Overview of Russia River Cruise Tour
One of the things I love about cruises is also one of the things I hate about cruises--this marvelous vacation option often allows travelers to see many countries on just one trip, providing a sample of things to see and do on a return visit. The most popular river cruises--those through central Europe--include stopovers at amazing ports, but usually in several different countries. Some river cruises (like those in France, Portugal, and China) focus on just one country, enabling passengers to immerse themselves in the culture, language, history, and sites of one country, but still visiting many different ports of call.
Travelers seeking an in-depth vacation in another fascinating, important country should plan a river cruise in Russia. I sailed on the Viking Truvor with Viking River Cruises on "Waterways of the Tsars", a 13-day river cruise tour from St. Petersburg to Moscow. This voyage included three nights in St. Petersburg; six days sailing of Russian rivers, lakes, and waterways with stopovers in Mandrogy, Kizhi, Goritzy, Yaroslavl, and Uglich; and ending with three nights docked in Moscow. The cruise tour included most all shore excursions and wine, beer, or soft drinks at lunch and dinner. I came away from Russia with a new appreciation for its people and its history, and realized that much of what we know about this huge country from the daily news might not necessarily be the whole story.
The next 32 pages provide a comprehensive story of our time in Russia. Wishing to avoid the summer crowds seen in northern Europe, a friend and I sailed on the next-to-last voyage of the year on the Viking Truvor, which boarded in St. Petersburg on September 26 and debarked in Moscow on October 8. The number of visitors in St. Petersburg was significantly less than you will find in the high season, and the weather was cool, but not miserably cold. Although long summer days in northern Europe where the sun sets after midnight are a big attraction to visitors, those who enjoy less crowds and don't mind taking along a coat should consider a September sailing in Russia.
Join me on an in-depth look at Russia with Viking River Cruises.
Days 1 and 2 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - The Hermitage Museum
St. Petersburg is one of the world's great cities to visit, with much interesting history, but also many artistic venues. Peter the Great founded the city in 1703 during the Great Northern War with Sweden, which is not the same as the War of Northern Aggression in the USA.
Geographically, the city is very important to Russia, since it is the country's only port on the Baltic Sea. Peter the Great was enamored with Europe, especially France, so the city has a European look, especially with its 200 miles of canals. Many of the buildings are painted in pastel colors since the city has only about 50 days a year where the sun shines. Citizens of St. Petersburg claim that their city weather is 9 months of expectation and 3 months of disappointment. The weather is certainly very changeable since the north winds can plow into the city and bring major storms.
We arrived in St. Petersburg in the late afternoon and were met by a Viking River Cruises' representative at the airport. The transfer to the Viking Truvor was uneventful, and we got settled into our cabin, had a quiet dinner, attended a welcome briefing for those who arrived late in the afternoon. The river ship has three onboard guides/tour leaders, all from St. Petersburg. They all speak excellent English and were our licensed guides in St. Petersburg and act as tour leaders/escorts/translators on the rest of the trip. All the guides are men, and all are middle-aged. Therefore, they remember both the Soviet Union prior to 1991 and Russia as a republic today. Interesting group, all who changed jobs in mid-career. They started out as engineers, but are tour guides today, a decision they apparently made themselves, something the generation of their parents were unable to do.
The next three days in St. Petersburg were busy ones.
A Visit to the Hermitage Museum and Storage Facility
We hit the ground running the next morning. Twenty-three of us on the Viking Truvor had signed up for the "privileged access" optional tour of the Hermitage Museum. This meant we left the ship at 9 am and arrived at the Hermitage by 9:40. The museum doesn't open to the public until 10:30, so we were well ahead of other visitors. Our guide Natalya was very knowledgeable. She had attended William & Mary College in the USA and has a doctorate in linguistics. She teaches at the St. Petersburg State University.
The rest of our fellow cruise travelers did the included morning tour of the Hermitage, followed by lunch on the ship and free time in the afternoon. The Viking Truvor was docked fairly close to a subway stop, and the onboard staff was very helpful in providing guidance on navigating the city on your own.
The Hermitage is now a great museum, but this building was once the winter palace of the tsars. It was built by Catherine I, the wife of Peter the Great. The style of the Hermitage is Russian baroque, and many experts consider it once of the world's best examples of this style.
The Hermitage Museum was much quieter than it can be in the summer. Coming in late September turned out to be a wise choice. Our smallish group could easily move throughout the many interconnected buildings. This is one place that would be easy to get lost in--the Winter Palace (largest of the buildings) has 117 staircases, 1057 rooms, and is 328,000 square feet. Its exhibition rooms house 3 million exhibits. It's nice to have a guide to help sort it all out. One change since my last visit--they moved the impressionists' paintings into a new space, which was much more spacious than before. Even though I'm not an art expert, it's mind-boggling to see so many famous artists' works in one place.
After visiting the main Hermitage complex and walking around in the Palace Square, we reboarded the bus to ride to the "storage" area of the Hermitage. The museum cannot display all the items in its possession in the main complex, so many items are stored offsite in a well-guarded warehouse area. It was Sunday, so none of the artwork restorers or other workers were there--it was just us, Natalya, and a local guide who spoke only Russian that Natalya translated. (we think he understood English, but was not comfortable speaking it). Before touring the complex, we had the same lunch served to the workers that day (or so we were told). It was Greek salad, borscht, chicken with rice, potato fingerlings, and a flaky pastry filled with jam. Julie and I both liked it, but a couple of people complained at our table that the chicken was dark meat. A minor complaint, and a mixture of white and dark chicken seemed more authentic for a Russian cafeteria lunch. The borscht had a beef broth base, shredded beets, and a small dollop of sour cream. We don't think it had any cabbage unless it was in the broth base. Still very good.
After our "light" lunch, we toured the Hermitage storage complex. Many of the exhibits were stored in huge glass cabinets that were on tracks and could be slid apart. We saw many religious icons, but Julie and I enjoyed the furniture and the royal carriages the most. Interesting tour, and the first time I've been to that facility.
All too soon it was about 4:30 and time to return to the Viking Truvor for a concert, dinner, and a night at the ballet.
Day 2 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - A Night at the Ballet
Although it's great being able to unpack just once on a 13-day Russian river cruise vacation, the river ship docking area in St. Petersburg is at least 30 minutes to an hour (or more) ride from the central city. With traffic, it's even worse. The Viking River Cruises staff on the Viking Truvor seemed to know exactly how much time we needed to keep our tight schedule--factoring the day, time, and weather into the equation. We also saw horrendous traffic in Moscow, and the staff continued to show an uncanny ability to predict the drive times. I commend them on their excellent planning.
Since the Hermitage Museum storage facility was fairly close, we were back on the ship by about 5:00. The schedule for those on our extended tour didn't allow us much time to attend an onboard Mariinsky Theatre music concert in the Panorama Bar from 5 to 6, have a quick buffet dinner, and leave for the ballet at 6:45. Four performers from the theatre performed an excellent selection of classical numbers. What a nice way to get in the mood for our night at the theater.
A Night at the Ballet in St. Petersburg
But, most of us from the privileged access tour seemed to suffer from the FOMO (fear of missing out) syndrome and were back on the bus at the scheduled time ready to ride to the Mikhailovsky Theatre to see the iconic Russian ballet Swan Lake.
The buses left for the theater promptly at 6:45 pm, driving back into town for the 7:30 performance, going against traffic most of the way. This was a different theater than the one mom and I went to several years ago--the seats in the auditorium were larger and padded, versus narrow and wooden. Not surprisingly, the performance of Swan Lake was as excellent as I remembered from before. Most of us know that Russia is well-known for its ballet dancers, and these representatives were amazing.
Back to the Viking Truvor, they had a nice late evening snack for us, so we were eating soup and other "light" fare at about 11:30 pm. In bed by midnight or later--it was all a blur by then. Our next day in St. Petersburg was another busy one--a half-day at the Catherine Palace followed by a half-day city tour.
Day 3 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - Catherine Palace and City Tour
The next day on the Viking Truvor was another busy day, and we were still jet-lagged, so the alarm woke us from a sound sleep. Our first tour was an 8:00 am included tour to Catherine Palace, the summer palace of Catherine I (Peter the Great's wife). He had built a palace on the shores of the gulf of Finland, but she thought it was too windy and cold, so she had her own palace built. Her daughter Elizabeth greatly expanded the Russian baroque palace. It's certainly very grand, with its blue, white, and gold exterior.
Located less than 25 miles from St. Petersburg, the palace was occupied by the Nazis in World War II and used as a barracks and offices for the bombardment of the city during the siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg's name during the war). During the siege, the city was encircled and cut off from the rest of the world and bombarded for 872 days. Our guide told us that over 2 million people died during the siege That's a huge number of deaths and amazing that the city held out without ever being invaded.
Before retreating, the Nazis burned most of the great palaces of Russia located near St. Petersburg, and the Russian government has been working since the late 1940's to restore them. Luckily, most of the artwork, chandeliers, furniture, and everything not attached or very heavy was moved to Siberia, so the Nazis didn't succeed in burning much but the structures. Russia had many photos and drawings of the palaces, so they are slowly being renovated. The living area at Catherine Palace has been mostly renovated, but the attached church has not. The famous Amber Room was redone in the early part of this century after the Russians gave up on ever finding the original amber, which they couldn't hide or move before the Nazis arrived because of its weight.
We put on the required booties to cover our shoes and protect the gorgeous parquet floors, many of which use up to 16 different types of wood. The palace is very ornate, with many huge rooms done with lots of gold leaf. Too fancy for my taste, but impressive. The grounds are also lovely, with manicured gardens. It's an impressive place, and definitely a "must-see" in St. Petersburg.
After touring the inside of the Palace and exploring the grounds, we returned to the Viking Truvor for lunch and an afternoon tour of the central city of St. Petersburg.
Day 3 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - City Tour of St. Petersburg
After a delicious buffet lunch on the Viking Truvor, we re-boarded the buses and headed out again for a city tour from 1:45 to 7 pm. Most of the central city tour of St. Petersburg was on the bus, with frequent photo stops. The only place we toured inside was the Peter and Paul Cathedral and Fortress, which has the graves of all the past Czars of Russia and their families. Two of the last Romanov children, killed with their parents in 1917, have not been buried with Alexandra and Nicholas II Romanov (their parents), but our guide said they had been identified using DNA and were expected to be added to the family tomb in a few months. Even Anastasia's remains were definitely identified using DNA a few years ago, although I'm sure there are some who still think she survived the massacre of her family.
Viking River Cruises had an alternative city tour that was included in the basic fare. This tour was mostly walking (over 5 miles) in the city center, but did not include the Peter and Paul fortress, which is on the other side of the Neva River. Those who did that tour liked it, especially since the rain held out until almost the end of their walk. Their group rode the subway into the city, which was fun for those who hadn't done it.
Our group on the bus saw more and didn't get wet, but we had horrendous traffic on the way back to the Viking Truvor. However, we still arrived at 7 pm for dinner, followed by an optional Cossack folklore show.
Day 3 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - Cossack Folklore Show
After dinner on the Viking Truvor, Julie and I had signed up for a 9:15 pm to 10:45 pm Cossack Folkloric show, which was held in a temporary enclosure right on the pier. We were very happy not to get back on the bus. The ship provided blankets to help us keep warm.
The folkloric show was good, with live music and about 10 dancers (5 couples) and a few musicians. Lots of costume and music changes, so we managed to say awake. They had a 15 minute intermission where we all drank shots of vodka to rejuvenate and heat us up. This was not our only opportunity to drink shots of vodka, as we would see other times on this river cruise.
Another late night--after midnight when we got in bed. It takes many days to get over jet lag when coming to Russia from the USA!
Day 4 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - Peterhof Palace
The next morning I awoke and threw open the curtains to find the same view of the past three days. We had slept on the Viking Truvor for three nights and still hadn't moved! I'm glad we had lots of time in St. Petersburg to see so much of the city and surrounding areas, but was anxious to sail that evening and see some of the Russian countryside.
Julie and I had our umpteenth tour scheduled--this time an optional tour to Peterhof Palace, which was built by Peter the Great in 1714 during the Great Northern War. Peter had visited Versailles outside Paris, and he wanted his summer palace to rival it. I actually like the exterior of it better than the Catherine Palace because of its wonderful system of fountains and location on the Gulf of Finland. We left the ship at 8:30, so still had to get up early.
Peterhof is about 23 miles or so from St. Petersburg and sits on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland on a huge track of land, all of which is either park or landscaped gardens and fountains. The expansive baroque building is very long like the Catherine Palace, but is yellow rather than blue. Most of the rooms are ornate with lots of gilding, but Peter's study looks much like a man's den would today (except no computer or high def TV). No photos are allowed in the palace and guests must wear the booties to protect the parquet floors. This palace was also destroyed by the Nazis during World War II, but much of it has been renovated, although lots more is still closed.
At 11 am each day during the summer (before October 1), the Great Cascade of fountains is turned on and the many gilded sculptures sparkle in the sun (when it is shining). Our group toured the palace with a guide and then had free time to explore on our own. Julie and I got a good walk in before rejoining the group at noon on the bus to ride back to the ship. We didn't have any traffic on the return ride, which was a nice surprise, and we were back in time for lunch.
The lunches have been very good, and we often get a Russian dish as a selection from the menu. We've especially enjoyed the fresh salads and soups. We actually had a relaxing lunch since our afternoon tour of the Faberge Museum didn't start until 2:45.
Day 4 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - Faberge Museum
The afternoon tour (our fourth optional tour along with the extended Hermitage tour, Peterhof Palace, and the Cossack dancers/musicians) was to the new Faberge Museum, which only opened in 2014. This museum is located in the old Shuvalov Palace in downtown St. Petersburg. This palace has been completely renovated and is almost as spectacular as the private museum, which is not funded by the government.
Russian billionaire Victor Vekselberg (one of the richest men in Russia) bought the 9 Faberge eggs and 180 other pieces for $100 million from the estate of Malcolm Forbes in 2004. He set up a private foundation to exhibit the eggs and to continue to bring other Russian artwork back to Russia. Only 43 of the 50 Faberge eggs made for Nicolas II and Alexandra between 1885 and 1917 survive today, most in the hands of private collectors. Those on this tour saw more Faberge eggs at the Kremlin Armory in Moscow, but the presentation there is not as good as this new museum since you can't view the eggs from all sides or get as close.
It took over a decade to plan, renovate, and set up the Faberge museum, and it's a beauty. The nine eggs are the centerpiece of the collection, which also includes beautiful silver serving pieces, jewelry, paintings, and "curiosities" that the Russian tsars loved. One of the loveliest eggs is the Lilies of the Valley Egg seen in the photo above. This egg was a gift from Tsar Nicholas II to his wife Alexandra in 1898. It is made of gold, ivory, enamel, and glass, with precious stones like diamonds, pearls, and rubies.
The entire exhibit is spread over several rooms, and they don't permit more than 15 people at a time in each room, which allows for easy viewing from all sides of a piece of art. The museum continues to expand, and already has over 4,000 works of decorative and fine arts.
We were especially impressed with the way the paintings were exhibited. The rooms with paintings were very dark, except each painting had its own spotlight with a frame around it that only allowed the painting to have light on it. The result was that each painting looked like a giant ipad or like it was back-lit. Spectacular presentation, and the guide assured us that the lights would not damage the paintings. There were a couple of giant urns in one of the rooms that had the same type of gorgeous lighting, and the painting or urn showed up so much better in a spotlight surrounded by darkness.
Leaving the Faberge museum, we rode back to the Viking Truvor, arriving about 6:30 pm (because of traffic).
Viking also offered an optional tour to a Kommunalka, one of the remnants of Soviet Russia where families came together to live/work. Some of these communes still remain, and tour participants get to enjoy tea, cakes, and conversation with the residents.
We quickly changed clothes and went to the Captain's party at 7 pm when we sailed away from St. Petersburg. They introduced all the major department heads, most of which we already knew. It was already dark when we sailed, but we could see the suburbs of the city as we sailed up the Neva River towards Lake Ladoga, Europe's largest lake.
After the cocktail party, we went to dinner and ate with four retired school teachers about our age. Fun evening, followed by time spent in the Sky Bar listening to music and watching some of the couples dance. One of the other women and I tried a shot (really a double shot) of the Russian Standard vodka, one of the most popular Russian vodkas. At $2.90, it was a great price, especially since diet cokes are $3.20 (except at meals, when they are free like wine/beer). I may learn to like sipping vodka. Probably good I was going home in a week or so.
At 10:15 pm, we went outside to see the ship pass by the famous Russian Oreshek Fortress at Shlisselburg, a town at the junction of the Neva River and Lake Ladoga. It is normally spotlighted in the evening, but for some weird reason it was not. We could see the silhouette/outline of the fortress on the shore of the junction of the lake and the river, but that was all, so we went to bed, knowing we didn't have to set an alarm the next morning.
Day 5 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - Lake Ladoga and the Svir River
Everyone slept in a little on our fifth day on the ship. It was a treat to open the curtains and see the countryside with its autumn colors starting to show.
The Viking Truvor entered Lake Ladoga about 10 pm on Tuesday night and crossed the lake to where the Svir River ran into it. Lake Ladoga is Europe's largest, covering over 7,000 square miles. By 4:30 am, the Viking Truvor was off the lake and on the Svir River, cruising towards our first port of call, Madrogy.
Starting about 4 am, we got into really rough water, and I woke up about 4:15 as we were tossed back and forth. The ship hugged the shoreline, so guess we were lucky that we didn't cross directly or it might have been worse.
I slept until about 8:30 and just went and ate a continental breakfast before going to the first of two lectures that morning at 10 am.
Russian and Your Cruise Lecture
Tour guide Misha did the lecture on "Russian and Your Cruise", which highlighted the geography, climate, political structure, culture, crimes, freedoms, and other items of interest to visitors.
I found it very interesting and Misha addressed most of the misconceptions we all have of Russia. For example, he said that most visitors think Russia is covered with ice and snow and surrounded by KGB. This isn't true, except for parts of northern Siberia, where there is lots of snow, ice, and KGB. He was very entertaining and a little self-deprecating (made fun of Russia, but also very proud to be a citizen).
All of the topics were interesting to me. Russia certainly is bordered by many diverse countries, some of which are not so desirable like Iran and North Korea. Misha said (tongue in cheek) that Russians were very proud that their neighbor North Korea was so popular and in the news almost every day all over the world. Russia has open borders with all its former Soviet Union partners, much like the countries in the European have with each other.
The population of Russia is only 143 million--very low for the world's largest country. About 80 percent are Russian. Other large ethnic groups include the Tartars (Mongols) who conquered Russian 700 years ago. Misha joked that the Mongols still remember it; they are now assimilated but speak their own language. The country also has Inuits in Siberia, Ukrainians, and many other small groups. One problem Russia has always faced is that the Europeans don't think Russians are European, and the Asians don't think they are Asian. So . . .they have kind of "stood alone". The Russian joke is that Asians are crows, Europeans are peacocks, and Russians are turkeys.
Another tidbit is that Russians love President Putin, who has an 89 percent approval rating. (Wouldn't all American politicians salivate over that one!) Misha believes he could be elected forever, with two terms as president followed by a term "away" since their new constitution (done in 1991) doesn't allow more than two consecutive terms. Russia believes they copied the "best" parts of the USA and English governments in setting up their republic when the Soviet system failed. In 1991, the communist party was only 10 percent of the new parliament, but now it has grown to 20 percent since the majority parties have not delivered on their promises. Putin started out as an independent, but is in the United Russia party now. As in most countries, politics is a popular discussion topic in Russia.
I think many Americans would be surprised by the number of freedoms that Russians have that they didn't previously enjoy. For example, Misha said he could listen to one radio station in his car praising Putin as great, push another button, and hear how he was a devil. So, freedom of speech has certainly improved in the past 25 years. Russians are also free to travel, with the most popular destinations being those that don't require a visa like Egypt, Turkey, Thailand, and Israel. Many Russians don't have the funds or the political savvy to fill out the complex USA visa request form. (It's a quid pro quo form--if we have 50 questions, so do they; if they add one more, we add one more, etc.). Plus, many who fill out the form and pay the high fee are turned down for no reason, so give up even trying.
When I traveled to Egypt, I learned that Russia and Egypt had a deal about the Aswan Dam. Russia built the dam and in exchange, Russians can travel to Egypt and stay for much less than they would even in their home country. Misha said a week in Egypt (including air) was about $500 for Russians, versus about $1,500 to travel to the warm part of Russia on the Black Sea.
One other fact about Russia concerns religion. The communists shut down most of the churches and looted the icons and any other worthwhile items. Religion has returned in the past 25 years with a vengeance. Most citizens are Russian Orthodox, but the second biggest religion is Muslim. All other Christian churches are also in Russia, along with Jewish, Buddhist, etc. One woman rabbi passenger on the ship visited Russia right after the fall of the Soviet Union when there were no synagogues. While in St. Petersburg, she and her husband did a private tour of some of the Jewish synagogues, schools, etc. with a local rabbi and she came away very impressed with the changes.
Another big change in the past 25 years is the capitalist system now in place. Russians now have the right to have private property. In the new capitalist country--80 percent of businesses are privately owned; with only three industries completely owned by the government. These are aerospace (airplanes and outer space), all military ships and icebreakers, and nuclear power plants. Misha said that the nuclear plants had seven layers of security and that the western books and movies about nuclear materials being stolen in Russia was just fiction. Hope he is right.
He was very educational and anyone traveling to the country should try and learn something about the basics.
Russian Food and Souvenirs Lecture
Our next lecture was on Russian Food and Souvenirs, presented by Alexye. He talked about famous Russian foods like borscht (beet soup), pelmini (small dumplings shaped like ears and filled with meat or other stuffing like Chinese dumplings), and sauerkraut with cranberries and baked chicken. We had a Russian dish or two each day on the ship. One memorable dish was a lamb soup with rice called Kharcho, although I have to admit the cookies were my favorite.
Russians love appetizers, especially when accompanied by vodka. However, one of Russia's most popular drinks is Kvas, which is made from fermented rye. It is very low in alcohol and young people drink it in place of colas. During Soviet times, it was stored in yellow barrels and milk was in white barrels and then handed out to kids. Coca Cola and Pepsi now both sell their own Kvas in Russia to introduce young ones to their products.
Russian caviar from wild sturgeon is prohibitively expensive since the population of fish was almost wiped out. All caviar now comes from "farm-raised" caviar.
I thought it was interesting that many of the Russian desserts were modeled after similar ones in France. Guess it shouldn't have been surprising since the Tsars were so enamored of the French.
Shopping in Russia
Alexye also discussed buying Russian souvenirs and the best places to buy them. Anything in a shop or retail store has a fixed price, but if buying in a kiosk or on the street from a vendor, it's okay to bargain, especially if you are buying multiple items. This makes sense since the shop workers usually aren't the owners and aren't authorized to sell at a price lower than what is marked (like in the USA). Street vendors are working independently and might bargain.
One word of caution is that you cannot take old icons out of Russia, so anyone who buys one will probably have it confiscated at the airport. Icon painting was a popular art in Russia prior to Soviet times. However, when religions were prohibited and many of the icons destroyed (or hidden), these painters had to find a new craft. Many of them turned to painting lacquer boxes. Four different schools of painting are located near Moscow, and knowledgeable lacquer box fans can distinguish them. Russian fairy tales were the first to be represented on the boxes (replacing religious themes), but now you can find landscapes and other pictures. Of course, since the early 1990's, icon painting has returned, so the lacquer box painters now incorporate religious themes. Those who love to paint can appreciate the patience, steady hand, and good eyes (and good microscope) required to paint with only one bristle on your brush!
I wasn't buying an icons, but appreciate the lecturer telling us the importance of buying a new icon (made in the last 25 years) in a church shop rather than a retail store or street vendor. Why? Icons sold in church shops are "100% blessed"!
Many of us think of Matryoshkas (nesting dolls) as the stereotypical Russian souvenir and representative of Russian culture. Julie and I saw some nesting dolls in a store with 19 different dolls nested! This type of handicraft has only been in Russia for about 100 years and the shape was copied from the island of Honshu in Japan. In addition to the traditional Russian woman, the nesting dolls feature USA presidents, Russian tsars and presidents, the Jackson 5 singing group, and almost every type of sports team imaginable (baseball, football, soccer).
Day 5 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - Mandrogy
After the two lectures, it was time for lunch and then docking in the Svir River town of Mandrogy (also spelled Mandrogi). This little town is on a narrow peninsula and features artists who specialize in making wooden products, pottery, jewelry, painting, crocheting, music instrument making, metal working, and many other handicrafts. Mandrogy was completely destroyed in World War II and even disappeared from maps. In 1996, an enterprising capitalist rebuilt the town with wooden buildings/houses as a place for Russian tourists (and now others) to stopover when cruising between St. Petersburg and Kizhi.
Most of us just explored Mandrogy on our own for the 3.5 hours we were there. However, the ship did have two optional excursions. The first was painting your own Matryoshka doll, which didn't interest me since I had done one before and it was embarrassingly bad. The second was the opportunity to visit a traditional Russian banya for a Nordic bathing experience. I'm not a spa fan, so decided to skip, but my adventurous friend Julie went and loved it.
Julie and I explored the town of Mandrogy for about an hour before her banya appointment. The shops were in old wooden buildings with very low doors and high stoops, so entering each building and each room was a challenge to not trip or bang your head. The crafts were amazing and we watched a jewelry maker work using a microscope to make her delicate wares and the musical instrument maker carving an instrument. We also saw a woman spinning wool and of course some painters. Very interesting. Also many Christmas ornaments, woolen shawls and scarves, lacquer boxes, fur items (many in our group bought fur hats) and other Russian folk art.
I walked with Julie to the bathhouse/sauna and left her with the group. There were six women in the group, and the sauna was extremely hot. After a while, a man came in and poured water and eucalyptus to make steam. While they were steaming, he hit them with a bundle of birch tree branches (with leaves). Julie loved this part. He then took them to a small room next door where he poured a cold bucket of water over their heads. She said it was shocking, but exhilarating. They did this a couple of times and then served tea and cookies. Some in the group (including Julie) then jumped in the river for another thrill. Julie explained part of her temporary insanity by saying that one of the women in the group who jumped in was 80 and another 70. Both of these "seniors" went in the river, so she did too.
Day 5 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - Mandrogy Vodka Museum
While Julie was experiencing the Russian/Nordic bath, I walked around the little town of Mandrogy and stopped in at the Vodka Museum. The entry fee of 250 rubles (less than $5) included a tasting of four different vodkas--not a bad deal!
I had run into some fellow travelers from our ship also going, so we enjoyed the tasting together. The first vodka was "classic", the second "honey and pepper", the third "smooth", and the last one was "cloudberry". I liked the smooth one the best, although the cloudberry would be great for sipping since it was milder. The shop was filled with hundreds of different kinds of vodka. Never dreamed there were so many.
Most vodkas are made from grain, but a few are made from potatoes. Vodka has been commercially distilled in Russia since the 9th century and was first called the national drink in the 14th century. One of the most familiar vodkas, Smirnoff, was produced by Russians who immigrated to France.
By the time I returned to the Viking Truvor, Julie was already back and had taken her shower. The ship sailed from Mandrogi about 4 pm and we went to a briefing on the optional tours in Moscow at 5 pm.
At 6:15, we had a "meet your neighbor" get together in the hallway outside our cabin. They staff served sparkling wine and hors d'oeuvres, and the captain walked around and toasted with us. This impromptu party only started in 2015 and is only on the Viking Truvor. One of the guests suggested the get together when he and his wife learned the last evening on the cruise that their neighbors on the ship lived only about 3 miles away from them in the USA. This passenger suggested that they institute a way to get to know your ship neighbors in case they were also your home neighbors. It was fun since we have met many folks, but not necessarily those across the hall or next door.
At 6:45 we had the daily briefing, followed by dinner. With an early day the next morning in Kizhi, we went on to bed.
Day 6 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - Kizhi Island World Heritage Site
The next morning we awoke in Lake Onega--Europe's second largest lake with almost 4000 square miles. We had been in the largest lake in Europe just two days before. Lake Onega definitely looked like a glacial lake, with 1,650 islands left behind as the glaciers plowed the valley. Very scenic, and the trees were almost (not quite) peak, with lots of brilliant yellows, but also some green. Not many red trees in late September.
The Viking Truvor arrived at Kizhi Island in Lake Onega about 8:00 am and had a tour at 8:30. Don't feel bad if you've never heard of this place, even though it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Kizhi Island's claim to fame are its wooden churches and other buildings that date back to the 15th century. The largest church on the island is the large Transfiguration Church, with 22 domes. This church is the "summer church" since it's not heated. What makes it impressive is that no nails or other metal were used in the construction--just wood. In addition, no saws were used to cut the wood, only an ax. The 300 year old church hasn't been open in over 30 years and is under significant renovation now. Evidently several years ago the building was completely covered and then fumigated to kill the bugs in the wood. However, after fumigation, it started deteriorating even faster.
The second large church on Kizhi is the smaller "winter" church, which is heated. It is called the Intercession Church and only has nine domes. It is right next door to the "summer church" and still used, but has a sad history. In 1937, Soviet soldiers drug the two priests from the church and killed them right on the steps. Many of the icons were preserved and are still inside, which is open to the public.
Legend says that the two churches were built by one man who left no written drawings or plans. He just used his axe (not even a saw). When he completed the project, this unknown builder threw his axe in the lake when he finished the construction since there was not or would be any to match them.
Most of the whole island is part of the World Heritage Site, and there are other wooden buildings on the site, including the world's oldest all-wooden church (a tiny one with one dome) and a traditional house of the region that shows the low doors and that the family slept downstairs and had the animals in the attic upstairs (animals used a ramp to go outdoors). Sure makes you appreciate the southern part of the USA. Looked a little like something out of "Little House on the Prairie", but much colder and remote.
At least the rain held out until after we left Kizhi. We actually had a sailaway party outdoors at 10:30 am on the "sun deck" from the island where they served hot gluhwein and shots of vodka. The two Phillipino entertainers sang and played music, and we all got into the dancing a little.
Day 6 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - Afternoon after Kizhi Island Tour
After leaving Kizhi Island and having a fun sailaway outdoors on the sun deck, the rest of the day we spent on the Viking Truvor. We could be as busy or as lazy as we chose.
The ship had several planned activities to keep us occupied. First, the Executive Captain gave a nautical talk at 11:30 followed by a bridge tour. It's always fun to learn more about how things work on a ship.
Lunch was another good meal. We especially enjoyed the salads and the freshly made pasta. However, we also tried many of the Russian soups, which have been good in the cool weather. Of course, since I love all things Mexican, I tried the quesadilla and chili con carne one day. Both were good.
In the mid-afternoon, we had a Russian tea (complete with samovar for the tea). They had some pastries/cakes, but many of us tried the blinis (pancakes) with sour cream and jam. Very yummy.
I went to the late afternoon briefing on the Romanov dynasty, and their history was as convoluted as most royal families. Many different people, different relationships, and way too many murders. I had read Catherine the Great's biography a few years ago, so wasn't completely befuddled, but I'm sure some of the other attendees were.
We had the daily briefing by Catherine the cruise director. She is excellent, originally from Germany, but has been sailing in Russia with Viking for 9 years. Her nickname is Catherine the Great, and she is amazingly funny/witty.
Viking had the past cruiser's party before dinner. They served a shot of aquavit to celebrate the Norwegian heritage of the company, although their first river cruises were in Russia.
Dinner was another excellent meal. I had a salmon carpacchio and grilled salmon main course. Both were excellent. They also had reindeer on the menu, but I knew it wouldn't be as good as Ronnie's venison (and I love all things salmon).
The Viking Truvor had to pass through six locks during the night as we moved south from Lake Onega into the Volga-Baltic Waterway. Fortunately, we slept right through it.
Day 7 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - Goritzy and Kuzino
We sailed on the Volga-Baltic Waterway most of the morning before arriving at Kirillo at noon. It was nice to sleep in, but we also had another presentation on Russia's history from 1900 to 1985. This story covers the fall of the Czars, the creation of the Soviet Union, and the lead up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Interesting presentation, with some spins I'd never heard before from our Russian guide.
After lunch of another nice Russian soup (this one cabbage) and salad, along with a small helping of their delicious fresh pasta, we had a shore excursion from Goritzy to the monastery at Kirillo. The Viking Truvor had docked at the tiny village of Goritzy during an early lunch. As we walked to the buses for the eight mile ride to Kirillo, we had to walk through a number of shops selling the usual souvenirs--lacquer boxes, nesting dolls, etc. The best item to buy at Goritzy is fur, so a number of women bought fur hats, but I passed.
It was a short ride to the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery. We had a local guide who didn't speak English well (but she understood it), along with our onboard guide Alexey, who translated for her. She told us the winters were much harsher in Kirillo than in St. Petersburg along the coast. When she said they were even worse than the nine months of expectations and three months of disappointment in St. Petersburg we realize this must be a popular Russian joke since we had already heard it a few times before.
The monastery was founded in 1397 by two monks, but it actually looks more like a fortress, with its thick walls and many ports for aiming arrows or guns at oncoming enemy soldiers. At one time, many pilgrims made the trek to Kirillo-Belozersky and made huge donations to support the monastery. Ivan the Terrible was a frequent visitor and helped the monastery to grow with his donations.
By the end of the 17th century, the complex consisted of two monasteries and eleven churches. At one time there were over one thousand monks. Today there are five. In 1764, Catherine the Great took the land and much of the property away from the Monastery and turned the main building into a prison. In 1924, the Bolsheviks closed the monastery. Surprisingly, they did not turn the facility into a gulag for political prisoners as they did many of the other church facilities.
The complex of buildings is impressive, but most visitors today come to see the many icons that were saved from the Bolsheviks. These are in a museum section under glass to protect them from the elements. Many Russians (and Greeks since they are also eastern orthodox) believe that icons are like the Gospel in paint and were used in ancient times to teach the illiterate.
Day 7 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - Visit to a Local School
Leaving the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery, we next went to visit a nearby school where our local guide was a history teacher. The school had about 800 students and over 50 teachers. The school had all grades except kindergarten in one building. It was fun to see the eager young faces and help them practice their English, which was much better than the handful of Russian words we had learned. Some of the students gave a musical performance, and we got a tour of the school and some of the classrooms.
Day 7 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - Onboard Russian Food and Drink
Back to the Viking Truvor river ship by 3:45, we had a Russian cooking class where we learned to make Russian dumplings called pelmeni. The executive chef chose two sous chefs from the onboard guests. The presentation was great fun, especially when he kept taking breaks to have them drink vodka with him. I quickly determined he was drinking water and they were drinking vodka since each had their own bottle. However, they manage to make the dumplings and then we tasted some made earlier in the galley. Very good.
I skipped the second Russian language lesson since I decided it was hopeless. At 6:45 we had the daily briefing with Catherine, followed by a Russian dinner.
The dinner was very good, with many Russian dishes. Our table tried several and shared. At 9:30 we had the vodka tasting in one of the lounges, always a popular event on Russian itineraries. Each table had several plates of food to accompany the vodka--vegetables, pickled herring, pickles, ham, sausage, and bread. We tasted six Russian vodkas, and the assistant maitre'd led the tasting. She taught us a new toast with each vodka, plus showed us different ways to hold and drink the shot. The four of us at our table just had our shot glasses filled half-way each time since we all had wine with dinner. The room got louder and louder after each round. We tried a standard vodka, a premium vodka, and flavored vodkas. All were interesting, but only the first could be bought outside of Russia. Fun time, and we weaved (just a little) on the short walk back to our cabin.
The good news was that we didn't have any planned activities (except breakfast) before a 9 am lecture, that was repeated at 10:15, and no shore excursions until we arrived in Yaroslavl at 3:15 pm.
Day 8 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - Yaroslavl Overview
The next day, we had no activities off the Viking Truvor until 3 pm--just lectures on Russian government and history and one on future Viking Cruises. I had heard that Viking River Cruises was coming to the Mississippi River in 2017, but had not heard that the company was also going to sail on the Amazon River in South America. With 62 ships and several more on order, the company continues to grow rapidly, which is great news for the traveling public.
Had a leisurely breakfast and lunch, and didn't arrive in Yaroslavl (pronounced Yaroslal--the v is silent) until about 3 pm. We had a nice tour of the city on a bus and on foot, visiting the important sites (mostly churches) in the old sector of this city of 600,000 residents. Old town Yaroslavl is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with 140 architectural monuments, many of which are 17th century churches.
Before Soviet times, Yaroslavl had about 54 places of worship operating. The Soviets destroyed over half of these, and at one time, only two held services. Today (after Peristroika), Yaroslavl has about 30 places of worship in the four main religions in Russia--Russian Orthodox, Islam, Jewish, and other Christian denominations). The importance of Yaroslavl's churches is reflected by the Russian government featuring a picture of the Church of Saint John the Baptist (which we didn't tour) on its 100 ruble (about $1.55) note.
Our first stop was at the old Governor's House, which is now the Museum of Fine Arts. We toured the house with one of the "daughters" of the governor dressed in a realistic costume from the 17th century. After touring the palace, we had a concert in the giant ballroom with a pianist, violin, and cello followed by 3 couples demonstrating dances from the era. Of course, after they danced, they found someone from our group to dance with. Very fun.
Our next stop was at the Yaroslavl market in the downtown area. We were surprised to see the chef from our ship passing out samples of local cheeses. Always fun to tour the markets everywhere we visit. Julie and I didn't buy anything, but many people bought spices and nuts.
Back on the bus, we rode a few blocks (good walkers could tour all the old town area on foot, but would have missed the narration from a local guide) to the Church of Elijah the Prophet (Russian Orthodox). This yellow brick church has five blue-green domes. I never realized that the "onion domes" (as we call them) are actually supposed to look like candles. I like that term better, and they do look more like candles than onions. The Church of Elijah the Prophet was built in 1647 to 1650 by wealthy fur traders. In addition to the five domes, the church has a bell tower and a tent roof tower on top the side chapel. The church also has some lovely gardens.
The interior of the Church of Elijah the Prophet has beautifully preserved, vibrantly colored frescoes covering its walls. The frescoes were commissioned in 1680 and depict the life of Elijah the Prophet and domestic life in 17th century Russia. The most discussed fresco is one that shows farmers harvesting grain in a field. This type of activity had previously not been allowed in churches since the frescoes were supposed to only reflect religious topics. Having the peasants working showed that work was worthy. While we were in the church, services were ongoing (it was Saturday night and this church has services morning and night). Interesting to see a small part of the service--only male priests, but women singing in the choir.
Day 8 in Russia with Viking River Cruises- Yaroslavl
Our last stop was at another church, the new Cathedral of Transfiguration, which was finished in time for Yaroslavl to celebrate its 1000th anniversary in 2010 (the city was founded in 1010).
One of the richest men in Russia donated over $100 million to build this new cathedral on the site of where one was destroyed by the Soviets. Since it's in the old district, UNESCO was not happy for a new structure to be added to the old town. They finally approved the church (it's in the old style), but wouldn't allow a bell tower, so the bells are on brackets that sit on the ground. I got the impression from our guide that it was lack of money as much as UNESCO's displeasure that prevented the building of the bell tower.
Before entering this church, we went into a small building next door for a two-song concert by four male singers. They sang a religious song and the "Song of the Volga Boatmen", which I think everyone probably recognizes. These singers were not monks like those in St. Petersburg, but they were also selling their own CDs. I'm not sure where they find these men with such unbelievably bass voices. They are able to reach low notes I've never heard!
After the very short concert, we went inside the new Cathedral of Transfiguration. Like the Church of Elijah the Prophet, they had a service ongoing, so we got to see it and be blessed by the priest who walked around with his incense burner. Some of the priests looked very young, so religion must be returning to Russia.
Day 8 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - Yaroslavl Walk Along the Rivers
Before riding back to the Viking Truvor, we walked along the riverfront promenade to see an overview of a large park on the peninsula that lies between the two rivers of Yaroslavl--the Volga and the Kotorosl. This lovely park features a huge flower bed in the shape of a bear--the symbol of Yaroslavl--plus the current year. The flower bed is replanted each year with the new year.
It was about 6:45 (and already dark) by the time we got back to the ship. Amazing how much you can do in about 3 hours.
Another nice dinner (I had a Caesar salad and grilled perch and ice cream) before heading off to bed. Decided not to go to the Liar's Club game in the bar, although I'm sure Catherine the cruise director and the other liars would be hilarious.
The Viking Truvor sailed for Uhlich about 7 pm and sailed overnight, arriving in Uglich early the next morning.
Day 9 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - Home Visit in Uglich
We were off the Viking Truvor at 8:15 in Uglich, which is on the Volga River and our last stop before Mocow. We had three activities in Uglich--a home visit, a tour of the lovely old churches that sit in a park-like setting on the river near where we were docked, and about an hour of free time to shop in the souvenir market. When I opened the curtains to our balcony when we woke up, we were surprised to see something missing in the sky--clouds. The sun was shining (not overcast), and it was cooler than it's been--about 40--but it warmed up quickly with the sun.
They divided us into groups, and our group did the home visit first. Sixteen of us visited Tatiana, a middle-aged woman who used to work in a bakery, but retired 3 years ago. She and her husband, who works in the Uglich milk plant, have two grown sons and a daughter, along with two grandchildren. She didn't speak English, but we had a local guide, Olga, who translated for her. We took a local bus to our host's home. It was a stand-alone structure, smaller and older than homes in Georgia, but neat and tidy, with a private garden filled with black, rich, dirt all of us would envy along with flowers and vegetables. We also noticed a satellite dish on the side of the house.
We all sat at a large table in her living room and weren't too surprised to see we were served some heavy snacks (even though it was only 8:30 in the morning). Like all Russians, Tatiana started the visit with a toast of homemade "moonshine" vodka. The one she served had raspberries in it and was quite tasty for an early morning nip. We had rye bread, homemade pickles, homegrown buttered potatoes, and homegrown tomatoes to accompany the vodka, and then hot tea and some delicious, very light cake afterwards. Tatiana insisted we try a few shots of the vodka, but most of us made those after the first one to be mini-shots. We toasted to new friends and peace. Very nice, despite the hour.
Day 9 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - Walking Tour of Old Uglich
Leaving Tatiana's, we reboarded the bus and rode back to downtown Uglich to visit the two gorgeous historic churches that sit on the Volga. The first was the Church on Spilled Blood of Prince Dmitry the Martyr. Prince Dmitry was the youngest son of Czar Ivan IV, who is better known as Ivan the Terrible), who died in 1584.
According to our guide, Ivan wasn't really that much more "terrible" than other rulers of the 16th century, although he did institute a reign of terror starting in 1560 after his wife Anastasia died. He earned the nickname "grozny", which actually means "awesome" in Russian, but has been incorrectly translated as "terrible". I can see why Ivan might be called terrible since he killed his oldest son (and heir) with a blow to head. The two men were fighting because Ivan thought his son's wife (his daughter-in-law) was dressed too risque for a pregnant woman and said something to his son. The two men started fighting, and the son died.
Back to Dmitry. Dmitry was epileptic, but his older brother Feodor was "enfeebled", and many thought Dmitry might someday rule Russia. However, Feodor was being manipulated by his brother-in-law, Boris Godunov. Eight year old Dmitry was visiting Uglich when he was found dead. Officially, his death was ruled an accident because they said he threw himself on his sword during a seizure. However, his neck was cut many times, which makes an accidental death seem very unlikely, doesn't it? (Experts seem to be split on this issue, so they are no help.) Dmitry's mother blamed Boris Godunov, and soldiers killed 15 of his men, including a Moscow official. Since the death was subsequently deemed accidental, Dmitry's mother was sent to a remote convent to be a nun. This story is depicted in the Church on Spilled Blood of Dmitry, which was built on he site where he died.
We also saw the remains of the Kremlin (fortress) of Uglich from the outside before going inside the Spaso-Preobrazhenskly Cathedral, where they were having Sunday morning services. (It is also known as the Transfiguration Cathedral.) Like Greek Orthodox churches, everyone stands for the services (except the old and/infirm who have a handful of chairs to sit on). Since services last 2.5-3 hours, it can get very long, but this "suffering" is part of the service.
Our tour ended at the shopping area, where we had plenty of time to shop and there were ATM machines nearby. Lunch back on the Viking Truvor was a terrific Russian buffet.
Day 9 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - Uglich Locks
As we left Uglich, we had a sailaway party up on the top deck with hot chocolate and live music. The Viking Truvor passed through a large lock at Uglich as we moved south towards Moscow. Our first all-sun day continued the rest of the afternoon, so we were hopeful for our time in Moscow. It was a gorgeous day to be outside, and we all enjoyed seeing more of the Russian countryside along the Volga River.
Day 9 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - Sailing on the Volga River
While sailing on Russian waterways, we saw a few sunken churches such as the one in this photo. The Church of Kalyazin see in the photo above and the Krokhino Church are two of these. Both churches were flooded when the Soviets dammed up the Volga and other Russian rivers to make the Volga-Baltic Canal system. If you look closely, a giant satellite dish is in the background of the photo. Quite a contrast to the ancient church, isn't it?
While sailing south on the Volga River, we had the last history talk on President Putin. More new information about him and his government, and definitely a different perspective. I loved hearing a Russian perspective on events where I had only heard the perspective of the western media. All topics were on the table, and we had some lively discussions.
Like in St. Petersburg, we would be very busy in Moscow, so we had the farewell dinner with four more nights on the ship . Really a nice dinner with excellent presentation. I think I haven't mentioned the nice amuse (tiny appetizer) that is served with each each dinner before the appetizer. This time, it was salmon caviar on top of a spoonful of mashed potatoes (how Russian!). Then, I had the smoked butterfish on the top of an apple and celery salad, a chicken-noodle type of soup, grilled salmon with vegetables and a Hollandaise sauce, and a marvelous chocolate dessert. Julie had the liver pate for appetizer and the beef tenderloin for her main course, and we split our main courses.
After dinner, we watched a preview of the onboard video that could be bought and provided on a thumb drive at the end of the trip. The videographer captured one or more photos of everyone, given the response of the crowd.
Soon it was time for bed. We didn't arrive arrive in Moscow until lunch, but have a very long tour of the city that doesn't get back to the ship until about 9:30 pm.
Day 10 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - Moscow City Tour
The next morning we awoke on the Moscow Canal still sailing towards Moscow. We had our daily briefing along with the disembarkaion information since we would be very busy in Moscow like we were in St. Petersburg.
After the briefing, the three tour guides had a question and answer session for about an hour. Many of the questions they couldn't answer because they didn't know, and many were about the future of Russia, which would be like asking us about who we thought was going to be elected in our next election. Some of the questions they skirted, and I don't think it was because they thought the ship was bugged or that there were KGB (now called FSB) agents onboard. I still found the discussion interesting and was surprised how some of our fellow guests had put together such complex questions.
We arrived at the "Port of Moscow" about noon and left the ship at 1:30 for our included bus tour of downtown Moscow. The city's traffic is supposedly the worst in the world, and I think we'd all agree. It took us an hour to get downtown from the port. The driving tour was a highlights view of the city, and we saw many sights from the bus that we would see later in the afternoon on foot. We first stopped near the Novodevichy Convent for a potty break. You had to walk down a couple of flights of steps, but the facility must have had about 15 toilets. (Viking is very good about providing lots of toilet breaks--at least every 2 hours).
Next, we drove to see the view of Moscow from Sparrow Hill, the highest point of the city. We could see Stalin's seven huge apartment/government buildings he had constructed in the 1930's. These seven tall buildings are very grand and look like the Empire State building in shape, but are much shorter and have large "wings" on either side. They are nicknamed Stalin's "Seven Sisters", and are a good example of Soviet architecture. They are spread around the city and at one time they had the red star of the USSR on the top and many other statues honoring Soviet leaders to remind people of their government.
Although all USSR citizens in the socialist state were considered "equal", some people were more equal than others (according to more than one guide). Those who were more equal (such as celebrities, friends/relatives of high-ranking politicians, and rich people) were provided large apartments in one of these seven large buildings of Stalin, while others were often in communal living quarters called Kommunalka. A family would share a large room (without any interior walls) and would also share a bathroom and kitchen with others in the commune. This sounds awful, but was better than nothing, and the price was zero since the government was providing.
Back on the bus, we rode to a Metro station to ride on Moscow's famous subway that carries 7 million people per day. It's a huge Metro system, with the first lines being built in 1932. What makes it interesting is the artwork included in the stations (especially the ones built in Soviet times). The stations are huge and elegant, with long escalators and art deco lights. The one where we boarded was a new station built in 2004. It had a large mural on one wall celebrating Russia's victory over Napoleon. We all crammed into one car and rode 4 stops, exiting at a station near Red Square with 76 large bronze statues honoring the Russian people. This is one of the older stations in the system and was used as a bomb shelter during World War II (the Great Patriotic War). Like much of the priceless artwork in St. Petersburg and Moscow, all the statues in the Metro stations were moved to Siberia during the war for protection.
Day 10 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - Red Square
Red Square looked much the same as it did when I visited 8 years before. However, since it was getting close to dark (sunset is about 6 pm in early October), the large GUM shopping mall was all lit up and very pretty.
Day 10 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - St. Basil's Cathedral
We had about an hour at Red Square before meeting up with the group to go to the Classical Folklore Concert that started at 7 pm. I walked around the Square, making sure to get a photo of famous St. Basil's Cathedral, and browsed in GUM for a bit. Like many other cathedrals in Russia, the Soviets confiscated St. Basil's in the 1920's and thought about destroying the historic church, but decided to turn it into a secular museum.
We had been given a box snack before leaving the ship and then had a late dinner when we returned, so we ate our snack while riding the short distance to the theater. The snack included a sandwich, water, apple, and a bag of crab-flavored Lay's potato chips, which tasted better than they sound, but I'd never buy them.
The Russian Folk Orchestra Moskva concert was a highlight for us all. Talented young musicians played a variety of woodwind, string, and percussion instruments like the balalaikas, domras, accordian, table harp, etc. Amazing music. We all loved it. They also had an opera singer who did 3 or 4 songs. The performance lasted about an hour and a half.
We got back to the Viking Truvor river ship about 9:30. Traffic was still horrible, but we survived. They had a full dinner (order from menu) when we returned. In bed by midnight. Two more full days in Moscow were ahead of us with lots to see and do.
Day 11 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - Tour of Russian Submarine
Our second day in Moscow was a day for the Viking Truvor guests to either select one of the optional tours (extra cost) or to just explore the city on their own using the huge metro system, public bus, taxi or on foot. The Viking River Cruises' staff is quite knowledgeable about Moscow, and they will provide maps and/or directions to visit almost anywhere in the city.
The optional tours included a visit to the Old Tretyakov Gallery, with its Russian artwork and icons from the ages; a visit to the Cosmonaut Museum, where the history of space exploration is demonstrated (from a Russan perspective); Moscow by Night, a bus and river cruise tour of the old city center than ran from 9:30 pm to 12:30 am; a free shuttle bus that took guests into the city center for free time at 10 am and brought them back at 4 pm; and a tour of a Russian submarine that was commissioned in 1980 and decommissioned in 1998.
Many did the full day "on your own" bus since we had a taste of downtown Moscow on Monday, and several more did the half-day Tretyakov gallery tour and then just stayed downtown afterwards and either rode the bus or the Metro back to the ship. Our ship was just a few blocks away from the last stop on the dark green Metro line, so was fairly easy to find as long as you got on the subway going the right direction. Several just rode the subway both directions since it was a reasonable price.
Julie and I wanted to do something other than visit an art museum, and didn't feel like going back into the city, so we thought the submarine tour might be fun. This tour was only 3.5 hours, and we could see the submarine docked on the other side of the canal from our balcony on the Viking Truvor. Another added benefit--it only ran from 10 am to 1:30 pm, so we didn't have to get up too early.
Only 10 of us did the submarine tour--6 men and 4 women. We had a nice escort who translated the guide's Russian into English. The submarine served in the Russian Navy from 1980 to 2000 and had diesel engines, not nuclear, so could only stay below the surface running on batteries for less than a week. The submarine was a Tango-class and its name is the Novosibirsky Komsomolets. The ship never fired a torpedo except in practice. The tour was interesting and similar to those of other submarines I've been on (only smaller).
Before the Russians turned the submarine into a museum, they removed 70 percent of the equipment and material on the inside so that tourists could walk around. They also made some regular doors (rather than round hatches) for tours to walk through. The sub had a crew of 78 with about a dozen officers. Other interesting tidbits--only 2 toilets for the 78 men; only 1 shower per week with only salt water that was heated just a little; men could only brush their teeth with salt water; some of the officers had their own cabins, but the enlisted men had to sleep in the 28 beds available or in hammocks. Some of the men who worked in the torpedo room also slept there and had to call and ask someone to open the hatch to go use the toilet or to eat. The food on all submarines was the best in the Russian navy, and every man got a daily ration of caviar, chocolate, and red wine (for health purposes).
Day 11 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - Screen Ship Simulator
After touring the submarine and checking out a retired vehicle that was called the ekranoplan, screen ship, or ground effect vehicle, we went inside a simulator to have a Disney-World-like experience on the ground effect vehicle that flew a maximum of 30 feet over the water (or land).
The screen ship was like a sophisticated hover craft, but could carry 180 soldiers with their supplies. When we did the simulator (complete with bouncing seats and a dizzying IMAX video), one of the guys in our group commented that the vehicles (the USSR only built five) would have come in handy at the Normandy landings. Unfortunately, the first screen ship was launched in 1989 and the program was discontinued with the break up of the USSR in 1991. Our guide said there was a rumor in Russia that Yeltsin had given the technology to President Clinton, but the USA didn't fund it either. The five screen ships were never used except in training exercises.
We were back on the ship by 1:00, and after lunch walked about 10 minutes to a shopping area at the nearest Metro station. The ship had maps, and it was an easy walk. There was a shopping mall, McDonalds, and large grocery store at the Metro, and Julie and I loved exploring the area, especially since we felt like we were with "regular Russian people". The grocery store had a wide variety of all sorts of items (much more than we thought Russians had), and the mall had shops appropriate for the middle class folks. These shops were different than GUM, which had all the designer names we see at upscale malls.
Although Moscow is the second most expensive city in the world, a big Mac at McDonalds was priced at about $2 and a regular hamburger was less than $1. Fun couple of hours, and then we had the rest of the afternoon to relax before dinner.
Day 11 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - Moscow by Night
Another good dinner on the Viking Truvor, followed by our optional evening tour of Moscow. Since we knew it would be cold, we put on all our clothes and left the ship at 9:30, first riding back to Sparrow Hill for an overview look at Moscow at night. Most of the buildings were illuminated, and the city is beautiful. Next, we went to Red Square to see it at night. GUM Department Store was lit up and had huge spotlights on the Kremlin Wall, making its red brick walls gleem. Our last stop was on the Moscow River, where we boarded a small river boat for a 50-minute tour by water for a different look at the sights. We about froze since we sat outside so we could see better and take photos.
Left the boat about 11:30 pm and were back on the ship by midnight--still lots of traffic, but no snarls. In bed after a cup of hot chocolate, with a 7 am wake up call for our last full day in Moscow--a tour of the Armory and the Kremlin.
Day 12 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - The Kremlin
Our last full day in Russia was a memorable one. The Viking Truvor had an included tour in the morning that visited one of Moscow's most important sites, the Kremlin. Many people think that the world's only Kremlin is in Moscow, but the term means "fortress" to Russians, so most old cities had a Kremlin. The Moscow Kremlin is triangular in shape, walled, and in the center of the city. The first Moscow Kremlin was built in 1150 and was a wooden wall around the city.
This 3.5-hour included tour visited the highlights of the Kremlin, but not the Moscow Kremlin Armory Museum that houses the priceless treasures of the Tsars. The Viking Truvor had a special optional 5-hour tour that saw everything in the Kremlin the included tour saw, but also spent over an hour in the Armory, which is inside the walls of the Kremlin.
We opted for the Kremlin tour that also visited the Armory. After seeing the Faberge eggs at the Faberge Museum in St. Petersburg, we wanted to see the ones in the Armory. Unfortunately, no photos can be taken inside the Armory, but along with the Faberge eggs, it features the Crown Jewels of the Tsars, armor and weaponry, carriages, gifts to the Tsars from other countries, crowns and clothing of the Royal Family, and many items of gold, silver, and precious jewels. The State Armory has over 4,000 of these priceless items.
It's well worth the extra cost, and we needed more time to absorb all we were seeing.
Leaving the Armory Museum, our guide showed us the various churches inside the walls of the Kremlin. These red brick walls are tall and connects 19 guard towers. One wall of the Kremlin faces Red Square, the second runs along the Moscow River, and the third faces a park.
Day 12 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - The Kremlin
The Cathedral of the Annunciation is just one of three major cathedrals inside the Moscow Kremlin. This 15th-century Cathedral was the royal chapel of the Tsars, and its icons and interior are spectacular.
The 15th-century Assumption Cathedral was once the most important church in Russia, serving as the state and cultural center of the country for over 600 years. It is also called the Cathedral of the Dormition. This cathedral was the site of coronations and royal weddings.
The 16th-century Archangel Cathedral was rebuilt after Napoleon's troops destroyed the original, using it for firewood. This cathedral has amazing frescoes and the tombs of 46 princes and emperors who ruled Russia for over 300 years.
While walking around the Kremlin, we also saw the official residence of the Russian President, but President Putin maintains a primary home elsewhere in Moscow.
Our last stop inside the Kremlin was at the Ivan the Great Bell Tower, which was the tallest building in Moscow until the 19th century.
Day 12 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - The Tsar Bell and Tsar Cannon
With all the gold, gilt, and ornate interiors of the cathedrals and armory inside the walls of the Moscow Kremlin, it's interesting that two other items are on most visitor's "must-see" lists. The first is the Tsar Bell, which is the world's largest bell, but has never been rung. It weighs over 200 tons. The bell was destroyed in a fire during the early 18th century, but was re-cast in 1737. During this process, another fire broke out, and water was thrown on the bell. Since it was hot, it cracked and broke. The Tsar Bell is useless, but it's a nice tourist attraction.
The Tsar Cannon was cast in 1586 and weighs about 40 tons. The cannon has ornate decoration and is primarily a piece of art, although supposedly it actually works. Some say it was fired at least once, but modern-day cannon balls are too big for the Tsar Cannon. Like the Tsar Bell, it is primarily used for photo opportunities.
We returned to the Viking Truvor in time for lunch. The river ship had two optional tours in the afternoon. The first was a visit to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, which has one of the largest museums of European art in Russia. The second optional afternoon tour was to the Jewish Museum, which uses modern technology to provide a look at Jewish life in Russia.
Julie and I decided to stay onboard, pack, and get ready to fly home early the next morning. We had a quiet drink in the Sky Bar before dinner and sadly said farewell to the excellent staff onboard the Viking Truvor and the new cruise friends we had met onboard.
We awoke to a surprise our last day on the river ship--snow! We knew that it snowed in Russia in October, and were delighted to see some flurries as we boarded our bus for the airport. The snow meant we had to have our plane wings de-iced, but it was worth it to see Russian snow (even if it was just a little!). Perfect send off for our group of Viking River Cruise travelers.
Day 13 in Russia with Viking River Cruises - Conclusion
Viking River Cruises does an exceptional job of providing an in-depth look at many of Russia's most important sites. This cruise tour included most of the hightlights of St. Petersburg and Moscow, but also allowed guests to see some of the small towns and countryside of western Russia. The superbly-organized tours reminded me of my trip to China with Viking. Everything ran on time and the guides were knowledgeable and helpful.
I would certainly recommend a Russian river cruise with Viking River Cruises to anyone who wants to see a diverse piece of this huge country.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary cruise accommodation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.