Written by City Beach Travel & Cruise client, Ron Banks
The canal, lake and river system that winds its way from Moscow to St Petersburg is one of the great waterways of the world. It is also one of the best ways to experience Russia’s cities and country towns, its landscape and forests – by taking a Scenic river ship on a cruise between these two famous cities. The voyage takes about 15 days, although at the start and finish your cruise ship becomes a floating hotel, moored along the river bank in both Moscow (which was our starting point) and St Petersburg, 1700km away.
So here we were in Moscow at the start of our adventure transferring from an overnight hotel to the cruise ship Scenic Tsar, the Russian-owned ship rebadged from its real name the Alexander Green for the benefit of the Scenic cruise company. For the next 15-days we get to know the ship, its passenger list, country towns and the sights of Moscow and finally St Petersburg by venturing out in coaches to the historic landmarks of these fabulous places with their pre-revolutionary tsars, the 70 years of communism and the Soviet system and their more recent emergence as capitalist, free-market economies complete with a booming tourism industry.
As one historian recently remarked, for many Westerners their view of Russia is a blend of fascination and fear; the fascination the result of its Tsarist history and the romance of its culture, and the fear of communism, the appalling tyranny of the Stalin regime and the uncertainties of its re-emergence as a controlled free market economy through the efforts of presidents such as Gorbachev, Yeltsin and now Putin. A trip down its major waterway is one way to dispel any residual fears of Russian society, despite the ham-fisted efforts of a certain US president named Donald to paint the new Russia as duplicitous and untrustworthy.
The Russians who run our cruise ship activities and sight-seeing are as friendly and as informative and open a bunch of people as you’re likely to meet, and at night as we cruise along the Volga they organise Q and A sessions so we can quiz them about their own lives. From their responses, we gather that we’re all pretty much living in the same global village, with the same kind of family expectations and problems and financial difficulties of making ends meet.
Our cruise companions are mainly Australians, with a smattering of Americans, Canadians, English, and Israelis. A total of 111 passengers in 56 cabins on board the 90m-long ship with its three decks. It is not mega-luxury like some 5000-strong sea monsters on the open oceans, but modern, well-appointed and extremely comfortable and stable because we are cruising on rivers, lakes and canals.
Our oldest passenger is 94-year-old Bill, a former judge of the Family Court of Australia, who is travelling alone. Bill is unsteady on his feet, and has two nasty falls in Moscow, necessitating a trip by ambulance to patch him up. But Bill is back on the boat by nightfall, and by the end of the trip his forehead wound has healed and he never misses an excursion on shore.
Our journey into the heart of Russia takes us firstly down the Moscow Canal, built by Stalin in the 1930s to link the Moscow River to the Volga River, the first stage in a waterway between the capital and the Baltic Sea. On the canal we encounter the first of a series of locks that allow us to negotiate the shifting water levels along this famous waterway. In all we will go up – or down - through 18 automated locks, each lock taking about 20 minutes to negotiate, despite the length of the ship. We watch our ship being locked away from the open top deck, or are sleeping soundly when we pass through them. It’s a seamless process and quite an engineering marvel.
Our first stop after leaving Moscow is the riverside town of Uglich, an overnight cruise that takes in several locks with their automated systems that allow for an easy transition from one water-level to another. Our voyage takes us through these defined narrow waterways and into the open water of lakes Onega and Lagoda on our way to the Baltic Sea, lying the other side of St Petersburg on the Neva River. Along the shoreline are such ancient towns as Uglich, Yaroslavl, Goritsky, Kizhi Island and Mandrogi.
We make a stop-over at each one, visiting their churches, monasteries, and monuments, led by a guide from the local town. Most of the time the tourist sites are within walking distance of the cruise ship’s mooring, but sometimes we are bussed to sites such as the nunnery at Goritsky and the ancient sites of Yaroslavl.
These visits are a glimpse of Mother Russia, the time when the Orthodox religion flourished before the Revolution, and not the time of Stalin who banned the practice of religion and allowed the churches and monasteries to decay, or turned them into storehouses or even sports stadiums. Now Orthodoxy is back, if only as a tourist attraction. And Stalinism is never mentioned by the guides - we figure the Russians want it that way: they don’t want to be reminded of the tragedies of the past when inviting tourists to consider the possibilities of the future.