Uglich, Russia — The aha moment arrived around teatime in this charming town along the Volga River known for its historic buildings, watchmaking and cheese. Uglich is one of Russia’s Golden Ring cities — an informal term given to a group of picturesque towns northeast of Moscow with Medieval, well-preserved architecture — and also the place of exile for Ivan the Terrible’s wife and son, Dimitri (later murdered), after the ruler died in 1584.
My husband and I were exploring Uglich on an offshore excursion, which was part of our Viking Russian river cruise. In addition to a guided tour of the town’s stunning green-domed cathedral and fresco-filled church, we headed off to have tea with a local family. Our host was a plump woman with short red hair and a jolly smile, who after shaking our hands, ushered us into her modest dining room.
Above: Matryoshka dolls are always something that interests visitors to Russia.
One wall displayed a painted family tree with tissue paper flowers and family photos glued to its branches and the other wall a floor-to-ceiling image of the Manhattan skyline. About 20 of us sat down at her dining table covered with a flowered vinyl cloth and holding plates of home-grown cucumbers, pickles, parsley-topped boiled potato wedges, brown bread and jugs of water.
Suddenly, a bottle of homemade vodka appeared and our host passed around shots. We tossed them back and she had one too, before offering thick squares of apple cake. Everyone began eating, drinking and asking her questions about her family via our translator.
She talked about her children, her travels to Egypt and Jerusalem, and the cloth dolls lying on a nearby sofa that she made. Joviality filled the air. “We’re all the same,” I thought. No matter what the newspaper headlines say, people around the world speak a common language of friendship and sharing.
The host’s shy husband emerged and cracked a toothless grin. Then, after we all had tea, he took us to see his impressive vegetable garden and fish smoker, before waving us off. To see the real Russia up close was the reason my husband and I voyaged down the waterways of the Tsars on the Viking Truvor this past July.
Above: Whether admiring country's onion domes or meeting its lovely people, Russia is exciting.
We wanted to see the country’s legendary cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, but also small villages along the riverbanks and the people who inhabited them, who have endured so much over the centuries — uprisings, crushing authority, poverty, revolutions, communism and now capitalism.
Our cruise began in Moscow, which appeared so different from what I imagined.
Yes, there were bleak, communist-style apartment complexes dotted throughout, but overall, the capital blended modern architecture with Italian Renaissance structures, magnificent cathedrals filled with gold icons, gilded onion-domed churches and historic buildings like the Kremlin, housing President Vladimir Putin’s office in a butter-yellow building with snow white trim.
Inside Red Square, we saw Lenin’s tomb and the lavishly-coloured Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed with its multiple carved domes. Underground in the city’s Metro, we viewed beautiful bas reliefs, mosaics and marble sculptures at various subway stops. We also saw no homeless people and not a speck of trash.
The locals seemed content and relatively carefree. Three days later, the Viking Truvor set sail in the Moscow Canal, a 120km, manmade waterway linking to the Volga River with six locks in between. Bridges spanned the waterway and purple lupine lined the embankment.
Our vessel, which glided at a tranquil pace, held approximately 200 passengers and was nearly full during our trip with guests hailing from America, Canada, Europe and Asia. The ship’s blond wood interior gave it a light airy feel and our stateroom had everything we could want — a little patio, comfortable queen bed, place for our clothes, snug bathroom and wi-fi.
The emphasis on learning is partly what made this cruise so special. Professional local guides led all on-shore excursions and the Truvor offered daily lectures and programs. We had multiple sessions on Russian history, several Russian language lessons, a cooking demonstration on pelmeni (meat-filled dumpling) and talks on Russian culture — crafts, music and vodka, just to name a few.
The ship cruised most nights, so before reaching Uglich the next afternoon, we entered Europe’s longest waterway, the Volga River. More than 4,000km long, it begins in the Valdai Hills northwest of Moscow and flows into the Caspian Sea.
After Uglich, we entered timber country with forests lining both sides of the river, the afternoon light drenching the pines in a coppery luminescence. The air smelled pristine. We passed few boats and despite being on a cruise ship, I felt very much alone and at peace in this serene, quiet part of the world.
After exploring two more Golden Ring cities, including Yaroslavl with its grandiose onion-domed churches, and Kuzino, famous for its sprawling Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery, we entered the Volga-Baltic Waterway, a system of rivers and canals linking the Volga River to the Baltic Sea. Dense forests harbouring elk gave way to small villages sprinkled with churches and wooden gingerbread houses.
Visiting sites like Kizhi Island in Lake Onega enabled us to interact with locals. The island is famous for its Open-Air Museum of Architecture, a UNESCO World Heritage site, composed of over 80 historical wooden structures. The architectural ensemble includes two intricately carved 18th-century churches — the 22-domed Church of the Transfiguration and the nine-domed Church of the Intercession, both said to be crafted without a single nail.
From Mandrogy, we glided down the Svir River to Lake Ladoga, then entered the Neva River and arrived in St. Petersburg. Aside from ushering in the Romanov Dynasty in the 18th century, Peter the Great founded this astonishingly beautiful city on a swamp on the Gulf of Finland as a strategic toehold for his growing navy in 1703.
Enamored with all things European, he filled St. Petersburg with palaces, classical buildings and opulent gilded onion-domed churches, set along grand boulevards crisscrossed with bridges and canals. As a last treat, Viking offered its guests an evening of Russian ballet at the Alexandrinsky Theatre.
Founded in 1756 and now a national treasure, the gold, cream and ruby interior provided an enchanting setting for the performance of Swan Lake. Then, for our final night, my husband and I opted to see a rousing performance of Cossack folk songs and dances. It was a toe-tapping, spirited evening that ended with an invitation to join the troupe. And as I watched my husband climb onto the stage and join hands with the circle of Russian dancers, I was reminded, once again, that we are bound to others more through our similarities than our differences.
JUST THE FACTS
For more information on how to book a Viking River Cruise, go to: http://www.vikingcruises.com