I will start with a caveat that this blog maybe of more interest to those readers living in Moscow than elsewhere, but I hope it will also be of interest and amusement to those further afield as well.
Last weekend we thought that we would save a bit of money and, rather than flying off to a regional Russian town, we moved into a 5* hotel in Moscow 15 mins from our flat!! My husband’s Russian colleagues thought that we were completely mad, and in fact I believe that we were the topic of conversation for much of my husbands work place – Russian and British alike!
Courtesy of a friend we got an exceptionally good deal on our hotel room at the Baltschug-Kempinski Hotel and so we decided to stay two nights (bang goes the ‘save a bit of money’ idea). It was in an area of the city, south of the river, that we had not yet explored but had heard that it had some great places to eat and drink (two of our favourite activities).
So armed with a small suitcase we arrived after work on Friday evening to find, as promised, that we had been upgraded to a luxurious room with a superb view of the Kremlin and St Basils Cathedral. We then headed out for cocktails to one of the places recommended to us, Mitzva Bar! Through a nondescript side door and down a staircase you find yourself in a small vaulted cellar decorated with Jewish and masonic symbols. They serve a simple, but fairly small, food menu written on a Torah scroll but the main attraction is the cocktails. There is no written menu but they will serve you up any cocktail you name or, if like me, you don’t know the names of many cocktails, you can just ask for a gin based cocktail and after a couple of supplementary question, (sweet? dry? etc) they will serve one up for you. Normally very busy it was not a place that we wanted to stay late as social distancing was impossible in such a small space. So having had a couple of rather nice cocktails, at very reasonable prices, we headed off to another recommendation for food.
Almost next door is Björn a Nordic restaurant, featuring venison, wild boar and fish. We decided to go for the 7 course taster menu with paired drinks for 3900 rubles (£39). What was a bit of a surprise was that the paired drinks were 4 cocktails! And very nice they were too! Amongst our 7 dishes we had field mushrooms with a peach liquor and horseradish foam, quail with quail liver pate, quail heart with a Cabernet sauvignon and cherry liquor, And a white carrot with mousse and apricot seeds. We will definitely be going back here.
Then it was time to head back along the road to our rather lovely hotel room where we could admire St Basils lit up at night.
Saturday was a day of walking and exploration of the Zamoskvoreche district. But not before we had had a lie in and a late, very large, breakfast which meant we wouldn’t need to buy lunch (so maybe we were saving some money after all?). With our guide book in hand we set off on a walking tour that took us to 8 churches and several museums! I should start by saying that our hotel was on a large island bordered on one side by the Moskva river and on the other side by the Vodootvodnyy Canal built in 1786 to prevent the regular spring flooding of the river. Zamoskvoreche means ‘beyond the Moscow river” and was where the Mongol ambassadors lived. Its main road, Bolshaya Ordynka, was the route to the Golden Horde headquarters on the Volga river. The area mostly escaped from Stalin’s replanning in the 1930’s and so it has a more old-fashioned atmosphere than the centre of the city. Rather than imposing high-rise Stalinesque buildings it retains the 19th century churches and two to four story imposing Neo-Classical mansions.
The most famous building in this area is the Tretyakov Gallery. Founded in 1856 by a wealthy business man who gifted his private art collection to the city it now houses the biggest collection of Russian art in the world. We did not go into the museum on this occasion, saving it for a rainy day. Moving on, our walking tour took us past the churches of The Resurrection in Kadashi, Church of the Consolation of All Sorrows, Church of St Clement, Church of St Nicholas in Pyzhy, Church of St Catherine, Convent of Saints Martha and Mary, Church of St John the Baptist and Church of Saints Michael and Fyodor plus several others that our book didn’t even bother to name! One favourite was the Church of SS Michael and Fyodor. The oldest one we saw, dating from the late 17th century, it is named after two martyrs killed by Mongols when they refused to renounce Christianity.
The second favourite was the newest one we saw, the Convent of SS Martha and Mary. Looking, at first glance, like a medieval building, it was in fact built in 1912. It was founded, after her husband had been assassinated, by Duchess Yelizaveta Fyodorovna, sister in law to Tsar Nicholas II and granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Sadly the day after the Tsar and his family had been shot, she and further members of the royal family were pushed down a mine shaft. This did not kill them outright and reportedly after hearing singing the soldiers threw grenades down after them. She is one of 10 modern martyrs who are depicted in statues above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey. The convent was built in a highly traditional style but with art nouveau features both inside and out.
Of course our walk was not just churches – there were museums too! The Tretyakov I have already mentioned but we also passed by one hidden in a courtyard to members of the Streltsy (Royal Guard) that had been executed for rebellion by Peter the Great, there was the Bakhrushin Theatre Museum, and a museum about the Merchant Navy. None of which we went into. This is partly because we didn’t want to and partly because you currently have to book tickets online in advance. The only museum that we did want to see was the Tropinin Museum, and so taking a punt we went inside to see if we could get tickets. This it turned out was impossible because 1) they were not allowed to sell us tickets in person and 2) their internet was not working and so we couldn’t buy them on-line either! However they told us and another (Russian couple) to come on in anyway! The very nice lady then proceed to give the 4 of us a personalised tour of the 3 small roomed museum entirely in Russian! Oh dear! Whilst my Russian can cope with the ordering and buying of food and asking for simple directions, it was never going to cope with an art tour! Even my husband was struggling with the blizzard of facts, but he was able to translate some of it for me. Bottom line is that Vasiliy Tropinin (1776-1857) was born a serf. His master initially sent him to the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg but then withdrew him to work as a interior decorator, pastry cook and footman on his estates. Eventually Tropinin and his wife gained their freedom and moved to Moscow where he became a professional portrait artist painting not just the nobility but a complete cross section of society from peasants to aristocrats.
After all that walking and culture we returned to our hotel to ‘regroup’ (for my husband to have his traditional afternoon nap!). In the evening we ate at MEATless, where contrary to expectations we both had extremely tasty meaty burgers! Washed down by 300gms of Vodka! Yes we have become vodka drinkers! Wine is often either very expensive or disgusting, and I get fed up (and bloated) with beer so we have taken to ordering carafes of vodka usually 200gms which is about 3 glasses each.
Sunday we walked across the bridge and visited the inside of St Basils,(So completely different to any other church) and the Romanov Boyar house (where the first Romanov Tsar was born. Lovely to see inside but be warned there is nothing in English) and went to an Ice Cave in Zaryady park. I love this park, the Ice Cave is an art installation quite fun for 5 minutes but the accompanying explanation is of course in Russian.
I have to say I really enjoyed our staycation. The area has a completely different feel to the rest of Moscow which I really enjoyed, just a slower pace of life and a feeling that they were not quite in the 21st Century.
Then we packed up our case and got a taxi all the way home! Any questions?