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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rest Homes: The Classic Soviet Vacation Reborn

Vladimir Panchenskov remembers his first visit to Voronovo. He and his wife, Marina, spent a long weekend at the house of rest just south of Moscow, boating on the river, strolling through the park and playing card games with the other guests.

"It was such a welcome break from city life," he says. "The air here is clean, the pace of life is relaxed. You really feel you are being rejuvenated."

Thirteen years on, he and Marina still come to Voronovo every spring. "A lot of our old friends have stopped coming, perhaps because they can't afford it any longer, and we've stopped playing cards. But essentially nothing has changed."

They excuse themselves politely -- Marina has a sauna booked for 2 p.m. -- push back their chairs and leave the grand Soviet dining room. The other diners have also left, heading for the swimming pool. But I linger over my fruit compote, loathe to leave this haven of tranquillity less than an hour's drive from the hectic capital. Pale spring sunshine filters through the tall windows. The only sound is the waitress brushing crumbs from the tabletops.

Houses of rest, long a staple of Soviet holiday-making, are increasingly opening their doors to foreigners, offering relatively cheap accommodation and extensive facilities in the heart of the country but within reach of Moscow.

In Soviet times, many were affiliated with government ministries and institutions, providing a place for hard-working employees to take their holidays every year. Voronovo, for example, used to be the official rest house for GosPlan. Now it is linked to the Economics Ministry, but its doors are open to anyone in need of some time away from the city.

"People come here principally to relax, to unwind. But you can have a lot of fun here," said Alexei Victorovich, Voronovo's director of 12 years.

Approaching the house of rest by car, guests drive through the gates into impressive grounds. The rest house is surrounded by 160 hectares of land, including woods, broad paths and a wide river.

The rest house itself is split into two buildings -- the pretty former country house of Count Sheremetyev, and the stark concrete structure of the new corpus, which was built in 1974. There is also the 18th-century Dutch House, a small three-story detached building close to the old estate house, which is currently closed for repairs but scheduled to reopen in April with three new luxury rooms.

Although Voronovo's old corpus is more enticing than the new, the better sports facilities, swimming pool and majority of rooms are in the latter. This new corpus stands as a reminder of Soviet architecture at its least appealing -- cumbersome and uninviting. The giant gray entrance hall takes an eternity to cross as you head for reception and the warren of corridors -- all apparently identical, leading to the guest rooms -- that requires a map to negotiate. Food is classic Soviet stolovaya cuisine.

But for all this, Voronovo still constitutes a sanctuary of quietude. There is a huge swimming pool at the bottom of the new corpus, with a skylight through which guests on the roof garden can peer. Also on offer is a powerful Finnish sauna, after which tea and cookies are available to counteract the big sweat, and a team of masseuses, accomplished in all the various disciplines -- shiatsu, Swedish, deep tissue, herbal -- are at hand.

Upstairs is a cinema, showing different films every night, a library (no foreign books) and a games room. "Everyone must come and play billiards while they are at Voronovo," the smiling attendant told me. Like the rest of the staff here, she was in her 50s and built like a submarine. All have been working at the rest house since it opened 26 years ago, and all must have been employed for their friendliness.

The most memorable aspect of Voronovo is its grounds. There is a beautiful church beside the old corpus, where services are held on holidays, and a ramshackle cemetery in back. In the spring, after the snows have melted, many of the guests have picnics in the woods, according to the director.

"They bring shashlik and freshly baked bread, and they build camp fires for cooking," he said. In the summer, boats are brought out from their sheds, and guests can fish and swim in the wide curve of the river. And in the autumn, there are over 50 hectares of wild mushrooms in the grounds.

Rooms, all with private bathrooms, are clean if a little cramped. Deluxe rooms also have refrigerators, telephones (Moscow calls only) and televisions.

The more active guests spend their afternoons strolling through the long avenues of birch. But the majority of residents staying at Voronovo while I was there kept to their rooms. Walking back to my own bedroom, I could hear the theme tune of "Santa Barbara" issuing from every keyhole. New-old habits die hard. But at least the guests were resting.

If a visit to Voronovo is a step into the Soviet past, at the more luxurious Podmoskovye the atmosphere is prerevolutionary.

Close your eyes, and you can imagine the tsarina at the table beside yours in the dining room straight out of a Hollywood film set of Old Russia. With acres of marble, oceans of velvet and tapestries at every turn, Podmoskovye takes you back to a pre-communist world of privilege.

The emphasis here is on the curative rather than the restorative, since Podmoskovye doubles as a sanatorium. Every form of advanced medical treatment is available -- cardiology, acupuncture, psychotherapy and something called hyperboric oxygenation including laser emanation.

But if it is just rest and recuperation you are after, there is a list of activities to rival any California health club. There are two Olympic-sized pools, a gym furnished with the latest in high-tech bodybuilding equipment, indoor tennis courts, billiards, boating and skiing.

As at Voronovo, the original stately home has been converted into deluxe rooms. To this has been added a more modern complex, still extravagantly appointed but perhaps lacking some of the Old World charm.

Communist leader and occasional visitor Gennady Zyuganov reportedly prefers the modern annex, while Vladimir Zhirinovsky apparently favors a more traditional setting.

The bedrooms at Podmoskovye are elaborate. There are walnut corner cabinets filled with fine bone china and silverware, and a French carriage clock on every mantelpiece. Most rooms have balconies overlooking the river. The deluxe bedrooms have a dining area -- guests can order food from the kitchen and eat with friends.

Both complexes have cinemas, libraries and reading rooms with ornamental pools, fountains and exotic plants. Beside the fireplace in the main salon is a gilded aviary, a miniature of the one designed for Catherine the Great at the Winter Palace, full of yellow canaries. Here guests play chess or simply sit in deep armchairs by the window, looking out at the view.

The grounds at Podmoskovye are formally laid out with wide stone paths flanked by flower beds. There are gazebos, whose trellised walls are thick with creepers, stone bird tables and statues of Greek gods. Whoever planned this garden must have had Versailles or Hampton Court in mind.

Less formal walks along the river bank will take you eventually to the tiny village of Zaborye, where all the houses are painted the navy, maroon and chestnut tones of a van Gogh landscape.

At Podmoskovye, you feel time itself is taking a well-earned rest.

Arranging your stay

Voronovo (tel. 546-2420) is located about 50 kilometers south of Moscow and can be reached by car along the Kaluzhskoye Shosse, or by metro and bus (bus no. 518 from Tyoply Stan station). Rooms cost around $40 per person per night including food.

Podmoskovye (tel. 546-0680; 202-7890) is located about 45 kilometers south of Moscow in the Domodedovsky region. It can be reached by car along the Kashirskoye Shosse or by elektrichka and bus (from Paveletsky station to Domodedovo, then bus no. 32 to the end). Rooms cost from about $60 per person per night to around $150 per person per night in luxury accommodation, with meals included.

There are about 50 houses of rest in the Moscow region, most of which are now open to all. While it is possible to arrange trips by calling rest houses in person, it is more usual and probably easier to book your stay through a travel agent in Moscow.

Moscow City Travel Bureau (tel. 166-7737 or 166-5809), Alba (tel. 457-0501) and M-Bis Tour Travel Agency (tel. 219-1945 or 218-3049) all specialize in arranging such stays.

Prices range from $50 to $90 per person per night for accommodation and meals in most rest houses, although some agencies say foreigners may be charged slightly extra.