"You can get there from here."
The impetus for this amazing trip had its roots based on a trip my best friend Dave Forney made almost exactly a year ago when he helped escort his niece, Louisa, to the Moscow Academy of Choreography, where she would train with the Boishoi Ballet. Louisa had recently been home for the holidays and this was a déjà vu trip of sorts for her and her uncle. I had gratefully been invited to come along and with us on this excursion was also Dave’s brother Tim.
Other than being treated to the sight of thousands of migrating whales when we left LAX, the flight to Moscow from Los Angeles was uneventful, which is the way all 12 hour flights should be. This was in a great part due to the extensive planning by Dave. Dave took care of everything, from booking the flights, getting our preferred seat assignments and having our boarding passes printed and ready for us at the airport. Having him organize this incredible trip was like having our own personal travel agent as well as tour guide.
Landing at one of the three main airports in Moscow was smooth but not without a little anxiety. The cloud cover was so thick and low that we didn’t break through until we were about 300 feet off of the ground. Still, the pilot set us down without incident and we taxied over the cold and icy tarmac to our gate. It was one degree above freezing when we landed.
Inside, I was very impressed with the cleanliness, modern appointments, and efficiency of the Moscow airport. We breezed through customs and immigration and I actually found the immigration officers here much more personable and accommodating than those I had encountered in Canada on my numerous business trips up there.
In short order we had our bags retrieved and were greeted by Vladimir. No, not Putin silly!! Vlade was Dave ‘s driver from his previous visit and he had booked him for the week to take us around as well as play personal tour guide for us. See what I mean about Dave handling everything.
Car dealerships bordered the highway, along with malls, furniture outlets and clothing stores. Commercial billboards - non-existent in the last “communist” country I had visited (Cuba) – dotted the skyline, screaming at the modern Russian consumer to part with their hard-earned Rubles for everything from designer clothing, to jewelry and expensive perfumes.
Another, less foreboding departure from the norm, was the fact that the Russians still celebrated Christmas in January up until the feast of the epiphany. Christmas trees were everywhere long with lights and other decorations.
"There's always tomorrow."
After fighting sleep throughout the night/day, I finally got up around 4:00 a.m. Moscow time. I downloaded my pics from the previous day, and then worked on my journal as well as handled some emails.
At around 8 I headed down to the hotel gym, walking past the numerous restaurants, high end shops, and even a Bentley car dealership that were located in the hotel’s lobby. The gym was clean, well equipped and sparsely occupied. Besides the standard machines and free weights, they also had a pool which I wouldn’t be able to utilize as I had neglected to pack a bathing suit. I guess when you are packing to head into freezing daytime temps, a bathing suit is about the farthest thing from your mind.
I met Dave and Tim in the same Talavera Restaurant we had dined at the night before and we all dug in – like typical Americans – to the all you can eat buffet. Besides having our sleep patterns thrown off, our meal schedules were all topsy-turvy as well and we found that we were famished. Hurray for all you can eat!!
We met Vlade in front of the hotel at around 10 a.m. and headed out. The weather was just above freezing but we had prepared well for it and were comfortable. Before starting some of the tour items on our agenda, we backtracked to Louisa’s school so that Dave could drop off a box of candy he had brought as a gift for a person working there. With his niece and God-daughter a half a world away, he thought it best to maintain good foreign relations. After all, Russia was very used to operating on bribes and when in Moscow, do what the Muskovites do!
Because of the traffic, we didn’t reach our first destination, the Novodevichy Convent for about 45 minutes. Founded in 1524, it’s best know by the locals as “The Cloister of Moscow.” Built with high walls and twelve towers strategically situated around the rectangular structure, it was initially constructed as a fort. Before long though, its isolation proved a convenient place to warehouse many ladies from the Russian royal families and boyar clans who were forced to take “the veil.”
While many of these sequestered tsarevna’s were unable to escape from inside the convent’s high walls, we found that we could neither enter the convent, nor tour its famous adjacent cemetery. Just before Christmas a Russian aircraft had crashed in bad weather, killing most of the members of a popular choir group as well as a beloved nurse. The funeral was being held for her here today and so we were summarily denied access.
We decided to make lemonade out of lemons – or rather Vodka out of potatoes – and so we toured the expansive park that surrounded the convent proper. It was a nice day and plenty of people were strolling around with babies in strollers as well as a cross country skiing class that was taking advantage of the fresh powder. Before long, the sun made an appearance and warmed things up considerably.
Unlike our surprise at being turned away at the convent, we knew that it would be a crap-shoot to try to gain entry to the campus when we arrived. Dave had been turned away before but had searched out and emailed the dean of the school to see if we would be given access. The dean never replied to the email and without a patron, we were denied entrance again. Still, we were able to tour the outside of the buildings and the grounds before heading off.
Vlade drove us to a nice little Russian Café called Gorad, which means “City” in Russian. One guy inside the café was hardly what you would call “The Welcome Wagon” and we had to deal with his drunkenness and overt social behavior. I didn’t know if this was to become the norm now that we were out in the city, but never the less, he soon was escorted out.
We had a nice meal of beef cutlets, salad and soup. Just to underscore how things get lost in translation, beef cutlets were actually meatballs as Vlade explained that the term “cut,” would also mean grind up meat.
Just a short walk away from the Gorad Café was the Russian WW II Museum. It was on our agenda for tomorrow, but with the twin dismissals by the convent and the university, we thought it might be opportune to reshuffle the schedule a bit. On the way to the museum, we passed by an elaborate outdoor ice carved village, which looked beautiful, especially with the multi-colored lighting.
As we approached the WW II Museum it was easy to see even from a distance that the Russian’s took a great deal of pride in their sacrifices made for the war. There was a giant tower with magnificent statues, an eternal flame, and a curved colonnade that served as the entrance to the museum.
The museum represented the third strike of the day though as it happened to be closed today, a Monday. We resolved to hit the convent and the museum hard the next day and took our sorrows to the Radisson Royale, where they could be properly drowned in some of Mother Russia’s Milk.
After passing through yet another metal detector and the watchful eyes of security personnel, we entered the opulent lobby of the Radisson. Bypassing the pricey shops, Vlade took us to the second floor and to a giant scale model of the city of Moscow. We examined the model, saw where we had been and where we would be going and then headed to the 26th. floor to wet our collective Yankee whistles.
By now if was blowing light snow flurries that, along with the Christmas decorations and the American holiday tunes playing in the background, created a white Christmas type of atmosphere. And if you don’t believe me, just click on the link here to see for yourself.
Thankfully, the situation was resolved and cooler heads are now running the country – or at least we hoped.
The restaurant had counter service but additionally had automated kiosks that may soon be supplanting all of the US’s $15.00 an hour employees who think that they are irreplaceable. Wanting something from the menu other than what we could get at home, we all tried the Russian “Country Burger “ with potato wedges.
Outside of the mall and brightly lit was a gorgeous display of St. Basils and Red Square in colorful lights.