Moscow, city of fire and ice

MOSCOW — Once I came to Moscow to cover an urban ballooning expedition. In winter. But when the balloonists came face to frigid, wind-lashed face with the winter here — well, we never got off the ground.

And so, as icy gales scoured the city, I strolled near the Moskva River until I faced a vast, low-hovering cloud, lighted from within, scented with chlorine and cigarettes. Occasionally, a near-naked Muscovite would emerge, dripping, and wander off to look for a towel and his pants.

This, I learned, was central Moscow's only heated outdoor public swimming pool, full of sloshing Russians. Later, I heard it had once been the site of a church, and there were rumors of some kind of curse. But to me, in early 1990, with the Soviet Union on the verge of collapse and Moscow full of features that I couldn't begin to understand, this one made me smile. I wanted to jump in — another idea that never got off the ground.

Then last winter, on my way to a pre-Olympics assignment in Sochi, Russia, I landed again in Moscow, pelted by snow, numbed by wind. It was different. It was better.

For a tourist, anyway. Moscow, draped in snow and twinkling with unevenly distributed material wealth, is an amazing spectacle, whether or not you came of age during the Cold War. Besides all the new money, the westward cultural tilt and the wacky theme restaurants that have turned up in post-Soviet days, the city remains rich with architecture and art that go back centuries. And the Muscovites are so good at winter! One afternoon I watched a woman in a fur hat cross an icy sidewalk, hop over a slushy gutter and hail a taxi with all the elegance of a figure skater on a freshly prepped rink.

This is not to say that Russia is easy in any season. Many travelers are repelled by the anti-gay "propaganda" law adopted by the country's legislators in 2013. Others are wary of terrorism in the run-up to the Olympics. More on the law and terrorism at

Then there's the red tape. In trip planning, I heard nyet so often that I had to visit San Francisco (to get my journalist visa in time from the Russian Consulate there) and Beverly Hills (because Aeroflot would let me change my ticket only if I came to its office).

And then, once you arrive, you confront some of Europe's stiffest prices and a legion of cashiers and waiters who want nothing to do with your American Express card.

Still, if you go, wintry Moscow will open your eyes. Before I update you on the swimming pool (yes, I went back) and before the Olympics begin in Sochi on Friday (and run through Feb. 23), here are a few questions and answers about a city where no snow-making equipment has ever been necessary. As we go, bear in mind what my translator and guide, Svetlana Gaikovich, told me on our first day:

"Moscow is not Russia. Moscow is a small country within Russia. A showcase."

Do I have to start in Red Square like every other tourist?

Yes. Stand out front and gawk at the domes and turrets and statues of St. Basil's Cathedral, which dates to the 16th century. Pay for a tour behind the walls of the Kremlin next door, where three more cathedrals wait, including the 15th century Assumption Cathedral, whose interior — martyrs on the pillars, Christ on the iconostasis — makes St. Basil's gaudy exterior look like a blank slate.

Across the square from the Kremlin you have GUM, an arcade-style, three-level, 1890s department store formerly run by the government. Now GUM is a retail fantasy land, privately owned since 2005 by a group led by the ubiquitous luxury retailer Bosco di Ciliegi.

Only an oligarch could pay the prices at the GUM Tiffany and Burberry shops, but that's not so different from Fifth Avenue in New York. And the holiday lights and displays are about as remarkable. What you won't find on Fifth Avenue is GUM's Stolovaya 57, a bustling restaurant that mimics a 1957 Soviet factory cafeteria all the way down to its plates of "herring in a fur coat." (That's herring and potatoes with beets and carrots. Better than it sounds.)

If you can afford it, sleep in one of the new or redone hotels near the square. Since 2007, Ritz-Carlton has been on a site once dominated by a grim Intourist hotel. In late 2011, the Intercontinental Hotel Tverskaya replaced the former Minsk Hotel. The old Hotel Moskva, a landmark that was built in the 1930s and razed in about 2004, has been replaced by a new Hotel Moskva, run by Four Seasons, due to open in mid-2014.

I stayed at the Hotel Metropol, an Art Nouveau landmark built in 1901. Every day, heading down to fortify myself at the breakfast buffet, I passed pictures of previous guests such as Vladimir Lenin, George Bernard Shaw, Bertolt Brecht and Michael Jackson.

Why am I hearing Louis Armstrong?

That's the sound of the Red Square winter skating rink, a block from the Metropol. "What a Wonderful World" was playing as I stepped up. In the center of the ice, a couple was kissing. (All this, by the way, is two snowball tosses from Lenin's Mausoleum.)

But don't do all your skating in Red Square. Head instead to Gorky Park, which is so much more than a 1981 detective novel by Martin Cruz Smith. It's 300 acres along the river, redesigned in 2011 to banish that bedraggled-old-fairgrounds feeling. In winter there are ice sculptures, light displays, playfully decorated Georgian food huts, hockey games, art installations, wedding parties and mini-slopes for snowboarders. The skating rink and linked paths cover more than 4 acres. If there's a better place to insinuate yourself among hordes of happy Russians, I haven't found it yet.

Will they keep me warm?