Russia is large, diverse & different & I was determined to do it differently. My choice narrowed down to taking the ‘Trans Siberian’ to Vladivostok, 7- 8 days on the train from Moscow or cruise along the Volga – Baltic waterway, from Moscow to Petersburg, touching 5 medieval towns & Europe’s largest lakes.
Moscow – Petersburg is 650 kms or 4 hours by the super – fast Sapsan. I did this one way watching the countryside whizz past in a whirl. The water route along Europe’s longest river, draws one into the heart of the country. Cruising at 11 knots, over 5 languid days, with an additional 3 days each in both the major towns.
(River Volga is connected to the Baltic by an intricate system of canals, lakes & reservoirs. A remarkable feat of engineering.)
Dense forests of Silver Birch line the entire 1000 km coastline. The trees visible night & day like ghost companions, the landscape never varying. Neither bleak nor spectacular it has a quiet beauty that does not get monotonous. As a Russian epic baring the soul.
Summer nights along the river – never pitch dark, the sky changes colour from red, pink & white to every shade in – between. It is the strangeness that enthralls making one fall in love with the quiet of vast uninhabited spaces. The Volga with a rhythm of its own showcases everyday life by the riverside. A lone vessel passes by, hands waving. A solitary log cabin. People swimming, fishing, sun bathing, enjoying a family picnic on a warm day.
The first thing to strike you on arrival at Petersburg is the stark change from rural to urban. The Birch lined coastline has suddenly disappeared.
‘Lev Tolstoy -’ named after Russia’s famed writer – advertises an 11 day itinerary that has a spew of activities ranging from Vodka – Bliny parties & costumed tea ceremonies to professionals speaking on the art, culture, history & language of the country. Concerts & recitals enliven the evenings. You could be at the bar, on the dance floor or catching up on social media. The travel brochure does not mention the fantastic range of culinary delights coming out of the kitchen. A big plus & the fact that the ship carries a relatively small number of passengers.
Uglich, Yaroslavl, Goritsy, Kizhy island & Mandrogi are the 5 stop overs, each with a character uniquely its own. The Rybinsk reservoir with sea like dimensions is crossed soon after Yaroslavl, followed by Goritsy on the White lake. This monastery houses Russia’s largest collection of icons. Mandrogi is on the river Svir that flows out of lake Onega into Ladoga, Europe’s largest lake. A reconstructed village, the original was razed to the ground in WW2.
Uglich, a 10th century habitation is associated with Ivan the Terrible & Dmitri his brutally murdered infant son. I liked it that Ivan had proposed to his contemporary Elizabeth 1 & that she had turned him down. A cheery old band greets us on arrival, as we walk down the marketplace where the best bargains are to be had. The ‘Church of St Dmitry on the Blood’, a little red structure with blue domes, is built on the very spot the child was killed. It has iron floors intended to retain heat generated by burning embers from below the surface. Frescoes & nude murals adorn the walls. Hardly shocking to one coming from a country of erotic sculptures. But this is Russian Orthodox. But then again, this church was built for family use.
Yaroslavl is historically a big trading center. It boasts elegant new buildings besides old churches, a Monastery & a Nunnery both connected by a secret passage – if locals are to be believed. It is the art collection at the Governor’s, that takes your breath away. Three lovely maidens in gossamer white show you around their father’s property, ostensibly in his absence. They introduce you to the traditions & customs of the 18th century, replete with ball rooms & gentlemen in tails leading ladies up a waltz.
A world of elegant make belief that transports.
The river section between the 2 great lakes is most spectacular. Kizhy island in particular. A world heritage site it has been described as an open air museum of old wooden architecture, the 22 domed Church of Transfiguration the highlight. It was constructed without using a single nail or metal joint. Legend has it that one man built it using a single tool, an axe that was thrown away on completion. The church houses a fine collection of iconostases. Other relics of the past include 2 wooden houses, 2 windmills & a traditional Russian bathhouse on the shore. Kizhy is about 7 km long & 0.5 km wide. It is covered with meadows & giant Elm trees, marshes & bushes & is surrounded by 5000 other islands, from very small (2×2 meters) to fairly large.
Moscow & Petersburg are both modern cosmopolitan cities of great historical & cultural significance. Doing Moscow by night, with a local preferably is a good idea. Walking or using the Tube. The metro stations, conceived as people’s palaces are works of art bearing proud witness to people’s aspiration & power. Lenin himself is said to have authorised it.
St Petersburg too is best seen on foot. Either walk the historic city or view it from a Hydrofoil on the waters. Everything is right there along the Palace Embankment. And do stay up for the opening & closing of the river locks. It happens past midnight, every night. Built on 42 islands in the delta of the Neva Petersburg is said to have 4 seasons in a day. Weather is never discussed or taken seriously for it suddenly changes. Just when you are beginning to enjoy it. A visit to the ballet/opera/concert/theater followed by fine dining is the ultimate round off. Both cities have much to offer & compare favourably with others around the world. It is the massive scale & size that astounds.
Geographically, Russia is Europe, but not quite. It is distinct & dissimilar & may it remain so. Much is made of the elusive Russian smile, blamed on the weather or the theory that people here are wired different. (Better by far than smiling & not have the smile reach the eyes.) The western world has successfully created & vilified an entire nation, one it terms an ‘enigma’. The supposed picture behind the ‘iron curtain’. Is that the truth? Nyet! Nyet! Nyet! The reality is a warm, sensitive & caring people. A beautiful country. Also the safest in the world.
Russians are simple. They are music lovers & singers with an innate sense of song & dance. Accordion – Bayan players & string quartets greet you at every port playing anything & everything from ‘Lara’s Theme’ to the soulful ‘Song of the Volga boatmen’. A land of churches, domes & cathedrals, choral music & Chants. I was witness to an absolutely mesmerising performance of big & small church bells chiming to distinct orchestral notes. This at a church in Yaroslavl.
Knowing, not knowing a local language can be an asset or handicap. Especially so in Russia. Despite supreme efforts I never did get a hang of the language, the vocabulary limited to just two words ‘Da’ & ‘Nyet’
“But that is all a lady need know” said a friend. Unwilling to give up, I progressed to ‘previart’ & ‘spaceba’, wishing with all the heart Peter the Great was around to force English on his countrymen. But Ha! Ho! I still manage the last laugh. More than a fortnight later my Russian speaking skills suddenly come alive as another lovely new word is added to the vocabulary.
The meaning? Guesses? Anyone?