TO RUSSIA WITH LOVE … Cruising from St. Petersburg to Moscow with Viking River Cruises
Why should you go to Russia? You may well have some concerns … Is the country safe enough? How would you communicate where little English is spoken? What is the best way to travel in this vast country? Do the Russian people welcome American tourists given our governments’ political differences? Will you enjoy your trip?
These concerns are valid but I have the perfect solution. My husband, Denis, and I recently traveled in Russia with Viking River Cruises on the Viking Akun river cruise ship from St. Petersburg down the Volga River to Moscow. Aptly named Waterways of the Tsars, our cruise was not only fascinating, incredibly well-orchestrated with an awesome selection of itineraries but also came with 5-star service in the form of three highly-experienced, bi-lingual, erudite Russian tour escorts who traveled with us the entire journey. Their major role was to oversee our well-being and satisfaction while the local tour guides in the various port cities provided us with expert tours.
The service provided by this wonderful trio of escorts, Sasha, Alexey and Vadim, combined with the approach of the ship’s concierge to special requests, which included superb selection of restaurants and places to visit along with top-notch door-to-door service, totally erased our concerns about security. Ditto for the language issues.
For example, we could be sure that when the Viking Akun concierge, Nadia, organized a driver for us, not only would the driver come inside the restaurant where we were seated to find us, but he would also speak excellent English and would drive us to our next destination where one of the tour escorts would be waiting for us to escort us to our next tour. How easy is that? And because Viking organized the driver, we were able to confirm the rate for the driver in advance and the fare was charged to our room. No payment necessary to the driver. Simple, secure, stress-free. Plus, it was reassuring to know that there was an English-speaking doctor on board ship 24/7 with a sizable chest of prescription medicines to dispense.
But is a river cruise the best way to travel in the vast country that is Russia? It depends where you want to go and what you want to do in Russia, but since this was our first trip to Russia beyond a 3-day visit we made to St. Petersburg while cruising the Baltics three years ago, we felt that a river cruise from St. Petersburg to Moscow would be ideal. Not just because we didn’t want to waste time repeatedly packing, checking into our next hotel and unpacking and we didn’t want to encounter any of the potential hassles that can accompany plane travel, but also because we wanted the chance to experience the countryside and small-town life in Russia in addition to the urban lifestyle of its two major cities. Plus, to our delight — many more reasons to take a river cruise with Viking became apparent during the course of our trip.
After we departed St. Petersburg where we had spent a truly fascinating but intense four days, the pace of life slowed down as we made the 800+ mile journey along the magnificent waterways for the next six days of our cruise. We attended fascinating lectures on Russian history and culture and took some challenging Russian language lessons, both given by our erudite tour escorts. We enjoyed a cooking lesson from our ship’s Executive Chef, Danilo, on how to make one of Russia’s most famous and favorite comfort foods – Pelmeni, which are similar to dumplings stuffed with minced meat or fish. Danilo stuffed them with tiny meat balls he made composed of beef and pork, boiled them, and then served them with a dollop of sour cream … delicious!
Whenever we could during our six days of cruising the waterways, we relaxed and enjoyed the ever-changing scenery on view wherever we were onboard ship. From the deepest and shortest river in Europe, The Neva, to the largest freshwater lake in Europe, Lake Ladoga, to the second largest lake in Europe, Lake Onega with its picturesque islands, to the Moscow Canal, a major engineering feat of the Soviet era, to the mighty Mother Volga river, we never ceased admiring the beauty of the Russian countryside.
Our excursions provided us with the taste of Russian life we were craving. For example …
We saw friendly craftsmen demonstrating their arts and local families enjoying a myriad of festivities with their children in the reconstructed village of Mandrogy on the Svir River.
We visited a local school in the river port “urban settlement” of Kuzino, population approximately 1,200, where students welcomed us in English, performed for us, demonstrated their handicrafts, and worked hard to answer our questions.
We also visited a local home in the historic town of Uglich, population approximately 35,000, where the owner, a retired high school teacher, and her daughter welcomed us with a vodka toast, served us traditional Russian tea and cakes along with some fresh vegetables from her garden, answered our questions with the help of one of our tour escorts translating for us, and proudly gave us a tour of her huge and impressive backyard garden.
For me, the highlight of the excursions we took during the six days of river cruising between St. Petersburg and Moscow was our visit to the historic and picturesque city of Yaroslavl, founded in 1010 by Prince Yaraslav the Wise of Kiev and now the administrative center of its oblast (“province”) with a population of approximately 600,000. Yaroslavl is one of Russia’s historic and picturesque Golden Ring Cities that have aptly been referred to as “open-air museums” thanks to their many 12-18th century monuments of Russian culture, including kremlins (fortified castles in the town centers), monasteries, and cathedrals and churches, many of which have the iconic onion domes.
Not only was the city a beautiful historic gem, but we enjoyed touring the large indoor food market and sampling many of the local and regional specialties on sale there. Plus, we were most pleasantly surprised during our tour of the Governor’s Palace with an unexpected performance by local Russian dancers and musicians performing 19th century dances in costumes from that era. When their performance was over, the real fun began as they went around the large ballroom in which we were seated and invited us as their guests to join in and dance with them.
Thanks to these excursions and others, we gained valuable insight into the culture and friendly, welcoming character of the Russian people, and thanks to our onboard ship down-time, we recharged our batteries in preparation for the long hours we were planning to spend touring Moscow. (See future posting on touring Moscow)
If you still are wondering why we recommend visiting Russia and doing so with Viking River Cruises, here are a few more nuggets of information centered on service, itineraries, and sheer enjoyment, including culinary …
The hospitality and service aboard the Viking Akun, overseen by the very dedicated Viennese Hotel Manager, Karoline, was absolutely superb. From the main dining room and bars to the house-keeping, the crew strived to anticipate our needs, saving our favorite tables when possible, leaving extra water bottles in the room, giving us rapid service to be in time for our excursions, spoiling me with a bowl of Wasabi peas whenever I walked into the Sky Bar and lounge on deck 4(!), and so on. What impressed us the most about the service was the level of personalized service we enjoyed. The staff addressed us by name, always with a warm smile, and we left the ship with very fond memories of the Hotel Management — Karoline, Nadia, Julia, Jan, Natasha and Victoria–, and of our Tour Escorts — Sasha, Alexey and Vadim–, along with our waitresses and housekeeper.
Daily itineraries are a make-or-break factor for us and naturally a major part of our level of enjoyment on a tour. The challenge we had with Waterways of the Tsars was simply that there wasn’t time to do all the excursions that interested us in St. Petersburg and Moscow – so we consulted our very knowledgeable Russian Program Director, Yulia, who helped us finalize our selections, recommending some excursions we had not even considered. One Viking specialty that Yulia highly recommended was the “Privileged Access” tour, which on this cruise was The Hermitage Behind Closed Doors, a tour of the secured vaults which are not generally open to the public. While the royal carriages and other collections were magnificent, what I particularly enjoyed during this visit was the lecture on restoration.
We quickly realized that our concerns about booking am and pm excursions with little time to spare in-between were unnecessary as Program Director Yulia runs the multitude of excursions like a Swiss clock, with buses departing promptly on time, and tours starting and returning to the ship on schedule. Plus, Hotel Manager Karoline oversees operations such that the restaurant is ready for early morning departures and rapid service at lunch to meet excursion schedules. In fact, on the final day of departure, the dining room started serving breakfast at 2:30am … and was in full swing when we appeared at 4am!
We enjoyed all our excursions on this cruise, but if I had to choose just a few of my absolute favorites throughout the entire 13 days with Viking … and this is challenging as I really did enjoy them all … they would be the 8-hour combination of Hermitage Tour with Privileged Access Hermitage Behind Closed Doors, the performance of Swan Lake at the magnificent and historic Alexandrinsky Imperial Ballet Theatre in St. Petersburg, the St. Petersburg Up-Close City Tour including a ride on the Metro, the school visit in Kuzino, the home visit in Uglich, the Governor’s Palace in Yaroslavl, the Treasures of the Kremlin Armory in Moscow (extraordinary!), the impressively high-tech Moscow Jewish Museum, and the Moscow Up-Close City Tour including an awesome Metro tour. Plus walking around, both the large cities and the small towns, provided fascinating people-watching, and I of course loved wandering through the grandiose GUM Department Store … what’s not to love there?
What impressed me most about Russia’s world renowned Hermitage Museum was the strikingly gorgeous architectural renovation of the late 19th century and 20th century wings. When we last visited this museum just three years ago, we were disappointed with the condition of this part of the museum. It was run-down, hot and stuffy with no air conditioning and seemingly little if any ventilation, with too much sun pouring into the rooms which, along with the lack of ventilation, was undoubtedly causing a slow deterioration of the collections which seemed a bit Spartan and in need of restoration. Well, a miracle occurred, and I simply can’t recommend highly enough a trip to Russia to visit the Hermitage, one of the oldest and largest museums in the world founded by Catherine the Great in 1764, and proudly housing the largest collection of paintings in the world. You may also want to read The Madonnas of Leningrad to help prepare you for the visit.
As for the bon appetit factor during our trip with Viking … Denis and I very much appreciated the Russian regional specialty dishes prepared daily by Chef Danilo’s team throughout the cruise. Here is a selection of some of our favorites … for the First Course … Moscow-style Solyanka Soup, Russian Egg with Salmon Caviar, Classic Lentil Soup, Siliotka Pod Shuboj (layered salad with herring, beets, potatoes, and carrots) … for the Main Course … Beef Stroganoff, Russian Koulebjaka (puff pastry stuffed with salmon and spinach), Chicken Kiev, Sudak Seared Fillet of Perch, Shashlik Grilled Caucasus-Style Meat Skewers … and for Dessert … Russian Nut Cake with black currant jam and whipped cream, Russian Blini & Curd Cheese with vanilla ice cream and forest berries, Sukhoi Frukte (“caramelized dried fruits”) Ice Cream Coupe. We both tried to order at least one of these deliciously memorable Russian specialties every day.
Although we normally ate port-side by a window at breakfast and starboard-side by a window for lunch, we never had to worry about enjoying our meal with a view as the beautiful scenery outside our ship was visible from all of the tables in the ship’s main dining room known as the Neva Restaurant on deck 3, as well as from all the tables in the Panorama Bar on deck 4 where we occasionally went for lighter fare which was served at breakfast & lunch.
To supplement our culinary experiences on board ship, Denis and I went to St. Petersburg’s historic Caviar Bar and Restaurant for a caviar and vodka tasting (Eat like a Tsar … Caviar Bar and Restaurant) and to Moscow’s hot new Grand Café Dr. Zhivago for a birthday lunch celebration (Grand Cafe Dr. Zhivago … A Favorite of Moscow’s super-rich). Awesome!
And one final thought about enjoyment … perhaps it is time for more North Americans to join in with the throngs of Europeans and Asians we observed enthusiastically touring the “new Russia”! There is so much to experience, to learn and to enjoy.
Due to the negative portrayal of Russia in our media, I never expected to love this trip and admire the Russians so much nor find them so friendly. Getting to spend time with the people – to dance and eat with them and ride the metro with them – and to see the impressive growth and progress they are experiencing while learning about their fascinating history has left an indelible positive impression of Russia in my mind. A special thanks to our trusty tour escorts, along with the Viking Akun’s wonderful crew, for making our trip so memorable. Bon Voyage … Sčastlivogo puti !
Stay tuned to BonVoyageurs.com for our writings about other Countries of the World as we share our joie de vivre from around the world. Luxury escapes, cruises and city breaks to Quebec City, New York, Washington, Buenos Aires. In Europe and the Mediterranean, places like Paris and Nice in France, Florence, Rome, Napoli and the Amalfi Coast in Italy, Tel Aviv in Israel. In Asia, countries like China, India, Nepal and so much more!