Rebecca Barnes sets sail on a Russian river cruise to discover a country that’s full of delights, from Soviet-era ice cream in Moscow to an evening of ballet in St Petersburg
The largest country in the world and covering 17.1 square km, Russia doesn’t do things by halves.
It’s also a country full of surprises – Vladimir Putin once recorded a judo DVD, while wealthy Russians are reputed to hire fake ambulances to beat the capital’s notorious traffic jams. Even Winston Churchill famously described it as, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”.
So when I signed up for a river cruise sailing from Moscow to St Petersburg on Viking River Cruises’ 204-passenger Viking Akun, one of five ships sailing the network of Russian waterways, I never expected to find myself queuing for ice cream in a glitzy department store in Moscow.
We’re in the metropolis for three days, ticking off the highlights including the Kremlin, Red Square and the onion-domed St Basil’s Cathedral. We also ride on the ornate, Art Deco influenced Moscow Metro, otherwise known as the People’s Palace, and make the most of some priceless photo opportunities.
The GUM department store houses high-end designer labels and gourmet food in an OTT shopping mall interior. Its artisan Soviet-era ice cream follows the same 1954 recipe – renowned for its quality, it was as sought-after back then as it is today.
Many of Moscow’s key attractions are actually within walking distance. At the sprawling walled city the Kremlin, which we visit as one of Viking’s free excursions, we’re lucky enough to catch one of the changing of the guard ceremonies. Another highlight is the Armory, which houses Fabergé eggs, magnificent royal crowns and thrones, and grand imperial horse carriages.
Back on the ship, and the next unexpected scenario sees us in the midst of a rippling freshwater lake as immense as an ocean. There’s no land to be seen for miles.
Located in the northwest of the country, east of St Petersburg and close to Finland, the navigable Lake Ladoga is the largest lake in Europe. The landscape is striking, with marshy wetlands, dense pine forests and monasteries lining the banks (when you can see them).
It’s incredible to think this vast stretch of water freezes over in the winter when the temperature plummets. We sail past fishermen in tiny boats and marvel at the diverse architecture – crumbling buildings stand next to modern houses and austere, high-rise apartment blocks.
But behind the tranquil beauty lies a somewhat chequered past. During the Second World War, Lake Ladoga was a vital lifeline for supplies during the Siege of Leningrad, while in the 1950s, the northern part of the lake was used by the Soviet military to test nuclear weapons.
Today the water is said to be moderately polluted, thanks to the industrial and agricultural companies that use the lake for waste storage and don’t tend to have proper cleaning systems. This does not, however, prevent people enjoying recreational time on the shores of the lake.
Along with several locks, there’s so much history on the Volga-Baltic Waterway. A 70m statue of Mother Volga commands the riverbank of
the Moscow Canal, appearing to greet the passing ships.
En route to St Petersburg, we stop at villages including Kizhi Island, a Unesco World Heritage Site featuring distinctive ancient wooden architecture – the otherworldly Transfiguration Church was actually built without a single nail.
We also visit the Golden Ring cities of Uglich and Yaroslavl, both abundant in colourful churches and cathedrals, wide boulevards and grand, yet often faded buildings.
On Viking river cruises, each passenger receives an included shore excursion in almost every port. A memorable time was spent with a Russian family at home in Uglich, where we break bread with our host Ludmilla over tea, cake and shots of punchy homemade grain vodka.
When we’re not ashore sampling the countless cultural experiences offered on this cruise, we’re indulging in the local fare on board the ship. The food takes its cue from the hearty highlights of traditional Russian cuisine, once relied on by peasants – pelmeni (filled dumplings), sour cream-topped blinis, goulash soup, potatoes and, of course, vodka.
Viking gives you lots of opportunity to eat like a local: there’s a regional specialities tasting menu in the dining room each day, and I make a point of visiting the tea and coffee station each day when I discover the delicious Russian oatmeal cookies.
You’re never at a loss for things to do when sailing. To complement the onshore enrichment, there are free talks and lectures to attend, given by the knowledgeable tour escorts. These range from Russian cuisine to President Putin. Programme director Margo also hosts Russian language lessons, port and excursions talks and presentations on Russian souvenirs and food culture.
There are also a number of excursions that encourage you to step out of your comfort zone. In the small, purpose-built village of Mandrogy,
I spend an enjoyable and surprisingly competitive couple of hours at a workshop painting my own trio of Matryoshka dolls. Some of the other guests visit a traditional Russian banya – a sauna, steam bath, birch broom massage and cold water plunge that’s said to encourage purification.
Our final stop, St Petersburg, is no less impressive than the rest of this fascinating cruise. Lavish and opulent with grand boulevards and winding canals, Russia’s ‘Venice of the north’ offers big-hitting cultural experiences including the Hermitage, Catherine Palace in Pushkin and Peterhof Palace.
What is arguably Viking’s most magical excursion so far, an evening of world-class ballet set in an exquisite theatre, is a more than fitting finale to the cruise, which is truly an authentic and immersive Russian voyage of discovery.