Intrepid Traveler: Mother Volga

For Russian-born Artemy Toroitsky, a boat trip on Russia's longest river combines culture, history, geography, and, if properly planned, luxury and comfort as well.

I spent the first four or five months of my life in a town called Yaroslavl', near the Volga River, but unlike Leo Tol­stoy I remember nothing of this period. After moving to Moscow, I started returning to Yaroslavl' to visit relatives. Among my most vivid childhood memories are walking along the sunset promenade on the Volga embankment, with the Church of Elijah the Prophet overlooking town, and fishing with my granddad at sunrise. The river was omnipresent, giving the city another dimension—one of meditation and eternity.

At about 2,300 miles, the Volga is the longest river on the Continent. It begins in the hills northwest of Moscow and runs east and then south to the Caspian Sea, carrying more than half the country's land freight. The Russians call it Mother Volga, and the human haulers who once pulled cargo-laden ships down it are celebrated in folklore. (Composers from Stravinsky to Tchaikovsky to Glenn Miller have offered versions of "Song of the Volga Boatmen.") With flat banks covered by meadows and forests and curvy green hills reaching up to sandy precipices here and there, it doesn't feature obvious beauty compared to other rivers, but the Volga has its own charms.

Taking a boat trip down is, in my humble opinion, the best thing a curious and dis­crim­inating traveler can do when visiting Russia. These journeys give you the best of two worlds, combining in-depth culture and history with the comforts of luxury tourism. Most itineraries de­­part in the morning from Moscow's northern port, heading straight into the 80-mile Moscow Canal, itself a tragic yet gorgeous monument of Gulag slav­ery, dug in the thirties by hundreds of thousands of po­­litical prisoners. Where the Volga merges with the canal, it is already, though still in its upper currents, a big river. Its natural width is occasionally increased by artificial reservoirs, where one can see some truly surreal visions, such as an old bell tower rising almost from the middle of the river.

The northern stretch is where the most exquisite vin­tage Russian towns are found: Uglich, with its historical convents, is infamous as the site where Ivan the Terri­ble's son Dmitry was murdered in 1591, and Yaroslavl', my birthplace and one of the country's best preserved ancient cities. They are followed by Kostroma, a very quiet patriarchal town with a big open-air museum of old wooden architecture. The main attraction on the right bank is Plyos, a small village on steep hills, favored by artists and landscape painters since the 19th century and still a popular retreat for urban bohemians (as well as film crews shooting historical movies).

Past the enormous Rybinsk Reservoir, the Volga turns south toward Nizhniy Nov­go­rod, the third-biggest metropolis in the Russian Fed­eration, which was formerly named Gorki, after Stalin's favorite writer and a founding father of socialist real­ism. Besides the me­­dieval kremlin, Nizhniy Nov­gorod has some in­­ter­esting modern architecture, the site of the famous pre-Bolsheviks trade fair, plus good restaurants and clubs. Farther down, the river enters one of its most scenic phases: wooded hills on both sides, pretty towns and villages, churches and monasteries.

The next major stop is Kazan', the cap­i­tal of Tatarstan, which Ivan the Terrible stormed in the 16th century and is now a booming town, thanks to the local oil in­­dustry. Kazan' stands in sharp contrast to the next stop, Simbirsk, the birthplace of one Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov—better known as Lenin—and the administrative center of one of the poorest areas in the Volga region. Lenin's memorial, built during Soviet times, is rather obsolete but still impressive.

The lower current is marked by the big, vibrant cities of Samara and Saratov, the latter boasting the Radischev State Art Museum, one of the best in the country. And farther south lies the endless city of Vol­go­grad (formerly Stalingrad—enough said). Visually boring and industrial, it's renowned for the bloody six-month battle that took place there during World War II, when the Soviets stopped the German advance. It is still commemorated with a massive 277-foot sword-wielding statue, Mother Russia Calls.

Eventually the boat delivers you to the Volga delta, the city of Astrakhan, and the Caspian Sea, all of which are worth seeing. Astrakhan is old, a little dirty and chaotic, and considered the world's capital of caviar. The Cas­pian Sea features very flat shores and is the largest lake on the planet.

After reaching the final point, some cruises turn around and go back up the river to Moscow, visiting stops that may have been missed on the journey down. Apart from the usual sightseeing in key ports, there are also the so-called green breaks, which take place near little villages or on desolate sandy patches in the middle of nowhere so that tourists can swim or sunbathe on tiny beaches. The longest trip takes about 20 days, and there are shortened versions—to Nizhniy Novgorod, Kazan', and other midway destinations. As a rule, the cruises return to the capital at sunset.

Russians are idiosyncratic people. They prefer to dislike all sorts of things around them: their neighbors, foreign countries, pop stars, the weather. The city of Moscow is hated almost universally by those who don't live there because it's very rich and brutal and soaks up both money and human resources from all over the country. St. Petersburg is considered arrogant and pre­tentious, a place that thinks too much of itself; Siberia is cold, remote, and barely civilized; the south of Russia is dingy and criminal. The list goes on and on. Yet the Volga evokes positive emotions in every Russian.

I have always been proud of my origins along the river, and I wonder, Has it left a trace on my psyche? I guess yes. Most probably it's the slow flow that has endowed me with a degree of tranquillity and a sentimentality—neither of which is characteristic of my current environment or my profession. Even though I grew up in Moscow, I feel most at home when I'm here, on the shores of the Volga.

The Cruise Report

Cruise lines have officially anointed St. Petersburg as the star destination in Europe. While cities like Athens or Barcelona oc­­casionally rate as an overnight stop, ships typically dock in St. Petersburg for three full days of sightseeing at mu­­seums, performing arts venues, and palaces. Most itineraries begin in Co­­­­penhagen, Denmark; Stockholm, Swe­den; or London, with a few casting off from Ham­burg, Germany. Cruises run from May through August and last anywhere from six to 13 nights. Ports of call often include cities formerly behind the Iron Curtain, such as Riga, Latvia; Tallinn, Estonia; and Gdansk, Poland.

Of the dozen vessels bound for St. Pe­­ters­­burg in 2008, the most luxurious are the 940-passenger Crystal Sym-phony, the 700-passenger Regent Seven Seas Voyager, the 208-passenger Seabourn Pride, and Silversea's duo, the Silver Wind and Silver Cloud, which each carry 296 people. All are the seagoing cousins of the Ritz-Carlton and Cipriani, a refined world of Frette bathrobes, Riedel crystal, and Porsgrund china. They offer cuisine masterminded by celebrated chefs (such as Wolfgang Puck on the Symphony and Charlie Palmer on the Pride), multiple dining venues, and round-the-clock room service. A bit smaller and more intimate than these is the 96-passenger Sea Cloud II, a three-masted yacht with czar worthy tubs and marble fireplaces.

Though some cruise ships limit their stops to just St. Petersburg, other lines—such as Regent and Silversea—visit the Black Sea ports of Sochi in Russia and Yalta and Odessa in Ukraine. The 96-passenger Hebri­dean Spirit journeys to all three as well as to the smaller Ukrainian villages of Kerch and Sevastopol. Another option is The World, a globe-trotting gated community at sea with 165 individually owned apartments, which are often available for rent. It will stop in Sochi, Kerch, Yalta, and Odessa as it circumnavigates the earth (it arrives in Russia in July).

Unlike St. Petersburg, Mos­cow can't ac­­­­commodate the big liners, so small-boat cruises up the Volga River are the way to hit both cities. The big news here is the recent introduction of the Volga Dream, a refurbished 115-passenger ship that makes regular 12-night voyages between Moscow and St. Petersburg from May to early September.

The off-the-boat options in Russia are nearly as impressive as the onboard services. In 2008 Crystal will offer 33 shore excursions in and around St. Petersburg, among them a wine tasting at a palace that hosted events during the 2006 G8 summit; a formal dinner at Yusupov palace, where Rasputin was murdered; and a master class at the Imperial Porcelain Factory. Both Crystal and Silversea tempt the more adventurous with flights in one of Russia's MiG-31 Foxhounds, which can reach 80,000 feet and speeds of more than 700 miles an hour. The variety of organized tours notwithstanding, about a fourth of the guests on the Symphony and Voyager opt for custom- designed private tours arranged by the ships' concierges. (While those on coach tours and some private tours arranged by the ship do not require visas to disembark within Russia, it's necessary to have one if you want to stroll around the cities on your own.)

Even with all the tours and diversions, one of the most memorable thrills of a Russian cruise is leaving St. Petersburg and heading back to the Baltic along the Neva River, coasting in the long northern twilight past farms and villages and onion-topped cathedrals. This is when you want a stateroom with a private veranda—and a minibar well stocked with vodka.

Some 2008 itineraries:

Crystal Symphony The 11-day Northern Treasures tour departs July 24 from Dover, England, stops in Oslo, and arrives in Stockholm. Deluxe staterooms, from $7,710; Crystal penthouse with veranda, $27,625; 888-799-4825;

Seabourn Pride The 12-day Scandinavia and Russia tour leaves Copenhagen and stops in Tallinn, Stockholm, and War­nemünde, Ger­many. Suites, from $12,305; 800-929-9595;

Sea Cloud II A 13-night Baltic cruise begins June 10 in St. Petersburg and sails to Visby, Sweden, Vilnius, Lithuania, and Bornholm, near Denmark. From $7,495; 800-221-1944;

Silver Cloud The 11-day London-to-Copenhagen cruise sails from the Thames, jour­-neys to Germany's Kiel Canal, and docks in ports including Born­holm, Denmark. From $9,695; 800-722-9955;

Volga Dream The ship, which made its debut this summer, makes regular 12-night cruises be­­tween St. Peters­burg and Moscow. From $6,700; 800-633-1008;—Ian Keown