Russian River Cruise, St Petersburg to Moscow on Viking Cruises Waterways of the Tsars Cruise
Planning a trip to Russia invokes images of colourful onion-domed cathedrals. Opulent palaces offering a glimpse into a royal dynasty as famous as the country is mysterious. A country as immense as it is exotic, there is so much to see beyond the metropolis of its great cities.
Taking a Russian river cruise opens up possibilities to visit parts of Russia that may otherwise be logistically difficult.
Sailing the rivers and lakes of Russia from St Petersburg to Moscow takes you into Russia’s heartland. It is deep in the country where you find the Golden Ring cities, charming towns and iconic, sometimes forgotten monuments that helped define Russia’s history.
These are the towns that lie beyond Russia’s great cities on The Waterways Of The Tsars.
The Fortress of Shlüsselburg. Lake Ladoga
Mandrogy was built in 1996 as an open-air museum, a replica of Verkhine Mandrogi, a Russian village destroyed during WWII. The enterprise was intended to give travellers cruising between St Petersburg and Kizhi a feel for traditional Russian life.
Unfortunately, we found Mandrogy to be very much that – a fabricated tourist attraction including costumed craftsmen and women, innumerable craft stalls and workshops selling the same trinkets. Disney-esque painted houses, windmills and horse-drawn carts doing circuits of the grounds to the delight of paying tourists.
Paint your Own Russian Matryoshka Doll
The main premise for this village appears to be shopping and, of course, the famed Russian Matryoshka Dolls. You can partake in a workshop to learn how to paint your own nesting dolls or, watch any number of the local artists paint dolls in their style. These, of course, are available for purchase.
While Mandrogy was not our cup of tea (or shot of vodka), full time travellers have no baggage allowance for souvenirs or trinkets. There was a silver lining to this little settlement – the traditional Russian Banya.
Experience a Russian Banya
The banya is one of those quintessentially Russian experiences. One of the oldest Russian traditions dating back centuries. A tradition that has not lost its appeal and is still popular today.
Essentially the banya is a steam room or sauna where water is poured over hot rocks to create steam with temperatures often exceeding 93ºC. However, the banya comes with a little more ceremony than your average steam room or sauna.
Special brooms are used in the banya called veniks. These are usually bunches of birch or oak branches which are dipped into cold water in the sweltering steam room. They are then smacked briskly over the body. Usually, there will be a person responsible for this task – a banschik. As the banya is considered a very social activity, a banschik is often not required as friends will usually smack each other with the veniks.
Thankfully our experience included a banschik as we would not have known the sequence of events nor the protocols for polite smacking! So, how does one banya?
- Enter the banya and wait for temperatures to become almost unbearably hot.
- Relax while the banschick completes a ceremonial beating of everyone’s bodies with the veniks. It includes intense rustling of the branches either side of your head, which will be repeated several times.
- Leave the banya and allow the banschick to pour freezing cold water over you.
- Adjourn to the adjacent room for tea and jam.
- Repeat steps 1 & 2.
- Leave the banya house and run to the river to plunge into the icy waters.
- Repeat steps 1 & 2.
- Repeat step 6.
You get the gist! Used as a method of bathing in Russia for centuries, the banya is said to have a myriad of health benefits. There are many communal or public banyas in the cities and towns, and some people still have private banyas in their homes.
The banya is one Russian experience we highly recommend, providing you have the constitution to withstand the intensity of it.
Near the centre of the Lake Onega, the second largest lake in Europe, you will find Kizhi Island, wild and isolated. Kizhi is a UNESCO World Heritage-listed open-air museum.
At only 6 km long and 1 km wide, this tiny island is one of Russia’s most visited. The settlements buildings date back to the 15th century, some of which were moved from various Karelian villages during Soviet times to help preserve them. However, the islands most notable and recognisable attractions are the famous wooden onion-domed buildings- the twenty-two domed Transfiguration Church and the nine domed Intercession Church.
Locals will tell you; both churches were constructed without the use of a single nail. The unknown builder is also said to have destroyed his axe on completion of the Transfiguration Church saying: “There was not and will not be another to match it”.
Within the smaller Church of the intercession, you may hear the local clergy, a beautiful and moving baritone choir intone the ancient liturgy. The islands ancient settlement gives one an insight into the harsh realities of life in the Russian heartland. Places where entire settlements were isolated for much of the year throughout long winters.
Along the Volga – Baltic waterway you will find the urban settlement of Kuzino approx. 600km north of Moscow.
In addition to some fascinating churches, some abandoned or in various states of repair that are worth exploring, the highlight of this region is the Kirillo – Belozersky Monastery. More like a fortress than a monastery, the magnificent complex sits on Severskoye Lake.
The lake is deemed to be so pure that no motorboats are allowed on it. According to urban myth, the waters were blessed, giving them qualities similar to those of the mythical fountain of youth. Excuse us while we take a quick swim!
From humble beginnings in 1397 when two monks founded the monastery in nothing more than a cave dug by two men. By 1494, now a stone structure, it was the largest church in medieval Russia.
Defended by thick walls and towers it was a refuge for not just monks and peasants, but also a place of pilgrimage for Tsars and so benefited from generous donations and tax breaks. Ivan the Terrible was said to be a regular visitor and big tipper. This enabled the monastery to grow in size and importance.
By 1764, Catherine the Great had stripped the monastery of its land and converted the complex into a prison. In 1924 the Bolshevik government shut the complex down and executed or arrested the monks. Interestingly, unlike most monasteries, it was not converted into a concentration camp but rather a museum.
Yaroslavl, the largest city on the Volga lies just 250 km’s north of Moscow which makes this Golden Ring city a popular weekend getaway.
Perhaps this quaint city of six hundred thousand should be called the city of churches because here you will find an impressive kaleidoscope of onion domes. At the convergence of the mighty Volga and Kotorosl rivers is the historic part of the city, a listed UNESCO World Heritage site.
The city dates back to Prince Yaroslav or Yaroslav the Wise when he came ashore in around 998, slew the sacred bear worshipped by the local pagan tribes and converted them to Christianity. Hence, the bear on the city’s coat of arms.
While these events may have attributed to the city’s religious fervour – the churches that now adorn the skyline were the work of 17th and 19th century merchants. The merchants were on a quest to outdo each other in a bid to beautify the city. To this day it remains a magnificent city, one that appears to have remained unscathed by the soviet facelift given to much of Russia.
Uglich, another of the Golden Ring Cities. A picturesque riverside city filled with inviting parks and brightly coloured church domes, the history of Uglich is steeped in a murder mystery that changed the history of Russia.
Ivan the Terrible was never quite right following the death of his wife Anastasia and so instituted a reign of terror that earned him his name. Although respected for his military victories and management of Russian interests, he was also feared for some terrible deeds.
One such deed was accidentally killing his son and heir with a blow to the head. Due to this faux par on Ivan’s behalf, his crippled son Feodor, who by all reports was not well in mind or body, ascended to power. However, the country was being run by Feodor’s brother in law, Boris Godunov.
Quietly in the wings was Dimitry, Ivan’s younger son who could have succeeded the throne in light of Feodor’s lack of interest in political issues. In 1591, at the age of ten, Dimitry was found dead of a stab wound. It was decided Dimitry slit his own throat with a sword during an epileptic fit.
At the risk of stating the obvious – it was widely assumed the boy was murdered. However, those who dared to accuse Boris Gudunov only did so once. The mystery remains, and so does this beautiful city close to Moscow.
If you are looking to see Russia beyond the big cities, cruising the waterways from St Petersburg to Moscow will reveal the beauty of the towns and the landscapes of Russia’s heartland. A river cruise is a fabulous way to travel Russia and a great way to glean a deeper understanding of this mysterious country.
We travelled from St Petersburg to Moscow on Viking Cruises ‘Waterways Of The Tsars‘ cruise. You can read more about the details of this cruise here. The 13-day cruise also included 3 full days in St Petersburg and Moscow.