Adrift upon the Volga

Russia's tourism: working hard to catch up

The reward after a trip on the Volga is for my wife to be able to stand in front of Henri Matisse's Dancers.

A delightly restful way to travel through Mother Russia

By Walter Brooks. Photos by Patricia Brooks

Moscow is a world class city with countless magnificent statues and horrible traffic jams.

Our riverboat docked in the Neva River in St. Petersburg with a Zakin Bridge look alike.

The canals truly make in "The Venice of the North."

Catherine the Great's Palance out-classs Versailles.

On weekends in Moscow wedding parties (rear on right) get ripped on the city' outlook point.

Redd Square is vibrant at night.

It's been less than twenty years since Russia threw off the yoke of communism and began to experiment with western-style democracy. The ghost of Lenin lingers in crooks and crannies, but the Ivans are trying hard to get 21st. century tourism right.

This was our second visit to the former Soviet Union, the first a decade ago. That time we sailed into St. Petersburg for three days to visit The Hermitage art museum, the world's greatest largest, with its incredible once-hidden collection of impressionist paintings.

That earlier visit was in the care of the Holland-American lines, and we weren't exposed to the Russian style hospitality industry as we were these two weeks in our current visit on the Viking River Cruise from Moscow to St. Petersburg.

The experience reminded us of earlier trips to China thirty years ago when the country first opened up to western visitors. The Chinese tourist workers hadn't a clue back then how to treat paying guests - pleasing the customer wasn't a concept they understood nor had to under their egalitarian society.

Russia, however, is European, at least the part west of the Ural Mountains, and the country had very strong ties with Western Europe for centuries before the 1917 revolution.

Just to give you a few ideas of what our cruise offered:

  • Dinner was a joy every night. Our server Alexandre was a handsome, young charmer, and his service was beyond reproach.
  • Breakfast was especially pleasant sitting by a window on this small, cozy riverboat, looking out at the passing shoreline. And you can't begin to find Müesli like this in the U.S.
  • Internet access is spotty because we are really a long way from the metropolitan areas and Viking must depend on satellite reception which is avaible for no charge.
  • The best part of a voyage like this is the friendliness and intimacy of a small ship, and the type of traveler choosing these excursions is almost by definition an adventurer.

There were also these delights:

  • Young Russian hospitality workers with vast local knowledge and intelligence who tried very hard to make up for any shortcomings.
  • A chance to see St. Petersburg's rebirth as again the "Venice of The North" under the protection of UNESCO as a World Heritage City.
  • Excellent food served well and a series of outstanding and unusual soups at both lunch and dinner daily.
  • Really comfortable beds in a good-sized cabin.
  • A blond, blue-eyed tour guide Paulina who resembled Uma Thurman, a beautiful receptionist named Sasha who was last seen at Troquet one of Boston's best French restaurants as hostess, and another receptionist, Alexandra, who was a web whiz when needed.
  • A trip to the ballet to see Giselle performed superbly. Unfortunately it was still Giselle rather than any of the countless great modern Russian ballets from Tchaikovsky through Stravinsky and Prokofiev. You'll be luckier we're sure on your trip.
  • Tours to St. Petersburg's truly magnificent palaces which make Versailles look dull by comparison.
  • Very well organized and informative tours with first class guides in both Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Lest you think me some poor, easily impressed naif who has never traveled abroad, let me assure you that after over 100 countries and several dozen cruises - even one on the Mekong River run by a Burmese company - I know the standard for civilized travel.

The Volga

We look forward to taking another Viking voyage like the portion of the Volga south of Moscow to the Black Sea which is even more picturesque.

This trip north to St. Petersburg was the final voyage of the season, and the weather turned against us. This is, after all, Russia, where they really know how to do winter. Some days we might pass a deserted bell towers left in the middle of a canal by high water, and one onion-domed Russian Orthodox Church after another.

One day we put into an island which was a Northern Russian version of something like our Williamsburg, an ersatz peasant village and tourist park.

A brave & beautiful city

During World War II, Leningrad, as St. Petersburgh was renamed by the Soviets, was besieged by Nazi Germany and its co-belligerent Finland for 872 days from September 1941 to January 1944.
     The siege was the longest, most destructive, and most deadly in modern history, and more than a million civilians died, mainly from starvation, as many as 30,000 a day.
   From this depth this city has risen to challenge Venice and Amsterdam for its canals and graceful architecture.

This is a luxury cruise, and it can cost upwards to $9,000 per couple when you include the airfare, Matryoshka Dolls and other trinkets, and a few optional tours.

The two sides of Russia

There are two sides to Russia: her great cities Moscow and St. Petersburg, and ancient villages like Yaroslavl, Uglich and Goritzy.

On this river cruise you will get both.

First you'll spend several days touring the cities' important landmarks-Moscow's Kremlin and Red Square, St. Petersburg's Pushkin, Peter & Paul Fortress and the Hermitage, my favorite museum in the entire world.

From 1917 until Perestroika the communist government hid the great impressionist art collections of the ousted notability in the museum basement, and only today can the world see these unique treasures.

The State Hermitage (Russian: Государственный Эрмитаж) is one of the largest and oldest museums of the world. It was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great and open to the public since 1852. Its collections, of which only a small part is on permanent display, comprise nearly 3 million items, including the largest collection of paintings in the world.

The collections occupy a large complex of six historic buildings along Palace Embankment, including the Winter Palace, a former residence of Russian emperors, and it's ours at the end of this two week voyage.

Our guide Paulina had told us last week, "It's time to leave Russia when you've met the third Tatiana."

I met her today.

The staggering size of The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg can only be imagined from this photo which was taken from the third floor in the Impressionist wing. welcomes thoughtful comments and the varied opinions of our readers. We are in no way obligated to post or allow comments that our moderators deem inappropriate. We reserve the right to delete comments we perceive as profane, vulgar, threatening, offensive, racially-biased, homophobic, slanderous, hateful or just plain rude. Commenters may not attack or insult other commenters, readers or writers. Commenters who persist in posting inappropriate comments will be banned from commenting on