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