From Russia With Love Locks

If you’ve scheduled a cruise along the Moscow River, you’re likely to come across Luzhkov Bridge — a pedestrian walkway lined with iron trees decorated in hundreds of love locks. Apparently this area is a popular backdrop for wedding photos but the only people I saw posing under the blazing sun were snap-happy tourists.

Whatever the season, it is a very cool sight to see. You can get there on foot, about a twenty-minute walk from the Kremlin; by metro; or by chance, as I discovered it after visiting the nearby Tretyakov Gallery.

Wishing you a lovely weekend!

DSC_0589PS

Moscow’s Stunning White Nights, Russia

As with all things last minute, paperwork processing delays had me push my trip to Russia back by a week. This meant I missed touring Moscow with my mum and sister; instead tacking it on after our sojourn in St Petersburg. Alas, I travelled solo.

I have a soft spot for Moscow. The capital moves at a faster pace than St Petersburg, which is located an easy four hour train ride away on the speedy Sapsan. She buzzes like New York but her grand squares and wide boulevards allow breathing room to appreciate the vast historic surrounds.

Some of my most memorable moments were spent gazing through hotel windows and strolling by the Moscow River, listening to the sounds of the city while watching the sun set way past its usual bedtime.

View of Red Square from Hotel National

View of Red Square from Hotel National

The Red Square

The Red Square

St Basil's Cathedral

St Basil’s Cathedral

Volleyball in Gorky Park

Volleyball in Gorky Park

Fountains in Gorky Park

Fountains in Gorky Park

St Basil's Cathedral

St Basil’s Cathedral

Supermoon

Supermoon

Moscow River sunset

Moscow River sunset

Bontempi at Red October Factory

Bontempi at Red October Factory

Church of Christ the Saviour

Church of Christ the Saviour

Moscow River

Moscow River

The setting midnight sun

The setting midnight sun

White Nights in St Petersburg, Russia

I met my mum and sister in St Petersburg, Russia, just as June rolled into July; when the glorious White Nights were are their peak. The sun hardly slept — sometimes it napped under a blanket of clouds — and when the moon showed its face, it shone as bright as a beacon. The historic city was always illuminated and teeming with life, but its wide open spaces allowed for pause and reflection. I was awake throughout.

St Isaac's Cathedral

St Isaac’s Cathedral

View of Hotel Astoria and St Isaac's Square from the cupola of St Isaac's Cathedral

View of Hotel Astoria and St Isaac’s Square from the cupola of St Isaac’s Cathedral

Pigeons at Alexander Nevsky Monastery

Pigeons at Alexander Nevsky Monastery

The grand Petrodvoretz, the Tsar's Summer Palace

The grand Petrodvoretz, the Tsar’s Summer Palace

On the birch tree-lined fringes of the Gulf of Finland at Petrodvorets, the Tsar's summer palace

On the birch tree-lined fringes of the Gulf of Finland at Petrodvorets, the Tsar’s Summer Palace

Boating along the canals

Boating along the canals

Me, dwarfed by the palatial Hermitage

Me, dwarfed by the palatial Hermitage, the Winter Palace of every Tsar and Tsarina since Catherine the Great

Midsummer night light streaming through at 10pm

Midsummer night light streaming through at 10pm at Petro Palace Hotel

The moon by St Isaac's Cathedral

The moon by St Isaac’s Cathedral

Social Media: The Winogrand Effect

I read an interesting article in New York magazine by Jerry Saltz titled, “Photographing Through The Cracks: Garry Winogrand captured America as it split wide open.” It discusses an exhibition of the street photographer’s work currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

The last paragraph stood out because it made me think about the future of art; the formal study of photography; the role of curator; and social media’s role in propelling a new generation of self-taught photographers. Here’s the quote:

“The whole world is now filled with incredible images–especially on Instagram and other social networks–that owe something to Winogrand’s, documenting life, change, and all the rest. Yet the art world and museums are not. Instead they tend to show oversize, very still pictures or images that investigate formal properties and ideas of display and presentation. I love many of those pictures, but what’s happening online on social media deserves far more serious scrutiny than it’s getting. If the art world doesn’t admit more of this sort of deceptively casual-seeming work, the outside world will reject more so-called art photography than it already does. That’s a divide that we don’t need to reestablish and widen.”

Thoughts?

St. Isaac's Cathedral, photographed in July during a trip to St Petersburg (with a Nikon)

St. Isaac’s Cathedral, photographed in July during a trip to St Petersburg (on an angle with a Nikon and prime lens. I should add that my sister took amazing photos of the same cupola with an iPhone.).

April 14: Remembering Mayakovsky

Our brains were numb; our fingertips, blue. It was past 4pm and getting dark — not unusual for winter in Moscow. Under the bleak sky and nearing the end of our tethers, mum and I were fast losing our sense of direction. We must have shuffled by Anton Chekhov, Nikolai Gogol, and Nikolai Tchaikovsky a dozen times each while navigating pathways slicked with ice and snow. We weren’t about to give up though — we’re steadfast and pretty determined. Map or no map, eyes tearing from the cold, we sloughed through the freeze. Until finally — FINALLY! — we spotted it. The Cyrillic writing etched across the top of a red-faced tombstone that read: Vladimir Mayakovsky.

DSC_0186PSI don’t usually spend so much time in cemeteries but this day was different — I was on assignment to find the famous writer, playwright, and poet — Mayakovsky. The Novodevichy Cemetery is the resting place of many literary, cultural, and political figures including Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein, Soviet actress Marina Ladynina, and the first president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yelstin. Located adjacent to the 16th-century Novodevichy Convent, the grave site is one of the city’s top tourist attractions.

DSC_0177PSThe large red-and-black tombstone that forever honours Mayakovsky is deceptive, not only for its camouflaging abilities but because it stands for the Futurist artist who was ultimately shunned by a cause he was so vested in.

As a boy, Mayakovsky acted revolutionary: at 12, he led his classmates in a demonstration; by 15, he’d landed in jail from his association with an underground Bolshevik group, which is where he started to read widely, and write.

At the time of the Russian Revolution, Mayakovsky showed a lack of interest in the classics by Pushkin and Tolstoy, instead dedicating his efforts towards the creation of a New World. He found a voice through theatre, poetry, propaganda, and radio jingles, and went on to be celebrated as “the greatest poet of the Soviet era.” Yet, a decade later, his works seemed to polarize. Reviewers criticised his play, The Bath House, for its (humorous) critique of Soviet bureaucrats, while his artistic retrospective was avoided altogether by the intelligentsia. He feared arrest.

DSC_0189PSOn April 9, “Just five days before his death, Mayakovsky was condemned at a Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP) meeting at which his critics demanded proof that he would still be read in 20 years.”* A year later, in 1931, writer Maxim Gorky would head the Writer’s Union, abolish the RAPP, and, with Stalin, formulate the doctrine of Socialist Realism, which embraced an old-world literary aesthetic. To add further fuel, it’s been speculated that Mayakovsky’s lover, Lily Brik, was an agent of Stalin’s secret police — the NKVD.

Mum and I stood shivering in our  boots at the foot of Mayakovsky’s grave, blanketed in snow and surrounded by plastic flowers and a wreath of blood-red roses. We admired Mayakovsky’s profile for a time. I wondered how such a head-strong, intelligent 36-year-old could terminate his life with a bullet? Didn’t he have more to say? Then again, perhaps he foresaw his fate.

Below is the reported suicide note, taken from an unfinished work, probably written in 1929:

As they say,

                     a bungled story.

Love’s boat

                   smashed

                  against existence.

And we are quits

                 with life.

                So why should we

idly reproach each other

              with pain and insults?

To those who remain — I wish happiness.

DSC_0193PSHere are pictures of the site in spring: http://novodevichye.com/mayakovsky/5/

*Natasha’s Dance, by Orlando Figes

Na Zdorovie! Feasting like a Tsar in Moscow, Russia

At the heart of Russian hospitality is a table laden with generous portions of homemade dishes like piroshki, borscht, picked herring, pelmeni, and syrniki along with full-to-the-brim shot glasses of tummy-warming vodka. Perhaps my favourite meal of all is a blinchik (crepe batter swirled in a skillet until it’s a paper-thin round) that is lined with spoonfuls of red caviar, dollops of sour cream, and a sprinkle of chopped dill. Rolled-up, this indulgence is perfectly accompanied by a glass a Russian bubbly or champagne.

A blinchik with sour cream, caviar, and dill made by my husband

A blinchik with sour cream, caviar, and dill made by my husband last Russian Xmas.

Celebrating the New Year in Russia often means feasting on a family-style buffet of gastronomic delights; the chilly outside temperatures making carb-and-cream-rich foods, smoked fish, and pickled side dishes all the more palatable (and desirable). Historically,  Moscovites subsisted on a diet of locally sourced foods though overseas influences led Moscow to earn the reputation as a “city of gourmands”:

“Sumptuous banquets had a legendary status in the annals of Moscow. It was not unusual for 200 separate dishes to be presented at a meal. (Yet) sumptuous eating of this sort was a relatively new phenomenon. The food of 17th century Muscovy had been plain and simple – the entire repertory consisting of fish, boiled meats, pancakes, bread and pies, garlic, onion, cucumbers and radishes, cabbages and beetroot… It was not until the 18th century that more interesting foods and culinary techniques were imported from abroad: butter, cheese and sour cream, smoked meats and fish, pastry cooking, salads and green vegetables, tea and coffee, chocolates, ice cream, wines, and liqueurs. Although seen as the most Russian part of any meal (caviar, sturgeon, vodka), the classic zakuski (hors-d’oeuvres), such as fish in aspic, were not in fact invented until the early 19th century.”*

Note: such a standard for eating was not only reserved for courtiers; provincial families also enjoyed a healthy intake, and the gentry households could spend a whole day in a ‘chain of meals’, as described by the Russian poet, Pushkin.

credit: tsar-project.ru

Credit: tsar-project.ru

TIPS FOR TRAVELERS

For the Moscow-bound traveler, consuming Russia’s passion for food brings a different dimension to experiencing the cosmopolitan city: it delves deeper into the cultural; it makes one ponder food’s historical significance; it offers a greater understanding of the locals’ way of life. Stopping at a food kiosk and sitting down to a traditional Russian restaurant meal are, in my opinion, absolute musts when visiting this fascinating city and country.

Language

For the non-Russian speaking tourist, seeking out traditional foods is a little daunting given Cyrillic is one of the hardest languages to read, let alone comprehend and speak. I can understand why a traveler would stop to eat at one of the many sushi spots (there’s even a Nobu Moscow), or at (the growing number of) American food outlets like Shake Shack, Papa Beard’s, Subway, Le Pain Quotidien, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Johnny Rockets… even Cinnabon— their food options are familiar, served in the safety net of a recognisable interior.

The truth is that many Russian restaurants do cater to the English speaker, and asking for a translated menu is the first step to overcoming the fear of not being able to converse in the local language. The result of making this effort is dining on a closer-to-authentic meal that satisfies that sense of curiousity for the new and different — one of the very reasons we travel in the first place.

Perhaps the sister deli to Manhattan's "Moscow on the Hudson".

Perhaps the sister deli to Manhattan’s “Moscow on the Hudson”.

An example of a Russian-English menu. This one is from "Prokukti" (transl: "Products") -- a cafe on Red October island.

An example of a Russian-English menu. This one is from “Produkti” — a cafe on the site of the former Red October chocolate factory.

I was fascinated with Russian food during my time in Moscow, especially while browsing the well-stocked shelves of local foodstuffs. Some of my favourite times were spent in supermarkets, or gastronoms, lusting over freshly baked breads and pastry treats, rows of fresh and tinned fish, reams of boxed chocolates, and mouth-watering arrays of cold cuts and cheeses.

Pastry filled goodies at Azbuka Vkusa (Alphabet of Taste supermarket) -- first two include baked cottage cheese; the last, roulette with poppy seed, was one of my favourites.

Pastry filled goodies at Azbuka Vkusa (Alphabet of Taste, a gourmet supermarket) — first two include a baked cottage cheese filling; the last, roulette with poppy seed, was one of my favourites.

Below is a rough guide to foodie recommendations and a bite of what you could expect on a trip to Moscow. A helpful hint: do a little research prior to your trip and learn the names of key Russian dishes. Choose to dine in a Russian restaurant and, in the absence of a translated menu, gather up all your courage and request a few of those dishes that intrigued you in that pre-trip research.  Place any worries aside: You aren’t the first traveler daunted by the Russian language … nor the last!

Na Zdorovie! — “to your health”, and S Novim Godom! – “Happy New Year!”

May you indulge in gastronomic delights and delicacies as you see in a  prosperous 2014!

~~~

Zakuski, or starters

Smoked fish like trout, and herring pickled in a mix of vinegar, peppercorns, and sliced raw onions are essential zakuski.

Seafood at Smolensky Gastronom

Seafood at Smolensky Gastronom

Octopus, sardines, and more seafood at Smolensky Gastronom.

Octopus, sardines, and more seafood at Smolensky Gastronom.

Cheese, cold cuts, and black bread are served at breakfast; also as appetizers.

Pesto Cheese  at the forefront. In the Smolensky Gastronom.

Pesto Cheese at the forefront. In the Smolensky Gastronom.

Jamon Iberico surrounded by salami and jerky. In Smolensky Gastronom.

Jamon Iberico surrounded by salami and jerky. In Smolensky Gastronom.

Main Dishes

Beef Stroganoff: dating back to the Imperial years, this dish was prepared for tsars and gained its name from either Baron Alexander Stroganov in the early 1800s or Count Pavel Stroganov.

Beef Stroganoff wish a side of mashed potatoes is to the left of this image. Prepared at the Swissotel Krasny Holmy.

Beef Stroganoff with a side of mashed potatoes is to the left of this image. Prepared at the Swissotel Krasnye Holmy hotel.

Pelmeni – these are boiled minced meat dumplings and very tasty when dipped in a mixture of smetana (sour cream) and khren (horseradish).

Pelmeni from Swissotel Krasny Holmy restaurant, Acapella

Pelmeni from Swissotel Krasnye Holmy restaurant, Acapella

Frozen pemleni sold by the bag at Smolensky Gastronom.

Frozen pelmeni are commonly sold by the bag. This photo taken at Smolensky Gastronom.

Piroshki — pie-like buns that, when bitten, reveal savoury fillings such as meat, or cabbage, or fish, or mashed potato with mushroom. A snack that I fully indulged in during Moscow’s wintry days.

Take the opportunity to stop at a kiosk, where the food is cheap and tasty.

Take the opportunity to stop at a kiosk, where the food is cheap and tasty.

Blinchiki are pancakes/crepes and tastiest when filled with the luxury that is black sturgeon caviar — Ossetra, Beluga or Sevruga — or red salmon caviar, along with sour cream. Roll the crepe up and enjoy to the pops of salt mixed with creamy-sour goodness.

Soups, Salads, and Sides

Pickled sides can include mushrooms, cabbage, cucumbers, and/or tomatoes.

You'll noticed pickled mushrooms in this spread of black caviar, cold cuts, and carrot juice (meant to be mixed with cream).

You’ll noticed pickled mushrooms in this spread that centres around the black caviar. In the background are cold cuts. Right: carrot juice (meant to be mixed with cream). At Bochka restaurant.

Borscht — a soup painted red for its chopped beetroot; made with shredded cabbage, carrots, chopped potatoes, and even meat. The soup below contained lingon and/or cranberries giving it a slightly sour-tart taste.

Borscht topped with dill, from Botchka restaurant.

Borscht topped with dill, from Bochka restaurant.

Hailing from France is the popular Salat Olivier, a mayonnaise-based concoction of diced ham or chicken, eggs, carrots, potatoes, and pickles. It’s best enjoyed with a few slices of black bread. (I didn’t try it on this trip).

Desserts and baked goods

Croissants and cappuccinos — the French and Italian influence is alive and well. Mum and I couldn’t resist dining at this outpost of Le Pain, located on the old Arbat.

yes, we succumbed to the treats at Le Pain Quotidien

Yes, we succumbed to the treats at the international chain, Le Pain Quotidien.

Syrniki — these fluffy fried cheese pancakes are made of cottage cheese and egg; topped with sour cream, jam, and/or honey.

Syrniki from Swissotel Krasnye Holmy restaurant, Acapella

Syrniki from Swissotel Krasnye Holmy restaurant, Acapella

Vatrushka — pastry marked with a middle of hearty baked cottage cheese (sometimes includes raisins).

Sochnik — pastry folded around cottage cheese.

Cottage Cheese ring (top left), piroshki (bottom)

Cottage Cheese pastries on the top shelf, and piroshki along the bottom.

Moscow dining and foodie recommendations:

Bochka restaurant — for traditional Russian food. Also owners of the oft-reviewed Café Pushkin. http://www.vbochke.ru

Acapella Restaurant, Swissotel Krasnye Holmy Hotel — an excellent Russian set menu. http://www.swissotel.com/hotels/moscow/dining

Shokoladnitsa — seems to be modeled after Max Brenner, it’s easy for travelers to select from a menu of salads, pancakes, desserts and coffee. http://www.shoko.ru

Azbuka Vkusa —  translated as “Alphabet of Taste”, this is chain of gourmet, pricey supermarkets located across Moscow. Open 24 hours.

Smolensky Gastronom – a well-stocked gourmet supermarket located on the Old Arbat, close to the entrance of the Smolensky metro.

Produkti Cafe and Bar — translated as “Products”, a name usually reserved for grocery stores, this is a hip dining spot on the island that housed the former site of Krasny Oktyabr’ (Red October Chocolate Factory).

Sign for "Produkti".

Sign for “Produkti”.

*Natasha’s Dance by Orlando Figues

Notes:

–Many restaurants in Russia cater to smokers so ask for the non-smoking section if this is your preference.

–Tipping is at the diner’s discretion though it’s advisable to leave around a 10% tip as gratuities make up the bulk of the waitstaff’s wages.

–Lent takes place during March and April and this may mean some places serve fish instead of meat, and no dairy, eggs, milk and cheese. But in Western hotels and restaurants, this shouldn’t be an issue.

I didn't leave Moscow without buying some chocolates made by Red October Chocolate Factory.

I didn’t leave Moscow without buying some chocolates made by Red October Chocolate Factory.