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Monday, June 24, 2013

Russian Waterways

St. Petersburg - Venice of the North 
Moscow - City of Golden Domes...

The idea for our trip actually began with the movie 'The Russian Ark'  filmed in St. Petersburg's world renowned Winter Palace/ Hermitage Museum.  In the ballroom scene the guests are seen dancing the Quadrille - by the end of the evening the guests descend the famous double Jordan staircase to the Palace Square and waiting carriages for their Palace destinations. 
Inspired by these romantic visions, Carole and I set aside our fantasy to visit Russia and booked a river cruise on the Volga River from St. Petersburg southward to Moscow. Although our time in St. Petersburg was limited, we visited the precious necklace of gems – the former Imperial palace-and-park ensembles of Peterhof with its cascading fountains, the amber room in the Catherine Palace of Tzarkoye Selo, the baroque Oranienbaum, the classicism of Pavlosk and the castle-like Gatchina. Within this rarified setting, Russian music was composed, pictures painted and great novels written.  

After our tour we returned to the entrance of the Winter Palace with its white, green and gold exterior and ascended the Jordan steps for a reconnaissance tour of one of the greatest museums in the world. It was all too brief but a compelling experience of a lifetime.

Along the fashionable and animated Nevsky Prospekt s we ricochet past one sight to the next- the Stroganov Palace, the adjoining side streets of shops, Cafés and numerous canals. We popped into the Grand Hotel Europe for its Art Nouveau interior and the must-see State Russian Museum with its priceless collections and Chagall retrospective. We  stood in awe of the architectural oriental exuberance of the Church of Spilled Blood and finally proceeded to the world-famous Ballet and Opera Mariinsky Theatre for a backstage tour- just a few worldly treasures among so many. 

Circling back to Nevsky Prospekt we made our way to the art nouveau Singer building with its iconic glass domed roof. After locating the Café Singer upstairs with its verdigris walls and soaring arched windows we sipped our café latte, exhausted but stimulated by the panoramic view before boarding our ship.
The captain and crew decked out in their snappy white uniforms welcomed us aboard our all- inclusive 'Peter-the-Great' waterways cruise that would carry us across Russia’s largest lakes and canals connecting small villages, ancient monasteries and lovely countryside. 

Our morning cruise began with an extensive breakfast buffet including the ritual 'samovar tea service' on deck as we cruised to the village of Mandroga, a romantic vision from the 18th century of reconstructed log cabins. We observed ornate wood carving, an exhibition of copper and silver samovars, colourful Matroshka dolls and locally crafted souvenirs available for purchase.
Another shore excursion was the Transfiguration Cathedral on Kizhi Island. This elegant structure as explained by our guide 'is a masterpiece constructed of round pine logs, roofs of pine planks and 22 domes of shimmering silver aspen-all assembled without nails'. The entire island is an open-air museum of historically preserved buildings designated as an UNESCO World Heritage site.

On the fourth day of our sixth day cruise we slipped through the Volga-Baltic canal locks enroute to the golden ring cities. The afternoon drifted by to ‘happy hour’ of vodka cocktails then a full serviced dinner with menu selections of regional dishes such as Beef Stroganov, borsch or fish along with desserts and wine.

Next day we toured the first golden city of Yaroslavl and the Church of Elijah the Prophet - a virtual museum of Russian paintings and frescoed walls and ceiling. After lunch on board we then docked at Kostroma to purchase exquisite table linens from the quayside stalls and finally Uglich. This was our last stop before approaching the Moscow skyline and the conclusion of the cruise programme.
With today's excursion to Moscow's Red Square the imposing structure of the Byzantine St. Basil's Cathedral dominated the area like a colourful basket of glazed fruit.  Our guide pointed out that the adjacent Kremlin with its magnificent cluster of golden domes and cathedrals remains the capital of the Federation and source of the country’s politics. We couldn't resist browsing at the nearby Gumm shopping arcade with its brand name shops before moving on to the metro with its mosaic decorations, marble and chandeliers and the two stations of Mayakovskaya and Komsomolskaya with their bronze statues, now a UNESCO designation.

The following day we entered the Kremlin, transfixed with its five Cathedrals and explored the the Armoury Museum with its opulent collection of Gustav Fabergé eggs, royal regalia and the 800-diamond throne. Although we were awe-struck with the gleaming white Annunciation Cathedral and its nine golden domes, we snapped photos on the run as we hurried past the white Assumption Cathedral and Patriach's Palace with their countless golden domes reflecting in the sun.

Among the museums and galleries of Pushkin, Kolomenskpye and Kusovo our favourite was the Tretyakov Gallery of treasured medieval icons with their brilliant colours, famous  portraits of historical figures and masterpieces from Russia’s artistic geniuses.

Our journey concluded with a group photo that would elicit memories not only of the cruise and new found friends but a reminder of unhurried country living evoking the Russia of Boris Godunov.
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