By contrast, the next few days were a tranquil meander along the River Neva, across the 136-mile-long Lake Ladoga (Europe’s largest), with its 700 islands and along the 139-mile Svir River towards Lake Onega.
Before we reached this lake we stopped briefly at Mandrogy, a small, restored 18th-century settlement that’s home to artisans creating all manner of crafts using ancient methods and horse-drawn transport. Here you can buy genuine hand-crafted souvenirs or even create your own by painting matryoshka nesting dolls. If that’s not for you there are 2,800 vodkas to try followed by a visit to a banya, a traditional Russian bath house.
Back on board we headed to Kizhi, one of Lake Onega’s 1,650 islands, a mere speck measuring four miles by just over half a mile.
Several generations of families lived and worked on the island in wooden two story homes. Their lives were tough in summer and tougher in winter. Today Kizhi is essentially a museum dedicated to its stunning wooden churches, and dozens of 15-20th century wooden structures. The most remarkable is the 22-dome Transfiguration Church and the nine-dome Intercession Church, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites. After Kizhi our ship began its southerly journey towards Red Square and the Kremlin via the Volga-Baltic Waterway and the Moscow canal.
As we cruised in brilliant summer sunshine over the calm blue lake waters with distant fir tree lined shores life continued on board with entertainment, demonstrations, Russian language lessons and lectures.
There was a brief pause at Kuzino to visit the 1397 Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery and the Resurrection Convent, a huge building with 23 foot thick walls.
Next stop Yaroslavl, an old city of about 600,000 inhabitants which sits 170 miles from Moscow at the confluence of the rivers Volga and Kotorosi. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it is one of the eight Golden Ring Cities which were important in the establishing of the Orthodox Church and are so rich in historical architecture they are regarded as open-air museums.
Next morning as we sailed serenely by all the identifying landmarks of any large modern city, I had a light breakfast in the Panorama lounge at the front of the ship with its uninterrupted views. I was most struck by the huge and numerous modern high-rise apartment buildings.
We arrived in Moscow after lunch and over the next few days we explored the stunning, efficient Metro system and its famous decorated stations, took in an evening folk music concert, picnicked in a park, cruised the Moscow River and, of course, we couldn’t miss Red Square and a guided tour inside the walls of the Kremlin on our last day.
Viking includes virtually every `must see’ aspect of Moscow with additional opportunities to visit the fascinating Cosmonaut Museum, the Jewish Museum, the Moscow State Circus and the Tretyakov State Gallery. What’s more, our guide, Sasha, came with us on our two hour journey past more huge apartment blocks to the modern privately owned airport and smoothed our way through what seemed like utter chaos.
Overall our Russian river cruise was a relaxing and hugely stimulating experience.
One of our most striking memories might seem odd: the cleanliness, even in Moscow. No packaging, cigarette butts or chewing gum littered the streets and our guides found it hard to comprehend that people in the west will casually drop their litter. Now when we see discarded street rubbish at home we find ourselves saying ‘it wouldn’t be like that in Moscow’. Oh, and it’s still illegal to have a dirty car in Russia.