Most visitors to Russia usually head for Moscow (see this post for places to visit in Moscow) or St Petersburg but you can also discover the delights of Russia on a river cruise between the two cities.
River cruising in Russia
It’s almost midnight on a balmy summer’s night in Russia. The sun is a fiery ball sinking slowly behind the forested shore.
Our ship glides on Lake Ladoga leaving ripples of liquid gold in the lake to match the colour of the sky.
There’s an out-worldly calm in the air as we cruise past fishing boats towards fairytale onion-domed churches, spires, monasteries and colourful villages, towns and cities.
Long after the sun has set, the magic of the night continues to linger in the purple-pink sky.
It’s these images of midnight sunsets on the lakes and rivers that flood my mind months and years after I’ve left Russia.
St Petersburg to Moscow
Our cruise from St Petersburg to Moscow travels along a picturesque section of the Volga-Baltic Waterway, which flows through 1367km of lakes, rivers, reservoirs and canals that connect the Volga River to the Baltic Sea.
Cruising the waterways allows us to unpack once and have our belongings float with us along the river. There are several Russian river cruises to choose from.
It takes the hassle out of travelling through Russia where few people speak English and independent travel requires a lot of planning.
Each day there’s a shore excursion in a village, town or city. A team of attentive young English-speaking men and women accompany us ashore on the buses and walking tours.
When we’re not exploring, there’s a daily programme of cultural and educational activities such as Russian language lessons, Russian history lectures, doll-painting, balalaika-playing, cooking lessons and lot os useful Russian travel tips.
The informative talks about Russian costumes, Russian tea and Russian vodka are well attended. But the most popular session is the caviar tasting party where red and yellow caviar is served with buckwheat blini (Russian pancakes) and four kinds of Russian vodka.
From St Petersburg, the Neva River flows into Europe’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Ladoga, then into the Svir River.
After three days of grand palaces, golden-domed churches and museums in St Petersburg’s, day five allows us to relax on the water as we cruise past colourful timber houses and jewel-box churches.
At Svirstroy, we wander among villagers dressed in colourful Russian costumes selling toys, lace, hand-carved timber eggs, dolls, lacquer bowls and crochet tops.
Day six brings us to Kizhi Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site of timber buildings and home to the oldest wooden church in Russia, the 14th-century Church of the Resurrection of Lazarus.
Our walking tour takes us in an out of chapels, belfries, log houses, mills, bath houses, barns and the jaw-dropping 18th-century Church of the Transfiguration with its 22 silvery onion-domed cupolas that glitter in the sun.
Those with a technical bent will enjoy the Volga Baltic canal, which is a series of locks that rise 80m (about the height of a 30-storey building) from the Lake Onega to the Kovzha River.
The river flows into Lake Beloye and Sheksna River where we dock at Goritsy and tour the nearby Kirillo-Belozersky monastery.
The monastery is a massive complex of 15th to 17th century churches surrounded by fortress walls on the shore of Lake Siverskoye.
Inside are some of the most intricate and beautiful Christian icons I’ve seen while just outside, along the shores of the lake, are locals in skimpy clothes lying in the sun.
My favourite place is Yaroslavl, a city about the size of Newcastle in NSW.
Yaroslavl is one of Russia’s oldest cities, tracing its roots back to the Vikings, and bursting with beautiful onion-domed churches that have intriguing names like Church of St Nicholas the Miracle Worker and Church of Elijah the Prophet.
We visit the Yaroslavl Museum of Russian Art, which now occupies the former governor’s residence.
Museum guides dressed in beautiful silk ball gowns lead us through the grandly furnished rooms.
At the end of the tour, we gather in the ballroom and sip sparkling wine and listen to chamber music while some of the guests dance with the guides.
Our final stop before Moscow is Uglich, a small town with a bloody history. You wouldn’t think so looking at the picture-book Church of Prince Dmitry on the Blood with its blue domes dotted with stars.
Our guides regale us with tales of treason and murder. This is where Ivan the Terrible’s nine-year-old son Dmitry had his throat cut.
The highlight of our visit to Uglich is having breakfast with a local family. We eat millet porridge, blini and home-made jam.
Some of us get a taste for life with poor families in the countryside while others visit Soviet-era apartments in town. Many of the hosts speak little or no English.
Then we cruise on to Moscow, where there are many more wonderful treasures to discover.
Another way to see Russia is to take the train from Moscow to St Petersburg.