Galina dressed up in traditional Russian costume and singing “Kalinka” with the restaurant staff who was also dressed in typical Russian clothes.
24 July, 2011. Uglich
Our guide was constantly telling us how Uglich the best town was. It was indeed cute, but by far not the best one. It had a pretty kremlin with nice churches. One of them involved a funny story: apparently they had killed a Tsarevitch and they had used a bell to call people for an insurrection, so Boris Godunov had the bell cut its tongue and it was sent for 300 years in exile to Siberia. Yes, the bell was in exile. The church was very nice, as was the kremlin by the water.
The highlight from Uglich was a prostitute who was the female version of Emily Howard from Little Britain, i.e. a “lady”. She was dressed up with a vaporous lilac dress and a hat, and swayed her hips extremely. At some point she went down a couple of stairs so she lifted her dress very delicately. She went down to a park and we filmed her; she noticed and she started following us, which was actually quite creepy. She had a wacko smile and was wearing bright red lipstick.
There were many old ladies asking for money, but we were very impressed that they we’re not just begging, but they were offering some sort of service in return: either selling a flower which they had just cut from a field, selling postcards, etc.
They had a pretty market so there it was where we bought another couple of matrioshkas. We particularly liked those in matte colors. On the way back to the boat there was a woman selling the tackiest wall decorations, kind of paintings but made with shiny satin in pastel colors in shapes of flowers and so in golden frames. We asked her for the price and she got super excited. There was a man playing a melody on glasses filled with water at different levels. Quite cool.
Dinner was hilarious that day. It was basically the last evening with all of us together on the boat, so it turned into the “farewell” dinner. At the time of the dessert, they switched off the lights and they put Andrea Boccelli’s “Time to Say Goodbye”. First, the waiters came around with a floating candle decoration, which they put on each table synchronized with the music. Cringeworthy. Then all the cooks paraded around the restaurant with cakes on their hands. Needless to say, the cake looked like if it had been bought in the Panificadora el Pollito, with cheap whipped cream and cheap everything. At the end of the parade, this woman in sequence dress comes out and gives a speech in Russian, which was simultaneously translated by one of the guides. I cannot really describe the feeling, but oh oh oh, it was physically painful.
25 July, 2011. Moscow
We finally arrived to Moscow and took a guided sight seeing. We saw the new maiden’s convent from far out, as well as the Russian white house and the building of the university. Moscow is amazing. Truly amazing. The buildings are of sizes I had never seen before. Not so much of the height, but of the total mass. The Red Square is incredible. I always thought it would be grey and cold, but it is like in a fairy tale. The brick walls of the Kremlin are surrounded by beautiful firs, the GUM department store is magnificent and Saint Basil’s cathedral is one of those sights that no matter how many times one has seen it in pictures, the reality is much, much better. Absolutely magical. Lenin’s mausoleum sits there in the middle, not really fitting with the rest of the square. Next to the wall there are busts of famous russian leaders, among which Stalin. Yes, Stalin. The fact that he killed masses and masses of people, displaced complete ethnicities and sent thousands to Russian concentration or labor camps, aka Gulags is just side information to many Russians, who regard him as a tough guy under whose regime people got apartments, food, medical care, education, big buildings and so on, albeit with the constant fear of being denounced and made disappeared. I really wondered what would’ve happened if Hitler had won the war. Would he be buried in an honor place? There are even buskers who dress up like him for tourists to take pictures with them. I just pictured the Brandenburg Gate full of Hitler-clad buskers with their arms around tourists, who happily take pictures with them.
We drive back to the boat, have dinner and go to the Kostroma Show, which Eli pronounced “kastramasha” (it took me some time until I discover she was speaking about the same thing). The show takes place at the Hotel Kosmos. My mother stayed there in 1980, so already knowing that made my trip there worth it. It is the opposite of a boutique hotel, but just so cool! I have no idea how many rooms it has but it is gigantic. The architecture is truly fascinating: huge halls with brown and ochre colors. Very geometric designs. In front of the entrance driveway there is a huge statue of De Gaulle. The show is waaaaaaay too kitsch and camp but the truth of the matter is that they dance incredibly! Perfection and body control to the millimeter. The show is an orgasm of kitsch. A true explosion of awe and amazement. Post-communistic Vegas, yeah baby.
Our amazement got kind of jaded after the break, when everything was just the same and the whole thing slightly too long. We took off during the applause and made our way to the metro. The first time in Moscow metro. The first time in Cyrillic alphabet metro. We were heading to my friend Natalie’s place, that means we had to even change lines, but it went easy. We got off and walked to Natalie’s.
The place where Natalie lives is right across the Kremlin and was built by Stalin to house all his team of creeps, out of whom he ended up killing most of. Natalie lives in one of the apartments, who actually still belongs to the family of one of these guys, who back in the day had god knows how many people killed, displaced, or both. The apartment is quite cool, it keeps a nice charm given by beautiful parquet floors, really nice wallpapers and a fantastic view on a quaint Orthodox church.
We started off with vodka shots and Baltika, the local beer. Natalie told us all about her everyday life Moscow stories, like for example when a guy from the Russian secret service wearing a ski mask entered her office holding a Kalashnikov in her hands, when a couple of goths were kicking a “black guy” from Chechnya or the “Republics”, or when there was a fire in the back of her building, but she opted not to call the fire brigade so to avoid any contact with the authorities out of fear. We had the intention to go to this cool place called Propaganda but because despite the fact that we called about all the taxi companies, we could not get anybody to drive us there and we ended up going to a nearby American-style diner.
People in Moscow actually hail unofficial cars on the streets, which I find frightening!
26 July, 2011. Moscow
I don’t really recall what we did during the day, except for the fact that it was piping hot on the streets, and after visiting the city, we took the metro back to the boat and our full body was dripping with sweat. What I remember is that in the evening we traveled through metro stations of Moscow and we finished at the Red Square. The metro stations in Moscow are fascinating. They resemble neoclassical constructions, but they have communistic motives built in. Plain weird and fascinating. We went then out to the Victory Square, which is a massive square with a gigantic Stalinistic building and an enormous obelisk with communistic depictions on it. I had never ever in my life seen or imagined something with those proportions. The guide was amazed that I took pictures of what was to her ordinary stuff, but of course to me was the funkiest things I had seen. We finished at the Red Square, which is absolutely beautiful in the night as well.
27 July, 2011. Disembarkation
So our sailing adventure comes to an end, and it’s time now to move on to our fantastic hotel, the Hotel National, where Stalin used to eat his lunch. Right in front of the Kremlin, with an architecture and deco that breathe history. The neighboring Ritz-Carlton breathes new money instead, but defo no tradition and glamour like the National. Oh là là very nice indeed. We got there rather early so we couldn’t check into our room right away; we went for a walk in the heat heat heat before coming back to enjoy the marvels of modern air conditioning.
In the meanwhile we also went to pay a visit to Mr. Vladimir Lenin. Oh boy, what an experience. You get into this dark place with security guards in the deepest solemnity who point you to this glass casket lying beneath the earth level and kept at a cold temperature. The whole room is freezing, not only the inside of the casket (well, i have actually not clue if the inside of the casket was cold, for that sake). The corpse of Lenin, who looks more like a flattened plastic oversized doll with implanted red beard hairs is just uncanny. It is strange that they show such a stuffed corpse to mainly tourists. You are whisked away by the guards, in order to ensure a constant, steady flow.
We decided to take a swim in the pool, so we went to it, registered ourselves at the pool reception, with time of arrival and everything, and got a key of a locker. A key to secure the hotel bathrobe? I guess so, because apart from then swimming trunks we had on, we didn’t find anything else to secure in them.
In the evening we went to see La Traviata and then for dinner to this underground club for which in order to enter you had to show a membership card. The club was nothing else than a restaurant. A nice and cozy restaurant, but a restaurant. The were no signs outside; you just had to know it was there.
28 July, 2011. Last full day in Moscow
We spent the day just wandering around. We went to Vinzavod, an old wine factory which houses now a contemporary art center and art galleries. We took the subway there, to find out that the place was nearly impossible to find. Tried to ask the people in basic basic Russian, no chance. English, no chance. Anything else, no chance. We walked like headless chickens with no clear destination. In an attempt to find the place, we walked along a platform of what looked to be a night train, even though it was probably around 2 p.m. It was full of sweaty people without tops simmering inside. Not exactly what you would call “cozy”. At the end we made it to the arrivals hall where we found a free god-sent wifi signal and could then download the map and walking instructions. The GPS system though, sent us through a huge detour. The whole time, we were trying to spot hipsters or artsy people hoping that would be an indication of Vinzavod. We made it finally, and it was indeed cool. Lots of galleries, a big inner court, the ubiquitous shop with useless things and a nice café, where we had a good salad – at Swiss prices – and a drink.
We made it back to the city centre and walked around for a bit in the scorching heat, getting a last round of souvenirs.
In the evening we had dinner at the fantastic Café Pushkin. Our dear Natalie booked for us the best table next to a window. The place is incredible. So chic, yet cozy. We were sitting in the Library. There was heavenly music. The service was telepathic. We ordered cocktails and an appetizer, which could’ve been the main course: a whole pie made of salmon and some other fish. As main we ordered beef stroganoff and trout. The desserts were perfect. We got the Pushkin dessert: a concentric sphere made of marzipan, chocolate, ice cream, something else crunchy, and god knows what else that made the more than 30 USD totally worth it! We got as well a pistachio crème brûlée with sour cherries whose first impression was more of a spinach soup, but the taste was just sublime. Something funny about this restaurant: in front of the toilets there was a woman in the cloakroom, where there was absolutely no coat hanging. The poor thing was just sitting there, not reading, not knitting, just there existing.
On the way back to the hotel, we stopped by the famous Yelizjevski supermarket, which opens 24 hrs. and is located in an amazing Art Nouveau building. We couldn’t get vodka because it was past 10 pm so we looked around. They had ostrich eggs -raw- which I had never seen in my life. I would love to prepare a giant sunny-side-up fried egg with one of them.
We walked down Trevskaya avenue, kind of the Moskovite Champs Élysées, down to the Ritz-Carlton to have a drink there, but we didn’t like the atmosphere so we left to our hotel to spend our last night in Moscow.
29 of July, 2011. Leaving Moscow
We woke up relaxed and went to the breakfast room. With an unobstructed view on the Red Square and the Kremlin, the breakfast room at the National is fantastic. Leave alone the fresh fruit, caviar blinis, champagne, great breads, pastries, and so on. Very nice and civilized. Stay there in the event you visit Moscow again and your budget allows it.
To round up in style we were chauffeured to Domededovo airport in another oligarchic car. Thank god for this, because the drive took almost two hours!
Domededovo airport is kind of cool in the way that besides having most recognizable destinations like London, Paris, whatever, you also get Dushanbe, Tashkent, and tenths of places you must likely haven’t heard of, or certainly were not planning to go to in the near future!
We arrived back home with very nice memories of Russia: the long sunny hours at night, the vodka Beluga, the Russian champagne, the matrioshkas, the Cafe Pushkin, the Red Square, the beautiful navigations through miles and miles of intact forests. A true Voyage Extraordinaire.