With its storied domed cities, grandiose palaces and mix of cultures, Russia offers cruise-goers a fascinating journey along the waterways of the tsars.
For a unique perspective on Russia, take a river cruise. As you journey along its endless waters, gliding from lakes, islands and canals to rivers alongside fortune blessed cities heaving with bejewelled domes or humble timber-made riverside settlements edged by wild boar forests and peasants toiling the land.
The Volga, the longest river in Europe, flows entirely within Russia, stretching 2,290 miles through fairy-tale villages and grand domed cities to reach the mighty torrents of the vast Caspian Sea. Known affectionately as ‘Mother Volga’ in Russian folklore, the Volga rises north-west of Moscow in the verdant ridges of the Valdei Hills and meanders towards the country’s storied capital.
It then winds southwards through umpteen history-rich settlements and 11 great cities, spawning squiggly tributaries along the way. Conjuring up exotic visions of Russian tsars, powerful dynasties, gilded towers, peasant folklore and KGB subterfuge, the settlements of Mandrogi, Goritsy, Yaroslavl, Nizhny Novogorod, Kazan, Makaryev, Plyos and Kostroma can all be visited during a Volga river cruise. Many begin at Lake Lagoda, in Russia’s north west, close to the Gulf of Finland in the basin of the Baltic Sea. Stretching 136 miles, and speckled with 660 islands that include the Valaam archipelago, Lake Ladoga drains into the Gulf of Finland via the Neva River. As part of the Volga-Baltic Waterway it links the River Neva to the forest-trimmed River Svir and Lake Onega, thus connecting to Europe’s two largest lakes. This diverse puzzle of waterways means that river ships must navigate several Russian rivers, lakes and canals to link St Petersburg and Moscow – a cruise that passes rugged flagtopped fortresses, quaint wooden villages, wooded isles, UNESCO World Heritage Sites and prized national parks alike.
Set on the northern banks of Lake Ladoga, on the outskirts of Leningrad Oblast, Mandrogui is the largest of the Valaam Archipelago’s isles. Famous for its rustic gingerbread-like wood-crafted homes and cobblestone paths, Mandrogui oozes fairytale charm and provides visitors with a fascinating insight into the simplicity of pre-revolutionary rural Russian life. Russia, Sweden and Finland have all laid claim to Mandrogi but calm reigns now on this timeless isle where traditions are preserved and olden customs observed.
You’ll find more olden Russia at the open-air museum in the north-west region of Lake Onega. Kizhi Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site comprising restored traditional 18th-century buildings, is famous as the home of the Church of the Transfiguration with its 22 wondrous onion shaped domes and a beautiful mosaic on a gold ground that is briefly illuminated when the sun strikes a glass plate set into the floor.
In stark contrast, the treasure-trove of historical and architectural treasures in St Petersburg owes little to humble simplicity. Rich in baronial hues, the city’s buildings glint with emerald-greens and gold: a grandiose realisation of the 18th-century vision of Peter the Great. Visitors can marvel at the Peter and Paul Cathedral, a burial place of all the Russian Emperors and Empresses from Peter the Great to Alexander III; browse the impressive collection of three million paintings, sculptures and artefacts at the Hermitage Museum, a rival to the Louvre; or simply enjoy a stroll around the flowerfilled gardens and café-hemmed squares to soak up
the joy and romantic mystery of this extraordinary and exciting city.
Goritsy is visited for its magnificent 14th-century Cyril-Belozersky Monastery, crammed with historic grandeur and one of Russia’s “New Seven Wonders”. Set on the banks of the Sheksna River, a tributary of the Volga River, the village centre’s numerous bakeries sell delicious freshly baked breads and pastries. More mesmerising historic architecture is found in the UNESCO-protected centre of Yaroslavl, Russia’s second largest city during the 17th century. Home to 40 churches, the Church of St Elijah the Prophet and its stunning frescoes are a crowning glory, created using the finest architects, painters, smiths, goldsmiths and carvers.
Set in the heartland of Russia, Nizhny Novgorod is the third largest city in the country, set at the confluence of the Oka and Volga
rivers. As the vibrant hub of the Volgo-Vyatsky region, Nizhny Novgorod was known as Gorki until 1990 when it reverted to its pre-revolutionary name. Founded by the Grand Prince Yuri in 1221, the city is home to two glorious medieval abbeys: The Monastery of the Caves and the Annunciation Monastery. Both are surrounded by robust, stone walls and feature imposing five-domed cathedrals and churches. Steeped in tales of espionage, Nizhny Novgorod was once a stronghold of spies and repression. Dark secrets still lurk – for the lowdown, pop into the Sakharov Museum, the building where the Nobel Laureate dissident scientist spent six years in exile, for the scoop on some eyepopping Cold War secrets.
In Kazan, the former Tartar Khanate capital, an intertwined Europe-meets-Asia culture reflects its location close to the juncture of two continents. The UNESCO World Heritage Site at the Kazan Rich in Kremlin is a real highlight; a complex of milk white buildings dating back to the 16th century, dominated by the grand Spasskaya Tower.
Of the ‘Gold Ring’ of historic towns that skirt Moscow, Plyos is by far the smallest – yet this diminutive settlement boasts beauty that has inspired generations of artists and poets. Set on a steeply banked riverside, without any great monument or edifice to shout about other than a 17th-century cathedral, this most picturesque of settings is memorable for its quaint, easy charm. From here, popular excursions run to historic Suzdal on the Kamenka River. Kostroma is much-visited for its white-washed swathe of arcades that stretch from the square down to the Volga. Here, vendors sell brightly-coloured blooms, sweets, fish, fruit and vegetables as well as kvas, a fermented drink of amber hues, made from rye bread and flavoured with fruit juice.
Capital city Moscow, with its vast red-brick towered Kremlin complex, Patriarch’s Palaces, gold-domed churches, imposing Red Square and oligarch mansions is a colossal city with hundreds of sightseeing opportunities. Mixing contemporary culture and Soviet austerity with the lavish influences of modern Russia, the city is packed with chandelier-decked theatres, plush art galleries, swanky
wine bars and bohemian cafés. The 16th-century St Basil’s Cathedral and Lenin’s Mausoleum are popular draws with the glory days of Sputnik and the Soviet space programme relived in high style in the Cosmonautics Museum. To contemplate the turbulence of Moscow’s past, pull up a chair at Café Pushkin and order vodka by the bottle in amongst the newspapers, caviar menus, antiques and tomes.
Alternatives to the Volga River include cruises along the birdrich River Dnieper, the fourth-longest river in Europe, which are often offered as Ukrainian-Belarus-Russian itineraries. Stretching for over 1,400 miles, the Dnieper River rises in Russia and empties on the Ukrainian Black Sea Coast. The historic Russian cities of Smolensk and Dorogobuzh are part of the most popular programmes. Wherever you choose to take your Russian river cruise, you’ll have gained an insight into the country’s hidden gems, many of which are squirrelled away in corners poorly served by airpots or highways.
Your Cruise Planner
Our pick of Cruise holidays on the Russian Waterways
8 days aboard MS Lev Tolstoy
Moscow, Uglich, Goritsy, Kizhi, Mandrogi, St Petersburg
0808 134 9952 – riverfleet.com
8 days aboard MS Alexander Pushkin
Moscow, Uglich, Yaroslavl, Goritsy, Kizhi, Mandrogi, St Petersburg
From £1,088 including economy class return flights from London
0844 875 4026 – intouristuk.com
TRAVEL ALL RUSSIA
11 days aboard MS Shashkov
St Petersburg, Mandrogi, Kizhi, Goritsy, Yaroslavl, Uglich, Moscow
0800 242 5155 – travelallrussia.com
VIKING RIVER CRUISES
13 days aboard Viking Truvnor
Moscow, Uglich, Yaroslavl, Kuzino, Kizhi, Mandrogi, St Petersburg
0808 256 1702 – vikingrivercruises.co.uk
13 days aboard River Victoria
Moscow, Uglich, Yaroslavl, Kizhi, Mandrogi, St Petersburg
0800 988 5867 – uniworldrivercruises.co.uk