Crashing Catherine’s summer pad

St. Petersburg, Russia

Having spent our entire time in Russia within its two largest cities, we were excited this morning to spend our last day on a trip to the surrounding countryside. Our destination was Catherine Palace, designed by Rastrelli, the home that gradually became the favorite country estate of the royal family. In fact, in 1837, Russia’s first railway line was built between St. Petersburg and the palace in order to shuttle the imperial family back and forth.

Only appropriately, we opted to take the far less luxurious subway, followed by a 20-minute ride in a marshrutky, essentially a small mini-van that follows a set route.

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We arrived just before noon and, unsurprisingly, joined the massive line outside. Strangely enough, entering after an hour’s wait, we found the palace lobby nearly empty. While we appreciate the Face Control that limits the number of tourists inside at any given time, could the Russians at least spare us and allow us to wait inside?

Our English-speaking tour guide explained that most of the exterior and 20-odd rooms of the palace were razed during World War II. Since then, they have been amazingly restored in the classical style in which they were originally built. We started in the huge, frescoed Great Hall, with its mirrors and fantastic gilded woodcarvings.

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Next was the State Staircase, followed by the immense Picture Gallery. The Green Dining Room showcased a different classical style, with its many intricate wall carvings and inlaid floor.

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The highlight of the palace was the amazing Amber Room, completely covered with exquisitely engraved amber panels. The room, which was destroyed in the war, was rebuilt with support of the German government. It took 25 years to restore the room to its pre-war brilliance.

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We returned to the hotel and packed up. For our last meal, we decided to do what the Russians do now: get sushi. It has become all the rage here and we found a trendy spot down the street from our hotel on Nevsky Prospekt. Sitting down after midnight, we ordered about 15 rolls, and waited. And waited, and waited. An hour later, there was still nothing. We got up and walked out, only to be chased down the street by the waiter who then overcharged us for our drinks.

It was, we decided, a fitting end to the trip.

Derek and Burt fly back to the States tomorrow. I’ve got an 8-hour overnight train to Moscow, followed by an 11-hour flight to D.C. and connection to Raleigh. It should take just about 27 hours of travel to get me back to Carolina.

But after three weeks on the road, you can be sure that I’m looking forward to it.

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The Hermitage and hockey

St. Petersburg, Russia

No trip to St. Petersburg is complete without a visit to the Hermitage, one of the world’s greatest art museums. Empress Catherine II started the collection back in 1764 when she purchased a few pieces from a private collection. Since then, it has ballooned, and today comprises over 3 million pieces of art, covering the entire spectrum, from Ancient Egypt to the 20th century.

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It is also one of the most popular attractions in Russia so — given our experiences here so far — we were unsurprised to see a massive line that we grudgingly joined. We waited with the masses for close to an hour, slowly freezing our faces off. While Derek held our spot, we walked around to warm up and saw a Tour Office.

We stepped inside to get out of the cold and talked with a guide, who told us that we could join a 2 p.m. English-speaking tour. And if we bought tickets to it, we could also buy entrance tickets now that would allow us to skip the queue. The price? About $8. We signed up immediately, cursed Lonely Planet for not instructing us to do this sooner, found a frozen Derek and made our way inside.

One of the strangest practices in Russia is the mandatory coat check. Every museum and restaurant has one. Some are free, some are paid. All are absolutely required. What doesn’t make sense, however, is that these coat checks, especially at busy spots like the Hermitage, fill up very quickly. The mandatory nature of the check is not then dropped though — which creates massive lines, like this, while everyone waits for spots to open.

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We joined the lines for 15-minutes before realizing that although the coat checks were full, the lockers for checked bags were not. We threw all of our jackets in my bag which the babushka checked for us. Why they simply were not checking jackets in those same spots is beyond us.

Alas, we had done it! Jumped the queue, bought tickets and checked our jackets, it was now time to explore this massive complex, which comprises of five buildings, including the Winter Palace. We started at the Jordan Staircase, a fantastic introduction to the palace’s opulence.

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While making our way to the third floor, we peeked out the window and saw the massive line — this was probably half of it, with the other snaking far into the courtyard beyond.

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Upstairs, we found the impressionist and post-impressionist rooms, with colorful Monet’s and Renoir’s, strangely devoid of anyone else. Our good fortunes continued. No one except a babushka was there to bother us when checking out the many Picasso’s from his Blue Period.

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We checked out the 37 paintings by Matisse, including The Dance. Some of my favorite paintings were the super-realistic works by Francois Flameng, a French painter I’d never heard of before.

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Our terribly unfriendly tour guide would later bring us to the museum’s real classics, including those by Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael. To her credit, she did a great job of explaining the 1812 War Gallery, with its many military portraits, as well as the Imperial Apartments and Pavillion Hall.

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Exhausted from taking in the museum, we returned to the hotel and hopped on the Metro. Burt had found us tickets to a hockey game for the local team, SKA, and we thought that going would be part of a quintessential Russian experience. The $5 seats were decent and the crowd rambunctious, especially the gold-toothed man sitting to our left. We drank beers and ate corn on the cob.

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Thankfully, SKA won. Although we were confident that if they didn’t, the 100 riot police — in full gear, sporting various forms of guns and weapons — patrolling the stadium would have kept the crowd under control.

Except maybe the gold tooth man.

Russia’s “Window to the West”

St. Petersburg, Russia

St. Pete is called Russia’s “Window to the West” and it’s not difficult to see why. The city, with its boulevards, canals and Baroque buildings, feels like Europe. Street signs are in English and the woman behind the counter at the coffee shop this morning could actually explain what was in each pastry. We love it here.

With most of the country on a national holiday, and many sights holding erratic hours, we had an aggressive schedule. Our first stop, Kazan Cathedral, was literally across the street from our hotel. The neoclassical church is atypical of others in this city; surrounded by a colonnade, it looks more like a government building. Inside the dark interior, a service was in progress.

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Modeled after St. Basil’s in Moscow, the strangely named Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood was our next stop. Built over 24 years in the late 19th century, the church fell into disrepair during the Commie years when it was incredulously used to store potatoes and theater sets. After a 27-year restoration, the church reopened in 1997. The interior, with 7,000 square meters of Italian mosaics, is unreal.

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The third stop on our morning church tour was St. Isaac’s, one of the largest domed buildings in the world. More than 100 kilograms of gold leaf were used to cover 60-foot high dome alone. Construction, which was completed in 1858, required the use of special ships and a railway to transport 120-ton granite pillars from Finland.

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Interior highlights included an 2,400-square foot painting on the ceiling by Karl Bryullov and intricately carved doors with various saints and other religious figures.

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From the top of the bell tower, there were some great views of the surrounding city, including the Mariinsky Theater, Admiralty and Hermitage Museum. Meanwhile, less scenically, dozens of factory smokestacks sat off in the distance.

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We walked over the Neva River to Vasilevsky Island, which Peter the Great originally intended to be the heart of his city. As such, it is one of the oldest neighborhoods in St. Petersburg, home to the Kunstkamera, the city’s and country’s first museum.

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Founded in 1714 by Peter himself, the Museum of Anthropology & Ethnography is famous for its incredible ghoulish collection of deformed fetuses, odd body parts and mutant animals — all collected by Peter with the aim of educating the notoriously suspicious Russian people.

There were no photos allowed inside the exhibit and the babushkas were on serious patrol, but while they weren’t looking, we were able to snap one of this two headed calf. How bizarre.

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Down the street was an equally strange restaurant, Russky Kitsch, a completely over the top example of Soviet kitsch. With mismatched Victorian furniture and walls plastered with photo collages, the restaurant’s centerpiece was a ceiling fresco of Fidel Castro and Leonid Brezhnev entwined in a passionate embrace.

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The khalia soup – a spicy beef stew served with a piece of flat bread — was quick to warm us up. It was followed by the best beef stroganoff that we’ve had, creamy, thick and delicious with a side of mashed potatoes.

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Properly fueled, we cabbed it to the last stop of the day, the Peter & Paul Fortress, which built in 1703, is the oldest major building in St. Pete. It was built as a defense against the Swedes but they were defeated before the fortress was finished. Since then, it’s served as a prison and is also home to the SS Peter & Paul Cathedral, where all of Russia’s pre-revolutionary rulers are buried, including Peter himself.

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Exhausted from a big day, we returned to the Grand Hotel and hit the spa. Downstairs, while sitting in the sauna, a very serious looking Russian man joined me — wearing my Vineyard Vines bathing suit that I’d left outside. It can’t be, I thought. But sure enough, it was. Instead of even trying to communicate with him, I went out to talk to the attendant. She didn’t seem to understand – “He’s wearing your bathing suit?” she asked perplexed. “Um, yes,” I replied. “I don’t understand,” she said. Me neither.

She came into the sauna and talked with the man, who looked at me, looked at her, and then curtly took off the bathing suit, handing it back to me without a word. “Spasiba,” I said.

He didn’t reply.

Back at the hotel bar, we weren’t able to make sense of the incident. Several shots of chilled vodka didn’t help. Next we knew, the night was late and we hadn’t moved. And our dinner had consisted of some olives and the small pieces of smoked salmon on brown bread that are traditionally served with vodka.

All drink, no food. Now, this was the true Russian way.

Inside the Kremlin

Moscow, Russia

After all of the schedule shuffling, we woke up early, packed and got ready to demolish our final day in Moscow. On deck was the tour of the Kremlin that we had booked on our own yesterday. Even better, the skies were blue and the sun was out. Not like that would have any impact on the thermometer. “It’s cold today,” the front desk receptionist called out. “Even for us.”

With the mercury barely above -10 degrees, we nearly froze on the walk over to the tour office. This was an absolutely bone-chilling cold, with an occasional breeze that literally took your breath away. It was the first time that the three of us — guys who braved truly brutal winters in Ithaca — could not stay outside for more than a couple of minutes. It’s safe to say that it’s the coldest weather that I’ve ever experienced. And it made me long for those sweaty days in Egypt.

We moved quickly with our guide onto the Kremlin, the enduring symbol of the Russian state since its founding in 1147. This is where it has all gone down: from Ivan the Terrible’s wrath and Napoleon’s burning of Moscow to Lenin’s communism, Gorbachev’s perestroika and Yelstin’s New Russia.

We past the tight security and the Kremlin’s official government buildings; fully-armed military police quickly yelled at tourists straying off the appointed path while fleets of Mercedez Benz and BMWs with tinted windows floored by the streets.

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The government buildings are closed to tourists, so a visit to the Kremlin largely consists of Cathedral Square, where the Patriarch’s Palace, Assumption Cathedral, Archangel Cathedral and Annunciation Cathedral are all located. These impressive places of worship were built by various tsars as private worship areas. Individually, each is unique and different. Taken as a whole, the entire area is almost difficult to digest in its grandeur.

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On the square’s eastern side, the Ivan the Great Bell Tower soars above all else. It is the Kremlin’s tallest structure; before the 20th century, it was forbidden to build any structure higher than this in Moscow.

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Lastly, we saw the Tsar Cannon & Bell, which aptly describe the largest cannon ever cast in Russia and the largest bell in the world. The 40-ton cannon dates back to 1856, it was never fired; the monstrous 202-ton bell dates to 1737, it has never been rung.

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Given the extensive Soviet history lesson, it was only appropriate for us to have lunch at the McDonald’s just outside of the Kremlin walls in Pushkin Square. This was the first to open in Russia and today is the busiest McDonald’s in the world.

We hustled back to the hotel and caught a taxi to one of Moscow’s five train stations for our 6-hour journey northwest to St. Petersburg. It was relatively uneventful and we were able to catch a cab through the crowded streets to our accommodation, the Grand Hotel Europe.

This is one the world’s great hotels — and has been in operation since 1875. Tchaikovsky spent his honeymoon here. It’s also played host to a laundry list of politicians and celebrities, from former French president Jacques Chirac to Elton John. The rates fall considerably in the off-season, which is how we found ourselves entering the lobby of this absolutely stunning place.

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“Would you like the long tour?” the concierge asked as she led us to our room. “Sure,” we replied, passing the elegant lobby bar, an open mezzanine café, breakfast room with original stained glass and black-tie vodka and caviar bar. The interiors were a beautiful combination of marble and gilt, with sweeping staircases and elegant antique furniture.

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Our room on the second floor overlooked the Russian Museum. It felt a bit tight after having had the living room in Moscow but was still very comfortable, with heated marble bathroom floors, super soft beds and a world newspaper menu — the first I’ve ever seen at a hotel.

Meanwhile, the service was practically tripping over itself. After our tour of the hotel, the concierge told us that she was available for whatever we needed. And, unlike Hotel Savoy, she truly wasn’t kidding.

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Settling into the lobby bar a few minutes later, oligarchs to our left and cigar-smoking politicos to our right, we agreed.

Our luck had officially changed.

The great success of Moscow sight-seeing

Moscow, Russia

We agreed this morning that so far, this had been a frustrating experience. We have all traveled extensively around the world but had never been through anything like this before.

In Moscow for nearly two days and we had ate two meals at the same restaurant and walked around the inside of a department store. While this was largely the blame of our concierge, it could also simply be chalked up to the Soviet Experience — meaning, unexplained closures, the difficulty in navigating and a general unwillingness to give foreigners a helpful hand.

Today, we were confident that would change.

The concierge desk was closed for the weekend but Irina had confirmed our tour of the Kremlin with Capital Tours. But given our experience, it was unsurprising that when we arrived at the office, the babushka sitting behind the desk had no record of a reservation. “Can we just sign up now?” we nearly cried. “Nyet,” she replied. Entry tickets were purchased the previous day.

It was time to pull an audible.

We booked the same tour for the following day that we could squeeze in before our train to St. Pete and decided to try and cram everything else on the agenda today. Away we went.

First stop, St. Basil’s Cathedral, the icon of Russia. Commissioned by Ivan the Terrible in 1552, it has a long history — the multicolored domes were added in the 1670s. Napoleon ordered it be destroyed in 1812 but his troops thankfully ran out of time before the task could be completed.

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The cathedral’s name is a bit of a misnomer. In fact, it houses nine separate chapels which, having arrived right at its opening, we were able to explore in relative quiet.

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Overjoyed that we actually saw something successfully, we continued onward to Lenin’s Tomb. The process for seeing the embalmed body of the Father of Communism is complicated. There are limited viewing hours and only a certain number of visitors are allowed in at a time — and strictly, no bags, no cameras and no cell phones. Having learned the queuing fundamentals on our first day, we joined the line and began the slow wait.

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While the weather in Moscow has undoubtedly been cold since we arrived, we have managed with a strategy involving multiple layers, frequent indoor breaks and near constant movement when outside. Unfortunately, standing stagnant outside in 5-degree weather can take its toll. So we were relieved when we passed the final security checkpoint and entered the warm tomb.
Interestingly enough, it was the Soviets that, over 25 years, developed the strange embalming process that allows Lenin to remain preserved — in an almost wax-like state — under glass.

My visit here completed having seen the Communist Trifecta, the other two former leaders being Uncle Ho in Vietnam and Mao in China. It’s quite the accomplishment.

Back in the cold, we decided to grab some lunch at Bosco Café, a small pricey place inside GUM that overlooks Red Square. While the hot mulled wine warmed our souls, we agreed that we easily could have taken down two or three of the small $11 crust-less sandwiches.

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Able to feel our toes again, we ventured out to visit the Kremlin Armoury, which dates back to 1511. We found the small stand for tickets with a huge line snaking out of it — the near constant queues, along with Russians’ general contempt for waiting in any orderly fashion, would become a recurring theme on this trip.

Yet, we waited, slowly freezing and trying to understand why the booth closed for a 20-minute “technical break” when we were two away from buying tickets. By the time we were at the front, the timed entry at 2:30 p.m. was sold out. We bought them for the 4 p.m. and with Derek potentially bordering on the hypothermic, returned to State Historical Museum to warm up and burn some time.

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This museum is filled with artifacts from Russia’s long history, including carriages, furniture pieces, period dress and — this being Russia — plenty of bling.

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Bags and cameras checked, we returned to the Armoury to see the vast collection of weaponry, thrones, carriages and more bling, before trekking back to the hotel. It was getting late and we had 7 p.m. tickets to see the Nutcracker at the Bolshoi, the historic theater that debuted the iconic ballet in 1919. Our seats weren’t the greatest but we enjoyed the ambience and surroundings — oh, and the music and dancing wasn’t bad either.

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We debated returning to our favorite (and only) restaurant for dinner but also thought it was time to try something new. The Russian capital is flooded with Caucasian restaurants — these are places serving up cuisine from surrounding areas like Georgia and Uzbekistan. We had read about one restaurant simply called Uzbekistan and decided to head there.

It was a wild meal that started with baysky soup, described on the menu simply as “the ancient recipe” and served with an entire quail. The broth was super tasty and we tore apart the mini-chicken filled with a lamb sausage. Next was achuchuck, a juicy tomato salad served with hot chili peppers, home made cheese and traditional Uzbek bread that kind of looked like a bagel. For entrees, we ordered a distarkhan lamb pilaf, served table-side by the chef.

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Stuffed with easily the best meal of the trip, the bill shock was easier to stomach. Making our way home later, we agreed, the tide had turned.

We were finally starting to figure this country out.

Of borscht and beef stroganoff

Moscow, Russia

We had always planned this day to be one of rest so slept in late before treating ourselves to an elaborate brunch buffet spread in the Savoy’s dining room. This is a particularly spectacular space with marbled floors, gold chandeliers and hand-painted frescoed ceilings.

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There were lots of strange fish pates and spreads. We stuck with the safer bet of freshly baked bread, scrambled eggs, some smoked salmon, sausage, hash browns and a few slices of cheese. Funny thing is, we could have been anywhere in the world.

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We took a quick walk after the meal but the streets were deserted and we returned to the Savoy’s sauna to escape the cold. After calling nearly 10 restaurants, the concierge was able to locate us one that was open for the holidays. “Just a 15-minute walk,” she said, as we bundled up and prepared to face off with Moscow again. Nearly an hour later, trudging through the snow and skating along the icy sidewalks, and having followed directions like, “Make a left on the street that starts with the backward 3, the Delta and the square,” we somehow came upon the place.

Inside, there was not a single person in the restaurant. The two waitresses looked up from one of the tables. We motioned for three people. They glanced over and replied with a curt “Nyet.” “You’re closed?” we asked. They looked at us blankly. “Nyet,” they said. Then they pointed to the door.

We silently cried. And then walked out.

We managed to find a gypsy cab who brought us back to our favorite (and only) restaurant that we’ve managed to eat at — the one from our first night here whose name we could neither spell, say or remember. But we knew the location. And that’s all that mattered.

We took our seats in the library area and ordered up some delicious dishes: a Georgian tomato salad with fresh herbs and cheeses; a bowl of borscht, a hearty beet-based soup with apple, tender shredded beef served with a dollop of sour cream; and a plate of beef stroganoff, a thick mushroom and beef stew with roasted potatoes and sweet and crunchy pickles.

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Over the meal, we decided that in order to successfully see this city, we had to take matters into our own hands. No more relying on our Rock Star Concierge at the Savoy. From now on, we would have to do it all on our own.

Tomorrow, our plan would be put to the test.

Of course it’s closed!

Moscow, Russia

With only a couple of days in the capital city, we woke up early this morning. I’d spent the last several weeks corresponding with the Savoy’s concierge, ensuring that our itinerary would allow us to see all that we wanted to see in the short period of time that we were here.

After breakfast, we went to the business center to meet Irina. “Marc, it is you!” she exclaimed. She pulled out a gigantic binder. “This is all of our correspondence!” Smiling, she happily confirmed our itinerary for the day — the State Museum would be open until 6 p.m., and it made sense to go to Red Square early to see Lenin and St. Basil’s before the evening’s New Years festivities were underway. “Thanks so much for your help,” we replied.

A short walk, some of which was thankfully in underground passages, brought us to Red Square. This rectangular stretch of cobblestone is the heart of Moscow and the heart of this country. Surrounded by stately buildings of the Kremlin, this was the backdrop for the infamous military parades of the Cold War.

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After taking in the Square, we stopped at the State Historical Museum, a soaring red building. We admired the architecture before walking around it twice in search of the entrance. Finally stumbling upon it, we learned that, in fact, the museum was closed. It was the same story at Lenin’s Tomb. “Nyet,” the guard sternly said. “No.” By the time we made it to iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral, with its gates firmly locked, we were beyond frustrated.

Scrambling to see something, we stopped at GUM. Bordering the northeastern side of the Square, this is the State Department Store that once symbolized the Soviet shopping experience: long lines and empty shelves. Since then, the 19th-cenutry façade has stayed the same but not much else. It is now representative of the new Russia, with fancy designer boutiques and absolutely outrageous prices.

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On our way home, we passed Kazan Cathedral, which was originally built in 1636. Three hundred years later, it was demolished to make room for the massive military equipment parading on the Square — a replica of the original has since been rebuilt and opened.

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Back at the Savoy, we decided to pay our friendly but clearly incompetent concierge a visit. We explained how all of the sights, including the State Historical Museum, that she had recommended were closed. “Of course it’s closed!” she excitedly replied. “This is a big holiday.” We stared at her blankly, nodded our heads in astonishment and made a beeline to the sauna to warm up and try to diagnose our complete disconnect with Irina.

Wasted day aside, we were excited for New Years Eve. We turned our dining room table into an impromptu bar stocked with various indecipherable vodkas and a couple of cigars.

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Passing through four security screenings, we arrived in Red Square just minutes to 12. Then, with not much fanfare, the clock struck midnight and fireworks illuminated the sky behind the psychedelic domes of St. Basil’s. In-person, it was a pretty amazing sight to witness.

In true Russian fashion, the party continued deep, deep into the night.

The Russia of today

Moscow, Russia

In what may very well have been the most expensive ride I’ve ever taken, the cab driver charged me a whopping 9-euros for the three-minute trip to the train station this morning. Considering my destination today was Moscow, the most expensive city in the world, it was almost fitting.

From the station, it was a quick trip to the airport where Derek and Burt had just arrived from the States. We had a coffee and pastry before boarding our 3-hour Brussels Airlines flight to the capital of the Russian Federation. Passing over the former Iron Curtain, a crazy thought entered my mind again: what in the world were we doing heading to Russia in the dead of winter?

We began discussing a trip here a couple months back and decided that this would be the Ultimate Soviet Experience. To brave the elements, fur hats would be worn and vodka would be consumed. If nothing else, this would be an adventure.

We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

Our first sign might have been the numerous hoops that tourists are required to jump through before stepping foot in the country. All visitors must have a visa. But this isn’t as easy as simply sending your passport and a $100 check to an embassy. Obtaining one requires an official “invite” — generally, these come from hotels, which require a non-refundable deposit. Entry and exit dates correspond with these invites. And to keep tabs on where you are, all tourist visas are “registered” by the corresponding hotels with the government upon arrival in Russia.

Picking up our visas in New York last month, the Embassy was perplexing. After waiting in a slowly moving line, I’d approached the window. “I’m here to pick up. Could you help?” I asked. “Nyet,” the woman replied, pointing to a sign in Cyrillic. A taste of what was to come.

In a heavy snowfall, we landed in Moscow and proceeded to sit on the runway for a half hour. “There seems to be a traffic jam here,” the pilot announced. As our patience weaned, we taxied to the gate, rushed off the plane and then surprisingly breezed through immigration.

Maybe this won’t be so tough after all, we thought.

That was, of course, before Derek’s bag failed to arrive. At the lost luggage counter, an airline representative was less than reassuring. In broken English, she said it would probably be two days before he was reunited with it. Derek zipped up his thin North Face shell.

Facing a gantlet of aggressive taxi drivers, we got cash and booked an “official” cab for 2,000 rubles into the city center. On this two-hour trip, we were introduced to the infamous Moscow Traffic, clogging streets in bumper-to-bumper standstills, blasting horns and moving inches at a time.

Inside our hotel, the Savoy, it felt like a different world though. Built in 1912 but recently remodeled, the lobby felt almost pre-revolutionary — while the bar was a minimalist, modern space with lighted walls and a curved staircase to a second floor seating area.

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Upstairs, our Business Suite gave us plenty of room to spread out. There was a spacious bedroom with soaring 15-foot ceilings, gilded chandeliers, original molding and parquet floors. Although the cot was essentially a lazy-boy chair, it didn’t matter: the separate living room was outfitted with a window seating area and a dining room table for eight.

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Oh, and there was a full-sized piano, too.

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Quite happy, we put on our long underwear and set out to find dinner. Lonely Planet suggested a restaurant that appeared nearby, but the curving ring roads of this city were challenging to navigate and none of the street signs or restaurant names were in the Roman alphabet.

We tried one place but the bartender barked something at us in Russian so we left. On our way back to the hotel, we stumbled upon a bustling restaurant, Glavpivtorg, that remarkably welcomed us in — and then offered up menus with horribly translated English.

We could decipher one word though: bodka. Three shots to toast our arrival in the former USSR were immediately in order.