Photos & article by: Michelle Sanders
This fall, I was presented with the opportunity to visit Russia, a goal on my bucket list since childhood.
After researching, brushing up my language skills, and obtaining a visa, I refined details with a travel companion and a close friend who resides in Moscow. Once the plane landed, we wasted no time exploring.
Russian cuisine is delicious and I acquired a few new favourites during my visit; pots-du-crème style mushroom Juliennes, stuffed carrot fritters, a fermented-bread drink (kvas), and a pub snack of buttery black bread sticks rolled in garlic and baked crisp.
There was no shortage of smoked salmon tucked into blini and intricate egg pies, roasted shashlik meats, pirozhki, vareniki, syrniki cheese pancakes, pelmeni dumplings, fresh fruit and ice creams, layered salads, varieties of pickled vegetables, grainy breads, hearty soups, an array of herbal teas, rich coffees, and cream-filled cakes.
A few places that really stood out are Korchma Taras Bulba, a traditional Ukrainian restaurant with a second location in New York City, serving the best borsch I ever had alongside chicken Kiev and festive rolls twisted into pointed domes and baked golden brown.
Another favourite is JonJoli, a swanky late night Georgian restaurant known for its khachapuri, hot and spicy dishes, and vegetarian offerings. We ordered some Ajapsandali eggplant stew with peppery adjika sauce, shashlik, khachapuri, and several mixed salads. It was the perfect soul food after an inevitable night of roundtable vodka shots and red wine.
Chaihona №1 Teahouse holds a special place in my heart as the first and last place I visited, and where old and new friends assembled to say goodbye. Between its lush decor, engaging staff, and gigantic frosty beer goblets, I could see myself as a regular.
Eliseevsky is a thriving food market that opened at the start of the 1900s. It could be mistaken for a royal palace, and it is just one example of Moscow’s fine architecture in surprising locations. Reminiscent of Knoxville’s own Fresh Market, I was impressed with the amount of fresh and unprocessed goods available, while our country’s produce origins and quality are questionable. GMOs are now banned in Russia. Salt and sugar are typically not added to foods, and artificial additives are frowned upon. With some unnecessary persuasion, I purchased a divine slice of Russian Honey Cake and a few other treats to share.
Resurrection Gate, also called Iberian Gate, is a remnant of the Kitai-gorod and sits between the Moscow City Hall and State Historical Museum, with the small Iberian chapel in the center. Justifiably the most legendary and most visited place in Moscow, the Red Square boasts the iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral, Spasskaya Tower, Lobnoe Mesto, G.U.M. department store, and Lenin’s Mausoleum. I took distinct pleasure in watching the famously rowdy Stalin and Lenin impersonators interact with passersby, many of whom paused to toss coins for good luck over the gilded Zero Kilometer installation.
I have seen St. Basil’s Cathedral countless times in magazines, books, films, and on the internet, yet I was completely awestruck standing before it in person. Originally built in the 1500s for Ivan the Terrible, it was the tallest and first of its kind in architecture. The church is now a museum and arguably the most wildly popular and crowded attraction in Moscow.
After ogling around for a couple hours, it started getting dark so we headed inside the towering G.U.M., now functioning as an upscale shopping mall. Here I discovered the quaint joys of the retro Soviet-style cafeteria at Stolovaya #57. After a bit of window shopping and ice cream, we set out for some nightlife and I was delighted to see that G.U.M. was lit up with white holiday lights.
Our first stop within the Kremlin walls was the fascinating Arsenal and Armory Chamber Museum. We walked along the Moskva Riverbank and the Grand Kremlin Palace to the Ivan the Great Bell Tower, Tsar Bell, Tsar Cannon, Palace of Facets, the Cathedral complex, and more. The respective Cathedrals of the Annunciation and the Archangel were constructed in late 1400s- early 1500s and are two of the most opulent churches located in the city center. I could not help but notice even the officials working inside would often lose themselves among the intricate details of each painting seamlessly displayed from floor to ceiling.
Within its broad and bright city blocks, Moscow has nearly 3,000 museums, including the world-renowned Pushkin Museum and Tretyakov Gallery. Opposite of the Pushkin is the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the thirteenth largest Orthodox Church in the world. We visited the Arbat, a historical merchant district full of cafes, boutiques, souvenir stands, quirky oddity museums, larger than life exhibits, and a giant wall of remembrance for a beloved rockstar Viktor Tsoi near the Moscow Hard Rock Cafe.
Musicians with a plethora of homemade instruments, and a duo with a wall of musical sound plates, gave each Metro station its own flavour. Culture and Art is everywhere in Moscow, from street performers to costumed actors reenacting history, to massive memorials springing up out of the ground and walls. We attended a performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in a lovely Anglican church, and saw many diverse exhibits in the Modern Museum of Art.
I am obsessed with Mikhail Bulgakov’s book Master and Margarita. This 1967 Soviet satire spins a story of the Devil wreaking havoc in 1930s Moscow with his seductively rowdy and menacing entourage of kooks. Master & Margarita inspired a popular serial on Russian television. References also appear in films, plays, comics, and numerous pop culture nods from H.R. Giger, Franz Ferdinand, Star Trek, and more.
We visited the late Bulgakov’s apartment on Bolshaya Sadovaya. It holds Cafe 302-bis and two competing museums, Bulgakov House and Bulgakov Museum. The interior walls and stairwells connecting the museums are decorated with over a decade of elaborate fan art and declarations, and dozens of beautiful collages on the exterior.
After pouring over the remnants of Bulgakov’s life and career, intertwined with Master memorabilia, we strolled around another literary landmark, Patriarch Ponds. The autumn weather was lovely and we relished a few moments of tranquility away from the city buzz at Three Pond Lane. We also visited Margarita’s Cafe and Behemoth Cafe, and admired statues, signs, and monuments referencing Master & Margarita.
Russia has more than one kremlin, the Russian word for citadel or fortress, within its borders. The Byzantine-styled Izmailovo Kremlin is a small merchant village that has nostalgic charm, dazzling colours, galleries, wooden churches, museums, a children’s open-air amusement park, and clear views of the Serebryanka River. One art gallery’s amiable hostess surprised us with gifts of homemade wine, apples, and postcards.
In the center of Manege Square near Okhotny Ryad is a glowing glass dome map of the northern hemisphere with a statue of St. George on top. Just steps from Red Square, the Watch of the World is romantic, surrounded by fountains and impeccable landscaping. Nearby is the underground Moscow Archaeology Museum. This hidden treat contains small-scale replicas and artifacts of the city from centuries past.
Before the trip, I made flashcards and notes pertaining to getting lost, needing directions, ordering food, being stuck in a blizzard, and other problems.
I braced myself for cold weather and locals who might dislike American tourists. But, everyone I met was kind, helpful, and curious. The October weather was sunny with highs in the 40s -50s F.
The language barrier did not pose much of an issue, as my gracious friend is also an excellent translator. I was introduced to some of his non-English speaking friends and we communicated with each other via Google Translate.
I serendipitously came across the phrase мне везёт (I am lucky). It has stayed with me since.
© Michelle Sanders