Early May may not be the best time to book a Russian waterways cruise from St. Petersburg to Moscow. We embarked on May 8th, but, unfortunately, spring was reportedly “ three weeks late” and our trip was impeded by ice. From the Neva River in St. Petersburg, we cruised to Ladoga Lake, the largest lake in Europe. Due to the still present ice on the lake, all ships were required to line up and wait for an ice breaker to escort them through as a convoy and we were not able to sail after dark. We cruised past miles of birch and other trees and I couldn’t help thinking that it must be beautiful in the fall.
We were on the MS Tolstoy which, built for high ranking Kremlin officials and visiting dignitaries, claims it is the “best” ship on the waterways in Russia. I’m sure that’s debatable. According to our tour director, the Tolstoy is better than other ships because there is more space, a pool (albeit small), pool bar, and the restaurant is superior. Our ship did not have an elevator; there are some that do.
If you are taking a Russian waterways cruise, you might want to consider upgrading your accommodations from a standard to a larger cabin. The extra space is worth it – especially if you are relegated to the ship for 2 full days as we were. If you are in a smaller cabin and begin to feel claustrophobic, try sleeping facing the window with the inner drapes open.
Our ship’s staff was friendly and enjoyed the few words of Russian I had learned. I was thankful that except for breakfast there were no buffets. Lunch included two courses and dessert. Dinner was 3 courses, dessert, and a complimentary glass of wine. Foods from various parts of Central Asia and Eastern Europe were featured. There were 3 choices for the entree at lunch and dinner – meat, fish, or vegetarian. Coffee, tea, and “biscuits” (cookies) were always available. The food was good and certainly plentiful enough for us.
Due to the ice, we missed our first two days’ ports at Mandrogi and Kizhi Island. Those of you who have visited Mandrogi may take exception, but I don’t think we missed much. It is a small village built 20 years ago to present Russian handicrafts to tourists. Working craftsmen can be observed but the market displays items available at craft and souvenir markets all over Russia and, according to our tour director, at higher prices.
I was disappointed that our second stop at Kizhi Island, 224 miles northeast of St. Petersburg was cancelled. We missed the Church of the Transfiguration, a 22 domed structure constructed entirely of wood as well as the open air museum dedicated to preserving the culture and architecture of the area, including structures dating from the 14th century. But, alas, the ice surrounding Kizhi was 15 feet deep. My husband, however, thought that cruising through the ice was far more interesting than yet another church.
Our two days at sea were filled with typical cruise ship itinerary – Russian history, language, fairy tale, and handicrafts lessons, and, of course, high tea, blini and vodka tasting!
On our third day, we were able to dock in Goritsky in the “Russian North”. One third of the area is national forest and there are a number of lakes. Buses whisked us to Kirill-Belozersky Monastery, founded in the 1300s and one of the biggest in Russia. There is a museum featuring original icons and embroidery. Men painted the icons while women copied them with embroidery. After touring the summer resort town Kirillof, population 8,000, we returned to Goritsky, population 600 to explore it on our own and shop at the tourist market which featured handicrafts and fur products, some made from pelts from the local mink farm but not of the best quality. Walking about the town reminded us of Alaska and we could easily see Russia’s influence in the development of some areas of that state.
Yaroslavl, the 1001 year old city in “The Heart of Russia” with a population of 640,000 was our next stop. We had cruised south, so trees were beginning to turn green and early flowers were blooming. After visiting a 12th century monastery and the local produce and product market, we toured this once second largest city in Russia with its many unique churches and neo classical buildings. Noted for its lacquered painted boxes, some of the most beautiful ones in Russia are sold here. Yaroslavl is also the home of the first theater with performances in Russian rather than French. We learned that the gold on the domes of many of the churches in Russia signifies God, not opulence and green signifies eternal life. The interior of Church of Elijah the Prophet has elaborate frescos and icons. The souvenir stalls at the monastery offered a variety of hand made objects of decent quality and fair prices.
Our last port was Uglich, a town on the Volga River of almost 39,000 founded in 937 known as “Little Switzerland” due to its local cheese and Chaika enamel watches. The approach to Uglich with the shimmering red, green, blue, and gold of its cathedral and churches among the spring greenery was quite beautiful. We went in groups of 12 for breakfast with a local family. Our hosts were very welcoming and served kasha (porridge), local bread, butter and cheese, blinis with home made jam and herbed tea from an antique samovar. Afterward, they coaxed us into dancing with rousing Russian folk music and bedecked us in colorful scarves.
Our local guide led us on a tour of the small city, with a stop in two churches to hear a local acapella group in one and view yet more beautiful icons in the other. The walk back to the ship brought us along “Temptation Alley”, lined with street vendors selling a wide assortment of handicrafts and souvenirs.
Back on board, as we approached Moscow, we passed many other cruise ships. There are various tour companies in the US who offer similar cruises, as well as groups from countries throughout Europe, Asia, and other parts of the world. It was a harbinger of the activity that awaited us in Moscow.
The imperial waterways cruise was 860 miles long and took us through 10 bodies of water including the aforementioned largest lake in Europe, Europe’s longest river and longest manmade canal. Except for our stops and a few small towns, most of the trip’s scenery was miles and miles of forestland.