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Moscow in Spring (travel report)

Moscow in Spring (travel report)

As my plane is hurdling me through the last few hundred kilometers to Domodedovo airport, the white sea outside my window finally clears up and gives me a majestic view of the Russian lands below. The first thing that caches my eye is that Russia, viewed from above, looks very different from Europe. If you watch a country like the Netherlands from the sky, you will see mostly farms interspersed with a few glimmering cities here and there. The farmlands in Europe all have a very distinct style to them. No matter where you look you will see single farmhouses, perhaps with a few stables close to them, surrounded by a number of ackers of land. The houses nearly always stand alone. Nothing but fields for at least a mile or so around. Watching this pattern from the plane. I often wonder about the lives of farmers. How isolated it must be, but it seems to be the way it works in Europe. If you fly over the UK or any other EU country, you see the same picture. People living in relative isolation, surrounded by their land.

Russia’s skyward signature is very different. The fact that farmhouses almost never appear alone in Russia is an observation that is hard to miss when you’re looking at it from high above. Instead of standing alone and isolated from each other, the Russian land shows large groups of farmhouses hurdled together. With the farmland surrounding the group of houses instead of just one house.

For anyone who is at least a little bit familiar with the history of Russia, the reason for this different signature is obvious, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting or profound. It had never crossed my mind before this moment, but as I was observing the numerous little groups of houses cuddled together in the Russian lands, I couldn’t help but feel we might have made a mistake in Europe. Instead of the regular feeling of loneliness I usually get from watching the isolated European farms from above. Looking at these cozy Russian villages actually made me feel like most people, living in Rural areas in Russia, probably aren’t that isolated at all. And that made me wonder about the rest of their culture. After all Russia is one of the few countries in the world with a real cultural legacy of extremely close cooperation between people. The exact opposite of our western individualism was the ultimate achievement here for a long time. I was very curious as to how that has made the Russian culture different from my own.

I must admit, as we were finally docking at Domodedovo I was also starting to feel just a slight bit nervous. This was my first trip to Russia, and since I was lodging with friends in Moscow I hadn’t done any preparing for the trip at all, except for getting myself a Visa of course. All I’ve ever seen of Russia is: car chases, military bases and clubs run by scary drug dealers and mercenaries. Since that seems to be the only way Russia ever appears in American movies. The only Russians I had ever seen where: soldiers holding AK47’s guarding roadblocks or they were hot lady villains in James Bond movies. So in my mind Russia was mostly supposed to be full of: tanks, armed guards on the corner of every street, checkpoints everywhere and so forth.

I was in for a surprise!

I might have suspected it earlier since the Visa application for Russia is a bit complex, but nowhere near as complex or degrading as a Visa application for the US. The security at the airport and customs was thorough, but also not degrading or outright hostile like the one in the US where everybody is basically considered a terrorist until proven innocent. The Russian guards were serious and took there time, but were really quite friendly. The airport itself was also really not what I expected. Very beautiful and surprisingly modern. Just like the express train to the city center.  As I watched out of the window and caught up with my friend, who picked me up from the airport, I couldn’t help but notice how modern and in a sense “European” everything looked and felt.

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Sure, some of the houses are in the well know ‘Sovjet concrete’ style, which is not much to look at, but many of the newer offices and more recent housing projects I could spot from the train, looked just like they do at home in Amsterdam. The fashion in the streets was another thing that rather surprised me. All the modern brand names are present, and fashion seems to be just as divers and colorful in Moscow, as it is in my own hometown of Amsterdam.

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I’ve been in quite a few capital cities on all continents. Most of them feel very different from Amsterdam, but for some reason Moscow’s first impression was: that it was actually feeling very much like home. Friendly and open atmosphere in the streets, no hagglers, lot’s of hip café’s and restaurants, well kept roads and sidewalks and much more people on bikes then I had expected.

Yes! Muscovites love BIKES! Who new :)!

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So the surprising “European-ness” of Russia’s capital city was my biggest take away, however there is of course a lot more to be found in Moscow! So here are some highlights and cool places to visit should you decide to pay the city a visit yourself:

1: ‘ll start at the absolute top of the city (quite literally).

In the hip “new Moscow” district you really shouldn’t miss out on a visit to Bar Sixty. Situated on the 60th floor of one of the newly build skyscrapers that top the skyline of Moscow you’ll find a very hip club here with a very impressive view! I dropped by rather early in the morning. It was still closed, but I managed to talk my way inside and I must say: WOW!

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2: ShiSha bars!

Moscow has a great many bars and clubs that offer the option of smoking ShiSha. With prize winning ShiSha experts preparing the tobacco and monitoring the flavor from time to time. You can be sure to have a very “flavorable” experience in one of these many fine establishments. A great place to visit is “Shater”. This ShaSha place and restaurant is located in the center of the city, on the side of a small city lake. Very nice food and excellent ShiSha (http://cafeshater.ru/). Another great place for ShiSha is ‘Chaihona’ a hip club in the center with a unique illuminated ceiling that keeps changing colors in interesting ways. It’s also a night club. http://www.chaihona.com/

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3: Parks!

Moscow has an unusual amount of huge parks. In a way the city is almost easier to view as a number of smaller cities, all enveloped by huge public parks. Since about two years ago, the Muscovites have been developing these parks more actively and they seem a hotbed for a myriad of cultural activities. Some of the larger parks almost feel like full blown theme parks complete with roller-coasters and ferris wheels. Skating, biking and riding long boards is very popular amongst the Russian hipsters. So whether you’re looking for some nice food or good coffee in the sun, or if you want to listen to some open air concerts, do some Yoga or check out some art galleries.  You’ll find most of these activities and many many more in the various public parks of Moscow. http://park.sokolniki.com/ and http://www.park-gorkogo.com/

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A father teaching piano on an open piano in the park. (The plack reads: Please play me!)

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4: Cafés and restaurants!

Moscow is very very rich in Bars, cafés and restaurants. Though you truly must know some Muscovites to get around to the good spots in this city. Many of the hip little places I went to, were hidden away in small streets and up stairs, behind unassuming entrances. If you’re not in the know.You would never find them. In the commercial center you’ll find plenty of places though. But these are mostly StarBucks and other generic places. If your not from a big city yourself this will be an interesting area to visit, but otherwise you’ll be bored quickly here. For the good stuff it seems you need to look a bit harder, or make friends with some Russians and have them guide you. A very cozy place is Izya bar and grill with truly great food and again the option for ShiSha as well. Ulliams is also very nice. And if you looking for some authentic French deliciousness try http://michellebakery.ru

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5 Music places!

Moscow is definitely a city with music in it’s hart. With some nice Blues & jazz clubs, and a lot of music in the open air (on various squares in town). I also managed to discover the music district where you’ll find some good suppliers for all instruments. A very nice shop is Orchestra where you’ll find a wide range of grands and baby grands, saxophone, trumpets and others brass, a wide range of violins and all your basic necessities like: reeds, stands, strings and other stuff.

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http://blueshouse.ru/

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About the culture and the feel of the streets:

So that’s just a few examples of fun stuff you can expect when visiting Moscow. As far as the people and culture goes: Moscow, being one of the most prominent city’s in the world, is truly very modern. Of course there are parts of the city that are not safe for foreigners, but there are parts of Amsterdam, Paris, New York, Buenos Aires or any other major city that are just as unsafe. So as far as that goes, Moscow is really no different from any other large capital city. What stands out is that Russian people are more traditional in their values. Most people over 20 are married and many start their families around this age as well. Being married is very much the norm in Russia and this reflects in the street image. You see couples walking around much more so then in most western cities. Which, in a way, creates a rather nice atmosphere in the streets. Also, Hip-hop street culture is not a part of the Russian street-life the way it is in most wester cities. So there are no obnoxious idiots playing loud music on there phones in the subway or in the streets. No groups of wannabe hood thugs hissing at women in the streets or any other of the general rudeness in the street that goes hand in hand with hip hop street culture. Though there is the occasional drunk street bum.

It stands out that in general, people in Moscow are a lot more polite towards each other in the public arena. The result is that you feel somehow less isolated. I think I’ve seen about ten times more youngsters standing up to give older people their seats on the subway in just one week, then I have seen in Amsterdam for the last 2 years. The fact that the insides of most buildings are very well maintained and very beautifully designed also helps to give Moscow a very inviting and friendly atmosphere. There is almost no stale and empty modern architecture here.The straight lines and concrete and glass structures that give most western city’s their cold and lonely feeling, is no where to be found here. The streets feel more like Paris or Barcelona.

The subways are a real adventure. Especially if you don’t speak or read Russian. The Russian Alphabet looks very different and no English translations make it challenging to navigate at first. The subways are deep underground. about 50 to 70 meters or so. So expect to go down a very steep, very long escalator every time you want to get on the subway. The design of the stations is very nice though and once you get the hang of it, the subway system is very easy to navigate and you can truly get anywhere in the city using the Metro. (Get the Moscow subway App)

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Last but not least: The Red Square 🙂

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Travel info:

Flights: About € 250,- (Flying from Amsterdam Schiphol).
Apt/hotel: € 40,- / € 130,- per night.
Avg Lunch: +/- € 30,- (2 persons)
Avg Dinner: +/- € 80 / € 120 (2 persons)
Subway ticket: € 10,- for 20 rides (length of ride doesn’t matter)
AVG Taxi: € 10 / €30 Fixed price per minute instead of per KM.

Florian Rooz

May 21st, 2014

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