RUSSIA – Viking River Cruises: Waterways of the Tsars Review – To Russia…In Love...

 

Russia. A trip of a lifetime. Magnificent. Regal. In a realm of its own orbit. Literally took my breath away.

 

 

I always imagined going to Russia one day. And thanks to Viking River Cruises: Waterways of the Tsars that day has come. Every minute of this extraordinary 13-day voyage brings a treasure trove of wonder. We are talking waterways that carry you through mystical passages to remote and endearing villages between two of the most historically significant cities in the world - St. Petersburg and Moscow. Along the way, you pass through mystical bodies of water, each distinctly magical with an aura of timelessness. Our luxury vessel The Viking Truvor traverses 3 rivers, 3 lakes, 1 reservoir, 2 canals and 16 locks on this awe-inspiring voyage. The memories are infinite.

 

 

There is a reason that Viking River Cruises started their own journey in Russia. It offers unprecedented opportunities for unique connections on a human level with experienced guides in one of the most extraordinary countries in the world. Period. With its first cruise launched in 1997 on this very same route, twenty years and thousands of passengers later, Russia remains at the very top of Viking River Cruises’ destination list. With good reason.

 

 

Let me be clear. Everyone owes it to themselves to experience the splendors of Russia’s palaces, museums, cathedrals, architecture and art. It is beyond imagination.

 

To see Russia is to see the height of beauty that we can achieve in the world. And to see Russia with Viking River Cruises is a privileged experience. That everyone deserves.

 

 

Anyone can go to Moscow and St. Petersburg on their own (pending a complicated visa application process and yes Viking offers this service for a reasonable fee – take it).  But the insights offered through Viking River Cruises and the unique and special itineraries designed only for Viking guests make this a-once-in-a-lifetime trip offered nowhere else. We are talking twenty years of perfecting. And it shows.

 

 

 

On-board talks and lectures, lessons and celebrations, combined with extraordinary excursions just for Viking passengers makes Viking River Cruises: Waterways of the Tsars that perfect combination of “must dos.” So do it.

 

Viking River Cruises shows you the best of the best – in an efficient and in-depth manner. Ahead of the crowds. Private access. Highlighting the highest of art. And holding your hand along the way. Into truth. Into fairytale. Into the real Russia.

  

 

As we sailed along the Waterways of the Tsars on board The Viking Truvor, I attended lectures on the history and geography of this extraordinary country, partook in fancy Russian teas with Samovar demonstrations, heard the Captain offer a nautical Q&A followed by a deck visit, enjoyed pre-tour overviews of the visited towns, listened to a panel discussion given by our expert Viking guides who generously shared their personal experiences and insights on any topic of interest about living in Russia. Politics included. And yes – I even took Russian language lessons! Specialty cooking classes and vodka tastings were also on the schedule. Talk about a total immersion. Thanks to our program director Irina - who happens to look exactly like a Russian Tsarina come to life! Loved every minute. It made the cruise part of the journey a highlight unto itself.

 

 

My home away from home in Russia, the Viking Truvor, currently has two sister ships including the Viking Ingvar and the Viking Akun with plans to reintroduce a fourth vessel - the Viking Helgi. All have recently undergone renovations to offer guests superior sailing (Truvor in 2012, Ingvar in 2013, Akun in 2014). Onboard there is an intimate feeling of inclusion amongst the 204 guests (max) in 102 staterooms supported by 100 crew members. A bond forms among all.

 

And did I mention that we floated by little towns featuring Russian looking candlestick cathedrals, abandoned bell towers rising out of the water, historic statues and intriguing waterfronts all the while?! One glance out the window reminded us where we were. Just in case we forgot.

 

 

The itinerary consisted of three days each in Moscow and St. Petersburg and five full days of sailing along the Waterways of the Tsars – including disembarkations to quaint towns and historic sights.

 

Moscow-Uglich-Yaroslavl-Kuzino-Kiszhi-Mandrogy-St.Petersburg. Through the Moscow Canal, Volga River (Uglich/Yaroslavl), Rybinsk Reservoir, White Lake (Kuzino), Volga-Baltic Waterway, Lake Onega (Kiszhi), Svir River (Mandrogy), Lake Ladoga, and ending on the Neva River in St. Petersburg. It sounded so foreign before I left. Now pure nostalgia.

 

In the villages and cities alike, Russians opened their homes and their hearts to us, and we came away with personal connections to each one of these extraordinary places on Viking River Cruises: Waterways of the Tsars.

  

 

Now to share some highlights!

  

We arrived in Moscow and I immediately fell in love. Red Square. The heart. The Kremlin. The power. Pulsating with the life force of the past. The grandness. The scale.

 

Throughout the trip, I felt a strong connection with my own past. Full disclosure. My great-grandfather was the personal tailor to Tsar Alexander (II and III). So on our very first day in Russia, my heart and soul awoke in the presence of exquisite brocaded gowns, coronation dresses, and the breathtaking wardrobes of Tsars and Tsarinas adorned in the most stunning array of ornamented jewels imaginable on display at The Armory in Moscow. Awe and pride. Knowing that my great-grandfather Alexander designed some of these splendors stopped me in my path (yes – he had the same first name as the Tsar he clothed). Speechless.

 

Traveling with my mother made the trip all the more special as she gave insights into the historic context of what we were seeing. Along with personal anecdotes.

  

 

Our favorite Moscow tours were Viking’s optional excursions to the Treasures of The Armory, Moscow by Night, and the Moscow Jewish Museum. Viking’s included all-day tour of Moscow featuring the Kremlin and Red Square followed by an incredible music performance at the Tretyakov Gallery is an absolute must too!

  

 

Viking River Cruises provides daily newsletters with detailed descriptions of location highlights, upcoming excursions, and historical contexts, as is customary on all of its sailings. I found this indispensable as a reference to reinforce what was seen on each tour, especially given the scale of Russia and the variety of excursions available on Viking River Cruises: Waterways of the Tsars. Being the largest country in the world in terms of territory – 6.602 million square miles (almost twice the size of the USA), it covers 1/7 of the world’s total land with a population of over 143 million. We are talking BIG. And there was always an abundance of information to absorb made easy by Viking’s well-written handouts.

 

For example – Back to Moscow. And The Armory. We are talking a lot of specific thrones. With a lot of history. And a lot of upheavals. Which the Viking newsletter helped me keep straight. Such as “the oldest throne, veneered with carved ivory, belonging to Ivan the Terrible” that we saw. Sadly one of Ivan the Terrible’s terrible acts was to kill his own son Prince Ivan. So then we saw the throne where Prince Ivan actually sat (before being killed) next to his younger brother Peter the Great – and of course their older sister Sophia had a little seat in the back too so she could whisper guidance to her two younger brothers as they ruled. A triple throne of sorts. I can definitely relate as an older sister to her (unquestionable) importance!

  

 

We also enjoyed visiting the Moscow Jewish Museum, which features state of the art technology and gives an overview of the unique contributions both culturally and military-wise that Russia’s Jews made. Starting “at the very beginning,” there is even a 4-dimensional movie experience including mist from the Garden of Eden. I am talking biblical.

 

And then there was the ultimate Moscow by Night tour, taking us to special memorials and panoramic outlooks around the city, and culminating in an intimate boat ride along the canals. Red stars, spires, Russian Orthodox postcard pictures come to life along the edges of the water as we float by.

 

 

Our whirlwind three days in the capital with Viking were glorious. Even the weather was on our side. Picture perfect. So much so that at times it felt like we were inside a Soviet era frame in a filmstrip of time past. Soviet gold stars everywhere. Onion domes. All as if out of a movie. Stereotypical Russia. But real.

 

 

Leaving Moscow behind, we embark on our cruise along the Waterways of the Tsars. Past fairytale villages. With more Russian spirals and domes. And into the hidden gems of Russian heritage. Meeting real people. In real places. This time I felt like we were going inside those beautifully painted pictures on fanciful lacquer boxes. Really. 

 

 

Uglich is like straight out of a Russian book of folktales. It is everything you imagine when you think of a typical Russian village. We were welcomed with open arms into the home of Olga, who served us home baked goodies and tea from her family Samovar heirloom. She lives in a typical dacha, or country home, and grows her own vegetables next to a lovely flower garden. Viking is notorious for personal connections on its cruises, and the home visit in Uglich is definitely a highlight of the entire trip to Russia.

 

 

The legendary Church of St. Dmitry on the Blood is also a notable part of Uglich’s rich history. Ivan the Terrible (the same one who killed his son Prince Ivan) exiled his last wife Maria Nagaya to Uglich, where she lived with their son Dmitry. It was here that the young 10-year-old boy somehow “fell” on a knife (twice), which killed him. Or was it murder (at the hands of Boris Godunov)? The mystery remains. No one arrested. But the most incredible church preserving his memory now stands where he died. In full color. Red. And blue. Like blood. The bell that rang to alert the town of Dmitry’s death still stands inside next to frescoed walls depicting his short-lived life story.

 

 

 

 

Yaroslavl is a UNESCO Heritage site and we were lucky that Viking River Cruises organized a special program planned just for us in this “Golden Ring” city. Starting with a private tour of the Governor’s Mansion including waltz demonstrations with live musicians and dancers. Yes - a few special guests from among our own passengers even participated! Then we experienced the town market where Chef Jan Blanar from the Viking Truvor prepared tastings of local cheeses and meats for us to try. The Chef confided in me that this is his favorite time to interact with the guests and give them a taste (literally) of life in Russia from a culinary perspective. You can tell her really cares – every choice and slice delicious. And thanks to Frank Biescheweski, our Hotel Manager on board the Viking Truvor, I found the best Russian candies including matryoshka shaped cookies and chocolates! Yum!

 

 

I feel like we walked into a time machine and ended up in Yaroslavl…or should I say a “timeless machine”… With old-fashioned scales and handwritten prices and no computers anywhere! Novel.

 

 

 

Then we headed into several churches where icons abounded, including the renowned Church of St. Elijah the Prophet with its emerald domes.

 

 

Next stop – Kuzino. On a windswept timeless landscape sits the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery founded in 1397 (by St. Cyril of Beloozero – sounds a little like the temperature might have been below zero here at the time this place was named). The museum inside is a treasure trove of manuscripts and icons, the likes of which are incomparable. Thick velvet covered original illustrated bibles. Rivaling anything I have ever seen. As a religion major in college, this was a definite favorite.

 

 

 

Viking then took us inside a school in the nearby town of Kirillov, where we met students and learned about the educational system in Russia. And also enjoyed a short performance by the Russia folk club who sang traditional songs in their homemade costumes of yore. Yes – we also bought folk dolls from them. How could we resist?

  

 

Mandrogy = love at first site. This artisan village is a true treasure. With handcrafts of all sorts. We spent time wandering into the artists’ studios and workshops, strolling the dirt-covered pathways betwixt and between, and listening to a lone musician pluck his handmade hurdy-gurdy while singing eerie tunes. Like out of a dream. Mom and I even painted our own Matryoshka dolls while other passengers experienced a Russian Banya or hitched a horse and carriage ride. Magic.

 

 

 

After a week of sailing, we arrived in St. Petersburg. The great city of Peter the Great. Beauty to die for. And get ready for the palaces. The definition of grand. The amber room at Catherine’s Palace is breathtaking. The fountains at Petershof are legendary. And room after room of lavishness, exquisite art, and architectural wonder at the Winter Palace, now home to the Hermitage is like walking through a storybook subtitled the ultimate fantasy for art appreciators. Did I mention that we took the optional excursion “Privileged Access: The Hermitage Behind Closed Doors” and got in before the crowds?! We also went behind-the-scenes to an off-site location where exotic presents bestowed upon the Russian royalty along with the Tsars’ carriages in St. Petersburg are stored. Well worth every second!

 

 

And did I mention that I returned home with jeweled amber necklaces, Russian teas, and a collection of complimentary postcards from the Viking Truvor shop? A shawl spun from the wool of the one-and-only Bilka the goat in the artisan village of Mandrogy, a carved monk statue made from the wood of a juniper tree outside the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery, beeswax candles shaped like Catherine the Great, a porcelain spoon from Catherine’s Palace, a stunning hand painted firebird lacquer box from the clock tower in Uglich. And then there were the CDs of a spiritual acapella group singing in a private room at the Hermitage just for our Viking tour in St. Petersburg and the music of the phenomenal Russian chamber orchestra at Viking’s private performance at the Tretyakov Gallery’s theater in Moscow. Of course I also nabbed a CD from that enterprising Hurdy Gurdy player who actually made his own instrument and looked like he stepped out of a 17th century country painting. I think he did.

 

 

Doesn’t this sound exotic? It is. But the trip itself is by far the very best gift of all.

 

 

 

Looking back at my own postcards come to life, I have to pinch myself to remember that I actually was there. In Russia. On the Viking River Cruises: Waterways of the Tsars. A richness experienced. For a lifetime.

 

Yes – I really went TO RUSSIA

Yes – I am still IN LOVE

 

 

____________

 

Note that I took the extension to Helsinki and highly recommend it! Review coming soon!

 

Visit Viking River Cruises website

 

Look at the Waterways of the Tsars itineraries

 

Jodi Kaplan’s Film Website

 

Jodi Kaplan’s Booking Dance Website

 

Photos and Feature by Jodi Kaplan – Copyright 2016 by Jodi Kaplan

All images are copyright 2016 by Jodi Kaplan (except where noted by Eva Kaplan).

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. FOR VIEWING ONLY.

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