Subtitled: Soviets past, Ducklings, still more art and the perfect meal
Today dawned with blue skies and bright sun, but Irina warned me to carry my umbrella anyway to keep the rain away. At least half of our day was to be spent outside, so she wanted to do her best to keep make it that way.
I forgot to describe breakfast here at the Hotel Budapest, and really must because as a breakfast person, I find it ideal. I was pleasantly surprised to find three types of granola in addition to the standard rice crispies and corn flakes. I opted for berry granola both days so far, but may go with vanilla or chocolate the next couple days. There is a hot buffet with sausages, eggs, hash browns and oatmeal. There are also several types of bread and pastries, yogurt and fruit salad, juices and coffee or tea. I usually have the cereal with yogurt, fruit and a pastry. That sort of breakfast will hold me over until a late lunch, believe it or not.
This morning I got up a half hour earlier to so I could walk to the Starbucks I stumbled over near my hotel last night. I had a cappuccino, which tasted so good after going without for so long.
Our driver picked us up at 9:30 sharp and we drove to Novodevichy Convent and Cemetery. Given that it was a Sunday morning and no one was on the roads, we zipped right there. Irina said she had a surprise for me nearby that she wanted to show me. We parked across the lake from the convent, which made for a wonderful photo opportunity, but within the park we were in, there was a set of statues that would be familiar to most Bostonians: Robert McCloskey’s Make Way For Ducklings statues. Apparently Barbara Bush gifted them to the children of Russian some years ago and this is their home now. I instantly recognized them and felt a rush of homesickness, oddly enough. Irina was relieved that I did indeed know them, because she says so many Americans do not! It makes me wonder if it is not local popular culture in any case.
The Novodevichy Convent essentially has a history of taking in wives or sisters of tsars once the tsars get tired of them. The women would be sent there to live out their lives, essentially becoming “dead” to Russia when they take the veil. The grounds is made up of a cloister, the Smolensk Cathedral, a belfry, a small gorgeously decorated chapel and a second more rundown church, all surrounded by a fortress (god forbid these women make a break for it!). The convent is still operating, as is the cathedral. Irina asked me to don my headscarf and we went inside for the service, since it was that time on Sunday morning. We went in just as the faithful were taking communion and sharing bread with each other. The choir was just beautiful (but professionally trained and hired, so they ought to be) and the symbolism of these people coming together every Sunday, obviously seeing each other week after week was touching.
We left the convent and went around the corner to the cemetery. This is the place where anyone who is anyone of modern Russia seems to be buried (except for those I saw in St. Petersburg last week). The cemetery serves almost as a historical museum of popular Russia. The trend seems to be to make the stone on the gravesite indicative of what the person is known for. A pediatrician is represented by a carved likeness of himself holding a baby. A pianist has a baby grand headstone. Military officers have busts of themselves decorated with all of their medals. Artists have photographs of themselves and an engraving of their theater’s logo. One ballerina had an exquisitely carved statue of herself in white marble representing her in best known role. The popular people I knew that we saw were the author Chekhov, Boris Yeltsin, Raisa Gorbachev and Nikita Kruschev. Irina said that nowadays a governmental commission decides who gets buried in this cemetery because demand for that honor is high and space is running low. It really is a wonderful walk through Russia’s culture though and quite an experience to see.
Our driver stopped half way between the cemetery and the Pushkin Museum on Arbat Street so we could pick up a quick lunch. Irina knew of a Fresh Foods shop and we had tasty roll-up sandwiches and a drink. We got to chat and inevitably the conversation came around to the economy and politics. What was interesting to me is that Irina says that all of her American clients tend to be Democrat and she has never met a Republican. She asked me what I feel about Obama now and how I would vote in 2 years. A long conversation ensued and I think she was surprised at how frank I was with my opinions. She said that Medvedev is up for reelection at the same time, so 2012 should be a good year. Russia, she said, has split priorities for that year with both the election and the Olympics in Sochi.
One other thing that was interesting is that she does not save for retirement. She said generally Russians do not trust banks or investment houses, so if they have extra money, they spend it on something that will last, like a house or car. I asked her what she will do when she retires since right now the government does not support anyone either, and she says that the pension system has not been fully developed yet in the new Russia, so she hopes it will be sorted out by then. She was certainly not terribly concerned!
Our next stop after lunch was the Pushkin Museum, which is a collection that is split between two buildings. The older building houses a collection of plaster casts of popular sculpture and a wonderful Egyptian antiquities collection as well as a revolving exhibition space. The exhibition on show today was a collection of Russian art from an Armenian museum. While all of the labels on the art in this exhibition was in Cyrillic, I was able to identify several of my new favorites from this trip by sounding out some of the names. I am quite pleased with myself!
This part of the museum has quite a collection of plaster casts, which often gives the museum the reputation of only having “copies”, which is not true. There is however a large room that is made to replicate the main room of the Bargello in Florence, and has a life sized replica of Michelangelo’s David. There is also a room that has copies of many of Michelangelo’s other pieces, including the Pieta, Moses, Bruges Madonna, and the Medici chapel sculptures. That was pretty cool. The Pushkin also has six Rembrandts which were just awesome in every sense, but not as spectacular as Danae or the Return of the Prodigal Son which I saw last week.
The new building house painting and sculpture that was collected by two wealthy Russians. It covers pre-impressionism, Impressionism (my favorite) and post-Impressionism. I think I really perked up most when we entered the floor of Impressionism. The first painting that popped out to me was an absolutely breathtaking Degas, the Blue Dancers. It is the Degas masterpiece in this collection and quite possibly the most beautiful Degas I have ever seen. It uses his deep blue pastel and it hard to say whether this is really four separate dancers dancing, or one single dancer that Degas has just chosen to represent as she pirouettes around his drawing paper. Needless to say, I loved this.
Anything after the Degas would have been gravy. But there were several other Degas, seven Renoirs, six Rodins. One Rodin, Love Running Away, I had actually never seen before and it was very alluring. There were five Van Goghs, including one that actually got sold while he was alive, one painting of his doctor in Arles that was discovered on the floor of a chicken coop (apparently the doctor didn’t know what he had been given by his patient, and used it to patch a hole!) and one very interesting unusual setting for Van Gogh, a circle of prisoners pacing in a prison courtyard. I was impressed, for sure. I was also smitten with 11 Monets which were much better quality than what I had seen in the Hermitage. There was a Vertheuil landscape that was pretty, a very nice white waterlillies and two Rouen cathedral scenes.
When I was done here, Irina walked me to Arbat Street where she left me for the day. She gave me several options to return the hotel, including two walks and a Metro trip. Ultimately I opted for the Metro, only because I had been up on my feet and walking since 9:00 a.m.
I walked up and down Arbat, which is a pedestrian street with various souvenir shops, restaurants, two Starbucks and the only Hard Rock Café in Russia. I did the requisite Hard Rock shopping and walked back Arbat to a Georgian restaurant that Irina recommended. This, my friends, turned out to be THE meal of the vacation, I suspect.
You may recall that I fell for Georgian food last week in St. Petersburg. This meal though, exponentially surpassed that meal. This was a meal I will look back on in days, weeks, months and wish to do it all over. Bear with me here…
The restaurant is set in a very kitschy looking “typical Georgian style country house”, said Irina. Inside, it looks like the inside of a water mill, with a water wheel, an interior river with big fish and turtles and hard wood planks and chunky dark wooden furniture. I flipped through the menu, which thankfully had English subtitles that seemed a bit shaky in translation at best. Let’s just say that I am hoping that “mutton in bowels” really means “bowls”. I took the safer choice and ordered for an appetizer a Georgian cheese baked in a shallow iron dish with diced tomato and Georgian spices (which are spicy, but not necessarily peppery hot, not like a jalapeno but more like paprika). I also ordered the stewed veal in a tomato broth with onions and a lightly spiced tomato broth. This came with a thicker consistency but lighter texture pita-type bread that I ate by tearing it open and spooning the meat into. I did order a side of mashed potatoes, which normally can hold their own in any meal, but the rest of this was so good, they stayed mostly uneaten! I also had a glass of house red wine and a bottle of water.
Somehow, the appetizer came at the same time as the meal, and the cheese, the cheese! Oh my! It was steaming hot and had just a little bit of browning on the top. It tasted like a cross between a strong goat cheese with a touch of bleu in it. The veal was tender and juicy and with quarters of the bread rounds was just yummy. But can you even imagine the cheese WITH the veal in the bread??? Oh I can, and I did. Good Glory! I firmly believe that when you reach the Pearly Gates, you will be served this meal. Seriously. It was that good.
Oh but we are not done yet, my friends. The waitress, who was the sweetest and friendliest I have had here, asked if I wanted dessert. I asked her to bring me whatever is the typical Georgian dessert and a cappuccino. After a little bit of a wait, she delivered a layer cake that was presented just amazingly on a large plate, with swirls of honey, drops of berries and cocoa powder, with something written in Georgian on the top of the plate (hopefully it wasn’t “Do you know how much you’ll be working out to burn this meal off?”) I should have asked, but instead I pulled a very Japanese-tourist move and pulled out my camera. I put it on Food setting (seriously, my camera has that) and took two shots. It looked too pretty to eat, but to hell with that, I was going in for the kill.
The cake was alternating layers of cake soaked in a hazelnut liquor and mocha mousse, and covered in what I think was something similar to toffee shavings. Hallelujah, I reached the promised land! While this ended up being my most expensive meal ($80 plus tip), it was well beyond “worth it”. I am so tempted to go back tomorrow night for my last meal in Russia!
That was it for today. I successfully took the Metro back to the hotel and crashed on the rock solid bed at 8:00. Tomorrow is Kremlin and Red Square tour and that’s it.
As the vacation draws to a close I really am feeling sad that I am leaving and I find myself actually not wanting to leave; I feel I have so much more to see and do. I have loved this more than I thought I could. It has ended up being a better experience than I expected, one that I will treasure for all I saw, all I learned and for the two wonderful guides I had that made my experience that much better.