Awoke to the most incredible weather, considering what home has been like recently. Totally clear skies and 23°C. Breakfast was everything and anything: pastries, cheeses, meats, breads and a chef waiting to cook a full breakfast to order at an open station.
Set off by coaches to central St Petersburg to visit the Hermitage museum. As an aside, St Petersburg traffic on a Saturday morning makes London look like a sleepy village. It's wall to wall. I guess they planned for that because we arrived 5 minutes before our timed entry slot.
It's said to be grand, spectacular and lots of other things. It is and more. It's also full of tourists, which dampens the effect a little, but there's still enough effect to be breathtaking.
Viking provided a very knowledgable guide (too knowledgable for an art philistine such as I), who showed us some of the greatest treasures.
Not all, by any means. Apparently, if you spent an average of 60 seconds at each item on display, your tour would take about 11 years!
The weather by lunch time was a cloudless 28˚C. Thank God air conditioning has reached Russia.
Woke to the most wonderful weather (again). Clear blue skies and a temperature that by mid afternoon was 28˚C. A bit of cloud, just a bit, crept over later. Thankful for the shade!
After breakfast, we drove out to Pushkin, Tsarskoye Selo, a town about 20km outside St Petersburg. Even with an early arrival and an experienced guide, the queues were enormous. About 40 minutes to wait.
Just inside the doors was chaos. Our guide had warned us not to ask why lots of things are as they were. Just say "T.I.R" meaning This is Russia! The chaos was created by everyone who entered having to put on overshoes, little canvassy covers. Why? TIR! And then all the waiting and chaos became worth every moment and every inconvenience. We entered what must been the most spectacular building I have ever entered. Words and pictures cannot describe the amount of gold, parquet floors, precious stone, Italian marble, etc, etc, etc, etc, that was everywhere.
One example. The Amber Room. Gutted by the Nazi's in the war, the amber alone cost US$12 million for the restoration.
I can't describe it all and then there were the gardens.
After a 'light' lunch (3 courses) and collapsing in a chair for an hour's rest, the afternoon excursion began. There was a choice between bus and 'metro and walking' (called "Up Close") versions. Hey! What the hell! We're fit, healthy and enjoy a stroll! Go for it!
A bus collected us and dropped us at a nearby metro station where we 40 or so intrepid travellers (the other 150 went on the bus version) boarded a train.
The St Petersburg metro is not unlike the London Underground, except it's deeper and everything moves faster. The escalators are akin to a fairground thrill ride, very long and very fast.
Five stations later we emerged onto Nevski Prospect, the city's main shopping street and began our "stroll". First stop was a, it claimed, cafe bakery. It was more like an art nouveau fantasy world. Chandeliers, painted ceilings and a quartet playing music in a gallery. The food on show... OMG!
Our walk then moved around the City. Churches, Russian Churches; so much gold, mosaic work, iconography; they send the senses into uncharted territory. Historic palaces, even when viewed from outside, are breathtaking. Miles and miles of canals (we're cruising them tomorrow!) make St Petersburg the "Venice of the North". I've been to Venice, this is better. Statues, hundreds of them, beautifully made in bronze or marble, and all with a story to tell. The "Peter the Horseman" is the most famous, I guess, and has an incredible backstory.
The only thing I felt was missing was any significant reference to the Siege of Leningrad; 900 days when the City survived the Nazi attack, even though over 1 million of its citizens did not. The memorial cemetery is not on the "tourist trail" - why not?
After 3 incredible hours we collapsed back on a coach (the guide couldn't face being a metro shepherd twice) and returned for a shower, nap and 5 course evening meal. The braver amongst us are setting off for a Cossack dance performance at 9pm. I poured myself a whisky and sat on the verandah.
We sailed through the beautiful and vast Great Northern Forest to reach our just one stop today, for just 2 hours. Not a bad thing really after the hectic sightseeing programme in St Petersburg.
To be fair, it's not the world’s best folk museum, but it's not bad at all. The buildings are mostly rebuilds, but a few are original, 200 years old. The various crafts are being undertaken in plain view and the products are available to buy. Also, traditional foods and snacks and vodka can be sampled. The few I had room for were delicious.
We're sailing again soon and won't dock again until tomorrow, breakfast, when we reach the most northerly part of the journey at Kihzi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which borders the Artic Circle. With the temperature now at 26˚C and practically clear sky, who cares?
Today, at breakfast, we docked at Kihzi, a small island in Lake Onega. It's 62˚ North. That's just 900km below the Arctic Circle in line with Iceland. The temperature is still 20˚C at 9am and there's only wispy high cloud.
Kihzi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site mostly because it's home to the oldest wooden church in the Russian Federation, built in the late 14th century, and the last surviving wooden domed church built by Peter the Great, in 1713. This was built without the use of a single nail, all the wood being intricately notched together.
Being "somewhere in the middle of nowhere", the island, whilst having a small indigenous population, relies on cruise tourists and hosts a cultural museum demonstrating traditional crafts, and, of course, a goodly array of souvenir shops. The place is totally mesmeric. The calmness of this small place is, quite simply, reviving, even spiritual.
We're here for just a few hours, then begin our journey southward again through the spectacular Forest.
A really relaxed afternoon and evening, just cruising across the lake and into the canal system. Optional lectures were on offer, including Russian language. Being a bit tired, I opted out, dozed on the verandah in the glorious afternoon sunshine, drank coffee and watched the world sail by.
It was interesting to see some of the things to shore. Logging is clearly an important part of what happens here. I didn't know there were so many trees. I'd heard the great Northern Forests were ecologically important. I'm beginning to understand why.
We continued sailing until lunchtime next day, so lots more time to chill out and be eaten by Mosquitos.
Didn't I mention them? The little bu**ers are everywhere! So pleased we'd researched this and brought sprays and vapours and various other items "guaranteed" to control mosquitos. These, however, are Russian by temperament; intransigent and determined. So very very hard to impose discipline and good behaviour! Maybe if I fill my bloodstream with vodka....? Worth a try? Well that'll be my excuse. I think I'll get started.
Arrived at a dock in the tiny tiny hamlet of Kuzino. It's nothing more than a mooring for one cruise ship and consists of no more than a souvenir shop, cafe and a Viking Centre. What else is there for locals to do to earn a living apart from logging?
We were taken to a mock up of a Viking style longhouse ( I think,that's what they're called - shame on me, I've read Beowulf). A small performance was given to explain the Viking history of the part of “Russka”, and some poor unfortunates were dressed up as Vikings (not my idea of entertainment, but each to his own!) After that excruciating experience we boarded coaches for a 20 minute trip to the small nearby town of Kirillo.
The monastery dates back to before the time of Peter the Great. My first impression was of a shabby, badly maintained set of old buildings... And so they are. And then as we toured (no photography) it became clear we were visiting one of the most important sites in the history of Russian Orthodoxy. There was a great schism in the church over (surprisingly) what appeared to be the simplest of liturgical issues, the most apparent of which was whether to use two fingers, father and son, or three fingers, father son and Holy Spirit, when making the sign of the cross. Old Believers, as they became called, were persecuted for centuries afterwards, when the Russian Orthodox Church adopted the new three finger signing.
The original and authentic throne of Nikon, the Patriarch of the Old Believers (not the inventor of cameras) is housed here. The only surviving Iconostasis from the period is also here. This has been displayed in all the world's significant art galleries. There are objects so old and unique, ...what do you say? And all in this dilapidated ancient monastery, a day's journey from anything resembling a "town".
Only in Russia!
In the afternoon, we visited a Children’s Art Centre (it was planned to have been a school, but they were on vacation).
I'm not sure most people "got it", but for me it was a highlight of the trip.
The Centre, which provides after school extra curricular activities, is free to local children. At the time of our visit some children were working on their projects.
One sweet girl of about 10 played guitar and sang a folk song accompanying herself on guitar, two others sang and danced, and then we went to see some craft classes.
A quiet time cruising the Volga down to Yaroslavl.Beautiful sunsets, clean air, pretty small towns, all with churches that look like cathedrals.We arrived in Yaroslavl just after lunch.
Yaroslavl is a "normal" city. Lots of traffic, shops, cinemas, in fact, exactly what you find in any provincial city, except.... Except everything looks a little bit tired. Perhaps evidence that the economic recovery following the Soviet era hasn't fully embraced the whole country. On the other hand, it is no better or worse than many a semi-industrial small city in the UK.
I wanted to visit the Ice hockey arena, home to Locomotiv Yaroslavl, whose team and staff had been wiped out in an air crash in 2011, so I set off alone by taxi leaving the rest of the tour to set off. I was to meet up with them later. Our (non Russian speaking) Program Director, Sasha, gave the taxi driver detailed (well, loudly spoken and hand signed) instructions. He filled me with great confidence. (Actually, I knew I could have done better myself).
We did arrive at the hockey stadium with no difficulty whatsoever. No difficulty given one accepts that a Russian taxi driver makes a Parisian taxi driver seem like an old lady on her way to church on Sunday. Which lane? Any lane? Change lanes? When ever you feel like. Indicators? Oh! Is that what those orange lights are? I didn't know that!
It was the return journey caused the problem. As I suspected the taxi driver had no idea what had been meant by "Farmers' Market" (our meeting location). That's what the PD called it, to inform the Americans (that’s what they call Street Markets). It turned out to be a exactly that - local produce and small traders.
A map I'd picked up on the ship got us to what we agreed (interesting concept: I speak no Russian, driver speaks no English) was the most likely location. Didn't look right when we arrived. It was a pedestrianised shopping area, but the best I was going to get. The driver and I parted as lifetime friends (seriously - he was genuinely concerned), and I decided to look around.
No sign of this market (let alone anyone who looked like a farmer!) so I gave in and phoned the ship. Very helpful (and inventive). The proposed plan was to stop a passer by, they could tell the receptionist (who speaks Russian) where I was and then the passer-by could pass the phone back to me for instructions in English on where to go.
Now, in the UK, if a Russian tourist tried to stop you and waved a phone at you, would you stop? Not in my universe! The very first people I approached did. They talked to the ship. They smiled and then instead of passing the phone straight back to me, hung up, returned the phone and insisted walking 2 to 3 city blocks (my homing pigeon instincts weren't too bad) to the market. Then they insisted on escorting me around the market until we'd found the group. Off they went with a cheery smile and a wave, barely giving me time to thank them.
The market was barely worth the trouble, but the rest of the town had some very interesting sites, sounds and parks. In one church we were treated to a lovely performance of sacred music by a small group of (possibly fake) priests.
We set sail during dinner to make our way toward the lower Volga and the Moscow canal.
Uglich is a "Golden Ring" city on the entry to the Moscow Canal. What a pretty dockside area.
It's not that big a place and clearly has taken the advantage of having cruise ships call there to heart. At the dockside area is an open market crowded with every imaginable souvenir as well as more everyday "tourist shopping opportunities" such as woollens, shirts, shawls, etc.
We decided to set out alone. (There's a limit to the number of minor, important only to the locals, churches and residences you can take!)
Very interesting. As you move backward from the port area, just a few blocks deep, the buildings, pavements and general level of maintenance falls exponentially. It's third world.
Pot holes where cave potholers could explore!
The buses wouldn't be passed by a blind MOT inspector who had been bribed and then got drunk; what held the rust together I've no idea. We saw one with the engine compartment propped open and a plastic bottle jammed in upside down to feed water to a slowly leaking radiator!
Looking in local shops took a bit of working out. At first there didn't seem to be any. This is because they don't have open display windows or see through glass doors as is typically found in the West. The doors are more like house doors, narrow, solid wood and are always closed. We guessed that this is because, in a country where cold and snow is more normal than warm and dry, you design your shops to keep the heat in and the weather out.
Having found out how to get into them, we also found there was, in most cases, little point in getting into them. Small quantities of largely uninteresting lowish quality goods. McDonalds, KFC, Samsung and Apple haven't reached here yet!
The open market, on closer investigation, had some pretty decent quality goods, so we went shopping. We also quickly caught on to the fact that there is more than one price.
There's the price on the labels on the item. There's the discounted price they suggest when you show interest. There's the price they offer when you ask for their "best" price. There's then the price you pay after you say you'll check other stalls and start to walk away. That one's about 33% less than where it started. Also the currency converter on my phone scared the hell out of one or two of them when they tried flipping between roubles, dollars and euros to try to make things sound cheaper. Paying in roubles takes off another 2-3%.
So overall we had a delightful visit. The touristy section is really attractive and barter shopping great fun. The sun keeps shining and food and wine keeps coming. Life's so hard!
Our final "away day" is to the Golden Ring city of Sergiyev Posad, home to a most important Orthodox monastery. Apparently, St. Sergiyev is one of the most venerated Saints of the Orthodoxy.
Next year is the Saint's 500 year celebrations, and therein was a drawback. The whole monastery, with one or two small exceptions is undergoing significant renovation. The magnificence had to be largely imagined, although the scaffolding was in dimension and complexity, itself, magnificent. However, interiors were beautiful, and because it is still an active monastery, services were being held in a number of the churches.
An Orthodox service is something to inspire awe. It lasts around 3 hours. Everyone (except the infirm) stand throughout (although it is allowed to come late and leave early). The chanting by the priest or monks is mesmeric. In the congregation, there is a constant crossing and genuflecting. In fact, in so many ways it reminded me of lunchtime prayers at a Mosque.
We found ourselves with a little time to go exploring, so we decided to go "behind the scenes" of the town. The main street has pleasant enough shops and cafés. Two blocks back it's a different story. Pavements aren't pavements, they're hard trodden earth. Buildings look held together by the willpower of the occupants. It suggests a much poorer living standard than we are led to believe.
However, "civilisation" was just a block away. An American Embassy (aka McDonalds).
I've little recollection of the return journey to the ship. Four hours sleep last night took its inevitable toll.
At last, it’s raining. The weather’s making leaving easier!
Fortunately, the Ingvar is very comfortable and, although we had to vacate our stateroom by 10am, there were plenty of pleasant seating areas and tea/coffee available.
Our transfer to the airport was perfectly arranged, and accompanied by one of the Russian speaking Tour Escorts - not really necessary, but it did save us having to navigate the airport by looking for signposting. It also meant that our baggage was handled from cabin door to check-in desk. That was a surprise and a bonus. Crew and airport handlers carried the bags at all times - amazing!
Sheremetyevo International Airport is Moscow's second airport, and is to the north of the city. So is the port. "Result" we thought. Moscow traffic made it a 1 hour journey for about 10 miles. The traffic is beyond description. Sheremetyevo is an amazing airport - efficient, light & airy, lots of shops and services, and (like the rest of Moscow) clean to the point of obsessiveness.
KLM did their usual adequate (nothing special, nothing to complain about) job and off we flew, back in Cardiff, on time.
I'd always thought the Kremlin was big, but had no idea of its scale. Not only a tourist attraction, it forms a key rôle in Russian Government, including the Presidential offices - Vladimir Putin arrives daily by helicopter!
Best way I can explain - imagine Whitehall had a wall built around it to enclose the key government departments. As a result, airport style security greets the visitor, but it's incredibly more efficient and speedy than an airport I've ever visited. And once inside... OMG!
There are ancient onion domed cathedrals (yes, plural), government buildings, modern architecture, such as the building for the Soviet Assembly which met only every 5 years, but had 6000+ delegates. There is the housing for the members of the Supreme Soviet, the house in which Lenin once lived. There are parklands, gardens, trees planted by the famous, like Yuri Gargarin.
There are oddities like the Tsar Canon and the Tsar Bell. Military bric-a-brac from past wars, like 1812. It's simply breathtaking. And the views across the city from the walls are spectacular.
We set off at about 9pm in to central Moscow to join a canal cruise followed by a bus tour of Moscow, returning at 12:30 am next morning.
This time of year, 10pm is twilight time, so as we cruised the canals, darkness began to fall and the city lit up. It is incredibly beautiful.
Loss of sleep? A small price to pay!
This morning we set off after breakfast to the Gulf of Finland. Sounds a long way off, but it's only an hour by road. Historically, the Gulf is why St Petersburg is where it is. It was Peter the Great's "Window on the West" as he tried to modernise Russia.
We were so lucky. We arrived as one of the first coaches of the day and had the place to ourselves for the Palace tour. Yesterday, I thought I'd seen the ultimate in palatial luxury. Wrong! This is it. Completely flattened by the Nazis, this place had to be completely restored using samples of furniture taken to safety from the palace and other historic houses.
No photography is allowed inside. However, if the Palace is spectacular, it's the gardens that are famous. Or more particularly, the fountains. The water is gravity fed from hills 30km away through a network of pipes. Because water attempts to find its own level, the fountains need no pumps. They attempt to shoot to the height of the hills, up to 30 meters.
There are over 150 of them, including the famous (not to me until now) cascade that fronts the palace.
An amazing experience.
During the afternoon we had a final look around St Petersburg before start the journey to Moscow. We're due to sail at 7pm this evening during a cocktail party on the sun deck.
What this made us realise was that, even though we've been here 3 long and busy days, we had barely touched the surface of what this magnificent city has to show.
It even offers a beach holiday!
A cocktail party, champagne, "meet the Captain and crew" and a beautiful dinner saw us casting off from St Petersburg. Travelling north, along the River Neva, we entered Europe's largest lake, Lake Ladoga. It's big. If it wasn't fresh water, it would be a sea. (It should be; no land in sight for hours and hours!!)
Here was an opportunity to really understand "White Nights". The sun didn't quite set, just a sunset effect on the horizon (photographed at 11:30pm). Just before dawn, I looked outside and the sky really was white, but I was too groggy (lazy) to find the camera.
Arrived in Moscow just after lunch at its Northern River Terminal. It's a good way out. You might say Harrow or Wimbledon were London but...
Nevertheless, a little like those places it seems a delightful town within a city with lots of parks and gardens to explore as well as its own "town centre".
We set off early afternoon for the drive into Moscow. Moscow's traffic is notorious. The local guide explained that, like hurricanes and tornados they have an informal scale of 1-10, one is light, ten is get off the bus and walk. Today, he said, was a four, so the journey took about 45 minutes. I'd hate to see an eight, never mind a ten. Some roads had 5 or 6 lanes in each direction, all busy!
Moscow's first impressions were impressive. Modern, Soviet and Ancient architecture seems to blend into fascinating vistas. We toured by bus and had many sites (and sights) so familiar from news and other media pointed out.
Our first stop was the oddly named Sparrow Hill. Here is the massive Moscow State University and also some incredible panoramic views across the city.
We then travelled through more of the city taking in the sights. We left the bus I've no idea where and travelled in to Red Square by metro. The Moscow metro isn't an underground railway - it's an art gallery!
Red Square is impressive. I always thought "Red" referred to communism but, in fact, a lucky or triumphant colour in Russian tradition. It's as impressive as it looks on TV. Massive. Surrounded by onion domed churches or cathedrals and massive stone walls. Kremlin is, in fact, simply the Russian word for "fortress". There are kremlins everywhere. This one has taken on a different meaning in English.
Down one side of Red Square is GUM. I'd always believed this to be a Department Store (Debenhams on speed, so to speak). In fact, it's a shopping mall. But what a shopping mall! It makes Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan seem a little like Cardiff Market!
It's massive. Three floors, three arcades, the full length of Red Square, and every shop (yes, I think, every shop) is a designer brand. Some are so upmarket that names like Yves St Laurent become on a par with Marks & Spencer. We also found that the Russians make pastries like nowhere on Earth. If there are pastries beyond the Pearly Gates, they buy them in GUM. They are also the only thing you can afford unless you're an oligarch.
We returned to the ship for a quiet dinner to set ourselves up for another day in this amazing city.