‘Waterways of the Czars’

By Wanda Bahde
This item appears on page 24 of the February 2013 issue.
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My husband, Ray, and I wanted to see if river cruising fit our travel style. We chose the St. Peterburg-Moscow cruise-tour “Waterways of the Czars” from Viking River Cruises (800/304-9616) primarily because it included Yaroslavl and offered an optional tour to Sergiev Posad, both Golden Ring cities in Russia. For the two of us, the cost of our trip, June 23-July 6, 2012, was $14,681, including air from Orlando.

Our experience was good but very different from the small-group tours we’re used to.

The ship, the 210-passenger Viking Truvor, was also our hotel. Our cabin, No. 322, was spacious and comfortable, without the inconvenient pillars that some of the other cabins had. All meals were on the ship. Most passengers were from the US, Canada, Australia and England.

Wanda and Ray Bahde at the Dormition Cathedral in the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius in Sergiyev Posad, Russia.

Days sailing were low key, with time to read, socialize, sightsee and attend formal lectures as we traversed densely wooded waterways.

All land tours originated and concluded at the ship, which in St. Petersburg and Moscow required time-consuming commutes. Thirty passengers were assigned to each of five guides, who were uneven in their abilities.

We longed for well-located hotels and the opportunity to mingle with local folks and eat in local restaurants, so any issues we had may be due more to travel preferences than the cruise, itself. For the person who relishes comfortable travel, lots of food, sterile sightseeing and a cocktail-hour social life, this cruise is the way to travel.

Our best experiences were during independent explorations. Ray and I watched newlyweds celebrating outside the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg. The interior of the church was spellbinding, with over 7,000 square meters of mosaic panels on its walls. The entry fee was RUB250 (near $7.50) each.

That evening, we rejoined the tour group for the ballet “Swan Lake” at the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory — an amateurish performance in a tired theater, we felt. In hindsight, we should have gotten our own tickets for the ballet at the Mariinsky Theater (formerly the Kirov).

The optional “Canal Tour” ($63 per person) proved disappointing. Per Viking, the waters were too high for the tour boat to leave the Neva River, so we couldn’t enter the canals. Before paying our money, we should have checked whether the boat was small enough to traverse the canals.

Conversely, we were pleased with the optional “Peterhof Tour” ($102 per person). Our buses arrived early enough to tour the palace before the fountains came on at 11 a.m. We saw some individuals arriving by water taxi and paying an entry fee of RUB550 ($18).

En route to Moscow, the best stop was in Uglich, where passengers split into groups of 16 for home visits. Our host, Michael, led a “welcome” toast of home brew and answered our many questions. What a treat!

The trip highlight was the tour ($89 per person) of Sergiev Posad. We visited the Trinity Monastery of St. Sergius, which was once the spiritual center of the Greek Orthodox Church. We experienced a church service complete with impressive music. Russian worshipers do not sit in church but move around, kneeling, rising and kissing icons.

A Russian bride and her father celebrating in St. Petersburg. Photo: Bahde

We were surprised by obvious wealth in Moscow — jaguars and Porsches plus women dressed out of Vogue. Traffic was gridlocked, but the Metro was cheap, ornate, efficient — and challenging. Our guide advised us to count the number of stops to where we wanted to get off rather than rely on signs written in Cyrillic and obscured by pillars. Learning enough Cyrillic to identify entrances and exits and to change Metro lines would have helped.

One free morning, Ray and I returned to Red Square hoping to visit inside St. Basil’s Cathedral, but it was closed. Instead, we watched “street theater” from the Bosco Bar outside the department store GUM. Ice cream cost RUB450 ($13.85) and a Coke, RUB220.

Notes on practical matters —

Weather ranged from cool with occasional showers in St. Petersberg to hot and sunny in Moscow. We nearly always had jackets and rain ponchos with us. On Kizhi Island I needed the fleece liner in my coat!

For monastery visits, head coverings were essential.

The ship could not exchange money; we used official exchange offices or ATMs.

Toilets usually were traditional commodes, with a few squat types. Frequently, we were charged RUB10 to use them.

Our day-visit host, Michael, toasting us in his home in Uglich. Photo: Bahde

Many churches permitted photography inside for a fee, usually RUB100 ($3.25) for a camera.

The best souvenir shopping was in Uglich. Be sure to barter, and have cash. Moscow and St. Petersburg were expensive!

Beware of pickpockets, especially in St. Petersburg. A friend was swarmed on Nevsky Prospekt and later found her wallet missing. I locked valuables on the ship and carried only essential money, with photocopies of my passport and visa.

Would we take this trip again? Probably not, because we prefer smaller-group travel and immersion into the country we visit, but I see that in 2013 Viking is offering the “Russia Explorer” cruise/tour that includes hotel stays in St. Petersburg and Moscow. This would be worthy of further study.

The architecture and opulence of palaces and Russian Orthodox churches were mind-boggling.

WANDA BAHDE
Summerfield, FL

ITN e-mailed a copy of Ms. Bahde’s letter to Viking River Cruises for possible comment and received no reply.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

My husband, Ray, and I wanted to see if river cruising fit our travel style. We chose the St. Peterburg-Moscow cruise-tour “Waterways of the Czars” from Viking River Cruises (800/304-9616) primarily because it included Yaroslavl and offered an optional tour to Sergiev Posad, both Golden Ring cities in Russia. For the two of us, the cost of our trip, June 23-July 6, 2012, was $14,681, including air from Orlando.

Our experience was good but very different from the small-group tours we’re used to.

The ship, the 210-passenger Viking Truvor, was also our hotel. Our cabin, No. 322, was spacious and comfortable, without the inconvenient pillars that some of the other cabins had. All meals were on the ship. Most passengers were from the US, Canada, Australia and England.

Wanda and Ray Bahde at the Dormition Cathedral in the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius in Sergiyev Posad, Russia.

Days sailing were low key, with time to read, socialize, sightsee and attend formal lectures as we traversed densely wooded waterways.

All land tours originated and concluded at the ship, which in St. Petersburg and Moscow required time-consuming commutes. Thirty passengers were assigned to each of five guides, who were uneven in their abilities.

We longed for well-located hotels and the opportunity to mingle with local folks and eat in local restaurants, so any issues we had may be due more to travel preferences than the cruise, itself. For the person who relishes comfortable travel, lots of food, sterile sightseeing and a cocktail-hour social life, this cruise is the way to travel.

Our best experiences were during independent explorations. Ray and I watched newlyweds celebrating outside the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg. The interior of the church was spellbinding, with over 7,000 square meters of mosaic panels on its walls. The entry fee was RUB250 (near $7.50) each.

That evening, we rejoined the tour group for the ballet “Swan Lake” at the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory — an amateurish performance in a tired theater, we felt. In hindsight, we should have gotten our own tickets for the ballet at the Mariinsky Theater (formerly the Kirov).

The optional “Canal Tour” ($63 per person) proved disappointing. Per Viking, the waters were too high for the tour boat to leave the Neva River, so we couldn’t enter the canals. Before paying our money, we should have checked whether the boat was small enough to traverse the canals.

Conversely, we were pleased with the optional “Peterhof Tour” ($102 per person). Our buses arrived early enough to tour the palace before the fountains came on at 11 a.m. We saw some individuals arriving by water taxi and paying an entry fee of RUB550 ($18).

En route to Moscow, the best stop was in Uglich, where passengers split into groups of 16 for home visits. Our host, Michael, led a “welcome” toast of home brew and answered our many questions. What a treat!

The trip highlight was the tour ($89 per person) of Sergiev Posad. We visited the Trinity Monastery of St. Sergius, which was once the spiritual center of the Greek Orthodox Church. We experienced a church service complete with impressive music. Russian worshipers do not sit in church but move around, kneeling, rising and kissing icons.

A Russian bride and her father celebrating in St. Petersburg. Photo: Bahde

We were surprised by obvious wealth in Moscow — jaguars and Porsches plus women dressed out of Vogue. Traffic was gridlocked, but the Metro was cheap, ornate, efficient — and challenging. Our guide advised us to count the number of stops to where we wanted to get off rather than rely on signs written in Cyrillic and obscured by pillars. Learning enough Cyrillic to identify entrances and exits and to change Metro lines would have helped.

One free morning, Ray and I returned to Red Square hoping to visit inside St. Basil’s Cathedral, but it was closed. Instead, we watched “street theater” from the Bosco Bar outside the department store GUM. Ice cream cost RUB450 ($13.85) and a Coke, RUB220.

Notes on practical matters —

Weather ranged from cool with occasional showers in St. Petersberg to hot and sunny in Moscow. We nearly always had jackets and rain ponchos with us. On Kizhi Island I needed the fleece liner in my coat!

For monastery visits, head coverings were essential.

The ship could not exchange money; we used official exchange offices or ATMs.

Toilets usually were traditional commodes, with a few squat types. Frequently, we were charged RUB10 to use them.

Our day-visit host, Michael, toasting us in his home in Uglich. Photo: Bahde

Many churches permitted photography inside for a fee, usually RUB100 ($3.25) for a camera.

The best souvenir shopping was in Uglich. Be sure to barter, and have cash. Moscow and St. Petersburg were expensive!

Beware of pickpockets, especially in St. Petersburg. A friend was swarmed on Nevsky Prospekt and later found her wallet missing. I locked valuables on the ship and carried only essential money, with photocopies of my passport and visa.

Would we take this trip again? Probably not, because we prefer smaller-group travel and immersion into the country we visit, but I see that in 2013 Viking is offering the “Russia Explorer” cruise/tour that includes hotel stays in St. Petersburg and Moscow. This would be worthy of further study.

The architecture and opulence of palaces and Russian Orthodox churches were mind-boggling.

WANDA BAHDE
Summerfield, FL

ITN e-mailed a copy of Ms. Bahde’s letter to Viking River Cruises for possible comment and received no reply.