A Viking Russia river cruise from Moscow to St Petersburg is the opportunity to experience the cultural and historical treasures of Russia, discovers Liz Jarvis.
As something of a magpie, I am easily attracted to shiny, sparkly things. But the Fabergé eggs on display at the Kremlin Armoury in Moscow are something else. There are other royal treasures to marvel at – including ball gowns with hand-span waists, an array of carriages belonging to the Imperial Family and variously-sized swords and daggers and muskets – but those nine priceless eggs are by far the most appealing exhibits for me.
My favourites include the Clock Egg, which was given by Tsar Nicholas II to his wife Alexandra; the poignant Alexander Palace Egg, which includes portraits of the five Romanov children, including Anastasia; and the frankly adorable Trans-Siberian Express Egg, with its tiny clockwork train and carriages made of pure gold. If I could pick one egg, it would be that one.
Yet it’s impossible to view these jewels, or indeed any of the splendours of Imperial Russia, and not think of them within the context of the Russian revolution. We leave the armoury to find the changing of the guard in full flow, and as we stand watching the procession underneath the shadow of the golden onion domes, it feels as though we have been transported back to 1917.
Every moment of Viking’s Waterways of the Tsars cruise tour is like this, filled with awe and wonder but also the lessons of history are never far from our minds.
Our ship, Viking Akun, has three decks including a very nice sun deck, and the rooms are spacious and spotless, with fantastic showers. The first day in Moscow includes a Metro ride into the capital, with frequent stops to marvel at some of the most impressive ceilings and sculptures found along the way. Definitely a change from the Northern Line.
Arriving in Red Square we are greeted by the Bolshoi Ballet building and given free time to explore on our own. It is always strange seeing an iconic building you have seen so many times on the news in real life and St Basil’s Cathedral, with its swirling onion domes, doesn’t disappoint.
Afterwards we are given Russian chocolate and taken by coach to see a wonderful performance of traditional dance and music with instruments including the balalaika and a rendition of ‘Somewhere My Love (Lara’s Theme)’ from Dr Zhivago, which always makes me cry; there isn’t a dry eye around me.
The next day, feeling emboldened by our Metro tour, a friend and I decide to ride the subway back into Moscow, taking more photos as the doors open at our favourite stations along the way.
Travelling independently around a foreign city is enormously empowering, even if you’re never really sure where you’re going, and we start to feel like true Muscovites as we wander along the streets, admiring the vanilla stucco buildings and stopping for lunch at a corner café where everyone except us is local. Ordering food is a game of roulette, since neither of us speaks or reads Russian and no one speaks English, but our pastries are warm and delicious – whatever the filling is.
Afterwards we head to the GUM department store, with its chi-chi boutiques, and extraordinarily overpriced loo, which results in us scrabbling around for coins. It’s much less appealing to me than the magic of Red Square when the sky turns as inky-black as the Moskva River and the iconic architecture is illuminated.
We sail along the Moscow Canal through forest-lined shores and past the impressive 80-foot statue of Vladimir Lenin, where the canal meets the Volga River, before arriving in Uglich, for one of my favourite experiences: tea with a babushka (Russian grandmother).
Our babushka has put together all kinds of homemade treats for us, including pickles grown in her garden, eggs from her hens, and blackcurrant jam sponge. It’s all served on her best china, with pots of tea and copious quantities of vodka, which she pours with relish, never leaving our glasses empty.
She also shows us photos of her grandchildren, but the most interesting part of the experience is being able to ask her (through our excellent guide and interpreter) about the changes she has seen, from growing up under Soviet rule, to Glasnost (food ran out, and bills went up she tells us).
Everything about Russia is unpredictable, including the weather. We arrive in Yaroslavl to bitterly-cold winds and after valiantly walking around for 20 minutes we retreat first to a café, and then to the sanctuary of Viking Akun, where the friendly crew greet us like long-lost friends and I’m grateful for a hot chocolate with whipped cream.
One of the things that surprises me most about this cruise is the quality of the food on board; it’s not a big galley, but somehow the chef manages to conjure up the most imaginative menu every day, including a selection of traditional Russian dishes.
I swiftly become addicted to the freshly-baked pretzel rolls, served warm and with salted butter, and he makes a special batch for me every day; my favourite meal by far, though, is the mushroom palmeni – dumplings that are said to have originated either in Ural or Siberia, depending on who you talk to: whoever invented them, they melt in your mouth, and I eat far too many of those, too.
There’s more scenic cruising, and we are fortunate that the rain swiftly retreats as we sail the Volga-Baltic Waterway, passing villages with brightly painted wooden houses, before cruising the waters of stunning Lake Onega and enjoying a magnificent vermillion-streaked sunset.
We are definitely ready for land again, and rewarded with the splendid historic buildings on Kizhi Island, including the fairy tale 18th-century Transfiguration Church; I’m bemused to see people working in the fields dressed in traditional costume, in a scene resembling a Russian impressionist painting. One of the delights of this cruise is being able to walk freely, so I take advantage of the opportunity to explore this enchanting island on my own.
On the Svir River we arrive at the village of Mandrogy to cornflower-blue skies and balmy sunshine, and none of us can wait to get off the ship and explore. Bombed to oblivion in the Second World War, Mandrogy was lovingly reconstructed in 1996, and today it’s impossibly pretty and absolutely charming.
Wandering through the verdant forest and marvelling at the architecture and carpentry and the artisans’ workshops here is an absolute joy, and I can’t resist buying a little handmade wooden cat as a souvenir. Back on board Viking Akun, after sitting in the sun we enjoy a sumptuous buffet on the sun deck, with local delicacies including blinis and caviar, plus of course more vodka. It’s practically compulsory.
Our cruise concludes on the glorious Neva River in St Petersburg, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with its palaces and the spectacular Hermitage, where Viking offers an exclusive Behind Closed Doors tour of its incredible collections, as well as an included ballet performance. By far my favourite building in St Petersburg is the Catherine Palace, with its extraordinary rococo design, but the sheer breathtaking beauty of St Petersburg moves me every time I visit.
This has been an extraordinary river cruise, filled with cultural and historical wonders and memories to treasure, and I leave Russia with ‘Somewhere My Love’ still playing in my head.
A 13-day Waterways of the Tsars cruise tour from Moscow to St Petersburg or vice versa starts at £3,095pp. Price includes return flights from London or 14 regional airports, all onboard meals, quality wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, onboard gratuities and an included shore excursion in almost every port. For more information or to book visit vikingcruises.co.uk.