When it comes to river cruises, my week-long journey from Moscow to St Petersburg with Viking River Cruises must be one of the great bucket-list trips.
It certainly is for me, and as the departure date for my Russia river cruise draws near I can’t wait for the chance to see famous sights such as Moscow’s Red Square and St Petersburg’s gilded Winter Palace, and then to venture outside these great cities to get a sense of the real Russia, unchanged by time.
And the fact that I’ll be sailing aboard Viking River Cruises’ luxurious and stylish Viking Akun only adds to the anticipation.
My Russia cruise begins in the country’s capital, where a visit to the Kremlin is essential. This former fortress is busy. Busy with tourists. Busy with guards. Busy with… well, not tension, because President Vladimir Putin is away on business today (apparently he arrives via helicopter when the mood takes him).
The size of this great edifice is a little daunting, but it’s well worth the time it takes to explore. The armoury museum is particularly impressive, packed with artefacts stretching back through Russia’s long history (who knew that Empress Elizabeth, ruler from 1741-1762, owned 300 carriages? Excessive doesn’t cover it).
You’ll need a guided tour so you don’t miss out on anything, but fortunately Viking River Cruises offers this as one of its free daily excursions.
Next up is a visit to grand St Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square. As I turn the corner, I’m wowed by this amazing building with its brightly coloured onion domes, painted in eye-popping stripes, swirls and zigzags.
Completed in 1560 by order of Ivan the Terrible, it’s one of the most astonishing buildings I’ve ever seen. I make a mental note to myself – as a way to spend Saturday morning, this takes some beating.
After Moscow, our ship sails north, away from the tourist crowds, and Sunday has a different vibe altogether. Viking is known for the quality of its excursions, and to bring guests closer to the ‘real Russia’ they offer the chance to visit a delightful lady called Ludmilla, who lives in the small town of Uglich, beside the mighty River Volga.
Over a glass of her home-brewed vodka and cake (just go for it…) she tells me that her house was originally built in 1936,
in Stalin’s time, and was intended for two families. Now it’s just her, the grandchildren when they visit, and her Alsatian, standing guard outside.
Ludmilla’s is a very different world from Moscow, but that’s good. Life in Uglich looks like the old Russia, left behind in a rapidly modernising world, and a visit here is just the kind of authentic experience that discerning cruisers love.
Aboard Viking Akun
There’s nothing old-fashioned about my temporary home, however. I’m on the Waterways of the Tsars itinerary, a 13-day Russia cruise on the 204-passenger Viking Akun.
Named after the nephew of Viking ruler Rurik, the ship was originally built in 1988 in what was then East Germany, but was refurbished in 2014 to bring it up to the standard of Viking’s European ships. It now features 102 outside cabins with a river view, 67 of them veranda staterooms – one of which is mine for the week.
My cabin is light and airy with plenty of space – in fact I’ve known smaller staterooms on ocean ships – and that goes for everything from the storage space to the size of the balcony, which provides splendid views.
The decor is understated, in Scandi chic blue and taupe, and the bathroom is well appointed with a powerful shower – one of the best I’ve come across on a ship.
Though I’m travelling alone, my fellow guests are a friendly bunch, and the large circular tables in the restaurant are the ideal place to meet new friends and talk over the day’s adventures. There’s a fantastic menu, too, which really does seem to offer something for everyone, however picky they may be.
On one side you’ll find classics such as fillet steak, roast chicken and crème brulée, which are available every day, but turn the menu over and you’ll discover daily regional cuisine options – think traditional dumplings, trubochki (cream-filled pastries) and salmon coulibiac. Light snacks are also available at the coffee station and Panorama Bar.
The latter is a great spot for enjoying the view, but the majority of the evening entertainment is in the Sky Bar, and it’s here that I settle down with a drink for the eagerly anticipated quiz night.
The Big Fat Quiz does not disappoint. It’s a full house, and it takes no time at all for everyone’s competitive side to emerge. My team starts off with a respectable first round, but really comes into its own during the catchphrase round, where we play our double points card and storm to five correct answers and a maximum 100 points.
Our lead proves unassailable and we take the victory with plenty of whooping and hollering. On-board quizzes are always a great ice breaker, and we head back to our cabins as comrades in arms.
The best day out in history
The joy of quiz night is followed by a couple of port-heavy days, beginning with the historic city of Yaroslavl, some 160 miles northeast of Moscow.
Founded in 1010 by Prince Yaroslavl the Wise of Kiev (what a name!), this city is part of the Golden Ring – a group of cities north of Moscow that all played an important role in the foundation of the Russian Orthodox Church.
This particular city is also home to the very first Russian theatre, built in 1750, and is famous for its promenade, considered one of the finest along the Volga. My tour leads me through the heart of it, taking in a parade of churches and buildings from before and after the 1917 revolution.
If you’ve never visited Russia, it’s vital that your tour guide is well-informed, because history is everything in this great country. Fortunately ours, Sasha, is super-smart and gives us chapter and verse on Russia’s twentieth century history, from the last tsar, Nicholas II, all the way through the 1917 revolution and the birth and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.
My fellow guests and I stand enthralled, hanging on his every word. This is nothing like a history lesson at school – when you’re cruising in style through the places you’re learning about, the past truly comes alive.
History aside, there’s a lot to keep you entertained on board Viking Akun. Programme director Margo is on hand to teach Russian (it’s tough) and there are also daily talks on ports of call and excursions, as well as cooking demos, Q&A sessions with the captain and a visit to the bridge, where guide Vadim takes the group through the technical aspects of the cruise.
Sailing this route from May to October, the ship is manned by 27 crew, all of whom are charming and ultra- professional, from hotel manager Karoline – who has been with Viking since 1997 – to Kirby and Luigi, my friendly waiters.
And in contrast to a big ocean ship, the small number of guests means you’ll soon be on nodding terms with everyone on board, crew and fellow guests alike, so this a brilliant choice if you’re sailing solo.
The ship spends plenty of time in the big cities of Moscow and St Petersburg, so you’ll have ample opportunity to tick off all the must-sees and to shop for Russian dolls, fur hats and vodka (in a staggering array of varieties), though the shop on board also has a great selection of local gifts if you fancy souvenir-hunting without the hassle.
As my week on board comes to an end, I’m truly sorry to be leaving. I’ve met some amazing people, seen some incredible sights and fallen more in love with Russia then I thought possible.
If you’re a first-timer in this incredible country, a Russia river cruise is the way to travel – you’ll find a warm welcome aboard your Viking ship, and at Ludmilla’s house, too.
In the Know
Free daily excursions are included in the price of the cruise, and Viking offers many paid-for excursions, too
Nightly entertainment, including an on-board pianist, is also provided free of charge
All food on board is included, with complimentary unlimited wine at lunch and dinner
Gratuities are not included in the price. These are divided among all the staff
You will need to buy a Russian visa for this trip, priced from £101 (see ru.vfsglobal.co.uk)
Get on Board
12-night ‘Waterways of the Tsars’ cruise aboard Viking Truvor, from Moscow to St Petersburg, departing 8 October 2020, from £3,245, vikingrivercruises.co.uk