Exploring the Waterways of the Tsars – A Diary of my Viking River Cruise from Moscow to St Petersburg, with lots of great food and unique excursions.
From Russia with Love
I’m standing in the middle of The Kremlin in Moscow, and our guide has just told us that it’s highly probable that President Putin is in residence, although we’re not sure which office window is his, in fact it’s a well-known fact that he changes his office regularly, I suppose old KGB habits are hard to die. The buildings inside the Kremlin are staggeringly beautiful, with ornate gold onion-topped roofs and sparkling white stonework, there’s not a “soviet era” building in sight, although these stark concrete dwellings and offices have become very popular for guided tours lately too.
Russia is a country that has constantly fascinated me, I remember reading Russian fairy tales with equal measures of joy and fear when I was a child, and now many years on, I am about to visit this intriguing country, on the Waterways of the Tsars river cruise with Viking. These are excerpts from my daily diary, of what I did and where I visited, from scenic cruising on lakes, travelling Moscow’s Art Deco Metro to painting my own set of matryoshka dolls….I hope you enjoy my diary as much as I enjoyed this vast and fascinating country.
Day one: After an early morning flight from London, we arrive in Moscow where we are whisked off to our floating home for the next ten days, Viking Akun*. (*Akun was the nephew of Viking ruler Rurik, who was among the signatories of the 944 Rus-Byzantine Treaty who were named in the Russian Primary Chronicle) My stateroom is large and spacious with a veranda, which comes in handy for early morning viewing and scenic cruising. I decide to explore the Akun, which boasts a large, main restaurant with amazing panoramic views, 2 bars, a sun-deck, library and a very enticing shop. Dinner for my first night on-board is a delight, with a choice of meals from a set menu, as well as the “destination menu” which changes daily and offers regional specialities. After a cocktail in the bar, I had an early night, before an all-day included excursion around Moscow tomorrow.
Day two, Moscow: I was looking forward to today’s excursion, an eight hour Moscow up Close tour, exploring Moscow by Metro and on foot. Moscow’s Metro is famous, and I have read about it when I was studying my history of art degree; the decorative stations range from over-the-top rococo to art deco in style and design, with a plethora of statues, chandeliers (yes, really) and exquisite marble tiling. We rode the metro for over an hour, alighting at certain stations to admire the art, before travelling on to Revolution Square and Red Square. Here we explored the area on our own, and as well as seeing St Basil’s cathedral with its dizzying collection of gaily painted onion-domes “in the flesh” for the first time, I discovered GUM, the famous Moscow department store, which by the way, has an extensive food hall to rival Harrods in London. Later sightseeing opportunities took us to the immense, white cathedral of Christ the Savoir with a chance to cross the famous Patriarshky Bridge to the Bolotnaya Square. The day ended with a fabulous performance of original Russian music and dance, featuring both classical music and folk using with traditional instruments, and with lots of comedy and humour in the mix too.
Day three, Moscow: This was one of the best things about the river cruise, the chance to have two full days to explore Moscow, and so today, as well as having some time to ourselves, we also had an optional tour included. Myself and a friend took an “Uber”* (*called Yandex taxis in Russia, you can download the app and it links to any existing uber account) into the Moscow city centre in the morning. There we explored GUM, the department store in more depth, being treated to caviar and vodka tastings as we manoeuvred ourselves amongst towers of exotic Russian chocolate, as well as local cheese, tea and freshly baked bread and cakes. Lunch was taken at Grand Café Zhivago, which is situated in Hotel National, a slightly faded but old-style elegant hotel where we enjoyed the Samovar service before lunch. Small cups of Russian tea were served with plates of sweet and savoury pasties by two immaculately dressed waiting staff. And, lunch was an utterly delicious plate of Crucian fried carp in a dill sauce with slivers of crisply fried potatoes. A post prandial trip to the Cosmonaut Museum was fascinating, where you can trace the history of space exploration in Russia, starting with the “Sputnik” era in the late 1950’s right up to today’s space programme.
Day four, Moscow and scenic cruising on the Moscow Canal: Today found me in the middle of The Kremlin, as I mentioned before. This walled city’s origins go back to the 12th century, and within its walls are stunning cathedrals, ornate palaces and museums. After our included excursion, we took an optional tour around the Kremlin Armoury, which houses a multitude of priceless and glittering relics, including a collection of Faberge eggs, once belonging to tsars and tsarinas. The costume and carriage exhibition was wonderful, as was the huge collection of silverware. After boarding Viking Akun in time for lunch, we set sail and cruised the Moscow Canal, a man made waterway that links the Moskva River to the mighty Volga River, as we sailed past forest-lined shores where small villages clung to the shoreline, the realisation set in that I was about to embark on the next step of my Russian adventure.
Day five, Uglich: It was in Uglich that I had my most intimate experience on the whole cruise…..after a walking tour around the numerous churches, we visited a Russian home for tea, cakes and, as it turned out moonshine! Indeed, after drinking at last two shots of this homemade hooch, our generous hostess proclaimed, via the translator, “please help yourself to more moonshine”, a request that I shall be “dining out on” for years to come! For me, this “home visit” was very humbling, our hostess Valeriya, had baked cakes and biscuits, as well as offering fresh salad (from her garden), homemade pickles and bread. As we all sipped tea, decanted from a highly decorative enamel samovar in the middle of the table, she told us about her life, about how after graduating from university, she was “sent away” thousands of miles away from her home, where she worked until her recent retirement. She showed us around her small garden where she grew most of her own vegetables but sadly, we didn’t get to see the still where the moonshine was made.
Day six, Yaroslavl: Today’s port of call was Yaroslavl, one of the cities in the “Golden Ring” of important trading and cultural centres. Our “up close” walking tour took us the one of most beautifully decorated churches we’d seen thus far, Assumption Cathedral – the inside walls and ceilings of the cathedral was covered in exquisite murals, frescoes and icons, which seemed at odds when you saw the very rustic and ancient wooden pews. After our walking tour we enjoyed some free time in the local market and managed to grab a coffee in a local coffee shop, even with our lack of Russian language and their lack of English.
Day seven, Kuzino and scenic cruising on the Volga-Baltic Waterway: After an interesting tour around the local Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery, and after another superb lunch on board, we set sail and enjoyed the scenic cruising through seven locks and past dense forests, where charming churches, small waterside villages and local, painted wooden houses added to the scenic cruising enjoyment. As a prelude to dinner, we all met in the bar, with cocktails, to enjoy the sun going down on this beautiful stretch of waterway.
Day eight, scenic cruising on Lake Onega and Kizhi: The included Kizhi Island Walking Tour was one of my favourite walking tours of the cruise. All of the houses and the Transfiguration Church are built from wood from the Karelian Forests. We docked on the island, which is on the northern side of Lake Onega, and were able to explore most of the island, which is an open air UNESCO World Heritage Site. There’s a collection of historical Russian buildings that have been relocated on the island, and painstaking reconstructed so you can experience a farmhouse, barns, mills, a traditional Russian banya* (*Russian sauna) and the simply stunning wooden fairy-tale church with its five concentric rings of onion domes, and which dominates the island.
Day nine, scenic cruising on the Svir River and Mandrogy: The Svir River or “Blue Route” connects Europe’s two largest fresh water lakes that are home to salmon and trout. And, it’s maybe because of this, that I saw numerous fishing huts along the shoreline. It’s also here that I saw an eagle dive and catch a fish early one morning….a once in a lifetime experience and one I’ll never forget. Mandrogy was once a thriving fishing village, but it was destroyed during World War 2. However, it was reconstructed as an open-air museum in the 1990’s and is now a centre devoted to keeping Russian traditions and art alive. It was here that I took part in an optional tour of “Matryoshka Painting”, the iconic nesting dolls that Russia is so famous for. We all created our own set of three nesting dolls, using watercolour and metallic paint, all whilst listening to our local guide’s stories about the local traditions and history. It’s also here, that I purchased most of my Russian souvenirs, as the local craft and souvenir shops offer only Russian made goods.
Day ten, arrive St Petersburg: We arrived in St Petersburg ion the morning, but sadly, this was my last day, although the Waterways of the Tsars cruise continues for a further three days, with a chance to explore this beautiful and historic city. Before my flight, I was able to do some local exploring and visited The Imperial Porcelain Factory, where you can take a tour of the factory and museum as well as purchase some of this quintessential Russian style imperial porcelain, which is exquisite. After a transfer to the airport, my magical and enchanting Viking river cruise was over, but what memories I have of this amazing journey, from the metropolitan and political capital of Russia, Moscow, via majestic towns and remote villages, to the cultural capital of Russia, St Petersburg, this was a truly remarkable and fascinating trip through a vast and diverse country.
*This is an unedited version of an article was previously published in Viking Explore More Magazine*
Disclaimer: I WAS A GUEST OF VIKING RIVER CRUISES, AND ALL OF MY TRANSPORT, TRANSFERS, FOOD, ACCOMMODATION AND EXCURSIONS WERE INCLUDED IN THIS COMPLIMENTARY PRESS TRIP; ALL VIEWS AND OPINIONS REMAIN MY OWN AND I WAS NOT ASKED TO WRITE A FAVOURABLE REVIEW, NOR WAS I PAID TO ATTEND THIS TRIP.