Russia—land of Dr. Zhivago, the Cold War, Sputnik, Anna Karenina—that’s was the Russia I knew. I wanted to go see it, and since a trip there also appealed to a friend, we investigated options and decided to book “Russia Revealed: Moscow to St. Petersburg,” offered by Grand Circle Cruise Lines, based in Boston. I really didn’t know what to expect; what I got were places, sights and people that opened my eyes to a history and rich culture I knew almost nothing about.
Weary after two days of travel, we were met at the Moscow airport by a representative of Grand Circle and taken to our ship, the 215-passenger Tikhi Don, docked on the Moscow River a few miles from the heart of the city. That night we were split into six groups of 35, each with its own program director, who would be our guardian throughout the trip. Ours was a delightful 28-year-old Muscovite who spoke perfect English and was admirably cheerful and knowledgeable.
Over the next four days we toured Red Square, about the size of a football field; St. Basil’s Cathedral, with its stunning multi-colored onion domes; the Kremlin, a walled city encompassing churches, museums and government buildings; Gum (pronounced Goom) department store, the Harrod’s of Russia, with three glass-ceilinged arcades of upscale clothing boutiques and enticing food/wine shops and the State Armoury, resplendent with weaponry and treasure. It was here, while staring at the exquisite Fabergé eggs, that I first began to comprehend the immense wealth of the Russian tsars.
Our excursions in Moscow were by bus and foot; we were docked near a residential area and could easily walk to a grocery or drugstore when not sightseeing, as well as to a Metro station. On day three a program director took us to Red Square on the subway to show it to us—with art deco styling, life-size bronze sculptures and marble columns, the Moscow Metro is well worth seeing. Since we had free time the next day, back we went on the Metro to Red Square for more exploring, and, among other things, we found a handy place for a restroom break—McDonald’s.
The Tikhi Don
Our ship’s English-speaking crew was always smiling and happy to make us happy. We had the best stateroom on board, I think—middle deck, right in front, with windows on two sides (we could see out but no one could see in). Staff cleaned daily and saw to it we always had bottled water, fresh towels and chocolates on our pillows at night. Meals were delicious—the chef was inventive and presentations were artful. Breakfast was a buffet, plus we could order omelets and pancakes. Lunch and dinner began with soup, followed by a choice of meat (mostly chicken and lamb), fish, pasta or vegetarian entrée. Some meals had themes—Russian market buffet, Ukranian dinner—and yes, we had beets, but way more cucumbers!
As for borscht, theirs wasn’t a familiar red beet concoction, but a vegetable soup. Two salad bars were always full, and although we did our sightseeing in small groups, mealtimes offered a pleasant opportunity to get to know other passengers.
We set sail on day five for our 1,000 mile journey to St. Petersburg via connecting canals, rivers and lakes, descending through 16 locks to sea level. Along the way were daily stops to visit such places as Kizhi Island, site of the iconic Church of the Transfiguration, rumored to be constructed without nails—but that’s just a rumor, according to those who know. A Russian woman welcomed us into her home on another island and served tea and homemade pastries. We spent one pleasant afternoon strolling along a lakeshore, and another just sitting on deck. Two bars, one aft and a bigger one forward, offered comfortable places to sit and chat, or just relax.
Onboard classes (blini making, Russian language and music, matryoshka doll painting) and lectures (amber, Russian fairy-tales, personal history) were optional, and we were given many informational handouts on topics such as Russian icons. In Petrozavodsk we were introduced to traditional Russian/Finnish folk music and dance. And we had some good laughs—at a vodka tasting, and when our clever tour guides put on a show for us…about us.
The wealth that first came on display in the Armoury in Moscow rose to amazing proportions in St. Petersburg. Peterhof, summer palace of Peter the Great, is an extravagant collection of palaces, fountains and gardens on the Gulf of Finland. Tsarskoe Selo, also called Catherine’s palace, rivals the most luxurious palaces of Europe. Virtually destroyed by the Nazis during WWII, it has been faithfully restored. The Winter Palace, former resident of the tsars, joins with the Hermitage to house one of the largest art collections in the world. Former palaces of the aristocracy line the many canals of the city, which was constructed over a swamp by Peter the Great. We visited the cathedral where the tsars are buried, as well as Yusupov Palace, site of the alleged murder of Rasputin.
I’ve touched on only some of the highlights of this extraordinary escape. The culture and history were eye-popping; I came home overloaded with things to think about, and I’d go back in a heartbeat. If it wasn’t quite so darn far away.
Several cruise lines offer river trips in Russia, beginning at about $4,000. We picked Grand Circle Cruise Line, www.gct.com, as it offered the itinerary and dates we wanted. Viking River Cruises, www.vikingrivercruises, offers virtually the same trips with the same accommodations. Consider making your own air arrangements; you may get there faster.
The best exchange rate is at banks in Russia, but it’s advisable to take some rubles with you. When we arrived in Moscow in the late afternoon, the exchange booth was closed. Credit cards are accepted but may be declined the first time it’s swiped (mine was); usually transactions go through after several tries. Pickpockets are everywhere, especially at tourist attractions, and we were constantly warned to be alert.
The most popular souvenirs are matryoshka (nesting) dolls, music box replicas of St. Basil’s cathedral and Christmas trees, Baltic amber, hand-painted black or red Palekh boxes, blue-and-white Gzhel porcelain, caviar (in short supply and very expensive) and icons. Street vendors carry inexpensive imitations; prices vary. The ship had an excellent onboard gift shop with quality items. Oddly, t-shirts were in short supply in most places.
Judy Bucher is an award-winning editor and writer who is a frequent contributor to Colorado Expression.