Travel feature: Cruising in the land of the Tsars

Waterways of the Tsars
Waterways of the Tsars

Russia had always been on my ‘must visit list’ but I had a problem, writes Professor Ian Cooper, the international business author and speaker who experiences the ‘Waterways of the Tsars’ from St Petersburg to Moscow, with Viking River Cruises.

Yes, I wanted to see the great cities such as St Petersburg and Moscow, but I also wanted to experience more of the country and the Russian way of life, away from the traditional and obvious tourist areas.

This was why when my wife and I had the opportunity to taste the ‘real Russia’ in the comfort, safety and peace of mind of Viking’s 13 days ‘Waterways of the Tsars’ trip, we jumped at the chance … and it didn’t disappoint!

After a British Airways flight to St Petersburg – only around three and a half hours - we were met and taken to our floating hotel – the Viking Ingvar – and our escorted adventure from St Petersburg to Moscow, stopping at several smaller Russian towns and villages along the way, began.

Though only carrying 204 guests, the ship offered great service and real comfort. Our spacious 337 square foot cabin was stylish and gave us a sumptuously comfortable huge bed, a bathroom with two sinks and best of all sliding doors to our private veranda where we could admire the spectacular Russian sunsets.

With open seating dining, you could sit anywhere for any meal. This choice was really appreciated, as you could stick to the people you were travelling with, newly made friends, or use it as an opportunity to meet new people all the time.

Our first three nights were spent in St Petersburg and our mainly inclusive trip itinerary, gave us the opportunity to experience the incredible art treasures of the Hermitage; the magnificent splendour of Catherine’s Palace; the beautiful gardens and fountains of Peterhof and to go on a walking tour of the city.

This included an escorted ride on the Metro to St Petersburg’s main shopping street, the Nevsky Prospekt. Our personal highlight however was the breathtaking mosaics decorating every square inch inside the Church of the Spilled Blood.

Oh yes and Viking had also included an evening at the ballet to see Swan Lake. I confess, ballet is not normally my thing, but the music, colour, energy and overall spectacle were truly memorable.

Leaving St Petersburg, we wined and dined our way across Lake Ladoga (the largest lake in Europe) and stopped at Mandrogy, a riverside Russian craft village, with wooden houses, costumed craftspeople, windmills and a variety of strangely shaped shops selling all kinds of souvenirs from traditional lacquer boxes to Faberge eggs.

The artistic amongst us … not me … took advantage of the chance to paint their own Matryoshkas (Russian nesting dolls), and the more adventurous tried out a typical Banya (a very, very hot bath–house with massage) followed by a very cold dip in the lake … not me either!

The next port of call was Kizhi Island, a national open-air museum, which is on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites. Here, there are dozens of historical buildings, the most notable being the wooden multi-domed Church of the Transfiguration.

The tour on Kizhi also included a visit inside a large typically north Russian house, where extended families and animals would live and work together to survive the extremely harsh winters. This sort of life was a far cry from the big cities!

The following day, the ship docked at Kuzino on the banks of the White Lake and we were driven to the small town of Kirillov and shown around a school.

One had the sense of seeing first-hand how many Russians outside of the big cities lived, as we still encountered small wooden houses that had no electricity or running water.

Because of the relative desolation of this area in early times, it was known for its solitude, which resulted in a large number of monasteries being built including the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery, founded by St Cyril, that we visited, where we were treated to an impressive display of icons and frescoes.

Yaroslavl was our next stopping place, a busy, bustling UNESCO city with a thriving market, important historical churches and state buildings. We were given a guided tour of the Governor’s House and treated to a short classical concert and demonstrations of period dancing.

For some unknown reason, I got randomly ‘volunteered’ for this and found myself partnering two young Russian girls as we swirled our way around the dance floor. Actually, they did the swirling, I just tried not to fall over whilst hanging onto my rucksack!

Our final destination before arriving in Moscow was Uglich, along the Volga river. This industrial city is famous for producing machines, clocks and cheese and has several beautiful churches and palaces. For us however, the one thing that stood out was a visit to a real Russian home.

Our hostess was a very hospitable Russian biology teacher who invited us into her house and offered us home-made tea, cakes and throat burning ‘moonshine’, as well as fruits from her garden. Throughout the visit our tour escort acted as a translator, so that we were able to ask lots of questions about Russia and get a real glimpse into everyday life.

What was particularly interesting however and a little surprising, was discovering how many Russians, still yearned for the old pre ‘Gorbechev Peristroika’ days. “At least we knew where we stood”, our hostess thought provokingly told us as she poured our drinks.

Finally, the ship arrived in Moscow, the heart of Russia, where we spent the final three nights of our voyage. For those of us who expected a grim, austere city based on our perceptions of its communist history and regime, we were in for a real surprise.

Moscow is now a bustling, vibrant, modern metropolis of 12 million people. If someone would have predicted 25 years ago that today we could wander freely around Red Square taking pictures of Lenin’s tomb; the magnificent St Basil’s Cathedral and actually be allowed inside the Kremlin walls, I would have thought them either mad or politically naïve. However, we were able to visit all of those places.

Another fascinating thing to see and do is to ride and experience the famous Moscow Metro, where trains arrive regularly every two minutes. There is even a clock counting down the seconds until the next one arrives.

What makes the Moscow Metro so unique are the ornately decorated stations, with paintings, mosaics and sculptures, which have more in common with the world’s great art galleries than an underground station.

My wife had pulled together a list of the top 10 most exceptional stations and for a couple of hours proudly led a group of eight of us on her homemade DIY excursion!

We also got the chance to see Moscow by night, on a spectacular canal trip, which showed the city magnificently lit up … definitely something not to be missed. One final unexpected Moscow highlight, was the Russian Folk Orchestra concert at the Tretyakov Gallery.

This was a private concert exclusively for Viking guests, where young and extremely talented Russian musicians demonstrated their enthusiasm and skills on traditional Russian instruments. The effect was both enthralling and mesmerising and resulted in a unanimous standing ovation!

Seeing Russia this way, on a river cruise with Viking, totally solved my initial problem of how to see more of Russia than just the major tourist cities, in a uniquely comfortable, safe and sociable way. Overall however, our Russian adventure was memorable for much more than just a collection of places visited.

Throughout the entire trip we were given the opportunity to attend interesting lectures on Russian history; some basic Russian language lessons; cookery demonstrations; to sample its food and drink … including of course Russian Vodka … and to openly discuss the massive changes that have taken place in this country with our three, extremely knowledgeable and patient Russian tour escorts who travelled with us.

By the end of the trip, we all felt we had come a little way to knowing the real Russia and can honestly say we had come back … ‘From Russia with Love’.

> Professor Ian Cooper, was a guest of Viking River Cruises on their 13 days Waterways of the Tsars cruise from St Petersburg to Moscow. For more information visit: www.vikingrivercruises.co.uk

Telephone: 0800 319 6660

Ian Cooper, is the Editor of the ‘Financial Times Guide To Business Development Blog’ – www.financialtimesguidetobusinessdevelopmentblog.com