Cruise into the past

Margaret Campbell finds a wealth of Russian history on the water

"Look, it's just like Battersea power station!" The
Viking Pakhomov had barely weighed anchor in St Petersburg when a fellow passenger pointed to the tall dark chimneys on a cream building, pulling us from the romance of the "Waterways of the Tsars" to the gritty reality of a working port and river.

"Look, it's just like Battersea power station!" The Viking Pakhomov had barely weighed anchor in St Petersburg when a fellow passenger pointed to the tall dark chimneys on a cream building, pulling us from the romance of the "Waterways of the Tsars" to the gritty reality of a working port and river.

Our few days in St Petersburg had been too brief to do anything other than scratch the surface of Peter the Great's northern capital, still gleaming from its 300th anniversary refurbishment. Our pilgrimage to Peter's grave in the Peter and Paul Fortress had almost coincided with the Prince of Wales's visit to the Romanov tombs. A three-hour tour of the Hermitage museums, where every room and corridor was crowded and wonderful art works were glimpsed over the shoulders of another bus group, was less successful. The excursion to Petrodvorets, an out-of-town tsarist estate with vast landscaped gardens and gold-leafed fountains, restored a sense of grandeur.

We had photographed St Isaac's Cathedral, admired the mosaics decorating the Church of the Saviour on the Blood and been enchanted by Swan Lake. Now we were leaving Russia's "Window to the West" and heading south to the nation's real centre of power. Our route lay along a winding series of rivers, lakes and canals connecting the Baltic and Caspian Seas. On board, there were lectures on Russian culture and history. On dry land, shore excursions took place frequently, once for a picnic but generally for guided tours: our two large cruise ships (we travelled with a sister vessel) would berth at nondescript piers, then discharge their cargoes of rouble-rich tourists onto a waiting fleet of buses.

Of these excursions, several were outstanding. At Lake Onega, we paid a visit to Kizhi Island, an open-air heritage museum which houses 15 wooden churches and homes that have been transported here from northern Russia. Rural life is recreated in a farmstead, and a bell-ringer entertains tourists from what is reputedly the country's oldest wooden building. The indisputable jewel of the collection is the 18th-century Church of the Transfiguration, a hauntingly beautiful confection of 22 cupolas arranged in five tiers. Built without metal nails, the aspen-wood shingles on its domes constantly change shade depending on light and humidity.

Another highlight was Yaroslavl, the oldest city on the Volga and the capital of an independent principality in the 13th century. Here, a visit to a puppet circus was an interesting alternative to churches. Later that day, religious art was back on the menu at the Ipatievsky monastery in Kostroma, the city that used to produce the flax for making sails throughout Europe. At the monastery, where a noble called Romanov accepted the throne in 1613 and ushered in a new dynasty, an entire wall was covered by a gold-leafed iconostasis, a reminder that the imperial family had continued to favour the town.

In Uglich, we were met on the landing berth by musicians, pensioners proffering small bunches of wild flowers for a dollar apiece, and several dozen stalls selling wooden dolls, artwork and jewellery. In the larger of two richly decorated churches, the voices of an excellent male choir soared under a high vaulted ceiling. A short distance away, we stood beneath the blue and gold domes of the ornate and brightly painted Church of St Dimitry on the Blood while a guide recounted the tragedy. The unfortunate son of Ivan the Terrible, Dimitry died in suspicious circumstances at this spot in 1591. His death ushered in the "Time of Troubles", which ended only when the Romanovs brought stability. When we were given an hour's free time before the ship sailed, I turned to the ordinary town behind the shoreline. The streets were quiet - people were at work, or spending the summer growing winter supplies at their dachas. A general store displayed rubber boots, school stationery and video cassettes behind a single long counter, but had no customers. Further on, the whitewash had faded from a large church, yet four miniature gold domes shone defiantly above the neglected walls. The entrance was discreet, but the interior was stunning: the walls were covered with saints and biblical scenes, still resplendent even in decay. Used for decades as a storehouse, this 17th-century church had been officially restored to the Orthodox Church three months earlier. Two streets back, some houses were constructed from thick wooden logs: behind a delicately carved window frame, a solitary onion grew in a jam jar, soaking up the intense summer heat.

The Viking Pakhomov's passengers were mainly American or British, and while some had family roots in Russia, others were simply curious. Apart from three generations travelling en masse to celebrate their gran's 80th birthday, most were in couples. The on-board programme left plenty of time for relaxing on deck, or watching the late evening light fade over the silvery waters. Long stretches of forest and meadow, broken only by villages and small towns, were a reminder that much of Russia remains essentially rural. I initially had misgivings about the (optional) Russian lessons and lectures, when the senior guide - sporting a huge Putin badge - kicked off the cruise with an introductory slide show, whose pictures and commentary dated from the Sixties. His Soviet-style emphasis on superlatives and statistics ("We have the biggest country, longest rivers, oldest and most magnificent frescoes...") augured badly for the rest of the trip, but the guest lecturer was younger and more relevant.

Inevitably, people wanted different things: a 15-minute unguided visit to a produce market in Kostroma was the "highlight of the trip" for one man, clearly suffering from icon-fatigue. For one group of volunteers, the vodka-tasting session (seven brands, double that number of toasts, and lots of singing) was the most memorable event; by comparison, the caviar-tasting was terribly well-behaved.

Away from the larger towns (where factories and built-up areas were as unattractive as one might expect), there were fleeting glimpses of life on land: a black-frocked priest leading adults to the river-bank to be baptised; a small wedding party by the riverside, who had come to drink shampanskoye and pose by the water's edge; at one lock, we towered above a woman scything hay, her head covered in a white kerchief and her arms swinging in a centuries-old rhythm as our ship passed behind her. Most of those we met were relied on the money they earned over the summer months from the tourist trade to see them through long winters.

After a week on the water, Moscow seemed more than ever a modern metropolis. The city centre is being transformed at a pace that Muscovites themselves find bewildering, but the fortress at its heart remains impervious to post-Soviet upheaval. The Kremlin's cathedrals have outlasted generations of tsars and the 20th-century's drama. Red Square could only be viewed from a distance, since recent terrorist threats had closed it to everyone but officials, but other sights - St Basil's, the chandelier-decked Metro system and the Novodevichy monastery - were packed into two hectic days, an upbeat finale to a peaceful and enjoyable journey along Russia's lesser-known waterways.

Margaret Campbell travelled with Viking River Cruises ( www.vikingrivers.co.uk), which organises tours along several European rivers. The following travel firms organise trips on Viking cruise ships: Noble Caledonia (020-7752 0000; www.noble-caledonia.co.uk) and Travel Renaissance Holidays (01372 744455; www.travelrenaissance.co.uk)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

    £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

    Recruitment Genius: Developer

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Estates Contracts & Leases Manager

    £30000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Estates Team of this group ...

    Guru Careers: Brand Manager / Marketing Campaign Manager

    COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: A Brand Manager / Marketing Campaign Manager is req...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future
    Berlusconi's world of sleaze: The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM

    Berlusconi's world of sleaze

    The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM
    Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

    Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

    Films and theme parks are just the beginning. Disney believes its control of the now decades-old franchise can bring in merchandise and marketing millions for years to come
    Could the golden age of the gaming arcade ever be revived in the era of the Xbox?

    Could gaming arcades be revived?

    The days when coin-ops were the only way to play the latest video games are gone. But a small band of enthusiasts are keeping the button-pushing dream alive
    Edinburgh Fringe 2015: The 'tampon tax' has inspired a new wave of female comedians to reclaim period jokes

    Heard the one about menstruation?

    Yes, if you have been at the Fringe, where period pieces are taking centre stage