Tips for other river cruises
River cruising is one of the breakout stars in travel for 2016 and there are more ways than ever to experience rivers around the world onboard any number of ships. However, there are a few tried and true tricks to making your river cruise experience a success and to fall in love with this mode of travel that can take you around the world. Here are some ways to enjoy the journey.
• Pick your passion. There are so many river cruises from which to choose, pick one that focuses on something you love such as castles on the Rhine, a wine-themed cruise or bring the kids on a family-friendly Christmas markets sailing. You will love your cruise that much more when you are combining it with something that you are passionate about.
• Prepare your appetite. River cruising is not about all-you-can-eat buffets and gorge-yourself dining — but there is a lot of eating. From five-course meals to cultural cuisine to tasting all of the different varieties of wine in a region — you should come prepared to enjoy the food. Don’t worry about the calories. You are sure to walk those off later on.
• Immerse yourself in local culture. The beauty of river cruising is that you get to see smaller towns and destinations that offer a glimpse into the everyday lives of local people in each of the countries that you visit during your cruise. If the ship docks in a small, river-side town that is used as a jumping-off place to explore a larger more popular destination, make some time to stroll the streets of the smaller towns and get to know what life in the country is really like.
Three historic cathedrals, crowned by pristine white towers with golden domes, surround an open square. Hushed crowds of tourists edge their way past the tombs of royal dynasties, craning their necks to see the centuries-old religious art that covers every square foot of the soaring interiors.
All this in the middle of the Kremlin.
For an American who grew up in the Cold War era, it’s a slap-your-head surprise — one of many in store for anyone who visits Russia with a vague, stereotypical impression. Come to Moscow expecting the grim, gray capital of a police state, and find a throbbing metropolis.
Moscow was the first stop on a 13-day cruise that took us 1,123 miles northwest to St. Petersburg.
On a sunny June day, Moscow was positively electric, flirtatious even. Flowers arranged on arched metal sculptures covered pedestrian walkways. Tourist boats plied the Moscow River. Around one corner was a giant dog topiary. Down another street, adults cavorted on swings outside a concert hall.
It was all positively whimsical. And that’s before you see the one Moscow landmark known the world over for its candy-colored onion domes, St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square. It’s remarkable to see it in person, surrounded by tourists and just steps from the Kremlin.
And this is when you realize that the Kremlin isn’t just a building. It’s a 60-plus-acre stone-walled fortress built between the 14th and 17th centuries, containing an armory, several palaces and the neoclassical Senate building.
A river cruise is an ideal way for first-time visitors to get a sense of this vast nation, the largest in the world. At 6.6 million square miles, Russia is about twice the size of the United States, with fewer than half as many people, spanning nine time zones. Even with our 13-day cruise, we only got an up-close look at a small part, what is usually known as European Russia, the area west of the Ural Mountains.
We had time to explore two key cities and some unusual small towns along the way. Aboard Viking River Cruises’ 95-stateroom Ingvar, we spent four days in Moscow at the start, four days in St. Petersburg at the end, and had some of the most compelling experiences of the trip in between.
Visiting the small Volga River town of Uglich, we shopped for souvenirs at an outdoor market and met a local woman who hosts small groups of tourists for brief home visits. She served us cheese, bread, cucumbers and cakes, along with tea and a bit of her family’s searing moonshine. Through a translator, we asked how her life has changed since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The gist is that during Soviet times, there was economic security, but not many consumer options. Now, there are plenty of things to buy, but jobs aren’t guaranteed.
With some trepidation, I signed up for a typical Russian bath-house experience in the town of Mandrogy. Inside the wooden banya, our group of five women perched on a raised wooden bench while a Russian man tossed water on heated stones to send the steam and temperature rising. He gently patted our limbs and backs with birch branches before telling us — in broken English and pantomime — to go outside to the pier and jump into the icy cold Svir River. We did, some naked underneath the towels we shed at the pier, others in panties and a couple of smart women in the bathing suits they’d remembered to bring. Two sessions of steam, birch branches and river plunge, and it was time to sip some hot tea. It was simultaneously invigorating and relaxing.
The last stop on the cruise was St. Petersburg, Russia’s cultural heart and an imperial capital for nearly 200 years. It’s worth a journey in itself if only to see the Hermitage Museum, which rivals the Louvre as one of the great collections of paintings. Many of the Hermitage galleries are in a former royal palace, the Winter Palace, the main residence of Russia’s rulers in the 18th and 19th centuries. The storming of the palace in 1917 marked the beginning of the Russian Revolution.
The Hermitage almost requires two visits, once for the art and once for the over-the-top splendor of great halls meant to convey the might of imperial Russia. It also must be one of the world’s most crowded museums. The lines to get in stretched down the block, and the interior was a shoulder-to-shoulder throng of humanity. Our guides explained that the museum’s government managers, eager for revenue, have declined to limit how many people can visit at once. In three hours, we saw works by Rubens and Rembrandt, Leonardo and Michelangelo, Titian and El Greco.
The city center is laced by canals and straddles the River Neva, providing avenues for boat tours in warm months and for very cold strolling in winter. Peter and his successors brought in architects from Italy and France who put their stamp on the city center; many of the parks and historic buildings in baroque and neoclassical styles wouldn’t be out of place in London or Paris.
It’s the city’s Western European feel that makes St. Petersburg’s most striking building such an interesting contrast. The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood, finished little more than a century ago, looks straight out of medieval Russia, encrusted with intricate mosaics and icons and topped by a breathtaking cluster of colorful onion domes.
The church derives its gory name from its reason for being. It marks the spot where Czar Alexander II was blown up by revolutionaries in 1881 — an ironic twist, since Alexander was a reformer of sorts who had freed Russia’s serfs two decades earlier. Alexander’s son decided that a great church must shelter the spot where his father’s blood was spilled. Josef Stalin — no fan of churches or czars — later used the building to store potatoes. It reopened in 1997 after 30 years of restoration.