My Russian Rivers Cruise Journal: Viking Helgi Cruise Review by CdMAgFox

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My Russian Rivers Cruise Journal

Sail Date: July 2011
Destination: Europe - River Cruise
Embarkation: Other
***Welcome to Moscow! July 5th***

By noon today, July 5th, we had deplaned our Delta flight #46 from Atlanta -- a 10.5 hour flight, had passed through Russian passport control, retrieved our checked baggage, and were collected by Viking personnel at the exit of Sheremetyevo International Airport, and transferred by bus to our ship, the Viking Surkov, docked on the Moscow-Volga Navigational Canal at the Northern River Boat Terminal.

After a brief check-in we were invited to a buffet lunch in the dining room while our cabins were undergoing final preparations for an estimated 3 PM occupancy; another group had just left the ship earlier this morning. So now I am sitting in the Panorama Lounge, enjoying a glass of cold white wine, and sending this first email to all of you. Wireless internet is available throughout the ship and is free!

The ship, having been fully refurbished only a couple of years ago is absolutely beautiful! I look forward to the next 13 days and More 12 nights aboard. More later.

***A Cool Damp Morning in Moscow: July 6th***

After sleeping from 6 PM last night until 3 AM this morning, I now am showered, shaved, shampooed and feeling almost human again. Yesterday and the day before were FULL days of travel with very little sleep and last evening it all caught up with me; I just could NOT stay awake! Even missed dinner. Now I feel rather good, especially after a few cups of coffee. There is a 24-hour coffee service available: coffee, tea, cappuccino, espresso, etc. - machine, but not that bad. This morning has a relaxing schedule with our afternoon city tour beginning at 1:30 PM: Red Square, Metro, St. Basil's, etc. Then tonight there is a special concert we will attend, getting us back aboard at 9:45 PM for a late dinner.

Our Delta flights from Los Angeles to Atlanta, and then nonstop on to Moscow, went without incident -- just LONG! The Economy Comfort seats we had from Atlanta to Moscow were well worth the price: $80 each. Lots of legroom and special treatment: drinks, etc. Can't say too much for the food, however, but it was eatable at least. On arrival at Sheremetyevo International Airport around 10:40 AM, we were met by Viking personnel who took our luggage, next to be seen in our cabin, and our rather short bus ride brought us to the Viking Surkov by noon. It was very good to finally get into our Category A Deluxe cabin, #433, on the Upper Deck, near the front, just steps from the Panorama Lounge, at 3:00 PM, and relax.

While Jim went shopping locally for wine and flowers, I treated myself to a nice glass of cold sauvignon blanc in the Panorama Lounge, and wrote the email sent yesterday. As mentioned already, wireless internet is free and seems to work very well so far on my little Apple iBook G4. There was an embarkation lecture in the Sky Bar, just above us on the Sun Deck, at 5 PM during which I just could NOT stay awake! Returning afterward to our room, that was it for me for the night.

Next to us is the Viking Kirov, and behind us is the Viking Pakhomov, both almost identical ships to ours - with different schedules, of course.

Breakfast in the Neva Restaurant begins at 7 AM, just a few minutes away, so I will end this for now and add more comments later. It looks like an "umbrella day" for sure, although the temperatures are quite pleasant.

***Wednesday in Moscow: July 6th***

This was our first day for tours and the included Moscow City tour was extensive and interesting. A driving tour took us all around the major sites in Central Moscow, now a mega-city of around 20 million: Red Square, St. Basil's Church, Moscow River, etc. The traffic in the city and surrounding areas is unbelievably congested; it is common for 8 lane expressways to come to an absolute standstill with bumper-to-bumper cars, trucks, vans, etc. The absolute worst I have ever seen!

Our first stop was near the Moscow State University, a massive complex of high-rise buildings surrounded by acres and acres of dense parkland, for a toilet stop. Then we had another brief stop nearby, overlooking much of the city. Moscow State University sits atop Sparrow Hills and the views from there are panoramic. The main building is in the Stalinist "wedding cake" style of architecture, topped by a spire with a star, and the huge building houses much of the University as well as housing for faculty, staff and students. As a retired educator, it was of interest to me, of course.

The next stop was at a Metro Station where we entered and descended deep, deep down to the underground train station, spectacularly and ornately decorated, for which the gigantic Moscow metro system built by Stalin in the 1930s is famous. We were instructed by our guide to quickly enter a subway car -- which were already at near capacity -- and then to ride on to the fourth stop before exiting the train. Miraculously, our entire group successfully accomplished the task and then we ascended up and up to the surface Metro Station "Ploshchad Revolyutsii" near Red Square. It was quite an experience, especially for me -- being an aficionado of trains and subways.

Entering Red Square through the Resurrection Gate, demolished by Stalin in 1931 in order for his tanks to enter the Square, and rebuilt in 1995, the cobblestone surface extends from St. Basil's Church at one end to Historical Museum at the other end, and from the Kremlin walls on one side -- including Lenin's Mausoleum -- to the GUM Department Store on the other side. This is the site for many parades and celebrations of military might during the Soviet era. The Kremlin walls are of red brick and towers are located at corners and several other locations along the wall, the largest being the Saviour's Tower.

After walking the entire length of Red Square towards St. Basil's Church, we had a short tour of the GUM Department Store, one of the largest buildings in Moscow. (Gosudarstvennyy Universalnyy Magazin) Consisting of three separate arcades, of three or more levels, and almost a half-mile in length, it is now a gigantic shopping complex of shops, restaurants, etc. Many upscale stores are here and if you have the rubles, they have the goods. By the way, ATMs are located almost everywhere and are the best source for us tourists to obtain local currency, rubles. One US dollar will buy 27.84 rubles, or about 4' per ruble. Moscow is also one of the most expensive cities in the world now. I bought nothing.

The end of our Red Square tour was at St. Basil's Church from which we walked further on out to our waiting buses; lots and lots of walking! Finally sitting down in the seats of our bus was a welcome treat!

The last stop of our afternoon/evening Moscow City tour involved a walk across a bridge over the Moscow River, studded with metal "trees" on which young married couples attach a locked padlock, ensuring a long marriage; there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of the padlocks adorning the trees.

On the other side of the River we walked further on to a concert hall where our Viking groups were presented with a special concert of classical Russian music -- including much folk music -- but performed by young musicians with authentic Russian folk instruments: balalaikas, bayans, domras, guslies, flutes, accordions, drums, and a xylophone. The music was uniquely beautiful, especially performed on these native instruments. Several solo performances were featured by these superbly talented young musicians. A female vocal soloist also enhanced the performance with a wonderful operatic voice. The audience reception by our Viking groups was most enthusiastic. It was quite an experience!

Then it was back onto the buses -- 6 in all - for our return to the ship, the Viking Surkov, where a late dinner was awaiting us. It was a full afternoon and evening to say the least! By the way, Viking now serves complimentary wine with dinners, of which I gladly partake!

With an early tour departure scheduled for this morning, Thursday, July 7th, getting into bed and to sleep last night was no problem at all. My poor feet and legs will never be the same!

***Sergiyev Posad Monastery: Thursday, July 7th***

Again trying to catch up with my reports, here is a description of our FULL DAY optional tour for yesterday, out from the city of Moscow to a small town where located is the Sergiyev Posad Monastery. It was a full day tour, beginning at 8:15 AM, and again the bus ride there was complicated by horrific traffic congestion, requiring over an hour to reach our destination.

As usual, the first stop was for the toilets, at the hotel restaurant where we would later have our lunch before returning to Moscow and our ship. A short walk away brought us to the entrance of the large monastery, a large gate in the surrounding walls, prolifically adorned with ancient frescoes. Inside the walls of the monastery were lush gardens with lots of flowers, grass and trees -- a very tranquil, relaxing setting.

There were several chapels and cathedrals included in our visit, along with many other tourists, some more from our ship as well as many local worshipers. The exteriors of these buildings were resplendent with light blue painted walls and gold leaf covered onion-shaped domes. A bell tower dominated the interior square, taller than even the bell towers at the Kremlin in Moscow.

Also of interest was a natural well, or water source, considered holy, and the local worshipers were filling water jugs with this "holy water" with faith that it would bring them healing results. Being the skeptic that I am, I feared more diarrhea from the holy water than its healing powers, so I declined.

After our extensive guided tour of the monastery we were given an hour and a half on our own, which I thought was entirely excessive; I had already seen as much and as many details as I thought necessary, so I ventured out of the Monastery and across the busy street into a local shopping area, looking for a nice cool place to sit: a bar! Finally finding one I ordered a glass of beer which turned out to be "Baltica" from St. Petersburg, and it was quite good - SO I had another; at 40 rubles a glass -- about $1.50 -- it seemed a meager expense.

Meeting the rest of the group at the appointed time in front of a statue of Lenin, next to a large square in front of the monastery, we then walked back over to the restaurant for our scheduled lunch at 1 PM. The dining room was quite clean and airy and the tables & chairs were modern and comfortable -- Danish design, I concluded. Lunch consisted of a rather Spartan salad with no visible dressing - nor offered, followed by a delicious chunk of salmon, cooked in a foil pack with some vegetables, served with rice. Wine was extra -- 150 rubles ($5.40) and dessert was a type of crepe with a dollop of jam, served with coffee -- made from a powder. The salmon was excellent, making the entire lunch "acceptable."

Then it was back on the bus for the return to Moscow through severely congested expressways, finally getting back onboard our ship at 3:45 PM, only 15 minutes late, as it turned out. I was exhausted and immediately opted for a glass of cold white local wine, and a nap. Awakening at 10 til 7, our dinner hour, I scurried to dress and rush to the Neva Restaurant, right on the dot.

Our second optional tour of the day was "Moscow by Night," from 9:30 PM until midnight, so after a short rest after dinner, we again found our bus and returned to the city center, this time with MUCH LESS traffic -- a major relief. Since it doesn't get very dark here, lights were late in coming on along the downtown streets. We had a brief stop at a monument for Peter the Great, a HUGE statue of questionable taste, out in one of the rivers; lighted it would have been much more impressive, but the lights had not yet been turned on.

The last stop was again near Red Square and St. Basil's Cathedral with a short walk up to the Square itself that was very brightly lighted. The GUM Department Store was covered with white lights outlining the building and windows and floodlights illuminated the Kremlin Wall; the tallest of the towers in the Wall, the Saviour's Tower, contains a big clock that always shows the correct time. The evening was dry and fresh with a slight breeze, making the outdoor experience most pleasant. Our speedy return to the ship at midnight ended a VERY busy day.

***Friday Morning in the Kremlin: July 8th***

Our last day in Moscow started with a morning tour inside the Kremlin, after we FINALLY negotiated the heavy, congested traffic just to get there!

It was a beautiful day -- we have been quite lucky with weather -- and our entrance through the Trinity Tower gates immediately revealed a beautiful, unexpected complex of ancient cathedrals and lush gardens of flowers nestled among thick stands of trees, along with many government office buildings. It certainly was NOT what I expected to see!

We soon passed in front of the very modern building (1961), the State Kremlin Palace, which at one time housed the Communist Party Congress -- but we not permitted inside, and then strolled the grounds along a certain prescribed route. We came upon The Tsar's Cannon -- gigantic, which had never been fired -- and then an enormous bell, the Tsar Bell -- largest in the world at 200 tons, from which a large chunk had broken free; it also had never seen use.

Then it was inside one of the cathedrals, the Cathedral of the Assumption, in which walls were covered with exquisite "icons" (paintings) of various historic Russian Orthodox deities: no photos. We were also permitted to enter and view two other cathedrals, the Cathedral of the Archangel and the Cathedral of the Annunciation, but the most impressive were the exterior adornments: gold leaf coated onion domes, etc. It was a photographers' paradise.

Our last attraction was a park area with flowerbeds resplendent in the colors and design and a tree planted in honor of Yuri Gagarin, the first Russian in space. Reluctantly we had to depart this beautiful setting and return through the Trinity Tower Gates to our waiting bus, and back to the Viking Surkov. It was certainly an unexpected exposure to the inside the Kremlin.

After lunch aboard our ship, we departed Moscow, cruising up the Moscow Canal towards the Volga River. Once out of the metropolitan area our cruising was along a smooth waterway lined with lush forests and many local families and children could be observed along the banks enjoying a warm summer afternoon, camping alongside the Canal, swimming, cooking, etc. It was quite a contrast from the city.

Our journey soon brought us to the first of several large locks, dating back to the early 30s, which lowered our ship substantially. The lock mechanisms and designs were especially interesting in contrast to what we usually see in the Panama Canal. Supposedly Stalin had commissioned the construction of the Moscow Canal, which was completed in record time, to provide a navigable access to St. Petersburg and the Baltic Sea. Essentially, the Canal connects several natural lakes in its path toward the Volga River. Cruising along the calm waters of this Canal was a most pleasant way to spend the afternoon.

Later on, however, an approaching storm caught up with us and a heavy rain descended, accompanied by spectacular lightening and thunder. Safe and dry in the ship's Panorama Lounge, it was quite a show for us.

That evening was the Captain's Reception at 7 PM in the Sky Bar on the top deck with complimentary champagne and introductions of the officers and managers of the Viking Surkov. With 210 passengers in this room that accommodates only 160, it was crowded, to say the least - NOT a good arrangement. Then it was a special Captain's Welcome Dinner in the Neva Restaurant and most passengers -- as did we -- dressed for the occasion. There will be a second Captain's Farewell Dinner near the end of our cruise in St. Petersburg.

***Report: 2 dead, more than 100 missing after ship sinks in Russia - - NOT THE VIKING SURKOV! Monday, July 11th***
Evidently this was an older Soviet-era 1955 riverboat, the Bulgaria, which was greatly overloaded with passengers and seriously overdue for maintenance. The event occurred far down river on the Volga in Central Russia.

The Viking Surkov on which we are cruising, departed Moscow northward along the Moscow Canal, joining the upper Volga River near Uglich; then yesterday we left the Volga River by means of a huge lock, into the Rybinsk Reservoir, and on northward toward Kuzino, today's port, on our way to St. Petersburg. A huge statue of "Mother Volga" marks the entrance/exit of the River and the Reservoir.

***Saturday in Uglich: July 9th***

With a lull in activities today while cruising across the huge Lake Onega, one of the largest in Europe, I will try again to catch up on my journal entries:
Saturday morning, July 9th, began with bright sunshine and clear skies after the storm the previous night and our walking tour of the charming town of Uglich was a pleasure with the cool, forested parks and gardens of beautiful flowers. Our group "Bus 46" with guide Sasha was also accompanied by a local guide who narrated to us by means of individual receivers and earpieces, now standard procedure for Viking excursions; it makes hearing and understanding much better in crowded venues.

Of course, there were the obligatory cathedrals, the Cathedral of Our Savior's Transfiguration, containing numerous "icons" (paintings) covering the walls and an impressive altar, and also the Church of St. Demetrios on the Blood, where it is said that young Tsarevich Dmitry, son of Ivan the terrible, had been murdered by order of Boris Godunov.

During the Soviet era, most churches were closed down and many were actually demolished, so currently there is resurgence in religion, Russian Orthodox, and cathedrals have reopened and undergone restoration. One such small church had not been reopened as such but serves as museum and small concert hall. Inside we were treated to a vocal performance by 6 young men - a cappella - that was truly outstanding! So much so that we purchased their CDs which were offered for sale -- conveniently.

At the conclusion of our included tour of Uglich, we chose an optional "Home Hosted Visit," and it was uniquely delightful. About 10 of us boarded a small bus and were taken into a residential section on unpaved streets, to the home of a lady school teacher who welcomed us into her lush garden -- flowers and vegetables, and into her modest home where we were tightly seated around a large table.

We were each served a shot of her homemade vodka -- delicious! -- followed by blueberry-topped pastries -- also delicious! The vodka was accompanied by slices of brown bread and pickles; the pastries were accompanied by cups of tea served from a beautiful samovar in the center of the table. With our guide Sasha translating, many questions and answers were exchanged among the 10 of us, and our hostess. It was with reluctance that we had to leave such a hospitable home.

It was then back on the Viking Surkov by lunchtime and continuation down the Volga River; from Moscow we had been on the Moscow Canal, descending by means of a large lock to the River level. These locks along the canals and rivers are quite impressive by their shear size and unique mechanics -- quite unlike those in the Panama Canal. The Hammer & Sickle emblem is still sometimes evident on the very large structures housing the lock's mechanisms. We have been told that there will have been 19 locks on our journey from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Stalin is credited for much of the construction in the 1930s.

The "Waterways of the Czars" route is an ancient one, well before the canals' construction, when it was necessary for the riverboats to be "portaged" over connecting landmasses by man. Today we see all kinds of boats and barges making the Volga-Baltic Waterway a busy commercial route.

***Yaroslavl: Sunday, July 10th***

Still trying to catch up on my journal emails, the following describes our visit to one of the Golden Ring cities, Yaroslavl.

A beautiful city on the shore of the Volga River, we visited the Church of the Epiphany, another restored Russian Orthodox Church, containing a wealth of treasured, ancient icons (paintings) on the tall walls and ceilings.

Instead of visiting the second Church of Elijah the Prophet, our alternate tour took us on a visit of the Governor's Mansion, which was a great choice. Greeted at the entrance by the beautiful young daughter of the Governor, dressed in a period gown, we were escorted by her to the upper floor rooms displaying works of art and exquisite furnishings: desk, cabinets, tables, etc.

On return to the main hall on the ground floor, we were treated to a concert performance with piano, violin, and cello, highlighted by Chopin's Polonaise Militaire Op. 40 No. 1 on the concert grand piano. To top it off, three couples -- all dressed in period costumes, and including the Governor's daughter, danced for us the minuet to the strains of Chopin. It was SPLENDID! I am happy that we chose this alternate tour.

Then it was back onboard our boat for lunch and the continued cruise to our next stop at Kuzino on Monday.

***Kuzino and Kirillov: Monday, July 11th***

Docking at the remote, newly constructed river dock of Kuzino, we were transported in buses to the nearby village of Kirillov where the included tour went to the Kirillov-Belozersky Monastery, and the alternate tour -- ours -- first stopped at a children's day school where we were greeted by volunteer teachers and young children who come to this facility for arts and crafts instruction and development. We observed many of their activities and items of their creation, many for sale.

In an upstairs studio a young girl, singing beautifully and professionally, also treated us to a splendid performance. Staffed by volunteers and funded by contributions, this school serves an important part of the local children's lives and education.

Then it was back on the bus to another nearby venue where restoration of older buildings is taught and practiced using very basic and ancient tools. We observed the reconstruction of classic wooden buildings; one such is destined for transport when complete to Fort Ross National Park in Northern California. The smells of the fresh woods were intoxicating.

Following that visit we were then transported to the Monastery for a brief tour of only the grounds; the included tour had also had an extensive interior visit. The Monastery once served as a fortress but is little used today. It's location next to the beautiful Lake Siverskoye made the visit even more enjoyable.

Back to the dock at Kuzino, time permitted my enjoyment of a couple of Baltica beers in the beautiful wooden pavilion-type "bar" while others perused the nearby souvenir shop. Obviously these facilities were built to service the river cruise ships.

***Lake Onega and the Island of Kizhi: Tuesday, July 12th***

During the morning we cruised across the huge Lake Onega, the second largest fresh water lake in Europe, which is littered with over 1300 islands. In many places the navigable channels are clearly marked with poles, indicating that shallow waters need be avoided. Besides several riverboats, we also encountered many barges using this busy Volga-Baltic waterway.

There were also tours of the bridge of the Viking Surkov, with each of our 6 groups being given a 20-minute session. Very modern equipment: control panels, computers, GPS units, and scopes were in evidence, monitoring every function of the boat.

In the middle of the afternoon we approached the Island of Kizhi on which exist several all-wooden buildings: homes, barns, chapels, windmills, and the magnificent Church of the Transfiguration, together with the Church of the Intercession and a nineteenth-century bell tower, all constructed of wood without the use of a single nail. It is an open-air architectural museum and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

On a lengthy walking tour from the dock area, we extensively toured the Island with visits inside two of the ancient home-barn combinations, fully equipped with furniture, stoves, tools, and farming and fishing equipment. Local ladies in period dress demonstrated yarn spinning and other crafts. They are splendid museums of historic Russian life. We were even treated to a concert of bells from one of the bell towers, much to our enjoyment. And of course, CDs were available for purchase.

The view of the Church of the Transfiguration is the icon for Viking River Cruises in Russia, the Waterways of the Czars. Its unusual, curved adornments and 22 timbered onion domes are unlike anything I have ever seen; it is truly a structure of incomparable beauty representing ancient Russian culture.

***The Viking Surkov: July 13th***

We are now cruising along the Svir River, approaching Lake Ladoga and the town of Mandrogy, our last stop before St. Petersburg tomorrow. So I thought I would share some details about our ship, the Viking Surkov.

Viking River Cruises owns four essentially identical riverboats: Kirov, Surkov, Pakhomov, and Peterhof, the first three of which have been fully refurbished by Viking to their European standards. The Peterhof is due for refurbishment next year for the 2012 season. These four ships were constructed in 1984 as part of a Soviet project for 80 river boats, built in Eastern Germany, and almost every one of the river boats seen on the Russian waterways today are among these essentially identical ships, although Viking's ships are among the few that have been so modernized by substantial refurbishment.

The ship's capacity is 210 passengers in 96 "deluxe" staterooms, 2 suites, 6 "standard" staterooms, and 2 single staterooms, all beautifully refurbished with spacious bathrooms, flat panel TVs, refrigerators, wonderfully comfortable twin beds that can form a double bed: 158 square feet for the deluxe category. The older configuration had much smaller (90 sq. ft.) cabins that were replaced - 3 to 2 - with the current size. I would compare the current deluxe stateroom with a Princess ocean view stateroom on ocean cruise ships in size and amenities.

Two complaints I had were with the soundproofing and the very steep stairs; sounds from adjoining cabins seem to come OVER the walls by way of the false tile ceilings, common throughout the ship -- not THROUGH the walls. The two stairwells have rather narrow risers and the distance between steps is more than is comfortably climbed.

The dining room (Neva Restaurant), the Panorama Bar, and the Sky Bar are all beautifully decorated. There is a library and computer center and wireless internet is freely available in most areas of the ship. In many locations, scattered throughout the ship, are comfortable chairs and sofas, with tables for secluded rest, reading or computing.

There are about 115 crew and staff aboard, mostly Russian serving staff, along with many Filipinos; the Program Director is Russian, the Restaurant Manager is German, and the Head Chef is Austrian. Many of the Russian girls are absolutely beautiful, and ALL of the serving crew are typically Viking-trained to be personable, efficient, friendly, with good English; very quickly they learn everyone's names and greet you warmly on every contact.

So far my expectations have been greatly exceeded and this may well be one of the best Viking river cruises I've taken.

***Svir River, Mandrogy and Lake Ladoga: Wednesday, July 13th***

Departing Lake Onega we cruised along the Svir River during the morning, stopping at the "resort" of Mandrogy. This village is a recreation of a typical Russian village. It was revived in 1996 and today is a stopping point for cruise boats. There are wooden houses that operate as hotels, restaurants, museums, and craft workshops. Even a Vodka Museum (over 3000 different vodkas) caught my interest -- and a few rubles. After sampling 4 vodkas in the Museum for 100 rubles, I finished off my visit with a stop at the bar near the dock for another Baltica beer. Set in a park-like environment, it is popular for tourists and even conferences. By the way, it was a beautiful day!

Back onboard there was a special lunch, "Taste of the USSR," served on the Sun Deck featuring a buffet of typical Soviet food -- and beer, of course. The many items were surprisingly delicious; I certainly was dined to satisfaction! - so much so that I had to pass on the many tasty dessert offerings.

The remainder of the day and evening were spent cruising across Lake Ladoga, the largest fresh water lake in Europe. It is SO huge that no land is visible for most of its transit, and a strong wind created waves that caused considerable motion of our ship, quite unexpected for me. Exiting the Lake into the Neva River brought us to St. Petersburg very early the next morning where we temporarily anchored along the bank before approaching the docking area, the Salt Pier.

The Captain's Dinner this evening in the Neva Restaurant began with a receiving line lead by Captain Nikolai, Program Director Constantin, Hotel Manager Herbert, Restaurant Manager Oliver, Head Chef Andreas, and the 6 guides, with flutes of champagne offered for toasts. A special menu featured Prime Fillet of Beef with Truffle Crust or Grilled Fillet of Salmon, preceded with a hors d'oeuvre, soup and a warm appetizer of sauteed scallops, and followed by Baked Alaska "Surkov," presented "a fire" in a parade by the servers. It was a splendid meal!

10 PM brought the Guest Talent Show in the Sky Bar, a farcical play mimicking a Russian fairy tale (I played the "Evil Robber"), preceded by a humorous skit by the Guides: Sasha, Andrei, Natasha, Tatiana, Galina and Natalie, and a "Dance of the Virgins" featuring 6 male guests costumed in traditional dress. The finale was a rousing rendition of "Kalinka" by the entire cast and audience.

***St. Petersburg: Thursday, July 14th***

We are at dock on the Neva River in St. Petersburg, having arrived very early yesterday morning after exiting Lake Ladoga, the largest fresh water lake in Europe. During its crossing no land was visible on the horizon, it is so large; also there was sea motion, which we had not expected on this river cruise. The Salt Pier is the docking area for the many river cruise boats and is quite a distance up river from the city center of St. Petersburg, discouraging very much independent touring - as if there were any time for that!

The first excursion of the day was to the Winter Palace, the "Hermitage," leaving the Viking Surkov at 10:45 AM and returning around 3:30 PM. Of course the traffic was heavy but nothing like the gridlock congestion of Moscow. There are wide 4 to 6 lane boulevards on either side of the Neva River, with many bridges (405, to be precise) crossing the River. It is interesting to see left-turning traffic adding to the congestion, brought on by the absence of left-turn lanes or left-turn signals; cars and buses turning left from any one of the three lanes is an unusual sight to me. I was amazed by the few accidents we saw.

Finally reaching the Hermitage and quickly exiting the bus, briefly stopped in mid traffic, we were lead into the huge museum complex, the largest in the world -- contested by the Louvre in Paris. Security is tight with no liquids or large handbags or backpacks allowed. Our Viking guide for the day was Natasha and she was expert in keeping our Bus #42 Group together and navigating through the many rooms to observe the remarkable exhibits. There were literally thousands of tourists, and on our departure at 2:30 PM, there were many more thousands waiting to enter: what a throng!

Having been to the Hermitage once before in the year 2000, I knew basically what to expect, but the splendor of the interior rooms -- especially the walls and ceilings, with matching designs in the parquet floors, was breathtaking. Our earpieces worked most efficiently in receiving information provided by Natasha, including keeping the group together -- much UNLIKE the situation in the Louvre last August that was utter chaos.

Returning to our riverboat was a pleasant relief from the very warm day and huge crowds and we took the opportunity to rest before our early dinner at 5:00 PM in anticipation of our evening excursion to see the ballet performance of "Swan Lake," departing at 6:30 PM.

Again, the heavy traffic slowed our approach to The Conservatory Theater, and again we were discharged from our bus quickly in front of the theater so that the driver could find parking elsewhere during the performance.

An older theater, The Conservatory of Opera and Ballet is uniquely interesting; we ascended the grand staircase to the second level where our reserved seats were easily found. Floors were of parquet wood and appeared to be quite old, as were the wood-framed seats, although comfortably padded. We were on Row 8, seats 22 & 23, on the main floor, directly in the center of the theater on the center aisle, which were wonderful seats. Two balconies were above and behind us.

The full orchestra began Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" promptly at 8 PM with the well-known overture and the three-act ballet was nothing less than brilliant. The lighting and sets enhanced the dancers' costumes and the entire production was an absolute joy. Intermission allowed a flute of champagne for me (100 rubles, about $3.50), and the performance concluded shortly after 10 PM. It was a unique experience to see such a high quality performance of Tchaikovsky's ballet in the city of his birth, death and burial.

Return to our ship at 11 PM was easily accomplished through very light traffic, although the sun was still low in the sky, and the full moon was just rising. A late supper was available to us but I was ready for bed! Today's excursion to Pushkin and Catherine's Palace leaves the boat this morning at 8 AM so I must end this and get ready for breakfast.

***Rainy Morning at Catherine's Palace: July 15th***

Well, it was bound to happen; our good luck with weather for the past two weeks finally came to an end this morning. As we were departing on our regular Bus #46 for Pushkin and our visit to Catherine's Palace, rain began to hit the bus' windshield and by the time we arrived in Pushkin, the supplied Viking umbrellas came into use.

Of course, inside the Palace all was fine and dry -- just a plethora of tourists, not just from our ship but from all of the several ocean cruise ships also in port. Fortunately our passage through the many spectacular rooms, heavily gold-leafed, went routinely. Security is now very extensive and all coats must be checked at the clock room, including our umbrellas.

Every room has a "sitter" keeping an eye on everyone in the room, insuring that no one touches any item nor leans against any column. Before entering the rooms, all persons are required to don stretchy plastic "over shoes" to protect the magnificent inlaid wooden floors; when we were last here in 2000, the "over shoes" were made of carpet scraps. Only in the restored "Amber Room" were photos prohibited.

Exiting Catherine's Palace, with umbrellas in tow, we then toured the beautiful grounds and gardens, viewing the special sections dedicated to different purposes. The rain then was only a slight drizzle but increased in intensity as we returned by bus to our ship for lunch.

Then at 1:30 PM we again got on our Bus #46 for the afternoon city tour of St. Petersburg, and at first the rain poured down steadily. However, by the time we made our first photo stop, the rain had almost gone away and it was briskly pleasant.

One highlight of our afternoon city tour was St. Isaac's Cathedral and square, with the famous old Astoria Hotel just adjacent; Hitler had planned to hold his victory celebration in this hotel BUT, it never happened because St. Petersburg never fell to the Nazis. During our June 2000 visit to St. Petersburg, we had enjoyed an exquisite lunch in this landmark hotel.

There was also a photo stop at the Smolny Convent and also a stop across the Neva River from the Peter & Paul Fortress, burial place of the Romanovs -- among others, including Peter the Great. Other highlights included the Nevsky Prospekt, the city's main street, as well as a "shopping stop" offering a complimentary shot of vodka and a cup of delicious brewed coffee; I bought nothing! It was the Russian equivalent of "Diamonds International" so famous in Alaska and Mexico, and heavily promoted by the cruise lines.

Then it was an excruciatingly long bus ride back to the ship through unexpected traffic congestion, due to an accident. Now it is dinnertime so that will be all for now.

***St. Petersburg, Peterhof Palace and Yusupov Palace, July 16th***

Our last day in St. Petersburg was for optional tours (surcharge) and our first was in the morning to the magnificent Peterhof, the Summer Palace of the Czars, Peter the Great's "Versailles by the Sea." Again it was raining lightly but our Viking umbrellas weren't needed until after our tour of the interior rooms, ablaze with gold-gilded ornaments, statues and frames. Near the center of the palace are huge windows looking out onto the Grand Cascade, made up of three waterfalls, 64 fountains and 37 statues, and a canal leading out to the sea. Its system of waterworks has remained unchanged since 1721, conveying water over a distance of nearly 12 miles without pumping stations. We then toured the extensive gardens with more fountains and statues along the scenic walkways until it was time to return to our riverboat for lunch.

The afternoon optional tour (surcharge) we chose was to the Yusupov Palace located near the center of St. Petersburg. A true aristocratic mansion, the palace's beautiful interiors are decorated in a variety of styles and showcase the family's immense wealth. The Palace is also famous as the scene of Rasputin's murder in 1916, which is recreated in a mock display in a basement room.

Our Farewell Dinner was held this evening in the Neva Restaurant, again featuring a special menu; my choice was the "Surf & Turf" -- a medium rare steak with a broiled prawn for me that was delicious. Again, ice cream seemed to be the most popular dessert, as it has every evening of the cruise.

Sadly, this was our last opportunity for goodbyes to our favorite servers: Norman, Julia, Jefrena, Rommel, Sofiya, and others, in addition to the several guests with whom we had become closely acquainted. Many would be leaving the ship VERY, VERY early in the morning for their flights home. Luckily, our departure from the ship is not until 6:45 AM with our flight to Moscow at 9 AM.

And then it was time to pack, the most unpleasant task of any cruise. Having packed rather conservatively this trip in one suitcase and one carry-on, filling them with mostly dirty clothes went fast and it was to bed for the last time aboard the Viking Surkov; 5 AM would come early.

***Homeward Bound, Sunday July 17th***

Sitting here in the St. Petersburg Airport, I was curious about the availability of wireless internet; as you can see, it is freely available. I have received emails so now I will see about sending emails.

Our Aeroflot flight #830 on an Airbus 319 to Moscow departs at 9:05 AM and is only about an hour flight; it is now 8 AM and we are all checked in, awaiting our 8:25 AM boarding - enjoying a cappuccino.

When I checked us in last night on Aeroflot's website, where I was able to select our seats: 6A & 6C, and printed our boarding passes, it appeared that our flight would not be full -- we shall see. The Airport is quite modern and new but seems very small for a city of 7 million.

On our river boat, the Viking Surkov, our luggage was to be placed in the hallway, just outside our cabin, at 6:15 AM to be carried off to the dock, and only we two departed the boat at 6:45 AM by private car to the airport, along with a Viking crew assistant - part of our transfer.

It was only about a 30-minute ride to the airport and we were through the TWO levels of security with little delay. So now it is almost time to go to the gate area. Making our way to Gate 2, we had to pass through a very long tunnel beneath the tarmac from the main terminal building to a satellite building; fortunately, the moving sidewalk was working, unlike the escalators. "?? ????????, St. Petersburg!"

***Last Hour in Moscow: July 17th***

Yes, only another hour of wait here in Moscow before flying on to New York. We are now sitting in Sheremetyevo Airport, waiting for our Delta flight #31 to JFK, departing at 12:55 PM -- loading at 12:15 PM, about an hour from now. The flight to New York is around 10 hours but we have upgraded to Delta's Economy Comfort seats, so it won't be so bad.

The Aeroflot flight from St. Petersburg was less than an hour, and was just fine. The Aeroflot flight attendants wear traditional uniforms with hats -- in ORANGE! Very pretty, all of them.

In New York we have to pass through Customs so the several hours of layover will be well occupied. Then we fly nonstop from JFK to LAX, arriving tonight at 10:25 PM where SuperShuttle will meet us for the transfer back to Jim's apartment. It will have been a FULL day of travel.

***"Live from New York! It is Sunday Afternoon!" July 17th***

The free wireless internet in airports ended with our arrival here at JFK in New York. I am sitting in a large common dining area behind Starbucks and had to PAY $7.95 for 24 hours of access. We have almost 4 hours layover here before our 7 PM flight on the Los Angeles, but were lucky to get through Passport Control and Customs in record time, due a nice black lady official asking me if I needed special assistance; I guess I looked pretty exhausted -- and OLD! She ushered us around the other 5,000 people into a short line, and we were out of there in no time at all. As it turns out, she is a Delta employee.

Time to find our Delta Gate 23 for the flight to LAX, where we arrive at 10:25 PM tonight, exhausted but drunk from the wonderful experiences we have enjoyed in Russia.

***HOME! July 18th***

Yes, I am now home; the word says it all. I found everything just fine after my two-week absence and now I just have to concentrate on returning to "normal" - biological clock, laundry, bills, mail, etc.

There were a few more journal entries that I have now included; I got way behind during the trip, so these will fill in the blanks.

~Ron Less

Published 06/19/12

Cabin review: AX433 Veranda Stateroom

Although previously requested, it was necessary later to have our twin bed configuration resolved, placing one bed directly against the wall with the window. Not exactly the best arrangement. Obviously the single queen size bed configuration is the prevailing. The category AX Deluxe cabin was probably THE BEST cabin on the ship, short of the suites. Spacious with refrigerator, bathroom and closets, it did NOT have one of the supporting poles I observed in neighboring cabins. The large window opens downward like that on a train or a bus, but was entirely satisfactory.

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