Despite political tensions, cruising gaining steam on Europe’s longest river
The Arizona Republic — August 13, 2017
MOSCOW, Russia – A political pariah? Perhaps.
But are Russia’s geopolitical controversies, heightened tensions with the United States and reports of election meddling keeping Western tourists away?
If you look at the recent surge in cruising on the Volga River, the answer is clear.
Traffic on the Volga, Europe’s longest river, has rebounded sharply in the past two years, as we learned on a recent two-week cruise from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Travelers looking for a more adventurous trip than is offered on Western European rivers like the Danube and Rhine are finding the Volga a compelling alternative.
We were sailing on the Scenic Tsar, a 112-passenger ship chartered by Scenic Cruises, an Australia-based line that also markets its trips to North Americans and Europeans.
Scenic, along with Viking, Uniworld and other cruise lines, is increasing its presence on the Volga. Last year, Scenic offered four cruises on the river. This summer, the number jumped to 10 with passenger capacity close to 100 percent. And next summer, Scenic will have 12 sailings from May through October; 60 percent of the cabins already are sold.
The growth in the Volga’s popularity is easily visible. There were as many as nine cruise ships at one time in some ports along the route. Indeed, to return to the Scenic Tsar after a day of sightseeing we often had to cross through the lobbies of several other ships that were triple- and quadruple-parked by the pier.
Diana Lapshina, our Russian-born cruise director who has worked for Scenic since it first started sailing the Volga in 2012, says travelers aren’t deterred by negative media coverage of Russia.
“You go, you see, you taste, you experience, and only then you can tell whether the mass media was right or wrong,” she says. “You have to see it yourself.”
River cruising makes a lot of sense in Russia, where English is not widely spoken and getting around by bus or train can be challenging. Moscow’s hotels are some of the priciest in the world.
The trip started with three days in the Russian capital, Europe’s most populous city with 18 million residents in its metropolitan area. Traffic is a mess as Moscow’s infrastructure is undergoing extensive construction in preparation for next summer’s FIFA World Cup soccer finals.
We visited the Kremlin and walked past the office of President Vladimir Putin, then dodged the rain in nearby Red Square with its iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral. We saw the internationally renowned Russian circus, attended a show featuring 50 dazzlingly costumed folk dancers and toured the State Tretyakov Gallery, which houses one of the largest collections of Russian art in the world.
I especially enjoyed the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics, where the Russians trumpet their many accomplishments during the space race with America, including putting the first man into orbit in 1961.
After touring the museum, we were given a private audience with Alexsandr Leveykin, a former Soviet cosmonaut who spent six months on the Mir space station in the 1980s. I asked what his reaction was in 1969 (he was 18 at the time) when he heard the news that U.S. astronauts had landed on the moon.
“I did not have any disappointment and was very happy people made it to the moon,” he said through an interpreter, adding that America’s achievement received little coverage in the Soviet media. “With no competition, there is no progress.”
After leaving Moscow, we stopped at several villages along the Volga and its tributaries, where we experienced a more tranquil side of Russian life. In Uglich, a town of about 35,000 people believed to be more than 1,000 years old, we attended a mesmerizing concert at an Orthodox church in which a small choir was accompanied by Russian balalaikas (see video shot by the author: Uglich church concert).
Onboard the Scenic Tsar, we took Russian language classes, learned how to paint matryoshka (nesting) dolls, attended lectures on Russian history and sampled vodka and caviar. As much as I tried, I just couldn’t develop a taste for borscht, a bright red beet soup that’s a Russian staple.
The cruise ended with three days in St. Petersburg (called Leningrad during Soviet times), considered Russia’s cultural capital. A popular stop on Baltic Sea cruises, St. Petersburg is home to the Hermitage, one of the largest art museums in the world.
We also visited two of the most magnificent palaces outside of Versailles — Peterhof and Catherine’s Palace, the summer residence of Russian tsars. Scenic also treated us to a private ballet performance at a downtown theater, complete with a champagne and caviar reception.
All told, we sailed about 1,100 miles between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Along the way, we visited four UNESCO World Heritage sites, traversed the largest lake in Europe — Lake Ladoga — and did our best to more fully understand a country that continues to be a source of angst and fear for many Americans.
“This is a trip about learning, not sunbathing,” cruise director Lapshina says. “Here, you have to see something and contemplate it.”
© 2017 Dan Fellner