A cruise along the Waterways of the Tsars is a journey into the heart and soul of this enormous country, discovers David Short.
Just outside Leningrad on a hot day in May 1969, during the Cold War, my friend and I found ourselves being berated by an armed and a very angry security official. He had stopped us for driving our Mini on the wrong, unauthorised road. After a lot of gesticulating and shouting we were made to clean our car with a dry cloth, and ordered to keep to our authorised route.
This time, on a Viking river cruise, we found that Russia was a lot more agreeable. From the moment we arrived in what is now St. Petersburg we were superbly attended to by the most engaging guides and staff right up until we were dropped off at the airport in Moscow 13 days later.
It turned out that we had embarked on not just a sightseeing cruise but a journey of discovery into the heart, mind and soul of Russia. We were free to explore St. Petersburg and Moscow, several small towns and villages in between and even to meet Russians at home. There was also an opportunity to visit a kommunalka — a communal apartment for several families.
We travellers were a mixed, international bunch. We were keen to ask our hosts all manner of questions. Some of us were very well informed and eagerly explored various topics, including political issues. And our Russian hosts didn’t duck any questions.
The ship was a very comfortable base for the duration of our journey as well as our gentle transportation along idyllic rivers, lakes and canals between the two.
Our first day in St. Petersburg began after an extensive breakfast and consisted of a full-day tour of the best of the three million artworks in The Hermitage museum. These include works by Titian, Matisse, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin, Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso, Monet and Rubens. The visit was followed by dinner and a performance of of the ballet Swan Lake. It was after 11 pm when we arrived back on board, but Viking was ready with a substantial late-night snack, including wine and beer as they do for all normal lunches and dinners.
Throughout our stay in St. Petersburg we were dazzled by the opulence of Russia’s rulers and the sheer extravagance of the palaces: the Winter Palace; the Amber Room in the Catherine Palace; the ‘Royal Village’ at Pushkin; and the extraordinary UNESCO World Heritage site of Peterhof Palace.
After four eye-popping days in St. Petersburg it felt as if we’d been guided around just about every well-known church, monument and museum there is including the Peter and Paul Fortress. This is the original epicentre of the city, and many former tsars are now laid to rest in the cathedral including the relatively recently reinterred remains of assassinated and last tsar Nicholas II and his family. Another highlight was the private viewing of the Carl Faberge collection, chief among which are the nine exquisite imperial Easter Eggs.
To cap off our final day in this remarkable city we enjoyed a loud and lively Cossack Folk song and dance performance with a drop of vodka. Naturally.
Our days in St. Petersburg were hectic but not arduous and we were continually informed about every aspect of Russian life, its complex history and detailed facts about all the places we visited.
Before dinner each evening there was a full briefing about what to expect the following day, which was very informative. In addition the ship’s newsletter the Viking Daily was delivered to our room.