After meeting at a New Year’s party, ten years ago, in Prague, my partner and I set up our own annual tradition – to celebrate New Year in a new city. We promised ourselves to never spend this day in the same place twice, and so far, we haven’t run out of destinations. You have the festivities of Christmas combined with anticipation and a New Year’s party in a new and exciting location, surrounded by new and exciting people…what could be a better way to begin the coming year? It’s enormous fun, and with the trip planned and booked well in advance, it’s not even too expensive. Do it last minute, and you could find yourselves thinking that it would be cheaper to buy your own plane, rather than a couple of economy tickets to Paris or New York.
So, this year after some careful thought, we found ourselves on a BA flight to Moscow. And at this time of year, usually expensive, business-orientated hotels offer great deals for the Christmas period – and if you’re lucky, you can be lucky enough to receive late check-out…for free!
The first evening in Moscow was amazing. From the outside, it bears a strong resemblance to your average European city, but things are very different. So the first day was spent exploring, which was an adventure, after check-in at the hotel, with English-speaking staff. Unbeknownst to us, not many locals speak English. Very few, in fact. As a result, we retreated back to reception to find out the way to “Sky Lounge” (www.skylounge.ru), a fantastic restaurant-bar at the top of the Russian Academy of Science. It has an amazing view of illuminated Moscow at night, and an unusual array of cocktails – Martell Cosmopolitan, anyone?
One thing that strikes you in Moscow is that it feels like one big catwalk (maybe because of New Year, or perhaps there’s just something about Russians) – well-groomed men and women in mink coats, lackadaisically strolling around the busy, bright boulevards, and more Bentleys, Ferraris and Aston Martins that you could have dreamt of seeing. And not to mention the shops – more designers than you could shake a stick at – a shopaholic’s heaven.
It is true that Moscow is one of the most expensive cities in the world, but it’s not so much of a shock if you are well prepared, and in the loop. Being independent travellers, we decided to go for a package trip from GoRussia (www.justgorussia.co.uk). The idea of a cheaper, all-in-one package appealed, as well as meeting new people to share the experience with. It worked out well – we saw the majority of the sights and received great advice from our guide, Svetlana, and even got tickets to see the Bolshoi Ballet. That performance alone was worth the whole trip! Not to mention Red Square on New Year’s Eve, of course.
It seems that it is a unique time for Moscow, let alone Russia at the moment, with the incredible mix of the legacy of the USSR and new westernised culture shaping the future of the city, the country and the people, on a daily basis. These two conflicting influences appear everywhere – the Moscow Metro, built on Stalin’s orders, decorated with Soviet symbols, and ‘happy Soviet people’, is one of the most stunning public places that we’d ever seen. London Underground could do with taking a few leaves out of Moscow’s book…on New Year’s Eve it ran until 2am!
The food is generally great, vodka is very cheap, and after a couple of days, the penny dropped – there is no better way to get warm than a sneaky shot of vodka and lots of hot tea. To complete my Russian reincarnation, we went to the famous Izmailovo Market, where I bought a traditional ‘shapka’. Izmailovo Market is a brilliant spot for Russian souvenirs (everything from Russian dolls, to wooden boxes, to traditional costume), and the stall attendants are willing to haggle for a reasonable price – it was much more fun that pre-Christmas shopping down Oxford Street! Behind the main hub of the market is a hidden gem, which is often forgotten about, selling marvellous antiques.
So when it came to our last night in Moscow, New Year’s Eve, we headed to Red Square in our fur hats. It was crammed with police and soldiers on security duty, and lots of foreigners. It was a magical night – the huge space of Red Square was full, the crowd was good-humoured and in high spirits, the Kremlin and St. Basil’s Cathedral were lit up, and that familiar feeling that I can only get on a New Year trip bubbled up inside me. And a small miracle happened – the weather had been shocking all day, grey and cold, with soft wet snow falling from the skies. But as we arrived at Tverskaya Street, leading down to Red Square, it seemed like a different city; happy, smiling faces, and friendly strangers offering vodka (a very Russian way of showing affection). The show stopped, and the air was crisp, clear and frosty, and the pre-midnight fireworks were absolutely sublime. Their powerful sounds filled the square, and hundreds of people were counting the seconds until midnight. Before the last beat, there was a split second of silence, before it went wild with sound, colour and light – what a feeling and experience!
For a quick second, I did consider breaking the rules and coming back to Moscow for the following New Year. But beautiful as it was, we’ve sworn never to go back to the same place twice for New Year – but that doesn’t rule out summer. We had a fantastic time, and I found out later that one of the women on the tour was a journalist who wrote about it, which gave me the idea of doing the same…