"I have changed a lot since 1974 but, despite the ravages of the years, not half as much as Russia. I first visited 35 years ago when it was part of the USSR and didn’t even exist as an independent country. Travelling with InTourist, the State agency set up to supervise curious foreigners, our motley group of 20 was shepherded around Moscow and Leningrad and then flown south by battered turbo-prop plane to glimpse the glories of Central Asia. On arrival at Samarkand airport via Tashkent, I was immediately ‘arrested’ and marched to a dingy office for interrogation. My crime? Foolishly, I had taken a photo of quasi-Biblical characters clutching assorted livestock as they descended the steps of the aircraft but had failed to spot, in the background, some indeterminate buildings. It took them an hour to decide I was not a spy and confiscate my film. Order restored, we were grudgingly allowed on our way.
From ‘perestroika’ to Putin, times have changed. Having visited Leningrad, I wanted to return and take Neil to St Petersburg and Moscow. We took the relaxed option of a Viking River Cruise linking the two great cities via the ‘Waterways of the Tsars’ and flew to St Petersburg to board MV Viking Surkov, moored on the magnificent River Neva.
Did I say relaxed? Certainly life on board is relaxed, cabins are comfortable and well appointed but, to pack in as much as possible, we were up and off early during our 4 days in Peter the Great’s city. I never made the Qi Gong (whatever that is) exercise class on the Sun Deck (0730 is pushing it a bit) but after a splendid breakfast, complete with dangerously palatable Russian ‘champagne’, we clambered into coaches, clutching our personalised audio receivers so we could hear our guides without needing to cluster round.
A quick tour gave a taster of the wonders of this sublime city built on 101 islands, with 66 canals, hundreds of bridges, soaring golden spires, wide avenues and spacious squares. Peter the Great loved water and it is here in abundance, not only the majestically-wide Neva and countless fountains, but the network of canals, amply justifying its nickname ‘Venice of the North’.
The city is a harmonious blend of Russian and Western European architecture and we began in the Hermitage Museum, whose collection of buildings incorporates the Russian Baroque Winter Palace, stormed by the Red Guard in 1917. With over 1,000 rooms stuffed with nearly 3m treasures, we could barely skim the surface and emerged, heads reeling from a staggering collection of art from prehistoric to Picasso and beyond.
Peter & Paul Fortress was planned as a defence against marauding Swedes but Peter defeated them before it was finished. Boasting a gruesome history (hundreds of forced labourers died during construction and countless political prisoners were tortured and executed within its bastions) it contains a sumptuous cathedral, the final resting place of Russian Tsars including the last Romanov, the murdered Nikolai II whose remains were brought here in 1998.
Out of town, we headed south to see Catherine Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, set in 1500 acres of glorious parkland with captivating pavilions around a central lake. The Palace itself, equal in splendour to any in Europe, is a triumph of on-going restoration after enduring savage German destruction during World War II.
Russian ballet traces its origins to a school in St Petersburg, so we couldn’t miss Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake at the elegant neo-classical Alexandriinskiy Theatre. Although the chorus would have benefited from a touch of military discipline, Odette/Odile was mesmerizingly fluid and bird-like.
No-one should miss Peterhof, easily reached by road or hydrofoil. Indulging Peter’s love of water, fountains abound, including several tricks lying in wait to soak the unsuspecting. The dazzling Grand Cascade, descending from the terraces of the Palace, via the Marine Canal to the Gulf of Finland, is a superb expression of triumphalism over the Swedes. The huge landscaped park, dotted with summerhouses, pergolas, formal gardens and sculptures, easily absorbs the hundreds of visitors.
The Yusupov Palace, in whose cellars Rasputin met his grisly end, was an option one afternoon. But, feeling lazy, we chose the canal and river cruise for a unique view of the super-abundance of architectural and natural beauty. Afterwards we strolled down Nevskiy Prospekt, perhaps Russia’s most famous street, the place to see and be seen; now buzzing with opportunities for retail therapy – a far cry from the 1970s. The drab Soviet era is half-forgotten history as the girls strut their stuff, a constant fashion and beauty parade clacking along in man-eater make-up, high heels and tight skirts.
A sad farewell and we cast off on our voyage to Moscow via Lake Ladoga, Europe’s largest freshwater lake, ice-free for only half the year. Then, through two locks on the River Svir, into Europe’s second largest lake, Lake Onega, and on down the Volga-Baltic waterway, stopping at villages, towns and monasteries along the way. It was blissful peace after the bustle of the city as Viking Surkov ploughed her way through the tranquil lakes and rivers.
The quality of light is extraordinary, luminous and ethereal, and it was easy to adjust to the ‘white nights’ with the after-glow of the setting sun continuing until nearly midnight, as we sat on the deck sipping post prandials. Not totally indolent, we enjoyed a programme of lectures on Russian history, culture and politics, a vodka tasting, piano recitals, and a splendid four-course dinner every evening. Somehow, I still didn’t get myself to the Qi Gong classes.
After 4 days we arrived in Moscow and more action-packed tourism. Red Square has the air of a film set, with the polychrome, onion-domed St Basil’s Cathedral, commissioned by Ivan the Terrible in 1552, and the picturesque Kremlin dominating the vast expanse which, for those of a certain age, is forever associated with the grim faces of Soviet leaders staring down as the immense fire and man-power of the Red Army rumbled and marched past.
Opposite the Kremlin is the superb late nineteenth century Gum department store whose archways, wrought iron and stucco sparkle as the sun shines through the enormous glass domed roof. In 1974 it was literally a sea of trestle tables with meagre produce and cheap goods for which people had to queue for hours. Now a temple to capitalism, Gum has changed out of all recognition, boasting major international names and a mouth-watering food hall selling delicacies at eye-watering prices.
The Kremlin, for centuries the symbol of state power and still home to the President and Russian administration, covers a vast area. It contains 3 cathedrals, 2 museums, numerous historic buildings and monuments and could absorb one for days. Apart from the atmospheric historic buildings, our guide ensured we saw highlights, from the finest icons in Russia, dazzling diamonds, exquisite coronation robes, sable trimmed crowns and Faberge eggs.
On our final day, we went solo via the underground, which exceeded its reputation for marble grandeur and spotless cleanliness. A cheap and easy ride saw us back in Red Square and queuing at Lenin’s massive mausoleum which had been shrouded in scaffolding in 1974. It was eerie and unforgettable in the darkened tomb, filing past his embalmed body, closely guarded by motionless boy soldiers.
After the Museum of Modern History, we slaked our thirst with a large coffee on the terrace of MacDonald’s, overlooking Pushkin Square. The ubiquity of the brand is surely the ultimate victory of capitalism. After more aimless meandering, we joined our ship-mates for a performance by the Bolshoi Opera which ended our holiday, literally, on a high note.
Viking Surkov was a harmonious and happy ship, largely Americans but a sprinkling of Brits and Australians. Would I go on another river cruise? You bet. Viking offer a range of rivers including the very tempting Yangtse. See you at the Qi Gong."