Bolshoi Beauty

The Bolshoi Theatre represents the epitome of Russian ballet culture. When the chance arose to explore the Bolshoi on a behind-the-scenes tour, I eagerly gathered friends and signed up.

In Russian, bolshoi means big or grand – yet ‘grand’ cannot fully capture all that this building encompasses. Reminiscent of Versailles or the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the Bolshoi Theatre features notes of rich red and gilded gold that I’ve come to equate with Russian elegance. Sanctioned by Catherine the Great in 1776, the Moscow Theatre Company was originally housed in a smaller building along the Neglinka River. After multiple theatres were lost to fire, the troupe relocated in 1856 to the expansive building that you see today.

As our group walked into the orchestra of the main theatre, we were lucky enough to happen upon a practice session of the ballet Giselle. The prima ballerina, dressed down in casual wear and toe shoes, floated across the stage to the sounds of the grand piano set front and center. Abstract set designs including the cosmos and other natural phenomena added to the spectacle.

When my parents visited in May of this year, we had the chance to see a ballet on the Bolshoi’s New Stage, just around the corner. Absolutely gorgeous itself, the New Stage was by far the better choice as the Historic Stage featured an opera that evening (good call, Dad).

Taking in the grandiosity of the venue from below, I was acutely aware of the history of this hollowed concert hall. Moscow itself has changed rapidly in the past 150 years. The one constant among historic drawings is always the Bolshoi Theatre, as seen below.

Swan Lake premiered here in 1877. Nazi bombs fell upon it in 1941. The creation of the USSR was declared from this very stage. For more of the fascinating history of this building – particularly of its usage by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution – you can click here.

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With seemingly no bad seat in the house, wealthy Russian families used to purchase a box for the full theatre season. They would then redecorate the box to their liking with purchases of furniture and wallpaper. When the Bolshoi was redone in the rich golds and reds of today’s decor, it’s said that women did not appreciate being upstaged in their elegant theatre attire.

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The stage floor is famously sloped to provide the audience with the best view of the dancers. The floor is mechanically leveled when foreign ballet companies perform here.

After climbing to the boxes above, we were surprised to find the stage had been quickly reset to allow for a rehearsal of the current opera, The Maid of Pskov. We were treated to a performance by the show’s chorus as we watched from on high.

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The building itself is comprised of 13 levels – seven above ground and five below. An exact replica of the Bolshoi stage can be found in the attic above the Historic Stage. Our group snuck in silently and watched no less than 50 dancers practicing for an upcoming production. Many of the dancers were teenagers and children, members of the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet Academy.

Known for pushing the limits of contemporary performance, as well as maintaining the highest standards of historic Russian culture, the Bolshoi is a true Moscow delight. Someday I hope to see a ballet from its seats. For now, I’ll reminisce about my visit as notes of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake drift through my apartment.

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A Night in the Petroff Palace

The majority of my posts on this blog serve to share unique and wonderful experiences from my life abroad as an ex-pat. But in sharing all the good, perhaps a perspective is formed that all is rosy, life is bliss, and these experiences grow on trees. I have to tell you, and I know my ex-pat friends will agree, this is not always the case. Life throws you just as many curveballs when living abroad – and some truly unique ones at that. This post is about stepping up and trusting instincts, in bad times and in good.

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This sign hangs by the copier in our s office.

On Thursday morning, I had only just caught a ride to work with two of my good friends when we were sideswiped by an SUV just outside our apartment complex. We were all fine. Sadly, minor car accidents are common here in Moscow. I don’t know if it’s the #norules mentality or poor driving conditions (it was raining when we were hit) but the majority of cars on the road bear the scars of past collisions.

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Tough start to the school day.

Anyways, the story gets interesting because you’re not allowed to move the cars involved until the police show up. Hence a whole lot of traffic jams. But the police came quickly that day. We called the embassy for a mobile unit to come out and translate but it turns out budget cuts (and *staffing issues*) have led to the cancellation of a mobile unit. Nonplussed, we Google Translated our way through the interaction with four very kind local policeman who made it clear we were not at fault and took great care to make sure we were taken care of. Signing documents in a foreign language you don’t speak = more common than you might think living this life. Thankfully, we were reassured by our own security staff and soon we were on our way.

The next morning I boarded a plane bound for Tallinn, Estonia with my dear friend Peter. Excited to get out of rainy, dreary Moscow and take a trip to cozy Tallinn, I settled into my seat expecting a quick 1.5 hour ride. Moments before we were to taxi away from the gate, I was jolted from my seat by the sounds of someone in distress.

Turning to look only a few rows behind, I was horrified to see my colleague (who was also journeying to Tallinn) in extreme distress. His wife’s stricken face turned to me as I called out to her. The situation was dire and we both knew it. The flight staff was incredible and did everything right – bringing him back to consciousness and helping him stabilize. It was quickly clear to me that my help was needed and I pushed into action, calling for an ambulance and insurance permission.

Once he was stable, we were quickly shuffled off to the airport medical clinic where we spent hours waiting for an ambulance to take him just 15km downtown. The whole ordeal offered a sobering insight into the medical system that we are a part of, full of wonderfully caring people and far too much red tape. Thankfully, he got top rate care at the ex-pat hospital downtown and is today resting comfortably at home. Your health is your wealth, they say, and they’re absolutely right.

Once the situation calmed down, and with my plans sidelined, I knew I would need a little peace to put things in perspective. After a little Korean 순두부 (still my comfort food) and a good night’s rest, Saturday greeted me with the desire to get out and explore. After searching for historic hotels in Moscow, I booked a room at the Petroff Palace for the evening.

Petroff Castle from the front gates, just after the rain.

A former transit stop for tsars traveling from St. Petersburg, the Palace (also known as Petrovsky Castle) is featured in the works of Pushkin. Napoleon himself even stayed there while Moscow was being burned. Destroyed by the French in their retreat from Moscow in 1812, the castle was rebuilt in the 1830s. Turns out that I pass the castle daily on my commute to school but have never noticed it. For more on rich history of the castle and grounds, click here.

 

The room was stunning and private. I definitely treated myself to room service! The dish in the middle, dumplings in broth is called pelmeni soup. Native to Siberia, this dish is simple, delicious, and served with a dollop of sour cream on top.

 

The view from my window

Stunning.

Conveniently, the property is nestled within a beautiful park with wooded trails and gorgeous birch trees in bloom – just what the doctor ordered. The sun broke through the clouds just as I arrived and I enjoyed multiple sunbaths in the park during my stay. There’s nothing like time spent in nature to set you right again.

 

The sun exploded through the trees while rain still fell.

 

Intrigued by this gorgeous tree, I happened upon this Orthodox church in the park.

I rounded out the weekend with a stop at the ArtPlay Moscow space to see a show on the works of Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel. Though I’m hesitant about the “multimedia-ing” of classic works of art history, this movie blew my mind. Telling the tale of the dawn of civilization (with subtitles in English), the Dutchman’s work came alive on the screens engulfing the entire room – from the Tower of Babel to scenes of the Middle Ages.

The ArtPlay Center features specialty boutique shops, from lighting to antiques to art supplies.

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The Tower of Babel, Pieter Bruegel, 1653

So, to conclude this story, I don’t have any great words of wisdom gleaned from this experience. I can only say that we do the best we can with what is presented us. That’s all we can do.

I’m very thankful to my friends and family who were there for me as I worked to put this experience into perspective. You were all so comforting. Take care, everyone. Be good to each other and to yourselves.

 

A night at the Metropol

One of the best parts of living in Europe is being surrounded by the centuries-old architecture. Moscow, for its part, is particularly fond of Art Nouveau, a style that peaked in the late 19th Century. Full of swirls and stained glass, Art Nouveau can be summed up by its calling card, the Tiffany lamp.

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Following Peter the Great‘s push towards French aristocratic ways in the 18th Century, Russia came to embrace European style, sending artisans and architects alike to study at schools such as Paris’ Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

It is at this point in art history where we find the Hotel Metropol, nestled in the heart of downtown Moscow. Dignified and imposing, the hotel sits directly outside the walls of Red Square.

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The hotel has certainly lived its fair share of history. Since it opening in 1905, the Metropol has housed writers and revolutionaries, from Bernard Shaw to Lenin. Today it stands as a monument to a time just prior to the Russian Revolution, an era of extravagance and artistic strides.

Conceived by Savva Mamontov, patron of the arts – a William Merritt Chase, if you will – the hotel was originally planned as an opera house, a palace to showcase the talents of Moscow and host those from abroad. Though Savva did not manage to hold onto the hotel itself, he is considered the father of this dream. And what a dream it was.

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For my part, I had only observed this beautiful building from outside. On an Art Nouveau Tour of Moscow this past spring, I was bitten by the idea to steal away a night at the Metropol. The iron gates beckoned and I couldn’t resist.

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This past weekend, my plan came to be. I felt like Eloise at the Plaza as I walked into the gorgeous foyer of the hotel, all gold-encrusted and marble-floored.

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As I approached the stunning elevator bank, I had to stop and marvel at the stained glass above and behind, decorating the huge bay windows encircling the Grand Ballroom.

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I’ve heard the Metropol described as a living museum, a Russian treasure. To do it justice, I had to spend a few hours wandering the halls, marveling at each new landing. From the stained glass to the rich carpets, the hotel did not disappoint.

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From my room I could see both the Bolshoi Theatre and the spires of the Kremlin. I wandered over to GUM Department Store, the former rubber and textile factory turned high-end shopping mall (think Gucci and Prada).

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I watched fireworks above Red Square from my window and marveled at the beautiful touches of Art Nouveau dotting my room – from the chandelier to the window latches. I also bathed in the basement pool, enjoying its privacy and quaint atmosphere.

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On Sunday morning, my friend Kelsey met me for brunch in the Grand Ballroom. We were both stunned as the hostess drew back the curtain, ushering us into a room which I can categorize as fit for the Titanic only (and built within 7 years of each other, no less).

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We feasted on an amazing buffet and tried to take in the real delight – the exquisite glass ceiling above. A harp played in the corner and the scene could not have been more elegant.

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Full to the brim and feeling a tad like Harriet the Spy, we explored new wings of the hotel, seeking treasures which appeared at every turn.

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At the top of a seemingly abandoned staircase, we turned a corner and nearly jumped out of our socks – a stuffed bear blocked our entrance to a room fit for a duomo.

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Bathed in shimmering red wallpaper, with an oculus adorned by a crystal chandelier, we had stumbled upon a room fit for the Tudors.

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The whole experience was overwhelming to the senses and I’m still digesting. I’d very much like to return and continue studying as the place surely has more stories to tell. For now, I would highly recommend the Metropol as a stop on anyone’s tour to Moscow – for brunch at the least. Moscow has many more gems to share, no doubt, but I’m left in true awe after 24 hours in this one.

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To read more about the extraordinary 110-year history of the Hotel Metropol, click here.

Venice of the North

Italy or Russia? St. Petersburg’s waterways boast a decidedly European flair.

While my parents were still in town, I was able to sneak away for a 3-day weekend to this wonderful spot many call the Venice of the North. As Russia’s second largest city, St. Petersburg wears many hats – Baltic seaport, former capital city, and European enclave.

St. Petersburg was founded by Czar Peter the Great in 1703. Peter, a great fan of the sea, sought to bring European prestige to Imperial Russia by installing a seat of government in the port city. The founder of the Russian Navy (among his many accomplishments), Peter spent time in his youth traveling across Europe. In Holland he learned to sail, which resulted – as my friend Niek informs me – in the inclusion of many Dutch terms in Russian sailing lexicon. The move to St. Petersburg was a calculated one, ushering in a new era of military fortitude which now included the Baltic Fleet and a decidedly European aesthetic.

Today St. Petersburg is considered to be the cultural capital of Russia. The Hermitage, Russia’s most prestigious art museum, is located on the banks of the Neva River. Many famous writers have called St. Petersburg home – Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoevsky to name a few. Today the city remains a haven for artists, attracting like-minded types from across Russia and Europe.

The breadth of art in St. Petersburg is absolutely stunning – from the immense Hermitage collection to the hallowed halls of the Russian Museum, you can find whatever you seek. During our morning spent at the Hermitage, I was most impressed with its gilded architecture such as that seen below. Walking the halls end-to-end, there is simply too much to take in. We opted to flutter in and out of various rooms, catching a few famous works, but mostly drinking in the grandiose feeling of it all. I suspect a highlights tour would be a great way to enjoy the museum in another way.

When many people think of Russia, an image of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow comes to mind. As lovely as that church is, it really does not hold a candle to St. Petersburg’s finest gem, The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.

Engaging from the outside, we were absolutely blown away by the sights awaiting us inside. Stunning mosaics of lapis blue and gold are stunningly beautiful pack the entire church with floor-to-ceiling Bible scenes and Orthodox icons. I’ve seen many churches and mosques around the world but this one absolutely takes the cake. Certainly a sight that cannot be missed.

Following that stunner, we wandered over to the Russian Museum close by. Recommended by a friend, the Russian Museum proved to be truly charming. I would compare it as the D’Orsay to the Hermitage’s Louvre – much more my pace and with an accessibility that would appeal to any viewer. Works by the Russian Impressionists such as Malyavin and Futurists like Natalia Goncharova (my new favorite artist) were placed in timeline order, allowing us to weave our way through Russian Art History with ease. I cannot wait to return to the folk art collection, which is exquisite and deserving of a truly proper look.

St. Isaac’s Cathedral proved another highlight of St. Pete’s. With its gold-plated dome and full columns made of lapis and malachite, the church takes gilded to a whole new level. Preserved during Soviet times as a “museum dedicated to atheism”, this literal gem of St. Petersburg is another must-see.

Getting around in St. Pete’s is quite easy – it’s a walkable city. Should you need a lift, Uber is also available (and highly recommended so not to get ripped off). With all the trekking we managed, we also took the time to enjoy a number of delicious restaurants, both recommended by friends.

Mansarga (seen in the Cyrillic below) is part of the Ginza Project group of restaurants, which boast fabulous reputations in both Moscow and St. Pete’s. With a direct view across to St. Isaac’s gold dome, it’s the perfect setting for a delicious meal with no crazy pretense. In fact, lack of pretense was the name of the game in St. Pete’s. The people were lovely and never did I feel in over my head when out to dinner.

For a special occasion, the restaurant at the Grand Hotel L’Europe is the absolute tops. Saturday night is jazz night and never have I been so looked after by a slew of friendly waiters. One even bothered to bring my father a bowl of borscht so he would not be “lonely” while my mother and I finished our appetizers. Truly a 5-star meal in every way.

We loved our stay at the Hotel Indigo with its panoramic view over the rooftops. Watching a storm roll across the bay one night with a beautiful sunset the next, we could ask for better.

The St. Petersburg trip proved a wonderful getaway from the hustle and bustle of cosmopolitan Moscow. The high-speed Sapsan train made our 4-hour ride fly by with all the luxury and comfort of a Korean KTX train. I’m already looking forward to my next visit, hopefully in the fall when the leaves are changing. For now, I’ll leave you with this gem of a pic, the latest in Russian fashion. On to the next, my friends!

Privet, comrade!

Moscow Must-Dos

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Having visitors is the perfect excuse to be a tourist in your own city. With my parents in town for a week, I made great headway on my Moscow bucket list and learned a lot more about this country I now call home.

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I arranged a Kremlin tour in English and off we went for a full four hours. Lidia, our extremely kind and knowledgeable guide, gave us a real run for our money. Helping to timeline all of those World History classes (Were Catherine and Peter the Great related? When did the Romanovs first come to power?), she wove us through the wealth of Russian history inside the Kremlin walls.

Much less intimidating inside than the exterior lets on, the Kremlin grounds contain a number of incredibly ornate Orthodox churches, multiple museums, and other government buildings including the Senate Building (constructed in 1776…). With our heads full and spinning, it was time to enjoy another of Moscow’s delights – the gourmand scene.

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View from the bridge above Strelka Bar
Starting at Strelka Bar, one of my personal favorites, we enjoyed plates of cheese, pickles, mushrooms, and other Russian delights. Seafood is prized here, despite Moscow’s inland location, and the port of St. Petersburg plays a pivotal role in Moscow’s foodie scene.

Reservations are key – it’s the first question you’ve asked upon arrival in any restaurant. Most allow you to reserve online through English translation. Little kindnesses await – from locals on the train who volunteer their knowledge of local spots to doting waiters.

We took advantage of Moscow’s culinary delights all over town with dinners at White Rabbit, Jaime’s Italian, and LavkaLavka – a farm-to-table spot dedicated to clean eating.

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While the weather proved challenging (it snowed on May 11) and remained chilly throughout the visit, we certainly made the most of it.

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Taking in my first ballet on the Bolshoi Theatre’s New Stage proved every bit as magical as advertised. I’m looking forward to my next visit already.

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My parents also had the chance to observe the country displaying all its military might. May 9 marks Victory Day here in Russia. Celebrating the end of the Great Patriotic War (known as World War II in the US), the holiday is a very big deal here in Moscow. A huge parade takes place on the day itself, preceded by weeks of traffic jams due to parade practice road closures.

From jet flyovers to the debut of the new Arctic ATVs, Victory Day is intense. The whole event is full of pride and military regalia, made clear as we sat watching the events in Red Square online.

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One of the cooler activities of the day is the Immortal Regiment March, a relatively new tradition in which the people gather to commemorate those who served in the war. In Gorky Park, near my house, the parade ends with surviving members holding their various regiment numbers aloft, allowing descendants of their brothers-in-arms to locate them and pay their respects.

Clearly we packed a lot into our time together in Moscow. But perhaps the highlight of the whole visit was yet to come with a weekend visit to St. Petersburg. Stay tuned for tales from the Venice of the North 🙂

 

A week in Moscow

I welcomed my first visitors to Russia this past week – my friend Meg came from Korea and her boyfriend Niek from Holland. They were ace guests and we had a fantastic time catching up. They covered a great amount of Moscow while still enjoying a chill vacation. They didn’t even let the lingering snow squalls get them down! Inspired by their wanderings, here is my Moscow Top Ten.

Roll into town on one of Moscow’s fabulous Aeroexpress trains – there’s one from each of Moscow’s three airports.

Make your way down to Red Square fairly quick for selfies in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral (bluebird day on order, of course).

Explore the ridiculously ornate confines of St. Basil’s itself (not what I expected, I’ll admit!) with special ambiance from a men’s choir who just happened to be performing inside. 300 rubles to get in – no line, no waiting.

Book a cruise on the Moscow River out of the Radisson Ukraina Hotel – fine dining and a 2.5 hour tour of Moscow’s sites from the water. Highly recommended: the early evening cruise to watch the lights come up over the city in dramatic fashion.

Not to be missed – drinks at the Mercedes Bar on the 31st Floor of the Hotel Ukraina. Book a comfy couch and enjoy the 360 view of Moscow, including the Russian White House and new Moscow City.

Strelka Bar in the student neighborhood of Bolotnyy is always an exciting spot. From the rich but casual decor to the fabulous food and drink, it’s a stop not to be missed.

After you’ve had your dinner fill, enjoy the breathtaking views across at Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Once the world’s largest outdoor swimming pool, this site has been restored to its original trappings, in all it’s golden glory. Don’t miss the views from the top deck nor the surprisingly cool crypt below – discovered by Meg & Niek!

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Be sure to tour the Kremlin. With a private guide, my friends hopped in and out of the churches on the Kremlin ground. I’m told you absolutely cannot miss the incredible riches of the Armory. PC: @meg_hayne

If the snow is falling, a tour of the Moscow metro is perfect no matter the weather! My four favorite stations not to miss – Komsomolskaya, Arbatskaya, Elektrozavodskaya, and Novoslobodskaya.

Gorgeous stained glass at Novoslobodskaya

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The Khokhloma handicrafts are not to be missed. I just came across this fabulous video about them today. A trip to Izmailovo Market, in all it’s touristy glory, is not to be missed. Also check out the small but friendly Museum of Vodka while you’re there!
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Gorky Park hosts ice skating in the winter, bike riding in the summer (bring your passport to rent!) and is also the home of my favorite contemporary art museum, The Garage.
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A winter palace of lights outside the Bolshoi Theater

And, finally, #10 – a ballet at the Bolshoi. Although I have yet to accomplish this one, I have a feeling that all may change with the arrival of another set of visitors next month… Book your tickets decidedly in advance! In the event they’re all sold out, the theater offers tours of the venue in English on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I’m told the line for English forms on the left. God speed 😉

A few other items of note before endeavoring to visit Moscow…

  • Learning the Cyrillic alphabet really helps – with many letters similar to English, it’s really not hard!
  • Downloading wayfinding apps like Uber (yes, they have it!) and Metropolitan (metro map) will go a long way
  • Buying a SIM card also helps for wayfinding – 700 rubles (roughly $11) for 1 month is available at any airport

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this virtual tour of my current home city – and that my attempts to entice future visitors will not be in vain (direct flights from JFK, just sayin’…)! I’ve really come to appreciate Moscow and all of its wonderful surprises. Please come see what all the fuss is about – I have plenty of room!

Troika Riding

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Fresh fallen snow, charming horses, and sleigh bells

приветствие from the frozen tundra! Yesterday I had the most amazing chance to get out to the Russian countryside and take a sleigh ride.

We traveled northwest from Moscow for about an hour and arrived at a fairly large farm. Immediately we spotted the horses in the yard, being run by adults and children of all ages. A friendly Bernese Mountain Dog trotted over to greet us and hens clucked underfoot.

Upon arrival, we were seated on benches of packed snow which were covered in thick blankets. Beyond a rickety barrier made of branches, a horse show was put on for our entertainment. Highlights included a horse jumping through a flaming hoop and a couple “dancing” on horseback. My animal rights heartstrings tugging at me, I accepted this as a cultural opportunity and enjoyed the beauty of the animals.

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Troika, a Russian style of sleigh riding, means ‘group of three’, and describes the number of horses harnessed to the sleigh

Soon after the show (which came replete with ear-piercing traditional music and an impromptu jig by a member of the audience), our sleighs arrived! The horse pictured in the middle (above) is a Clydesdale.

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Over the river and through the snow we went
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Our packed sleigh riding party with my friends Kyle and Sarah in the front with me
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The grey day provided the ultimate epic background to bring out hints of red in the horses’ manes as they raced through the deep snow

Despite being packed into the sleigh like sardines, we were plenty chilly after our ride, so we took shelter in a tin longhouse on site. A snack was already laid out for us, warming atop the crude antique stove.

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Blini! So timely as blini play a starring role in the upcoming Maslenitsa Festival which celebrates the sun’s return (blini = round like the sun). We drizzled these crepes with fresh sour cream, jam, and honey. Delish!
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Who doesn’t love dress up? Well, maybe this girl. But they gave us a chance to dress in traditional Russian costume and take photos with the troika sleigh.
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My friends Kyle and Shin were amicable participants and I played the willing group photographer
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The farm was a working one and we toured the facilities after eating. I fed the goats my apply core and we meet a goose along the way.

All in all, the trip was yet another once-in-a-lifetime deal here in Russia. I’ve ridden snowmobiles before but nothing compares to the tug of a horse-drawn sleigh as you make tracks across an open plain. It was magical.

Stay tuned this coming week for my school’s celebration of Maslenitsa, the pagan holiday turned cultural tradition which ushers in the coming spring. Cheers to that!

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