From Russia, with love
Two cities, 14 friends, one giant birthday bash
When a friend suggested a trip to Russia to celebrate his 40th birthday, I thought it was a rather unusual choice, as did the 12 others who were pencilled in on the trip. But, I realised it would give us the chance to tick off a collective bucket list, make our friend very happy, and give us infinite bragging rights. So, to Russia we went.
First: St Petersburg. It’s everything you have heard of, and so much more. Not only is it Russia’s cultural capital, but it used to be the imperial capital too. It was only in 1918 that the capital was shifted to Moscow.
We were fortunate that our friend was born in the summer, when the city is blessed with its famed white nights, when the sun sets around midnight and rises around 3am. It is quite spectacular and lets you pack a lot into your day. Thanks to our friend’s exceptional planning, we accomplished plenty: splendid churches and palaces in the day, great dining options, and of course, copious amounts of sublime Russian vodka in the evenings. The only thing really missing from our itinerary was sleep.
The night-time boat cruise on the Neva River was an incredible experience. The magnificent palaces and government buildings were ablaze with light and as the boat cruised past, I felt like I was going through a panorama of moving art. The next day was packed with church tours. The architecture of Russian Orthodox cathedrals and churches is breathtaking. They date back to over 200 years and range from baroque to the intricate Russian Revival style.
Peter the Great, who built this magnificent city on the shores of the Baltic Sea, was obviously inspired by the palaces of France and the churches of Rome. And the Russians who inhabit it today, I found, were most intriguing — extremely knowledgeable, with a deep sense of pride and very direct in their mannerisms.
I love history, and I took this time to became reacquainted with both Russian as well as 20th-century US and European history. It was a sober reminder of how human behaviour can swing from greatness to awfulness rather quickly. For example, it is estimated that Josef Stalin killed (either directly or indirectly) between 20 million and 60 million people. In World War II, during the 900-day Nazi German siege of Leningrad (present-day St Petersburg), over 1.5 million inhabitants about (50 per cent of the population) died of starvation and disease.
Before this trip, my understanding of Russian food was that it was a lot of seafood and potato; no one really talks about the cuisine. However, I was pleasantly surprised: the Russian dining scene varies from very high-end restaurants to lively casual cafes. Part of my friend’s roaring birthday celebrations were held at the iconic Hotel Astoria, located directly across from St Isaac’s Cathedral, where the food and wine was exquisite. During our stay here, we managed to explore quite a few good restaurants, especially for Georgian and Mediterranean fare. Take a walk through Nevsky Proespekt, the city centre, where you can find everything from restaurants to fashion labels. And don’t miss out on the much-loved Russian ritual of vodka and caviar pairing. Vegetarians, a word of caution: you will be very, very hungry, as there is little to no vegetarian fare in most restaurants.
Pro tip: Check out Ginza Project, an international concierge service that runs some of the finest establishments across St Petersburg, Moscow, London and New York. Their restaurants are unique and delightful, with a reassuring soul.
After a whirlwind of mesmerising architectural marvels, boat rides and a haze of alcohol-fuelled brunches and dinners, it was time to move to the capital. We took the train, and while the journey wasn’t really scenic, it’s a more efficient way of getting to the city.
The history of Moscow really comes alive when you visit the Red Square and the Kremlin. Inextricably linked to all the most important historical and political events in Russia since the 13th century, the Kremlin (built between the 14th and 17th centuries by outstanding Russian and foreign architects) was the residence of the Great Prince (who ranked below a king or emperor, but above a sovereign prince according to Russia’s imperial code), as well as a religious centre. At the foot of its ramparts, at Red Square, is St Basil’s Cathedral: one of the most beautiful monuments of the Russian Orthodoxy.
Moscow is nothing like St Petersburg, but it grew on me. It’s a juxtaposition of cultural diversity, of art, and of architecture, with a very apparent air of wealth, power and modernity. We visited the Bolshoi, and we were fortunate to have watched award-winning ballet students rehearse, and see a famous opera singer — a very talented soprano — practice.
As far as dining goes, Moscow is very glamorous and far more imaginative than St Petersburg. There are an equal number of classical restaurants steeped in tradition, as there are modern spaces serving inventive cuisines. The pièce de résistance, however, was our meal at White Rabbit, which is currently No. 23 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Run by the dynamic, talented duo of Boris Zarkov and chef Vladimir Mukhin, it is a beautiful rooftop restaurant with 360-degree views of the city. Here, the food pays homage to traditional Russian cuisine, but is presented in a modern, refreshing manner. From Black Sea oysters to Crimean truffle and some absolutely divine desserts like lilac and mulberry ice cream finished with rabbits made of chocolate and macaroons, it is gastronome heaven.
Research shows that contrary to popular belief, we often don’t actually learn from experience. My own observation is that as we grow older, we also stick to tried and tested habits and become less willing to try new things. So, travel somewhere you’ve never been or never considered going to. For me, it was Russia. Stop walking on the same well-trodden path; you’ll be pleasantly surprised.