Day 146 of the Nowhere To Be Project is dedicated to a full review of my most recent river cruise in Russia. Of all of the cruises I’ve done (over 50), this was the most unique. As a child of the Cold War, I was taught to fear Russia. Of course this background made it even more appealing when the chance to visit arose due the mystery of it all. It was also different from my other voyages with Viking because a travel visa was required. I took Viking’s advice and used Generations Visa company and was able to procure the appropriate visa in about six weeks. Viking also arranged air travel (it was included in the cruise fare via a sale) through Lufthansa which has become a favorite for international travel. My husband and I flew from Orlando to Frankfurt and then on to St. Petersburg. We were greeted by Viking staff just outside of the customs area and were then transferred by motor coach to our ship.
We arrived at the Viking Truvor on May 6, 2017 and were very warmly welcomed aboard with a toast of Russian vodka. The Truvor was different from the more modern Viking Longships. While comfortable and immaculate, the ship seemed chopped up and lacked the light and open feel of the European ships. We were in what was described as a “deluxe stateroom”, cabin 206. The amenities and furnishings were in line with those that we experienced on our previous Viking voyages (bedding, linens, use of space, bath products, etc.). Russian-themed movies were on a rotating loop throughout the cruise which was good because there were not many other television channels available.
Our voyage on the Truvor began with four full days in St. Petersburg. The ship was docked in a quiet residential area of the city. During our time in St. Petersburg we visited the Hermitage on a Viking tour (included). The museum itself was breathtaking, but the crowds were insane and more than uncomfortable. We also joined two additional included tours of Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin and an up-close tour of the city itself. Our favorite tour in St. Petersburg was an optional excursion to a Soviet-era Kommunalka (shared housing). It was remarkable to sip tea with a woman who expressed (through an interpreter) nostalgia for communism. The architecture of St. Petersburg pits modern versus ancient in stark contrast. We dined out several times during our time in St. Petersburg and visited a few pubs. Communicating with the locals was never a problem and we found them to be as curious about us as we were about them. On the fourth evening of our Waterways of the Tsars journey we set sail for Mandrogy along the Neva River. The cruise director provided an interesting narrative on the ships’s speakers to highlight key sights visible from the ship as we dined on regional favorites in the restaurant. We cruised from the Neva River through Lake Ladoga and into the Svir River to reach Mandrogy.
We feasted on a lovely buffet breakfast on day five of our voyage before our noon arrival in Mandrogy (yes, the signature Viking sautéed mushrooms were there:-). Mandrogy is a tiny riverside village of brightly painted homes and skilled artisans. We had just a few hours in Mandrogy, but managed to stock up on a stash of unique handmade items including matryoshkas, lacquered jewelry and hand-knitted mittens and shawls. After a snowy afternoon in Madrogy we were ready for the warmth of happy hour back on board the Truvor and were pleased with the Russian wine offerings. We set sail for Kizhi, Russia at 4pm and found the onboard evening activities on the Truvor bountiful. There were Russian lessons, cooking demonstrations and cultural presentations offered throughout the cruise. Live music in the lounge was also a popular draw.
We were awakened in the early morning hours of day six of the voyage to the sounds of ice hitting the ship. We were the first voyage of the season and the ice had not yet been broken through. We made our way on deck to find that the Truvor was tailing a cutter. The cutter was literally plowing the way for us through the icy waters. Due to these conditions, we were not able to reach the island of Kizhi. With no pending destination, we ate and drank our way through the day, making this a good time to discuss the food on board. As with all Viking voyages, regional influences prevail. This meant a lot of soups, boiled meats, cabbage, and root vegetables. I had adopted a vegan diet just a month or so before embarking on the journey, but had not notified the staff of this. Even without special accommodations, I was able to eat fairly heartily. My husband, who isn’t vegan, enjoyed the piroshki (Russian meat pies) and the borscht, but also managed to get his steak and potatoes on board quite regularly.
We traversed the Volga-Baltic waterway to reach Goritzy at the one week point in our journey. We were eager for some fresh air at this point and were happy to join our fellow passengers for the included Krillo-Belozersky Monastery Tour. We were taken by bus to Kuzino to view the medieval monastery and churches. We also toured a local school and were given the opportunity to meet the students and purchase some of their artwork. Once again we learned that most Russian citizens are as fascinated with American culture as we are with their culture. It really is a small world! We met the ship in Kuzino at 3pm (it had sailed from Goritzy while we were at the monastery) and sailed for Yaroslavl. The staff of the Truvor went above and beyond to ensure that there were plenty of opportunities for engagement throughout the cruise and this evening was no different. There were more Russian language lessons, trivia challenges and Russian-themed entertainment to fill the hours. Perhaps the most popular event of the evening was an optional vodka tasting. My husband imbibed while I observed. The highlight was hearing about the pivotal role vodka plays in Russian culture from a waiter who was born and raised in Siberia.
On day eight of the voyage we awoke to the statue of mother Volga on the starboard side of Truvor after which we entered our first lock of the itinerary. We arrived in Yaroslavl at 3pm. Yaroslavl is part of the Golden Ring of quaint historic cities and is peppered with old homes and churches. We joined an included walking tour of the city and happened upon a lively street fair. At the fair we tasted local treats and purchased handmade tiles, a signature item of Yaroslavl, before gathering back on board the Truvor for our 7pm departure.
We awoke in Uglich, Russia on day nine of our Waterways of the Tsars voyage. The activity for today was tea with a local family. We were divided into small groups and taken by van to the homes of local families. The family we met consisted of a grandmother, her daughter and her grandson. The family lived together in a tiny three room home. They grew most of their food in their yard and supplemented their income by allowing Viking guests to visit their home. We enjoyed homemade pickles, tea and, of course, vodka, before making our way back to the ship for an optional matryoshka doll painting class. The farewell celebration was hosted at dinner with a toast and a parade-type tour of the galley for all passengers.
On the tenth day of the trip we arrived in Moscow where we would remain docked for four days. The ship docked in an area just outside of the metropolitan area. It took a decent walk through a park to reach the subway which was easily navigable. We joined the included Up-Close City Tour at 1pm on our first day in Moscow to get a lay of the land. We spent the rest of the evening roaming the city alone. Moscow is a very wealthy, safe and heavily-populated city. The dining and shopping options are limitless and go way beyond the impressive Gum department store. We stayed out rather late on that first day in Moscow, soaking up the Russian culture as much as we could. The rest of our time in Moscow was just as fascinating with a tour of the Kremlin and a Moscow By Boat tour. We were really wowed by this modern metropolis!
Our Waterways of the Tsars journey ended in the early morning hours of Thursday, May 18, 2017 when we were transferred to the Moscow airport by Viking staff. Throughout this voyage (our longest yet with Viking), each and every staff member was exceptional. The ship was kept spotless, the food was good, the wine selection was outstanding and the itinerary was magical. There was always something to do on board during sailing times and there were plenty of opportunities for free time both on and off board. Our fellow passengers were friendly, well-traveled, mostly retired, and hailed from America, Australia and the United Kingdom. We were awestruck by Russia and its people and would absolutely consider visiting the country again.