Guid­ing lights on and off the river

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Europe River Cruising - SAN­DRA POT­TER

“You can eat all Rus­sia’s mush­rooms,” smiles Ta­tiana, “but some just once in your life.” Ta­tiana de­liv­ers pre­sen­ta­tions on Rus­sian cul­ture to Vik­ing Ing­var’s com­ple­ment and this af­ter­noon she is fo­cus­ing on cui­sine. Other ses­sions help us un­ravel Rus­sia’s tu­mul­tuous history, con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics and the finer points of sou­venir shop­ping, such as buy­ing gen­uine am­ber, as dis­tinct from buy­ing gen­uine or­ange plas­tic.

The ex­ec­u­tive chef fol­lows up with a demon­stra­tion on to how to pre­pare pel’meni, and there can be no short­cuts in the prepa­ra­tion of this Rus­sian sta­ple. These ear­shaped dumplings must be in­di­vid­u­ally small, and the un­leav­ened dough pa­per-thin, a time-con­sum­ing propo­si­tion for a river ship’s gal­ley meet­ing the ex­pec­ta­tions of so many pas­sen­gers, some of whom are loudly lactoseintolerant, coeliac or unashamedly finicky. Although pre­fer­ring veg­e­tar­ian (also well catered for), I can’t re­sist a bowl of this un­ex­pect­edly sen­sual food, served slicked with sour cream.

The qual­ity of the pre­sen­ta­tions and the will­ing­ness of the guides and crew to an­swer pas­sen­gers’ some­times pointed and silly ques­tions are defin­ing fea­tures of our 12day cruise from St Peters­burg to Moscow. “Please ask us any­thing you want to know.” They are taken at their word. Ques­tions fly about Rus­sia’s fu­ture, if they like Putin and why are there stat­ues of Lenin ev­ery­where, “given his tyranny”.

On another day we learn about, and sam­ple, vodka although Ta­tiana tells us that tea (an im­port) is Rus­sia’s na­tional drink. “Vodka is not Rus­sia’s na­tional drink,” she says, wag­ging her fin­ger. “It is Rus­sia’s na­tional prob­lem.” At least the vodka sam­pling has the po­ten­tial to help with our Rus­sian lan­guage classes and de­ci­pher­ing Cyril­lic. I am re­minded of an old Gary Lar­son Far Side car­toon of a child rais­ing his hand in class: “May I be ex­cused? My brain is full.” On the other hand, if my shot glass is filled again, I may well speak ex­cel­lent Rus­sian.

Our river­ine port calls in­clude Man­drogi, Kizhi, Goritzy, Yaroslavl and the not-at-all-ugly Uglich. Man­drogi is an artist’s colony on the bank of the Svir River. The vil­lage is a re­con­struc­tion of a tra­di­tional Rus­sian set­tle­ment and a busi­ness­man’s ini­tia­tive. The orig­i­nal town­ship was razed dur­ing World War II.

Our stop of sev­eral hours is an op­por­tu­nity to visit and buy from artists’ stu­dios. We see pot­ters, weavers, jew­ellers, a black­smith, birch carvers and the pain­ters of the ubiq­ui­tous ma­tryoshkas (nest­ing dolls) all at work. The high­est count with re­spect to the dolls is 72 fit­ting one in­side another.

Kizhi is a viper-in­hab­ited and os­ten­si­bly smok­ing free-is­land in the Re­pub­lic of Kare­lia, about 500km short of the Arc­tic Cir­cle. More im­por­tantly, it is an out­door mu­seum, and home to the World Her­itage-listed Trans­fig­u­ra­tion Church. This mag­nif­i­cent 37m-high, five- tiered wooden com­po­si­tion crowned with 22 onion-like cupo­las cov­ered in 30,000 carved aspen shin­gles, was built in 1714. In rainy weather, the tim­ber ab­sorbs the wa­ter and the church ap­pears black. Dur­ing our sum­mer visit the tiles are dry and the church has a pale sil­ver glow. See­ing it is a trip high­light and a dream ful­filled.

Near Goritzy we visit the for­ti­fied Kir­illo-Beloz­er­sky Monastery, iden­ti­fied as the largest in Rus­sia. Its mu­seum houses a col­lec­tion of icons dat­ing back to the 15th cen­tury, their in­tri­cate gold de­tail­ing at­tached us­ing gar­lic juice. Lo­cal guide Misha tells us that the tem­per­a­ture here in win­ter av­er­ages mi­nus 9C, with lows of mi­nus 50C be­ing rel­a­tively com­mon. The re­gion is 70 per cent for­est and in­hab­ited by bears, wolves, foxes, elks and wild boar. She en­ter­tains us with a story about the prob­lem of find­ing a bear climb­ing into her neigh­bour’s car. “What to do?” she shrugs. “We just close the doors.”

Back aboard, Polina ed­u­cates us about the hor­rors of the 900-day siege of Len­ingrad dur­ing which mil­lions of cit­i­zens per­ished in their homes, and the bat­tle for Stal­in­grad wherein, on av­er­age, pla­toon com­man­ders sur­vived 10 days; pri­vates 52 hours; and tanks ad­vanced 600m. She says that some­times she finds bones and bul­lets in her gar­den near where the fight­ing took place. It is dif­fi­cult to rec­on­cile hor­rific sto­ries — past, and some­times present — with the tran­quil­lity of glid­ing across vast lakes and along chan­nels lined with stands of fir and beech.

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