The stark white and dark brown of the bark of the birch tree (Russia's national tree) stood as sentinels guarding the towering green pines in the background as we glided along the beautiful and pristine shorelines of Russian rivers.
Our Russian adventure began Sept. 15, 2002 in St. Petersburg as we boarded the Viking River Cruise ship "Kirov" with some 130 passengers from United States as well as England. The 400 ft. Kirov is compact but comfortable with all the amenities needed for a pleasant trip including two bars, two dining rooms, a library, beauty salon, gift shop and sauna.
Joining Joan and me on this two-week Russian adventure was a couple from Sarasota, Alice and Roger. Our travel agent had introduced us a year ago as we planned a trip through France, departing 9/11. Since then we have become good friends.
The Kirov's captain and crew were Russian and the chef Austrian. The food was good and served attractively (about a B+/A-) with red or white wine served at lunch and dinner. However, we think the complimentary wine was a tad above grape juice, about 9% by volume, as after many glasses it had no affect.
The open seating policy in the dining room made it easy to get acquainted with fellow adventurers during the cruise. We found this "Waterway of the Czars" attracted a more interesting traveler than you are likely to meet on a 2,000 plus passenger cruise ship.
Rain greeted us in St. Petersburg as we toured some of the famous and fabulous sites as the Hermitage Museum, Catherine the Great's summer palace, beautiful Russian Orthodox Churches and a visit to Peter the Great's magnificent summer home, Peterhof.
I saw my first ballet, "Swan Lake," in this city. Joan asked me if I would go again? In replying to that request, I said "When you go to an NFL football game, I'll go to another ballet."
Our Russian guide, Gennady, spoke excellent English and has visited the U.S. on six occasions. His five years of guiding tours complimented the many attractive sights as he explained in detail the different sites and cities we visited during the two-week trip.
Once we left St. Petersburg, the rain stopped, the sun shown and the night skies clear enough to bring on heavy frosts. We layered clothes, shivered and enjoyed this pristine country side and vibrant cities.
From St. Petersburg, we stopped at Kizhi Island, a beautiful spot in Lake Onega. The cathedral there is unique. The fairy-tale-like Church of the Transfiguration, built in 1714, is made entirely of weathered wood with more than 20 onion domes that glowed like silver in the cold morning sun.
While cruising for six days, including 16 locks, the Viking people introduced us to the history and present economic details of life in Russia. A lady with two doctorates to her name, gave five lectures while our guide Gennady gave two lessons in the Russian language and Cyrillic alphabet. We didn't do well with these lessons!
During our last three days of the tour in Moscow, a world class city, we visited inside the Kremlin walls and the Kremlin's Armory museum where we saw incredibly ornate carriages used by the czars for official occasions. Lenin's Tomb was viewed from the outside as it wasn't open during our stay. The sunlight striking the multicolored domes of St. Basil's cathedral in Red Square was an inspiration in itself. Legend has it that, after Ivan the Terrible had St. Basil's built, he had the architect blinded so he could never again create something so beautiful.
Following an hour and a half drive through interesting suburbs and countryside, we came to the Trinity Monastery at Sergiev Posad (Zagorsk). This is the famous fortress monastery of St. Seregius. The monastery is best know for the blue-domed Assumption Cathedral, towering in the brilliant sunlight over the white stonewalls of the monastery. Along with hundreds of other visitors, we enjoyed a few minutes of a Russian Orthodox service with beautiful chanting and hymns.
After Red Square, we were ready for the fun of Arbat Street, a cobbled pedestrian mall flanked by sidewalk cafes, bars and shops. Scores of vendor stands offered every conceivable souvenir: nesting Matroshka dolls, shawls, lacquered boxes, amber jewelry, fur hats emblazoned with the hammer and sickle. The U.S. currency was welcomed almost every place in Russia with the notable exception of rest rooms. But a few Rubles kept attendants happy.
Our last evening in Moscow was spent at the theatre enjoying a folk dance performance of over 100 dance professionals. Their intricate dancing and the various beautiful and ornate costumes was a fitting farewell of our Russian adventure.
We found the Russian folks friendly and always willing to help us with most speaking enough English to satisfy our needs. The ship's staff, particularly the dining attendants, were always courteous and well trained. The cities, although drab at times, spoke of a new vibrant Russia. The core city was filled with upscale prestigious international shops offering fashionable clothes and appliances. Everywhere throughout every cruise stop, reconstruction was evident as the Russians brought there buildings into the next century.
We did not see any individual homes in the major cities. Rather the nine and one-half million Russians living in Moscow reside in mile after mile of apartment buildings. Traffic jams filled the six-lane streets while people parked their cars on the sidewalks and in the outside driving lanes. Thousands of billboards stood as sentinels every quarter mile on almost every street and building. Someone forgot to enact a sign ordinance and of course, these signs are all in the Cyrillic alphabet!
Both our Sarasota friends, Alice and Roger, and ourselves left Russia and the Russian people with a new understanding of a great country and a warm friendly people. Arriving home after 24 hours of travel, we remembered the gleaming domes of the Kremlin, the old ladies in Uglich selling wild flowers and the statue of Mother Volga blessing the river with her arms outstretched.