Story and photos by Barbara Angelakis
Additional photos by Manos Angelakis
Waterways of the Tsars
Viking River Cruise
Once again we find ourselves on a Viking River Cruise, this time to Russia, and a journey through the “Waterways of the Tsars”. When I think of Russia I think music, literature, dance; horse drawn sleds in romantic snowy landscapes; golden domed churches; opulent palaces and priceless jewels… and borscht (beet soup). On our Viking cruise we had a chance to experience all that and much more.
Our Viking ship was named after the first Russian Dynasty’s progenitor Rurik, who may or may not have been a Viking (Varangean in Russian) Prince, and may or may not have been ”invited” in 862 to rule the territory of Novgorad (one of Russia’s oldest regions). Nevertheless his family took root, expanded their territory and ruled what became known as Kievan Rus until 1598. Their history of royal intrigue ended with the murder of Tsarevich Dmitry, last surviving son of Ivan IV, better known as Ivan the Terrible, and sadly set a tragic example for the Romanov’s rein that succeeded them. The Romanov Dynasty lasted a mere 300 years ending with the abdication and murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. As fascinating as Russia’s chaotic and bloody history is, we did not come to revisit it, we came to see the Russia of today and marvel at what the Russian people created amidst all the turmoil of the past.
Russia covers 1/8th of the world’s surface and boarders 14 different countries. It spans the two continents of Europe and Asia, touches 12 oceans and seas, and includes 11 time zones. There are 144 million inhabitants with all 27 regions speaking one language… Russian!
We joined the Rurik in Moscow where the ship was our base for three days of exploring the capital city. Viking includes daily tours per city and offers a great selection of optional excursions. In Moscow there were a large number to choose from depending on your interests. (for details visit Moscow: City of Golden Domes) Every day was filled with adventure but there was still time for just relaxing, making new friends, and sampling the Russian cuisine that was offered daily.
Viking Cruises are extremely well organized with an eye to making the journey enjoyable and effortless. Necessary travel information and documents are mailed to guests prior to departure along with tips on the country to be visited and suggestions for dress on board and while touring. Included is a personal itinerary booklet outlining each guest’s individual activities, programs and transfer information. On the ship, daily schedules are placed nightly in your cabin during turn-down service and are filled with interesting facts and history about the next day’s port-of-call. Shopping suggestions are also covered and there is a gift shop on board featuring authentic quality items.
Our cruise got under way on the Moscow Canal, an 80-mile long manmade waterway that links the Moskva and Volga Rivers. Building the Canal flooded many small villages, a lone surviving remnant of the project that Joseph Stalin in 1932 ordered millions of prisoners from his Gulag forced-labor camps to dig, is a church steeple rising out of the water on a bit of land erected to protect it… a sad sight as we sailed past. As we left the Canal we passed the statue of Mother Volga standing tall as she gestures us onward into one of the world’s great waterways and the longest river in Europe.
Our first stop was the historic town of Uglich known for the place of exile of Ivan the Terrible’s seventh and final wife Maria Feodorovna Nagaya and their son Dmitry, heir to the throne. Tsarevich Dmitry suffered from epilepsy and was unsuited to rule. Sadly he was not destined to live a long life and at the age of 8, he died of a slashed throat which was later declared a self-inflicted accident. Unfortunately for the people of Uglich “his accident” was viewed by a loyal servant who ran to the church's bell tower to call-to-arms the villagers who rushed to the scene and caught and stoned to death the two attackers that had caused the “self-inflicted” injury. Boris Godunov, Dmitry’s foster father who was Imperial Adviser and acting Regent until Dmitry was old enough to take the throne, declared the villagers guilty of murdering the “innocent strangers” and ordered them all put to death. He also punished the bell by removing its clapper and having it thrown from the steeple with the added indignity of sending it into exile. The disgraced bell has only recently been returned to Uglich after 300 years.
On a much happier note we visited a farmhouse where we were hosted by the farmer and his wife with tea and the most wonderful apple cake plus, of course, home-made vodka which the farmer indicated we should drink down neat in one gulp. Many of our group asked for seconds which pleased the farmer greatly and added to the gaiety of the visit.
The Golden Ring City of Yaroslavl was our next stop. Golden Ring cities line the Volga River and are considered the most picturesque in Russia. These are some of Russia’s oldest towns and home to the most important Cathedrals and “Kremlins”. Yaroslavl was founded in 1010 by Prince Yaroslav the Wise of Kiev, and is called the city of churches, many of which were built in the 17th century. The Church of Elijah the Prophet’s interior is covered from floor to ceiling with brightly colored perfectly preserved murals and frescoes, including some rare illustrations of the domestic life of 17th-century peasants.
We stopped for a concert in another church to hear Vuvat, a gifted group of a cappella singers of Russian sacred and folk music, and we paid a visit to the food market for a taste of local specialties.
Yaroslavl is a beautiful city with well-maintained buildings painted in pastel colors, broad boulevards and green spaces. We toured the House of Governors with the “governor’s daughter” in period dress. At the end of our tour she joined with other “sons and daughters” in the ballroom to dance, accompanied by a three piece ensemble of piano, violin and base, also clothed in period dress. This was definitely the highlight of the day with many of us joining in the dance or just sitting and appreciating the wonderfully talented musicians.
All the action did not occur off the Rurik, on-board we had lectures prior to our tours and lessons on Russian history , culture and language, nightly entertainment and special vodka and wine tastings and a cooking class, to keep us as engaged – and knowledgeable - as we choose to be.
After a morning of unsettled weather entering Lake Onega, we docked at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Kizhi Island, and although it was unseasonably overcast and chilly, this proved to be one of my favorite stops. The island is an Open Air Museum of Architecture, but the piéce de résistance for me was the tallest structure on the island, the spectacular 22-domed wooden church of Transfiguration. The fantastical 1714 church, built without a single nail, is an architectural masterpiece of creative design, and even though it is under total reconstruction it is still an extraordinary sight. Sadly, unstable ground and insufficient foundation almost brought this unique church down. After several failed attempts to stabilize the church, they finally have the technology to dismantle it from the bottom up, reinforcing as they go, and by 2020 it will once again stand gloriously silhouetted against the sky.
A few of the reconstructed onion domes lay on the ground patiently waiting to take their place at the top of the church and so we had a bird’s eye view of the layered shingle construction close up. The church was built without heat and was for summer services only so an adjacent smaller Church of the Assumption was constructed nearby for winter services for the locals that remained on the island.
The island’s population lived in large self-contained wooden structures housing not only extended families but their animals and farm equipment as well. Winters were often so harsh inhabitants were housebound until the spring thaw. We visited an original farmhouse where locals were demonstrating some of the daily tasks that kept the family occupied during the long dark winter months.
Our last stop before St Petersburg was Mandrogy, a small village destroyed during World War II and which lay in ruins until 1996 when an enterprising Russian by the name of Sergei Gutzeit reconstructed it as a sanctuary of traditional village life. Not only is Mandrogy a haven for keeping alive Russian crafts, but dozens of wooden buildings have been brought to the island for preservation. Many of the buildings have been brightly painted with fantasy images while inside artisans demonstrate their crafts providing a photo op inside or out. We also stopped at a well-know bakery specializing in Russian pelmeni, a meat filled dumpling that is fried or boiled and served in soup or topped with sour cream.
In St. Petersburg, the Viking Rurik was again our hotel for three delicious days of seeing some of the world’s most glamorous sites. Tours included a visit to the Hermitage, one of the most impressive museums in the world and housed in a palace which is a prime example of the excessive opulence of the Romanovs; a performance of Swan Lake by the Kirov Ballet; a walking tour of the city including the iconic Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood; a visit to the spectacular palace of Catherine the Great, sometimes referred to as “whipped cream” architecture; and optional tours too numerous to mention. However a few not to be missed tours are a visit to Peterhof, Peter the Great’s Palace fashioned after France’s Versailles; Moscow by Night to see the city’s iconic buildings and bridges illuminated from the water; and the Treasures of the Kremlin Armory, a priceless collection of royal bling.
St. Petersburg was built to be a showcase by Peter the Great, and to this day the city and its environs’ lavish treasures are a testament to his vision.
Editor’s Note: When flying out of St. Petersburg, unless you plan on returning to Russia in the near future, make sure to divest yourself of all your Rubles before entering the airport. All purchases, even food, were priced and paid in Euros… not Dollars… not Rubles… only Euros. Credit cards are also accepted.
Visit www.vikingrivercruises for information on this and other Viking River Cruises
© August 2018 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.