It’s cold and bleak when we dock at Kizhi Island, and I’m wondering why on Earth we’ve come to this desolate place, when I suddenly look up and catch my breath. A huge Russian Orthodox church with 22 onion domes is looming out of the mist. Further on, inside a timber farmhouse, a young woman wrapped in a peasant shawl is spinning wool with a distaff and spindle. Past the wooden windmill that once ground the islanders’ grain stands the tiny 14th-century chapel of the Archangel Michael, the oldest standing wooden church in Russia.
Kizhi is just one of several extraordinary ports of call during a 13-day cruise along the lakes, canals and rivers of Russia on Viking Helgi (formerly known as Viking Surkov). The cruise begins with three exciting days in the magnificent city of St Petersburg, where we take guided visits to gilded palaces, ornate churches and incredible art galleries, as well as to ballet performances and concerts.
But it is in the hamlets and townships we visit during the cruise that I feel I’m seeing ‘the real Russia’. Life in these backwaters has remained virtually unchanged; there are few cars in rural Russia, and old babushkas in headscarves still sweep fallen autumn leaves from the paths as they’ve done for centuries. People in these townships are friendlier than those in the big cities, and whenever we stop at market stalls to look at fur hats, floral shawls and embroidered tablecloths, the stallholders chat and joke with us.
When in Russia, do as the Russians do. So we head for the vodka museum where an entry fee of 100 roubles – just over $3 – entitles us to four generous samples of vodka, flavoured with herbs, fruit and even pepper. Though the museum displays more than 2,600 different types of vodka, locals contend that there are only two: good and very good. On this cold day, they all seem good to me.