Down the Neva: Reflections on a Russian River Cruise, Part 1

From May 29th to June 11th, my mom, Kay Mock, and I joined Viking River Cruises on their enigmatic and incredibly special Waterways of the Tsars cruise, an experience that changed both of us in unexpected ways. Neither of us had ever been to Russia before, and what made this trip even more special was that it was my mom’s first international voyage. That, along with getting to know Russia much more deeply than I expected, are what made this trip one of the best of my life, and I quickly realized that I couldn’t write about it without her words, too!

In this special three-part series, my mom and I share our experiences as a baby boomer and a millennial—women with two very different perspectives on a country that, above all else, is full of surprises.

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And so, we go.

First Stop: St. Petersburg, city of canals on the Neva River

Kay: Like many Americans of a certain age, I was influenced by the last century’s news and generally held opinions regarding Russia as a dark and oppressive country. Under Communist rule, the country was essentially closed to tourism and worse, not particularly welcoming of free-world Westerners under any circumstances. One needed government sanction to enter the country, which was not an option for the casual tourist. Mother Russia was, and still is to some extent, an enigma.

On May 29, I joined my well-traveled daughter for a long-awaited trip to Saint Petersburg, Russia where we would board the Viking Truvor (one of many well-appointed cruise ships operated by Viking River Cruises) for the Waterways of the Tsars itinerary. We would call the Truvor home for the next 12 nights. For a history, art, food and culture nerd like me, this trip would turn out to be the most enlightening and enjoyable adventure I could have imagined.

Kristin: That’s the first thing you’ll learn about Russia: just like in the United States, Russia has suffered from some insane media coverage over the years. We as Americans are not exactly portrayed in the best light abroad; neither are the Russians. We’re two countries—two very large and influential nation states—that, to the chagrin of all involved, have been both victims and perpetrators of powerful stereotypes. While there is usually some truth to stereotypes, they’re never the whole story. Even during my lifetime, I’ve never seen the young city of St. Petersburg depicted as the charming city of sky-blue buildings and winding canals that we discovered when we arrived here. Through the images I’d seen time and time again in my youth, I imagined St. Petersburg as a European city covered in darkness and buried in piles of white snow all year round.

“St. Petersburg is not an old city. It’s more like, I don’t know, a teenager.” –Micha, our tour guide, on the city’s status as a “new” global city

On our flight from Paris to St. Petersburg, my mom and I flipped through the itinerary that Viking had mailed to us and we marveled over some of the activities they’d planned for us: art tours, evening canal cruises, vodka tastings, cooking classes, painting lessons, cathedral tours, traditional spa visits, ballet and folklore performances. How in the world could this place also be the Russia I’ve been warned about since I was a child, the Russia depicted as cold, snowy, and without sunlight? I felt a giddiness to find out—the same kind of giddiness that, on my first trip abroad, turned me into the writer I am today.

Kay: Saint Petersburg is truly a thing of beauty. With the main Neva River and the many canals wandering calmly and gracefully through the historic and architecturally significant waterways within the city, I was immediately reminded continually of the fact that here there is so much to share with the world, but was not shared until recently because of ideological governance. This is now in the past, and lucky for the rest of the world, we can experience a really beautiful Russia. During late May and early June, for instance, Saint Petersburg offers a spectacular phenomenon known as “White Nights” when the sun barely sets and is visible on the horizon during what would normally be the nighttime hours. It is a wonder to see and photograph. Full daylight resumes at about 3AM.

Kristin: What an eerie and phenomenal experience the white nights are. For one thing, the sun at midnight isn’t the same sun you’ll see at noon: it’s a colder sun, a blueish sun, a sun that looks, if you can imagine it, like a sun at midnight should look. Check out this picture my mom took at midnight on our first evening together on the ship:

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Kay: When we arrived and as our transport headed toward the ship’s dock, I saw another truly astonishing sight; miles and miles and miles of high rise apartment buildings appeared clustered along the road to the horizon, as far as we could see. Later we learned how and why these Soviet built structures came to be and how many descendants of those first living there inherited them and live as owners free of charge. Andrey, our resident know-it-all guide (as we teased him), told us all about it when I asked him.

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“If you’re not in a good mood or are looking for something, come to St. Petersburg.” –Andrey, our tour guide, on why St. Petersburg is such a great destination

This trip would not have had the impact we experienced without his knowledge and pride in the Russia of today as well as his boundless knowledge of Russian history. He, and other Viking guides, are truly experts, walking keepers of the extensive history and great pride of their homeland. As Andrey guided our group through the historically significant Hermitage, Catherine the Great’s Winter Palace along the Neva, he taught us about her great passion for art and architectural design that places the Hermitage as one of the world’s most splendid museums.

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As we were guided expertly through a selection of the 1,000 rooms, we experienced many of the 3,000,000 exhibits that reflect this collection of the world’s greatest art. The building itself and its opulent ballrooms are a work of art in themselves.

Kristin: I absolutely couldn’t believe all that is inside the Hermitage: literally, this astonishing and meticulously gilded palace, is literally home to thousands upon thousands of the world’s greatest Western art: There are walls full of original madonnas by Da Vinci and Raphael, sculptures by Michelangelo, dozens of paintings by such European greats as Rembrandt, Monet, Matisse, Poussin, Renoir, Ruben, Van Gogh, and my beloved Caravaggio whose greatest works, I argue, are still in Malta. That doesn’t even cover the many works housed there by El Greco, Goya, and Picasso, the great Iberian artists I fell in love with while studying Spanish art and architecture in college. And though I’m no expert when it comes to art criticism, having Andrey by our side was immeasurably awesome: with our little discreet headsets, we easily followed around our resident expert while he regaled us with tales of composition and design as we walked us through tens of thousands of pieces of art. I am so grateful for his expertise; otherwise, I think I would have wandered around aimlessly for nine hours in the biggest palace I’d ever seen in my life.

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To be honest, I had no idea—no idea whatsoever—that the Russians had worked so hard to preserve this much of our world’s art within its walls. It’s such a testament to historical presence—a theme mom and I quickly realized permeates all of Russia, from the fact that the downtrodden Communist blocs have not yet been torn down to the careful conservation of her many palaces, cathedrals, and churches.

Kay: And then, seeing Swan Lake at the Hermitage Theater–what a treat!

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Kay: Day three in this exquisite city was to begin with a trip to Peter the Great’s wife Catherine I’s palace, which was expanded by her daughter, Elizabeth. We were looking forward to seeing this striking example of Russian baroque architecture. Regrettably, jet lag and lots of walking got the better of us. We overslept and missed the whole thing. This will be my reason to go back and do it all again!

Kristin: And again, and again.

Kay: This would be a good time to mention that the Truvor boasts the most comfortable beds and pillows I have ever had the good fortune to sleep in. After a long and active day with sights, sounds, and information swirling around one’s mind, it is a little piece of heaven. Everything we saw and did in Saint Petersburg not only was expertly planned and executed, but succeeded in inspiring us to see and to learn more and more. We did every optional excursion and loved them all.

Kristin: I especially loved the tour of the Peterof Palace, particularly because Peter had such simultaneously odd, opulent, and exquisite taste! He was really into Chinese art, for instance, and had rooms completely devoted to art he’d imported from the mainland. He was also obsessed with portraits of the same women, painted over and over again, from slightly different angles and wearing slightly different headscarves or shirts. He has a whole room full of these portraits—from floor to ceiling.

Also, my favorite detail: The Peterof Palace is the only historic place I’ve ever been that asks you to wear cloth shoes over your own shoes so as not to scuff the stunning wood floors. My one tip: Keep looking down. You will be enthralled with what’s beneath your toes.

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Kay: Peter the Great’s “Versailles by the Sea” definitely made a bit of an extra impression on us. Such grandeur and clever engineering of a 1721 system of waterworks made us wonder at the brilliance of it. But, while the Peterof was inspiring, we were astonished by the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood, built in honor of Emperor Alexander II after he was assassinated there. It was begun in 1883 and while it is one of the newer constructions in Saint Petersburg, it is no less spectacular.

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Then, when we visited the Peter and Paul Fortress later that day, we learned that it is intimately linked to both the history of the city and to the Romanov dynasty, as it is home to the graves of nearly all the rulers of Russia since Peter the Great, including the Romanovs. There were so many unexpected sights and revelations for this American tourist, who could not get enough history, art, and amazing beauty in all that I saw and experienced.

Kristin: Stepping into the fortress, we were greeted by a four-part male acapella choral group who sang some brilliant Russian chants for us. As we wandered through its walls, I realized that we were standing amidst the tombs of nearly all of Russia’s rulers (except for Lenin, who has his own tomb in the Red Square in Moscow, an experience we’ll tell you about later), and it occured to me, once again: historical presence. The Romanovs, Catherine the Great, Peter the Great…these names I have known since I was a child, these names my mother has known since she was a child…here, in a sunny, bright yellow fortress, their spirits stay.

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Kay: Again, were it not for Andrey and Micha guiding and informing us, we would have only marveled at yet another beautiful cathedral instead of experiencing the depth and breadth of its history.

We were not ready to leave this lovely place called Saint Petersburg, rightfully called Russia’s most beautiful city.

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**Up next: Next week, Mom and I will be dishing about our journey in-between, to Kizhi island, the tourist village of Mandrogi, and the lovely golden ring cities of Yaroslavl and Uglich.

A very special thanks to Viking River Cruises and the team on the Viking Truvor for hosting my mom and me on our unforgettable first river cruise. One thing I will never forget is something my mom said to me as we walked around to the different artisans selling their work around the Church on the Spilled Blood. “Kristin,” she told me, with twinkles in her eyes and an energy I hadn’t seen in a long time, “I’m falling in love with this city.”

Mom, I am so grateful to have had this experience with you.

If you’d like to see the full itinerary, you can see it on Viking’s site or in my previous blog post about our journey together.