Bespoke Luxury Travel made to measure for sights in Russia and Kiev Barbara Kingstone January 18, 2011 Europe, Russia Finally, the world of tailoring, especially London’s famous Seville Row, no longer has a sole claim to the word ‘bespoke”. This term for perfection now refers to anything rare and exclusive. I wanted to see the Russia of today having been there in the 70s and I wanted a ‘bespoke” travel company that would understand my caviar dreams. Thirty years ago, times were tough for the natives in the then USSR, and not a traveler’s dream either. So I searched madly for a travel company that would give me luxury and perfection – like the tailors of Seville Row-in other words a “bespoke” trip. After much research, MIR Corporation with offices in three cities, was my choice. Their reputation for details, geography, history, art, culture in this part of the world is their specialty. A terrific start was the grand Ritz Hotel in Moscow. MIR also arranged an English speaking guide who and was an encyclopedia about the major sights, history and the dynamics that made Moscow the capital of Russia. From first glance, I could see this booming metropolis had cleverly restored many ancient churches and some dilapidated Stalin Gothic buildings now juxtaposed to 21st century architecture. On Red Square, GUM State Department Store, as it was known in the 70s, originally was a cutting edge structure with a stunning steel and glass roof reminiscent of an old Victorian train station. GUM was a dusty, down at the mouth building, even the arched skylights were so dirty that the bright sun couldn’t get through. I recall the queues in front of the then only store that was open in the 3 story arcade that once boasted 1200 vibrant shops and the liveliest market in the city. For a Westerner to see the endless line waiting to buy shoes…any size, any style, any color, was an eye opener. Just having the opportunity to buy a pair would give the purchaser the opportunity to trade for correct size and color, a real extravagance. How Russia had change. Now spotless and stunning it’s a fashionista’s dream with every well known European and American designer shop filled with oligarchs and bejeweled arm candy. And if there are queues now, it’s for sable fur coats. With my guide Dmitri and the well planned schedule from MIR, it was time for more serious touring. The Duma, where governing officials meet, was followed by a visit to the Bolshoi Theater where I had seen an exquisite performance of Swan Lake. Even in those hard times the locals never stopped loving culture. Of course, there was a two tier ticket price, one for the tourists and a lower tag for Russians. Of course, I laughed when he showed me the “White House”, not at all like ours, except it is the main Russian government building Although I wasn’t looking forward to the dank and horrific Lubyanka prison where the infamous KGB had been headquartered, we drove passed it on our way to Moscow State University on Sparrow Hills probably the best vista for the city. The World War II Memorial and Victory Park, both important sites was followed by a short stroll though Gorky Park where shops line the streets and I purchased several matrioshki dolls. On the glitzy Tverskaya Street, the tony area is a lure to some of the less fortunate Muscovites who hang around trying to sell various souvenirs. And if you’re not exhausted after a day of touring, Moscow would fit the “city that never sleeps” category with its endless nightlife. Needing to stretch, we parked near one of the oldest streets, Arbat Street, now a pedestrian walkway. What an opportunity to chat with a few merchants and listen to musicians. I even purchased (after bargaining) an ‘ooshanka,’ the well known ear flapped fur hat- yes sable. After a short rest in my ritzy hotel room, I ate dinner at the pleasant Café Pushkin. The next day, with my most comfortable but certainly not fashionable shoes, I met Dmitri for a walking tour of the inner city. MIR’s itinerary included the treasure trove of Moscow’s architecture- the UNESCO listed Red Square, St. Basil’s Cathedral, a photo op of a lifetime and perhaps the most visited area. And I learned that St. Basil’s was originally painted white while these days these onion shaped domes are recognizable throughout the world by their highly colorful patterns. And no one could miss the Kremlin. Then it was on to Alexander Garden, the site of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and where an Honor Guard is posted. The nearby Armory Museum is Russia’s mother lode of religious icons, Faberge eggs, Prince Yuri’s bejeweled and priceless chalice and the glorious ball gowns of Catherine the Great. As I told Dmitri, I must a visit to the 15th century, Cathedral of the Annunciation, an architecture mix of traditional Russian architecture and Italian Renaissance. However, it’s known for decades as the venue for the confessions of royal families. MIR employees must be mind readers. At their suggestion, k knowing my penchant for gems, they inserted a visit to The Diamond Fund. Seeing an array of outrageous bling was like having a high power vitamin drink and literally brightened my day with this rare collection of crown valuables. Images of czars and their czarinas in full regalia flashed through my mind as I starred at the 189 carat Orlov Diamond and Catherine the Great’s encrusted diamond and pearl coronation crown. We found a short time for a traditional Russian food lunch at Baba Marta. After this short repast, we slotted in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, built to commemorate Russia’s victory over Napoleon in 1812. And finally the long awaited, Phuskin Museum of Fine Arts with the massive collection of antiquities from Egypt, Assyria, Rome and Greece. Also Impressionists and post Impressionists canvases including Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin, Renoirs. The ‘to see’ was the newest museum, the Cold War Museum Bunker, with the well stocked larder of food and provisions enough to sustain 5,000 for three months, the last destination for the day. Moscow Metro is renowned with its statues, elaborate frescoes, mosaics and marbled, gilded, bronzed walls and ceilings and turned out to be an interesting and easy trip o the hotel. Seems the Sanduny Restaurant, known more for its’banya’s, or Russian bathhouses, then its food, is located in the old section of Moscow in a palatial 19th century building. So tempting but just no time to try the dry and steam saunas, cold plunge pools, scrubbing areas and relaxation rooms. But happily I didn’t’ have to decided about skin “stimulation” with birch branches. After breakfast, my schedule included the UNESCO listed Novodevichy Convent, once for noble women who took the veil but also contains the spectacular Smolensk Cathedral with illuminated books, jewels, metal work, and woodwork . But the main attraction is the cemetery where many Russian luminaries like Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekhov, Alexander Scriabin, Constantin Stanislavsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Nikita Khrushchev, Raisa Gorbacheva and Boris Yeltsin, are buried. So it was ‘do svidaniya’ to Moscow and on to St. Petersburg. Still in serious luxury mode, I had reservations at the very renowned elegant 5 star Astoria Hotel. Opened in 1912 and recently renovated, it’s still the hotel of choice for celebrities and heads of state, and of course, the Oligarchs. The location is unparalleled. The sophisticated 211 room establishment sits on St. Isaac’s Square, a stone’s throw from The Hermitage, Nevsky Prospekt and the Mariinsky Theatre Known as one of the most beautiful cities in the world, it’s small wonder that the UNESCO listed World Heritage Site is also known as “Venice of the North”. From Moika 22, a rooftop restaurant, St Petersburg looked like a stage setting. Perhaps that’s why Italian artist, Canaletto painted so many canvases here. My lengthy “bespoke” list was perfection. A drive passed the Mariinsky Theatre and Etienne Falconet’s Bronze Horseman, a short stop at the Strelka of Vailievsky Island where I could glimpse at the wondrous Winter Palace and the Peter and Paul Fortress. On the latter grounds is the elegant Maltese Chapel with the rare, restored antique German organ. Of course, the highlight was The Hermitage Museum. Once a small private palace gallery it’s now has one of the world’s largest collections of French Impressionists and of course other valuable items and Russian art. One could be there for days and still not see it all. Seeing more diamonds is never too much for me and knowing this, MIR added the exclusive Diamond Room where pieces were created by Russian’s finest Imperial jewelers. For a country that didn’t practice religion for decades, there is a myriad of great churches and one fabulous ‘must see ‘ is, Church of the Savior on the Blood, built where Czar Alexander II died in 1991. Four jasper columns mark the spot. I don’t know how MIR did it, but I was invited to the private home of a Russian pianist and had a very special private concert. Afterwards, we all enjoyed a great conversation and some vodka, of course. This morning began with a trip to Peterhof, Peter the Great’s estate. The well planned tour included seeing Strelna Palace aka Konstantinovsky Palace. Surrounded by parks and gardens, it was meant to rival Versailles with the plethora of sculpted marble, granite and limestone fountains and cascading waterfalls. After lunching at the newly opened Daniel Restaurant in Catherine Palace, considered Russia’s greatest cultural attraction, I was not fully prepared for the elaborate fully, restored Amber Room. Imagine beautifully crafted duplications of the original amber wall panels. The new Depository on the grand floor, displays Imperial porcelain, silver and other precious items. The brief stop at the neo Gothic Chesma Church which became a museum during the Soviet times is once again a place of worship. And finally St. Isaac’s Cathedral with 48 granite columns, a dome covered with 220 pounds of gold, columns faced with lapis lazuli and malachite showed the opulence that existed during the days of the Czars. Early next morning, wearing my comfortable shoes we walked along Nevsky Prospekt, the 3 mile backbone street of the city with too many churches and cathedrals to count. My late evening arrival in Kiev, the cradle of Slavic civilization, was unexpectedly lavish. My accommodation was at the chic and fabulously located 5 star Grand Hyatt Hotel where the check -in was painless and the service extremely pleasant. From my well decorated, large room, I could see part of the Old City and a short stroll would get me to St. Sophia’s Cathedral. It seems as though MIR had known me for years since my days were filled with sights I would have picked for example, The Caves Monastery, with underground labyrinths. Could it be that the national sport is egg painting since the demonstration was something to cheer about. Next day just happened to be Ukraine’s Independence Day. St. Sophia Square was shoulder to shoulder and the festivities went well into the night ending with masterful fireworks. Perhaps my favorite area was the charming cobbled stoned Andreevsky Street. But who could resist St. Mikhail Monastery and its golden dome and St. Andrews Church with its blue dome? My notebook was now filled. But wanting to remember our visit to The Uzviz, a 19th century street between the upscale Upper Town and the poorer Podil Street, I scribbled on whatever paper I could find. This area is where Jews were allowed to live. Seeing the Choral and the Podil Synagogues was dear to my heart. But Babi Yar and the story of the massacre left me gasping and teary eyed. The final day came too quickly. We visited St. Sophia Cathedral and concluded the visit with Chernobyl Museum. As my farewell request, I suggested a drive passed Kiev Opera House, the Parliament Building, and Mariinsky Park. Now looking back at this major trip, there’s a lot to be said about “bespoke” traveling and a perfectly tailored itinerary. Perhaps, MIR stands for ‘make it remarkable.