A few years ago, as an advertising exec at a major corporation, I had lots of means but very little time for travel. Real quality vacations happened only every other year and never lasted longer than 10 days. My second career is teaching school...time is abundant and the wife and I spend wintertime looking for bargains and, typically, two-week sojourns.
We are concentrating this decade on Europe and have taken land tours to Rome, London, and Dublin, but our favorite trip was a river cruise with Viking three years ago from Paris to Normandy. We traveled on the Viking Seine that has since been sold from the fleet. We absolutely loved the convenience of seeing several French towns (like Giverny and Rouen) without having to pack and repack and spend days in busses, planes and hotel check-in queues. We learned to manage our cuisine at the rich buffets and multi-course dinners the way we managed the tours...we skipped desserts and the crowded bus to Versailles and took a private car early in the day. We left Viking's guided tour at Giverny, found a quiet cafe for lunch and hiked two hours back to the ship down a series of shady lanes.
Our next travel target became Russia when Viking came up with an unbeatable fare for their "Waterways of the Czars", St. Petersburg to Moscow cruise (for about 25% of their published, full fare). We booked United miles on Lufthansa from Chicago to St. Petersburg through Frankfurt and grabbed a taxi to the ship. We learned when Viking books your airfare, you often experience more than one stop and very early, or very late, departure times. We returned from Moscow on Singapore Air through Houston on the best coach flight for service, leg room, and amenities, that we've ever experienced. Viking's guidebook tells you to not release your taxi from the airport to the ship until you make eye contact with the ship. This proved to be good advice since our driver almost dropped us a mile from our port. We might still be wandering Petersburg today!
The Viking Pakhomov had just been refurbished last winter and had the look and feel of a brand new ship. We were on the lowest level (Main Deck #200) with a window that looked over a "Crew Only" outside deck. The Sony 32-inch flat screen could not compete with the 36-inch window and the Russian countryside and was never turned on (CNN and BBC were available). Our stateroom was more spacious than the Paris cruise, especially in the bath and shower. We never felt cramped and experienced very little noise with a small gift shop and library just in front of our door. We stocked our in-room frig with a couple bottles of Chilean wine and stored my digital camera in the safe. Wireless internet was advertised, but was often incredibly slow or not available for periods of time. We travel with an AT&T iPhone with an international roaming plan and had no problems calling home from the Pakhomov.
The VIKING staff was terrific without exception. Christopher, the Program Director, when I told him I am a serious travel photographer, delivered to our stateroom a packet rich with information including detailed maps of each segment of the waterways, with descriptions and background information of the historic buildings, bridges, locks and dams we would pass on the variety of rivers, canals and beautiful lakes along the portion of our cruise between St. Pete and Moscow. It will make writing captions for all the photos I uploaded to my travel website much easier (www.mikerophoto.com).
Andrey, the Restaurant Manager, would accommodate requests for double entrEe portions, a vegetarian off-menu request, combining two tables together to seat four couples (two, four and six seat tables were the norm) and gave a great lecture on the cultural traditions pertaining to his native land's fascination with vodka. A nice Spanish red or white wine was complimentary with dinner and you could place an order for beer, special wine or mixed drink at lunch or dinner and charge it to your room. Our final bill at the end of the cruise was less than half what we spent for the shorter Paris cruise where wine was not complimentary at dinner.
The cuisine was incredible! Breakfast offered and buffet which featured fresh and dried fruits, yogurts, breads, lox, steel-cut oatmeal, a variety of juices, bacon and sausages, and waiters would take your order for a custom made omelet or other egg specialty. You needed to watch the daily schedule since times for breakfast varied a bit depending on the daily tour schedule. The wait staff that was recruited from Indonesia served coffee and teas dutifully. They are lively, friendly kids in their 20's with very good English skills who strive to memorize every passenger's first name.
For lunch we would peruse the salad bar first, choosing from leafy greens, fruits, vegetables, breads and at the end of the bar, the Austrian Head Chef Gunter would explain the pasta dish featured that day. For me I was usually done right there...but after you are seated, the menu would list the two or three choices of entrees that were served and you could always make a special request...and, of course, dessert. Crew members told me the menu formerly consisted of mostly Russian dishes but passenger feedback suggested a more European menu with occasional Russian options was much more popular. On a day cruising the beautiful, expansive Lake Ladoga, a special Russian meal was served on the sundeck and gave passengers a chance to nibble on several local delights.
Chef Gunter also offered a onboard cooking demonstration. Passengers observed the creation of pelmeni (ravioli-like dumplings), and had the chance to create their own and take home a recipe. We created a thinly rolled dough from flour, egg, water and salt and combined a filling consisting of meat, onions, garlic and herbs. We pinched the little dumplings into small "ear" shapes, cooked them in oil and served with our hand-made creations in sour cream. Yummm!
Dinner always seemed to sneak up on the passengers ("It's already 7 o'clock?"). Five or six courses: salad; appetizer (yes, often caviar); soup; main entrEe choices (frequently with a nice fresh fish option); dessert choices (peach ice cream covered with fresh blueberry sauce or Black Russian chocolate cake); and a cheese plate. If, by some chance, nothing caught your eye, the daily back-ups were sirloin steak or grilled salmon. After day two we determined seven laps of the sundeck equaled one mile of trekking and my wife and I planned off-ship land hikes just about every day.
St. Petersburg seemed to us like a surprising mix of terrific European-influenced architecture combined with quite a few disheveled structures. Adjacent to our river port we viewed a brand new 100-plus unit apartment complex right alongside a declining 10-story building sadly in need of tuck pointing and basic maintenance. The tours of the Hermitage Museum and Catherine's Palace (Pushkin Palace) were filled with hundreds of European treasures collected by the Czars (Picasso, da Vinci, Rembrandt, Michelangelo), but we were surprised to notice they were not protected by any kind of glass or climate and humidity controls. The city was uncharacteristically hot and humid in July 2011 (85?) and we were thankful that Viking had us in the queues early and back on our air-conditioned busses before lunch. Local guides augmented the Viking tour leaders at these stops. Tonya was excellent with historical background information and seemed to answer every passenger question in detail.
We went on the included bus tour of the city but jumped off after an hour to focus on photos and a couple of nice cafes. Through connections in Chicago, we had arranged to meet a couple who had lived in the city their whole lives. We rendezvoused on Nevskiy Prospekt, the bustling avenue that serves as the focal point of the city. Each was a noted scientist, he with the Russian Space Program, and she as the head of a medical cybernetics laboratory. This dinner was a highlight of our journey and allowed us to skip the optional Viking-arranged home visit later on the trip. We skipped the optional "Cossack Show" performed in a building adjacent to the Viking dock.
We make it a habit to always sign up for a local in-city, river/canal tours (Saigon, Hong Kong and Paris stand out) and Viking had one on their optional tour offerings. This was an ideal photo and sightseeing excursion with the local guide giving us an abundance of historical background and the locals waving and smiling on every bridge we glided under in the city called the "Venice of the North". Don't miss this 1 ½-hour tour (€37).
We had our only real travel glitch of the tour when our bus air conditioner failed on the way to a ballet performance of Swan Lake (not quite the Bolshoi) at the Conservatory Theatre. The Viking tour team reacted nicely and delivered a replacement vehicle for the ride back to the Pakhomov.
We recommend studying in advance on the shore excursions between Petersburg and Moscow and making careful choices. We found the river-to-canal-to-lake cruising to be very relaxing and enjoyable. The first shore excursion out of Petersburg was the least compelling in my opinion. Mandrogy is billed as a "model of an old Russian village". The overall look perhaps, but besides the dusty "Vodka Museum", it featured a series of souvenir offerings with a few genuine craftspeople sprinkled in making jewelry or other items. The ubiquitous souvenir stalls along the tour route seemed to generally offer the same things. We found a few who offered genuine crafts and found the gift shop on board the Pakhomov to offer nice quality at decent prices. We still enjoyed a nice long walk around the park-like perimeter of the village.
When we docked at this type of riverside port, we generally pulled up alongside other river cruise ships and walked through their center lobbies to reach the dock. I overheard many Viking passengers favorably comparing Viking to Uniworld and local Russian line cruisers concerning dEcor and general cleanliness. The A/C on the Viking craft was never lacking and some of the others seemed a bit stuffy.
Everyone aboard the Pakhomov seemed to enjoy the stop at Kizhi, an island in the center of Lake Onega, that features a series of wooden structures including the amazing 22 wooden-domed Transfiguration Church that was originally built in 1714. This locally guided walking tour offered several unique photography opportunities including a few glimpses of long-ago Russian village life.
We docked the following day at the port of Kuzino and bussed a few minutes over to Kirillov and the Monastery of St. Cyril on the White Sea. Our guides described the history of the impressive buildings and we observed quite a bit of restoration work going on here displaying the importance that the Russian Federation seems to put on the preservation of their past and the economic benefits of the tourism industry. I also recommend a quick walk through the small village here to review and photograph Russian life outside the main cities and a bit away from tourist venues.
The city of Yaroslavl' on the Volga River boasts a population of 600,000 and offers an interesting example of life in a medium-sized city. Several nice cathedrals including the impressive Church of Elijah the Prophet and terrific river views from scenic parks made this a fun excursion. Viking sent the head chef to town to prepare a tasting of a variety of local foods at a large, sun-bathed indoor market. Take your camera, leave the flash behind, and capture the merchants in gorgeous environmental portraits with their colorful arrays of fruits, fish, meats and cheeses.
The city of Uglich with its lock and hydroelectric power station and quaint and colorful town (68,000 population) offers another interesting view of life in Russia. The key tourist site here on the grounds of their kremlin (this city's walled-in center) is another Church of the Transfiguration with its impressive green domes. I asked our guide for some local photo-opps and she directed me to an outdoor market packed with merchandise for the locals. It sits about four blocks from the Pakhomov's dock.
We shoved off from Uglich and later passed through a lock and sailed from the Volga to the Moscow Canal that opened in 1937 and connected Moscow with the five Russian seas. Sitting in a deck chair and watching the banks, swimmers and fishermen was an incredibly relaxing experience. The next day we would approach Moscow and dock at the North River Terminal on the periphery of the largest city in Russia (about 12 million).
Moscow was a pleasant surprise. It was huge and bustling, but the Pakhomov docked near the weekend so the famous traffic snarls were virtually nonexistent. The city was much more modern than we expected and there seemed to be a great deal of investment in the infrastructure, especially as compared to Petersburg. Work was underway throughout the city to refurbish the pedestrian sidewalks. There were crews laying attractive brickwork and removing cracked and worn out asphalt.
The night of our arrival in the capital city, we attended the included classical folklore performance in a nice, air-conditioned auditorium. It was very enjoyable and I purchased the optional CD to remember the night.
Even though we were tiring of the tour bus routine, we enjoyed the overview tour of Moscow city center with our local guide Tonya and were thrilled with Red Square and the Gum Department Store tours. The outdoor façade of Gum was covered in a fabric for renovation, but the interior was beautiful. Our Viking guide tipped us off to a quite section on the upper floor that afforded a nice view of the mall and its shoppers and a quiet cafe that offered affordable Carlsberg beer and an assortment of snacks.
The following day we declined the optional tours and decided to venture back to the city center on the Metro. There is an iPhone GPS app that can help you decode the Cyrillic alphabet read the directional signs for this incredibly complex and efficient subway system. The stations are not only clean, but many are architectural wonders featuring marble and decorative frescos. Outside Red Square we found pedestrian malls, quiet rows of cafes and shops, and generally friendly people. On the trip back to the ship we boarded the wrong subway line and a helpful, 30-something gentleman rerouted us with excellent English. The trip back to the Pakhomov port was about 30 minutes on the train and a nice 15-minute stroll through a local shopping area and park. The optional "Moscow by Night" tour is a must for serious photographers (tripod recommended, €37 for the tour). The iconic St. Basil's Cathedral nighttime image alone made the night tour worthwhile.
The final full day in Moscow featured the optional Armory excursion. Our Viking guide had us first in line at 9:30 at the Kremlin gate, and first to view the famous Faberge' eggs before the crowds got too heavy. After visiting the impressive Cathedral of the Assumption, our guide whisked us out to the plaza to get us in position to watch a military marching ceremony that included cavalry troops on horseback and about a hundred young, well-groomed infantry. I owe some nice "goose-stepping" soldier images to Tonya knowing exactly where to be for this exciting Saturday-only performance.
Even though we booked our own airfare, and transfers were not included by Viking, Chris, the Program Director, left us a reminder note and booked a taxi for us for our departure to Domodedovo Airport. Be certain to leave enough time. The river port is on the opposite side of the city from this airport (double-check your reservations to insure to which airport you are traveling from).
Overall, this was very close to a dream trip for us. We would not hesitate to book with Viking again. We have already recommended this journey to our friends and families. The average age of our fellow passengers was probably about 62. There were no kids or kid activities on board. They had a passenger play one night while cruising and just the right amount of other activities, including frequent slide show lectures that offered historical facts about Russia and its people. Some passengers attended the Russian language presentations, the food demonstration or the vodka lecture.
An American investigative journalist from Travel Weekly arrived for the cruise and posted several stories to their website while on board. These included an article about riverboat safety (the Bulgaria tragedy happened weeks prior to this cruise). You can check out Michelle Baran's reviews on travelweekly.com. Feel free again to take a glimpse at my images at www.mikerophoto.com and click on one of the four Russian Galleries.