A delightly restful way to travel through Mother Russia
By Walter Brooks. Photos by Patricia Brooks
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:
There were also these delights:
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.
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.
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.