“In Russia, the weather is as changeable as a woman’s mood.” With these words, Natasha, the local guide shepherding Viking River Cruise passengers into Moscow’s gleaming subway system, stepped onto the escalator and she and the group descended 240 feet beneath the snowy streets.
Weather in the world’s largest nation is indeed unpredictable, with summer heating things up as early as March and wintry temperatures arriving in early October. Far more reliable is visitor reaction to Moscow – the sheer massiveness of its buildings; historic Red Square, home of onion-domed St. Basil’s Cathedral; the vast 800-year-old walled city that is the Kremlin.
Fortunately for guests on Viking’s “Waterways of the Tsars” itinerary, three days of richly personal experiences are planned for Moscow. An evening concert of traditional Russian folkloric music performed solely for Viking guests offers a chance to hear balalaikas and guslies, stringed and key instruments of Russian origin. A ride on the Metro (Moscow’s subway) has you rubbing elbows with some of the 7,00,000 locals who daily ride this “palace built under the ground” and glimpsing museum-worthy bronze and marble sculptures, Byzantine-style murals, extravagant chandeliers and stained-glass panels.
Bookending the capital city is St. Petersburg – Peter the Great’s so-called “Window to the West” – with three days spent soaking up its cultural charms, including palaces whose mammoth scale, architectural appointments and ornately trimmed interiors can only be described as gilt-edged grandeur.
Here is the 1,000-room former tsars’ residence, the Winter Palace, now the Hermitage – a treasure house of 3 million works of art, everything from masterpieces by Van Gogh, Renoir, Rembrandt and Michelangelo to ceremonial gowns lavishly embellished with gold and silver embroidery that belonged to empresses Maria Fedorovna and Alexandra Fedorovna.
St. Petersburg is also home to the magnificent Catherine Palace, whose facade stretches over a staggering 600 feet. Built for the wife of Peter the Great (Catherine I) and extravagantly expanded by her daughter, Elizabeth, this palace represents a near-perfect replica of the original, which was burned to the ground during World War II.
Inside is one of the most famous pieces of real estate in the world: the fabled Amber Room, comprising panels of amber mosaic, gemstone mosaics, gilded carvings and mirrors. The room was dismantled in 1941 when Germans forces took the town and the original panels were lost. The re-creation of the Amber Room, which began in 1982 and took 20 years to complete, rang in with a price tag of $12 million.
As your Viking cruise ship sails along the waterways between Moscow and St. Petersburg, including the Volga River, stops are made at villages like Uglich, an ancient town that dates back to 1148. Here is the Church of St. Dmitry on the Blood, famous as the site where the body of murdered Prince Dmitry, the eight-year-old son of Ivan the Terrible, was found. Uglich is also where Viking passengers are invited into the homes of different Russian families.
On Lake Onega, a stop is made at Kizhi Island, an outdoor museum and UNESCO World Heritage Site – the only place in Russia where a set of two multi-domed wooden churches are preserved. The ensemble includes the Church of the Transfiguration, built without a single nail and topped by an astonishing 22 wooden onion domes.
Mandrogy is a fairy tale island with painted pine buildings and cobblestone streets perched on the bank of the River Svir. Visitors may opt for a Matryoshka doll painting class or Russian banya (bath house) experience, or browse shops where local artists, potters and jewelers demonstrate their craft.
Onboard, experiences are equally well-planned and personal. The pianist and singer remember your name and may play your song request when you enter the Sky Bar. Servers will have your wine waiting at your table for dinner. The chef is accommodating and personable, teasing passengers during a boisterous cooking demo. The tour escorts teach Russian language lessons and, by the time you disembark, you will know how to say “welcome” (ne za chto) – which is exactly how you will feel when visiting Russia.
Adventure guide to don’t-miss moments
·Explore the Kremlin Armory to see the legendary Faberge eggs commissioned by tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II. Other treasures in Moscow’s first public museum: Ivan the Terrible’s carved ivory throne, Catherine the Great’s coronation gown, ornamental saddlery, state carriages and more.
·Paint Matryoshka (Russian nesting dolls) in Mandrogy. Artist/guide Helena will introduce herself as both Mother Goose and Baba Yaga (wicked witch), who can turn cruise passengers into Picassos – and she does.
·Get to know the locals at their dining room tables. Uglich hosts put out quite a spread – tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and pickles, delicious cheeses, Russian Black Bread and cakes – all locally sourced from the host’s garden, the cheese factory and bread shop. Of course, there is vodka, with much toasting of both host and guests.
·Tour the Hermitage with its priceless treasures, then extend your exploration to its off-site Storage Facility at Staraya Derevnya. Comprising restoration workshops and open storage, this state-of-the-art venue missed by most visitors puts you behind-the-scenes to see an intricately designed field tent presented to Catherine the Great by a Turkish sultan, Romanov family furniture, a two-level Hall of Carriages and more.
·Be awed by the palaces of St. Petersburg: The Winter Palace (housing the Hermitage); elegant Catherine Palace; Peterhof Palace, the tsars’ summer palace, with its remarkable system of waterworks that dates to 1721 and splashes water over nearly 12 miles and into the Gulf of Finland; Shuvalov Palace, home of the Faberge Museum and its nine Imperial Easter Eggs.
Adventure gear to take along
From Dare2b’s Urban collection is the Spiralled Down Jacket in black ($200), a longer parka reaching to several inches above the knees with duck down filling and a water-repellent finish. With a feminine silhouette, faux fur-trimmed attached hood and stylish but subtle logo, it can face down even Russia’s frigid temps and look fashionable doing so.
Inner stretch cuffs and adjustable shockcord hem block out wind to keep you warm. Two lower zip pockets are trimmed with black metallic hardware and an internal zip pocket includes an MP3 port. With a high warmth-to-weight ratio, the jacket is easily compressible so it won’t take up much space in your stateroom closet.
Viking’s “Waterways of the Tsars” itinerary is offered early May through mid-October, with three ships sailing on 13-day river cruises. This itinerary includes 11 guided tours and visits to four UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Contact Viking River Cruises, 800-706-1483.