Feel Like a Soviet in Moscow, Top 10, Part 1

Twenty five years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow is still as Red as it gets. In fact it’s getting redder and redder. Although “red” stands for beautiful in old Russian, older Russians are feeling nostalgic about the debris of a country that doesn’t officially exist. Defeated by my attempts to comprehend the mysterious Russian soul, I spent a week in the Kremlin’s Shadow to review, photograph and eventually leak to a wide group of civilians, the Top 10 “Feel Like a Soviet” experiences in Moscow. Let’s start with a little video to put you in the right mood. You’re welcome, Comrades!

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No. 1 – Sparrow Hills

It’s free!

Sparrow Hills or Vorobyovy Gory is a place with the observation point where Mr. Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita wished farewell to Moscow and vanished in the darkness on galloping black horses. “Follow me my reader, and me alone…”, so this time let’s substitute horse power with a rather bourgeois morning Uber ride (as a after 10am local traffic is bearable), and take in a delightful view of “the meadows” of Moscow River.

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The Novodevichy and the Luzniki

Right in front of you is Luzniki Stadium where a fuzzy Olympic Misha tied to thousands of balloons broke many hearts at the closing ceremony of the 1980 Summer Olympics. On the left, see the golden onion-domes of Novodevichy Convent, which for a couple of post-revolutionary years served as the Museum of Women’s Emancipation. Then turn around to see one of Stalin’s so called “seven sisters” monument buildings, the Moscow State University poking clouds with its tall spire. The last leader of the Soviet Union, and the voice and spirit of Perestroika, Mr. Gorbachev was among its powerful and famous alumni. Walk around the University to appreciate the extend of Stalin’s architecture and then hike down the hills through partially wild-grown greenery to the Vorobyevy Gory subway station.

P.S. “The Master and Margarita” is witty Soviet satire novel and a masterpiece of 2oth century literature; a wonderful read if well translated.

No. 2 – Subway 

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The Moscow Metro is a treasure of Soviet architecture hidden underground. It was built to amaze (with the initial help of British engineers) and it’s truly shockingly beautiful. Being one of the first projects of Stalin’s ambitions, the Metro is loaded with secrets, mysterious passages, bronze sculptures, mosaics, gold, art deco and baroque elements. Allegedly every station has a unique design (Vorobyevy Gory is the first station ever constructed on a bridge). Some shine in marble recycled from demolished cathedrals and churches. Forty four stations are cultural heritage sites and all of them merge into one marvelous underground castle of the Working Class. While an assertive male voice announces stops on the way downtown and female voice the way out, I consider the Moscow Metro to be the most convincing propaganda ever. If communists ride in such a lavish style, sign me up to join the party (well, there is always a dark side, as Goethe’s Faust discovered when he sold his soul to the devil).

P.S. Tokens and passes are available at every station, the Metro is open daily from 6am to 1am. It’s the best way to get around the city and a great activity on a rainy day. Photography is permitted.

No. 3 – Red Square

It’s free!

Enjoy your underground ride all the way to the Ploshchad Revolyutsii (the closest exit) and hold your breath, prepare to be fascinated.

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Internationally recognized as a symbol of the evil USSR, Red Square originates in the 15th century when a space near the Kremlin (city’s fortress and now the presidential residence) was cleared by the early urbanists to create a buffer zone and a battle field. Later it turned into the heart of the city’s life, where state leaders fancy appearing and addressing the nation during official ceremonies, parades and on the New Year Eve (starting in the 20th century).

Ironically the first revolutionaries (Streltsy, then Razin and Pugashev) were executed here, followed by Soviet revolutionaries finding their eternal peace along Kremlin’s walls. You can visit the father of the Soviet revolution, comrade Lenin, in his private tomb (the mausoleum) right in the center of the square free of charge.

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Spasskaya Tower and the first Lenin’s mausoleum. Credit to unknown photographer.

Not sympathetic to mummies and queueing? Watch out for live smiley versions of Lenin and Stalin sneaking around. Look up. Some of Kremlin’s towers are topped with ruby stars, which replaced double-headed eagles in 1935. On the way out, spot a statue of General Zykhov, the one who led the victory parade after the end of the WWII.

No. 4 – Alexander Garden

It’s free!

Situated along the Kremlin’s wall, this park was originally dedicated to victory in the Napoleonic War and consisted of three separate gardens. Walk through the main cast iron gate to spend a minute in silence in front of the WWII memorial (every Russian family lost at least one member in that war). Watch the eternal flame and witness the change of young, good-looking guards gloriously marching in unison (relocated here from Lenin’s tomb in 90’s). Continue your walk to discover the Grotto (stones recycled from houses ruined by Napoleon’s army), and the Obelisk, ironically placed to celebrate 300 years of Romanov’s rule in 1913, then in four years it was tweaked by bolsheviks to represent their interpretation of history and restored to its original look in 2013. Time to turn to the other side, where happy teenagers on a hot summer afternoon loudly splash in the waters of the fountain with galloping black horses (again!), created by born-in-the-USSR artist Zurab Tsereteli.

No. 5 – GUM

Entrance is free!

Literally translated as the “Main Department Store”, GUM always has and always will represent prestige and luxury trade in the minds of Russians. Most visit GUM not to shop, but for an experience, an inspiration and Instagram selfies, obviously. Located right in front of Lenin’s tomb in an area known for retail and trade for centuries, it’s a totally different kind of a mausoleum nationalized by bolsheviks after 1917. Praised by the tragically talented poet Mayakovsky as the store for everyone’s every need, it was turned into a bureaucratic institution during Stalin’s regime (and the body of his wife who committed suicide was displayed here before her funeral). Since reopening in 1953 to outshine Saks and Macy’s, GUM never faced a shortage of goods nor a shortage of consumers. The two longest queues on Red Square led either to Lenin or shopping paradise. GUM was also a home to the secret Section 200 store where the Soviet Elite stocked up on Western fashion (think Nina Ricci and Chanel). Stroll down the aisles to enjoy the remaining signs of the Soviet avant-garde, taste the famous ice-cream and visit a delightfully jolly grocery store on the ground floor.

Well, my tired reader, congratulations! You’ve completed the first challenge set for your mind and body with true communist determination. To feel the true glory of this moment, imagine yourself back in 1937, in Stalin’s Russia. Back then there were three ways to celebrate: 1. the Na Zdorovie ritual (we tried it); 2. relocation to GULAG (skip!) or induction to the Pioneers (Soviet scouts and the second step in a complicated Party hierarchy). Let’s head to Dr. Zhivago’s for this unique experience.

No. 6 – Dr. Zhivago, the restaurant 

Reservation is a must. Credit cards are accepted, carrying cash is advised. More here.

Located right across Red Square, Dr. Zhivago is a place with great indoor and outdoor views. For a few months after it opened, it was impossible to reserve a table unless secured far in advance or demanded using the Russian tradition of close friends. Decorated in posh futuristic style with the elements of cubism, avant-garde and beloved soviet realism, this place is truly intimidating (even for those who indulge in chopstick fights at Hakkassan). Start with ordering vodka, trust me you’ll need it, paired with black beluga caviar to clear the palette and an overwhelming feeling of illusion (mosaics on the ceiling aren’t what they seem). Try traditional soft drinks mors and kvass (Russian answer to Coca-Cola) and get engaged in a conversation with the polished staff in choosing your treats. Have fun and overcome my silly fear of taking photos at Zhivago’s as I couldn’t get enough.

To be continued…

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You scream “Ice Cream”!

For me, life is a scoop of ice cream. Or 2. Frigid at first, it softly melts, filling souls with joy, happiness and the tingling sensation of a sugar rush. Some will gulp it, others cherish every tiny bit (or pathetically waste it on a sidewalk…). It’s truly an adventure – you never know how far you will get unless you taste it. Ironically, when bikini season is around the corner, ice-cream stands seem to be always closer and greatly desirable.

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In  Toronto the art of ice cream making is taken rather seriously – a rare brand will offer less than 10 house-made flavors with dairy-free and vegan options. They pride themselves in locally sourced, organically grown ingredients (think Ontario strawberries Gelato at Soma) or alcohol-based flavors (Vegan Pinacolada at Bang Bang). Hunting for the right scoop of the 16th century dessert turns out to be an exciting expedition through witty names, flavors and neighborhoods. On your journey you will learn that “Pint” stands for a small bucket of a frozen treat to take home, which is often not available for sale at artisanal stores from May to October. So, are you ready? Follow me hungry readers!

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  1. Predictably in a search of “Gelato to die for” I headed to Little Italy on College. The scent of rich espresso infused with hazelnuts and happy body language clearly indicated that Dolce Gelato was my sort of a place. Endless selection (60 flavours!) of traditional (pistachio) and traditional with a twist (torrone – almonds and nougat) gelato is overwhelming… Do not repeat my mistake of pointing at the first good looking bucket. The best strategy is to invest some time in tasting and chatting with super friendly staff to select a serving of two flavours or more.

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2. The opposite of traditional, Put a Cone on It is a destination for rebellious and adventurous souls. Serving at only one location in Koreatown on Bloor they rotate a minimal selection of flavours (I counted 12) with maximum taste – Black Cat, Earl Grey, White Miso, Vanilla Malt and deliciously exotic Black Sesame (a must-try). If you decide to indulge in your ice cream on the go, be aware of a high risk of being stopped by fellow pedestrians longing to repeat your experience or steal your crispy vanilla waffle.

3. Ice-Cream Junction on Dundas West is the most kids-centric place I visited – there is a line of cute low-rise chairs at the entrance, tons of paper napkins on the counter, complimentary drinking water and a little step-stool in front of the freezers. They serve Canada-made, rich in flavor and history Kawartha ice cream in cups or house-baked cones. Their bright decor resembles the set up for Alice in Wonderland and visitors, surrounded by candies, toppings and sugar in various forms are encouraged to create their own perfect treat. Try Black Cherries!

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4. Soma Chocolatier on King street impresses with thoughtfully sophisticated design, sleek freezers and fancy ice-cream cups (even to the eye of a Dubai girl). Located downtown, in a crowded touristic area à côté de TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival theater) they nevertheless invest in taste and research. Known for seasonal flavors based on locally sourced ingredients, all their gelato and sorbets are made from scratch. A brisk evaluating look from a guy at the counter led to a suggestion that “blueberries and basil” sorbet was my alter-ego. He was absolutely right.

5. Ed’s real scoop on Roncesvalles Avenue is casual, delicious and widely affordable. They promote peace, taste and happiness. A branded t-shirt on a wall says, “Make ice-cream, not war”. There is something truly magical in the air – even the naughtiest little screamers behave, patiently awaiting their turn. For grown ups in the summer Ed often creates seasonal Mojito and Sangria sorbets infused with rum and real wine. My serving of pistachio gelato was so rich and velvety smooth that I almost forgot to take a photo.

6. Bang Bang ice-cream on Ossington Avenue is the easiest to find, but the hardest to get. Look out for a long queue of intriguingly dressed folks mostly in their 20-30s, busy chatting and Instagramming. Prepare to camp for a half an hour in the evening and do your homework: pick between cookies (7 types), waffle, cone or puff, topped with a scoop or two. Flavors like London Fog, Mud, Totaro are impossible to figure out. Fortunately the staff are trained to work under pressure, quickly answer questions and guide you in the right flavor direction. My choice was a scoop of mud between captain’s p’nut cookie cut in half. It’s unforgettable!

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Fort York – in the heart of Urban Toronto

Squeezed between condos, bridges and concrete architecture – it’s hard to believe that Fort York was once a defensive fortress right on the lake. Built in 1793 as part of an alliance with the First Nations to protect the Upper Ontario from Americans, it resembled more of a settlement than a military base and was surrounded by green woods and blue waters.

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Fort York was further strengthened in 1811 in anticipation of the war, then burnt and looted by Americans in 1812 (which eventually resulted in successful storming of the White House by British and Canadian troops). It was re-built to the modern look in 1814 and then the peace was declared.

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Soldiers’ barracks were decorated in minimalistic and practical manner. Double-beds, iron lanterns, dining tables, a few shelves and a fire place – all too small for modern standards, and too short to comfortably fit me.

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The uniform, a fur-hat and a flask fitted me perfectly and were made in my favorite colors (is it true that red was chosen for it tendency to cover up blood?)

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Officers’ barracks with individual rooms, servant’s kitchen, fire-places, extra furnaces and personalized furniture had a rather luxurious look.

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Poor bear stretched on a wall occupied more space than officer’s bed and contrasted dramatically with a secret blue pot on the floor.

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The whole place was frozen in time; even the glassed displays had a vintage look.

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This innocent looking furnace was used as “hot shot” weapon to heat cannon balls and set targets on fire (think enemy ships).

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If only I was allowed to try them on! Haute-couture.

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My favorite place and the pumping heart of the Fort – was the operational (to nowadays!) kitchen.

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I could not resist filling up on cookies and rhubarb tarts.

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No wonder kitchen staff often ended-up with burnt eye-brows and eye-lashes. Cooking over the fire is a battle! I left covered in a cloud of smoke and fire-wood fragrance.

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It’s astonishing that kitchenware hasn’t changed much and the same ingredients were used to feed the hungry souls.

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I expected the white window to open wide any moment and officers to rush in for a drink and pre-dinner chat.

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The same green chairs are still widely popular in Canada and serve their duties well at cottages. The same China set is a sought-after piece of art.

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Found at the end of my journey – a lonely beaver looked me straight in the eye and silently begged to visit him again.

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Spring in the city

Toronto in Spring is all about the 3B’s – Beautiful, Buzzy and Breezy (lots of free stuff as well, think street concerts, festivals and ice cream tastings). Every day there is a tiny change in surroundings – the city is greener, lusher, brighter and of course,  warmer (except for when it suddenly snows). On a clear day, the famous CN Tower can be spotted from almost anywhere:

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The people of Toronto and visitors opt for walking and cycling over commuting underground. Streets are filled with love:

The best place for a “walk, breath and watch” experience is High Park. The land was gifted to the City and people by John George Howard (civil engineer, architect and artist) at the end of 19th century. Every May, park turns into a Mecca for cherry-blossoms fans, however this year the weather pulled a wicked trick, and left me heartbroken with no vivid memories:

I learnt that the Canadian spring is moody. I was exposed to the wind, snow, rain, clouds and sunshine all in 1 day. Locals love to quote: “If you don’t like the weather, just wait for a few minutes”. True!

Another way to get into Spring Spirit or Hipster Spirit/Hippy Spirit/Cocktail Spirit is to visit the famous Kensington Market. That place is a legend featuring many Victorian homes and hand-made robots. A true mix of flavors and cultures.

While Canada is loved world-wide for its nature, Toronto is a place where wild life finds you whether you want it or not. Watch out for cute little creatures like squirrels or raccoons plotting to steal your lunch:

Built of glass, concrete blocks and dark-brown bricks, downtown Toronto resembles the streets of New York. No wonder American Psycho, The Interpreter and How to Loose a Guy in 10 Days were shot over here.

Remember the CN Tower? It’s literally poking the sky. It used to be the tallest building in the world (1975-2007) and then Burj Khlaifa in Dubai grew into the title. Sky in Toronto is another phenomena – 50 shades of white and blue.

On the last Monday before May 25th, Canadians celebrate a birthday of the “Mother of Confederation” – Queen Victoria. The long weekend usually marks the beginning of the outdoor season with people opening up cottages, organizing picnics and barbecues. Torontonians gather at the Beaches waterfront to watch fireworks and share a drink from coffee flasks.

No matter where you are – Spring only happens once a year. Use your time wisely!

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Take me down to the Paradise city

Where the sea so warm and rays are pretty…

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Maldives!

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In the age when traveling is all about reaching a destination – a trip to Maldives is a big bright adventure. Start with careful packing – think ridiculous bikinis, speedos, tuxedos and gowns (for after 6), as every second of the island life is a perfect photo-opportunity. Tip: the sun is killer – invest in serious sunblock (SPF 100) are cover-it-all swimwear for snorkeling. Fly high and keep your eyes open!

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The only downer on arrival is an endless queue at passport control. Business class passengers and families with kids are given a priority – use your time wisely and blend in with the right crowd 🙂

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Banyan Tree resort  is 20 minutes on a boat away from the airport, so after a breezy trip, a very quick and pleasant check in, one is ready to par-ty.

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Maldives is known for unforgettable, aquarium-like snorkeling and diving adventures.  Surrounding coral reefs are inhabited by all sort of creatures – rays, barracudas, exotic fish, turtles, sharks, octopus, girls in tight suits and so many, many more. Banyan Tree diving center provided masks and fins for no extra charge. Tip: ask for a life-jacket to wear on your snorkeling expedition for extra confidence and comfort (saves back from sun-burns too).

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The best part about the Banyan Tree resort – you can swim directly off the beach to discover the treasures of the Indian ocean. The water is slightly lower than a body temperature reflects all shadows of blue creating a fancy aquarium effect. Just jump in and keep your eyes open to be amazed. When the time comes to get onshore, there is so much to do and experience! Here is my selection of things you need to try at Banyan Tree.

1. Wake-up with the sun for a fragrant self-brewed coffee experience in a batik gown:

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2. Indulge in a non-sharable exotic breakfast:

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3. Walk on the softest white sand late in the afternoon and let the disappearing sun bronze your skin a little:

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4. Did not burn all the energy swimming? There is plenty of space on the island for all type of outdoor exercises, including energetic Zumba moves:

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Or questionable skipping:

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5. Spend evenings sipping refreshing cocktails (because you deserve an exotic Margarita). Keep an eye for happy hours:

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6. Sunbath. Literally:

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7. Participate in sting-rays feeding show or visit a real Marine Lab on the island and sponsor your own coral garden:

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8. Watch sunset and re-watch the sunset:

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9. Share your happy moment with the world – Instagram’em:

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10. Learn to cat-walk (a very helpful skill):

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11. Pick a new hobby – full moon, night-time photography for instance:

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The milky-way is just a mile away:

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12. Hide from early afternoon sunshine:

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There is plenty of shade at any time of the day:

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13. Enjoy the “golden-hour” in full glory:

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Never say good-bye. See you soon Maldives!

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