Brought up on cold war movies, there seemed something daunting about organising our own trip to Russia, so this itinerary from Viking looked like a good way for them to take the strain and let us get our first taste of Russia in luxury.
Things started well at Domodedovo airport where the kind lady at immigration directed us to use the quiet Diplomatic Channel to get us through passport and visa checking as quickly as possible. The Viking rep was waiting to greet us and put us on board the luxury coach to The Rurik, which would be our home for the next 12 days.
It took about 90 mins to get to the River Port at Khimki North West of Moscow, where an efficient check in and prompt delivery of our bags, allowed us to do a speedy unpack before heading into dinner. We had booked Deluxe (DX) stateroom 212 which was ideal for our needs (we didn't plan spending much time in our room), as it had all the necessary facilities and a picture window looking out over the river. Dinner, served in the Neva restaurant, was smart casual and open dining. Beef Stroganoff was the recommended dish and the tender beef and German noodles was unusual but very tasty, This turned out to be the first of many meals we were to enjoy onboard, including a very thoughtful cake and champagne to mark our Anniversary.
People possibly lived in Moscow as far back as 500 BC, but the wooden fort built in 1147 for Uri (the long armed) Dolgoruky, Grand Prince of Kiev, really led to the teeming metropolis that is here today. We explored the city by a combination of bus, boat, Metro and on foot to get a feel for how it all hangs together. The combination of excursions put together by Viking, the information by their great tour guides and some free time worked very well for us. A trip to The Kremlin, the focal point of political power in Russia since the capital was transferred back here in 1918, also included visiting The Armoury. The Armoury, as well as some of the fabulous Faberge Eggs, has a magnificent collection of gowns, crowns, swords, armour, amongst its 4,000 precious items.
Whilst there are many fine works of art or architecture to behold in a trip of this type, from the art in underground stations of Moscow to the Mother Volga statue on the river of the same name, its the Cathedrals and Churches that are honey on the eyes. My favourite was the Intercession Cathedral, better known as St Basil's Cathedral in Red Square Moscow. You'd be forgiven for thinking that it secretly houses Willie Wonka's Chocolate factory but the tumultuous combination of onion shaped domes, shapes and colours does actually have some order to it. It is totally brilliant (even better at night). That is closely followed by the similarly styled Church of our Saviour in St Petersburg or the wooden Transfiguration Church, which boasts no fewer than 30 domes between the larger and smaller buildings situated on Kizhi Island. As impressive as these places of worship are from the outside its the Church of Elijah the Prophet in Yaroslaval that takes the interior gold medal. It houses some of the most outstanding frescos, done by Gury Nikitin, that I have ever seen and combined with the iconography it was hard to keep my overwhelmed eyes in their sockets. The 15th century Assumption Cathedral within the Kremilin at Moscow was comfortably in silver medal position.
Of course as well as the wonderful places we visited on this trip, the journey itself is also impressive. Our journey started by navigating a section of the 80 mile Moscow Canal, part of the network of waterways that connects Moscow to St Petersburg. Stalin's use of prison labour vastly accelerated the vision of Peter the Great and this mammoth construction contains 15 dams, 11 locks, 8 Hydroelectric power stations, 5 pump stations and 15 bridges. The dimensions of the project were greater than either the Panama or Suez Canal projects. Along the way you take in some magnificent aspects of the Russian countryside, including towns, villages, monasteries and more splendid domed churches.
The highlight of our visit to Uglich, the first Golden Ring city that we visited, was to see a local family. We were warmly greeted by our hosts for our taste of "real Russian life", a welcome distraction from the tourist hotspots. We were shown the flower and vegetable garden plus the rabbit hutches, which along with fishing provide some of the dietary needs of the family. A lively discussion via our translator revealed much about their everyday lives, whilst tea, cake and some homemade Vodka (moonshine) helped the conversation along.
Our final destination was St. Petersburg, with an initial treat of visiting The Hermitage, celebrating its 250th anniversary. Getting around each of its 3,000,000 exhibits and giving them the attention they deserve is impossible. In some ways it was a bit overwhelming when everywhere you looked was a masterpiece on canvas, in sculpture or some other form of art. The Raphael Loggias was easily my favourite. A copy of a 16th century gallery in the Vatican, its 13 identical sections are decorated to depict the time from creation to the last supper. In each arch the ceiling sports 4 paintings, each one a masterpiece in its own right, that's not to mention the artwork on the columns and the walls and that's just one corridor in the building. Excursions to Catherine's Palace (aka Pushkin's or Summer Palace) and The Peterhof Palace (nestled alongside the Gulf of Finland) gave us an insight to some of the grandeur and glamour of this region.
The Viking crew on The Rurik worked hard to immerse us in all things Russian during our brief stay. Russian menus, vodka tasting, a night at the ballet (Swan Lake) were all part of a huge variety of activities to attempt to make this highly recommended exposure to Russian Culture a memorable one.
For more information on a Viking River Cruises visit www.VikingRiverCruises.co.uk
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Steve Aldridge -
is a travel writer for
YOUR HOLIDAY TV