Rus­sian around

Diane Arm­strong finds there’s lit­tle time for read­ing and laz­ing on a Volga river cruise from St Peters­burg to Moscow

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

Straight and nar­row: The Vik­ing Surkov ne­go­ti­ates one of 17 locks along the Volga be­tween St Peters­burg and Moscow LGA is telling us about Peter the Great, who had his son tor­tured and killed, when I glance out the win­dow of the Vik­ing Surkov and see a church float­ing by. The blood-soaked his­tory of the ill-fated Ro­manovs is fas­ci­nat­ing, but it can’t com­pete with a basil­ica drown­ing in the cen­tre of a huge lake. We all grab our cam­eras and rush out on deck to cap­ture this bizarre sight.

Back in the lec­ture room, Olga, one of our on-board guides, ex­plains this church met its wa­tery fate when Stalin flooded en­tire vil­lages to cre­ate some of the wa­ter­ways on which we are sail­ing on this Vik­ing cruise from St Peters­burg to Moscow.

She con­tin­ues her lec­ture about Peter the Great and has just got to the part where his wife poi­soned him af­ter he’d ex­e­cuted her lover, when an­other cu­ri­ous sight dis­tracts us. This time we head for the Panorama Lounge to see the cap­tain manouevring the ship past a lock so nar­row that we can hear the sides scrap­ing against the ce­ment. In what is lit­er­ally an up­lift­ing mo­ment, we watch the boat lift­ing 12m as the wa­ter level rises.

The locks are just one of the fas­ci­nat­ing fea­tures of this voy­age across Lake Ladoga, Lake Onega, White Lake, Ry­ben­sky Reser­voir, the Volga-Baltic wa­ter­way and the Volga River. By the time we pass through the 17th lock on the out­skirts of Moscow, the wa­ter level has risen by 155m.

When friends heard I was go­ing on a river cruise from St Peters­burg to Moscow, they warned me to ex­pect a daily diet of cab­bage, pota­toes and surly ser­vice. But from the mo­ment we step on board the Surkov and are greeted with the tra­di­tional wel­come of bread and salt, we ex­pe­ri­ence the kind of hos­pi­tal­ity for which Rus­sians are fa­mous. Far from be­ing surly, the wait­ers and wait­resses are de­light­ful young peo­ple for whom noth­ing is too much trou­ble.

Our Ger­man chef pre­pares light, var­ied and de­li­cious meals ac­com­pa­nied by an ar­ray of in­ter­est­ing sal­ads. When we re­turn to the ship past mid­night af­ter a per­for­mance of Swan Lake , he has a three-course sup­per wait­ing for us.

Our 13-day cruise be­gins in St Peters­burg. Sleep­ing on board ship while ex­plor­ing this mag­nif­i­cent city of czars, chateaus and cathe­drals by day of­fers an in­ter­est­ing per­spec­tive on a city that is bi­sected by a river and criss­crossed by a net­work of canals. For three hec­tic days and nights, we are taken on guided tours of the city and its palaces, gal­leries, mu­se­ums and dance per­for­mances.

When we leave St Peters­burg to be­gin the 1800km cruise to Moscow, I fig­ure I’ll be spending most of the time laz­ing in the lounges and gaz­ing at birch forests and rus­tic ham­lets along the way. To get into the right frame of mind, I’ve brought a copy of War and Peace , happy that fi­nally I will have time to read it. Af­ter all, how much could there be to see in the small town­ships along the way, most of which aren’t even men­tioned in my guide­book?

How wrong I am soon be­comes ob­vi­ous. Each day we

Flower girls: Women from Uglich, the last port of call along the Volga be­fore Moscow

A place like home: A friendly greet­ing from a lo­cal in the pic­turesque town of Goritzy near White Lake visit a dif­fer­ent town­ship and, as soon as we step ashore, a lo­cal guide is wait­ing to show us around. Th­ese guides are ex­tremely knowl­edge­able and each has an ir­rev­er­ent at­ti­tude to­wards czars, com­mis­sars and politi­cians, which makes their com­men­tary en­ter­tain­ing as well as in­for­ma­tive.

The big­gest sur­prise of the cruise is the wealth of at­trac­tions in th­ese small, re­mote town­ships along the wa­ter­ways of Rus­sia’s heart­land. I cer­tainly don’t ex­pect to find any­thing of in­ter­est when I step ashore on Kizhi, a tiny, un­in­hab­ited is­land on Lake Onega. So I am as­ton­ished to see a spec­tac­u­lar wooden church with 22 onion domes loom­ing over the is­land.

The Church of the Trans­fig­u­ra­tion, built by lo­cal peo­ple 300 years ago, is only one of Kizhi’s unique sights. Past the wooden windmill and the farm­house where peas­ant girls once spun wool, gos­siped and told each oth­ers’ for­tunes, I come to the old­est wooden Rus­sian Or­tho­dox church in the coun­try.

Sud­denly bells ring out from the small chapel on the edge of the lake. De­spite all th­ese churches, Kizhi was once a site of pa­gan rit­u­als and, ac­cord­ing to our guide Na­dia, this is­land has a heal­ing en­ergy, de­rived partly from shun­gite, a black rock that’s be­lieved to have mag­i­cal pow­ers.

Our ex­cur­sions of­ten last most of the day as we wan­der around town squares, browse in lively mar­kets and visit churches with daz­zling in­te­ri­ors. In the lit­tle town of Goritzy, the high­light is St Cyril, the largest Rus­sian Or­tho­dox monastery in the world, with vast clois­ters, me­dieval mu­rals and rare icons. Af­ter vis­it­ing the monastery, we stroll along the shore of White Lake where school­child­ren stop sketch­ing to prac­tise their English on us.

Wher­ever we go, we en­counter friendly peo­ple and in Goritzy one of the lo­cals in­vites us into his cot­tage for a glass of vodka.

Af­ter a tour of the cul­tural at­trac­tions of each lit­tle town, the tempt­ing sou­venir stalls lined up near the wharf send most of us into a shop­ping frenzy. Al­though tra­di­tional flow­ered shawls and ma­trioshka dolls are avail­able ev­ery­where, most town­ships have their own spe­cial­i­ties. Goritzy is fa­mous for home-spun linen, hand-made lace and furs. Uglich is the town of watch­mak­ers, while Yaroslavl is the best place to buy au­then­tic lac­quer boxes. Even the tiny set­tle­ment of Man­dr­ogy, which con­sists of a clus­ter of wooden huts, has its spe­cial­i­ties. The vodka mu­seum dis­plays more than 2000 types of vodka and, for an en­try fee of 100 rubles ($5), you can sam­ple four of them. Across the road from the mu­seum is a cafe fa­mous for its piroshki, or pas­tries filled with mush­rooms, meat, pota­toes or an amaz­ing va­ri­ety of berries.

Be­tween shore ex­cur­sions are daily brief­ings about forth­com­ing des­ti­na­tions, lec­tures on Rus­sian his­tory and classes in Rus­sian lan­guage so there isn’t much time to sit around gaz­ing at birch forests.

This cruise is in­for­mal, with no dress­ing-up for din­ner, no or­gan­ised seat­ing and no cabaret acts, so we spend the evenings get­ting to know our in­ter­est­ing fel­low pas­sen­gers.

By the time we reach the 17th lock and are about to be­gin three hec­tic days of sight­see­ing in the cap­i­tal, I have glimpsed the un­chang­ing Rus­sian coun­try­side, learned a con­sid­er­able amount of Rus­sian his­tory, know some ba­sic lo­cal phrases and can sing Kalinka in Rus­sian. But I am still on page one of War and Peace. Diane Arm­strong was a guest of MyPlanet and Thai Air­ways In­ter­na­tional.

Check­list

Thai Air­ways In­ter­na­tional has three daily flights from Syd­ney, two from Mel­bourne and one from Bris­bane to Bangkok, and four on­ward weekly flights to Moscow. MyPlanet or­gan­ises the 13-day Wa­ter­ways of the Czars cruise from Moscow or St Peters­burg. From $3200 a per­son twin-share, in­clud­ing three days in St Peters­burg and Moscow. Most guided tours are in­cluded. The Surkov, which ac­com­mo­dates 200 pas­sen­gers, has re­cently been re­fur­bished. Cabins have dou­ble beds, large win­dows, dig­i­tal tele­vi­sion and air­con­di­tion­ing. The 2009 cruis­ing sea­son be­gins May 8 and ends Oc­to­ber 13. More: 1800 221 712; www.my­plan­e­taus­tralia.com.au.

Pic­tures, above and be­low right: Michael Arm­strong

Pic­ture: Michael Arm­strong

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