23 Sept – Ian & Tiffany had duly arrived just after midnight from Paris so they were all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed come breakfast time at the hotel. We had a few ideas of things that we could do together which were not going to be included on the boat tour – so first up a walk up to the streets alongside the Fontanka Canal for a visit to the Faberge Museum. Who could have guessed that behind the rather plain façade of the building lay such a treasure trove of Faberge items. The workmanship was outstanding – as well as a display of eggs there were all manner of little trinkets – cigarette cases, desk clocks, all in arranged in cases according to the colour of stone or gem. There was also an abundance of gold, silver and enamel worked treasures.
With our appetite for the exquisite and expensive sated, it was off to satisfy the craving for coffee in an amazing theatre deli/café for morning tea. The shop had everything from dried meats, caviar, chocolates to vodka and all manner of alcohol, fantastic sweets and pastries.
We then hopped on a canal boat for about 90 minutes. It was a great way to see the city as the boat took us round a series of canals and out into the Neva river – an English commentary was provided. It is called the Venice of the North because of all the canals, but the houses here do not sit straight on the canals here – they are all have a street between them and the water.
Lunch was in the USSR café – recommended to us by the taxi driver who picked us up at the airport. This café was furnished like a 50’s eras soviet apartment. Somewhere on our journey I managed to lose my camera – fortunately I had downloaded all the pictures only the previous day so had only lost the current day’s photos. Ian kindly loaned me his small camera to take us through the rest of the trip.
Mid afternoon it was time to catch a taxi to the Port area to get on board the MV Tolstoy our home away from home for the next 10 days. Pleasantly surprised with our cabins– the pictures on the website had not been updated recently and did portray the rooms as being very dark and quite spartanly furnished – they had obviously been renovated and were now light and nicely furnished. Our cabin was a junior suite with everything in the one room, whilst Ian and Tiffany had the full-blown suite with a separate lounge area. First dinner of the trip – we got our permanent seating for the duration – Ian & Tiffany, Bob and I plus Ed and Zi-ZI an American-Cuban couple from Miami.
24 Sept – Today was the included city tour and visit to the Hermitage. The bus tour gave us a different view of many of the places we had visited when doing our own thing plus a few more churches. We were then all bussed to a big hotel for a buffet lunch before hitting the Hermitage for a guided tour of just a few of the one thousand rooms of art works that this magnificent palace houses.
Nearly two hours of very informative touring later we emerged with weary feet and blown minds after viewing so many precious art works. Back on the boat at 5pm gave us a short break before we had to turn around and go out again for our pre-booked Folk Show. What a brilliant show – Cossack dancers, woman folk dancing, singing – an extremely energetic performance – lovely costumes.
25 Sept – Last day in St Petersburg was just a quick trip into town via the shuttle bus and Metro to give Ian & Tiffany a taste of travelling in the underground. Got up into daylight in the city centre for a bit of retail therapy and the obligatory coffee and cakes before doing the reverse trip back to the shuttle bus stop and a visit to the local supermarket to stock up on goodies for the days ahead to keep us nourished in between those times when we are not eating!! Food has been impressive so far – we get to choose three courses each night but on top of that extra treats also seem to get served. The food is a mix of traditional Russian fare (modified probably for our tastes) and normal stuff. Each course in itself is not too large so we don’t feel too guilty having a taste of each one. The boat set sail early evening and we were finally on our way!
26 Sept – Our first Russian lesson with our onboard guide Konstantin was a fun session as we tried to get our tongues around some of the unfamiliar sounds and come to grips with the Cyrillic alphabet.
Overnight we had sailed through the largest lake in Europe and into the Svir River towards our first embarkation point of Mandrogui – a small reconstructed village on the river bank. The reconstruction is of a provincial Russian lifestyle with log cabins and other interesting wooden buildings. Artisans were busy making local souvenirs – carving wood, painting matryoshkas (and this was fascinating – the detail on the dolls was so fine and the very best had up to 20 nested dolls with the smallest not much larger than a grain of rice), woolen felting, herbal concoctions and a musical instrument maker.
Of course a huge tourist trap but nevertheless was very interesting. Lunch was a BBQ served in the village followed by another short walk around the surrounding forest area. The two vodka connoisseurs in our party took a tour of the Vodka Museum and were suitably impressed by the tasting session and came back with a few bottles of the local brew.
The weather turned to a very grim 8deg with no sign of sun or blue sky, so the walking needed to be brisk to keep the circulation going. Back on board and sailing off again at 4pm – the river was quite narrow through this stretch – passing through forested areas and small settlements with the odd wood processing mill.
No sign of birdlife at all on this part of the river – can only put it down to pollution as we were told that Lake Lodoga was a dead lake and I guess some of the adjoining rivers have suffered the same fate. Experienced the first lock as we started to climb up towards Moscow. The large lock took two of our boats with the process completed in about 30 minutes.
27 September – Our trip up through the river and lake systems has taken us through a fairly sparsely populated region – lots of trees – pines and birch mainly. Another Russian lesson got Bob and I through the first part of the morning whilst Tiffany managed to get along to the Matryoska doll painting lesson to experience the intricacies of decorating these little dolls, I was delayed by the Russian lesson so just got to sit in on the exercise.
Into Lake Onega and Kizhi for a visit to the open air museum – many of the structures had been imported in the park and reconstructed, but the wooden Transfiguration Church was built on site in 1714 and was one of the tallest structures of its kind in the world. The whole area was a UNESCO Heritage site.
Our guide took us through several of the buildings so that we could get a feel for how life was like a couple of centuries earlier.
Back on board for a real treat –the Russian Vodka tasting session. Four good shots of different types of vodka each along with caviar and pancakes – the only problem was that we had another Russian lesson after that experience so poor Konstantin couldn’t get a lot of sense out of his students. Meal times seem to come around very quickly – but a good brisk walk around the boat after dinner is a good countermeasure for all the food.
28 September – Another long period of cruising through to the White Lake and the tiny settlement of Goritsy, known for the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery – reportedly Europe’s largest monastery in it’s time during the 17th Century although now only populated by 10 monks with 6 nuns in the nearby convent. Our tour guide took us through many rooms full of icon paintings (admittedly after seeing one room that was more than enough to get the idea) and into the church.
The village itself is just tiny – only 600 people living there on fishing and farming. The dwellings all made of wood, some brightly painted –no higher than two stories but more often just single storied.
The path to and from the dock was lined with souvenir sellers – this time mainly furs – coats, hats, scarves and fortunately it was cold that I had to resort to buying one little reminder of the area – a fur head warmer.
Returned to the ship for a traditional Russian tea ceremony – all the restaurant staff were dressed in folk dress – and we were plied with a series of little cakes to go with our very nice black minted tea. The cakes were stuffed with cabbage, grated apple and there was also a small apricot pastry.
29 September – Have hit civilization now as we join the Volga, much more residential development, shopping centres and factories. Received our diploma from Konstantin pronouncing us fully fluent in the Russian language!! Grey skies seem to have followed us from the start of the cruise with the temperature dropping each day – so it is hats, scarves and coats whenever we venture out.
Docked around 3pm in Yaroslavl – still quite grey and cool as we got into our bus for a short city tour. Yaroslavl was founded in 1010 and is one of the most ancient cities in Russia and also one of its greatest river ports. The city has had a chequered history over the intervening years – including the Time of Troubles (1589-1613) when they were occupied by Poland and later there were bloody battles between the Red and White Armies in the early 20th century. The city these days is an important industrial centre with a population of 600,000. We had a couple of treats on this tour – the usual Cathedrals but also a visit to a 19th century merchant’s house. Here we were met by one of his ‘daughters’ and given the grand tour of her father’s house. The tour concluded with entertainment in the ballroom – a pianist, violinist and cellist playing us the dance music of the era.
It was nearly dark when we came out of the house and then on to another small church for a recital by 4 male choristers – what beautiful voices they had as they sang unaccompanied. A walk around the park on the banks of the Volga finished off the tour. By this time the buildings were beginning to be illuminated-a nice end to the city visit.
30 Sept – Early morning wakeup for breakfast as we were docked at Ugilich by 9am and off for another city tour. This time on foot. Our guide was the best we have had on the trip – very informative, with a great sense of humour. We had to run the normal gauntlet of souvenir sellers as we got to the main street for, yes you guessed it, another visit to a Church and their iconostasis.
The only saving grace was another musical performance by 6 singers this time – what a joy to listen to. We were also shown around a collection of hand-painted lacquered boxes which were so intricate and quite exquisite with prices to match!
Ugilich’s most well-known historical event was the mysterious death of Dmitiri, the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible who met a rather unpleasant end at the end of a knife at only 9 years of age. Boris Godunov’s agents were accused of his death and these people were killed by enraged townspeople. However, an official enquiry by Boris Gudunov deemed that Dmitri had died when he suffered an epileptic fit and fell on his own knife when he was playing. The tribunal condemned and punished the people of Ugilich for killing Gudonov’s agents – executing some and exiling hundreds to Siberia.
We finally got to hear a little bit about life in Russia on this tour. In the smaller cities – an average wage is about 15,000 roubles per month ($350NZ), a 1 brm apartment would cost $1m roubles ($24,000NZ) whereas in Moscow the wage is around 50,000 roubles ($1,200NZ) and a similar apartment $5m roubles ($120,000NZ). If they want a loan for a car they would be paying 15% interest and about 10% for an apartment. Central heating is turned on, on 05 October each year (they have hot water piped into each house – the pipes go through the walls of the house), this heat can be supplemented by private means of heating (oil, electric etc.). The country has come a long way since the Soviet era – the shops have everything that we can get at home and by and large, supermarkets are well stocked and Vodka is very cheap!!
The weather really turned to custard by the time our tour was over, so it was just a little look around the few shops in the town and back through the alley of souvenirs (we didn’t quite make it out unscathed) and on to the ship to warm up –hot mulled wine served on arrival was most welcome (although I had to give this a miss as I had already had some on our coffee stop and would have been incapable of getting up the stairs!). Ugilich was the last of our stops before Moscow. The Ugilich lock was negotiated just outside of the town as we started on the final leg of our journey to Moscow. The houses on the banks of the river have got increasingly more prosperous as we got closer to Moscow. They certainly wouldn’t be out of place in NZ.
01 October – Our session this morning was a Q&A about Russia with Konstantin where he attempted to answer questions we all put to him about life in Russia. Russia today is certainly not what we are led to believe – they can and do talk freely about anything. The views about Soviet era verses now are mixed depending on the age of the people you talk with. Konstantin didn’t grow up in that era so couldn’t really comment, but our tour guide later on seemed to be very much in approval of the Soviet era. Life today is very much like any western country – unemployment is quite low at just over 1%; health care is provided by the State but they don’t think much of it and are prepared to pay for better care; schooling is free until you get to University where it costs 120,000 roubles for a 3 year course. The state currently encourages couples to have more than one child with a 500,000 rouble gift for a second child and free land if you have a third. Tax here is a flat 13.5% for everyone and VAT is 18%. Travel outside of the country is possible for everyone but of course visas are just as a problem for them as they are for us entering Russia. Private enterprise is active everywhere.
We docked in Moscow just after lunch to be taken on a city tour by bus. Wow what a beautiful city – brilliant buildings – very colourful, Red Square was immense with the walls of the Kremlin on one side and St Basils Cathedral on the other. This square is where you see all the huge military parades on the TV.
The city has seven Stalin skyscrapers which dominate the inner city landscape – not skyscrapers in the sense that they reach the heavens like today’s ones, but just very imposing buildings very much in the style of the Empire State Building but not as high – built of course during Stalin’s time.
As we were taken around the major landmarks could not get over how clean the city is and fortunately it was Sunday so the reputed traffic jams were not in evidence. The area around Red Square was very busy with locals out for their Sunday strolls. Were let loose inside the old GUM store which used to be the Soviet State department store, but it has now been revamped into a very upmarket shopping centre with individual boutique very high-end shops – the interior is still magnificent with glass ceilings covering the three galleries.
With several more scenic stops on our tour we made it back to the boat in time for dinner. Tiffany and Ian got offered the chance to go on the Moscow by night tour, so they set off again later in the evening.
02 October – Another cold and very grey day for our tour to the Kremlin. Our bus dropped us off at the Kremlin walls and then we proceeded to queue along with many other hundreds of tourists to get through security and into the inner workings. Our guide, although very informative was a bit hard going after a while as she painstakingly took us through the history of each building. With our tour we just got to visit the interior of a couple of cathedrals – one where all the Tsars were buried and another with a very elaborate interior. The walls and ceilings of Orthodox Russian churches are always covered with frescoes and do look quite impressive.
Apart from the churches there are quite a few state buildings which you can’t enter and a couple of museums which we did not get to visit this time around. What can we say about the Kremlin – it is enclosed by thick walls – 15m high, inside the fortress the tallest buildings are the church spires. The walls have several gate towers – the site occupies quite a good position overlooking the Moskva River.
With our tour finished inside the Kremlin, we opted to stay in the city to do a little more exploring – hitting an underground shopping mall for some warmth and a spot of lunch before heading off for Arbat street. On a nice day this pedestrian area would be really nice, on a cold windy day not so great but we did walk the length of it – antique shops, outside artists selling their wares and loads of souvenir shops. Caught the Metro back towards Red Square and back to the Gum Store – a lot less crowded than on Sunday but still just as expensive. By 4pm we were all walked out so made our way back on the Metro out to the Port Area and to the boat. Metro travelling very simple once you establish which line you need and the stations are something else. Ian & Tiff got to experience some of the stations on the night tour – we just did a couple on this excursion. Super clean and the marble and artwork are fantastic.
03 October – All packed and ready for the next escapade. We have all thoroughly enjoyed the cruise – with only 170 people on the boat it is much more relaxed travelling than on a large cruise ship. Our meals have been different but on the whole good. Our guide Konstantin was great, the included tours went to a few too many churches for our liking but we did get to see a lot of both the big cities. Although there is not much to see as you are cruising down the waterways it still made for an interesting trip.
Our taxi arrived to pick the 4 of us up at 10.30 to take us into the city – 3 nights for us and one for Ian and Tiffany. The Moscow Point Red October Hotel is an experience – the hotel is situated in part of the old Chocolate Factory Plant – one the banks of the Moskva River with views across to an impressive gold domed Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
We had a while before we could get into our rooms so set off on a little exploration of the area – and managed to find some very luxurious supermarkets as well as drugs to dose Bob’s cold. The temperature was down to a chilly 6C with an even chillier wind blowing. While Bob enjoyed the warmth of the hotel room, we three went out later in the afternoon to have a look around Gorky Park which was not too far from our hotel. The park was quite a surprise – all manner of statues were placed around the gardens – a lot based around the struggle against communism but also many modern works. With the gloom descending we returned back for wine and chippies before heading out to dinner in a very trendy restaurant.
Moscow Point is not the place to be at the weekend as on all sides of the hotel are huge night clubs which would be pumping out very loud music all weekend long. Moscow Point also has one of the most impressive statues we have seen to date – a monument to Peter the Great which stands over 90m high and weighs in at 1,000 tons.
04 October – Looked outside and for the first time in days, there was actually a bit of sun to take the edge of the chill. Tiffany and Ian left us mid-morning to start out on their next adventure – 5 days in the Ukraine with a visit to Chernobyl. They were the guinea pigs for the airport transfer as we have heard horror stories of the traffic jams – it took them 75mins to go the 35 kms with 20 minutes of that waiting to get out from the side road at the hotel. The fine weather didn’t last too long with the sun giving way to rain. Nothing to do but stay inside so that Bob can try and shake his cold and use the time to catch up on blogs and bookings for the next part of our journey. Russian TV stations not very useful for us except the sports channel where we were able to follow the World Rowing champs and watch some NZ victories.
Overall impressions of Russia – a great place to visit and would come again despite the hassles of obtaining visas. The cities are so clean and vibrant – could be any western city really. Using the public transport was easy and cheap. The food was varied – lots of opportunites to sample the more local cuisine and the prices varied as well. In the trendy places you play top prices, but the more basic restaurants and cafes are quite reasonably priced. The streets all felt quite safe to walk around even at night. We were expecting to see loads of very drab Soviet era buildings – but what a surprise – the ones built in both St Petersburg and Moscow from that era were very stylish. The only drawback has been the weather – a few weeks earlier it might have been a bit warmer but that is the luck of the draw.