A river cruise from St Petersburg to Moscow aboard Viking Ingvar offers a fascinating journey through a complex country, writes Sally McMillan.

Viking Ingvar’s smart, funny cruise director Sacha has been handed a whole lot of new material for his nightly lectures to guests as he cruises Russia’s waterways this season.

Poisoning scandals, election interference and the ongoing battle between Presidents Trump and Putin have moved Russia into the international spotlight, along with the successful staging of The World Cup.

Sacha is one of 115 hard-working crew members on Viking Ingvar’s cruise from St Petersburg to Moscow: 13 days of activities and sightseeing across hundreds of kilometres of rivers, lakes and canals that criss-cross the countryside between the former and present capitals.

The itinerary includes three full days in both St Petersburg and Moscow. Viking offers a wide array of tours (some included and some at an extra charge) and signing up for as many as you can squeeze in allows a pretty good overview, considering the size and complexity of the of these monumental cities.

Viking Ingvar Junior Suite
Junior Suite

St Petersburg, built as Russia’s capital as a homage to Europe’s grand cities by Peter the Great in the 17th century, is sometimes described as the Venice of the North. An extensive boat tour on the intricate network of canals and rivers is a wonderful introduction to the elegant houses, golden-domed churches and gilded palaces that line the waterways.

One of the most recognised palaces is the Baroque-style green, white and gold Winter Palace on the Neva River, the Hermitage Museum’s main building. The Hermitage is home to a vast collection of antiquities and paintings; apparently if you spend one minute at each public exhibit it would take nine years to see them all. It’s also home to some 70 cats who live in the basement keeping rodents at bay – they have become almost as famous as the museum’s artworks.

Among our many dazzling experiences in St Petersburg, standouts are two ballets, Swan Lake at the Hermitage Theatre and Romeo and Juliet at the fabled Mariinsky; bejewelled eggs at the Fabergé Museum; a five-hour guided walking and metro tour, including a visit to the ornate Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood; and a trip to the mind-blowingly lavish 18th-century Catherine Palace and grounds at Tsarskoye Selo, about 30 kilometres south of the city.

After all that intense sightseeing it is quite a relief to set sail for Mandrogy, a 17-hour journey down the length of the Neva River and across Lake Ladoga, the biggest freshwater lake in Europe. At the pretty, reconstructed traditional village on the banks of the Svir River, my cruise companion and I join four other women for a banya. This is the Russian version of a sauna, an invigorating experience that involves being beaten with a bunch of birch leaves wielded by a half-naked man called Dmitri, then sluiced down with near-freezing water from the river outside the wooden house. Could it take off in Australia, I wonder?

Viking Ingvar Aquavit Terrace
View from the Aquavit Terrace

Our next stop is Kizhi Island, at the northern end of Lake Onega. It’s an isolated, open-air museum of historic wooden buildings, among them a farmhouse decked out with 19th-century furniture. Our guide explains the significance of the ‘red corner’, a space dedicated to the family’s favourite icon that is still found in many modern Russian homes. Kizhi’s most impressive building is the 22-dome Transfiguration Church and adjoining Church of the Intercession, a masterpiece of 18th-century carpentry.

As we set sail from Kizhi on another long, scenic cruise through wildly beautiful countryside, a Champagne and caviar tasting is laid on – who cares that it’s 10.30 in the morning? It is an effective warm-up for our Russian language lesson; just one of the many onboard activities during the five days between Moscow and St Petersburg. We hear excellent lectures about our ports of call, Russian history and politics; join Russian wine and vodka-tasting sessions; watch ebullient chef Joachim teaching two guests how to make pelmeni; and play trivia and listen to music in the evenings.

At the little river-port town of Kuzino we take an afternoon tour that revealed two very different aspects of Russian life. First, our guide Marina shows us around the medieval Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery on the shores of Lake Siverskoye, a magnificent complex of 11 churches built between the 15th and 17th centuries. Marina is an expert on the icons, frescoes and vestments on show, some of which dated back 600 or more years.

Marina then shepherds our small group to a high school, where students entertain us with folk dances and songs, and an amazingly articulate 14-year-old girl tells us about “real life” in their little town. The hardship they overcome to study and go to university – many houses don’t even have running water – would shock many privileged Western schoolkids.

St Petersberg
Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood, St Petersburg

Two cities in the ‘Golden Ring’, a tourist route drawn up in the Soviet era to encourage visitors to some of Russia’s most historic and culturally important centres, are next on the itinerary. Yaroslavl was once, for a short time, the capital of Russia; a walking tour around the lovely Volga port takes us to its UNESCO heritage-listed heart. Uglich is similarly dotted with onion-domed churches, elegant houses and ancient monuments; a visit to the Church of St Dmitry on the Blood reveals a particularly gory episode in this vast country’s even more vastly complicated history.

Uglich is the last port before the 24-hour journey to Moscow along the Volga River and the Moscow Canal, which links the Volga to the Moscow River. True to form, once we’ve docked at the North River Terminal, we hit the ground running. First off is an eight-hour guided tour, by metro and on foot, for an introduction to Russia’s history, culture and traffic-packed capital.

We travel through several extraordinarily ornate metro stations, aptly dubbed ‘the people’s palaces’ – fortunately, the system is quite easy to navigate with
a map, as we discover on our independent travels the following day. The tour takes in Saint Basil’s Cathedral and the world-famous Red Square, where all us tourists are suddenly herded behind barricades by armed police for an hour or so. We aren’t totally sure why, but it is Vladimir Putin’s birthday that day…

As in St Petersburg, three days in Moscow is only enough to skim the surface. We try to pace ourselves but find ourselves cramming in as much as possible: the eye-popping exhibits in the Kremlin Armoury; a superb Viking-organised concert of folk music at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Music Hall; Gorky Park and the contemporary art collection at the new Tetrayov gallery; photo opps outside the Bolshoi Theatre; and lunch at a fabulously kitsch restaurant nearby.

It is a whirlwind couple of weeks and a thrilling introduction to a country Winston Churchill described as, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. Or was that Sacha?