Melancholy Moscow

336I have just returned from a brief trip to Moscow. The weather there was bitterly cold, something it happened to share with China which was having its first harsh snows of the winter. Something Russia didn’t appear to share with China, however, was a desire to provide customer service. If only the Muscovites had been brought up on this traditional Chinese quotation: “Don’t open a shop unless you like to smile”. Be it in a shop, a taxi or a restaurant, the poor customer is greeted with a gloomy face and a mumbled greeting. Things were sometimes better in the classier restaurants but price was certainly no guarantee of good service.

I first visited Moscow as a student in 1979 and the city is virtually unrecognisable from those Cold War days. It seemed friendlier then: the Russians were hungry for contact with Westerners and keen to chat at any opportunity. And even keener to buy your jeans from you!

The physical changes are obvious too. I stood in Red Square this week and thought my memory had completely failed me: I didn’t remember the arched gate next to the History Museum, nor the fairytale church to the side of GUM. Turning to my guidebook for help, I learned that both had been destroyed by Stalin and then rebuilt in the 1990s. The opposite happened at the other end of Red Square, where the ugly megolithic Rossiya Hotel had vanished. It was the largest, and probably ugliest, hotel in Europe. It seemed the height of luxury to me back in the 70s and I had promised myself a stay there, but I returned too late as it was destroyed in 2007.  The vast gap it left behind has yet to be filled.
In 1979 there was virtually no shopping to be done. And no food to be eaten. GUM was the setting for long queues just to buy a banana or a loaf of bread. Now it is a luxury department store, featuring any fashion designer you’d care to name. It really is a beautiful place to window shop. But be warned, the prices are much higher than in the UK or the rest of Europe. When you’ve had your fill of shopping, take a break for drink or lunch at the Bosco Cafe on the ground floor facing the Kremlin. In good weather you can sit outside and take in the enormity of Red Square and the beauty of St Basil’s.

In my whole month in Moscow back in the 70s, the only vegetable I saw was cabbage, so I was amazed on this trip to see excellent supermarkets, such as Sed’moy Kontinent, and pavement kiosks stacked high with fruit and vegetables.

 

 

Moscow also has its share of smaller fashion boutiques. It is a large city, though, and these shops are scattered so you’ll need to use the efficient but crowded Metro. It can be baffling for foreign tourists as many signs are in Cyrillic only and it is daunting for those who don’t have a head for heights. The extravagantly ornate stations make it worth the effort however. [TIP: if you don’t read the Cyrillic alphabet prepare your metro trip in advance: know the number of stops and the colour of the lines you need.]

If you fancy a more relaxed afternoon’s shopping, I recommend the area around Patriarch’s Ponds (Патриарши пруды). It has a village feel and is a pleasant place for an afternoon stroll. I have a particularly fond view of this area as it was immortalised in my favourite Russian novel, Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov: this is where the devil appears and where Berlioz is run over by a tram.  Take in the park around the pond, full of children and their parents, and then move on to the fashion boutiques; don’t miss my favourite, Victoria’s Vintage on Malaya Bronnaya.  If you’re on the hunt for souvenirs with a difference, check out, Podarki, Dekor i Podarki, just along the road.

When you’re ready for a break, there’s no shortage of cafes and restaurants.  Volkonskiy Bakery at Bolshaya Sadovaya 2/46 is a branch of a popular French bakery chain, great for breakfast, but my favourite is Cafe Margarita facing the park.

For a great evening meal try Pavilion, right on Patriarch’s Ponds for good service and excellent Russian food. My favourite restaurant in Moscow is also here: Uilliams (Вильямс) at Malaya Bronnaya 20a. William Lamberti’s restaurant has a buzzing but homely feel with the open kitchen in the middle of the room. His inspiration of his Italian heritage can be seen in the  fresh ingredients and inventive food.

My last recommendation is for booklovers. Try out the Moskovskiy Dom Knigi at Novy Arbat 8. It is something of a Moscow institution, dating back to Soviet days.  I visited in 1979 when it sold a good selection of Socialist Realism posters and badges. That was in the days when you had to queue three times to buy anything. First you queued to select your item and exchange it for a ticket. Then you queued again at the cashier desk where you paid and exchanged the ticket for another ticket. Then you queued again where you first started and exchanged the goods for your chosen item. The shop is still there and doesn’t look much different from the outside. Inside, it’s a little more modern now and even has a cafe. On the ground floor there’s a good selection of maps and guide books, upstairs you’ll find a good art section plus all the Russian classics.

I wouldn’t put Moscow at the top of my list of shopping destinations but it is high on my travel list for its history, architecture and literature, with a spot of shopping on the side.

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