Shop and club in Moscow? that's a revolutionary idea

Russia's capital is trying to repackage itself as a fun city-break destination. So should we expect a Russified New York, wonders Laura Tennant. Are the nightspots hot enough and the designer labels really cool?
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The Independent Travel

Best-selling Muscovite novelist Boris Akunin has created a British hero for his next thriller. "Russians will find him very amusing," he tells us drily in his excellent English, "because he is impossibly polite and he smiles all the time." I smile and laugh politely. I perceive the irony, but, socially speaking, I'm in a no-win situation. The Russians consider smiling at customers and foreigners to be nothing more than simpering insincerity, so, like the city's permanently gridlocked one-way system, the wheels of social intercourse go unoiled. Then again, at least you know where you are with a Muscovite.

Best-selling Muscovite novelist Boris Akunin has created a British hero for his next thriller. "Russians will find him very amusing," he tells us drily in his excellent English, "because he is impossibly polite and he smiles all the time." I smile and laugh politely. I perceive the irony, but, socially speaking, I'm in a no-win situation. The Russians consider smiling at customers and foreigners to be nothing more than simpering insincerity, so, like the city's permanently gridlocked one-way system, the wheels of social intercourse go unoiled. Then again, at least you know where you are with a Muscovite.

However intractable, Moscow offers some unique experiences. The capital is trying to reinvent itself as a glitzy city-break destination for shopping and nightlife, but going to Moscow in search of a Russified New York would be perverse - and disappointing. There are lots of good reasons to visit the city, but shopping is not one of them, unless you want to pay a third as much again for designer labels. Nor are cool boutique hotels the draw. The Metropol, where I stayed, is perfectly comfortable and boasts an extraordinary gilded Art Deco dining hall, but the bedrooms are anonymous and they lack the pampering extras that are usually found in posh hotels.

It's the way in which Moscow is still so Soviet which gives it that authentic kick of culture shock. If you last saw the city under Brezhnev, I suppose it would seem unrecognisably different, but to my untrained eye it was the piquant details left over from the Communist era that fascinated and sometimes frustrated. Admission to the Bolshoi Theatre, for example, involves joining a crush of chilled people waiting to have their tickets scrutinised at the door - an unnecessary austerity, you might think, when they are rechecked at the entrance to the auditorium. But just when you're starting to feel really peeved about the queuing, the bureaucracy and the grim satisfaction taken in rules followed to the letter, you get the first night of Giselle and a world-class performance by the spectacularly talented prima donna Svetlana Zakharova.

Nor, I suspect, is there anything else in the world quite like Lenin's tomb, which I was expecting to find kitsch but which instead inspired a variety of historical awe. After the Moscow theatre hostage crisis, the security services must be on high alert - or perhaps it's always been the case that small groups of Lenin's visitors are directed by greatcoated soldiers via a circuitous, ceremonial route across Red Square before being admitted to the mausoleum, a modernist masterpiece in blood-red granite. But even a terrorist threat doesn't quite explain why the centre of Red Square is closed to the public. Imagine the police shutting down Trafalgar Square and you'll see what I mean.

Likewise, visitors can only obtain entry to the Kremlin, the ancient walled centre of the city which contains many of its most famous palaces and churches, via another long and tiresome queue. (I was lucky enough to have my guide squirrel me into a far less crowded side entrance, and for that reason alone, along with useful advice about where to stow large bags, forbidden inside the Kremlin, it's worth considering using a tour guide.) But once inside, I stepped into a tiny chapel that housed the remains of half a dozen tsars and felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise as a quartet of singers supplied a soundtrack of Gregorian plainchant.

My sightseeing accomplished, I could afford to indulge in a little R&R. Never have I felt so clean, and so thin, as after a visit to the Sanduny bathhouse. English people disrobe only if it's strictly necessary and for as short a time as possible; Russians like to luxuriate in the experience. Once I'd got used to it, it felt strangely liberating to amble about with a lot of other naked women, many of whom were advanced in years and extremely large. We even worked ourselves up to do a little light spanking with birch twigs. And a sauna followed by one of the best massages I've ever had and a pedicure that lasted a good three weeks certainly set me up for a night on the town.

Given that the whole idea of eating out must have a fairly short history in the city, Moscow's restaurants are amazingly good. The more traditional places draw on a rich culinary tradition of warming soups, pickling - especially of items such as herring, mushrooms and cabbage - delicious, compacted meat loaf, large hunks of protein, including some of the largest pig's trotters I've ever seen, and blinis, sour cream and caviar. The food, which came to the table in gluttonous quantities, was accompanied by vodka, occasionally served in litre bottles. At Gudunov, I was even serenaded by Russian maidens in traditional dress, who must be used to tables of tourists trying very hard to keep a straight face. These delectable feasts were not seriously spoilt by service which was often slow and sometimes comically rude. At Izola, a very superior establishment with an Italian menu, our guide asked if, since they had run out of the most affordable Beaujolais on their wine list, they might be able to supply another bottle for the same price. "Certainly not," replied the waiter in Russian, "you're not in the market now, you know."

One evening, I met the fur designer Helen Yarmak, an imposing woman with the looks and bearing of a Roman empress. After dinner at Biscuit, a restaurant which Ms Yarmak assured me had been very fashionable about six months before, I took a tour of the city's chic bars and nightclubs. At the Vogue Café, founded by Russian Vogue's charming and inspirational editor, Aliona Doletskaya, the "business generation" was much in evidence; young, ambitious, can-do types who were clearly having no truck with the Russian tradition of soulful fatalism. But it was time to move on to Shambala, where Yarmak's good offices squeezed me past a ferocious door policy (the Russians call it "face control"). During the day, Shambala's main dance floor is an outdoor car park, meaning that any dancing you want to do has to be accomplished on cobblestones.

By 4am the heels of my red suede slingbacks were totally shredded and I'd drunk more vodka than was strictly necessary. But my hangover was worth it. Some of Moscow's cityscape may be a little drab; but there are enough pockets of intense colour and texture to warm the cockles of a visitor's heart, especially when they are so endearingly and eccentrically Russian, from Yarmak's opulent fur coats, to soup served in bowls made out of half a round loaf, to Sparrow Heights, where on any given Saturday you can see at least 20 brides celebrating their wedding day with a glass of champagne, a fag, and a hairstyle teased and tinted into baroque bad taste. "In a country with so little natural colour," explains Doletskaya, "you have to cultivate a flair for brightness".

Give me the facts

How do I get there?

Laura Tennant flew to Moscow with Aeroflot (020-7491 1764; www.aeroflot.co.uk), which offers returns from £195.

She stayed at the Hotel Metropol (00 7 095 927 6000; www.metropol-metmos.ru) at 1/4 Teatralny Proezd, which offers double rooms from $260 (£153) per night. Russian Travel Company (0870 366 5454; www.russiantravel.co.uk) offers a three-night break, including return flights and b&b at the Metropol, from £709 per person, based on two sharing. Its visa service costs £55 per person excluding p&p.

What can I do there?

Bolshoi Ballet (00 7 095 250 7317; http://boxoffice.bolshoi.ru/eng/sales.html).

Bars and restaurants: Godunov (00 7 095 298 5609) 5 Teatralnaya Square; Izola (00 7 095 730 4400) 23A Tarasa Shevchenko Quay; Biscuit (00 7 095 925 1729) 19 Kouznetsky Most, Building 1; Vogue Café (00 7 095 923 1701) 7 Kouznetsky Most; Shambala (00 7 095 927 8333) 3 Kuznetsky Most, Building 2.

Sanduny Bathhouse (00 7 095 925 4631; www.sanduny.ru/address_e.htm).

Tours of the Kremlin are offered by Capital Tours (00 7 095 232 2442; www.capitaltours.ru) from £21 per person.

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