This is the second post from our visit to Russia. This covers the cruising portion of the trip between Moscow and St Petersburg, taking five days. Once again, I am afraid that the length is a little overwhelming but we have seen such a lot and it is difficult (for me) to summarize it adequately and still convey the enjoyment of the sights, history and culture that we have experienced throughout the journey. Perhaps the pictures will help! Bob
On Sunday afternoon (June 15) we started the cruise proper and left Moscow, first on the Moscow Canal and then on the Volga River – with our ultimate destination of St Petersburg on Saturday. In the meantime, however, we were to experience some beautiful views from the waterways, learn more about Russian history and culture, and enjoy several shore excursions as we traveled north.
Shortly after lunch on Monday, we docked at the small town of Uglich for a three hour stay.
The town has a population of only 50,000 but has played an important part in Russian history, being the town in which the young next-in-line for the throne, Dmitry, was allegedly executed by his uncle. This was in the middle of the Romanov period and resulted in a break in the direct lineage and the influx of Prussian royals as the future Czars.
Consequently, while in Uglich, we visited the Church of the Spilled Blood, built on the site where Dmitry was killed and saw frescoes depicting the event and its consequences. We also visited two additional cathedrals – one of the Assumption and the other of the Epiphany. In the latter we listened to a six man a capella group with an absolutely marvelous deep bass. They sang one sacred song and then the Volga Boatmen: not enough, so I bought a CD.
Also in Uglich we visited a private home where we (about 14 of us in the group) we entertained by the lady of the house who provided us with tea, vodka (homemade), pickles, peppers, sweets and cake and let us look through the one storey home. Viking River Cruises has a habit of showing the “local life” in this manner (although in China and Cambodia it was by visiting schools) and it is not usually our favorite part of the tour. However, in this case it was a very enjoyable experience and a nice way to see the very hospitable and friendly locals. Perhaps the vodka helped!
On Tuesday we had an early departure for a tour of the city of Yaroslavl. The city was founded in 1010 – making it one of the oldest in Russia – and had a brief period as the country’s capital. However, its major claim to fame seems to be as the city that brought Christianity to Russia after Vladimir the Great embraced the Orthodox Church based on his emissaries’ visit to Constantinople. As late as the early 20th Century the city boasted over 50 churches and 15 monasteries at a time when the population was much smaller than today’s 650,000. The Stalin era brought the destruction of many of them and only in the past 25 years have some been converted back to churches from the non-religious use that they were given in the 1930s.
The first Cathedral we visited was that of the Transfiguration. This church was completely destroyed in Stalin’s time and has just been re-built, the construction completed for the city’s millennium in 2010. As with all the Orthodox churches we have seen, the iconostasis (the “wall” between the worship space and the altar) is covered with beautiful icons and the other walls and ceiling with frescoes.
We also visited the Cathedral dedicated to Elijah the Prophet which had survived since the 18th Century and its “frescoes” we were told were actually egg tempera which are much more durable and retain their vibrant colors for a longer period. Indeed, many of the blues, reds and greens were in what would appear to be almost new condition.
Following a brief visit to a market we went to a viewpoint overlooking the Volga and one of its tributaries that formed a natural defense for the city. In fact, this river barrier formed two thirds of the exterior of the city’s kremlin and the churches we had visited were inside the old fortress. We were reminded that the kremlin was the central fortress of Russian cities and also included the political, cultural and religious buildings and functions, just as the more famous one we had visited in Moscow.
Our final stop was at the Governor’s Mansion. Yaroslavl is the capitol of its region and this building and its grounds had been the leaders’ residence and office in earlier years. It is now referred to as a Gallery (it has numerous paintings of Russian royalty, for example) but is basically a museum to past glories. It is a beautiful building inside and out and we were given an excellent tour by the “governor’s daughters” dressed in period costume (late 19th Century). We were also given a short dancing demonstration with a three piece instrumental accompaniment – and the audience we approached by the “professionals” to join them in a dance. It may be telling that I was the only one of the four of us not asked to join in, with Keith, Zena and Molly each performing with their beautiful or handsome partners. However, I consoled myself by recognizing that someone had to take the photographs!
Although it is a large city, the part we visited was quite compact (we walked everywhere) and in most European cities would be classed as the Old Town. In fact, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the only 20th century building in the area was the ugly concrete structure built as the Communist Party Headquarters. Certainly the city we saw (with that one exception) was very picturesque and with the weather cooperating (cloudy but bright) it was pleasant to end our visit with a coffee sitting in one of the outdoor cafes.
After once again sailing overnight, on Wednesday we docked at the town of Kuzino. The first stop was on the dock where a Viking long house replica was used to give us a taste of the Scandinavian invasions of this part of the world in the 12th Century. The brief show was interesting and quite amusing and added yet another dimension to this country and its history.
We were then driven about 15 miles to visit the town of Kirillov-Belozersky where we visited a school. School was no longer in session but we were given a tour by a student and shown the classrooms and given a description of primary and secondary education in this northern part of the country. It was interesting to see a physical facility not that different to the one Keith and I had attended sixty years ago and to get an idea of the curriculum – both now and as it had existed during the Soviet era. Our local guide (not the student who escorted us in the school) had been a teacher (before retiring at the customary age of forty for many professionals!) gave the impression that she perhaps preferred the discipline and range of study “in her day” more than the “easier” course work of today. I suppose that was a reaction that many of us get as we age: “You have it easy; not like in my day”.
We then went to the monastery dedicated to Saint Cyril (“Kirillo”). As our handout said, it looked more like a fortress than a monastery with high, imposing walls much like the Moscow Kremlin – and almost as big. Within the walls were several churches as well as the old monastery of The Assumption (which had been a place of pilgrimage for the Czars) and the much smaller one dedicated to St John where a handful of monks still reside.
There is a great deal of archeological work and reconstruction taking place on the huge site but the major building that we visited was basically a museum containing frescoes, icons, paintings and church pieces which had adorned the monastery (and others) over the 600 years of its existence. Photography was not allowed but we were able to view some fantastic pieces of art put together both here and in the capitals of St Petersburg and Moscow. Once again, the primary pieces were icons, although there were a number of frescoes remaining and many fabric works of art on various materials and often including much gold, silver and precious stones.
This, together with other cathedrals we have seen on this trip, provided another level of detail on the Orthodox Church to which we had been introduced in Israel and which has been probably the major theme of the past six days in Russia. It is amazing that, in a country that was officially atheist for much of the past century and during which many religious sites were destroyed or put to other use, so much emphasis is on the church today. For those faithful to the Christian tradition, Russia must provide great hope for the future; for others those not so inclined it still provides a tremendous collection of beautiful architecture and art comparable to that of the great Western European countries.
Back on board ship we soon set sail, later enjoyed another good dinner on board (tonight’s was a Russian theme) followed by a vodka tasting session at 9:30. We were given six different vodkas to taste, together with appropriate snacks, and for each we had a toast and a different way of holding the glass – or, in one case, glasses! We were taught how to drink from two cascading glasses at once; some more successfully than others, the less skillful getting another shirt for the laundry.
Thursday was essentially a lazy day on ship, although there were plenty of activities to attend if one felt so inclined. I attended another good lecture on the Putin years to round out our History of Russia series.
At 3pm we docked at a small island, Kizhi. There has been a settlement here for over 500 years, principally populated by peoples from Finland originally. In fact the area is called Karelia, presumably named for (or perhaps with) the area of the same name in Finland. Most of the villages had disappeared by the 1950s but more recently the island has been re-populated with buildings from various parts of the province to preserve them in what is in fact an open-air museum.
The unique feature of the buildings, including the magnificent 22 domed Cathedral of the Assumption, is that they are built of wood. Even the onion domes are made up of dozens (probably hundreds in some cases) of shingles, each cut and shaped from aspen trees. In addition to the church and its belfry, there are perhaps twenty additional structures that made up villages of this type – two storey homes with housing for a large family and its animals, a windmill and various craft shops. Our guide was very good and made the place come alive with her descriptions not only of the dwellings but of the life that the inhabitants followed in this remote area. Since we were now at a latitude of 60 degrees, we could believe her descriptions of the very hard winters and see the benefit of the entire family bedding down in one room for about three months every year.
Our only shore visit today (Friday) was at the town of Mandrogy. This was in many respects similar to Kizhi in that it is fundamentally a living museum. The town was destroyed in World War II but an enterprising Russian built a reproduction in the late nineties simply as a tourist attraction. Again, most of the buildings are wooden and many are very brightly painted and decorated with impressive carvings. We walked around the entire small area in about 90 minutes and made the obligatory stops at craft shops where the typically Russian stacking dolls are carved and painted and where other very beautiful – but expensive – wooden and fabric souvenirs were available. Keith and Zena went to a Russian Banya where they experienced the sauna and (at least for Keith) a cool dip in a lake. Both thoroughly enjoyed their experience.
This completed our shore excursions from the rivers and lakes and tonight, as we cross the biggest lake in Europe we will be approaching our final stop of the tour, St Petersburg, where a full three days of sightseeing are planned.