Feature Travel Archive 2

Feature Travel Archive 2

Canada: Quebec: Beautiful, Cheap and Easy to Reach


By Grace Halsell

There's a surprising new destination for travelers who want more for their dollars-it's Canada!

I found I had more money in my purse as soon as I crossed the border. For 68 American cents I had a Canadian dollar. Although Canada's currency has fallen more than currencies of other industrialized countries, travelers are still in a stable atmosphere. Canadians act as though pretty much nothing has happened. That's because their economy is otherwise relatively healthy.

Tourists are the clear winner in the diving loonies, as Canadian dollars are called. And for anyone like me, living in Washington, D.C., Canada is a destination easy to reach. Boarding an Air Canada plane at National airport, I was, after just shortly more than an hour, disembarking in the dynamic island city of Montreal, Quebec-and mingling among French-speaking Canadians. 'Why go to Europe?' a friend remarked. 'Canada is as beautiful. It's also closer, safer and cheaper.'

In Montreal, I didn't want to pass up the opportunity to visit its famed Casino, one of the largest and busiest in the world. It boasts five floors of gaming tables and slot machines, as well as elegant restaurants, including Nuances, which made Mobil Travel Guide's 5-star list.
From Montreal, I set out to visit some of Quebec's small villages, which reminded me of earlier travels in Provence where one experiences some of the finest gourmet dining in what otherwise are little known towns. Only a short distance from Quebec City, yet in a quiet, pastoral setting, one comes to the small village of Saint-Antonine-sur-Richelieu, known for its superb restaurant 'Le Champagne.' It's housed in an authentic chateau, where one dines like the royalty of yore, with sparkling chandeliers, immaculate linens, glassware, and waiters in tuxedos and white gloves. The French pride themselves on their preparation of tender lamb, so I knew I wouldn't go wrong with an entree of that-preceded by fresh asparagus which meant, in this case, it was home grown. As the managers of the restaurant were trained in France, they brought the fine techniques of cooking and service with them to Quebec.

From Chateau Saint-Antoine, it's an easy drive on to a country inn called Auberge Godefroy. It's half-way between Montreal and Quebec City, and ten minutes from the heart of the confluence of three rivers, and the village of Trois-Rivieres. At this first-class inn, the traveler might want to relax with a dip in its spacious indoor swimming pool, then go for a massage (with the exchange rate, it costs about $35 U.S. for an hour). There's also a golf course, as well as a marina. For travelers with U.S. dollars, the Canadian hotels now are less expensive than those in the States. At Auberge Godefroy, double occupancy prices started at US$59.

If you like atmosphere, you'll enjoy Manoir des Erables, within walking distance of the town of Montmagny and the St. Lawrence River. I found an abundance of Old World charm in the Manoir, built in 1812 and named for the maple trees on the grounds. Owned and managed by Jean Cyr, the inn has 23 rooms and suites, each furnished with a Jacuzzi or fireplace. It's become famous in Quebec for its excellent food, with its chef, Martin Boucher, boasting award-winning ribbons both in Quebec and France.

One day, in the inn's charming parlor, Owner Jean Cyr, a man in his 40's who likes to hunt, showed me mounted trophies of a 920-pound moose, as well as deer, wild boar and caribou which are found less than 100 miles from the Inn.

Coming from the States, where distances usually are not great between towns, one is surprised to learn that only a relatively short distance from the U.S.-Canadian border, there's a vast region of largely unexplored territory, inhabited by few, if any, people and an abundance of wild animals.
Quebec province alone has 14 public wildlife reserves, majestic unspoiled land with affordable activities including camping, swimming, wildlife observation and fishing. For his guests, Jean Cyr can arrange hunting packages in the fall, and in summer, the Inn offers package tours to suit a client's desires, be it sea kayaking, bicycling, golf or tours to nearby islands, such as Grosse Ile and its memorial to early Irish immigrants.

After relaxing in the countryside, I was ready to enjoy Quebec City, which seems almost as French as Paris. It's a city, again like Paris, made for walking. And history doesn't seem so much in museums, as underfoot, all around you. I strolled along a high terrace overlooking the St. Lawrence River where I saw ships from around the world, including a large freighter from Russia, as well as private sailing vessels.

The French pride themselves on having a focused desire to prepare and serve the best of all possible meals. I found this same dedication in many Quebec restaurants. And in the hotels, such as the small, but eloquent, Le Dominion Hotel in Quebec City, I was impressed by the management's impeccable taste in linens and attention to detail.

From my windows, I gazed on the history surrounding me. I imagined the transition from original fishing encampment to a fur-trading post, to the birthplace and capital of New France, to a festival-loving city that modern Quebec City has become.
To visit, U.S. citizens need only proof of citizenship.

It's a free call away for further information: 1-800-363-7777.

Feature Travel Archive 2

Russia: St. Petersburg

A Visit to the Venice of the North

By Arin Pereira

When the Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, decided to build his new capital city and European port, he chose a harsh, swampy, desolate part of his country as its site. Saint Petersburg would be located on a series of small islands on the Baltic coast. Slowly, the decades of serf labor, imported architects and materials would combine with the attentions of a transplanted nobility, the whimsies of rulers, and vast sums of money to create this majestic city. When the city was done, its hundreds of bridges, golden domes, grand palaces, yellow, pale green, light blue, and dark red buildings transformed the original site. It became known as the 'Babylon of the Snows,' the 'Venice of the North.'

I arrived in St. Petersburg from Moscow in December, at night. Many travelers prefer the romance of the midnight train, which pulls into Moscow Station at 8:30 a.m. and costs about $65 for a first class sleeping compartment. But I decided to take a painless 40 minute Aeroflot flight ($100) in order to save time. 

My Russian guide, Eugenia, met me at the airport with a large smile, easy laugh, and perfect English. The 20 minute car ride into the city took me through the outskirts of town and past the stark Leningrad Memorial, built in commemoration of the Nazi siege. The population suffered horribly from 1941- 44, but never capitulated. In fact, St. Petersburg has never been occupied by an invading force, unless you consider the Communist government, responsible for changing the city's name to Leningrad. (Leningrad became St. Petersburg again in 1991.)

I stayed at the Nevsky Palace Hotel, located in the center of town on Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg's most famous boulevard. The five star Nevsky Palace is luxurious and cozy. My large, tasteful room ($340) overlooked a quiet square and was, importantly, exceptionally well heated. Cold or not -- and it was never unbearable -- it is hard to imagine a city more beautiful than St. Petersburg in the snow. Although it was 9:00 p.m. when I set down my bags, I felt the urge to take a walk and headed northwest on Nevsky Prospekt, toward the Neva River. I passed the magnificent deep red Beloselsky Belozersky Palace, great carved column Atlases holding up its facade, and crossed the Anichkov bridge whose four famous horse sculptures rear their magnificent heads over the Fontanka canal. Over another canal and I came to the Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral, with its massive, sweeping semi circular colonnade, directly across the street from the globe topped, art nouveau Dom Knigi building, once the Singer sewing machine factory. One more canal and I spotted an enormous, oddly angled, carved archway looming in the snow. I went through what turned out to be the Main Staff Building and suddenly found myself in Palace Square, the Winter Palace stretched out long, low, and sea green before me. The sight was awesome and so heavy with history I had to gasp, the air crystallizing around me.

I would visit the palace later, on a tour of its museum, the State Hermitage, so I circled its facade and finally came to the Neva. The hoarfrost was magical in the moonlight as I slid -- literally -- across the river's south bank, frozen solid in minus 20 degree weather. Twinkling lights from the palace gleamed on the ice, and across the river I could just make out the soaring spire of the Peter and Paul Fortress, dull gold against the night. My daylight experiences began 12 hours later. Guide and agenda had been arranged by Destination Services Russia (DSR), a joint Swedish Russian travel management group based in St. Petersburg. DSR can arrange just about any kind of travel in Russia, from corporate extravaganzas to solo excursions to the countryside; from troika rides to flights in jet fighter planes. They are a creative, dynamic group with seemingly endless contacts all over the world. In Russia it is a good idea to hire a guide unless you speak or understand Russian; the country is not particularly English friendly, though St. Petersburg, cosmopolitan as it is, is probably more so than most Russian cities.

We started at St. Isaac's Cathedral, designed by the French architect Auguste de Montferrand. The lavish St. Isaac's is topped with a dome of pure gold, an interior decorated in 43 types of stone and marble, and a vast array of magnificent paintings, bas reliefs and mosaics. Great columns of lapis lazuli and malachite sentinel its iconostasis, or central wall of icons, and gold hung heavy on every corner. I was reeling from its opulence. Continuing in the lavish vein, we went for lunch at the Senat Bar, a trendy restaurant located in the famous Senate building on Glernaya Ulitsa. Its vaulted ceilings, painted frescoes, and mosaic floors were charming and cozy, while its Italian modern furniture and cross European cuisine, although fine, did not seem very 'Russian' to me. Likewise the prices, which were rather 'New York;' simple lunch running about $30 per person. The Northern light began to fade early, at about 3:30, cutting the day quite short. But that night was New Year's Eve, and I was going to a ball. The annual Tsar's New Year's Ball was a tradition in St. Petersburg until the Revolution. In 1994, the first revival ball took place, co sponsored by DSR and Potel & Chabot, a French catering firm reputed to have been the Tsars' favorite.

This year's Tsar's Ball was held at the Tauride Palace, an 18th century building given by Catherine the Great to one of her favorites, Prince Potemkin. It is famous as the house of the first Russian Duma, or parliament. Potel & Chabot provided the decoration -- an exquisite blend of ingenious luxe and clever detail such as a sprayed gold centerpiece worked with carnations and red berries. Tickets, which include all food, beverages, and entertainment, cost about $350. All night transportation is also included. A bus picked up guests from the hotel, and we entered a large reception hall lined on two sides by long bars and tables of caviar hor d'oeuvres. In the middle of the room, a huge ice sculpture in the shape of an Orthodox cathedral ran with vodka released through low slung spigots. It was getting crowded when suddenly music sounded, and a curtain at the far end of the room spread wide to reveal a small, elevated stage in the center of a dining room laced with large round tables. Onstage, costumed soloists from the Maryinsky (Kirov in the Communist era) Theater were dancing classical ballet as an orchestra accompanied guests to their seats. Throughout the evening, a series of classical and modern ballets, scenes from operas, and folkloric dances would be performed. I would see many of the actual dancers later when I twice visited the Maryinsky, first for the very Russian Mussorgsky opera, 'The Lady from Pskov,' then for the swashbuckling ballet, 'Don Quixote.' (Theater tickets are still a terrific bargain. If you buy them from a kiosk or the box office, they range from $2- 6. One night, espying it empty and making a dash for it, I managed to sit front and center in the Tsar's box.)

The dinner began with a luscious crab pastry, followed by great gobs of exquisite caviar with blinis and cream. A wild salmon came next, followed by veal with chanterelles. Each course was served in a special manner. The almond macaroon dessert, for example, arrived on underlit glass platters in a procession of waitresses dressed like Saint Lucia. Excellent vodka, wines and champagne flowed ceaselessly. After dinner, the dancing began and lasted until dawn. I spoke to a number of guests, mostly American and French, who had come to St. Petersburg expressly for the ball and were planning to stay but a couple of days. 

'We came last year, and we will come next year,' gloated one Frenchman in the company of his wife, daughter, and son in law. 'It is always different, but it is always magic.'

At midnight, we rushed to palatial windows to watch fireworks released in the gardene, illuminating the frosted trees and embroidering the snow with light. The whole experience was dreamlike.

The next day, most of the city closed down for the holiday. New Year's Eve has always been a great celebration in Russia, but it became even more important after the Revolution, when religious holidays were no longer publicly sanctioned. It also served as a kind of replacement Christmas, with gifts exchanged. (The Orthodox Christmas is also celebrated, taking place about a week later.) The Alexander Nevsky Monastery was open, however, and I was delighted to discover its neo classical Cathedral of the Trinity in full service. Inside, scores of mainly women were standing in near darkness, oil lamps casting a peculiar colored glow, and incense heavy in the close air. The chorus was singing, and beeswax candles were burning low on small altars. The Cathedral of the Trinity is very unusual in Russia because it is decorated with full blown post Renaissance oil paintings in lieu of traditional icons. The remains of Alexander Nevsky, Russian hero and saint, lie near the iconostasis in a massive silver sarcophagus.

Outside, the snow looked dazzling against the deep red Baroque buildings surrounding the monastery. I visited its two famous graveyards: the Lazarus, where Imperial favorites are buried, and the Tikhvin, known as the Cemetery of the Masters of Arts, where the gravestones of many Russian composers, writers, artists, and actors are ranged by profession. Many of their gravestones are strange and beautiful: Rimsky Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, and Mussorgsky are particularly interesting.

Keeping with the theme, we next drove to Zayachy Island, at the junction of the Malaya (small) Neva and Bolshaya (big) Neva, where the Peter and Paul Fortress is located. Six bastions and thick sloping walls surround the fortress. Inside, the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul houses the sarcophagi of most Russian rulers since Peter the Great. Plans to inter the remains of Nicholas II, his murdered family and servants in the cathedral, scheduled for early this year, have been delayed. The most beautiful tombs, carved from green Altai jasper and red rhodonite from the Urals, are those of the murdered Tsar Alexander II and his wife. The saddest is a slab in the floor near the entrance belonging to Alexei, the son of Peter the Great, reputedly tortured to death by his father for conspiracy in a treasonous plot. Once considered the Bastille of Russia, the fortress has held a number of distinguished prisoners, including Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It also contains the massive Arsenal and Artillery Museum, arrayed with various tanks and guns like perverse topiaries, and the Mint, where one morning the temperature dropped to 86 degrees, turning its entire tin based coinage to white powder.

Few museums in the world rival the Hermitage, where I went the next day. Created in the spirit of Enlightenment by Catherine the Great to house the Imperial collection, the museum originally occupied the Small Hermitage, then the Large Hermitage, and eventually the entire Winter Palace. The collection contains more than three million pieces in 353 rooms. It would take an estimated six days a week for nine years to spend one minute in front of each piece displayed in the 10 kilometers of rooms, halls, and corridors. During my four hours there, I saw the 'Hidden Treasures' exhibit of mostly confiscated impressionist paintings 'lost' since World War II. It seems that Stalin did not appreciate the period so the collection was hidden in the basement of the palace. Simply displayed on rolling walls, it is an astounding group of masterpieces. 

Other highlights of the museum include its Baroque state rooms, such as the astounding Malachite Room dressed entirely in the deep green stone; Rembrandt, Da Vinci, Boticelli, Picasso, and Matisse paintings; and the ancient Egyptian collection. I especially enjoyed the collection of Scythian, Greek, and early Siberian gold.

In need of refreshment after such enervating sensory stimulation, we headed down Prospekt to the cozy cafe Nevsky 40, a former Imperial bakery still decorated with original Chinese silk hangings and carved walls. A coffee and pastry there costs about $6.00 and comes with post Soviet hospitality, just slightly begrudging. 

Afterward, we continued down the Moika, one of the larger inlets leading southwest from the Winter Palace, and stopped at the Yussopov Palace, famous as the site where Rasputin was finally done in. The Yussopov family was the richest in Russia by the turn of the century, and this palace, one of four they owned in St. Petersburg, was largely preserved after their sudden flight from the oncoming Revolution. A guided tour is necessary (about $15) as is the wearing of felt overshoes, enforced in most Russian palaces to protect precious parquet floors. Called 'Tapochki,' they are floppy bits of mismatched stuff tied on with frayed string or elastic, awaiting visitors in large dirty bins near entry halls. Actually walking in them is very difficult; it is much easier to glide.

The Yussopov palace is full of the kind of splendors that bring the Revolution into sharp focus. Among its scores of rooms are a smoking room decorated entirely in Middle Eastern tile, with fountains running and dark jewel tones glittering; the game room where a amplifying acoustic alcove at one end of the billiard table was installed for laughs; and the library, paneled floor to ceiling in carved mahogany. The most interesting part of the palace, however, is the cellar bachelor apartment that belonged to Prince Felix Yussopov. In a recreated scene replete with creepy wax figures of Felix and Rasputin, the rooms have been arranged the way they presumably were on the night of the prolonged murder. Low vaulted ceilings, plush banquettes and carpets give the place a den of iniquity feel. Felix stands in uniform, holding a gun while Rasputin sits at a table set with fake almond cakes looking spooked. The guides love to sit you down there and recount the infamous tale in sinister tones. It is quite an experience.

Before I left for Russia, I had been warned that the country is dangerous and the people unfriendly, even unhelpful. I found neither to be the case in St. Petersburg. Although it is true that the Russian people maintain a certain reserve, and there was a definite language barrier between us, I found them interesting and interested, and never felt hostility or witnessed aggression. The parliamentary elections had just taken place and, although the Communist Party won a majority of seats, the number of reformists seats actually increased. The authorities I spoke with agreed that the population, though somewhat disillusioned and struggling with severe economic problems, is on the path to democracy. St. Petersburg was built as 18th century Russia's 'window on the West,' but perhaps it has evolved into a 20th century 'door to the East,' a re opened entrance to understanding Russia, both now and then.

Getting There

I flew Finnair to Moscow and from St. Petersburg, stopping in Helsinki. The flight was smooth and comfortable with good food and friendly service. Roundtrip airfare in December is approximately $850 plus taxes. Finnair offers a special rate at the Helsinki Inter Continental Hotel: You can spend 1- 3 nights for $85 per person (single rate) or $100 per couple, per night. It's a very civilized way to head home, and Helsinki is full of its own charms. For information, contact Finnair at (800) 950 5000.

The Nevsky Palace is a Marco Polo Hotel, an Austrian Russian joint venture. It offers all the amenities expected of its five stars, including four restaurants, a pub, sauna, fitness room, and conference center. Room rates run from about $240 for a single room, to $1100 for a two bedroom suite. Special rates are offered during New Years week. For more information, contact the Nevsky Palace by telephone 7 812/850 1500 or fax 7 812/850 1501. DSR can create and organize any sort of travel experience in Russia, from the most exclusive to the simplest. In addition, the Tsar's Ball is already planned for next year. For more information, contact DSR by telephone 7 812/273 1353 or fax 7 812/273 4532.

Feature Travel Archive 2

Russia: The Mystery and Magic of Moscow

  By Arin Pereira 

'It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,' so Winston Churchill referred to Russia in 1939. In 1996, Russia is a different place, but the reserve of mystery remains, at least in Moscow. Its exteriors can be wildly deceiving, and, like native Matryoshka dolls, the city nestles together, layer upon layer in a series of rings. It was constructed that way, and even the traffic flows in circles; there are no left turns allowed.

At the center of Moscow's inner circle lies the Kremlin, Russia's mythic refuge and symbol of centralized power. In Russian the word kreml means 'fortress,' but this Kremlin is more than that. It is a city-within-a-city, where a multitude of magnificent palaces, churches, famous squares and armories create a magical, golden onion-domed skyline.

Its outside walls are 7,319 feet long, 65 feet high, and 20 feet wide. It has four gates and 19 towers, dominated by the great gilt dome of the Ivan Great Belltower. It also houses the Tsar Cannon and Bell, both the largest of their kind in the world, and neither ever worked. About half the Kremlin's interior is off-limits to tourists, including the Arsenal, the Senate, and the State Kremlin Palace, but there is still much to see.

At the Troitsky Gate Tower entrance, a medieval drawbridge leads up into the massive red-brick citadel. The moat is now dry, but walking the bridge feels like stepping through time. I made my first unforgettable trip to the Kremlin with my brother, who lives in Moscow and whose fluent Russian made Moscow more accessible, as it is not exactly English-friendly. (Before going, it is a good idea to learn the Cyrillic alphabet.)

We started at the Armory, which costs about $15 to enter. Moscow museums all seem to have a two-tier fee system which translates into something like a 1000 percent surcharge for foreigners. Its collection of Imperial armor is astounding, but even more so the gold, silver and jewels collected over the centuries by various rulers, including dozens of Faberge easter eggs, jewelled thrones, and royal coaches.

In the costume room, visitors can see the likes of Boris Gudonov's armor, Peter the Great's boots and long narrow-shouldered coats, the diamond encrusted mantles of the great Patriarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the coronation robes of Catherine the Great.

The Diamond Fund exhibit is also in the Armory, but the $40 entrance fee disinclined me to gaze upon what must be one of the world's greatest collections, including the 190-carat Orlov diamond.

Cathedral Square is the Tsarist heart of the Kremlin. Crowded around it are the great palaces and cathedrals. Cathedral of the Assumption, the oldest and most important, is a renaissance masterpiece where the city's bishops and Patriarchs were interred. Cathedral of the Annunciation, once a private church for Russian princes, contains magnificent iconostases by Theofar the Greek and Andrei Rubliov, and its floor is tiled with agate and jasper. Cathedral of Archangel Michael is where the Tsar's were buried until Peter the Great relocated the capital to St. Petersburg in 1712. Until then, the Terem Palace, oldest building in the Kremlin, served as the Imperial residence. The Faceted Palace was used for audiences and feasts, and the Great Kremlin Palace, (where the President lives now), was built in the 19th century as a residence for Nicholas I. None of the Kremlin palaces are open to visitors yet.

Red Square abuts the Kremlin to the northeast. Lenin's Tomb, a sort of sleek massive marble sarcophagus, is planted there. Inside, it is dark, and a series of graded walkways decorated with bizarre, red marble thunderbolts take visitors past the embalmed corpse of Lenin, arranged with an extended hand and looking like wax. Ironically, Moscow's great GUM shopping center, a paragon of capitalist values, sits directly across from the Tomb.

Moscow's most familiar emblem, St. Basil's Cathedral, is also on Red Square. Built by Ivan the Terrible in 1552 to commemorate victories over the Tatars, it is a colorful Oriental jewel. Reputedly, Ivan had its architects blinded to prevent them designing anything like it again. Inside St. Basil's, a series of small, dark, irregular chambers are linked by exquisitely painted passages. Leaving St. Basil's, reeling with its beauty, I looked across Red Square at the gates to the Kremlin and was reminded of an old Russian proverb: 'There is nothing above Moscow except the Kremlin and nothing above the Kremlin except Heaven.'

Underground Moscow is also worthy of adage. Gilded domes and marble floors reflect the soft light thrown by crystal chandeliers; bronze statuary and colorful mosaics tell stories from myth and history; great halls arch above sweeping staircases, punctuated by delicate carved railing: This is the Moscow Metro.

One of Stalin's pet projects, the stations were conceived of as a sort of people's palace, each unique, some spectacular. Preeminent Soviet architects and artists collaborated, and the project was started in 1932. The stations can be strangely incongruous with the rather colorless, weary crowds I saw bustling through-the magnificent architecture and decoration an ironic glaze over the tedium of life. It is a fast, efficient system, however, carrying more than 8 million commuters each day. A one-way, flat fare token (zheton) costs about 35 cents. All signs are in Cyrillic, so it is a good idea to purchase a guide in English. I took the metro many times, at all times of the day-it runs from 5:30 a.m. until 1 a.m.-and found it much easier than trying to get through the horrendous traffic in any other way. The tourism group Patriarchi Dom offers a very good guided tour of the system, and there is even a Museum of the Metro at the Sportivnaya Station.

I was most impressed by the mosaic representations of Russian national heroes and Soviet soldiers marching across the ceiling of the Novokuzenetska Station, and by the Ploschad Revolutsii Station where dozens of Socialist-realist bronze figures bloom larger than life from every column, glorifying the worker, in all shapes from ironworker to infantryman.

One night we took the metro to the ballet because we did not want to be late. My sister-in-law had procured front center balcony seats for a performance of Sleeping Beauty at the Bolshoi Theatre (literally 'big' theatre). After checking our coats and drinking a glass of Russian shampanskoye in the lobby bar, we took our seats on the top tier 'balkon.' From there, perched on slim velvet chairs, we got a full view of the ornate red and gold splendor of the inner theater itself.

Built in 1824, the building's grand Ionic facade hides a neglected interior. Like elsewhere in Moscow, the building and the dancers suffer from privation. The company was started in 1773 as a dancing school for the Moscow Orphanage and has retained a very traditional repertoire. The Bolshoi acoustics are excellent, and the performance I saw was highly theatrical with rich costumes and lovely music.

Tickets to a Bolshoi performance actually cost about 50 cents, but it is difficult to buy them at face value. They are bought up by legitimate agencies and racketeers weeks before performances and resold to foreigners at enormous profit, usually at about 50 times their actual cost. Touts sell tickets outside the popular venues, or they can be bought at the theatre kiosks (Teatralnaya Kassa) located near most metro stations. There is a good one in front of the Intourist main office on Manezhnaya Ploschad.

For a different sort of Russian experience, we went one night for dinner at Mama Zoya's, a well known Georgian restaurant. Georgians are known for their love of music and food, (wine and women, too), and the restaurant did not disappoint.

The entrance to Mama Zoya's is through a rough, wooden door in the corner of an inner courtyard. A short, narrow staircase leads guests below ground as rich odors waft up accompanied by a melancholy voice singing with guitar. The smoke overwhelmed us as a seedy, velvet curtain was pulled back to reveal the restaurant itself. Low ceilings and shabby carpets enhanced the sinister feel. The music stopped. We were eyed with suspicion and only grudgingly served a bottle of excellent Georgian wine while we waited to be seated. Everything was red: the wallpaper, the table linens, the carpeting, the plates, our waiter's eyes... Suddenly, amid the dark looks, smoke, and rich smells, the guitarist broke into song and the entire room lost interest in us. We felt collective relief and ordered an enormous meal, some of almost everything on the menu washed down with lots of Georgian wine. The food was delicious and tasted Mediterranean with lots of garlic and herbs, tasty cheese bread (khachapuri), meat dumplings (palmeni), and eggplant (baklazhan). The bill came to about $30 for five of us.

The next day, feeling somewhat the effects of the large meal, I ventured to a real Russian bath, or banya, the Sandonuvskaya at Pervy Neglinny Pereulok. The banya is a tradition in Russia and nothing like the spa experience in the United States-not yet, at least. First of all, the bathhouses I saw were all rather rundown. Second, they are inexpensive, about $3 for the whole day. You buy the famous switch of birch (veniki) from a vendor stationed near the bathhouse entrance.

After leaving all clothing in your assigned vestibule (leave valuables at home), you take a shower and soak your veniki. Then you enter either the dry sauna or the steam room for as long as you can stand it, switching yourself (and your neighbor, if she asks) with the birch as the pores open. I went with another American woman and her adolescent daughter. The Russian women knew we were foreigners because we did not cover our hair. They were all wearing gummy woolen caps to protect theirs and told us ours would fall out.

At first, we were eyed with suspicion, although my friend speaks Russian. But the women slowly came around to us as we withstood all forms of birchbeating, turned blazing pink, and shuffled dutifully from dry to steam sauna then into the cold pool without a whimper. We ended up sharing laughs and feeling part of the big, maternal Russian group.

'You are brave for American girls,' one of the women informed us, 'not so soft as we thought.'

Most bathhouses also offer splendid massage services, and some have onsite estheticians for facials, manicures, and pedicures. It is a thoroughly rejuvenating experience.

Moscow has been going through its own rejuvenation over the past five years. 'It's vitality and chaos are a direct result of the collapse of communism and the efforts of its citizens to reinvent their lives,' according to one travel authority.

Religion, the Marxist 'opium of the people,' is making a comeback, including newer religions, such as Mormonism, which some Russian women find attractive for its abstinence approach, (there is a lot of heavy drinking in Russia).

Construction is taking place everywhere, most spectacularly in the resurrection of many of the great churches that Stalin destroyed or converted. He had one of the finest, turned into a public swimming pool.

I did not find Moscow a particularly friendly place, but it did not seem dangerous either. When I was there, the painful effects of economic transition were most apparent in the large number of old people, pensioners, selling their belongings on the streets to help meet the costs of living. Perversely, there is also a glamorous, obviously monied group of Muscovites who drive around in expensive cars and wear designer jewels and clothing.

The city seems to function on at least two distinct levels; then again, like the Matryoshka dolls, there are surely many not evident at first glance. It will take more trips to Moscow to even begin to solve its riddles.

Getting There

I flew Finnair to Moscow, through Helsinki. The current advance purchase ticket price is about $1100. The supersaver fare from Sept. 16-Oct. 31 is $908 weekday/$968 weekend. In November, fares go down to $798/$848. The flight from New York is impeccable and the food delicious. Finnair also offers special rates at the Hotel InterContinental in Helsinki, a lovely city where a three-day sojourn on the return trip is a good way to reacclimate and relax. Call Finnair for details at (703) 534-7512 or (800) 950-0500.

Feature Travel Archive 2

Austria: Treasures of an Imperial Past


By Patricia Keegan and Dan Davis 

The Esterhazys were the richest and most powerful of the Hungarian nobles and stalwart supporters of the Hapsburg monarchy, but their main claim to fame these days is that the music-loving warrior, Prince Paul Esterhazy, hired Joseph Haydn to serve as Kapellmeister in 1761. The great composer was in charge of all musical activities for the family, churning out masterpiece after masterpiece for the dejection of the Esterhazys and their guests for the bulk of his long and active life.

The linkage with Haydn lent luster to the Esterhazy name long after the dynasty crumbled under the onslaughts of war and the upheavals of the 20th century. It's celebrated today by the annual Haydn Festival at the restored Esterhazy palace in the lovely town of Eisenstadt, situated in the fecund wine country a half-hour's drive south of Vienna.

A day at the Festival in mid-September yielded some memorable musical experiences, beginning with a noon concert by the aptly-named Haydn Quartet at the Palace's Chapel, a long, narrow, gilt-trimmed hall whose pale blue walls set off a magnificent inlaid wood pulpit and a marble alter crowned with a Baroque-era painting of Mary and Jesus flanked by kneeling angels. The concert included a rarely performed arrangement for string quartet of excerpts from Haydn's greatest oratorio, The Creation. The reverberant hall bathed the instruments in a warm, rich aural environment that often made the four string players sound like a full orchestra, without losing instrumental detail, which often occurs in such surroundings.

Emerging into the sunlit afternoon, we continued our Haydn odyssey with a visit to the hilltop church known these days as 'the Haydn Church' where the composer's remains are interred in a marble sarcophagus.

Another mandatory stop for Haydn pilgrims is the Haydn Museum, situated in the house in which the composer lived and wrote most of his scores. Some of those scores - including many in Haydn's own hand, along with early copies and print editions - are on view at the museum. Other rooms are filled with contemporary portraits of the composer, his friends and renowned pupils, instruments, a unique table that opens to hold eight music stands for at home concerts, and, among much else, Haydn's death mask. More rooms in an adjoining house now seamlessly incorporated into the museum offer special exhibit areas and a multimedia room where visitors can view and hear Performances of Haydn's music.

That evening, it was back to the Palace for a Haydn opera, the rarely heard L'isola disabitata, at the Haydnsalle, the Esterhazy's large, brilliantly decorated concert hall. The festive air was enhanced by a wind and brass quintet situated in the corner of the cobblestoned inner courtyard, piping concertgoers in with bouncy arrangements of Haydn's tunes.

On entering the hall, once we could tear our eyes from the ornate painted ceiling, we saw a stage dominated by the side of a large ship -the vessel carrying the protagonists to a stormy shipwreck, vividly portrayed in the Overture. The plot background - shipwreck, struggling ashore on a deserted island, the kidnapping of the hero by pirates, and the resultant abandonment of the heroine and her little sister were mimed to the extended Overture.

The opera begins with the heroine, convinced she's been ditched by her husband, warning her now teenaged sister against the perfidies of men. Of course, the husband has managed to escape and now returns to the island in search of his wife, leading to plot entanglements revolving around mistaken identities, the awakening of young love (the sister and the husband's young relative who accompanies him), forgiveness and reconciliation. It culminates in a grand final Quartet, in which the four principles are joined on stage by sole violin, cello, flute and bassoon who embody their personalities in purely musical terms.

The Festival performance was a knockout - four handsome, fresh-voiced young singers whose artistry conveyed the wide range of emotions captured by Haydn, who elevated this standard desert island melodrama into a work rich in musical inventiveness and emotional depth. The staging added immeasurably to the evening's success - only some silly, unnecessary updating in Act One (the sailors accompanying the husband and his cousin arrive with cameras and surveyors equipment!) mar the otherwise satisfying production. one unbreachable rule of the theatre is: if you're going to have a shipwreck on stage, it had better be a good one. This one was a smashing success. The Festival's music director, Adam Fischer, conducted the Austro-Hungarian Haydnphilharmonie, with aplomb and the smiles on the faces of the audience as they left the hall, testified to the evening's success.

Back in Vienna the following night, the famed Staatsoper proved an irresistible lure, with Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. At the Staatsoper, the hall itself provides an awesome sense of occasion from the magnificent grand staircase leading to the tiers to the lovely interior with its blend of Jugendstil austerity wedded to a sedate version of Baroque jewel-box. On this evening, the vocal electricity was supplied by the Figaro, Ferruccio Furlanetto, whose expansive baritone and pungent acting brought the character to life, and American mezzo Susan Graham, whose beautifully sung and acted Cherubino stole the show. The production, premiered in 1977, looks a bit faded these days and Ponnelle's cynical outlook (his Count flirts with the girls after his reconciliation with the Countess) undercuts Mozart's music. But Figaro, with the right singers, is virtually director-resistant and all in-all, it was a grand evening at the opera.

So was the next night, for what's a visit to Vienna without seeing a Strauss operetta? His most beloved work, Die Fledermaus, was given a superb performance at Vienna's second opera house, the Volksoper. You'd think that an old warhorse like this would be ossified by overfamiliarity, especially in a house that specializes in operetta. But this was a Fledermaus as fresh and fetching as it must have been on its opening night 124 years ago. The Volksoper production wisely resists the temptation to introduce post-modern distortions and managed to invest the sight-gags with a freshness and sense of fun that added to the joys offered by the superb cast of singing actors. The troubled Eisenstein couple were especially fine, with Sona Ghazarian etching an expansive Rosalinde and Adolf Dallapozza acting well and wrapping his lyric tenor around Gabriel's lines with thrust and verve. But then, the entire cast was fine, the non-singing buffo, Frosch, brought the house down with his antics, Linda Pavelka was a stunning Orlofsky, and the orchestra leaned into Strauss' infectious waltz rhythms to the manner born.

There will be more Strauss operettas in the coming year, the centennial of his death in 1899. And there will be more Haydn rarities at the next Haydn Festival. In fact, Vienna, Eisenstadt, and the rest of Austria are a movable musical feast, a natural destination for travelers seeking sounds, as well as sights.