Thirteen days traveling the waterways of the czars: a chance to walk in the footsteps of Catherine the Great, visit the Hermitage, see the onion domes of St. Bart’s Cathedral, visit the opulent palaces of Peter the Great; tour the landmarks of Moscow such as the famous red brick enclosure known as the Kremlin, Red Square and walk the canals of St. Petersburg. Those were the promises from Viking River Cruises when we decided to spend our summer vacation in Russia and we were not disappointed.
Arriving in Moscow, we suffered through a tangle of bureaucratic paperwork trying to find our errant bags. We soon learned that Muscovites have little patience or use for tourists – follow the rules, wait, fill out the paperwork in triplicate, wait, wait and someone will see you (or not). Airport personnel must be trained in eye contact avoidance. Any attempts to be pleasant were rebuffed. Fortunately, we were reunited with our bags (one went to Charles de Gaulle, while the other to LaGuardia from Atlanta – go figure) the next day with only another three-hour wait at the airport, which I found very fortunate since there were other couples on the boat who were three days without their luggage.
There are 11 million people in Moscow … they all drive … and they are all on the roads at the same time! Viking provided amazing half-day tours but added at least one to one and one-half hours of travel time at the beginning and at the end to allow for the traffic. The weather for our first day in Moscow was 60s and rain. We saw the Bolshoi Theatre (undergoing renovation) and toured the Kremlin and Red Square. Red Square would have been more populated and impressive without battling the wind and umbrella, but stopping in GUM Department Store for a cappuccino and a chance to dry out was wonderful. The colorful domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral, located at the end of Red Square, are quintessential Moscow. It was fun to experience the city’s metro. Located four stories below ground, the Metro is awash in light, marble and amazing mosaics. The trains were on time, clean and easy to navigate. We finished the day in the city center for an evening performance of traditional Russian folkloric music.
Day two was spent touring the Novodevichy (New Maiden) Convent and Cemetery, the city’s third most popular site. The Convent was founded in 1524 and the park-like cemetery is the final resting place for political leaders such as Nikita Khrushchev and Boris Yeltsin; authors, intellectuals, playwrights and artists.
Day three found us at the State Tretyakov Gallery, the world’s foremost museum of Russian fine art housed in 62 rooms with more than 100,000 works of painting, sculpture and graphics, beginning in the 11th century through early 20th century, including Kandinsky, Chagall and Molevich on display.
Traveling by boat is a very relaxing way to travel. Board the boat, unpack your bags and relax. We had the opportunity to be immersed in a country we had only read about, learn a few words in a very difficult language and be part of traffic gridlock that lasted for hours! But, we also saw the other side of Russia – quaint riverside towns like Yaroslavl, Uglich and Mandrogy that were reached by river cruise.
We toured the villages of Uglich, home to the former Kremlin and the site where Ivan the Terrible’s son was mysteriously killed, the amazingly detailed frescos at the Church of St. Elijah in Yaroslavl and in Kizhi, the collection of wooden houses as well as the three-tiered Transfiguration Church, built in 1714, without a single nail.
Arriving into St. Petersburg, past St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Peter & Paul Fortress and Nevesky Prospect brought lightness to the trip. From Moscow’s dark and industrial buildings to suddenly viewing the Winter Palace and the Hermitage was quite remarkable. Moscow began in the 12th century but St. Petersburg was created in 1712 by Peter the Great, who called on the best architects in Europe to build his capital city. The city has been called Petrogrand (1914), Leningrad (1924) and again, St. Petersburg (1991) and there are remains of all of these changes. Also called the Venice of the North, St. Petersburg has more than 300 bridges and is built on a series of canals like the city of Venice, Italy.
The must-see in the city is the Hermitage, situated in the centre of St. Petersburg and consists of the Winter Palace, the former state residence of the Russian emperors, the buildings of the Small, Old (Great) and New Hermitages, the Hermitage Theatre and the Auxiliary House. Begun in 1764 by Catherine the Great who needed a location to house her growing collection of Western paintings — the collection is so large that one could spend 30 seconds viewing each piece of art 24/7 for 30 years and still not see everything … beautiful but quite overwhelming.
On the other hand, Catherine’s Palace is the smaller residence of the Russian Czars and could easily be seen as a home – even with the elegant Rocco embellishments, ornate décor, famous Amber Room — room after room presenting the extravagance of the Imperial Rulers.
Another royal home, Peterhof Palace has French Gothic interiors, beautiful fountains and landscaped gardens. We arrived early and were able to enjoy the tour without the total crush of humanity that came later. Peterhof Palace is one of St. Petersburg’s most famous and popular visitor attractions and is often referred to as “the Russian Versailles.” Versailles was indeed the inspiration but I think it does a disservice — the palace and grounds elude a more intimate feeling.
The parquet floors in each palace are intricate and have retained their beauty even after hundreds of years – in part because each visitor was required to wear cloth booties over their shoes. What a novel way to keep the floors polished … by the sliding (and skating) of hundreds and hundreds of feet.
Travel from Moscow begins on the Volga River, across Lake Onega, Europe’s second-largest lake, along the scenic Svir River, across Lake Ladoga, Europe’s largest lake and into St. Petersburg on the Neva River.
Due to the change in elevation, the boat traveled though 16 locks. Along the river banks, ancient towns that make up the Golden Ring cities are visible, each with multicolor onion domes on the cathedrals. At each stop, an English-speaking guide was available, many of who were high school teachers eager to share a piece of their culture. These individuals were able to bring history to life, to make us fully appreciate the detailed frescoes and icons.
Viking River Cruises was a wonderful way to travel and I would highly recommend this manner of travel. I loved having a “floating hotel” and enjoyed three amazing meals per day; all tours were designed to make certain the passengers were on board for all meals. Even late evening performances included a light meal. The chef offered creative choices – you could be adventurous or not – it was your choice.
Each tour, lecture and event began on time (a real plus), the staff was professional and more than helpful. We booked our entire trip through Viking and paid additional for an airline upgrade to business economy. Little did we know, or were told, that upgrade was for trans-Atlantic travel only! Considering this amounted to 40 percent of our trip, I may have indeed booked the upgrade, but felt that I was taken advantage of by not being told. Anyone planning a similar upgrade should definitely make certain they receive all relevant information.
Shopping opportunities were plentiful from shops or street venders. During the visit to the artist’s colony of Mandrogy, visitors could watch potters, woodcarvers, metal working, nesting doll painters, jewelers, ceramics, weavers and paper makers.
My summer vacation was informative, amazing and a chance to immerse myself in another culture – to see places where history happened and walk in the halls of palaces that were amazing beyond belief. Russia was not on my bucket list – but I can take it off just the same! Now where to next year?
Lynn Pike is a resident of Waxahachie and a frequent contributor to the Daily Light.