An underground billiards bar in central Moscow. Customers blithely ignore anti-smoking laws and a tired-looking waitress slopes between the tables, handing out drinks. Kostya and Ivan, a pair of Georgian ‘businessmen’, watch through the gloom as two Englishmen struggle through a few games of Russian billiards. A couple of hours and several dodgy frames of pool later, the Georgians emerge with ₽1000 (around £13) to their names. The hustle is complete. A poorly executed and time-consuming hustle yes, but a hustle nonetheless. Could I have hoped for a finer return to Russian life?
Coincidentally, the evening had begun with Georgian food, with a starter of pkhali, doughnut-shaped balls of spinachy goodness and katmis satsivi, chicken in a walnut sauce, supposedly Stalin’s favourite dish. This paved the way for the showstopper, the sumptuous khachapuri, the country’s national dish, which consists of cheese-filled bread with a soft egg in the middle for dipping. Georgian food is widely admired, but there are a whole host of other culinary delights to explore in Moscow, particularly from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, all of which I shall be more than happy to sample.
I have visited Moscow once before, eight years ago. But given that my memories of that trip are hazy at best, I find myself judging the city anew. Onion-domed cathedrals pop up on the skyline at every turn, my favourite of which has to be the majestic St Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square. Pedestrianised areas are plentiful, from the exclusive Kuznetsky Most, lined with international brands and expensive cafes, to the rather quaint Pyatnitskaya Street. The word pyatnitskaya comes from the word пятница (pyatnitsa), meaning Friday, and there is definitely a weekend vibe on this relatively narrow street, flanked by attractive lantern-style street lamps, and bars and restaurants that spill out onto the pavement.
Perhaps most surprising is the variety and abundance of live music. As part of the Spring festivities, there are little stages all around the centre of town where traditional musicians and a cappella groups perform. Wander away from these stages and before long you will find buskers, from a lone man with an accordion to a vast brass band. Pedestrians cross Moscow’s wide, traffic-filled avenues via tunnels and in the majority of these you are sure to find a performer. From folk guitar to classical flute, the variety is staggering.
Bright blue skies and temperatures of over 20 degrees have heralded the arrival of the May holidays. People are happy to wander the streets in shorts and a t-shirt for the first time in seven or eight months and are out in force. Gorky Park, a vast expanse of grass, flowerbeds and paths that runs alongside the Moscow river to the south of the city was full to bursting over the weekend. Skateboarders and rollerbladers darted between strolling families, while on the banks of the river, hundreds of people came to while away the warm evening with a spot of salsa.
This is Moscow. An enormous city, Russia’s heartbeat and multinational hub, home to everyone from the super-wealthy elites to Central Asian migrants, and now, me. Bring it on.