Cruising and Dancing through the Waterways of the Tsars

By on November 24, 2017

Russia is a country of intrigue where misconceptions and surprises abound, and I’ve always been curious about this nation.  But honestly, the disturbing thought of a KGB operative kidnapping and persecuting me did cross my mind.  How would anyone ever find me in this vast motherland of varied topography and her eleven time zones?  However, in spite of my speculative fear, my husband wanted to go to Russia.  While looking for a way to travel, I discovered Viking River Cruises’ first ship set sail in Russia on August 5, 1997 and in 2017 they celebrated 20 years of cruising in the Viking homelands and beyond.

We booked our trip and boarded the Viking Akun ship, set to sail from St. Petersburg to Moscow, and immediately felt at ease and safe.  Cruising’s the perfect way to experience the people, observe the culture and learn about the history of Russia.  The flowing melodic voice of Margo, the program director, greeted us with “A very good morning dear ladies and gentlemen, dobraya ootra” and our adventures began.

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The design of the most cultured city in Russia, St. Petersburg, gave us expansive panoramic views.  Our eyes surveyed the low bridges and rectangular block buildings interspersed with an intriguing mix of elaborate cathedrals and towering palaces tucked in between 65 rivers and canals.  All these waterways reminded us of Vienna.  Across from the Neva river on our walking tour, we entered the famous Hermitage.  We joined a mass of humanity and shuffled through an airport-like checkpoint to enter this extravagant Winter Palace.  Our breath caught when we passed through the golden grandeur and ornate style in room after room resplendent with prolific art collections started in the late 1700’s by the Empress of Russia.  Catherine the Great built the Hermitage theatre inside this palace for the plays she wrote on behalf of her grandchildren.   Our love of dance led to the opportunity of attending a famous classic ballet in the exquisite theatre setting.  The performance of ‘Swan Lake’ captured all our focus during this enriching evening.  Emotions rose and plummeted as the enchanting saga unfolded about white and black swans in rapture, the woe of two doomed lovers and the evil that thwarts their romance.

The next morning, we accepted an invitation to have an intimate look at a seldom seen Soviet way of life in a communal setting.  The “Kommunalka” home shared by multiple families has outlived the Soviet era that created them.   Handing us shoe protectors, our hostess greeted us with a serious, yet kind demeanor.  While sipping steaming hot tea and nibbling delectable traditional Russian pastries we engaged in conversation and entered into Anna’s life of compassionate nurse-caregiving and the painful loss of her family though our interpreter.  She and her cat are grateful to live in St. Petersburg and proudly owns one room, a mere 194 square feet, along with sharing tight quarters of a kitchen and bathroom with three other families.  Observing the rundown decay of broken floor tiles, paint peeling and exposed electrical wires, I noted Anna kept her crowded residence pleasant in spite of her limited funds.  “Is this level of living considered middle class?”, I asked our guide.  Sasha said, “Oh no, she is poor.  If Anna sold her place today she would not have enough money to buy anything else.”  Without the resources to travel, our hostess allows people from all over the world to come visit her instead and she shares about her personal life.  In her own home, Anna’s world expands beyond limiting physical borders.

Each day we searched for avenues to dance.  Summer street musicians no longer played as autumn swirled her chilly breezes through 1000 shades of gray skies.  Palace ballrooms teaming with tourists left little room to partner dance.   Jazz Blues drifting through the ship corridors tugged at us to dance in the Panorama lounge and we indulged almost nightly.  But in the grand ballroom at the Governor’s Palace in Yaroslavl, my husband beamed the “I just scored” grin when the gorgeous Governor’s daughter invited him to dance.  Like Prince Charming with one arm crooked stately behind his back, Peter led a traditional waltz as if he danced with Cinderella and they twirled, dipped and swayed.

Setting our sights on experiencing a true Russian dance, we envisioned a man with arms folded, doing the squat-and-kick moves called prisyadka (knee-bending) requiring good balance and substantial leg muscle strength.  Strolling hand-in-hand into a big white tent by our ship docked at the Salt Pier, we settled in for the real deal.  Cossack folk music danced in the rural tradition brought raucous celebration to the stage.  Tapping our feet, we felt the pulse of generations in the rhythm and marveled at the intense precision of the dancers.   After the grand finale, we jumped up and joined in a toast with a shot of Vodka!

While in Russia, I fully expected to encounter “anti-faith” propaganda.  Not that long-ago, Stalin turned cathedrals into businesses such as skating rinks, theaters and restaurants while only retaining one state-run church in each town.   In contrast, 72% of the population today embraces Russian Orthodox Christianity.  Additional proof of

 Russia’s devoutness lies in the town of Sergiev Posad, approximately 1½ hours from Moscow, give or take for traffic jams.  This spiritual center of Russian Orthodoxy is one of the largest monasteries in Russia and home to more than 300 monks. Elaborate cathedrals and brilliantly colored churches appear to be stepping right out of a fairy tale with their “onion” or “candle flame” shaped domes.  Our guide explained that the most prominent dome represents Jesus Christ.  An addition of three smaller domes symbolizes the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit).  A five-dome configuration signifies Jesus and the four Gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  Inside, the cathedral walls come alive with icons from floor to ceiling depicting stories from the Old and New Testament.  These exceptional icon painters chose not to sign their art out of reverence for God.

During one of our stops we docked at Uglich, a petite historic town of the Golden Ring cities founded in 1148.  Piling into a charming rickety old city bus, adorned with whimsical cotton curtains hanging in the windows, we bumped along to the outskirts of town to visit a family living in a fourth-generation home on one acre.  Most households in this neighborhood have one cat, one dog, chickens, flower and vegetable gardens, fruit trees and a Banya (Russian wooden sauna with bracing cold rinse or river dip).  It’s tradition!  Our twinkling eyed, jovial, bearded translator facilitated conversations with our warm-hearted hostess.  Together we learned the true Russian way to drink homemade moonshine.  First, sniff homemade dark rye bread squares topped with egg salad and a pickle chunk, down the strong moonshine shot and follow immediately by popping the food into your mouth to reduce the burning sensation.  Soon everyone was heartily laughing.

Arriving in Moscow, I pondered what the words “Kremlin” and “Red Square” usually bring to mind.  My thoughts ran the gamut of executions, military parades and communism.  To my astonishment, I learned the term ‘Kremlin’ means “fortress inside a city” and they exist in towns and monasteries throughout Russia.  The most famous, the Moscow Kremlin, includes five palaces, four cathedrals and government buildings all within crenellated red brick walls complete with spires on the towers.  The Russian word for Red Square (Krasnaya) means both “red” and “beautiful” and is located in the historic heart of the city.  This old merchant quarter lies just beneath the imposing east Kremlin wall.  Expecting doom and gloom of the past to hover over us, we wandered into Red Square.  Pulsating energy was tangible and made us want to dance all the way from the entrance of Red Square, down the expansive gray pavers, to the famous ornate and vibrant onion-domed St. Basil’s Cathedral at the other end.  In between, we passed by high red Kremlin walls rising behind Lenin’s smooth, block mausoleum, founder of the Soviet Union; the State Historical Museum, whose outlines echo those of red Kremlin towers and the sprawling ornate GUM department store next to the Kazan Cathedral.  We had stepped into a photographer’s paradise, rich in history, architectural contrast and with an intriguing pull drawing us to what lay beyond each door.

Reflecting on our voyage, we thought back to how it all began in the complex and artistic city of St Petersburg.  We navigated through rivers and lakes to little known obscure places like the wild, isolated island of Kizhi Island, where generations of hardy families weathered long bitter winters.  Cruising on Europe’s longest river, the Volga and her canals, we reached the bustling metropolis of creative vitality in Moscow.  This journey filled us with longing for more adventures into territories unfamiliar to us.  Pulling my luggage out for the return flight, I packed new perspectives of the Russian motherland to take home with me.

Pamela Lovegren
Travel Editor
Pamela’s expertise flows from building her own successful business to guiding small to mid-size family owned companies. She analyzes business structure, is a diplomatic negotiator, identifies operational issues, and implements effective resolutions to lead a firm on a path to excellence. Her experience ranges from resort management, leadership conferences, property management and business consulting to extensive traveling and travel editor of this online publication. Pamela shares the vision of LivingBetter50 to celebrate and encourage women of 50+ who desire to live life with spirit and passion each and every day.


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Cruising and Dancing through the Waterways of the Tsars