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Trip Report 72 Hours, 30Km. And snow. Moscow!

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Travelers. This was a work trip for DH; DD (14) and I tagged along.

Language Prep. I had one year of Russian language instruction a few decades ago in university, most of which I have forgotten. On a trip to Kiev over the summer I was surprised at how much Cyrillic I could still decipher, and set to work (re)learning a few Russian phrases in anticipation. That exercise was pointless; as soon as clerks/wait staff/museum docents, etc. discovered I could not speak the language, the “Epic Eye Roll” (see below) ensued. Where my rusty Russian did come in handy was in navigating the Metro, where the only English sign was “Way Out.”

Weather. Cold! The high temperature each day of our late October visit averaged 4°C; one day we even enjoyed wind and sideways-blowing snow. Thankfully we were fully prepared, and only needed one café stop each day to warm up.

Lodging. Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I will mostly refrain from naming and commenting on the (uninspiring) American-chain hotel, as it was the meeting site chosen by others and the suite was provided for us.

Air Transportation. Aeroflot, we thought, was surprisingly ordinary, though we weren’t sure what we should have expected. The onboard snacks were atrocious; our flights were in between regular “meal” times, so two dreadful “sandwiches” were thrust at us: on the outbound, a rectangle of a pressed light meat (turkey?) and some cheese between grain bread slices. I opened my snack and took a pass, feeling guilty for having wasted my serving. Looking around, it seemed like the “waste” factor was relatively high. The inbound sandwich, believe it or not, was worse; another rectangle of pressed light meat, topped with pickles and something resembling a roasted pepper. (We all took a pass on the snack for the return; I just happened to observe the passenger across the aisle dismantle her sandwich and waste about 90% of it.)

Epic Eye Rolls. On our return I handed the Aeroflot ticket agent our (American) passports for check-in. She then proceeded to ask us each question first in Russian, wait for the blank look on our faces before proceeding to roll her eyes and state a couple of English words in the form of a question we could then answer. It was like a game to her, we thought. I made DD watch the tags being placed on our bags, to be sure the clerk wasn’t sending our luggage to Vienna and not Vietnam, just for fun.

The passport control process on the return was unlike any other we have encountered. The designated lines at each booth were only suggestions, really. Elderly travelers walked to the front of whatever line they chose; and people queued in front of “closed” booths in the hopes they would perhaps open? Some passengers seemed to be negotiating spaces in lines with other passengers, too. Our passport control officer must have attended the same customer service training as our check-in person. When I handed her the passports she rolled her eyes so dramatically I only wish I could have captured it as a video clip and turned it into a viral GIF.

By comparison, the orderly disorder of Russian passport control unsettled quite a few Russians upon arrival in Vienna. The lines designated for Diplomats, EU citizens, and “All Passports” are strictly monitored at VIE, and watching the cheeky Russians who thought they could slip through the EU citizens queue but were turned away was amusing.

Ground Transportation. I reserved “Lingo Taxi” based on one of the scant Moscow trip reports on the forum and could not have been more pleased. Our driver spoke English; was personable; and shared narratives on Russian this and that as we slogged the 75 minutes in Moscow traffic from the airport. Though it is possible from Moscow SVO to take an express train to one of the Metro lines, because our arrival was in late afternoon (thus, it was dark, and it was rush hour) we decided we wouldn’t be in the mood to navigate Moscow public transportation.

Memorable Moments.
1. Being whistled at by a handsome Politsiya, but not for the right reasons. In an attempt to get a better photo angle of one of the churches inside the Kremlin, I inadvertently strayed off the unmarked tourist pathways and was quickly and swiftly corrected. Oops.
2. Though my one year of Russian language instruction in university decades ago helped during our Kiev trip this summer, the pace of Moscow meant we were constantly stopping to decipher Metro stations, street names, etc. Heading to dinner one evening, DD hopped onto the Metro car just as the doors closed, leaving DH and me on the platform still looking at the map! Thankfully the “Family Separation Rule” has always been to exit the train/bus/tram at the next station and wait for everyone to catch up, and it was perfectly executed that evening!
3. Being asked, “Do you have knife?” as we passed through security at every museum and public building we entered, and trying not to laugh.

Moscow public transportation is top-rate. The city has to move 13 million people and it does so with Swiss-like precision and German-style efficiency. A ticket to ride is a mere €0,75 equivalent, a bargain in an otherwise expensive city. Tickets are easy to purchase at the machines, and trains run every 2 minutes or so. This said, riding Moscow’s public transportation is not for the easily intimidated. There are no orderly queues for boarding or exiting, and one must move quickly lest the doors shut. Agoraphobics should consider avoiding the system.

The city is clean. Here in Vienna we joke that there is an overnight crew to sprinkle rubbish about the city in order that the daytime crew have something to remove to keep from boredom, that is how clean Vienna is. In Moscow we observed city crews using long-handled tweezers to pluck leaves and cigarette butts from atop heating and exhaust grates! The underground passages to allow pedestrians to cross busy streets (and the roads are busy, indeed) are immaculate—void of graffiti and other debris.

Red Square did not fail to impress. Approaching from Alexandrovsky Sad (the garden) and through the arch at the State History Museum at night was spectacular. Surrounded by the brightly lit GUM, St. Basil’s Cathedral, and the Kremlin all aglow was worth the -2°C temperature and Siberian-like breezes. Unlike many major tourist sites across Europe, Red Square lacks the tacky tchotchke vendors and street food hawkers that can otherwise detract. This was not a bad thing, we agreed.

We observed a changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, held with due solemnity and afforded appropriate respect by all those observing. We passed by, but opted not to enter, Lenin Mausoleum. Too creepy for us.

The Armoury and Diamond Fund, which house the former Imperial treasures (and then some!) made “our” little Habsburg Treasury here in Vienna look like a kiddie-collection. The Romanov’s were the original Beadazzlers. Crowns with fur! A map of Russia made of diamonds! Overlays for paintings comprised of gems in every color of the rainbow! Decorated sleighs and carriages that would inspire even the most ardent feminist to wish for a prince! And of course, the pretty, pretty Faberge collection. Small wonder there was a revolution.

The many churches in Moscow are all worth a visit, even if the visit is brief. Wandering the maze of passages in St. Basil's Cathedral was just as delightful as entering one of the churches within the Kremlin or any that we passed en route to one place or another.

Maxim Gorky Museum. It was listed in the Aeroflot magazine for its quirky Art Deco interior, and feeling inspired to walk about Moscow one day we visited the house, which at first appearance seems abandoned, its entrance being the old servant’s door rather than a main entrance. Quirky was the right description, in everything from being required to provide one’s name, occupation, and country before being allowed to enter to the charming docent who made a production out of his instructions on how to wear the burlap shoes one is required to wear in the house. Neither DD nor I are Gorky fans, so the vast archival collection was of little interest to us; the house, a different matter. Perhaps not an A-list stop for a first time visitor, but we were amused.

Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. To be honest, the museum did not “Wow!” us. A good number of the pieces are copies from the art students who used to occupy this former art academy, and otherwise, the collection was just "okay" to us, though I admit we are not art people. We did enjoy a temporary exhibit on “The Cosmos of Tea,” curated in cooperation with Japan, however.

Because I often prepare Polish food at home, which shares many similarities with Russian cuisines, and DH was eating Russian food for lunch in his meetings, we only enjoyed one Russian/Ukrainian dinner out. The meal was grand, starting with potato pancakes and blini, continuing with Borscht, and moving on to Pelmini, Kiev, and a half-chicken baked Ukrainian style with toasted dark bread slices and entire roasted garlic bulb as dressing. After a couple of glasses of wine, I did not bother to translate the dinner costs from Rubles to Euros.

A quick meal was enjoyed at Stolovaya No. 57, a Soviet-style cafeteria within GUM, the former state-run department store. We happily warmed ourselves with traditional comfort foods like minced meat cutlets with mashed potatoes, herring salad, mushroom soup, and chicken live pate with dark bread following our tour of Red Square after dark. And excellent pastries.

On one particularly long evening for DH (so, no dinner out for the three of us), DD and I, en route to the hotel with our take-away pirozhki, were inspired by a photo in a restaurant window of garlic roasted bone marrow, so we ducked in and added an order to our supper. An excellent impulse decision, and now I can not wait to recreate the dish at home.

Our visit was shorter than we would have planned otherwise, and we all decided that we would return to Moscow to continue exploring more of the architecture; some of the smaller museums that we lacked time to visit (Transit, Chess, and Mayakovsky Museums among them); the monasteries on the city outskirts; the (higher-end) dining experiences; and more local shopping. We took a pass on all of the overpriced international retailers that we can find in Vienna, but did enjoy the beauty and design of the malls and passages.

Regrets. The visit of 2+ days was not nearly enough time for me and my camera. There was Just. So. Much. To. See! From Stalinist Construction to Imperial Grandeur to The People to The Metro to…well, Everything.

Moscow, as aforementioned, is not for the easily intimidated. Living in Central Europe affords us many opportunities to travel and to stumble through a country’s foreign languages and cultural nuances, yet somehow Russia caused us to stumble a little more. In the end, we concluded, the stumbling was so very worth it.

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