Blue Lagoon, Intercontinental Dubai Marina

A few weekends ago I secretly stuffed my shiny LV suitcase, left a lot of extra water for my ever-hungry cat Freddie and ran away from my friends, work and routine. Don’t worry guys, it didn’t affect my Instagram community as they are the real family and impossible to part with, right :)?

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For the purposes of extreme privacy I selected one of the most popular hotels in one the most public-friendly Dubai areas, Intercontinental in Dubai Marina, right when a huge group of Instagrammers from Kuwait stormed the city. Can you spot me?

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The Intercontinental in Dubai Marina is a place with a view. Conveniently located between The Marina and The Beach, the hotel’s design contrasts with the gold skyscrapers on one side and fancy yachts on the other. Right from the entrance the interiors surprise visitors with high ceilings, and minimalistic simple colours that create a magnificent additional space to breathe, walk and enjoy a moment. Stunning!

At check-in I obviously pretended to be new to the city and was dully briefed on all nearby attractions (spoiler: many) and dangers (spoiler: none). Frankly over-shopping is one of the tourist traps I always fall into. However it was a look at my key that made me realize I was in for a treat. What’s your favorite number?

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The 13F didn’t disappoint. I walked into a spacious room with a view on deep blue water where busy boats left wavy trails behind and a party vibe, breaking reflections of skyscrapers and fancy towers.

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Despite high humidity, the balcony’s attraction was irresistible resulting in my room turning into a sauna.

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And what a room it was!

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Equipped with essentials including iron, complimentary mineral water and a Nespresso machine, it also featured fresh fruit, toiletries and Instagram themed macaroons. Spoiler: they didn’t last…

Satisfied with my lodging, I went on a walking tour around the premises looking for cool shots and hot snacks. I discovered’ em all strolling amongst futuristic art objects installed here and there. Don’t miss complimentary cookies and dates served with traditional Arabic coffee offered at the lobby (I wasn’t shy).

The staircase led to me up and down to irresistibly looking bars and restaurants. Ginter with retro furniture, glass displays and gin themed cocktails, Marina Social and popular night out destination Ynot.

With a few hours to spare before dinner I changed into my fanciest swimwear and hurried to the beautiful terrace with a pool overlooking the busy waters of Dubai Marina. I instantly called it the Blue Lagoon for its incredible shades of this warmest colour.

While the sun was setting the blue intensified creating an eye-candy of photography including breathtaking views on Marina.

Inspired by street lights, I adorned myself in sparkles, crystals and other shiny things. Then I headed to Ynot to eat and party, shamelessly taking an advantage of their Thirsty Thursday offer (more here). It was nice to chat with oft sought after chef Ioannis, known for his good taste in food and humor. Apparently he often makes an appearance to check how quickly guest clear their plates and glasses. Spoiler: instantly 🙂

So I turned off my phone, brewed a cuppa and soaked offline…

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Looking for more? Head to the official site of Intercontinental Dubai Marina – here. 

Good night!

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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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Be your own stylist with Valenxe

Once upon a time on a late night train from France to Germany, two beautiful girls dreamed up a perfect wardrobe staple for all occasions all around the world. Joined by a third fashionista they designed a pair of truly desirable and versatile leggings with a slimming effect. That’s how Valenxe, the “intrinsic attractiveness” was born. Being hard to impress, I decided to sneak three pairs of Valenxe leggings into Dubai and put these babies to an ultimate style trial, breaking all possible fashion rules in between.

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Look One: Trophy Girl

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It was a sunny January Friday in Dubai, the perfect day to brunch, pool around and show off that hard to get beach body (did you try my insane workout?). So I grabbed my “la vie en rose” shades, a silky shiny tunic by Parker NYAntilla crop leggings in dream navy, and headed to the family friendly Waldorf Hotel on the Palm. Cropped leggings is a challenge to wear well. For me. I visually extend the look of my legs by balancing shorter leggings with either flats or sneakers. Voila:

Look 2: Nasty Woman

They say show me your friends and I’ll tell you who you are. Woah-oh-oh-ah-ah-ah! Hanging out with these three unbreakable style gAnnstars: no.1, no.2 and no. 3 led to irreversible changes in my attitude. Armed with a truly Canadian maple syrup candy, a tee with me boyz Beavis and Butthead, I pulled on the leather-like Aspasia leggings in black and rolled away. Do mind the cool hat (this is Rella)

Look 3: Lady in Red

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When the time came to dress for a challenging shopping afternoon with a fellow fashion-addict, I opted for a bright red tight dress, Versace scarf and Bollea leggings in bella fiora brown. Not only did I have a fun time strolling down the new “must-see” district in Dubai, but found a solid number of followers thinking I was a celebrity in disguise.

Look 4: Walkaholic

It’s that time of the year in the UAE when the anticipation of rain is almost as enjoyable as the rain itself. Layered in Aritzia wool jacket and protected by a powerful red umbrella, I felt like Mary Poppins on a mission. Surprisingly my black  Aspasia leggings pulled off a classy as well as edgy look, making my lower body look “gym every day” thinner.

Look 5: Trouble Maker

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Inspired by the adventures of Indiana Jones, I decided to initiate my own treasure hunt and drove all the way to the capital, glorious Abu Dhabi. Dressed in a vintage cotton shirt from Austria, breathable Japanese sneakers, sweet Italian shades and Canadian leggings I was proud to communicate the spirit of a true globetrotter. I did discover a hidden Arabian quarter overlooking the blue water of a little creek and called my trip a total success!

Loved Valenxe – shop’em here! Stalk me on Instagram and Facebook

Update: While on a different style mission, I spotted another Dubai girl rocking Valenxe leggings. I think she wore them better than me! What do you think?

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Hell’O Toronto

Warning: You are about to indulge in the most horrifying horrible horror story ever. Do not read before sleep. All characters and events are supernaturally real.

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It was a boring ordinary evening on October 31st (or 13th depending on how you look at it) in Toronto. The weather started falling apart. The clock was ticking towards midnight, but shadows outside were still growing longer and the last rays of sunshine were randomly twinkling in the glass windows. All seemed to be so totally normal.

Then I felt it happening. An inexplicable power of unknown source was dragging me out of the house to the cold deserted streets where enormous black birds and bright laughing pumpkins appeared to be the only living creatures.

“Aritzia” a crow’s cry echoed in my fuzzy coat when I stepped out dressed in a big hurry to face my destiny. “What the heck is going on?” My thoughts were in total chaos.

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“Hell’o baby… Trick or treat”, whispered a gloomy voice from above, but when I turned there was just a house staring at me with the emptiness of its framed windows.  I shivered and blamed the famous freezing Toronto breeze.

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Suddenly I heard a giggle. Shimmering with a variety of sounds like a million jingle-bells, it sparkled out of nowhere and disappeared almost immediately. A minute later a funny white face materialized from the underground, winked at me and laughed. There was another one at the corner, one on the sidewalk and one right by my side. They created an absolutely irresistible vibe! I started giggling along worrying that my shaky hands would fail me in capturing the surreal adventure.”Nighty-night my lady”, said the crisp air, and then there was the silence. I sighed.

“Pardon my interruption, but I’ve been admiring your hat”, said a friendly looking tall man from the garden across the street. There was something very familiar about his look as I’ve met him before, but his high soprano voice put my thoughts at ease. “Sorry, I usually don’t talk to strangers. Strangers scare me.” He confessed and then added: “Care for a walk, eh?”.

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I was happy to get some company to cheer me up on those empty streets and we walked. While I questioned my companion on where to find the best pumpkin pie in the neighbourhood, he was more interested in discussing American politics, so I waved good-bye and found myself on a crossroads.

“What’s next? Mmmmm… Did I get lost?” My recently charged iPhone had turned black and decided to die taking away the privilege of modern communication plus “I can’t live without you” Google maps. I starred at the surroundings, trying to figure out a game plan.

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“Meowellow”, purred a charming voice in my ear. “The sun is setting. You better find shelter. Streets belong to me after dark”. A black cat appeared behind me. “Real cats never get lost. Come along girl and hurry up”.

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I followed the Black Cat sharing the same enthusiasm and curiosity as Alice once showed following the White Rabbit. And what an amazing race it was!

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Houses, creepy sounds, streets decorated in a luxurious and decadent manner, faded facades and pale faces carved on them. I swear I saw a dragon who just played along!

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I couldn’t believe my luck! The Black Cat turned out to be the It Cat, knowing everyone and everything. After a glass of bubbly with local celebrities I realized that my friends were long gone and I was standing by myself in front of my house. It was the moon-faced pumpkin that smiled and sadly whispered: “‘Till the next year darling”!

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Feel Like a Soviet in Moscow, Top 10, Part 2

My shady mission that started one dangerously sunny afternoon in Moscow has so far led to KGB interferance and thousands of vivid photos of the Red Square from every possible angle (except space). Those who followed my walking map in the previous post (as ambitious as the USSR’s five-years national economy plans) have developed a strong immune response to discoveries and probably lost 4-10 pounds of precious western body fat. Those, who didn’t – shame on you! The real communist is always on the go and with a little help, you’ll soon become one, willingly or not.

No. 7 – Gorky Park + Garage art center

Entrance to the park is free!

All you Scorpions fans will certainly remember the visionary video and heartbreaking lyrics of Wind of Change : “Follow the Moskva, down to Gorky Park, listening to the wind of change… To the magic of this moment… Let your balalaika sing what my guitar has to say…”. Wait no more! I’m taking you to the place “where children of tomorrow share their dreams” 🙂

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Since its opening in 1928, Gorky Park was established by a young Soviet government (fun could be regimented too) as a place to feel the change. While the new state was growing through the ruins of the Empire, the site for the future park was chosen on a deserted area, a former dump 45 minutes away from the Kremlin. Named after a Soviet writer (“Untimely Thoughts”) it was here that in 1935 a two-headed herald eagle striped off the Kremlin towers spent their last hours on display outshined by the symbols of a brand new era, red stars encrusted by semi-precious stones. For the next 75 years propaganda and leisure co-existed here. Extraordinary, from 1929-1937 it was run by female manager, Betty Glan who was only 25yo when appointed.

During WWII it was used to exhibit German war trophies, feeding anticipation for victory, and in post war years, the victory of communism. Following a recent restoration in 2012, Gorky Park was overrun with evil hipsters who enjoyed the 24/7 schedule of free wi-fi, all sorts of “ball” activities, lush lawns to sunbath on, access to Moscow’s river embarkment, never ending supply of kvas (a cold local drink which apparently is super hot) and street food. Beware, it’s easy to loose your sense of time and spend the whole day over here.

Not on my watch! Whatever you will be tricked in doing (local enthusiasm is contagious), find an hour or two for Garage, the museum of contemporary art opened by Darya Zhukova. Apart from a selection of peculiar installations, you’ll be surprised by the modern hybrid of minimalistic soviet architecture and modern urbanism. More here.

N0. 8 – Patriarch Ponds

Free!

Dive into the Moscow metro for a rapid ride from Oktyabrskay to Tverskay station, and for a quick meal at the first McDonald’s to open in the USSR. You may find this idea quite awful at first (especially if you are Vegan or allergic to fast food), however at the end of January 1990, around 30,000 Soviets arrived to queue for the taste of freedom. For many following months, a trip to McDonald’s became a dream stop on a sightseeing tour of Moscow (here is a video proof). Looks convincing, eh?

Our next mission is to explore the Patriarch’s neighborhood, the area loved by former party leaders, expats, spies, poets, ministers, the nouveau riche and readers of Master and Margaret (soviet satire novel by M. Bulgakov if you skipped my previous post). It was here at the Patriarch Ponds (actually there is just one) where the Devil allegedly appeared on May 1st, 1929. It was here that a phrase “don’t talk to strangers” turned into the meme and a dark fate for the two participants. Lounge on one of wooden benches to watch a very well dressed crowd pass by or have a drink at many nearby bars.

No. 9 – VDNKH

Entrance is free!

VDNKH is one of my favorite places in Moscow recognized for its authentic feel and magnificent architectural structures. It’s a Soviet version of Disneyland with rides, candies, glitter, performances and a promise of the Brighter Future for every working comrade. Many call it “Versailles stormed by Bolsheviks”. VDNKH or vystavka (fair) of Soviet realism with pavilions exhibiting new exciting gadgets, machinery and produce (anything from apples to spacecrafts). Here, feel the vibe!

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Glittering with gold, VDNKH isn’t just eye-candy, but it radiates the famous Russian spontaneity when one never knows where the day ends and is ready for all sort of scenarios. I was treated to a random glass of prosecco on board an empty stationery soviet plane.

Take a good look around. Back in 60s you may be walking alongside Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. Today you may spot parkour enthusiasts rolling head-breaking tricks, brainy youth on scooters or special forces officers splashing in the fountains. A must-see are the space pavilions and the nominee of Stalin’s prize, sculpture “Worker and a kolkhoz woman (farmer girl)” by Mukhina. Just like Hollywood’s roaring lion it was chosen as the opener to Soviet films.

Once you watch the setting sun in the Communist themed park, it’s time to use the privileges of the capitalist’s world and jump into a comfortable Uber for the long drive through the center of Moscow to a place best described as temptation.

No. 10 – Chinese Grammar or Kitayskay Gramota, the restaurant

Reserve a table a day in advance. Arrive hungry. Be ready to throw cash to settle the bill. Tip: impress staff and audience by making it rain thousand ruble notes “Bad Grandpa”  style. Explore their food, drinks and mind-blowing menu here.

Owned by Mr. Rappoport (remember Dr. Zhivago), a lawyer known in his circle as a foodie and a talented chef with obviously good sense of humor and taste (in art for example), Chinese Grammar wins your interest at the front door. In the best traditions of the communist era, the statue of the greeting comrade is cheerful, green and screwed to the wall (for its own good they say). March in and be stunned by the atmosphere of a post-Imperial selected members only bunker loaded with artifacts. Strikingly good looking staff dressed in Mao’s soldiers uniforms are quite entertaining to watch with their trained posture and detailed knowledge of the menu. Believe me, my reader, it’s not just the decor that this place is loved for, but the Cantonese cuisine delicious in its simplicity and long selection of tempting cocktails. I couldn’t stop looking for a hidden door leading to gambling, opium tastings and happy patrons puffing the magic dragons so well described in Sherlock Holmes, but I failed. Maybe you’ll get luckier…

The end!

Stalk me on Instagram or Facebook, comment or reach me at antrestain.com. I love to hear from you and take you on a new adventure somewhere in this world. For now 🙂

 

 

 

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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Window to Europe

In Moscow, June 1672, a Tzar was born with a vision. He was unusually tall, bright, clean shaven, non-religious and kept his eyes to the West.

He dared to challenge traditions, domestic structure and the modus operandi of Medieval Russia, advancing it to be the new powerful kid on the block. He led a massive cultural revolution by cutting beards, opening math and engineering schools, encouraging youth to travel abroad, forcing French fashion on his court, and introducing potatoes (ha!) to Russian cuisine. He moved New Year’s day from September to January 1st and adopted the German custom of decorating Christmas trees. Believe it or not, he was also the father of Russian ballet. Sound like a lot? Well, he could also twist and roll silver plates and assemble anything ranging from kid’s chairs to real warships. He topped it all when in 1703 he chose the site and laid the foundation stone for the new capital of New Russia, Saint Petersburg, which he believed was and forever would be the”window to Europe”. Long Live Peter the Great!

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St. Petersburg in 1720 by J. Homann

The legend says that when Tzar Peter and his entourage scouted islands in the Neva river delta for a perfect location (or a fancy sunset view), an eagle appeared right above them and that’s how it started. Well, superstition runs deep in Russian DNA 🙂

Modern St. Petersburg consists of 101 islands, it’s the largest, youngest European city with the most number of bridges and a confident promise to amaze. Today follow me on a tour of Peter’s city…

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We’ll start across the Neva river and the Winter Palace on Zayachay (Hare) Island at Peter and Paul Fortress. It was built as a bastion to counterattack Swedes, but soon turned into the “Russian Bastille”, where prince Alexey (Peter’s son) conspired against reforms and was interrogated and imprisoned. While still fresh and eager, climb up the Bell Tower, the second tallest local structure to discover its tragic past (a victim of several fires caused by lightining) and a panoramic view from 42m platform. Then enter the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the eternal home of Romanov family, and the oldest church in the city. It was built in stunning early Baroque style, greatly influenced by Western Europe. Its interiors were decorated with golden ornaments, icons and bible-themed paintings. On the way out, look up to spot the famous angel weather-vane on the golden spire.

Continue your walk along the walls of Peter and Paul Fortress, take panoramic photos of the historical center on the other side of Neva river and then turn to Petrovskaya embarkment to visit the first residential house, a little cottage built for Peter himself in record 3 days, Cabin of the Peter the Great. Protected from the harsh weather by the pavilion, it was originally assembled in traditional Russian log cabin style (izba) with large windows and a high roof. Interestingly, its exteriors were painted to imitate a brick pattern as Tzar was building a city of stone on a limited budget.  The interiors were simple, practical and decorated with essentials only.

Photo credit St. Petersburg’s card

Our next stop is the opposite of practical. It was one of the fist luxuries, proudly designed for the eyes and soul by the Tzar himself and with his active involvement (he loved to be a part of all his projects). So cross the Troitskiy (Trinity) bridge to take a romantic stroll down the alleys in the Summer Garden. Yes, it was laid out as an entertainment park filled with early 18th century urban luxury trends – strict geometric principales, trimmed trees, swans, rare plants, sparkling fountains and marble statues. The river that supplied water to feed its fountains was eventually called Fontanka. Through its history, the Summer Garden has witnessed secret rendez-vous, powerful celebrities, assassination attempt, love scandals and impressive fireworks to end imperial ball. Sadly, most of the marble statues (except one) were replaced with copies during the latest restoration. Keep an eye for the Peace and Victory statue, it’s the only original left.

Now it’s time for “I spy with my little eye”. Turn around and find another golden spire with a weather vane in the form of a little ship shining high in the sky (or use Google maps). It’s the Admiralty tower strategically located on the Neva River in close proximity of Peter and Paul fortresses canons, so it could be easily destroyed if overtaken by enemies. The Admiralty at first was functioning as a shipyard to build the new Russian Baltic fleet and to support Peter’s Imperial ambitions (produced 262 warships).  Peter himself was seen over there working hard as a craftsman on docks. Today the Admiralty is one of most recognizable symbols of the city and a starting point of 3 main avenues. One of them is Nevsky prospect.

It’s impossible to visit St. Petersburg and miss the Nevsky’s. It’s a happening place, the hub of entertainment and nightlife, one of the best-known streets in Russia and a history itself. Around 2 million people walk up and down it every day (pickpockets too, beware!). Nevsky is lined with fancy shops, restaurants and the most impressive buildings in St. Petersburg, including Kazan Cathedral, Singer House, the Passage Mall and Anichkov Bridge across Fontanka River. Stop over here for a water adventure that will take you on a tour of bridges and water canals to discover St. Petersburg from a different angle.

Our next stop is Menshikov’s Palace located right in front of the Admiralty. It was built for a childhood friend of Peter the Great, his supporter and later the first governor, Aleksander Menshikov (not of noble origin but promoted to Duke by the Tzar). Being the first stone residential building in the city and a magnificent structure featuring a rare mix of Baroque style with traditional Russian architecture, the palace was often used for official receptions, balls and carnivals. Rich interiors were decorated with silk, gold, Dutch tiles and marble. The legend says that many of the guest were frightened to step on unusual looking 3D parquet designed by Peter himself and kept their feet up while seated.

If it happened that the eagle responsible for Tzar’s decision flew through time, this is how amazed it would be by the beauty of this eternal city (watch the aerial video)

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Photo and video credit: TimeLab Pro

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