Bling Is King in Moscow; It's the City of the Tsars and Putin, But

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Byline: Sebastian Lander

THE Lada standing in front of me certainly doesn't resemble the five I have just seen on the way from the airport. Those Ladas, streaked with melting snow and seemingly running on willpower alone, were typical examples of a car that spawned a thousand playground jokes.

This Lada - a lady with a winning smile at my hotel - was named after the Slavic goddess of love.

You get a lot of that contrast in Moscow: at times the grey and oppressive vestiges of the Soviet era overshadow what is essentially a fascinating city.

It is appropriately snowy when I arrive and the Muscovites are as I imagined - a mixture of glacial beauties who stalk the street as if it is a catwalk and doughty women peering with blank expressions from the depths of their fur-lined hoods. Elderly men with impressively high Russian hats nudge you out of their way and no one smiles much.

But then it is election weekend and the mood is tense - thick-set men in uniform cluster on corners and monster trucks line the streets as Putin sweeps his way to a dubious victory.

My hotel, the Ritz-Carlton, is ideally placed for seeing the sights and feels like a refuge. The staff are cheerful and the showy decor is appropriate for a city where bling, it seems, is increasingly king. Even the snow looks like crushed crystal.

And even if you don't get a room with a view, you can admire Red Square and the Kremlin over cocktails from the smart rooftop bar and restaurant.

It makes good star-spotting territory, too. From Barack Obama to George Michael, big-name politicians, royals, supermodels, designers and Hollywood A-listers have flocked through the hotel's grand lobby.

Luckily, you don't need star status to make it through the doors of the Kremlin but it's a good idea to book a guide, particularly if you don't speak Russian. Trust me, getting directions is not easy.

This triangular red-walled fortress has been at the centre of so much of Russia's epic - and at times bloody - history and is the place to go if you want to delve into its imperial past. It was built between the 14th and 17th Centuries in an architectural style that is, at times, pure fantasy. Towers and gates appear all along the perimeter walls, which enclose a giddying number of palaces and churches.

The Kremlin has long been associated with Russia's powerbrokers (it still is) and the symbols - some may say spoils - of their status can be marvelled at in the Armoury museum. You'll see holy figures in painted religious icons looking out from a sea of gold leaf, gospels encrusted with gems and, as if precious metals and stones were not deemed enough of a decoration, crowns trimmed with fur.

A room filled with gilded carriages boasting the most detailed carvings shows off the extravagance of the various rulers who once owned them.

However, even they are trumped for lavishness by the Faberge eggs produced for the Romanovs, each more inventive and intricate than the last. One of them, for example, has a route map of the Trans-Siberian Railway engraved in silver around its middle. Inside is a wonderful surprise - a windup steam train with five carriages fashioned out of gold and platinum and with windows made of rock crystal.

The most fascinating room for me is the one where the clothes of the Russian royals are displayed. …