Guiding lights on and off the river
“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.