The wedding-cake churches are blue and pink, trimmed with white frosting, against a wide blue sky. The glittering gold domes bulge as if about to pop.

In wonderful contrast, the church interiors are dark and dramatic, shimmering with candles overlooked by sad-faced saints.

We’re on a shore excursion to Sergiev Posad, just outside of Moscow, which was founded in 1340 by Russia’s patron saint, St Sergius. The magnificent Orthodox complex plays to the stereotypes of Russia, but there are surprises, too. Religious life is bouncing back in the post-Soviet era, and Sergiev Posad is busy with young, mobile-phone-toting priests and crowds
of solemn worshippers.

Volga voyage

Sergiev Posad is the highlight of my three days in Moscow – that’s a big call given shore excursions have also taken us to the Kremlin and Red Square. Even this is just the introduction to a splendid journey that will take us along the Volga River and across vast lakes to St Petersburg. Along the way are forest monasteries, cities capped with golden domes, and palaces that appear from dreamlike, fountain-filled gardens.

Viking Helgi already offers familiar comfort as we depart Moscow. The next morning we are excited to be on the legendary Volga and are soon docking at Uglich. This is one of several towns of the Golden Ring, powerful former trading cities that circle Moscow and are rich with history. Uglich saw the 1584 assassination of the young Prince Dmitry by the ambitious Boris Godunov. The savage deed is depicted in church frescoes, but the exterior of the commemorative church is pretty in blue and red, sitting among orange larch trees above the river.

Further along the Volga, Yaroslavl is a once-elegant, now shabby city with a grand 19th-century core and a covered market that is busy with babushkas selling cheeses, pickles and sausages. A highlight is the Church of Elijah the Prophet, its walls and ceilings painted with a marvel of beautiful Old Russian art in pastel blues and greens.

More time, please

The tight itinerary is frustrating – such is life on any cruise – and I leave Yaroslavl thinking there’s plenty more to see. As Viking Helgi sails ever northwards, towns peel away and extravagant cloud-studded skies and autumnal forests take over. Vast distances mean fewer shore excursions than on other European river cruises, but the scenery has a mesmerising beauty, and time is passed enjoying lectures and afternoon teas. The cruel, splendid story of imperial Russia is recounted by Viking’s excellent tour guides, whose onboard lectures take us through the tumultuous history of the Romanovs and the Soviet Union and give insights into modern Russian society.

We go ashore at Kuzino for an excursion to the 14th-century Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery, where we admire gilded icons and reflections of fortified towers in the lake beneath. This was once Russia’s largest monastery. We’re now in the mighty Russian heartland, where history and myth combine in tales of snow birds, captive princesses and mad monks.

Historic Kizhi Island

As we sail into Lake Onega, one of the highlights of the trip appears as if from a folk tale. Kizhi Island is home to a World Heritage collection of relocated historic buildings that, in contrast with palaces and cathedrals, evokes peasant Russia. We visit farmhouses and dachas and the magnificent Church of the Transfiguration, which is bulging with 22 wooden domes that glint in the sunlight. My group’s guide speaks excellent English and is an expert on wooden architecture – another Viking achievement here in what is apparently the middle of nowhere.

Gilded city: St Petersburg

New Russia lies ahead at St Petersburg, Peter the Great’s grand effort to wrest Russia into the enlightened Western world. With its grand restaurants revived, palaces polished to pre-Revolutionary glory and theatres buzzing with ballets and other concerts, there’s never been a better time to visit.

There are splendid vistas around every corner, with baroque avenues and pastel palaces reflected in the cool waters of ornate canals and the Neva River. We have a generous three days of organised sightseeing in this glorious gilded city but, even so, I want to stay longer, or perhaps return to make this journey all over again.

This review appeared in Cruise Passenger 51 and was written in 2013.