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 (, which organises tours along several European rivers. The following travel firms organise trips on Viking cruise ships: Noble Caledonia (020-7752 0000; and Travel Renaissance Holidays (01372 744455;