From Russia with love – reflections on a Vodohod cruise from Moscow to Saint Petersburg
Little Alexander – kitted out with a jaunty captain’s cap – was already producing a mini mastryoshka masterpiece as I tried to recall my schoolgirl painting days and what colours were needed to mix to produce green. An hour later I left the class with a traditional nesting doll which was rather rough around the edges and one that only its creator could love. I certainly stood no chance of winning the prize for the best in class, which was deservedly awarded to a Belgian passenger’s painstaking creation.
A trip to Russia is a kaleidoscope of experiences and on a 11-night river cruise from Moscow to Saint Petersburg we certainly packed them in, including the fun Russian doll painting class followed by a vodka tasting party aboard our floating home MS Rostropovich.
Winston Churchill famously pronounced the world’s largest country as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”, and despite being in the global spotlight during last year’s World Cup, for most people it still remains an intriguing destination.
Russia’s two greatest cities, Moscow and St Petersburg, are 400 miles apart as the crow flies, a comparatively tiny distance in the vast 6.5 million square miles that make up Russia. Yet visitors hopping between the two on a short flight never discover what lies between – a network of historic rivers, lakes and canals providing an unforgettable and contrasting insight into the country’s historic heartland.
A river cruise is a relaxing and stress-free introduction to a country that’s not the most accessible or easiest of places to get around without any knowledge of the language or customs. It is best explored on an escorted tour, and a river cruise offers the added benefits of only having to pack and unpack once.
We were aboard MS Rostropovich which is one of the ‘international’ ships operated by Vodohod, Russia’s largest river cruise operator with a fleet of more than 25 vessels graded from three stars upwards. The 212-passenger five-star vessel offers English-speaking cruises between Moscow to Saint Petersburg.
Far larger than ships that cruise along rivers such as the Rhine and Danube, where size is restricted by low bridges and narrow locks, MS Rostropovich provides a sizeable and comfortable base to sail on the Russian waterways.
Moscow, where our cruise started, is a heady mix of the unmistakable historic sights of Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral coupled with the modern wonders of the ‘Seven Sisters’ skyscrapers and a fast-moving 24/7 culture shaped by contemporary oligarchs. Here was the opportunity to take in an opera at the Bolshoi Theatre or head below ground to the Metro, where catching sight of the ornate chandeliers and statues is almost more important to visitors than getting a train. Our insightful guided tour also took us around the grounds of the Kremlin, home to the world’s largest bell and cannon, and five beautiful cathedrals.
Excursions in St Petersburg included a leisurely canal cruise along the 200-mile labyrinth of waterways criss-crossed by 500 bridges, which is the best way to admire the city built on water in 1703 by Peter the Great. His Baroque winter palace is now one of the world’s greatest museums – The Hermitage. With 1,057 rooms and three million exhibits a guided tour is the least tiring way to see the highlights. The next day we travelled 20 miles out of the city by coach to Peterhof, the czar’s 18th century summer palace which he built to rival Versailles with opulent gilded rooms and fountain-filled gardens.
In between Moscow and St Petersburg our Vodohod voyage took us along rivers, including the mighty Volga, flanked by dense forests and small villages dominated by disproportionately sized onion-domed churches, including some now semi-submerged in the water. There was a real feeling of travelling into the heart of Russia. On some days it even felt as if we were at sea when MS Rostropovich navigated the vast stretches of Ladoga and Onega, respectively Europe’s largest and second largest lakes, where at certain points it is impossible to see the banks.
One morning we strolled around the UNESCO-listed site of Kizhi, where charming wooden buildings are dominated by the 22 timbered domes of the Transfiguration Church. The next day it was Yaroslavl, one of the picturesque Golden Ring cities that played a pivotal role in the founding of the Russian Orthodox Church. Another highlight was Uglich with its icon-rich cathedral and church plus a colourful market to stock up on nesting dolls, intricate lacquered boxes and other mementos.
Back on board there was a packed programme of cultural activities including Russian language, song and dance classes, lively concerts by the resident folk band, classical music recitals and fascinating lectures by a Russian university professor which provided a real understanding of Russian history, politics and everyday life.
At the beginning of our Vodohod cruise we were allocated a restaurant table with fellow English speakers and each evening we’d swap tales of the day’s events. Breakfast and lunch are buffets with a decent spread of regional and international dishes and dinner is a served meal. There are also fun themed meals including a Russian night with live music.
It was an incredible voyage of discovery where I immersed myself in the spirit of all things Russian; including taking home a truly unique mastryoshka doll souvenir, the vodka tasting and learning how to say cheers like a local – na zdorovye! And, of course, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to send postcards and emails signed “from Russia with love”.
Tel: +7 495 223-96-04
Number of Facilities On Board: Two restaurants, lounge bar, entertainment room, gym and lift serving all decks.
Number of Cabins: 106 cabins, including 18 suites, with complimentary Wi-Fi throughout the ship.
Price Band: Medium
Insider Tip: For the top cabin and best views on the ship book the Imperial Suite, which occupies a prime 322 square-foot spot overlooking the bow of MS Rostropovich and has a large private balcony.
Reviewer’s Rating: 9/10
Factfile: Vodohod offers 7 to 11-night itineraries Moscow to St Petersburg, or in reverse, on MS Rostropovich from €3,080 per cabin, including all meals, snacks, one drink with dinner, shore excursions and cultural enrichment programme.
Known as the ‘River Cruise Queen’, Jeannine Williamson is an award-winning travel writer, cruise expert and our cruise correspondent, who has clocked up thousands of nautical miles.
Photographs courtesy of Vodohod