Moscow is a ‘must go’If you haven’t visited Moscow recently, does this article counter your preconceptions of Moscow? Sydney Paulden reports on a visit to the newly opened Radisson Royal Hotel
I have just made my first visit to Moscow and discovered that all my preconceptions were wrong. And it wasn’t just me, because I was with five other journalists and an English PR host and we all found that our first visit swept away whatever ideas we had of what to expect.
Like the rest of Europe, Moscow had a hot summer and we faced temperatures of over 30degC each day. After our departure it went to over 40degC.
The Muscovites were well-dressed, well-groomed, sprightly and went briskly about their business. Each one of our group spent some time alone in Moscow and none of us felt insecure or threatened at any time.
We had all wrongly assumed that the Kremlin would be recognised by its onion-shaped cupolas. In fact, it doesn’t have any. Photographs of Red Square do usually include shots of a cluster of cupolas, but these belong to St Basil’s in one corner of the square, quite separate from the Kremlin itself. Even St Basil’s Church is wrongly named, as it is in fact nine separate churches in the one structure, but each with its own distinctively coloured and designed dome.
Red Square is enormous. It takes about 14 minutes to walk its length over the granite cobbled surface at a normal pace. One whole side is the wall of the Kremlin, whilst the opposite side is the massive but delightful Gum department store. ‘Delightful’ is rarely a word I would use to describe a large shop, but Gum is a collection of wide arcades, fountains, potted shrubs and terraces, as well as the place to shop for all the best-known designer-label fashions.
We all got the most of a visit to the Kremlin’s Museum because of the enthusiasm, encyclopaedic knowledge and perfect English of our guide, Nadia., formerly a teacher of English. As Lenin’s Tomb has pride of place in Red Square, we automatically assumed that the Museum would be dedicated to the glorification of Russian Communism. Quite wrong. It gives a fascinating insight into the incredible opulence of the lifestyle of the Tsars and their families. Nadia very effectively shooed other visitors away to allow us to squeeze through the crowds of open-mouthed admirers of the Fabergé eggs that were on view. There were ten in all and we learned that each was commissioned by a Tsar as a special gift for someone in the family and that the delicately created eggs were not all made of porcelain. They were also fashioned from gold, rock crystal and even steel. Each was designed as the carrier of a surprise gift. One, for example, had a solid-gold replica of a trans-Siberian train with a tiny solid-gold key that wound up a motor in the locomotive that pulled a string of coaches. Another had a gold miniature sailing ship on which the rigging was all gold filigree.
The bejewelled vestments of the Russian emperors, their wives and children and the archbishops of the Russian Orthodox Church were on view and their value cannot be imagined. They would probably fetch enough to be able to solve Europe’s financial problems. One dress alone, for example, had 15,000 diamonds sewn into the fabric.
A Moscow event may require a budget a little above other parts of Europe, but the experience would well repay the investment. We were in Moscow for only three nights, but were able to complete a phenomenal itinerary. This included a 2-hour cruise on the Moskva River, an evening at the theatre (next door to the Bolshoi which was under refurbishment) to see the ballet The Sleeping Beauty, a tour of Red Square, the Kremlin Museum and the Gum Department store and a stroll through the boutiques on the Arvatskaya street.
It is essential, however, for a group to employ the services of a reliable guide with good English. And a knowledge of Cyrillic script is absolutely vital for anyone bold enough to venture out of the hotel alone. It would not take long to learn in advance, say, the Russian letters for D, L, N and R. The time spent on that would be a very good investment. There is virtually nothing identifiably English on the streets and in the underground railway system, but we were all able to find our way around alone, with the odd error, once we had mastered the basic letters of the alphabet. Words that appear quite mystifying at first glance suddenly become, say, ‘Metro’, or ‘Pushkin’, or ‘Turgenev’, or ‘Revolution’. The streets and Metro stations are named after famous Russian writers and composers and significant moments in the Russian Revolution, which are instantly recognisable if you can decipher the letters. You then have something to relate to your map of the city.
Radisson Royal Hotel is a major new asset for Moscow
Our visit to Moscow was the result of an invitation by Rezidor Hotels to enjoy a stay in the newly opened Radisson Royal Hotel Moscow. Whilst there I chatted with a Canadian guest who had been going to Moscow on business for over 15 years.
‘I have never, in all my experience’, he told me, ‘come across such an incredible transformation of a hotel. Under its previous name of Hotel Ukraina under the previous regime, this was one of the most uncomfortable and shabby places but it was the only hotel in Moscow where foreigners from the West were allowed to stay. It is now totally unrecognisable’. To underline what he meant, he looked up and around the vast, palatial lobby of the Radisson Royal Moscow and left the splendour of the view to do its own talking.
The building is one of the Seven Sisters of Moscow. This was how the seven buildings were known that were commissioned by Joseph Stalin to rival the skyscrapers of the USA. They were constructed in a wedding-cake Art-Deco style with central spires and, love them or hate them, they dominate the skyline wherever they are located. It certainly made it easy to spot the Radisson Royal Hotel Moscow when returning from an excursion.
But there is a stark contrast between the exterior and the interior. Bought by two Russian oligarchs with fortunes that probably make Roman Abramovich seem a pauper, they have spared no expense to make this hotel one of the most luxurious in the world.
It is impossible to convey the magnificence of the interior, but small pointers might give a general idea. My bathroom, for example, had 17 towels in it. The spacious Lounge Bar has about twenty low tables set well apart from each other, so that conversations can be private. Each table stands on a colourful carpet and each carpet, woven in brightly coloured silk, cost an estimated US$10,000. The lobby boasts six golden lifts and guests do not wait more than a few seconds. There are a total of 506 guestrooms, all with a sumptuous, olde-worlde décor of comfort and charm, created by warm colours, rich fabrics and freshly cut flowers. In the bathroom the mirrors and floors are heated and the toiletries are Penhaligon.
The 10th and 11th floors are dedicated to Executive Rooms, with exclusive lounge, check-in area and business facilities. The hotel’s Ballroom measures 450sqm and can cater for 350 delegates, whilst a Conference Hall of 100sqm can hold events for up to 150 people. In addition there are six spacious meeting rooms, so that the total capacity of the whole facility is 1,000 people. There is a dedicated conferencing team that works closely with the organisers of each event. Other options include the large Library and also the Radisson boats that provide cruises and dining on the river.
An important part of the Radisson Royal Moscow experience was the cuisine and the service. The Veranda Restaurant was always a highlight of the day, for its comprehensive buffet breakfasts and also its superb lunch and dinner menus. We were frequently provided with meals out of the normal schedule of the restaurant, such as returning late from the ballet or conveniently close to our afternoon departure to the airport. The food always maintained a high standard and the staff were remarkably helpful, cheerful and courteous.