Exploring rural Russia… aboard the Volga Dream
In the summer of 2018, I took a journey through the heartland of Russia aboard the deluxe Volga Dream. It was unlike any cruise I have ever been on. We sailed between the two great cultural capitals of St Petersburg and Moscow along scenic rivers, lakes and canals, with stops en route in traditional villages.
Our first visit on the cruise was Svirstroy, a popular spot for river cruises. It lies on the banks of the Svir river, which connects two of Europe’s largest lakes: Onega and Ladoga. For over 300 years this area was important for ship building. In 1927 a huge hydroelectric station was built here and Svirstroy was established for the workers. Today it is a small village of only 1,000 residents and we were privileged to visit a local resident’s home. She gave us a fascinating insight into Russian life today and served us with traditional Russian tea and pirozhkies, or local pastries.
Cottage in the village of Svirstroy, Russia
We also visited a local school for the arts in the nearby town of Lodeynoe. In Russia, children can choose from a range of activities to be involved in after their academic studies. We were entertained by some very talented young people playing their traditional instruments, singing and dancing. It showed us just how seriously the Russians view the arts in the school curriculum.
We were now at the most northern part of our cruise in the centre of Lake Onega, Europe’s largest lake, where we visited the Unesco world heritage site of Kizhi Island. This open-air museum was founded in 1951 and is now a major tourist attraction. This small island is home to some of the most striking traditional Russian architecture and some of the world’s finest wooden buildings.
The highlight is the 22-dome Transfiguration Cathedral, one of the largest log structures in the world. Built in 1714, it stands 37 metres high without a single nail! Next to it is the Intercession Church with a mere 10 domes and between them is the Bell Tower. Inside the churches are the most stunning icons.
The oldest structure on the island is the tiny, 14th-century Church of Resurrection of Lazarus, making it the oldest wooden church still standing in Russia.
Before leaving we met locals who still practise ancient crafts such as wood carving and weaving. We also visited a typical peasant’s house to see how the extended family and animals lived as early as the 18th century.
Church of the Transfiguration, Kizhi Island
We continued cruising to the tiny village of Goritsy and the Monastery of the Resurrection. From here we drove about 8km to the huge 14th-century St Cyril’s Monastery, or Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery, which is the largest in Europe. Only 17 monks still live here. Today it is more of a museum to showcase its superb collection of frescoes and icons. The magnificent 15th-century Cathedral of the Assumption still functions as a Russian Orthodox church and is a favourite spot for weddings.
Monastery of the Resurrection, Goritsy, Russia
Yaroslavl, yet another Unesco site, was our next stop. It’s called the jewel of the Golden Ring (that’s a group of historic cities north east of Moscow that have played an important part in Russian history). It is noteworthy for being one of the oldest cities in Russia and the largest we visited on the cruise. Prince Yaroslavl the Wise is said to have killed a bear with his poleaxe and pacified the pagans to establish this town. Because it’s situated at the junction of two large rivers (Kotorsol and Volga) it has always been a major centre for trade and one of Russia’s largest industrial cities.
Despite that it has managed to retain its beauty with beautiful parks and well deserves its nickname as the ‘Russian Florence’. I strongly recommend the Church of Elijah the Prophet as its frescoes are breathtaking as well as the 12th-century Monastery of the Transfiguration. If you’re getting a bit overwhelmed with churches head to the beautiful Governor’s Palace where you can enjoy a musical quartet and dancers in 19th-century period costume who will invite you to take a look around and dance with them, a reminder perhaps of the part Yaroslavl plays in the novel War and Peace.
Fresco in the Church of Elijah the Prophet, Yaroslavl, Russia
Our last stop on the cruise was the small town of Uglich. It dates back to 937AD but it’s remembered for one hugely significant event: the murder of Ivan the Terrible’s eight-year-old son Dmitry in 1591. This was hugely important as it ended the Rurik dynasty and led to years of trouble and uncertainty. Not surprisingly the main attraction is the Church of St. Dmitry with its five characteristic blue cupola domes and actual coffin of the young prince. Its small size makes it impractical as the main church for worship so they built the much larger Transfiguration Cathedral. It is very common to have a recital of choral music by monks in Russian churches and we enjoyed several. There is no obligation to buy their CD but you may want an original souvenir!
Church of St Dimitri on the Blood, Uglich
While we were cruising through rural Russia on the Volga Dream the programme of entertainment was the perfect accompaniment to enhance the cultural experience and improve our knowledge of the history and politics of Russia. There were lecturers by Sir Anthony Bretton, a former British ambassador in Moscow, and language classes. We immersed ourselves in Russian culture during the Russian evening, learning about their folktales and even painting Russian dolls. We enjoyed Russian food during a barbecue on deck and had a go at making pelmenis and blinis. The highlight for me was the evening piano recital of music by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.
Our cruise along the Volga river was simply unforgettable and a truly magical way to experience the Golden Ring of Russia, exploring the places that shaped the country’s past, present and future. As we arrived into Moscow after our incredible adventures it was wonderful to reminisce on what we had seen, having greatly enhanced our love and knowledge of what I believe is the real Russia, the side we rarely hear about in the west.
The Volga Dream Cruise sails from Moscow to St Petersburg, passing through Russia’s historic Golden Ring and picturesque countryside. Alternatively, travel by train on the group tour Russia’s Golden Ring, also bookended with time spent in Russia’s two great cities – Moscow and St Petersburg. For a private, tailor-made trip, please either call one of our specialist travel consultants or complete our tailor-made request form and one of our experts will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.
You can see Georgie’s full blog on her trip to Russia aboard the Volga Dream here, starting with 48 hours in St Petersburg.