10 years later, the Taj in Mumbai

It’s been 10 years since my last stay at the Taj Mahal in Mumbai (read part 1 here). I left a few days earlier than planned to help my friends deal with a glamorous shopping spree in Dubai.

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Taj Mahal, view from the pool, 2008

At that time Taj ran at full occupancy, hosting party after a party and guests from all over the world. The hecticness, however, wasn’t obvious to anyone’s eye except the staff, and  all my free time was passed at the swimming pool, guarded by statuesque lions and ever hungry crows.

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Taj Mahal Mumbai, the pool, 2008

10 years later the lions were still on duty.

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Taj Mahal Mumbai, the pool, 2018

When not in the water, I used to enjoy lazying in vintage like chaise longues, starring at the grey stone majestic facade.

Ten years later the facade was the same. The most drastic transformation was a change in the “open sky” policy for cheeky city birds, limiting their access to all day long “bed and breakfast”. But don’t you worry: birds still sneak in, showing a complete ignorance to etiquette. The garden has greatly expanded to the mezzanine floor, and new palm trees popped up here and there. I noticed chaise longues no longer featured sun shades. Instead, the traditional Rajasthani umbrellas were installed, adding a touch of cultural and heritage to the pool area. Believe it or not, but this used to be the front entrance back in 1903. Do you agree that the pool is a better idea?

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Taj Mahal Mumbai, view from the pool, 2018

Happy to see that the Taj’ exteriors stayed true to their 2008 look, I did noticed a change in interior design. Damaged after the fire and destruction, all ground level restaurants were completely refurbished and highly unrecognizable. The number of open entrances to the hotel was reduced to one, where strict security has been introduced. I could no longer run in and out without passing through a metal detector. On the brighter side, the iconic floating staircases look exactly the same if not a little prettier.

The rooms featured the same white marble in the bathrooms, giving them a rather royal feel. Additionally the new wooden flooring, brighter paint and furniture appeared in the living spaces and all sort of life hacks in the form of buttons, cables and devices were introduced to add technical luxury to the stay. The view stayed the same.

To be continued…

Find out more about the Taj Mahal of Mumbai here.

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Where Turquoise Waters Shimmer

At Angsana Velavaru

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Aangsana Velavaru is an island paradise 45 minutes away from Male, the capital of Maldives. In the shimmering blue waters of the Indian Ocean, the island is surrounded by a live coral reef with unimaginably colourful species and creatures.

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The island is far enough away from civilization to create the illusion of an exotic adventure and disconnection from hectic urban living. But it’s just an illusion as fast free WiFi allows one to reach out anywhere in the world within seconds.

We arrived on a little floatplane right before the sunset and were greeted with the sounds of traditional instruments echoing in the waves. I turned my face to the breeze and smiled.

It was a fantastic ending to a desperate morning struggle to book an alternative to the first hotel that turned out to be hideous. Changing hotels in Maldives was a risky exercise considering logistics, most of the resorts existed as independent islands. I called Angsana Velavaru in panic requesting immediate help with the booking. I wanted to believe they were moved by my sobbing voice however later experience proved Angsana’s team really truly cared about guest’s wellbeing. So in a matter of half an hour, I was assured of a new address to stay at and most importantly, that great humanity existed! So when I stepped out of the last seaplane for the day mesmerized by vanilla sky reflected in crystal clear shimmering waters, I felt like the luckiest girl on Earth! I will never forget the kindness of the person on the opposite side of the line helping me out.

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Our island villa with air-conditioning and cheerful wall art was a delight to step into after a long day of travels.

It included a private swimming pool, spacious garden facing an expansive waterfront, and a complimentary bottle of chilled champagne that obviously didn’t last long.

We spent our first night sipping champagne on the terrace, listening to waves, and bathing in the disappearing sun.

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The next morning was the start of the Maldivian island routine.

Imagine waking up to the sounds of sea followed by a quick splash in refreshing waters, then rushing to exotic breakfast that I usually started with a fragrant cup of black coffee; despite the presence of fresh guava juice on a shelf. The best part was the view.

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After breakfast a wooden boat would take us for a complimentary snorkeling expedition to beautiful reefs, different every time.

Sylvia, our snorkeling instructor, mingled between swimmers, pointing out sea treasures. I kept following her around for a better glimpse of the underwater world. She didn’t seem to mind.

We would spend evenings taking photographs at golden hour and tasting local cocktails. At night the fatigue associated with 3+ snorkeling trips would kick in and I opted for lovely room service dinners.

I miss my time at Angsana and their amazing team and looking forward to going there again!

Take a look at Sylvia’s inspiring Instagram.

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Castle on the Hill, Dwarika’s

Previously on Dwarika’s:

Imagine waking up to the first rays of sun playing a game of hide and seek on the wooden walls and floors of your bedroom. Red, golden, orange and silver twinkles mingle in a flirty dance reaching for your pillow. Goooood morning!

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Tucked in the softest cotton sheets, you are lazying in comfort but your curious eyes are locked on a stunning view of the Himalaya’s peaks. The fresh mountain breeze rushes through big panoramic windows which you carelessly left open last night. Inhale… the sound of cheerful birds singing from the branches gets closer and louder, encouraging you to throw on a robe and get the coffee brewing. Tip: listen for the bird singing “La Cucaracha”!

Conveniently, the kettle, mineral water and freshly grounded coffee are just a few steps away. Another few steps and you’ll find yourself lounging on a spacious terrace at the top of the world. Exhale…

I could not resist spending most of my mornings sipping coffee in a sublime peace, watching the desperate attempts of local cheeky birds to steal Dwarika’s famous home-baked cookies, which are by no means sharable.

Easily carried away, I lose track of time! Every time. Fortunately, hotel guest relations are serious about looking after me and would often bring me back to the earth with a courtesy phone call to rush for breakfast. Un, deux, trois and I was fresh as a rose and ready to explore!

After an adventurous day out and about at Dwarika’s, I would always look forward to getting back to my “castle on the hill”. It’s such an incredibly nice feeling to mess the freshly made bed, open curtains wide open, fill a tub with a hot water and soak those super tired muscles in a pleasant long herbal bath.

Barefoot, with only a bathrobe made of the lightest cotton, I often ran upstairs to the terrace for some serious tea time in the shadows of the disappearing sun. The hardest choice of the day would be between herbal, camomile, jasmine or pure green (all locally sourced).

As the sun leaves my sight until the next morning, I covertly run downstairs, turn on the light and surround myself with the comfort of indoor warmth. See you soon!

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Nepal’s well kept secret – Dwarika’s

We arrived in Katmandu early afternoon.

Being in a habit to rush off the plane, I noticed only the tourists were hurrying, worried about queues and luggage and airport wifi. Local Nepalese travelers smiled peacefully, letting us push past.”Namaste, welcome,” smiled a man in a uniform. “Namaste,” I replied and bombarded him with visa related questions. He patiently answered them and pointed me through the visa formalities. My destination was an hour away from the capital, a gem of a hotel hidden high in Himalays.

Exiting the airport, Katmandu greeted me with sun, cheerful conversations, fresh breeze, laughs and uniquely melodic truck horns. I was welcomed by a charming man in a suit, Dwarika’s ambassador, who relieved me of two heavy suitcases and supplied a bottle of water, hot towel and a lovely chatty driver. I jumped into the car and we bravely joined the traffic chaos.

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The music of street life burst through the bus windows. Motorcycles, fruit vendors, authentic houses, gossiping girls, moms holding kids and lots and lots of construction. My eyes were shining bright, piercing for every little detail. Katmandu’s daily routine is paradise for a curious soul.

Katmandu is still rebuilding after the 2015 earthquake, however nothing apart from bricks and cement indicate it. My camera couldn’t get enough of outside scenery, especially when  lavish green fields replaced the urban streetscapes. I spotted women in colorful sari-like outfits crossing farms with huge wicker baskets hanging off their shoulders, at the same time boys were enjoying themselves at coffee houses spread along the road. Needless to say it was all casually happening against a background of traditional huts, clay temples, resting cows and powerful statues. Meanwhile our bus was taking us way up, higher and higher with every turn.

The road curved one last time and the bus stopped. I was at the footsteps of Dwarika’s. A few minutes later a golf cart appeared out of nowhere and in a matter of minutes I was sitting in a lobby on top of the world sipping a refreshing welcoming drink. Life has never been better!

To be continued…

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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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Operation “Kremlin’s Shadow”

Raised on memories of the Cold War and fears of Bolsheviks emptying the bars of Rockefeller Center with the vigour they demonstrated storming the cellars of the Winter Palace, I sacrificed purchasing the newest Chanel Boy to save for a trip to the nest of former-Soviet culture, Moscow.

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Red Square

Set on a mission to investigate the progress and success of the working class, I first had some time in Toronto to master the complicated art of “maskirovka” and dress in camouflage. Visual aids were sent to me by my contact in Moscow.

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Serebryakova, “Bleaching the cloth” displayed at Tretyakov’s Gallery

Well, being a cheeky City Chick and a big fan of Versace silk scarves, nostalgic Etro garments and bright fabrics in general, I always follow one impeccable life motto: “when in a doubt – wear Italian”. So fashion decisions were not a challenge! To top it off, I invested in a decent chapeau and Google Glass (a must-have this spying season). The process of turning me into a comrade had begun!

Once the dress code was successfully deciphered, a rendez-vous with group activists was scheduled to practice the “Na Zdorovie” drinking ritual, another important aspect of every day Soviet interactions. After an intensive briefing by the group leader (not present on this photo for obvious reasons) on the dangers and fun of cocktail consumption, I was cool and ready to pursue the operation “Kremlin’s Shadow”. Well, I called it “tourism” and boarded a flight as a true communist with “a cold head, flaming heart and clean hands”.

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Na Zdorovie

I arrived in Moscow on a beautiful sunny afternoon and as instructed headed to Red Square without delay to take photographs and collect information. My maskirovka worked perfectly, allowing me to sneak unnoticed a few steps from the Kremlin. What a great start!

However, unexpectedly and sadly, suspicious activity around my hotel made me realize my cover was blown and my room was potentially bugged. As someone brilliant once said: “You find party in the West. In Russia, party finds you”. Well, I knew from the start what I was up against and at least they revealed a good sense of humor.

So I sat by candle light, armed with American technology, Chinese stationery and a printed map, to experience and share with you the best 10 “feel like a Soviet” attractions in Moscow.

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To be continued…

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Imperial weekend

When you think you’ve seen it all – visit Saint Petersburg and fall in love. It’s a city of many secrets, built with enthusiasm and passion (Window to Europe). It’s the capital of White Nights (from May to July) and elegant bridges (342+) inspired by the architecture of Venice, Amsterdam and Versailles (c’est vrai!). Its historical center has lived through the Romanovs, the Revolution, Bolsheviks, Stalin’s terror, a second world war seige and the fall of the USSR. But! Strolling down the Nevsky you could barely tell, St.Petersburg is as Imperial as ever.

There is more. While a trip to St. Petersburg will appeal to your heart and soul, it’s also a bargain. With the local currency (ruble) at its lowest rate for years, dinner at a posh restaurant feels like a family meal at a diner. Sounds awesome, right? Note these 5 important safety rules prior to traveling  (I tried and tested them all):

  1. Money and passport – inquire at the hotel for a reliable money exchange provider. Pick pocket alert: leave your passport in the hotel room locker and carry a photocopy instead. Keep a hand on your wallet in crowded places and on the Nevsky.
  2. Carry a hotel business card with their address and phone number for emergencies.
  3. Download Uber and use it as it’s the safest way to travel the city. Figuring out local public transportation may take some time and there is none to waste. Don’t take random cabs on streets.
  4. Purchase tickets for sightseeing in advance (queues are endless and a waiting is a spirit killer).
  5. Download offline Google maps (you’ll thank me many many times!).

Well, now that you are packed with wisdom, let’s plan and explore!

The State Hermitage museum (a must-see!)

Open from 10:30am to 6pm, except Mondays and on Wednesdays from 10:30am to 9pm.

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Hermitage is one of the oldest and largest museums of art, craft and culture in the world. Founded by Catherine the Great, today it consists of Small Hermitage, The Great Old Hermitage, The New Hermitage, The Winter Palace (all 4 are inner connected), The Hermitage Theatre, The General Staff Building, The Menshikov’s palace, Peter’s Cabin, Porcelain Museum and The Storage center. Uffff… they say it takes 15 years to review the whole collection if one spends more than 1 minute admiring every piece (plus travel time and lunch breaks as art watching always makes me hungry).

I advise to purchase 2-days ticket online (soft copy is enough) which allow you to skip a massively annoying line and to sneak through a special entrance, otherwise the wait is loooooong.

 

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Start at the Main Hermitage Complex at the Palace Square (don’t miss the “Gold Drawing Room” in the Winter Palace), break for lunch and cross the Palace Square to continue at the General Staff Building where a mind-blowing collection of Impressionists, Cubism and works by Picasso are displayed. In the evening head out for a ballet at the Hermitage Theatre. While there, search for signs of ruins of Peter the Great’s former Winter Palace integrated into a new structure.

On the second day, visit Menshikov’s Palace, Pieter’s Cabin and the museum of Imperial Porcelain Art. Beware, this itinerary will require some serious fitness preparation, but if you are a determined art enthusiast you won’t curse me. Bring your camera to memorize all that your eyes couldn’t snap.

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St. Isaac’s Cathedral

Open from 10:30am to 6pm and then from 6pm to 10:30pm. Wednesday is a day off. Online tickets

St. Isaac’s Cathedral took 40 years to build (1818-1858) but once complete, it became  one of the most impressive landmarks in the city and a symbol of Imperial Russia. The cost of construction was as fantastic at 1 mil in gold rubles. St. Isaac’s dome is plated with pure gold and rises 105 m high. The structure rests on 10,000 tree trunks, and the building features 112 granite columns and accommodates around 14,000 visitors. Its interiors are lavishly decorated with mosaics, sculptures and icons. Walk up the colonnade (300 steps only) to enjoy a magnificent view of the city and to stay fit. Photography is permitted.

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

Open from 10:30am to 6pm and then from 6pm to 10:30pm. Closed on Wednesdays. Online tickets .

The Church of Spilled Blood (above) is a rare example of patriarch Russia architectural style with its mosaics, onion domes, bright paint and gold. From first glance, you’ll notice how closely it resembles the 16th century St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow (below). Do you agree?

The Church of Spilled Blood was commissioned to forever mark the place where Tsar Alexander the Second was fatally wounded in a terrorist attack. Funded mostly on royal money and donations from private investors, it took more than 20 years to build in the 19th century and around 30 years to restore in 20th century. Its picturesque exteriors and interiors are in great contrast with the neoclassical, monochromatic surroundings, giving an impression of deep nostalgia for the old, pre-Peter the Great Russia.

The Mariinsky Theatre

It’s as posh and Imperial as it gets. Built in neoclassical style, the theatre’s facades are monumental, sharp and aristocratically chilled. This impression changes as its interior decor turns into a sheer delight. Once in, you’ll notice yourself a part of a multicultural beau monde eager to be amazed. Just a few minutes into a performance you’ll see a change in the eyes and faces of people around you. A grumpy looking grey-haired man in a tuxedo will vigorously clap, exclaiming “Bravo, bravo!”, and a northern beauty with slightly cold features will gently smile through tears. It was here that famous prima-ballerina Anna Pavlova, at the age of 8, chose her destiny after watching “The Sleeping Beauty” for the first time in her life. And it was here where she danced her debut.

Book tickets for opera or ballet in advance as they are highly desirable and it’s very common to spot theatre-lovers desperately inquiring for an extra ticket at the entrance, just minutes away from performances.

P.S. I arrived in Saint Petersburg at the beginning of July. It was unusually cold, gloomy and rainy. The same evening, I realized that couldn’t imagine my life without memories from this beautiful at every angle city. Yes, it’s moody, with dark sides and puzzling, but with every uncovered mystery, with every discovered place or piece, a hunger for more and more develops.

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