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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Waterborne in Northern Russia

we sat on the stern deck of the ship, sipping gin and watching the sun set over the vast expanse of water. Toward 10 p.m. we retired to our cabins to fetch a shirt for warmth against the evening breeze, searching for something soft which would not aggravate the pleasurable sensation of early holiday sunburn. Remarkably, such heavenly delights had not been attained after the ordeal of customs forms, fractious children on delayed flights and the last-minute panics which accompany the annual realization that Russian residency visas are due to expire while you are away. For this particular expanse of water was Lake Ladoga in northern Russia, and not the Mediterranean Sea.

Last summer I embarked on one of the many cruises which now ply Russia's waterways. My particular choice was a cruise which began in St. Petersburg and ended in Moscow, with stops at cities as legendary as Yaroslavl, Kostroma and Nizhny Novgorod. Apprehension was almost tangible as, along with 200 nervous passengers from Britain, I boarded the Lev Tolstoi, our home for two weeks, in St. Petersburg. Would it float? Would the restaurant serve only beetroot? Would my father have made a clever decision by arriving from Britain with a large quantity of duty-free whisky?

Our fears were as groundless as the ship was spotless. The Lev Tolstoi was one of Brezhnev's party perks, recently renovated to cater for Russia's burgeoning water-tourism. Complete with bars and saloons, manicurist and swimming pool (the only one on any Volga cruise ship, we were proudly informed by the first mate during our visit to the bridge), the ship was perfectly safe and comfortable. Inevitably its merits depended largely on your point of view. For the Methodist minister from Scotland it was luxurious, while the golf-playing housewife from Surrey found it "adequate, at best." For me, after a year in Russia, the unobtrusive efficiency with which the Lev Tolstoi negotiated our route and saw to our everyday needs was painfully welcome. I surrendered body and soul to the program and tempo of the ship, my one rebellion a belligerent boycott of the 7:30 breakfast sitting. I was, after all, on holiday.

The trip began with two full days in St. Petersburg, where the usual coach trips tried to pack tours of a city which has been developing for centuries into just 48 hours. The Hermitage, Tsarskoye Selo, Nevsky Prospekt and the Peter and Paul Fortress were all viewed at a trot with nothing but a packed lunch for sustenance. Not the most auspicious beginning. There were, however, unexpected treats, most notably a private tour and concert in the otherwise empty Marble Palace for a group of just 40.

At 10 p.m. two days after we arrived, the Tolstoi set sail. I had had visions of casting off from a mooring across from the Winter Palace, and then, Aurora-style, passing beneath the Neva's bridges, opened especially for the occasion with great pomp and circumstance. This only illustrates my abysmal grasp of geography, for, as any 8-year-old Russian could have told me, that way we would have ended up in Scandinavia. Instead we spent an hour or so viewing the riverside plots of St. Petersburg's heavy industry before finally leaving behind all traces of the famous city.

Having already had the good fortune to live in St. Petersburg for a few months, the cruise for me really started at this point. There was a feeling of peace that first midnight of sailing which belied the frantic two days which had preceded it, and I wanted to savor the moment properly. Instead I fell asleep, waking by pure chance a couple of hours later when we passed the historic fortress which marks the entrance to Lake Ladoga. I looked out of my cabin window and saw the sepulchral structure just meters away, eerie and entrancing in the 2 a.m. fog. The voyage of vivid, unexpected impressions and delights was underway.

Our first stop was the island of Valaam, home to one of Russia's most famous monasteries which, after years of suppression, is coming back to life. The island is almost entirely undeveloped, with charming walks leading to sudden glimpses of churches or chapels which are slowly creaking back into use. We escaped the guides and lost ourselves in the woods and forests, immortalized in the painting of one of Russia's most popular 19th-century artists, Ivan Shishkin. Nevsky Prospekt seemed a million miles from the moss-encrusted streams and tributaries.

We continued via the rather unremarkable town of Petrozavodsk (a necessary pit stop for supplies) to Lake Onega and the astonishing settlement of Kizhi. Nothing can equal the experience of approaching the 22-domed, wooden Church of the Transfiguration by water. The ship was suddenly anachronistic, almost an insult in its technological prowess to the extraordinary collection of wooden buildings constructed entirely without nails. The skills of the 18th century met those of the 20th somewhat reluctantly.

At this point it was time to put in some hard sailing. The next day we had a brief stop at the charming village of Irma, where the local children played on the banks of the river with the self-conscious charm of an Impressionist painting, but otherwise traveled all day. The chance to reflect and recuperate was more than welcome. It was time to sample some of the on-board entertainments which had filled me with horror when I first read about them in the brochure. Now however, with sun in my hair and the dim drone of the engine evidently persuading my subconscious to engage in activities which I would normally avoid like Sheremetyevo airport, I found myself partaking with alacrity.

I booked a massage. I swam unconcerned that others may be watching. I learned how to sing Kalinka with Olga, one of our on-board guides. And I listened with great pleasure to the highly erudite and personable lecturer employed by the ship to educate us in all things Russian. We sat stunned to learn of the average monthly pension; the frequency of industrial accidents; the percentage of the Russian population struggling below the poverty line, ludicrously low though it might be. It was salutary to be reminded of Russian reality as we reveled in our spectacular views of the Volga and decadent consumption of vodka.

Indeed, the cruise opened my eyes as nothing else could to certain aspects of Russia's all-too-recent past. Halfway through the trip we sailed past one of Stalin's prison camps, with barbed-wire perimeters, concrete cells and watch towers clearly visible from the upper deck. Never before had the distance from civilization and the isolation of punishment struck me with such force. We also sailed past a sunken church, marooned in the middle of the river as a result of the Soviet drive to improve its waterway communications. The lives and villages which were lost as a result, either through the intentional flooding of land or through the forced labor used to build the locks and canals we sailed through, were impressed upon us with particular poignancy.

Further south, we stopped in Yaroslavl and Kostroma, two of the celebrated Golden Ring cities. The highlight of the day in Yaroslavl was the visit to the Church of Elijah the Prophet, home to some of the most spectacular frescoes in Russia. Decorous virgins cluck over wizened babies, with obsequious priests and saints in attendance, while some unfortunate martyr meets his gruesome end a matter of meters away. Every inch of the church's interior is emblazoned with an array of color which frequently belies the religious narrative's solemnity.

Kostroma, by contrast, was memorable for its recourse to Russia's more recent history, for its famous St. Ipatevsky Monastery now includes a small museum dedicated to the fate of the Romanov family. Family photographs jostle for space with the drawings of Tsar Nicholas II's five children and Rasputin's slippers. Of particular interest to the English speaker are Nicholas' love letters to Alexandra which are written in English in a flowing and, thankfully, legible hand, expressing his adoration for his wife with an unexpected tenderness and fluency.

We also had a memorable coach drive from some tiny port to Nizhny Novgorod, which involved crossing a frighteningly derelict bridge suspended several hundred meters above the ravine of a river below. We closed our eyes. My father, a civil engineer, insensitively exhorted us to open them again to appreciate what a fine example the bridge offered of bad structural design. Nizhny Novgorod itself failed to live up to my expectations.

We continued without incident to Moscow. But if I was to say that the entire trip was hitch-free, I'm sure no one would believe me. Indeed, a fortnight in Russia without any sort of comic administrative blunder would be positively boring. The blunder in this case happened at the very start of the cruise, or to be precise 24 hours before the cruise was due to begin, when the tour operators, the London-based travel agency Noble Caledonian, were told by their Russian colleagues that the ship they had booked was no longer available. Instead we were to have the Lev Tolstoi.

One would expect there to have been no problem with this. If it's good enough for Brezhnev, then it's good enough for me. But the Tolstoi had fewer cabins than the ship which had been booked, and as a result everyone had to share. The Tolstoi reverberated for the first day of the cruise with the histrionics of those unable to occupy a promised, and indeed paid for, single cabin. But once the cabin allocation had been courageously and diplomatically settled by Noble Caledonian's representative, it sparked a rather endearing in-the-face-of-adversity sort of camaraderie.

My fellow passengers were charming. They included journalists, sailors, newlyweds and priests, and a particularly gutsy woman who had taught herself Russian in her late 70s and was now embarking on translations of Russian poetry. The ship's crew were equally affable. A small team of English-speaking guides were our immediate contact, but anyone willing to penetrate further encountered a fascinating cross section, from Masha the manicurist to Igor the boat boy. They, like the running of the ship, were above reproach, managing my life with considerably more efficiency and tact than I am usually capable of. I was heartily sorry to leave them all behind me after three days in Moscow.

Cruise details

The cruise was organized by Noble Caledonian, whose offices are at 11 Charles Street, Mayfair, London WIX 7HB, UK, tel. 8 10 44 171 491 4752, fax 8 10 44 171 409 0834. They are offering more than 30 cruises in the summer of 1996, the first of which starts on May 19 and the last of which starts Oct. 2. All cruises are, however, dependent on the company securing a minimum number of bookings.

Cruises can start in St. Petersburg and end in Moscow, start in Moscow and end in St. Petersburg, or sail through Kiev and the Crimea. Each cruise includes a tour manager from Noble Caledonian and a guest lecturer, as well as the ship's own lecturer and tour guides. Prices range from ?1,095 ($1,740) per person for a twin bedded cabin on the lower deck, to ?1,695 per person for a twin bedded cabin on the boat deck, and are fully comprehensive apart from optional excursions in the big cities.