Reference: Russia

Title:The Waterways of Ancient Russia.

Length: 2300 words.

Published previously. SBSR and non-British rights available.

Travel Company: Page and Moy.

Copyright: Derrick Grover.

(Please click on thumbnails of photographs on this page to see enlargement, there is sometimes distortion when they are reduced.)

The Waterways of Ancient Russia.


Perhaps the most peaceful way of spending a holiday is to take a 12 day river cruise. Cabins usually have a large picture window to view the constantly changing scenery. The decks remain horizontal and there are no worries about seasickness. It is particularly convenient to take your accommodation with you and simply step ashore for the next visit.

One such cruise tours the Waterways of Ancient Russia and is organised by Noble Caledonia. The MS Litvinov sails from St Petersburg via the lakes Ladoga and Onega to the Golden Ring of ancient cities and thence on the River Volga to Moscow.

Wooden architecture.

On a cruise of this kind you can expect to meet like-minded people. Under 50s were in the minority and it is well suited for people of maturer years.

Our cabin was long and slender with plenty of room for two. We had a refrigerator, ample cupboard space a closet providing a shower and the usual facilities. As long as we closed the shower curtain carefully the pedestal and the floor of the wash basin did not get wet. There was an ironing room for passengers and hot water for making tea and coffee at suitable points along the corridor.

St. Petersburg the former capital and the second largest city in Russia has a population of four million. The City was founded in 1703, was renamed Petrograd for a period and became wealthy by virtue of being Russia's access to the sea in winter, together with its vicinity to Western Europe. It became Leningrad in 1924 and suffered a terrible siege in the war from 1941 - 43 when over 600,000 people starved. Today it is prospering. The many waterways, which divide the city, give it an air of relaxation and if the police were keeping a watchful eye on visitors it was not apparent. There were no restrictions on what we could do or where we could visit.

Included in the tour were two days of sightseeing. The Hermitage Museum of Art is so extensive it is said to take seven days to see it all, it is easy to become mentally saturated amongst so many exhibits; a half day was sufficient for me.

The Great Palace at Petrodvorets and summer palace of Peter the Great is a coach ride into the country. It faces the Gulf of Finland and is fronted by an impressive array of fountains with an abundance of water. Court musicians in ceremonial dress played on the veranda while crowds of Russians relaxed on their day out, away from the cramped accommodation which is still the lot of the majority of people.

We set off in the afternoon of the third day and steered East past Lake Ladoga to Lake Onega where we were to visit Petrozavodsk, an ancient port important for its timber trade. In fact mist on the river in the early morning made us late and the tour was rescheduled to visit Kizhi island first.

This unique island which has been preserved as a museum of wooden architecture is one of the highlights of the tour. Its remoteness in one of the largest lakes in Europe gives it an air of mystery. A wooden path stretches from the ship inland and fencing is carefully sculptured from wooden logs. A circular saw is used to hollow out the trunk for a good fit.

The route took us past the remarkable Church of the Transfiguration with its 22 cupolas. The all wood construction was completed in 1724 without a single nail. Wood from the Aspen tree was used in the structure but it was replaced with pine, which has started rotting and the building is now reinforced internally. The exterior has been kept in excellent condition. The cupolas are finely designed and the overall appearance makes this the most impressive of wooden buidings. Alongside is the Church of the Intercession, itself a building of note although of less intricate design. Further along the path is a wooden chapel, its steeple carefully carved but weathered by the fierce winters at this latitude of 60 degrees.

We visited a family home, typical of the region, which housed three generations. They would live in one room heated by an open fire. When lit in the early morning the smoke would rise to the ceiling and gradually fill the upper part of the room. Before it reached the level of the sleeping people an opening in the roof was released for the smoke to escape and then the occupants could walk upright without suffocating.

A feature of this visit was the entertainment. The master of the house played a variety of about ten ancient musical instruments ranging from horns to stringed instruments of different kinds. Some tunes were mellow, and others raucous but they were short and displayed unusual qualities.

The house was largely self-sufficient. Spinning wheels and weaving looms were there to while away the long winter evenings. Lace making, also, to occupy the ladies of the house when other jobs were done. The space under the eaves was a store for skis, sleighs and farming equipment for the summer months. The animals shared the warmth of the house in the winter. No doubt the warmth of their bodies contributed to the heating.

Our visit to Petrozavodsk was shorter than planned and it was feared that a concert to be given by the professors of music at the university would have to be cancelled. In fact it was rescheduled on board our ship. They are enthusiastic in maintaining the traditions of the region. We were treated to a recital of lively Russian folk songs accompanied by a full complement of balalaikas, accordian and percussion. It was one of many occasions to be recorded on video.

We arrived at Goritsy the following afternoon. Time to visit the Nunnery of the Resurrection on the banks of the Sheksna river, and then a bus ride to the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery and its museum containing numerous icons; also tools, instruments and a curious weighing machine. Photographs of 19th century life adorn the walls.

Music in various forms was been a feature of the trip. A young Russian lady accompanied by a balalaika and a piano accordian often entertained us as she traversed the tables at dinner. She was dressed in traditional Russian costume, as were her musicians.

Whereas we had been warned the food would not be a gourmet experience we realised the Swiss chef had done well with the resources available. There were some surprises such as cake for pudding and rice pudding for breakfast. They were episodes

which stay in the memory. Coffee was served in one of the lounges before 8 am for early birds to discuss the day's events. Late night revellers on the bar room dance floor would be too late.

Each day we could attend a lecture by Alex Reid. He wrote the guide book and has spent many years organising exchange visits for students in Russia. He spoke on themes of Russian life such as housing issues, the role of women, industry, pollution and politics. On shore excursions he was a fountain of information.

A class in Russian was run by the Russian interpreters for an hour each day. I attended for long enough to pick some essentials but others became more proficient. We were given a piano recital by the lady who entertains us at dinner. She displayed the talent which I came to realise was prelavent amongst many of the Russian staff. As a fellow passenger observed: "She played Rachmaninoff as only a Russian can."

We arrived in Irma early in the morning of the 8th day ready for a conducted walking tour along a path by the river to visit a dacha. These dwellings are built by the wealthier Russians for their visits to the country. Here they have the space to grow vegetables and fruit which would be impossible in the crowded conditions in the cities.

No dwelling is complete without a samovar. Several are a sign of prosperity. Our tour guide introduced our hostess who served us with tea from her samovar with plates of bleoni cucumber, blackcurrant jam, blueberries and generous helpings of vodka. The return to the boat gave us an opportunity to visit some stalls by the roadside. Out of the city the prices were reasonable for the hand painted and carved lacquer boxes, dolls, birchwood trays and many utensils for the kitchen.

A barbecue of pork, salad and white wine had been organised on the quay alongside the ship. Late arrivals sat on tree trunks. Our Russian singer and accompanists again entertained us from a dais on the quay.

Yaroslavl at the junction of the rivers Volga and Kotorosl was named after Yaroslavl the Wise who ruled over the area from 988 to 1010. Wooden palings dating back to the ninth century have been found. The prosperity of the region reached its peak in the 16th to 17th century. Merchants from England, Germany and Holland bought cloth, leather goods and silverware. The wealth was used to commission the building of many of the churches. The Cathedral of the Configuration contains some of the finest 16th century frescoes. It was worth climbing up the Bell Tower for a view over the woods and the River Volga. In the evening we were again entertained to a concert of Russian music. The seven piece band of five balaleikas, accordian and percussion gave a lively rendering.

A diversion down a branch of the River Volga brought us to Kostroma. It was founded in 1152 by Yuri Dolgoruky when he colonised the river valley. Sacked by the tartars in the 13th century, largely destroyed by fire in 1733 it was rebuilt under Catharine the Great. It was industrialised by Stalin in the 1920s and 30s.

During the period when Boris Gudonov was Czar from 1598 - 1605 the 14th century Ipatyevsky Monastery became the wealthiest in the country and contained over 100 icons. Within the bounds of the city is another museum of wooden architecture

which contains many interesting structures. The setting does not have the remoteness of Kishi island but the exhibits (a peasant home, a windmill, bath house and churches) although not matching the Church of the Transfiguration, are well worth visiting.

Oil paintings were on sale by local artists and a canvas for $20 US was good value. On the way back to the ship we called at The Kostroma Trading Arcade - nearly 100 stalls- providing a complete range of merchandise. Apples were being sold in August for 2500 roubles per Kilo (equivalent to about 30 pence at the time).

The city centre constructed in the early 18th century is one of the country's finest examples of old classic design. It was once renowned for its flax and supplied Russia and Europe with sail cloth. And so on to Uglich and the Volga River, which took us to Moscow.

A telephoto lens on your camera is a must for this tour. Your floating hotel opens up a new panorama at each bend in the river; sometimes glimpses of cupolas glinting through the tree tops in the sun or delightful views of churches and palaces near the river's edge.

Moscow was the end of the cruise but our ship was moored on the bank of the Volga to provide a base for two days of sightseeing. Coach tours were organised but for those of an independent spirit the Metro station was within walking distance across a park.

The cultural aspects were much appreciated especially the concert given by the Zlatoust ensemble with their magnificent voices which filled the Kolomenskoe Palace. This in spite of the fact that the domed and painted ceiling was some 40 feet high. I spoke to the leader afterwards. At 6ft 4 inches he was a very big man about twice my girth and with an exceptionally deep voice. He had a charming manner but he spoke as he sang and I could have heard him 100 meters away.

The tour of the Pushkin museum was another memorable occasion. Pictures by any Western artists are portrayed including works, of which I was unaware, by Picasso, Van Gogh and Rembrandt.

It was during the coach tour of Moscow that our guide mentioned the Technical Museum. Tours of this kind concentrate on art and architecture but science and technology represent an important part of the culture. Like many Russian museums it, also, is extensive and more than one day would be required to do it justice. I was curious to find whether the rumours were true that Russians had rewritten parts of history and claimed to have created Western inventions. Most of the exhibits were annotated in Russian but in the computing section there was a photograph of Alan Turing with a copy of one of his papers. There is a short guide with translation into English.

Whilst the shore excursions were included in the holiday, extra visits in Moscow were organised by a separate agency. Prices of tours on many holidays are often high compared to the real costs. Moscow was no exception and the $25 for a visit to the Moscow circus was about ten times the advertised price for a seat. Whereas this included the coach journey it was evident that significant commissions were being paid to someone.

We were warned of the need to be careful in Moscow in case we were confronted by gypsy children who it was said sometimes surrounded tourists and stole their belongings. In fact we were relieved to find it quite safe and cleaner than we experience in the West. The cleanliness of the trains and the decoration of the Metro stations were an example to us all. On the last day it started to rain - the first after 12 days of sunshine.

View some thumbnails of photographs supporting this article here.

Hermitage museum

Wooden architecture on Kishi Island.

Summer palace

St Basil's

Dachas by river

Numerous others.