I have to admit that growing up in Finland isn’t the best starting point for appreciating a visit to Russia.
First of all, there is the long, unsettling history between the two countries. As a child, I was constantly reminded how fortunate it was that Finland had gained its independence from Russia. The Baltic countries and their underdeveloped economies were live examples of how Finland could have ended up if it hadn’t become associated with Scandinavia.
Secondly, numerous Russians who visit Finnish towns regularly to shop, drink and roar, embodied diametric opposites to the modest Finns, who never dream of showing up in public in all the make-up, bling and tat, which the Russian ladies looked to adore.
Finally, anyone travelling to Russia seemed to do it for the cheap alcohol, tobacco, or even girls, so, there really wasn’t any need to give it a go. In fact, I didn’t for the first 30 years of my life.
One of my best Finnish friends has been dividing up her life between Moscow and Finland due to her husband’s job. After a few years of contemplating, I decided it was time to visit her, and yes, to travel to Russia.
My decision to make a weekend break in Moscow received a lot of surprised reactions, and not just from the fellow Finns: ‘Why would you choose to travel there?’, ‘It will be freezing!’, ‘I’ve been once to Moscow and it was really intimidating!’, were some of the comments I heard. A few people mentioned that St Petersburg would have been a much better choice. Even the Russian government makes Moscow feel very unprepossessing. A lengthy and expensive visa procedure adds to the complication of making a short break there. (I got my visa from Russia Visa Application Centre in London for £50 within a weeks time).
Ignoring some of the negative vibes, I convinced my boyfriend to join me for a 4-day trip to Russia’s capital.
The first impressions through the window of our airport taxi were as expected. Grey, boxy blocks of flats. Crowds of people in their grey winter coats. Trees, which had already lost their leaves for the winter. However, when we started to approach the heart of Moscow, the majestic cathedrals, impressive Art Deco high rises, government buildings and the iconic St Basil’s Cathedral in the Red Square emerged. There were no longer shabby buildings in sight but colourful imperial constructs, similar to those you could see easily in Helsinki, too. The mishmash of architectural styles from Russian renaissance to Art Nouveua and Post-Revolution was really striking.
Our first evening was spent in the Bolshoi Theatre where beautiful Russian girls in elegant dresses were lining up to see the Flying Dutchman opera by Richard Wagner. The image of pink dresses matched with golden chains was replaced with a much more tasteful and sophisticated picture of Russia.
I was also surprised to see that Russians are able to question their political situation and even their past. In one restaurant-bar we saw a satir painting of Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama selling democracy for $0.99. In another one, Lenin and Stalin stood side by side staring at the people in the restaurant. Subtle political statements were combined with good food including a goat cheese and bilberry starter and a main course of pike and roast vegetables.
We experienced a glimpse of Russia’s grand past in Cafe Pushkin. Despite only been open since 1999, the restaurant exudes a fantasy of Russian’s ‘golden age’. The old baroque building, where Cafe Pushkin is located, is decorated with 19th century furniture including antique bookshelves and fireplaces. Courteous waiters are dressed in tidy uniforms serving a semblance of real Russian cuisine like beef stroganoff with gherkins and oven potatoes. Next door you can enjoy French pastries in Confectionary Cafe Pushkin which is a homage to the Russian nobility’s devotion to the French.
Feeling like I was part of a Russian novel, we continued the day discovering the Red Square. A stroll around the gigantic square to marvel at Kremlin, cathedrals, Lenin’s Mausoleum and GUM department store are must-dos in the city. We also enjoyed a boat trip on the Moscow River (see Radisson boat cruises) which was a good way to get a sense for the city and avoid the traffic on the roads. Floating past the Seven Sisters or Lenin’s teeth which are vast, somewhat creepy high rises made me think how strange it is that buildings can so strongly symbolise a culture – harshness and an intention to impress.
The modern side of Moscow was evident in restaurants like Ragout which seems to be thriving on the new enthusiasm for home cooking, good ingredients and simple dishes. A desire for opulence and showiness was celebrated in Ritz Carlton’s O2 Lounge with a roof top bar that offered great views across the Red Square. El Gaucho steak restaurant was luxurious but cosy. Excellent meat and friendly service made up for the steep prices there.
We were lucky to stay in a fine hotel, Mamaison Pokrovka. A modern, spacious room had a relaxing, airy feel. A spa downstairs with a 20m pool was great for winding down from the busyness of the city.
Moscow is just so vast that 4-day trip can offer only a taster for the city. Many sights and interesting places were left unseen and I would like to go back one day to see the Gorky’s House, Sparrow Hills and a retro car museum. However, until my next visit, I’m happy to spread positive message of Moscow to others. Moscow and its people are not as intimidating as they may seem at first, but actually it is a fascinating place to discover. Oh my, how quickly time changes things and how much even a short break can open one’s eyes.
Tverskoy Blvd, 26а, Moscow, Russia, 125009
Tel: +7 (495) 739-00-33
Confectionary Cafe Pushkin
Tverskoy Blvd, 26а, Moscow, Russia, 125009
Tel: +7 (495) 604-42-80
129090, Russia, Moscow, Olimpic Ave, 16, b.5
Tel: +7 (495) 783-04-61
123056, Russia, Moscow, Bolshaya Gruzinskaya st., 69
Tel: +7 (495) 662-64-58
The Ritz-Carlton Moscow O2 Lounge
Tverskaya Street 3, Moscow 125009 Russia
Tel: +7 495 225 8888
Zatzepsky Val 6/13, Moscow, Russia
Tel: +8 (495) 953-28-76
Pokrovka st 40, bld 2
105062, Moscow, Russia
Tel: +7 495 229 57 57
6/2 Mal. Nikitskaya Ulitsa, Moscow, Russia
Tel: +7 (095) 290-0535
Retro Car Museum
9/2 Rogozhskiy val street, Moscow, Russia
Tel: +7 (495) 678-0291
Unknown hipster bar
Glinischevsky pereulok 3, Moscow, Russia
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