From Russia With Love
- Keren Pascual () - October 9, 2005 - 12:00am
From Russia with love, I fly to you

Much wiser since my goodbye to you

I’ve traveled the world to learn

I must return from Russia with love…

These lyrics by Lionel Bart were playing in my mind the whole flight on Qatar Airways from Moscow. Yes, yes, I know it’s an old song (I heard it from my mother–whatever!), but it was so apt. My phone was ringing off the hook the morning we arrived, and let me tell you, there is something so thrilling about answering the phone and saying "Yes, I just got back from Russia." Never mind that my body was still crashing from jet lag.

I’dnever been to Russia before, and Moscow just took me by surprise. With the James Bond movie From Russia With Love, Sean Connery’s Hunt for Red October, and that ’80s song Russian Radio (now, this song is really my era!) coming to mind whenever "Russia" was mentioned, I had prepared myself for a bleak city recovering from the Cold War, with a token historical site like St. Basil’s Cathedral– but whatever! Moscow just took my breath away.

My Famous trips are, well, famous for taking well-known Filipino personalities everywhere around the world. This time, for Famous 10, I was with the Philippine Department of Tourism (thanks to Edu Jarque, the Assistant Secretary for Planning & Promotions, and DOT executives Verna Buensuceso and Erlinda Fernandez) and representatives from different travel agencies. We were off to Russia to promote our dear country at the Otdykh Travel Trade Fair where the business of leisure is taken seriously.

Russia is just too beautiful not to share, and well, too big to take it all in at the same time. The sights can overload your senses. For example: the Russians are just so gorgeous! There are Karolina Kurkovas, Paulina Porizkovas and Milla Jovoviches everywhere–beautiful women and incredibly fine men wherever you look! Every street is a catwalk. They don’t smile much, though (which goes with the whole model package), but that’s culture for you.

So anyway, while you’re still dreaming about going to Russia, let this honorary Muscovite (me!) be your tour guide through Moscow. This is going to be fun. I promise.
Tourist in Moscow 101
First things first. Your handbag should always have your passport and visa. Have some rubles–the local currency (the exchange rate is about double our peso) – in your bag, for shopping. Come prepared with your cameras, but here is Lesson No.1: taking pictures of Russians in full costume is not free. When I found out, I was suddenly reminded of Baguio, where the costumed natives will agree to a picture only if you pay them. Some things are just universal.

And remember, when in Russia, people speak in Russian and all the signs are in Cyrillic alphabet. Not too many speak English, even at McDonald’s! So unless you like playing charades, get a Russian guide. Preferably a good-looking one.

Oh, and just so you know, Moscow drivers are even more–ahem–assertive than Filipinos. And their sidewalk parking is just a work of art–parallel, horizontal, vertical, sideways, straight, gay–whatever! Traffic jams can be avoided if you go on foot, but be extra careful when crossing the streets (the policemen are very strict–I got whistled at when I ran across the street to take a picture, and it wasn’t because of my figure)or better yet, take the underground. Enjoy the sights while you’re at it. The metro stations are architectural master-pieces in themselves.
Things to See, Places to Do, or Whatever
There are just things that you should not miss. If you went to Moscow and didn’t see them, why did you go there in the first place?

Red Square
is like a one-stop tourist must-see. With the Kremlin on one side, St. Basil’s Cathedral on the other, Gum–this architectural wonder of a shopping mall–right across Lenin’s Mausoleum, and the Okhotny Ryad, you’ll have a full day just going around.

The first thing you would want to see is St. Basil’s Cathedral–the most Russian of all Russian sights. Trust me, no picture can ever prepare you for the riot of colors of this church. This is where I posed for our Famous picture with my Famous veterans–lifestyle editors, Philippine STAR’s Millet Mananquil, and Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Chelo Banal-Formoso with government personalities, former Press Undersecretary Robert Mananquil, House Committee on Tourism head Rep. Robert Chato of Bohol with his loving wife Maria Pureza; also hailing from Bohol, Rep. Roberto Cajes and wife Judith; and Bohol Rep. Eladio Jala with his Remedios; Samar Rep. Catalino Figueroa and his darling, Mayor Neliphta. Flying solo were Zamboanga Rep. Cesar Jalosjos; and Committee on Tourism Secretariat’s Marilou Fernando. But government officials or not, they all gamely posed with our specially-made Famous 10 T-shirts; and of course, I had them laughing with my patter soon enough. Sadly, Lanao del Norte Rep. Abdullah Dimaporo and his wife Governor Imelda Dimaporo and Congresswoman Consuelo Dy of Pasay got to Russia the next day, so they weren’t in my snapshots of fame.

Now on to the Kremlin. This is a walled fortress that was the center of the Russian government, with the State Kremlin Palace (like the Malacañang Palace, but much grander) inside, together with the Senate, the Great Bell Tower, a number of other palaces–the Terem, Faceted, and Great Kremlin Palaces–the Tsar’s Cannon and Bell, along with the Arsenal and the Armory. Not to forget a few churches for the souls of their heroes.

One of the museums in the Kremlin is a showcase of the rich and royally famous–displaying golden carriages that made me think of Cinderella; fur-lined crowns (it gets cold in Russia, you know); golden Faberge Eggs; and the clothes! Catherine the Great’s wedding dress has an impossibly tiny waist and a skirt.

Coming out of the fortress of the Kremlin, you may want to go to Lenin’s Tomb, where the Russian equivalent of our very own President Ferdinand Marcos is "resting."

Across Red Square is a mall disguised as a huge historical architectural wonder called GUM (say it with me–"goom"). It is compared to Barneys of New York and has nothing but exclusive shops. I love it. And on the other side of the square is a low dome surrounded by little fountains and couples cuddling to keep warm–whatever! Little did I know that right under our feet was the Okhotny Ryad–Europe’s largest underground mall. That mall takes shopping to new places. It goes down at least three levels underground and is filled with high-end stores as well as affordable boutiques for the young Muscovites, the Russian version of Bench if you will.

To get your fill of Russian architecture–which is so bongga–go see Ukraina Hotel, one of the seven buildings Stalin built just to show off. The people now call them the Seven Sisters. You can also have coffee in their coffee shop, which has a great chandelier hanging from the high ceiling that has arches and frescoes that look like icing on a cake. More samples of Russian architecture are found in the Metro stations. Most of them are marbled, and have theme paintings on the walls and are lighted by chandeliers. Good for fashion shoots! Ben (Chan), I think I’ve found the location for our next Bench billboard shoots.

Also, when in Russia, make sure you go to at least one Russian ballet show at the Bolshoi Theater. Some of us watched A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the others caught Don Quixote de la Mancha, thanks to Frankfurt Toursim Attache Venus Tan, assisted by Dakila Angeles, also of the Philippine German Consulate, who got us the tickets for that show (I introduced Venus to the Black-Eyed Peas and Nina–she couldn’t get enough of their music on my iPod Nano; and she couldn’t believe that BEP has a Filipino member!). Watching ballet at the Bolshoi Theater made me see that it is no wonder that Russian Ballet is world famous.

To round off the Moscow must-see and must-do, Jomar Fleras – a therapist who owns Sanctuario, a spa in Manila–and I decided to check out one of the Russian spas called banya, as recommended by our bus driver. Yes, it is no coincidence that it sounds like banyo. It’s a bathhouse. But not the naughty kind! I went with Jomar to the one called Sandunovskiye Banya which has a classy architecture, much like a ballroom–it’s that big. I guess there is something kinky going on with the men beating each other’s backs with birch leaves as a way to relax –whatever! Apparently, it works, but we just got our 10 minutes’ worth of experience and got out of there. It’s not for everyone, but it makes a great story, though!
Eating Russian
While we were making the rounds of Moscow, the Third Secretary and Vice-Consul at the Philippine Embassy Deric Atienza showed us around the amazing Metro stations. Deric is still so bagets – by that I mean young and energetic–that aside from the tour, he had time to give us a rundown of all the hip places in Moscow.

Aside from Russian fare, Moscow has a lot of cosmopolitan restos, ranging from Italian to American. One of the most popular of the restaurants is Praga, which actually is a pre-revolutionary building with nine different kinds of restaurants–Russian, Brazilian, Italian and Asian. Praga was even popular during Soviet times, serving Leo Tolstoy and Ilya Repin.

Then there’s Café Pushkin, which was named after the famous Russian poet (which is why it’s fitting that the Famous group dined there!). The ambience is spectacular, recreating 19th century St. Petersburg interiors. Since this place is open 24/7, the young and the restless (and the bold and the beautiful as well) often drop by for breakfast to cap off the night’s gimmick–like going to Hap Chang Tea House after coming from Embassy or wherever the bagets hang out these days.

For more of the old-world Russian dining experience, Sem Pyatnits is the place. It means "Seven Fridays" in English, but what that stands for–I have no idea! Ernest Beaur, who developed Chanel No.5 with Coco Chanel, used to have his factory here.

Next on the must-eat-at list is Cantinetta Antinori, a Tuscan-inspired resto by famous chef Arkady Novikov. He gives quite a spin on your favorite Italian dishes, and the wine list is extensive. This restaurant is a favorite among the fashionable crowd.

Due to the chilly weather, we didn’t get to try Scandinavia’s outdoor dining, which is the popular place to eat during summer. The reasonably priced menu is also another of its attractions. This place serves Scandinavian and European cuisine.

Another great summer hangout is Coffeemania, which has a great summer garden, where you can see the statue of the composer Tchaikovsky. Like our coffee shops here, Muscovites and other tourists hang out to chill and chat.

Deric gave us a great review of Chornaya Koshka, which means "black cat." Again the connection eludes me. But according to Deric, this resto’s theme is the popular ’70s detective series Mesto Vstrechi Izmenit Nelzya (The Meeting Place is Impossible to Change) set in post-World War II Moscow. The servers and crew all act out a role, like the maitre d’ is dressed like Field Marshall Georgy Zhukov. The menu is also, as Deric puts it, "hilarious." Whatever!

I noticed that Japanese restaurants are so popular in Russia. As in. Like Gin-No Taki already has two branches. You will find people lined up, even in the middle of winter. Talk about craving!

Now for a mouthful–and this is just the resto name, not the food–there’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which was named after the Luis Buñuel film. This is the pre-party hangout of choice, with great food, music and ambience.

Finally, rounding off Deric’s list of Moscow dining-musts is Simple Pleasures, which sounds like the Greenbelt shop that sells a plethora of relaxing things. But as with the resto’s name, dining is a pleasure (since the staff smile and speak English, for one thing). Food is continental-American, and the rooftop veranda is another come-on.
Home is Where the Hotel Is
Surprisingly for me, coming from my preconceived notions on the state of Moscow, Moscow offers a lot of five-star hotels, as well as four-star and three-star ones. There are, for example, two Marriott hotels: the Marriott Grand and the Marriott Royal Aurora. The Grand opened in 1997, in time for Moscow’s 850th anniversary (can you imagine, Moscow’s been around for nearly 1,000 years!). Both feature exemplary service, as expected from any Marriott hotel, as well as the full range of amenities. Hear this: US President Bill Clinton stayed at the Grand when he came over.

Then there’s the Metropol, which together with the National, was the only hotel open to foreigners during the war. This hotel is rich in history: Lenin spoke in the assembly hall, and part of the movie Dr. Zhivago was filmed in the restaurant. The interiors and the architecture are spectacular–like living in another century! I swear!

George Bush Sr.
, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Condy Rice, on the other hand, stayed at the Renaissance. And since it’s near the Olympic Stadium, athletes also stay there.

But one of my favorite hotels is the Ukraina. It’s housed in one of Stalin’s famous Seven Sisters buildings, on the banks of the Moskva River. The Philippine Embassy even checks in its guests at the Ukraina. This hotel is opulent, especially the lobby. It’s red carpets, chandeliers, redwood and oak furniture. Very posh.

But the ultimate in luxury is supposedly the National, which is touted as the city’s most elegant. Lenin lived here for a time (and you can stay in his room for $800–whatever!). Like the Ukraina, it’s very posh, from the silk-upholstered furniture to the grand marble staircase.

Then there’s the Radisson Slavyanskaya, which is a Russian-American joint venture. It has views of the Russian White House, where the government holds office, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It’s also a few minutes away from the must-see Kremlin and Red Square.

Finally, for a record-breaking hotel, check into the Rossija Hotel, which is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as one of the largest hotels in the world. You can get lost in there! And it’s also the center of everything–political, business and cultural.
Have Visa, Must Shop
Yes, it is a must-do, but since it was so fabulous, it deserves a section of its own. Besides the fact that you can’t find malls like Gum and the Okhotny Ryad anywhere else in the world. And the Moscow street markets have one of the best bargains and finds anywhere I’ve been to, and that’s saying a lot.

A hundred US dollars can take you a long way. We went to a tiangge equivalent at Izmailovsky Park where there are just stalls and stalls of fur caps and coats (but not for me!), antiques, military memorabilia, linens, lacquered boxes and amber jewellery.

My spoils of the trip include wonderful linens for my dining tables at home; a cute musical box of the kitschy St. Basil’s Cathedral; a hat with a dozen military pins; boxes of Russian chocolates; and vintage propaganda posters from the Russian Socialist era that look great in frames. Of course, I couldn’t leave without blessed icons to bring home to my friends. I bought beautiful ones from the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour for unbelievable prices (secret!).
Filipino in Russia
Yes, it was easy to get lost in a love affair with Russia while I was there. But maybe it was because I was travelling with a group of Filipino politicians that I could not suppress the Filipino in me.

After witnessing the grandeur that is Russia, it was nice to settle down for a dinner at the Philippine Ambassador’s house. To my great relief, Ambassador Ernesto Llamas and his wife Macaria served a dinner of Philippine cuisine because while I love Russia and all, Russian food is–well, let’s just say that there’s nothing that a dash of extra seasoning can’t fix. We did try blini (crepes) from the kiosks around the parks though. The rule of thumb, according to my Lonely Planet guide to Moscow, is "When venturing out into a culinary unknown, trust your nose; if a place smells like cabbage or old socks, don’t be afraid to give it a miss." In Kris Aquino’s famous words, I have one thing to say to that, "Korek!"
of the Russian
Russian Hangover So I’m back home, and still haven’t shaken off the memories of the cool airautumn, and the majestic sights of Moscow. I still answer my phone with a Priviet! instead of the usual "Hello." So for the time being, I will have to say Dasvidanya, like a Muscovite at heart, and make plans for my next trip to Russia with love. I can’t wait.

To Russia I flew but there and then

I suddenly knew you’d care again

My running around is through

I fly to you, from Russia with love
* * *
Interested in seeing Russia for yourself? Contact Vladimir Pazcu at 0915-7031231.

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