Cruising Russia’s Volga River

By | Cruising, Russia | One Comment

Despite political tensions, cruising gaining steam on Europe’s longest river

The Arizona Republic — August 13, 2017

MOSCOW, Russia – A political pariah?  Perhaps.

Scenic Tsar

The Scenic Tsar docked on the Volga River

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.

Volga River

Scenery on the Volga between Moscow and St. Petersburg

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.

Red Square

Moscow’s Red Square on a rainy afternoon

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.

Peterhof Palace

The upper gardens of Peterhof Palace near St. Petersburg

“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.

Lake Ladoga

Sunset over Lake Ladoga, Europe’s largest lake

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

Moscow’s preeminant Jewish cultural site

By | Jewish Travel, Russia | No Comments

Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center chronicles Jews’ up-and-down Russian history

Jewish News of Greater Phoenix — July 28, 2017

MOSCOW, Russia — It’s been open less than five years but the venue already has been labeled by some as the most important Jewish cultural site in all of Europe.

Moscow Jewish Museum

Entrance to the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, which is housed in a former bus garage

After spending a July afternoon inside Moscow’s tastefully designed, informative and high-tech Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, the moniker seems well-deserved.

The museum, housed inside a former bus garage built in the 1920s in a northwest Moscow neighborhood, opened in 2012 at an estimated cost of $50 million.  It’s a must-see for Jewish visitors to Russia’s capital city who want to learn about their ancestors’ complex, up-and-down history in a part of the diaspora that once was home to the largest Jewish population in the world.

My visit to the museum was a highlight of a two-week Volga river cruise on the Scenic Tsar that began in Moscow and ended in St. Petersburg.  On my first free afternoon in Moscow, I toured the facility and met with Anna Sokolova, the head of the museum’s research center.

She told me that the museum was built with the strong support of the Russian government.  Even President Vladimir Putin personally donated one month of his salary – about $10,000 – for construction.  Since the opening, Putin has visited the museum several times.

“It showed that it’s really important to the Russian government to fight anti-Semitism and that the Jewish community is a very important part of the country,” says Sokolova, who speaks five languages, including Hebrew.

Jewish Museum in Moscow

The museum attracts about 300,000 visitors a year

Last year, the museum attracted 300,000 visitors, up a whopping 50 percent from the prior year.  Even more growth is anticipated in the coming year.  With the approval of Russia’s Ministry of Education, the museum is launching a program in September in which all middle-school children in Moscow will be required to visit the venue as part of a school fieldtrip.  It’s a huge leap from an era in which Jewish history and culture was rarely discussed in public schools.

“It was mainly forbidden during Soviet times, so it’s really important to speak about it now,” says Sokolova.

Using panoramic films, interactive screens and numerous artifacts, the museum chronicles Jewish history dating back to the rule of Catherine the Great in the 18th century.  There are exhibitions devoted to the origins of Russian Jewry, the role Jews played in the 1917 revolution, the Holocaust, and a section called “Perestroika to the Present.”

I especially enjoyed strolling through a recreated shtetl from the 19th century, which included a small synagogue, Shabbat table, Jewish school and marketplace. It’s one of the museum’s most popular exhibits.

Jewish Museum exhibit

Exhibits are high-tech and interactive

“The shtetl became the heart of Judaism and it helped people to keep their traditions alive,” says Sokolova.

The shtetl even included an exhibit in which visitors could have their photos taken and then digitally integrated with the costume of a profession of their choice, such as a tailor, matchmaker, musician, teacher or blacksmith.  I chose to digitally don the garb of a 19th century rabbi.

Indeed, the museum was designed to keep visitors as engaged as possible with most exhibits featuring some type of interactivity.

“The idea was to create something in the form of ‘edutainment’ – education and entertainment together,” says Sokolova.  “The format is designed to be very interesting for every age.”

In a partnership with the Russian State Library, the museum also houses the “Schneerson Collection,” which includes significant and once inaccessible works of the Lubavitcher rebbes dating back to the late 18th century.  The collection was nationalized by the Russian government during the Communist period; it was moved to the Jewish Museum in 2013.

In addition to its permanent collection, the museum houses about a half-dozen temporary exhibits a year, some of which are on non-Jewish topics.  Exhibits are mostly in Russian, although some also contain English descriptions.  The venue is open every day except Saturdays and Jewish holidays.  For more information, visit the museum’s website:

Accounts vary about the current size of Russia’s Jewish population as many people with Jewish roots don’t practice their faith and have intermarried.  But it’s estimated that about 200,000 Jews remain in the country, making it the third-largest Jewish community in Europe.  Most Jews live in Moscow and its surrounding communities, where there are about 20 working synagogues.

St. Petersburg synagogue

The Grand Choral Synagogue in St. Petersburg, the second-largest synagogue in Europe

“We are seeing since the 1990s many people are coming back to Jewish traditions and to their roots, which were almost killed in the Soviet Union,” says Sokolova.

Two weeks later, at the end of the Volga River cruise on the Scenic Tsar, I had the chance to visit St. Petersburg’s stunning Grand Choral Synagogue. It’s the second-largest synagogue in Europe (Budapest is home to the largest).

Consecrated in 1893, the Moorish-styled building is a registered national landmark.  It can accommodate up to 1,200 worshippers at one time; the complex also houses a kosher restaurant and supermarket.

My grandparents immigrated from Russia, so the Jewish sights in Moscow and St. Petersburg held special meaning.  Despite the challenges my ancestors and other Jews faced in Russia, it was especially heartwarming to learn that Jewish life in the country has not only endured over the centuries, but now even seems to be enjoying a modest revival.

“We can see that the Jews managed to keep their traditions despite all the pogroms and despite state politics, which was quite often pretty anti-Semitic,” says Sokolova.  “The situation in Russia has changed drastically.  The Jewish community feels free now.”

© 2017 Dan Fellner

Nyhavn Copenhagen

Baltic Sea Cruise

By | Cruising, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Norway, Poland, Russia, Sweden | No Comments

A Hassle-Free and Luxurious Way to See Several Fascinating Countries

July/August 2001 — Highroads Magazine

We were a week into our 10-day Baltic cruise, and the cruise director was urging the ship’s weary passengers to resist the temptation to sleep in the following morning so we would have plenty of time to explore the next port-of-call.  “You’re not here to have fun,” he said.  “You’re here to see the sights.”

Copenhagen's Nyhavn district

 Copenhagen’s colorful Nyhavn district

His comments were made in jest, of course, but there was more than a shred of truth behind them.  Cruising the Baltic Sea in northern Europe is a relatively hassle-free and luxurious way to see several fascinating countries — each with its own unique culture, history and language — in a short period of time.

But don’t plan on getting much rest.  Most Baltic cruises offer few days at sea for relaxation and the ports are far too interesting to pass up for a few extra hours of sleep.

Indeed, the Baltic Sea is one of the fastest-growing segments of the cruise industry.  Nearly all of the major lines offer summer sailings that visit Scandinavia, Russia, the Baltic Republics and other northern European countries.

We were aboard the Crown Princess, a 1600-passenger ship that began and ended its voyage in Copenhagen, Denmark.  In between, we visited Stockholm, Sweden; Helsinki, Finland; St. Petersburg, Russia; Tallinn, Estonia; Gdansk, Poland; and Oslo, Norway.

John Lawrence, our English cruise director, has sailed all over the world in the past 23 years, and calls the Baltic one of his three favorite itineraries (the other two being China and Australia/New Zealand).  “It appeals to my sense of what cruising should be all about,” he said.  “I look for education, substance and a sense of history — which these ports all offer.”

This isn’t a cruise for party animals.  There were no pool games, wild karaoke parties, or limbo dancing.  There wasn’t even a midnight buffet.  Most of the ship’s passengers were sound asleep by then, resting up from a busy day of sightseeing and readying themselves for the next.

Copenhagen's Little Mermaid

 Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid

One of the most popular shipboard activities was Lawrence’s daily lectures on upcoming ports-of-call.  He is an expert on history, having written a book on St. Petersburg and the final days of the Romanovs.  His information on the historical significance of what we would be seeing was consumed by the ship’s relatively cerebral passengers with as much fervor as anything served in the dining rooms.

Aside from the sightseeing, history and diversity in the ports-of-call, a Baltic cruise offers tremendous value.  Scandinavia is one of the most expensive places in the world.  But cruise passengers are mostly immune from this, as their food, lodging and entertainment are provided by the ship.  You’ll want to do some shopping, of course, and bargains can be found in Russia, Poland and the Baltic Republics.

After arriving in Copenhagen, a 20-minute cab ride brought my wife and me to the Crown Princess, which was christened in 1990 by Sophia Loren and recently spiffed up with a multi-million-dollar renovation.  We had several hours before the ship’s departure, so we began walking and were amazed at how much of Copenhagen we were able to see by foot.

Just 15 minutes from the ship we came across one of the city’s most famous sites — the Little Mermaid statue, inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale.  Another 10 minutes and we’re at the Amalienborg Palace, winter residence for the Danish Royal Family.  Get there at noon to see the changing of the guard.  A few blocks away we came across the much-photographed Nyhavn district, a colorful waterfront lined with shops.  Copenhagen seems to be a bit more vibrant and a bit less staid than the other Scandinavian capitals.

Stockholm changing of the guard

 Changing of the guard at Stockholm’s Royal Palace

Stockholm was the first stop on our ship’s itinerary and we docked in a town called Nynashamn, about an hour outside the city.  The ship offered a bus trip into Stockholm for $57.  We opted to take public transportation instead — a combination of bus and train — at a cost of only $10.  It was safe and easy, and unexpectedly gave us one of our most enjoyable experiences on the trip.

On three separate occasions, locals approached us, sensing we were tourists, to see if we needed assistance.  Not only did they give us directions, they actually escorted us to make sure we ended up in the right place.  One Swedish businessman even spent two hours walking around with us to make sure we didn’t miss his favorite Stockholm sites.

Stockholm’s can’t-miss site is the Vasa Museum, the home of the world’s oldest fully-preserved ship.  The Vasa was launched in 1628 but sank on her maiden voyage.  It was discovered and salvaged 40 years ago.  It is now the centerpiece of a museum that contains thousands of historic items recovered from the harbor.  It’s also worthwhile to take a stroll through the cobblestone streets of Gamla Stan, the city’s old town.  Nearby, you’ll find the Royal Palace — changing of the guard is at 1 p.m. — and City Hall, where the Nobel Prizes are awarded.

Helsinki, one of the cleanest cities on Earth, has a strong Russian flavor.  We found the Finns more reserved than the Swedes, but they do love to talk amongst themselves on the phone.  In fact, Finland has more cell phones per capita than any other country.   To watch the locals shop, head to the colorful Market Square, on the pier not far from where the cruise ships dock.  Fishermen sell their day’s catch right off the boat.  The city’s focal point, Senate Square, is just a few blocks away.  Also worth seeing is a monument to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, an interesting conglomeration of steel pipes.

Gdansk, Poland

 Gdansk, Poland

The most anticipated port-of-call on the trip was St. Petersburg (formerly called Leningrad), where many cruise ships dock for two full days.  Americans need a visa to visit Russia, which costs more than $100 and can be a hassle to get.  But the visa requirement is waived if you book tours through the ship.  That means, though, you can’t explore the city on your own.  Given the warnings we heard about crime in Russia, most passengers didn’t seem to mind being escorted by a guide.

With a population of five million people, St. Petersburg is the country’s second-largest city.  It looks a bit dilapidated in places but boasts some wondrous sites.  At the top of the list is the Hermitage Museum, which houses one of the largest art collections in the world.  In fact, if you spend just 30 seconds looking over each piece of art in the museum, you’ll be there three full years.  We had three hours, but got to see plenty of the Czar’s private art collection along with a nice assortment of masterpieces by Rembrandt, Da Vinci and Raphael.

Catherine Palace near St. Petersburg, Russia

 Catherine Palace near St. Petersburg, Russia

Outside the city are two opulent palaces well worth visiting – the Catherine Palace with a beautiful ornate blue façade, and the Peterhof Palace and Gardens, which was built by Peter the Great to vial the palace at Versailles. In town, you can take in a ballet performance at the Alexandrinsky Theater or sign up for a shopping tour and bargain with vendors for some famous Russian nesting dolls and hand-painted lacquer boxes. One of the best places to find souvenirs is a market located outside the uniquely named Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, which is the site of Alexander II’s assassination.

Estonia, which became independent from Russia in 1991, was perhaps the most quaint and charming stop on our cruise. Tallinn is a wonderfully preserved medieval city that can easily be explored on foot.

Start with the Town Hall Square, which has been the heart of the city since the 12th century. It is lined with shops, restaurants and the gothic Town Hall, built in 1371. A few blocks away is Toompea Hill, site of a unique-looking pink building that houses the Estonian Parliament.

Tallinn Town Hall Square

Town Hall Square; Tallinn, Estonia

The port of Gdynia, Poland is a 45-minute bus trip from historic Gdansk, where the first shots of World War II were fired. Unfortunately, Danzig, as it was known then, was almost completely destroyed during the war, but has since been rebuilt to resemble its medieval past. It’s not as authentic as Tallinn and sort of feels like walking around the Epcot Center. The city’s Old Town features buildings designed in gothic, renaissance and baroque styles.

Our last stop was Oslo, Norway, the oldest, geographically largest and least populated of the Scandinavian capitals, with about half a million residents. Most tours take you to the famous ski jump at Holmenkollen, which offers spectacular views of the city. The Vigeland Sculpture park, set in a scenic park, features the unique and much-admired works of Gustav Vigeland. The Viking Ship Museum houses three well-preserved Viking boats that are more than 1000 years old. On the way back to Copenhagen, we had our best scenery of the trip, sailing through a 60-mile fjord.

Our cruise cost just $1,100 per person, including taxes and port charges but not including airfare to Copenhagen. To make it even better, we received a free upgrade to an outside cabin. Overcapacity in the cruise industry continues to make it a buyer’s market. Don’t cruise the Baltic in hopes of getting a suntan. Temperatures during our mid-June trip never rose higher than 65 degrees. Some days were windy, rainy and cold.

And don’t plan on coming home rested and relaxed. In addition to the grueling country-after-country itinerary, jet lag is tougher than normal to deal with because you constantly have to adjust your watch — either forward or backward – throughout the course of the cruise. By the time we got home, we felt like we needed a vacation from our vacation.

But we did return with a suitcase full of enriching memories, and a strong desire to go back and spend more time in some of the countries in which our visit was far too short. Just at a bit slower pace.

© 2009 Dan Fellner