On a sunny Sunday morning we leave the hotel sooner than usual because, after two cold and windy days, it looks like finally we’ll be blessed with some warm hours in Moscow. We plan to leave the center of the city and head northeast, towards the Ostankinskij district. It is sandwiched between two parks, Ostankino and Sokolniki, and can be reached in about 30 minutes from our hotel in the Tverskoj area.
We board the 7 train and get off at VDNKh: from the subway station, it’s a ten-minute walk to the entrance of the Vystavka Dostizheniy Narodnogo Khozyaystva or VDNKh. This is a permanent trade show and exhibition center devised by Stalin to celebrate the country’s achievements in different fields: from farming to science, from engineering to architecture.
Legend has it, thousands of architects and engineers were involved in the project, which resulted into 250 buildings and 30 pavilions over an area of 600 acres – the equivalent of 330 football pitches. The main entrance is under a huge triumphal arch, then we walk along the main avenue leading to the Peoples Friendship Fountain which is surrounded by twenty golden statues representing the republics of the former Soviet Union.
Since the grand opening back in 1939, the exhibition space has slowly fallen into disrepair, mainly because of the political and financial ups and downs of the country. Over the course of the last few years, VDNKh has gradually been privatized and now the park is again among the favorite weekend destinations for people from Moscow and around.
The park is also a popular venue for events, fairs and exhibitions and, since 2015, there are several educational activities going on, including a farm where children and adults take part into lessons on farming. One could easily spend a full day here walking from one pavilion to the next, but we stay for a couple of hours before heading towards Prospekt Mira, which literally translate with Peace Avenue.
The Ostankinskij district is also a tribute to the USSR’s achievements in the aerospace field. Most likely, we wouldn’t have noticed the entrance to the Museum of Cosmonautics were it not for the Monument to the Conquerors of Space: an obelisk reproducing the launch of a space shuttle. The museum was inaugurated in 1981, twenty years after Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit into outer space.
Entrance to the museum costs less than ten euros each and, surprisingly enough for a Sunday morning, there’s a very short line at the ticket office. The exhibition space covers two full floors where photos, spacesuits, missiles and shuttles are on display.
After visiting the Museum, we have no plans. We are flying back home the next day, so we decide to do some shopping, as we have promised to bring home a matryoska doll, some copies of the communist propaganda posters and a couple of t-shirts.
We take the train back into town, towards Stary Arbat, one of the oldest streets in Moscow. We get off at Smolenskaya, from where we make a detour to see the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one of the seven Stalin skyscrapers also known as Seven Sisters. The building looks a lot like the others we have seen so far: it’s imposing and gloomy, and in some way its gothic-inspired style reminds us of the Empire State Building.
But everything changes along the Ulitsa Arbat: the two-story colorful houses are from a different world, what with the inner courtyards with blossoming cherry trees and the little shops selling Russian dolls and amber jewelry.
At first sight everything looks picturesque but mostly this street is very commercial: it’s impossible to miss the souvenirs shops popping up everywhere, alongside with the outlets of international chain stores that apparently have succeeded in breaking through the Iron Curtain. But nonetheless, it is a relaxing stroll among art galleries, museums and art nouveau buildings.
The most important thing is Arbat Street’s proximity to what is our next destination. We walk to a restaurant called Ugolëk, crossing unusually empty streets. We have had lunch here once before during our trip, and we enjoyed it so much that we want to go back, even if it’s a bit late for lunch.
We don’t have a reservation but there are some tables available: we even get to choose whether to be seated by the window or next to the kitchen.
As it is the case with other restaurants in Moscow, I cannot say that the staff are super friendly, but we have now got used to be greeted with a simple nod and a stiff upper lip. At this point, I reckon that being cold and unsympathetic with tourists is a peculiarity of this city, like when you say the equivalent of Thank you: you would expect and the Russian equivalent of You’re welcome, but instead what you get is a nod and a mumble. Yet we are not here to have fun, we are here to eat.
We order two beers from an artisan brewery in Saint Petersburg, then we share a bowl of hummus and, as a main, some croutons with tomato and cheese. It is simple, no-nonsense food: usually these are the dishes that I enjoy most, with a handful of ingredients and unaltered flavors. We finish the meal with a dessert that looks a lot like our Italian tiramisu, with layers of biscuits and cream covered in cocoa powder.
We would love to stay longer, but after coffee we have no choice: we pay the bill and leave, heading once again towards the Red Square to look one last time at the colorful domes of Saint Basil’s rising up against the grey sky.