• MJ Agra

From Russia with Love: My 24 Hours in Moscow

Updated: Nov 1, 2020

Russia recently reopened its borders for tourists from select countries including the U.A.E. Travel back in time with me as I reminisce my last trip to MOSCOW before the lockdown. I'm still dreaming of tasting the classic dishes at the legendary Café Pushkin and immersing myself in Russia's culture and traditions during this unforgettable"daycation."

{This is subject to change at any time so check restrictions and requirements before travel.}

As I slowly melt into these clouds of sheets and continue to cast away from reality in deep sleep, the sudden pierce ringing of the alarm jolts me up in bed in shock and panic. “Where am I?” thinking to my jetlagged-self. I soon realize I’m far from home after noticing the Rosewood furnitures, Ballet Russe dance-inspired abstract artwork, and ginormous burgundy leather frame towering behind the plush king-sized bed that took me to dreamland. I feel a sudden shiver from the cold breeze that escaped through the dancing golden drapes from the window I had left ajar the night before.

Imagine the joy when greeted by the clear skies after pulling back the curtains. It looks like it won’t be snowing in Moscow today! It was an expected cold and gloomy day in March with temperatures dipping to the low 2 degrees celsius. Come rain or snow, I was prepared to brave the cold with my lucky Italian leather boots, wool turtleneck sweater, and faux fur jacket.

The Renaissance Moscow Monarch Centre Hotel is just a stone’s throw away from everything that makes Russia’s cosmopolitan capital glorious: the grandeur of the Kremlin, Red Square, Lenin’s tomb, the upscale GUM shopping complex, and fairytale pepper-pot churches like the iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral.

The streets were filled with cars and suits on foot. It would be a shame to miss out on the once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience the hospitality of muscovites firsthand and soak in all of Russia’s rich history and culture.

Little did I know this would be my last flight to Europe before the big lockdown.

It’s known that Russian winters are bone-chillingly cold, which is why tourists shy away from October to April to avoid the slushy snow. Instead, they wait for breezy June and goodbye-to-the-heat-and-rain September. Lucky for my being Canadian, I live for picturesque winter wonderlands!

Pre-covid, this World Travel Award’s winner for World's Leading City Destination 2019 secured its place among the global tourism hot spots, with about 5.5 million foreigners coming into the city in flocks in 2018 during the FIFA World Cup.

Moscow currently ranks 31st on the list of most visited capitals in the world and surprisingly welcomes the same number of tourists as its popular neighbors: Paris, London, and Amsterdam.

Come early March 2020, the doom of the coronavirus begins to set in and takes its toll on its tourism sector already taking a $406 million hit.

MEANWHILE in the heart of Moscow, overly-excited tourists - including myself - enthusiastically draft up an itinerary for the next 24 hours.

Russia is not a typical food destination, but the cuisine’s colorful variety and flavors are a result of the influence of its close connection to Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

Carbs-lover? Classic Russian dishes are simply veggies and wheat, like the warm borscht (beetroot soup), pelmeni (Russian-style filled dumplings), shchi (cabbage soup), pirozhki (fried puff pastries) and blini (wheat pancakes).

First stop on the list: Café Pushkin brought to life by Franco-Russian artist Andrey Dellos and named after the Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin.

Picking a restaurant is no easy feat; it has to tick off my top 3 must-haves: delicious local food as proven by countless reviews, the beauty of the setting and ambience, and lastly - does its story move me?

Let’s start with the history of this 5-star restaurant: Once upon a time, it was the city's only upper class restaurant where diners could wine and dine without fear of the KGB. Flashback to half a century ago - legendary French chansonnier Gilbert Bécaud dedicates the song “Natalie” to his Russian guide in Moscow after returning to Paris. The song goes: “We are walking around Moscow, visiting Red Square, and you are telling me learned things about Lenin and the Revolution, but I’m thinking, ‘I wish we were at Café Pushkin, looking at the snow outside the windows. We’d drink hot chocolate, and talk about something completely different…’”

This world famous song has inspired French visitors to look for the non-existent café in Moscow for many years until Café Pushkin finally opened in 1999.

Now standing in front of this Baroque mansion on Tverskoy Boulevard (a famous hangout spot for Moscow’s high society after 1796) - I breathe a sigh of relief, I made it.

The road to get here was foreign - rather - filled with a few dozen google translate exchanges with my seemingly patient taxi driver.

For a moment, I admire the rose-hued exterior of this iconic 5-star restaurant that resembles that of an 18th century Russian Aristocrat’s mansion. I victoriously push past the heavy wooden doors only to be halted by the statuesque guard, who repeatedly motions for me to descend down their dungeon-like floor. Bewildered, the hostess comes to my rescue from behind her wooden lectern and explains that it’s customary to leave my jacket with coatcheck before entering.

Russians are known to be sticklers of formality; I quickly obliged and understood its faux pas to enter with my jacket on. It doesn't matter if you're cold.

The perky English-speaking hostess gestures to give me a quick tour of this museum-like halls. We start with the ground-floor, which includes the pharmacy hall and a sophisticated 24-hour café. I slow down as I notice the magnificent Greek Gods painted throughout the ornate ceilings staring down at me: Apollo, Pegasus, Perseus, Athena and Aphrodite. Relics of the German aristocrat who owned the house in the 19th century can be seen in the collection of antiques: the surviving mirror, cast-iron grille, and the stucco-work around the walls and ceilings.

We swiftly move upstairs to The Library and The Mezzanine, which resembles that of a nobleman’s study adorned with precious antiques, stained glass windows, wooden paneling, surrounding wall cabinets, floor-to-ceiling bookcases teeming with world-class literature, English chiming wall-clocks, antique telescopes, theodolites, a spyglass, and an old-floor standing globe in the centre of the Baroque-style hall.

Snapping out of my throwback to history, I ask to settle in a quiet corner by the window in the Library Room. A friendly face dressed in a crisp white bubble-sleeved shirt, velvet red vest, hunter green neck scarf, and long white apron hands over an English menu and gently places a small wooden stool next to me for my purse. Excited to sample their culinary delights served with French flair, I trustingly settle for his recommendations.

Meanwhile, the French-inspired formal and personalized service à la russe (Russian service) continues when my charming server enchants me with memorabilia from this historical mansion - including a 17th century book inscribed in old Russian language and the Pushkin family story.

My senses snap me out of this fairytale as the servers carefully line up the appetizers in front of me: the borsch (beetroot soup with smoked and roasted duck breasts) and pelmeni (Russian dumplings with mixed meat of pork, beef, mutton). This famous old country soup is a sophisticated rich, nutty, and salty blend of julienned slices of beets, veal, and apple to create a deep tomato red color. After seconds of devouring it, I was excited to try their classic pelmeni. Sprinkled with a generous amount of dill - the country’s favourite herb - the dumplings were heaven-like savoury and I felt full after a couple bites. How will I have room for the Veal I ordered for my main course?

The staff seem to have anticipated the pelmeni effect that my server quickly tells me they'll only fire up the grill when I'm ready.

I use this time to soak in the historic interiors of one of the most beautiful restaurants in Moscow. Other than the whispers of the couple tables across the hall, I hummed to the rhythm of the classical music playing in the background and felt transported to an old-fashioned grand era.

Many haute dishes and a perfumed strawberry tea later, I was ready to step out the doors and discover the spirit of Moscow by foot - without any dependence on google maps or google translate! The server was kind enough to give me clear directions on where to go and what to see in the remaining hours I had left in the city (I made sure to tip him 50% of my shockingly affordable bill).

I always believe that kindness deserves recognition, whether through tips or words of affirmation and especially for people working in hospitality during these challenging times. After all, a little good goes a long way.

St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square

{L-R} GUM upscale shopping mall, Bosco Mishka Bar, Russian dolls


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