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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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.