A Russian river cruise with Jules Verne
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Russia, the world's biggest country, home to multi-domed churches, Romanov Palaces, St Petersburg the imperial capital for two centuries and Moscow, the present-day cosmopolitan capital. A river cruise between the two seemed a perfect way of seeing two of the world's most historic cities as well as enjoying a relaxing holiday navigating the waterways of the Tsars. First to flag up, this was my first ever river cruise, in fact my first ever cruise and excuse the pun, I take on board that my fellow Silver Traveller writers and members are far more experienced and clued up on this kind of travel experience than I am. However, I've often wondered what a river cruise was like and whether this sort of holiday would appeal to someone like myself - an active, independent traveller in her mid-50s.
The cruise from Moscow to St Petersburg took the super scenic route passing through 17 locks along the Neva, Svir and Volga Rivers, lakes Ladoga and Onega, the White Lake, Rybinsk Reservoir and the Moscow/Volga canals.
Here are a few of my highlights:
Nothing can quite prepare you for the sheer bonkers
splendour of St Basil's Cathedral or sadly the sheer number of tourists
endeavouring to get a selfie with it. However, cameras aside, I was
totally wowed by the golden onion domed churches. If you think the
Kremlin is just a fort, be prepared for some surprises around every
corner. The Moscow Kremlin is a complex of different cathedrals, palaces
and museums as beautiful inside as out. If a tour of The Armoury
Museum sounds a bit dry, it's not. It's one of the world's foremost
former Royal treasure houses with a rich collection including Faberge imperial
eggs, state carriages, thrones and coronation dresses. For a more
peaceful experience, I'd recommend a walk around Zaryadye Park, a landscaped
urban park located adjacent to Red Square. The park opened in 2017 with an
incredible floating "bridge", actually an elevated walkway. Ivan the Great once said "I want Moscow to look as beautiful as Rome"
and with very little advertising, no rubbish on the streets (London take note)
and with some of the most gorgeous buildings I've ever come across, I think he
got it right.
Navigating the Waterways of the Tsars
The intricate system of waterways has a beauty that is hard to describe. Serene, peaceful and timeless with silver birch and pine forests, calm flowing water and spectacular sunsets. On my 10 night cruise, we were fortunate to have a sunset every night. If locks are your thing, then there were plenty to fascinate the engineers amongst the passengers. On this cruise we spent 107 hours and 25 minutes sailing and 10 hours and 35 minutes at locks. Having a more aesthetic nature, I spent hours on deck mesmerised by the golden onion domes peeping out from amongst the trees, occasionally spotting a blue sparkly one looking like the top of a wizard's hat. This was my most relaxing holiday ever, lazing on the sundeck, a glass of something in hand, watching the scenery drift by and admiring the slow pace of rural life and the oligarch's yachts and dachas (summer houses). When not on a river or canal, it felt as though we were at sea but we were in fact crossing Lake Onega and Lake Ladoga, the latter the largest freshwater lake in Europe and the 14th largest in the world.
The town of Uglich was our first port of call and the pearl of Russia's Golden Ring. The churches here were stunning and oozing history - the Church of St.Dimitrius on the Blood was built on the site where Ivan the Terrible's son was mysteriously killed. However, I'm partial to a bit of dressing up and when asked if I wanted to try on some Russian attire, it was hard to say no. I did after all need an outfit for the 'Russian Evening' on board the ship and was pretty happy with my Tsarina Petruska persona.
I was very impressed by Paul, our Jules Verne tour manager
with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Russia and all our Russian city tour guides
but it was Anatoly, our tour guide at Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery who scooped
my top prize with his entertaining stories, firstly apologising for feeling a
bit rough as he'd been up all night drinking vodka with the priest and for
bringing the largest monastery in Europe to life. Founded in 1397
by a monk from Moscow, the monastery grew from a cave into magnificent grounds
comprising 12 churches, three-storey fortress walls and the superb Assumption
It was a picture of just one church that inspired one
of our passengers to save up to take her mother on the cruise to see it. Wooden architecture can be found throughout Russia but Kizhi Island
boasts some of the country’s most famous and most intricate examples, none more
so that the Church of the Transfiguration, built in the 18th Century, boasting
22 onion domes and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ingenious
church didn't disappoint.
By day 8 of the cruise, even the most cultured of passengers was getting a little 'churched out' so the perfect time to stop at what is essentially a tourist / souvenir trap. Mandrogi is a reconstructed village, a series of old wooden houses, handicraft workshops (even Putin has tried his hand at making his own clay pot - not very successfully it has to be said and painting a Russian matryoshka doll). However, it was the popular Vodka Museum with 2800 different brands and types of Russia's favourite drink that got the biggest thumbs up amongst our group. There were tastings and hangovers to be had or for those anxious to stretch their leg, a chance to walk around the island, spotting red squirrels. Considering how rare Tufty's cousins are in the UK, it's always a treat to see them in the wild.
St Petersburg was as magnificent and exquisite as I had been
lead to believe. All elegant palaces and great art collections. The
trip included a night enjoying a ballet performance (for us Swan Lake) at
The Imperial Hermitage Theatre, with music of course by that most famous of
Russian composers Tchaikovsky. In the nearby Russian countryside at
Tsarskovye Sel (Pushkin), lies the great blue and gold rococo Catherine Palace
reflecting the contrasting styles of the Italian, Rastrelli and the Scott,
Cameron. A visit to the palace is an optional tour but one that you
really shouldn't miss.
As someone new to cruising, I wish I'd packed more relaxing clothes, loose trousers or sportswear to relax on deck. There was plenty of room in the cabin with ample and clever storage space. The glory of cruising is you can pack as much as your airline's baggage allowance will allow and of course also unpack. I wish too that I'd bought some binoculars and a pepper grinder, small bottle of virgin olive oil and maybe some chili sauce to liven up the food, the merits of which were debated long and hard by myself and fellow passengers. We were split 50/50 but in all my years of travelling, I don't think I've ever come across Brussels sprouts and pancakes with peas for breakfast. We were 40 on board with 65 staff, with so many people looking after me not only was I dressing like a Tsarina I was beginning to behave like one as well. The grateful friend I had persuaded to join me (both of us again in our mid 50s) were by no means the youngest. I loved the relaxed nature of life on board (reminding me of a large chalet holiday, something I am more familiar with) and the friendships that were made. It was heartening to see a brave widower and a lonely bachelor coming to life and being kept an eye on by two young Scottish girls young enough to be their grand-daughters.
Yes, getting a Russian visa is a pain but perfectly doable. Many of the passengers not based in London had used the trip to London to get the visa as an excuse to start the holiday early with an additional mini break in the city. The cruise itself was stress free, like a multi-centre tour with a view and someone else taking care of the driving. I loved the fact you could hop on and off with ease and that it was an affordable way of seeing some of Russian's most iconic cities and monuments.
Did I enjoy this newfound world of river cruising? Would I do it again? It’s a definite yes.
more information readbout Waterways of the Tsars.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Jules Verne.
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