In this regular blog, the CTN team report back from their trips on the high seas: in this edition deputy editor Gary Peters is sailing in Russia with Viking River Cruises.
I’ve finally made it. I’m at the seat of Russian power. Well, not quite.
Mr Putin hasn’t suddenly decided to pass the torch to yours truly, but I’m standing across the road from his office and his official Kremlin apartment is just yards behind me. If he’s home (and it’s a big if), then this is the closest I’ve ever been to a head of state.
Remarkable to think that this is only the first day on what promises to be a life-changing experience – Viking’s Waterways of the Tsars itinerary, on Viking Akun.
Don’t ask why, but Russia has always held a peculiar fascination.
Whether it be the revolution of 1917, Stalin’s unexpected rise to power ahead of more favoured rivals, the uneasy ties of friendship he was forced to make with the allies during World War Two, or the near destruction caused by the Cold War; there’s a uniqueness to this place that has always attracted me.
As somewhere that has projected influence not just across the old Soviet Union and modern-day Russia but also the wider world, the Kremlin’s importance cannot be understated.
Behind the walls and stern guards is the murky world of politics – tough decisions for tough people, and all that. However, I’m also in the midst of my own battle as I try to navigate the unceasing throng of people and stay within touching distance of my tour guide.
It’s worth it, though, as the grandeur of St Basil’s Cathedral comes into view. Completed in 1560 on the order of Ivan the Terrible, it’s one of the finest sights imaginable. There really are worse things I could be doing on a Saturday morning.
My time here is short but sweet, as we say goodbye to Moscow and sail towards our first port of call, the colourful city of Uglich.
Ludmilla’s house for tea
I spend most of my morning in Uglich in the company of Ludmilla. What a woman. Over a glass of her home brew and cake she tells me that the property was originally built in 1936, in Stalin’s time, and was intended for two families. Now it’s just her, her grandkids when they visit, and the German Shepherd who stands guard outside.
It’s a different world to Moscow, but that’s good. This looks like the old Russia. Sure capitalist influences are there but it’s not in your face. Look closely and it is a place time left behind.
I could spend hours listening to her stories, but I’m soon on the move to Yaroslavl. Founded in 1010 by Prince Yaroslavl the Wise of Kiev (what a name), this city is part of the ‘golden ring’ – a group of historically important cities northwest of Moscow. It is also home to the very first Russian theatre, built in 1750, and is famous for its promenade, considered one of the finest along the Volga.
My tour takes me through the heart of the city, taking in countless churches and buildings from before and after the 1917 revolution. What’s most striking is the difference in style; Stalin’s neoclassical buildings contrast to the simple, clean façades of blocks built during the time of his successor, Nikita Khrushchev.
Following a short pit stop to purchase a chunk of local chocolate I head back to the ship for a well-earned coffee to warm my bones. Cruising is thirsty work.
The Kirillo monastery
I dock in an area known as Kuzino the following day. Of all the places I’ve seen this is by far the most surreal – it’s no exaggeration to say its appearance is more suited to medieval times. This is merely a dropping off point, although I sense this tiny river port town has many secrets just waiting to be discovered.
A short bus ride later and I arrive in Kirillo. Home to just 7,000 people, this small town is located in the Vologda region. The weather is grim (I have four layers on and my travel umbrella tucked under my arm) but my guide Vadim informs the group that the record low temperature here is -47. Not so good for sun worshippers, but an ideal home for Russia’s Father Frost, commonly known as Santa Claus to most of us.
The main focus of today’s itinerary is the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery, founded in 1397 by Saint Kirill, who somehow walked all the way from Moscow. It is the largest orthodox monastery in Russia and has 16 monks within the grounds. It looks more like a fortress and indeed such defences were useful when Polish and Lithuanian forces attacked the monastery in the 17th century.
There’s barely time to scratch the surface of this intriguing area, however, as Vadim escorts us back to the splendid Viking Akun.
The most tranquil day of the cruise is on Kizhi Island. Situated in the northern part of Lake Onega – the second-largest lake in Europe – this isolated chunk of land was populated as far back as the 15th century, although today only a small rural community remains. In many ways their way of life has not changed; there’s no water system on the island, for example.
I explore most of the southern part of Kizhi, which is where the tremendous 22-dome Transfiguration Church sits. This three-tiered building dates from 1714 and its construction is a sight to behold. I’ve seen plenty of churches on this itinerary but my tour guide Andrey is not wrong when he claims this one is in a league of its own. The smaller Intercession Church is also famous as it was built without a single nail.
Kizhi is a great place for the ultimate modern-life detox. No temptation to check social media for the twenty-seventh time in the space of a few hours or the latest football gossip, again.
There’s no signal out here, anyway.
The sun is shining. That alone is enough to rouse people from their sleep as Viking Akun arrives in Mandrogy. In fact, it’s not just bright but hot for the first time on the cruise and spirits are high – there’s near universal agreement that this is the best port of call yet.
The village, once a small hamlet on the banks of the Svir, was destroyed in World War Two but in 1996 Russian businessman Sergei Gutzeit had the idea of reconstructing it as an open air museum. Tradition is observed, however, and all the shops are located in wooden buildings. There are souvenirs galore and I cannot resist purchasing a few items, ably supported by my discount coupons.
Unsurprisingly the vodka and bread museums prove popular. Probably best to visit the latter first; never drink on an empty stomach, as my mum always says.
Some of my fellow cruisers opt for Russian doll painting or a banya, a traditional spa experience. I, though, am content with finding a quiet spot near the river. It’s invigorating.