It's the simple things that sometimes present the biggest challenges. I was looking for a way to get to the Four Seasons Moscow, a huge beige box of a building that skirts Red Square in central Moscow - but I couldn't figure out how to get across the road. The broad Mokhovaya Street stood in my way, imposing, and there were no crosswalks to be found. Jaywalking seemed inadvisable - no one else was doing it, so I wasn't about to, either. A stairway that led down to a passage under the street eventually got me to my destination, late to my meeting with Gleb Kryuchkov, chief concierge at the hotel, where rooms are decidedly not frugal.
Enjoying Russia's capital, a huge, dynamic city of 12.5 million people, can take a bit of work. But if you're willing to put in the effort, the rewards are abundant. Kryuchkov loves his hometown, as any good concierge should. `"A concierge is someone who cannot live without their city. If I work someplace else, I think I will be bad at my job," he told me as he opened the door to a sprawling $20,000-a-night suite that had, among other amenities, an ice maker built into the wall.
"I love Moscow," he said. "It has so much history and is full of life." Kryuchkov, a mere 30 years old, was inspired by a childhood trip to Berlin, during which a hotel concierge helped him fix his broken watch. "I knew, from that moment, I would work in a hotel in some way."
I wasn't staying in the suite Kryuchkov showed me, of course, but I was hoping to tap his knowledge of Moscow's finer things and tailor it to my own budget. I asked him to create a day itinerary for a hypothetical high-spender that would total roughly $US1,000 ($A1,314), or about 63,000 rubles (at the conversion rate during my visit). I would endeavour to recreate the spirit of that itinerary on only $100.
Kryuchkov recommended breakfast at the elegant - and expensive - Cafe Pushkin, a relatively new restaurant that evokes a far more venerable feel by virtue of its location in the house of an 18th-century Russian nobleman. A breakfast of black caviar and blini (Russian pancakes, typically buckwheat), a glass of Champagne and a cappuccino is roughly 7,000 rubles.
Bratya Karavaevy, which means "Brothers Karavaevy" - presumably an allusion to "The Brothers Karamazov" - is popular with Moscow locals for a reason. The small chain's offerings of pastries, breads, salads and sandwiches are fresh, fast and cheap. I paid just 160 rubles for a tender, flaky croissant and a very decent latte. It's not just good for breakfast, either: After 7 pm, there is a 20 per cent discount.
"The best traditional banya, or Russian bath, is arguably Sanduny," Kryuchkov told me. Sanduny, located near the Central Bank of Russia, is the oldest public bathhouse in the country. Founded in 1808 by actor Sila Sandunov, Sanduny positively oozes privilege with its Greek columns, spacious bathing pools, leather sofas, rococo decor and marble accents. Of course, you'll certainly pay for the luxury: Renting the private "Baikal" room in Sanduny will cost 16,000 rubles for two hours. Want a massage? Add 2,500.
The Russian banya is about tradition and camaraderie, as well as cleanliness. When I went to the Vorontsov bathhouse in the Tagansky district in southeastern Moscow, I found that nearly no one went alone. Groups of old men chatted, laughed, teased one another and sipped tea together in the lounge. "It's where you would go to talk about your darkest secrets," Kryuchkov said.
I headed in one weekday ready to take advantage of the early bird special: 750 rubles instead of the usual 1,500. When I arrived, though, I was charged full price despite my protests. Later, when I asked an attendant why, he said flatly, "For Muscovites only." As a tourist in Moscow, I was learning, you often have to pay more. That's just how it is. Try not to take it personally.
Vorontsov had everything a good bathhouse should: blisteringly hot sauna, cool-down pool and plenty of showers and washing stations. The sauna was the hottest I'd ever been in - so hot that the small locker room key I wore around my wrist began to burn into my skin. Not wanting to look bad in front of the old men, however, I produced the tied-together bunch of birch branches I'd purchased (300 rubles) and started whacking myself with them, like I'd seen them do: on my legs, arms, back and stomach.
I had no clue what I was doing, and everyone around me had a good chuckle. The branches stung like holy hell, somehow making the sauna, which I didn't think could get any more painful, something even slightly more medieval. I rushed out of there after four or five minutes and plunged myself into the frigid cool pool. As I dunked my head underwater, a lightheadedness came over me, as well as a tingly feeling of well-being. Maybe it was just cell death, but I was beginning to understand why people did this.
To ferry his imaginary client around, Kryuchkov would hire a luxury sedan, about 10,000 rubles for two hours.
Visitors must travel the Moscow Metro at least once. It's fast, relatively easy to navigate and cheap: Rides are 50 rubles each if purchased one at a time, or just 32 rubles if bought in conjunction with a "Troika" transit card. (I later splurged and took an Uber to the airport; at only 1,000 rubles, it cut a two-hour trip in half.)
There are few better places for a meal than Kryuchkov's next suggestion: only 17, in fact, at least according to the "World's 50 Best Restaurants" list, where White Rabbit occupies spot No. 18. The tasting menu, which features shchi (a kind of cabbage soup) with smoked herring, pear with honey and caviar, and beef ribs cooked in kvass (a beverage made from fermented bread) costs 8,000 rubles. Tack on another 1,600 for a glass of Champagne.
A sudden rainstorm caused me to stumble into Skalka, but the great food and friendly service made me stay. Whereas Muscovites in the service industry sometimes met my English with a sigh and roll of the eyes, the owner of Skalka, Rozaliya Kuchmezova, greeted me quite warmly. "It's very nice to meet you," she said carefully. "We have many delicious things for you to try."
She recommended a couple of flaky-crusted, savory pies - one with salmon and fresh herbs, the other a vegetarian pie with potato, mushroom and cheese. House-made sodas are ubiquitous in Moscow restaurants, and Skalka is no exception: I had a mouth-puckering cranberry version for 120 rubles. My total bill came to about 620 rubles, less than $10.
River cruises can be a great way to see a city - why not do it in style? Kryuchkov suggested booking a first-class ticket for 2,000 rubles aboard a Radisson Royal cruise ship for a leisurely journey down the Moscow River. The cabin is on the upper deck of the boat, promising gorgeous views of the city. Additionally, "a private atmosphere among your set of people" (presumably the well-heeled) is assured.
The website also guarantees, in charmingly imperfect English, that "Each guest receives a compliment and personally oriented service from qualified stewards." A glass of Moet Champagne will set you back an additional 2,200 rubles. A potential boost to your self-esteem? Priceless.
A different and much cheaper way of transporting yourself out of the noise, dust and concrete of central Moscow: the Moscow Botanical Gardens, recommended by Maria, a young woman I met who had studied in Moscow. "It's one of my favourite places in the city," she told me. "It's very peaceful." I have to agree with her. Not only that, but it was free. The 890-acre park, created after World War II, contains thousands of plant varieties. I hiked some of the park's many paths for part of the afternoon, enjoying the quiet and clean air.
Bonus activity: The Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines is a must for anyone with even a passing interest in video games. For 450 rubles, patrons get 15 tokens, each good for one in the museum's vintage game collection: Tank Training Area and Probe were both good, but my favourite was probably the Giant Turnip.
Our fictitious traveller might enjoy a dinner at Bolshoi, which incorporates French touches into traditional Russian cuisine. Dinner, which has featured gnocchi with lobster and grilled artichokes with truffle vinaigrette, will run around 5,000 rubles. Bolshoi has live music nightly and is mere steps from the legendary Bolshoi Theater. Tickets to ballet performances, which usually sell out months in advance, are sadly not included.
Dining frugally doesn't mean you can't eat at nice places, it just means you have to treat the menu with a slightly more discerning eye. That usually will preclude ordering a full tasting menu or expensive alcohol - not a problem for me. I went to Chestnaya Kuhnya (roughly, "Honest Kitchen") and was treated to a meal of simple, rustic Russian cuisine in an elegant setting.
I ordered a plate of deer tartare with quail egg and Parmesan cheese that positively melted on the tongue. A series of small hand pies - one with potato and cabbage, one with mushroom, and one simply called "wildmeat" - weren't as good, but salmon and pike caviars served with crunchy buttered toast made up for it. The fine, yellow, delicate beads of the pike caviar were particularly toothsome, both briny and fatty.
The total bill, with a coffee afterward, was just under 2,000 rubles - an undeniably luxurious meal for anyone, no matter the budget, at an eminently affordable price.
The New York Times