My sister and I took the Viking River Cruise, "Waterways of the Czars," September 3-15, 2009, traveling on the newly renovated Viking Surkov. Our experience was extremely positive. The ship, decorated in Scandinavian Modern style, was clean and attractive. It offered a large reception area, library, Internet cafe, two bars, sundeck, coffee/tea/hot chocolate service area, and a well appointed restaurant. In addition, a doctor traveled on board. There were some 180 travelers and about 100 staff members, including crew, receptionists, cabin stewards and stewardesses, tour guides, program director, kitchen staff, and waiters/waitresses.
Our cabin, though small, was well laid out and we had a TV, small refrigerator, and safe in addition to the usual furnishings. Two large bottles of water were provided each day even though we were told that the ship's water supply was filtered and therefore safe to drink.
Tours and excursions were well planned, and most were included in the basic cost of the cruise. In addition, while we were traveling from St. Petersburg to Moscow there were extra activities on board such as lectures on Russian history, a demonstration of how to cook a Russian dish, a tour of the bridge, Russian lessons, and a formal Russian tea.
The quality of the food served was somewhat uneven. Breakfast was wonderful, with a bountiful buffet; it was also possible to special order hot cereals, omelets, poached eggs, and egg benedict. The lunch buffet always included a delicious salad bar and one or two hot entrees as well as soup. Dinner was a 5-6 course meal with two or three choices per course. It was also always possible to order a grilled rump steak, grilled chicken breast or Caesar salad as an entree. Dinner was always adequate, but some dishes--especially fish--were over cooked at times. I have to add that I had major dietary restrictions--allergic to wheat, eggs,and mil--and the kitchen staff bent over backwards to accommodate my needs. They even managed to procure some special gluten free pastries for me to eat at the Russian tea.
All in all, the cruise was an outstanding experience, and one that opened our eyes about many aspects of Russian history and Russia today.
Our second port of call was Mandrogy. Mandrogy is a work in progress--a village where traditional Russian handcrafts are practiced and taught. The structures are also built in traditional Russian village style. Unfortunately, we arrived an hour late and it was pouring rain. I think that this port will be fascinating in about five years, when the village and handcraft programs are more complete. It's a good place to buy typical Russian souvenirs.
Our next port is --Kizhi Island. This is an open air museum which has on display an old Russian Orthodox Church with 22 domes, built entirely of wood without a single nail. It also has examples of village houses with their furnishings and the guide explains how the people lived in such villages. This was fascinating! Kizhi is on an island in Lake Onega, and the scenery is very picturesque, too.
Our next port was Goritzy, where we visited the monastery of St. Cyril of the White Lake. It is now basically a museum although there is a new and small community of five monks now. This was very interesting because we got to see the different churches that made up the complex. The gardens were beautiful, and again since the monastery is situated on a lake, the natural setting was superb, with ducks swimming up to the shore and almost ready to eat out of our hands!
I'm grouping our fifth and sixth ports together as we visited 7 in all. Our last two stops before Moscow were Yaroslavl and Uglich.
Yaroslavl is a city of 600,000 with an impressive collection of churches, monasteries, and public buildings. We also visited a display of lacquered papier mache boxes--and this is the best place to buy them as there is a wide choice of different styles and good prices. We had some free time here and were able to visit a market, and stroll the streets of a Russian city. Yaroslavl is beautiful, and has lots of restaurants, cafes, shops, etc.
Uglich was next; it's much smaller with a population of 40,000. However, it's probably the best place to buy real Russian handcraft souvenirs. The unwalled Kremlin of the city is full of beautiful churches and government buildings and also has nice gardens. We had a lot of free time to shop here.
Our last port of call was Moscow. You probably have a stereotyped image of Moscow--drab, dull, shabby, grim. Put all those ideas aside! Moscow is a beautiful, vibrant, cosmopolitan city on the level of Paris or Venice. If you are interested in architecture, you will love Moscow! The city is full of beautiful structures of many different time periods. Moreover, there are many gardens, parks, museums, a couple of rivers, seven hills. . .in short, everything needed to create a beautiful city. Even very mundane structures have been made beautiful. For example, many of the Metro stations were designed by top-notch architects and artists and are part of any thorough tour of the city. And let me assure you--the Metro is spotlessly clean, as is all of the city that we saw. (And, for that matter, Russia generally. . .think Switzerland.) For a final example, we docked at the North River Terminal and it struck me how beautiful the terminal was and how attractive the gardens around it were. I went out for a stroll one morning and took a lot of pictures. I thought that the beauty of this terminal was my own little discovery because none of the tour guides mentioned it. However, I bought a book about Moscow while there and when I read it after I arrived home, I discovered that this terminal is considered an architectural masterpiece. But, it's just one of thousands in this very beautiful city.