Fresh Impressions of Moscow, Russia

Old Nov 14th, 2009, 09:38 AM
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Fresh Impressions of Moscow, Russia

I have just come back from my fourth trip to Russia and my first one to Moscow. The most general impression is that Russia is rapidly changing. I am writing this mini trip report, because with reports on Russia it is the same as with books on cancer: Don't read anything which is older than two years.

Immigration

From my former trips to Russia, I remember cumbersome immigration procedures, with declaring all currencies, x-raying bags and even body-searching. This time, it was a breeze. Domodedovo Airport (DME) is a contemporary, state-of-the-art international airport with efficient service. I just left the plane, walked to the baggage claim area where I waited not more than a minute for my bag and went through immigration. Practically no lines, I just flashed my passport (with visa), got a couple of stamps and that was it. Huge improvement, compared to earlier experiences.

Transportation

From the Airport, you can take the train into Moscow and change to the Metro. The trains are still somewhat primordial (with wooden benches in second class) and dirt cheap. The Metro is also inexpensive and runs fast, however with rather few stops, meaning that there are large distances between Metro stations. Russians are used to walk long distances, and they walk fast. So, if you plan to use the Metro, look carefully on your map and consider taking a taxi to the nearest Metro stop. Buses are also an option.

In the inner city, the Metro stations are breathtakingly beautiful. Expect opulent décor in classical, art nouveau or art déco style - like a lobby in a historic grand hotel. Subway station sightseeing is an attraction in itsself.

If you take a taxi from DME into central Moscow, the fare would be around 1,200 Rub ($42). Depending on traffic conditions, the drive will take from 45 to 120 minutes with an average of 90 minutes. This means, you are usually faster by train+Metro. For a short taxi ride (1 mile or so), the fare would be 100 Rub ($3.50).

Be aware that taxi drivers usually speak nothing but Russian. Have a card with the destionation address in Cyrillic characters ready.

There are metered taxis and unofficial Lada taxis, illegally operated by private people. The Lada taxis are about 30% cheaper than the metered taxis. You should negotiate the fare before you board such a cab (with sign language or by writing numbers). Even then, a ride with a Lada may become an adventure. It happened to us, that such a taxi ran out of gas in the middle of the night or that the driver did not find the proper address.

Communication

As mentioned, most Russians do not speak a foreign language. Unless you stay in one of those extremely overpriced international chain hotels, expect that they do not speak anything but Russian. A few people speak Russian, and a few speak German. Sometimes, you have to find someone who may act as an interpreter. But since it is easy for us to decipher Cyrillic characters (a kind of mixture of Latin and Greek characters) and many Russian words are similar to common Latin words, you go along surprisingly well.

However, my strong recommendation is to learn a few Russian words before your trip. At least, some general phrases like "good morning", "thank you" etc. - and the numbers. Otherwise, always have paper and pen ready to write down numbers - important if you have to negotiate prices, fares etc.

To be continued.
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Old Nov 14th, 2009, 10:28 AM
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Echnaton,

Good report. I sent the link to my daughter, a Russian major who has also been to Russia (including Moscow) several times. My husband accompanied her on one trip and did learn the alphabet and some basic words which helped him rely a little less on our daughter. I'm hoping to go for the first time in the next 12 - 24 months.

Looking forward to your next installment. I'd be interested to hear your comments on dealing with the people (customer service) as well as your accommodations.

Ellen
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Old Nov 14th, 2009, 12:00 PM
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Old Nov 15th, 2009, 03:23 AM
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Ellen, my intention was to continue with accomodation. Here it is:

Accomodation

On my former trips to Russia, I had stayed in all kinds of places: from a university guesthouse in Minsk (uargh!) to five-star hotel Astoria in Sankt Petersburg. This time, I was accomodated in a three-star hotel which was (for business reasons) not located in central Moscow but in Domodedovo.

http://www.hservice.ru/en/hotels/details/1038/
The pictures are candid.

"Otel Domodedovo" is quite modern, with three storeys and 60 rooms. The rack rate is 2500 Rub ($88) for a standard single and 3150 Rub ($111) for a standard double room including breakfast. I got a suite, and my Russian host quickly negotiated the rack rate of 4000 Rub down to 3000. The main argument was: "He is not a business man."

The hotel is patronized both by Westerners and by Russian. Especially on weekends it is popular among local couples who stay no longer than an hour in their room (apartments are small and often shared with large families).

The rooms (I also saw the rooms of other members of our party) were okay and quite clean (except for stained carpets). Bathrooms were tiled and clean too and, to my surprise, even stacked with toiletries. The shower (with a German-made luxury showerhead!) was not hot, but warm enough for me. However, the folks in the third storey got not more than lukewarm water and this only after 15 minutes running time.

I got two towels, which were, however, never changed during my three nights of stay. I could have complained and then they would have replaced the towels - this is the Russian way.

Breakfast was rich and hearty: breads, cold cuts, jam, warm semolina pudding and each morning a different cooked item: one day plated eggs, the next day sausages, the third day pemeni (Russian tortellini).

The hotel also had a bar and a restaurant and here, Russian service mentality comes in. Imagine a party of 12 people, staying for days in the hotel, hungry and determined to drink heavily. In other words: a godsend for every hotel manager.

(To be continued.)

What happened when we showed up in the restaurant? "You should have ordered dinner in the morning!" - with a strong tone of dispraise. How ruthless of us to expect a dinner after coming back from a full day of sightseeing without ordering in advance! (BTW, we were the only patrons in the restaurant that evening). Okay, after lenghty persuasion of our Russian-speaking party members, finally they fixed us a simple meal from supplies out of the freezer.

Same thing with drinks. They just had three bottles of beer in the fridge. Period. Okay, we took the three bottles, ordered some bottles of red wine (the white wine was not cooled either) and a bottle of vodka.

Then the dinner. At first, the salad was served. Then the soup. Then the vodka came. Then the wine. Then the main course. Then the beer. And finally, the water. One girl in our party, who did not drink alcohol, was pretty dehydrated at this time. BTW, each patron got just one glass which had to be used for all kinds of liquid. And the beer bottles were served with cap, without an opener.

This experience made us to buy our own food and drink in the neighbouring grocery store and consume it in the hotel lobby. This was no problem at all - we even got plates and cutlery from the bar (well, we gave a tip, which was accepted flabbergastedly).

Food and drink

Russian food appears to have improved too. Still, a typical Russian meal consists of three courses: salad, soup and the main course. Do not expect gourmet dishes. The salads were usually freshly cut, from lettuce, carrots, tomatoes etc. The Russian soups are watery, either with cabbage or red beet (then it's called "Borscht" and Ukrainian in origin) or with yellow peas. Main dishes are dominated by pork, potatoes and peas. Fish dishes often have a strong, well-matured taste. Otherwise, the food is bland. But they have salt and pepper on the tables (which I never use whereever I am in this world, but in Russia).

If you eat more upscale, things get different, of course. Still, red caviar is a good bet. I recommend it on warm blinis, covered with a generous layer of butter, and red caviar on top.

To my dismay, the era of black caviar seems to end - due to overfishing of the Caspian Sea. 7 or 8 years ago, I was able to buy 100 grams of finest Beluga caviar at $8 (eight) on the market in Minsk. This time, the only place to buy black caviar seemed to be the GUM department store, and the price was $1,300 for 100 grams of Beluga (Ossietra was slightly less expensive).

In a typical Russian, mid-level restaurant, you get a three course lunch or dinner at 150 Rub ($5.30). In downtown Moscow, with menus in English and with pictures of the dishes on the menu, the price would double. Together with generous amounts of alcoholic beverages, our checks totalled at 350 to 400 Rub per person (§12-14).

Be aware, that beef stroganoff is not a common Russian dish (in fact, they serve rarely beef - it is too expensive). If a restaurant has beef stroganoff on the menu, it is a sure indication that the place is geared to tourists' tastes.

Besides patronizing restaurants, I always enjoy buying my supplies in local grocery stores in order to have picnics. Luckily, we had a Caroussel "hypermarket" right next to our hotel. This grocery store was fabulously stocked, with excellent supplies for picnics.

- Wonderful for travellings are pirogues - pockets of lightly sweetened yeast dough, available with different stuffings (pork, chicken, rice, vegetables, fruit). 25 Rub ($0.90).

- Red caviar, butter and french-style baguette makes a great meal. Count 200 Rub ($8.00) for 100 grams of red caviar.

- For the greater hunger, a half grilled chicken or a lamb sausage (both sold warm) might be an option.

- And if you want to splurge: To my surprise, this suburban supermarket was well stocked with fresh foie gras de canard and foie gras d'oie, originally imported from Southwestern France, however pricey: 1000 Rub ($35) for 100 grams of the less expensive duck liver.

They also have a full array of beverages. Vodka starts at 120 Rub per 0.5 litre and French wines at 120 Rub too. (Generally, the prices for wines are the same as in Europe.)

A pleasant surprise was the beer. Of course, they had many brands of bottled Russian beer and the usual international beers (German, Dutch, Australian, British beers). But the real thing was what they called "live beer": Fresh beer, filled from the tap into bottles, with live yeast, either blond or amber. Absolutely delicious (and I am picky with beer)! It is called "Fifth Ocean" (Пятый Океан).
http://www.fifth-ocean.ru/
(The brewery operates a bar in Moscow, too.)
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Old Nov 15th, 2009, 10:36 AM
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Vodka

One of the recent changes in Russian society affect consuming vodka. I vividly remember banquets with alternating toasts and huge amounts of vodka. My Russian hosts used to say "50 grams vodka for breakfast, 100 grams for lunch, and 500 grams for dinner" - totals 650 grams per day (22 fl oz).

At least, vodka was never drunken on its own but only to accompany meals (only alcoholics drink vodka on its own).

On my visit two weeks ago, I found that many Russians have abandoned drinking vodka at all - they seemed to prefer beer and wine.

Middle Class

Another change is that a middle class has emerged in Russia. One indicator is the cars. Worn Ladas have become a minor sight on Moscow roads. In fact, many international brands of cars are to be seen, and most of them in good condition (at least in better shape than cars in France where a dent means nothing). I wrote about taxis: believe it or not, but one day I rode in a brand new Prius cab, although gasoline is cheap in Russia.

The second indicator is the quality of housing. 20-year-old high-rise housing estates made with precast concrete slabs are already becoming subject of demolition. When you look at more recent housing projects, you notice a leap in quality every two years. The most recent projects have reached Western luxury standard (despite the Russian taste for high-rise apartment blocks). And the prices have reached Western level too: a square meter (10.8 sq ft) of an unfinished apartment (they are usually sold unfinished) goes at 85,000 Rub ($3,000).

The quick rise of wealth results in strange contrasts: while Domodedovo University (a building from the 60ies) looks like thirld world, the brand new kindergarten displays highest standards - with real hard-wood floors, state-of-the art technical equipment in the music room, snoezelen room and indoor pool with underwater lightings.

BTW, we always felt safe on Moscow street, both during daytime and in the middle of the night. Of course, you see parties of young people with bags of bottles in their hands, but they are rather well-behaved. It is not uncommon to see teenage girls riding the subway well past midnight, and they appear safe and comfortable.

Ballet

A ballet performance is a mandatory experience whereever you are in Russia. Unfortunately, the Bolschoi theatre has been closed for years, and due to corruption in the construction process, nobody expects a reopening before 2015.

Hence, we visited a performance of the second-best (some critics say, it has become THE best) ballet theatre: the Stanislavsky. And, lucky enough, I saw the epitome of Russian ballet: Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake.

The Stanislavky Theatre had burnt down some years ago and has been rebuilt. The building itsself has not the historic charme of, say, Sankt Petersburg's Mariinsky, but attending a Moscow ballet performance is still a stylish event. People dress up, and in the pauses, you consume drinks and snacks, some of them of outstanding quality.

The performance itsself was, as usual in Russia, in traditional style - with almost 100 dancers in splendid costumes, opulent stage design and a perfect orchestra. They performed the classic choreography of Burmeister, with excellent dancers.

We had the best available seats, right in the middle of the parquet. The ticket price was 1000 Rub ($35), but, of course, there are cheaper tickets available, and there are no bad seat in the theatre.

After all, a once-in-a-lifetime experience (I had it four times, so far. I am a lucky guy.)

To be continued.
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Old Nov 15th, 2009, 11:47 AM
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Fascinating report. Your account of arriving back at the hotel expecting dinner was hysterical. I can't imagine many other places in the world where people could get away with treatment like that.

When my husband was there several years ago, he saw beer and vodka dispensing machines in the metros. Do you see any? Based on your report, maybe they've done away with them.

Looking forward to your next report.

Ellen
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Old Nov 15th, 2009, 01:10 PM
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Sorry, I did not see beer and vodka dispensing machines in the metros, but maybe I overlooked them. Actually, in Europe, it would not be exactly unusual or strange, just normal. So maybe, I saw them but did not notice. Anyway, nothing to think about.

I have to go to bed now. Will continue tomorrow.
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Old Nov 15th, 2009, 01:55 PM
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This is great! I am really enjoying your trip, Moscow has not been on my list but I'm adding it.

I'll be awaiting the next installment!

Thanks,
Sandy (in Denton)
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Old Nov 16th, 2009, 01:20 AM
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Cityscape and sights

Moscow is, like many other cities, composed of rings.

The inner ring (and the oldest part of the city) is the Kremlin. The Kremlin is an extensive fortification with several buildings, palaces and churches inside. It is Moscow's main attraction and you need at least half a day if not a full day to visit the Kremlin. The general admission is 350 Rub which allows you to wander through the fortification and to see the architecture. The highlight is a visit of the Armoury which has been turned into a museum. For a visit to the Armoury, you need a seperate ticket @ 700 Rub - expensive, but certainly worth it. If you have time, you may visit some other exhibitions (separate tickets again).

BTW, you have the best view of the Kremlin from the Great Stony Bridge (which offers also a great view of the Saviour's Church).

At one of the Kremlin walls, you find the Red Square with the Lenin Mausoleum in the center. The Red Square is surprisingly small. However, when I was there, the Square was closed for an unknown reason, so I had just the opportunity to glance over the barriers.

At the Metro station Kremlin, you are right in the center of the city with large squares (Karl Marx monument right on the Theatre Square), the historical theatres (the Bolschoi currently in renovation), the grand hotels, the Historical Museum, the souvenir stalls and, just next to the Red Square, the GUM department store.

The GUM used to be an attraction in Soviet times and it still is. The art nouveau building is still impressive, both from the outside and from the inside. However, do not expect to find any Russian products for sale. The GUM consists of nothing but Gucci, Armani, Hermes and the other brands which thrive at places where the rich meet. At least, we had an appetizer-size pancake stuffed with red caviar @ 250 Rub in the delicatessen shop. The pancake was mediocre, but it gave us the opportunity to watch the shoppers in the GUM. Surprisingly, we noticed not just millionaires, but quite ordinary people who were eager to spend a monthly salary for a blouse. My Russian companions told me that Russians wear the best clothing that they have when they socialize. So, if I show up in a bar wearing an old sweater, everybody assumes the sweater is the best piece of clothing that I own. This is the reason why Russia has become an eldorado for fashion brands.

Russian girls dress up, indeed. And you hardly notice any girl without make-up, although, I have to admit, the bright-red lipstick colour is receding and increasingly replaced by less obtrusive shades.

But let's continue with the cityscape. The Kremlin is the city's inner ring, and the second ring - with a diameter of two miles - is the historical town. Here, you find historical architecture from various centuries, baroque palaces and turn-of-the-century splendour (e.g. the theatres). However, the historical buildings are somewhat scattered within this area, which overall lacks architectural cohesiveness.

One of the most stunning buildings is the Lubyanka, the headquarters of the KGB. While in other countries, the secret services are hidden somewhere, the Lubyanka is a gorgeous building at an important crossing right in the center of the city. Everybody should see - and fear - the power of the Russian secret service.

Exploring the inner city requires a lot of walking - however you can take taxis or buses, sometimes the Metro too.

Moscow's main attractions, besides the Kremlin and the GUM, are Christ the Savior Cathedral (IMO the most beautiful church in Moscow) and the better-known St. Basil's Church with its nine colourful domes.

Moscow's third ring is the new town. It consists of buildings from the 1950ties up to the present. One of the most prominent ones is the main building of Lomonosov University, in Stalinist Gothic style. Other significant buildings are TV stations, ministries and public authorities. I explored the third ring with a sightseeing bus (in Russian language) which I booked primarily because it was too cold to walk outside any longer.

Moscow's fourth ring is a vast desert consisting of uniform high-rise apartment blocks, only interrupted by broad boulevards which used to be deserted in Soviet times but nowadays are permanently congested.

The fifth ring is the suburban zone, with patchy towns (like Domodedovo), industrial areas, airports, fields and forests in between.

Russian landscape

This paragraph gets short. Russian landscape is flat and, sorry, uninspiring. Just fields, power lines, and birch forests, traversed by muddy roads.
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Old Nov 16th, 2009, 10:21 AM
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Frankly said: Is Moscow a Must-see?

"Moscow" rings a bell in many ears. Memories from cold-war times pop up - the capital of Soviet Empire. Now I have been there, admittedly just briefly. However, enough to get an impression. How was it?

Maybe the comparison is not fair, but if you have a choice between Moscow and Sankt Petersburg, the answer is quick and easy: Sankt Petersburg.

Frankly, I consider Sankt Petersburg as one of the most beautiful cities on the planet if not THE most beautiful one (second comes Rio de Janeiro, IMO). Sankt Petersburg has an incredible wealth of palaces, museums, churches and, furthermore, has a stunning architectural cohesiveness with over 3,000 listed historical buildings.

Compared to that, Moscow is just mediocre. Yes, the Kremlin is unique (and it is Moscow's main attraction because of that). And, yes, Moscow has some fine museums too (but, frankly said, not as stunning as the Hermitage). And, yes, Moscow has some historical buildings (but they are miniscule compared to those in Sankt Petersburg).

Why do I compare these cities?

First, there are many travellers who visit Sankt Petersburg on a Baltic cruise for two days. And the shore excursion operators usually offer a one-day flight to Moscow. Don't do it if you are in St. Petersburg for the first time. If you have seen St. Petersburg before you might consider the trip. One day in Moscow will be sufficient to see the major sights.

Second, there are many travellers considering a river cruise from St. Petersburg to Moscow (or the other way round). I am not sure if this is an overwhelming experience. The trip is not scenic at all and there is not much to see between both cities. Better spend more time in St. Petersburg.

Third, there are travellers who are undecided where to go: either to St. Petersburg or to Moscow. My decision would be clear.

Fourth, would a trip to Moscow be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a place you must have visited before you die? - Certainly not. I had to make this trip without DW and after returning, I told her "no reason to be jealous".

If you have the opportunity to visit Moscow, do it. You will enjoy two or three days in the city. But don't spend too much time and money just to see the Russian capital.

Final Remarks

I have written this trip report as a kind of update for travellers who intend to travel to Russia. I said, the country is rapidly changing, both to the better and to the worse.

The (tourism) infrastructure is rapidly improving, but the downside is that prices have been mushrooming. Russia is still a rather inexpensive country if you avoid the business hotels and tourist traps, but maybe things will be completely different in two or three years. Better go now, when it is still affordable.

What I did not like that much is that traditional culture is eroding. Take souvenirs. Years ago, I bought those little black lacquered boxes which are finely handpainted with colourful motives of Russian country life. You could buy those boxes for a dollar or two. Today, it had become hard to find them at all among the cheap crap in the souvenir stalls. Maybe the will be gone forever in a few years from now. This has happened in other places of the world, too. Handiwork has become expensive everywhere.

I have written that food has improved. On one hand, this is good. On the other hand, why do you need to travel when you get the same kind of food like you get at home? - The desserts in Stanislavsky Theatre could have been served in Paris or New York as well.

In other words: go to Russia and go soon.

If I can answer any more questions, I will be happy.

До свидания!
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Old Nov 16th, 2009, 11:38 AM
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"My Russian companions told me that Russians wear the best clothing that they have when they socialize. So, if I show up in a bar wearing an old sweater, everybody assumes the sweater is the best piece of clothing that I own."

At our first lunch in the US an attorney showed up in a simple long-sleeve shirt with a hole in his sleeve. It was a culture shock for us Took a while to "get it" that Americans just want to be comfortable on weekends.
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Old Nov 16th, 2009, 12:18 PM
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Dayenu:

How would your culture shock have been if you had tried the liquid which the Americans call "beer"!
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Old Nov 16th, 2009, 03:53 PM
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Echnaton,

I've thoroughly enjoyed your reports. My daughter and I are seriously considering a trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg next spring and your report has convinced me that we shouldn't delay! Spasiba.

Ellen
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Old Nov 16th, 2009, 10:59 PM
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счастливого пути, Ellen!

(I found this on http://www.multitran.ru/ - click on "English" in the right upper corner.)
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Old Feb 2nd, 2010, 10:30 AM
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‘When my husband was there several years ago, he saw beer and vodka dispensing machines in the metros.’

Ellen, I am sure your husband made a simple mistake - he saw ‘VODA’ (water) machines that sell mineral water, not vodKa.
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Old Feb 2nd, 2010, 11:49 AM
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How would your culture shock have been if you had tried the liquid which the Americans call "beer"!

I guess, they still add vodka or spirit to beer?
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Old Feb 25th, 2010, 07:53 AM
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I enjoyed reading your report, Echnaton.

Do you (or anyone else here) know anything about the Golden Apple Hotel? If so, how is the location? Our son is rearching places to stay for an upcoming trip and that hotel is on his list. Thanks.
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Old Feb 25th, 2010, 08:07 AM
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I do not know the Golden Apple, but it sure looks good and gets good reviews. It is about 1.5 miles from the city center, so not walkable, but there is a bus stop nearby and a Metro station in walking distance, so with public transport you are in a few minutes in the city center.

The map on the hotel's website is a little misleading, because you underestimate the distance. The center of Moscow (where you find the stuff which is interesting to tourists) is surprisingly small, compared with the vastness of the city.

To me, the hotel looks appealing.
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Old Feb 25th, 2010, 09:19 AM
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Thanks for the info, Echnaton. It does get good reviews. Yesterday, I sent my son the link to your report. I think he will find it interesting and helpful. After the recent train bombings, did you find the Metro to be safe?
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Old Feb 26th, 2010, 02:24 PM
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Of course, the Metro is safe. There is a million people riding the Metro each day and never ever happened something. The Moscow Metro is belongs to the most beautiful underground railways of the wordl. The stations in the inner city are works of art.
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