Travel to Moscow and Central Russia, the heartland
By Amy Adejokun
The former capital city of the Soviet empire once made the world tremble with fear from inside the Kremlin, a city within a city, protected by its high red ramparts. Nowadays, tourists all rush to the Red Square, between Lenin's Mausoleum and Saint Basil's Cathedral, topped with onion domes that look like something out of a fairy tale. The metro runs is truly an underground palace that takes you to Café Pushkin, Star City and Stalin's bunker in the blink of an eye. After nightfall, enjoy the world famous Muscovite nightlife. However, it would be a pity to settle for just the city centre. The Golden Ring region to the northeast of Moscow, with its ancient cities of the tsars and princes of Holy Russia, is a must-see. The best way to discover its treasures is a cruise on the Volga, with views of the numerous citadels and their golden domes.
Our Editorial team's advice
Don't take a taxi to the airport, the huge traffic jams may cause you to miss your flight! To get to Domodedovo International Airport, 20 miles south of Moscow, it is much safer to catch the Aeroexpress train, which runs every half hour to the airport in 45 minutes from Paveletskaya station, where there are connections to lines 2 & 5 on the metro, just two stops from the city centre.
Check your change when you take the bus, tourists are easily conned!
All signs are written in Cyrillic script in Moscow's metro network, so you had better learn the basics before you leave! Either way, though, opt for the metro! It is really cheap and deserves a visit, if only for its statues, chandeliers, frescoes and marble! Stations are far apart however, so you may have to walk up to 25 minutes to get to your hotel or meeting place! It can be quite a workout when you're laden down with luggage and all the street names are written in Cyrillic, especially knowing that most Russians don't speak any English!
+The Kremlin, a city within a city
+Red Square and Saint Basil's Cathedral with its fairytale decor
+The 7 Stalinist skyscrapers
+The metro: superbly decorated and very cheap
+The famous Moscow nights
+The beautiful Orthodox monasteries of the Golden Ring
-The expensive hotels
-The highly bureaucratic and controlled tourism industry that doesn't give individual travellers much freedom
-Most of the signs are written in the Cyrillic alphabet, so it can be difficult to find your way around
-The huge distances
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Muscovites have seen their way of life change radically. They discovered freedom of expression, the possibility to go abroad freely, the shows, the shops full of goods but then also the street demonstrations, a high unemployment rate, crime, inflation, millionaires and beggars, casinos and charity meals. Torn between their attraction to the Western world and their desire to bind again with old Slav values, confronted to an unstable society, many express their disappointment with the brutal appearance of this disorganized liberalism. However, in a country close to chaos, they have also found their spirit of initiative and autonomy again, after having been deprived of it for some time. Moscow is a lively city today, full of vitality and creativity; though do not be alarmed by the more relaxed approach to morals of the post-Soviet society. Ladies of the night prowling in hotels, bars and night clubs in search of a businessman or a tourist in need for love, have one thing on their mind, money. In Moscow, the race for dollars has become widespread and the black market is booming. However, this system in which you have to cope and make do, and the rise of individualism, plus the search for enrichment have not managed to distort what one calls ?the Russian spirit' - passionate and compliant, tender and wild, capable to endure the worst and overcome any obstacle and of unrivalled generosity. If you have been invited to a Muscovites' house, it is advised to dress up and to take a gift to your hosts (wine, flowers, chocolate). You would generally take your shoes off on entering their home and put on some slippers. The meal is punctuated by many speeches and vodka toasts. Finally, the tradition of the dachas, small country houses, has become popular again. A wooden izba, surrounded by a tiny garden where flowers and potatoes grow is the urban Muscovite's idea of happiness.
A trip to Russia wouldn't be complete without sampling the caviar served on blinis! Be aware that since 2006 it has been illegal to take caviar out of Russia. A 100g tin costs about £60 in Moscow whereas it costs more than £400 in Europe! Don't buy it just anywhere, though, and especially not from street vendors! If you want to be sure of its quality, buy it from Eliseevskiy grocery store on Tverskaya Avenue, near Pushkin Square (Pushkinskaya underground station), which will also give you the opportunity to admire this superb food store with its decoration worthy of a palace (huge mirrors, chandeliers and gilding). Don't mistake the much cheaper red caviar (salmon roe) for black caviar (sturgeon roe). Siberian beer is cheap (approximately £1) but very light. Vodka is, of course, unavoidable, but if you want to drink it like the Russians, you have to knock it back in one go! You will have the opportunity to enjoy the cuisine from some of the former Soviet states in, among others, Uzbek, Armenian and Georgian restaurants. Make sure to try the Beef Stroganoff, a great classic in Russian gastronomy made with beef, fresh cream, onions and mushrooms. Delicious!
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See the different areas
Most shops are open from 9:00am to 8:00pm from Monday to Saturday, though some shut for an hour or so at lunchtime. Some grocery stores are open on Sundays. The department stores GUM (the most well-known, located on Red Square), Tsoum and B.H.S offer a wide range of products. Be careful, we strongly advise you not buy caviar from street vendors to avoid being scammed! For guaranteed quality, buy some from Eliseevskiy grocery store on Tverskaya Avenue, near Pushkin Square (at the Pushkinskaya metro stop). The decoration in this superb food store is worthy of a palace, with its huge mirrors, chandeliers and gilding. Don't mistake the much more affordable red caviar (salmon roe) for black caviar (sturgeon roe). On your list of things to take back home should be the obligatory bottles of vodka, tins of caviar (check the storage conditions), matryoshkas (Russian dolls), Shapkas (fur hats) and, for collectors, badges and medals bearing the effigy of Lenin, stamped with the red star or the hammer and sickle. As for luxury products, clothing, alcohol, cigarettes, and perfume, the market is overrun by imitations, so much so that the prices are sometimes unbeatable. Traditional artisanal crafts (glossy wooden boxes, china figurines, amber necklaces, embroidered scarves, samovars, Caucasian rugs, icons) and fur (fox and mink) are safe buys, but exporting antiques is strictly forbidden.