Mission To Moscow

Forget what you've seen in the movies, the Russian capital is nothing like you'll find on the silver screen. With a new route launching this month, we went on a foray into the glorious unknown

Featured March 13 Words by Simon Kurs
Mission To Moscow

Photography Victoria Ling


It's our last day in Moscow and we're in the grand, Art Deco foyer of the hotel when an explosion of camera flashbulbs sets the hanging Murano glass chandeliers blazing. Through the revolving doors marches an army of beautiful people, all rocking oversized sunglasses, despite the blizzard outside. A swarm of paparazzi follows and the clamour is palpable.

Lady Gaga has arrived for her first-ever show in the Russian capital and her retinue is checking in. Looking out over Red Square from a bank on the Moskva River, this is the kind of place that has entertained dignitaries of all kinds over the years, so it's a fitting destination for pop royalty.

Three days prior, this unexpected celebrity hubbub might have seemed strange, but after any time at all here, you realise this is a city at the centre of its own universe, and one that operates by its own rules. It's a place where you just have to go with the flow. To see what I mean, perhaps it's best to rewind to the beginning...

"There are no bears on the streets," the heavily accented voice on the phone had told me, "and no men carrying Kalashnikovs." It was two weeks before my visit to Moscow and I wanted to know how much truth there was to the cultural touchpoints I'd grown up with (Solzhenitsyn, Eisenstein, Rocky IV). Were there fur-hatted guards patrolling the Kremlin? Oligarchs galore? Did everyone drink vodka?

That's why I'd called Bek Narzi. Since opening the Russian Cocktail Club (www.russiancocktailclub.com) five years ago, he's become the city's foremost cocktail guru, sharing the knowledge he picked up in London's best watering holes with Moscow's barmen. If anyone could provide an insight into the city's libatory habits, it was him. After a brief chat we agreed to reconvene at his bar. And so began a journey during which my expectations about this 866-year-old, 17m-strong metropolis were confounded almost as many times as they were confirmed.

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

There's one street that nicely sums up Moscow today. Tverskoy Boulevard is one of the oldest thoroughfares in town. Lined on one side by ornate baroque mansions, on the other by a pleasingly green canopy of trees, little appears to have changed here since emperors walked its pavements in centuries past and esteemed authors - from Tolstoy to Chekov - wrote of its charms.

Its most famous current address harks back to that gilt-edged heritage. Café Pushkin (www.cafe-pushkin.ru) is a grand restaurant, oft recommended as the best place for authentic Russian food. Decked out to resemble a Russian aristocrat's home circa 1825, it's the kind of place you imagine that oligarchs love, and you can enjoy traditional treats such as caviar, borscht and pelmeni (dumplings) in the company of free-spending locals and waiters dressed up as staff from the early 19th century. Fabulously OTT, it's a sign of where the city has been.

Just a few hundred metres down the road is a an entirely different face of 21st-century Moscow. Sitting just offthe street, Bar Kisa (www.facebook.com/kisabarmoscow) is a cool, under-the-radar drinking den that throws the stereotype of billionaire-friendly bars to the curb. Created in the vein of the speakeasies springing up across Europe, but with a few more sprinkles of stardust, it's where the city's young, hip, fashion crowd go. Inside is a riot of drinking, dancing and hipsters taking pictures of each other, no doubt to post in their Twitter feeds. "I wanted to create a place where my friends could come and have fun," says owner Alexei Kiselev.

"Somewhere unlike anywhere else in the city." Blag your way in and you won't be disappointed.

Does Everyone Drink Vodka?

The view from City Space (www.cityspacebar.com), the bar on the 34th floor of the Swissotel Krasnye Holmy hotel, is impressive. St Basil's Church glows softly in the dark, while high-rise buildings, including the Seven Sisters - gothic skyscrapers commissioned by Stalin - punctuate the panorama. What's inside, however, is even more revealing: it's Saturday night and not a single person is drinking shots of Russia's national spirit.

This is Bek Nazri's place and his manager, Maxim Rokhman, has an explanation. "Of course we drink vodka - we're Russian - but it's also a drink we associate with our parents. The younger generation tend to go for whisky, tequila or cocktails." That's no surprise when the drinks are as good as Rokhman's. His Moscow Mule, infused with fresh ginger and honey, is delicious.

As Narzi had told me during our phone call, the city is just waking up to mixology. "The market is virginal," he said, "like London 15 years ago. Now, there are exciting new ideas and better products available than ever before. There's been a boom in great places to drink."

He wasn't wrong: Moscow has a phenomenal bar scene if you know where to look, combining the laid-back cool of New York's Williamsburg with the anything-goes party vibe of Madrid. At one end of the spectrum you've got elegant rooftop lounge bars such as City Space and Kalina (www.kalinabar.ru) - at the other, places like Don't Tell Mama (www.donttellmama.ru). Colourful, with an eclectic vintage feel and exposed brickwork, it's a café by day, a banging DJ bar as evening falls.

But for maximum fun, head for Red October on Bolotny Island. A chocolate factory in Soviet times, now it's filled with a bohemian mix of art galleries, restaurants and clubs. I'd been told it was like London's Shoreditch, only more fun, and I wasn't disappointed. It's here that the city's party animals cut loose every weekend in bars like Strelka (www.strelka.com), with its sightly shabby New York-loft vibe, and clubs such as Gipsy (www.facebook.com/ilovegipsy) and Belka (www.facebook.com/barbelka), where people arrive late and crawl out even later.

Has Hollywood Got It Right?

The release of A Good Day to Die Hard last month cast a spotlight on the city, but not in the way locals would have liked. In this fifth Die Hard film, Bruce Willis engages in running gun battles with mafia henchmen against the backdrop of Red Square. The same negative cultural stereotypes abound in last summer's blockbuster Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, in which Tom Cruise breaks out of a Russian Gulag full of swarthy Slavic types before breaking into the Kremlin (which then explodes).

Fur hats aside (Moscow is freezing in the winter), these depictions are, of course, Cold War fantasies. "These movies are a great way to bring tourists, but they're also full of prejudices," says Sergei Pavlovich Shpilko, who heads up Moscow Tourism. "It sometimes feels like there's an information vacuum. We want to dismiss the old stereotypes - like matryoshka dolls - and show we're a modern place."

It's fitting then, that we're sitting in the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (www.mmoma.ru) as we chat, in the midst of an exhibition by Aidan Salakhova, one of the city's leading artists. Surrounded by eye-catching sculptures, we could easily be in a room at the Guggenheim in Bilbao or Paris's Musée d'Art Moderne.

The modern-art scene here is thriving, but this is a side of the city rarely documented. The Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture (www.garageccc.com), for instance, is a cool space set up by Roman Abramovich's partner, Dasha Zhukova, and one of the hottest tickets in town for big-name shows, such as a recent retrospective on film-maker Michel Gondry. Winzavod (www.winzavod.ru), is another cultural boon: a former winery that houses a dozen galleries, many for working artists.

Is Moscow Expensive?

It's possible to spend an awful lot of money - especially in the ritziest bars, restaurants and boutiques along the main shopping thoroughfare, Tverskaya Street - but you don't have to. Take the Metro, grab lunch for around €10 at a Russian café chain such as Mu-Mu (www.cafemumu.ru) and follow the advice of Nikita Bogdanov, Airat Bagautdinov, Artem Savilov and Sergey Sobolev. Two years ago, they started Moscow Free Tours (www.moscowfreetour.com), which they offer every morning, taking in some of the best tourist sites in town with a lively commentary. "Travelling around Europe, we were inspired by the example of free tours in other cities and we found it shameful we didn't have anything like that in Moscow," explains Bagautdinov.

This quartet is part of a new generation of young Russian entrepreneurs who are taking inspiration from their experiences abroad, then returning home and making Moscow more tourist friendly in the process - introducing Segway rides, for instance; or big, red, double-decker sightseeing buses (www.hoponhopoff.ru). "Our generation is different for many different reasons," says Bagautdinov. "The fall of the Iron Curtain, a strong economy and cheap flights mean we now travel a lot. We decided to establish Free Tours in order to break the stereotype that Moscow is an expensive city."

And Moscow is just the kind of place where a guide can come in handy. Away from Red Square, the majority of signs are in Russian, while the Metro carries no English directions at all. It's also a city where virtually everything has a fascinating - if implausible - back story.

Take the Metro map, for instance. If you look at it, you'll see that one of the train lines forms a perfect circle around the centre of town. One explanation, says Bagautdinov, is down to coffee. When Stalin was asked by city planners what he thought of their design, he gave his approval, then put a half-finished cup in the centre of the blueprint and left the room. After the cup was removed, it revealed a brown circular stain underneath. Too scared to question the dictator, the planners included a Metro line along the route of the stain. "Of course, this is probably an urban legend," says our guide. "Moscow is full of them and it gives a good insight into our psyche.

We often use irony and humour to explain the events of the past."

Food For Thought

Wander into the Eliseevsky delicatessen (www.eliseevskiy.ru), on Tverskaya street, and you'll find an embarrassment of edible riches that puts paid to culinary misconceptions about the city. There's nary a dumpling to be seen and even if you don't buy anything - the prices are notoriously steep - it's worth a visit just to gawk at fine products and the gilt and gold-edged splendour, which makes Harrods food halls look decidedly drab.

This is just part of a gastro revolution taking place right now, similar to the one that happened in the UK over the past decade. "People are getting really sophisticated when it comes to food," says Alexei Zimin, who an annual gourmet food festival "When Russians go out these days, they talk about what they are eating. Fifteen years ago, 1,000th of 1% of the population regularly bought olive oil. Now it's 1%. People are travelling abroad more - they know when a spaghetti carbonara is bad because they've eaten it at seven different restaurants."

Today, there are two big dining out trends. Sushi is still the nibble of choice in most swanky bars, but slowly, and more interestingly, regional cuisine from the former Soviet Union is taking hold. From Azerbaijani, which is spicy and Asian-influenced, to Georgian (a cross between Middle Eastern and Mediterranean) these reflect the serious geographical breadth of the former empire. And they're growing in number.

Much of this is down to Arkady Novikov. Since opening his first place with a $50,000 (€36,810) loan in the early 1990s, he has become the city's most successful restaurateur, with more than 50 restaurants to his name. And many of them offer a new twist on Soviet cuisine. "Russian traditions are coming back," he tells me. "But this does not in any way mean that Western technologies, recipes or trends can be forgotten. Quite the contrary. Russian cuisine with a European accent - this is the new trend in Russian food."

Legend has it Novikov was refused a job as a chef in Moscow's first branch of McDonald's, but today he counts Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, as a personal friend. However, this success isn't entirely without drawbacks. "Muscovites today really are showing more interest in gastronomy," he says. "So it's increasingly difficult to impress with a new establishment. This actually pleases me as it shows we're doing something right."

Destination Moscow

5,000 people who turned up for the opening of Moscow's first McDonald's in 1990

126m length of Europe's longest escalator in the city's Park Pobedy Metro station

125 rubles (€3), the average price of a half-litre bottle of vodka here

Hotel Baltschug Kempinski

Enjoy the on-site spa, fine-dining restaurant and some of the best views in Moscow. Book at www.hotels.easyJet.com

easyJet Holidays

Two nights B&B at the three-star Maxima Irbis hotel, departing from Manchester on 20 May, costs from £179 per person. www.easyJet.com/holidays*

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