Friday, 11 October 2013

Modern, Creative, Moscow

*(I don't think I really need to tell you here...but I will anyway - this post is also not about Africa!)

An article which I wrote a while back for Indonesia's Garuda airline inflight magazine about my former expat home Moscow, has finally landed in my lap and I'm feeling pretty pleased with how it turned out. If you are not much interested in the vibrant sights of the Russian capital, then by all means skip this one - I'll be back in Africa soon, I promise! However, if you are interested in Moscow and its heady mix of ancient, modern, quirky, Soviet, hipster and just generally all-out bling sightseeing on. And when you're finished do yourself a favour and go buy a plane ticket and head over to enjoy the new modern, creative Moscow for yourself. Spasiba!

Modern, Creative, Moscow 

(originally published in Colours, the inflight magazine of Indonesia's Garuda airline)

A new wind of change is blowing through the Russian capital as creative Muscovites transform the relics of the Soviet city into the art and design capital of Eastern Europe.

Standing in Red Square, the undisputed heart of Russia, is to be embraced by history. From the colourful domes of St. Basil's, to the gloom of Lenin's mausoleum, Red Square is a living, breathing open-air museum, where the different influences of Russia's grand and turbulent history are on full display. However, step beyond the cobbles and into the city streets and you are in a vibrant 21st Century metropolis which is constantly reinventing itself. In this new Moscow imposing Soviet architecture mixes with modernist skyscrapers, fashion shows take place in old bottle factories and the hip and fashionable party in crumbling 19th Century mansions. Moscow may still be a billionaire's playground, but it is also fast becoming the hippest city this side of Berlin.

A creative renaissance in Gorky Park

The undisputed centre of Moscow's creative renaissance is Gorky Park, an area whose transformation mirrors that of the city itself. Founded in 1932, in its early days Gorky Park was an idyllic communist 'people's park' where the proletariat could enjoy ice-creams and rousing Russian music from military bands. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed however, the park had become dominated by drunken paratroopers, cheap kiosks and precarious fairground rides. Finally in 2011 it all changed again when the new Moscow mayor stepped in, with the financial backing of the oligarch Roman Abramovich, to set about an ambitious redesign of the iconic park.

The Gorky Park of today is an internationally admired model of how to rejuvenate public parks. On any given day you can enjoy free yoga classes by the river, dance salsa under the setting sun, watch the latest films at the open-air cinema, catch a free history lecture or jazz concert, play ping pong or French boules, get sketching at a free art class, read a book from the open library, join the local jogging club, rent a bike or just feed the squirrels and birds with seeds bought from special vending machines. And, it doesn't stop there. Abramovich's art curator girlfriend Daria Zhukova has also gotten involved, choosing the park as the venue for her new modern art gallery Garage designed by the celebrated architect Rem Koolhaas.

Industrial chic

Just a few kilometres along the river another old communist institution, the Red October Chocolate Factory, has also taken on a new look. Behind the factory's red brick walls Russia's favourite chocolate brand was once produced. Nowadays it is the place where the country's new architects, and graphic designers are gathering their inspiration at the Strelka Institute for Media, Design and Architecture. With a keen eye on design and a spectacular rooftop view of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the Strelka Bar is the place to see and be seen, while the Institute’s programme of open lectures, concerts and film screenings in English have a wide appeal.

Following the arrival of Strelka, the gentrification of the rest of the area was sure to follow. The Red October now boasts the popular Lumiere photography gallery, three restaurants, seven rooftop bars and nightclubs, independent TV studios, exhibition spaces, publishing houses, a boxing club, an alternative travel agency and numerous pop-up shops. Meanwhile if you are looking for Russian artistic expression from older masters like Kandinsky, Chagall and Malevich, the world's largest collection of Russian art, The State Tretyakov Museum, is just a short walk away.

Venture out of the city centre and you will find other once derelict industrial buildings and neglected parks are also being revamped. In the north of the city the old Flacon bottle factory is filled with cult design shops and now boasts an urban beach with its own swimming pool. Just south of the city centre near the Kursky railway station you can find Winzavod, a former wine factory turned modern art gallery and just round the corner is the ArtPlay complex, where design studios and exhibition halls share space with cafes and rooftop bars. Furthermore the architects who helped redesign Gorky Park have been invited to give suburban parks such as Sokolniki a facelift installing swimming pools, sports facilities, concert stages, beaches and stylish cafes catering to Russia's burgeoning middle class.

'Moscow Never Sleeps'

Modern Muscovites are certainly developing a taste for quirky artistic spaces and elegant parklife, but there's one old habit they still love more - spending money. On Red Square at the historic GUM department store you can buy Sochi Winter Olympics gear from designer sportswear label Bosco, and just a few streets beyond you will find three more high-end department stores to browse, numerous luxury five star hotels and even a Lamborghini dealership.

Across town at the Moscow City development, over the last decade the Russian financial industry has been pumping billions of dollars into a huge landmark office, retail and housing complex designed to accommodate 300,000 workers and residents. The area has left its mark on the Moscow skyline with 16 skyscrapers, including the 93 storey Federation Tower, now the tallest building in Europe.

With its irrepressible energy, there's a lot of truth to the popular local phrase 'Moscow never sleeps'. The street cafes of the medieval Kitai Gorod district are open all hours, traffic jams can occur at 3am, rooftop parties kick off at midnight and the city's business elite can always be found tucking into their caviar at fine dining restaurants long after the sun has gone down. This city can be both brash and chic, chaotic and yet tranquil. It's a place of skyscrapers and domes, vast green spaces and hidden courtyards. Whatever your tastes are, you certainly won't be bored.

Sound - The Bolshoi
Recently restored to the tune of almost $800 million, the opulent Bolshoi Theatre has never looked better. Internationally renowned for its innovative approach to Russian favourites such as Onegin and Swan Lake, a night at the Bolshoi is an unforgettable experience. The 238th season opens on September

Taste - Caucasian cuisine
One of the great legacies of the country's Soviet past is the popularity of flavoursome Caucasian food in Russia. One of the most popular city centre places to enjoy Georgian favourites like sizzling shashlik kebabs, spiced vegetables and freshly baked cheese breads is the hip cafe-style restaurant Hachapuri.

Touch - Street Life
The cobbled pedestrianised streets behind the Bolshoi Theatre are filled with colourful Russian designer boutiques, flagship stores from the likes of Chanel and Gucci, street musicians, bustling pavement cafes and restaurants. For designer window shopping head to Stoleshnikov lane, for cafe culture grab a table on Kamegersky and to enjoy street performers take a stroll along Kuznetsky most.

Sight - Moscow Metro
The impressive Moscow Metro system has 12 lines and 188 stations making it the best way to bypass the city's notorious traffic jams. Its magnificent stations are intended to function as 'Palaces for the People' and feature beautiful stained glass windows, mosaics, marble floors, frescoes and chandeliers. Use the Metro's free wifi network to download the Moscow Metro app for foolproof navigation.

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