It is a truth universally unacknowledged that Moscow is only slightly more than three hours from London by air, and that its five star hotels offer surprisingly affordable deals at weekends.
Red Square, the Kremlin, the Bolshoi Theatre, great shopping, with Tsarist, Soviet and ultramodern architectures – the fallen rouble is an opportunity to explore somewhere you’ve known about all your life, but always assumed was miles away and would never get around to visiting.
Nineteen new hotels opened in Moscow last year, adding to an estimated 410,000 hotel rooms in the city, while street signs in the centre are in both English and in Russian. The civil service and political apparatchiks clear out to their country villas at weekends, leaving one of the world’s great cities a less congested place to get around in.
If you’re on a budget, you can still stay in a five star hotel and indulge in some caviar for breakfast: now is the time to visit, and here are some reasonably-priced places to enjoy Moscow from.
Tsars entertain the Royal families of Europe here, while beneath blazing chandeliers the agents of Kaiser Wilhelm redraw the borders of continental empire.
The above isn’t strictly accurate, but since opening in 1905 the Metropol has retained all of its imperial grandeur, lobbies of intrigue, and turn-of-the-20th-century interior furnishing, while remaining a contemporary 21st-century hotel. Convinced of some optical illusion, you lean forward to examine polished doorways and delightful fittings that are impossibly elaborate to reproduce, or even imagine, today:
A modest, Parisian-influenced entrance to the hotel leads into a grand foyer where documents overthrowing vanished European principalities were once traded, and a mantelpiece by which a pale young prince plots to seize his aged aunt’s fortune. To my mind, at least.
Cage doors for the elevator, and we emerge into a delightful atrium straight out of Merchant Ivory, from which leads off a short corridor of green carpeting and soft, old lighting. Black and white photographs line the walls, of prominent former guests. I discover later these include George Bernard Shaw; Bertolt Brecht; Sergei Prokofiev; Mao Tse-tung; Marlene Dietrich; and John Steinbeck.
Stop. The others drift onward, but there’s an indefinite quality to this part of the building. A door is ajar: the corner of a chaise longue once belonging to a palace, of such astonishing quality and expense in its day that it remains in perfect use, an ageless antique. The indefinite dawns of a sudden; it is the presence of aristocracy, ancient and modern.
I catch up, and we’re in a basilica, deep and dark reds and ochres and wood, rising to a high dome lit by an enormous intricacy of crystal and majesty. A raised gallery for what was once presumably musical accompaniment for regal 12-course dinners, and a stuffed bear on hind legs. Champagne and canapés.
On into a different part of the hotel, brighter, more jazz age, little oblong light fixtures. We enter a suite that can only be described as where a Russian F Scott Fitzgerald may have written and vodka-toasted his way through The Great Gatski: lots of wood, soft stripes of green and grey.
It turns out that a wealthy patron of the arts in the late 19th-century decided to redevelop the existing premises into a cultural centre, and employed the empire’s best architects, painters and sculptors in what at the time was one of Moscow’s first Art Nouveau structures.
The building was later used as a stronghold in 1917 during the struggle for control of Russia, defended by military cadets before eventually being taken by the Bolsheviks. The Metropol then became the residence of Bolshevik and Soviet leaders, its main hall witnessing speeches by Lenin and Trotsky. A grand reopening in 1991 saw it become one of the new Russia’s first five star hotels.
As we file out, we are told that Elizabeth Hurley has stayed recently. That seems rather appropriate, given her role as Queen Helena of England in the recent television series The Royals.
The Hotel Metropol: from £125 per night for a double room, not including a 10% weekend discount, at http://www.metropol-moscow.ru/
On the Moskva River, right across from the Kremlin and the famous St Vasily’s Church – the one with the multi-coloured onion domes – this has to be one of the best views to enjoy from any hotel balcony in the capital.
The building dates back to 1898, but has been renovated recently and feels utterly modern, right down to gentle pastels offset by smart decor and design features, and with an atrium that reminds me of one of the more grand Whitehall refurbishments of London’s great offices of state.
It opened in 1992 as a five star hotel, one of Moscow’s first after the fall of the Soviet Union, and has been popular with business bookings ever since, though can be quiet at weekends.
The rooms are enormous, the most spacious we’ve seen in the city, and very bright with huge windows making the most of that stunning riverside view.
We enter a large suite to find a banquet awaiting, courtesy of the hotel’s kitchen. Despite having breakfasted heartily elsewhere, Russian pancakes, or blini, and other delicacies find their way onto a plate along with some caviar. Marvellous, and apparently the done thing at cocktail parties; while musing on this a glass is filled before me with champagne, despite ineffectual mild protestation.
The Baltschug Kempinski Hotel: yours from £70 per night for a minimum two-night stay at http://www.kempinski.com/en/moscow/hotel-baltschug/welcome/
Newly-rebuilt, a five star hotel on Tverskaya Ulitsa: turn right, walk through a subway, and three minutes later and you’re in the very centre of Moscow, with every sightseeing highlight at the top of your itinerary visible from where you’re standing.
Upon arrival in the hotel I am struck by the black marble, rich wood, and bronze, the very modern baroque elegance of David Lynch’s cinematic spectacular Dune, which renders the distant future timeless through brilliantly imperial interiors. This is gorgeous, and good taste in nouveau Moscow a welcome encounter.
The room is similarly luxuriant, almost silent while peering at the capital’s busy traffic, and lavishly furnished as if I am a prime ministerial adviser on a diplomatic summit visit, with the bathroom the size of my flat in London.
Tea, a kiwi fruit, a glimpse of a Russian soap opera on the television, and upstairs to the bar, which features the best such terrace view in the city:
To accompany this, an Old Fashioned whisky cocktail seems a good idea, comparable to central London at £8, a worthwhile investment for that skyline alone.
Dinner, downstairs in the main dining hall, named Cafe Russe, European and Russian cuisines on the menu. The last borsch, or beetroot soup, I’d had was in a backstreet cafe in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, with a faint spice and surprise of mutton. By comparison, Moscow’s is a clarity, invigoration, and has me reaching for the phone to see that beetroot has been claimed as a superfood.
Beef stroganoff, again something last enjoyed in a superb Russian restaurant in Central Asia, doesn’t disappoint, and the potato and fried onion accompaniment disappear swiftly. More wine, and conversation turns to whether Russian dishes are European, or Asian, or an undiscovered country of both? I don’t care, am too busy enjoying their eating.
My mother, an airline stewardess during the 1960s and 1970s and who flew frequently to Moscow, remembers Soviet-era dining as dishwater soups and overcooked main courses, all left to go cold before serving. A public relations disaster that endured for decades, thankfully unrecognisable today.
Our host for the evening is the hotel’s charming young public relations manager, Maxim Marusenkov. To him I murmur: has your cellar Russian wine? Too good an opportunity not to enquire. A nod, he disappears, a bottle of red hovers before me, from somewhere near the Black Sea if memory serves. An intriguing latent heat, medium-bodied, not too strong, and really rather good. Word spreads along the table of this surprising and welcome new arrival, and that’s the last I see of it. Exquisitely-presented sorbet and ice cream for dessert.
Breakfast: long, long counters offer English and European mainstays; entire tropics of fruit; cooked and cured meats; and caramelised vegetation. An unfamiliar gleaming: orange and black caviar. This has to be done. A mouthful of a million dollars.
Look around the bustling room: perhaps a third of the guests at breakfast are families or business folks from China. Any political cold shoulder from the west appears to be having little effect on bookings.
The Ritz-Carlton: deals from £205 a night, at http://www.ritzcarlton.com/en/Properties/Moscow/Default.htm
Radisson Royal Hotel
Towering into the skies on the waterfront of the Moskva River, the Radisson Royal has taken over one of seven Soviet-era skyscrapers built by Stalin to keep a Sauron-esque governmental eye on the city.
So, when ambling to the elevator down a corridor in this refurbished, five star establishment, you retread the footsteps of myriad officials of the USSR – with the same paintings and sculptures decorating the place.
There are more than 1,000 of them, mostly still life from what I see while scribbling down the names of the artists to find out later who they were and what happened to them.
Look up closely when outside the entrance, a ghost of a previous lifetime: signage proclaiming the former Hotel Ukrayin:
My uncle, a film and television director, stayed here during the 1980s, and was convinced his room was bugged when the television somehow didn’t seem quite right, and subsequently blew up.
Thankfully, such days are long gone – the lavish attention to detail, lighting and spaciousness render it more a luxury Dubai-style hotel experience with the skyscraping views.
We embark on one of the hotel’s river cruises for dinner. Plates of mountainous salads and cold meats arrive at our table, and are raided. In Russia I am unsure of what is a starter and what isn’t, so enjoy a morsel of everything, a high risk strategy that almost falls over when the main courses are announced later. It’s all excellent, and very filling.
We’re going at a fair pace, and Moscow speeds by all the while outside, including the familiar sites of the Kremlin and the reassuring smoked meringues of St Vasily’s Church. Still we press on past glass and steel monoliths of the financial district, the summits of which vanish into cloud cover. Still further, beyond sturdy, ancient Tsarist architectures, a football stadium, a park.
By now, at this speed on the Thames, you would have seen everything London’s riversides have to offer and be off into grim post-industrial development opportunities – and Thamesmead – then the North Sea. We slow, amid more splendid imperial structures with no end in sight, and head back.
Moscow is truly enormous, a continent-sized capital for a country with eleven time zones.
The Radisson Royal Hotel: prices from £101 at http://www.radisson.ru/en/royalhotel-moscow
Our party was the guest of the Moscow Convention Bureau, an agency of the city’s local government.