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. 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.
Kristin: After our three days in St. Petersburg, mom and I were devastated to leave our new favorite city, but we knew we also had a lot of exciting stops along the way as we sailed to Moscow. As this was my first cruise, I had no idea what to expect during “cruising days,” or, days that were spent primarily sailing down the rivers rather than docked at a port, but I assumed I’d be sleeping in, drinking a lot of coffee, and writing.
ON THE SHIP
Wow, was I wrong. We never sat still! We attended all of the free courses Viking’s crew offered, including history lessons on the Romanovs, Russia during the Cold War, contemporary Russian society and culture, and Cyrillic language lessons. We took pelmeni cooking classes (remind you to tell you about that experience sometime), attended vodka tasting classes, and went to every cocktail hour and Russian food tastings up on the deck. It’s quite possible to drink at every hour of the day on a Viking cruise, should you want to… 🙂
Because my mom and I are both language nerds, we took serious notes during the language lessons and had the entire alphabet down by the second lesson. For me, I’ve become pretty fearless with stepping all over my tongue while practicing a new language, so I’m no longer embarrassed when my Dobraye ootro comes out a little mangled (by the way, for those of you non-Russian speakers, that’s “good morning”). My mom, on the other hand, was a little bit of a harder sell: getting her to practice took a bit of cajoling and pep talks, but by our second language lesson, I had her practicing her Russian with the staff and crew on the ship.
“Our language is so special because we even have the sound a bug makes.” –Andrey, our tour guide and language instructor on how to pronounce the letter ж
Kay: I still can’t believe I learned the Russian alphabet.
Kristin: The best part was when I got home, gave my husband the bottle of Kremlin vodka I’d bought him, and basically translated the language on the bottle for him. He was floored! (And by the way, I am not getting paid in any way to endorse this vodka, but I will tell you this: Ryan had one sip and declared it the best vodka he had ever tasted). And it is SO MUCH CHEAPER to buy in Russia…I bought a bottle at a local supermarket for 1150 rubles (about $18) that sells here in the U.S. for nearly seventy dollars.
Kay: As our itinerary continued, I was struck constantly by the number and significance of the treasures Russia has within her borders. It may sound naïve, but I was enchanted and amazed by the number of sights and the history we experienced but also by the level of artisanship in each and every site we visited. Clearly, the creators and builders of many structures we visited were masters of their trade.
One of the nicer aspects of a river cruise is the visits to places along the way between the major cities. Mandrogy, a quaint village along the Svir River, boasts a vodka museum and places to shop for handmade Russian crafts. I chose to participate in Matryoshka doll-painting while my daughter chose a Banya (traditional Russian bath house) experience. I was glad I chose the doll experience. My daughter Kristin was pleased with the Banya.
Kristin: It took me forever to convince my mom to do the painting class—but she learned so much! She told me about their origins as wooden dolls in the late 1890s, and the celebration of mothers and daughters that the dolls represent. She even told me that each doll has a story “written into” it: those who hold roosters in their arms, for example, are celebrating their happy marriages.
Here’s my mom’s gorgeous matroyshka doll, all painted, with a rooster in her arms!
As for me, I’m leaving the Banya for another story, but I’ll tell you this: Any bath house is going to test your ability to strip down in front of strangers, but in Banya, not only do you keep your bathing suit on (typically), but you even wear a huge Russian wool hat that weighs about 10 pounds. Stay tuned….
Kay: Mandrogy has a lot of boutiques and shops near the ship docks, too. After the painting class, I purchased two beautiful necklaces, one for a friend and one for me, made of Eudialyte, a rare lovely purple crystal found expressly in the Kola Peninsula in Russia. Supposedly, Eudialyte carries positive vibrations, and has an ability to assist heart based loving energy to fill your life. It has a strong ability to cause coincidence or synchronicity to occur in your life. Well, I don’t know about that….but I will take all the help I can get. Besides, it’s very pretty!
“I’ve been working on cruise ships for 17 years and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Viking is my home base now.” –Wilhelm, our Hotel Manager on the Viking Truvor
Kay: Other stops along our way were a welcome continuation of a fabulous itinerary. We took a bit of a detour up Lake Onega to the island of Kizhi. It is less than 200 miles from the Arctic Circle! There we marveled over this UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the oldest inhabited sites in Russia. The island presents the incredible Transfiguration Church, built entirely of wood without a single nail, including the 22 wooden onion domes. We learned that the only implement available to the original builders was the ax; I could not fathom how the intricately designed shingles adorning the onion domes could have possibly been created with just an ax. However, we stopped by to watch a very talented gentleman carve identical ones to be used in the current and ongoing restoration of this lovely construct using, yes, only an ax.
An interesting aside to this church is the play of light on the carefully carved and arranged shingles. While they are wooden, as is the entire structure, they shine silver in the sun.
Kristin: I seriously cannot imagine what life was like up there in the 17th century. It must have been really, really cold.
Even though we had to take a bit of a detour to get all the way up there, traveling north to Kizhi Island—and walking around inside the magnificent Church of the Transfiguration—was one of the most magical experiences we had in Russia. Not only is there something, well, hauntingly wonderful about being so close to the Arctic Circle in the summertime, but Kizhi has a kind of aura that I’ve never really felt anywhere. I wouldn’t exactly call myself a “new age” spiritist, but I do believe that there’s something really special up there on that island. Go there, walk around, feel the wind as it winds through the long yellow grasses, watch the water lap up onto the shore, and listen to the sounds of the gulls as they perch on the balconies of the churches….and I guarantee you you’ll feel it, too.
KIRILLO-BELOZERSKY MONASTERY & YAROSLAVL
Kay: We then proceeded on to Kirillo-Belozersky along the Volga-Baltic Waterway and cruised on to Yaroslavl, a Golden Ring city, many of these figuring prominently in the history and establishment of the Russian Orthodox Church. Founded in the early 11th century, it is picturesque and architecturally significant. A highlight here was a visit to a local food market where many of the vendors wanted a picture with us, tours of the incredibly intricate cathedral interiors, and a visit to the Governor’s Mansion, where we were treated to a chamber group who performed for us in the ballroom. I was too nervous to get up and dance, but some people did!
Kristin: I definitely did not get up and dance. Those poor Russians would not have wanted to see this awkward girl try to ballroom dance.
By the way, did we mention the monastery was founded in the early 11th century?
Kay: Then on to Uglich, where the oldest records of the town date to 1148. Some of the most beautiful churches and monasteries are here and the history of them is fascinating. A small group of us were invited to the home of a lovely resident, Elizabeta, who served us vodka, the requisite pickle chaser, tea and cake while showing us family pictures and her considerable kitchen garden. And by the way, the pickles and vodka were homemade by Elizabeta.
Kristin: Let me say this: Andrey had to talk me and my mom into the excursion at Elizabeta’s house, and I am so, so, so glad he did. Before we went, I worried that the excursion would be like this: a horde of tourists traipsing through a local family’s home, taking photos of everything the family holds dear and exoticizing everything about the way they live their simple lives, while the local family tries to act gracious and await their tips.
I don’t know why I thought it’d be like that—Viking doesn’t do cheesy, invasive, or disrespectful. Everything they do is integrated and immersive, but in a highly respectful way. Our trip to Elizabeta’s was up there with my absolute favorite activities of the trip.
First, there were only 12 of us (by no means a horde!), and we took a local bus to her house instead of driving up in the huge tour bus. We got off at a stop near her house and went up as a group to her front door, where she was waiting with her two grandkids. Though she didn’t speak any English, she took us on a tour of her home, showed us her outdoor garden (cabbage, kale, and carrot lovers take note—her garden puts any other summer vegetable garden I’ve seen to shame!), introduced us to some homemade vodka she’d made by pouring us really liberal shots (extremely liberal pours are kind of commonplace in Russia!) and talked to us a little bit about life in Uglich. A math teacher by trade, she showed us pictures of her and her students, and with the help of Andrey’s excellent translation skills, talked to each one of us about our lives, our jobs, and our families. Because I’d been practicing my Russian so diligently, I’m proud to say that we had an entire conversation in Russian (albeit a short one!), and I told her how delicious her moonshine was. Delighted by my burgeoning Russian skills, she poured me another. Keep in mind, it was still before noon, and I was three shots of homemade moonshine in….
“A Russian won’t lie to you—instead, she’ll ‘hang noodles on your ears.’ –Elizabeta, our host form our home visit in Uglich, on the character of Russian people
It’s also interesting how Viking has found hosts for these special, intimate host visits. I asked Andrey about it after our trip as we headed back to the Truvor, and he told me that they hold interviews every summer before the summer cruises start and hire a few families every year who agree to open up their homes to the visitors from Viking. As the ship only goes back and forth a few times throughout the summer, the families don’t tire of the work: and they often have just as much fun as the tourists do.
Kay: Those pickles and tea cakes: delicious! I could really get used to this. Thanks for the treats, Elizabeta!
Up next: Next week, Mom and I will be dishing about our journey to Russia’s capital, the gorgeous city of Moscow.
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. If you’d like to see the full itinerary, you can see it on Viking’s site or in my previous blog post!