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First Small-Ship Cruise

Ted’s First Small-Ship Cruise

By Ted Scull.

Heading into my senior year in college, I had one empty slot to round out my final academic schedule. Sitting with a good friend one day, we both decided to study Russian, the language. We were bound for Europe in the months after graduation, and the professor, though known to be a tough taskmaster, also had a great reputation.

At the end of the first day of class when we had been introduced to the Russian alphabet and how the letters were pronounced, Dr. B. gave us our assignment. Be prepared for a quiz, and if you passed to his satisfaction, you could continue, otherwise you will have to find another course to complete your credits.

We attacked the task with relish and stayed up half the night testing each other, and the next day we returned to class and passed muster. A few fell by the wayside.

The language study included quite a lot of Russian history and politics, and I became so intrigued by the world’s other superpower, I decided to plan a trip there. After graduation from college, I had six weeks between a summer job and starting an academic year abroad in Paris. My friend Bob planned a motorcycle trip deep into Eastern Europe, and we would rendezvous in Paris in October.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Russian riverboat AMUR, named after a river in eastern Siberia.

Heading off to Europe

After graduation, I sailed over on the German liner Hanseatic and connected to the boat train for Paris where I stashed my belongings, those not needed for traveling east. At Gare de L’Est I boarded an overnight train for Prague, the start of a month and a half of travel. The next day, while I was beginning lunch in the restaurant car, we made a stop at Pilsen. Cartons of Pilsner beer came aboard, my favorite foreign beer at home.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Prague (Praha) Central Station. * Photo: Ted Scull

Arriving at Prague Central Station late in the day, I had failed to look up where my hotel was located. So, I showed the taxi driver the name, Esplanade, and we took a strange meandering route arriving at my destination about 15 minutes later. When I entered my hotel room, I looked out the window and what did I see – the railway station just two blocks away.

I stayed two full days, seeing the city on foot, and while a beautiful and intriguing place, it had nowhere near the bustle and excitement of Paris. The train to Vienna took just four hours and there I teamed up with another college friend and his new wife for a Danube River cruise all the way to the Black Sea and onward by overnight ship to Yalta.

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Ted’s First Small-Ship Cruise: Vienna & Boarding the Riverboat

All travel from now was through Intourist, the Russian government travel agency. One either picked the tourist or first-class level and the hotel charge included three meals a day. It was only permitted to stay in cities on the Intourist list, and the major ones had a limit of five days. Yalta, an inexpensive resort town, permitted up to four weeks. For travel between most cities, you could choose to fly or take the train.

First Small-Sip Cruise

Russian riverboat AMUR at a landing along the Danube, * Photo: Ted Scull

Two nights in Vienna revealed a stunning city of art, music and architecture, and its lively atmosphere would be hard to match in the Czechoslovakian, Yugoslavian, Romanian and Bulgarian cities in route to the Black Sea.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Vienna where private palaces and grounds are opened to the public. * Photo: Ted Scull

The Soviet-owned riverboat Amur (named after a river is eastern Siberia) we boarded had been built on the Danube as one of a pair, qualifying as war reparations for the damage done to Russia in WWII. Its purpose was to bring foreign currency to an economically struggling Russia. The riverboat was white with a red stripe along the main deck and hammer and sickle on the funnel.

Passengers occupied three decks, one full deck of windowed outside twin-bedded cabins with private facilities, and a second higher deck with more cabins, an observation lounge, large windowed dining saloon, and a bar. A wraparound promenade allowed complete circumnavigations. Open space included a large portion of the top (navigating) deck and a small area at the bow one level below.

Danube River

The Danube River & the Black Sea.

Ted’s First Small-Ship Cruise: Settling In

My first riverboat, fairly new and seemingly well-maintained, was a pleasant surprise, but then I had no idea really know what to expect. Upon casting off, we had some 60 passengers, about half capacity but then it was near the season’s end.

Dinner, however, got off to a shaky start. We were amongst the last to board, and there was no place for us to sit together at the long, shared table. As we knew no one and heard no English spoken among the others, we stood there looking helpless. Eventually one of the stewardesses came to our rescue, and I launched into my first attempt with Russian. She smiled patiently and moved around some chairs and set up a table for three off to one side. After that we would be assigned seats together at the main table. We did meet a few of the European passengers, but overall, not much English was spoken.

The food was decent and forgettable: soup, some sort of meat (occasionally fish), potatoes, and a vegetable for lunch and dinner. Breakfast offered a dollop of large lump red caviar, bread and a boiled egg. Drink choices were soda, beer and wine.

Our ports were Bratislava, Budapest, Belgrade, Iron Gate (passage), Giurgiu, and Ismail.

The Iron Gate

The Iron Gate today has been tamed by a dam and locks.* Photo: Ted Scull

The real excitement began the next morning when we were underway. I had never sailed along a major river before, not even in a small boat, and this river was just amazing, taking us from Central Europe through the Balkans to the Black Sea, from democracies to Communist dictatorships. The era was the height of the so-called Cold War — for some, us against them, but it was more complicated than that. One could not simply say that Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania could be lumped together willy-nilly or that all four felt the same toward Moscow, capital of Russia and the Soviet Union.

Communist propaganda

Communist propaganda showing a heroic worker shoveling land mines marked US. * Photo: Ted Scull

RELATED: Mother Russia River Cruising.  by Ted Scull

Tricky Navigation

Back to the Danube. We were going with the flow and moving rather fast. From time to time we came up behind slower traffic such as powered barges and others that needed a tug to push or pull the load. They needed to be overtaken, and at the same time make sure there was enough room to pass, and taking into account the bends in the river, plus if anything was coming upstream.

First Small-Ship Cruise

A twin funnel sidewheel towboat down bound on the Danube. * Photo: Ted Scull

Barges and tows moved very slowly, and for the most part we were faster, bigger and more maneuverable. Cargoes consisted of coal, iron ore, rock, gravel, petroleum products, lumber and grain.

Following a few meets and overtakings, I began to realize that people actually made their homes on the barges. Clothes lines had laundry drying, some carried bicycles, and others an open deck for relaxing, attractively surrounded by plants.

Our vessel had an illustrated booklet of national flags so we could understand where the traffic came from or was going to. The Rhine-Main Canal was not open yet so southern Germany was as far inland as one could go.

During the day we passed the upbound sistership Donau with an exchange of whistles. Curiously, there were no cheers or waves between the sisterships, just people lining the railings. And we never saw another riverboat.

First Small-Ship Cruise

AMUR’s sistership DONAU (Danube) heading upriver. * Photo: Ted Scull

Bratislava

Our first port was Bratislava, a major city in Czechoslovakia, and before that a longtime German city with the name Pressburg. The Ottoman Empire attacked many cities along the Danube using it as the conquering route inland, but Pressburg never fell.

Because we were the only native English-speaking passengers on the boat, we were pretty much on our own, so we made our own way from the landing to the attractive city center and main square, churches that dated to the 14th and 15th century. Making a loop, we passed through small squares and along narrow lanes that led to wide boulevards. A fortified citadel towered over the city, but then there was not the buzz there is today.

Budapest (Two Cities)

Budapest was altogether different. Originally two cities, Buda and Pest were separated by the Danube, with the former overlooking the more important side with an imposing gothic-style Parliament modeled after the British counterpart fronting on the river.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Gothic-style Parliament building, modeled after the Btitish Parliament fronting on the Danube at Budapest. * Photo: Ted Scull taken aboard riverboat AMUR

Impressed by this architecturally rich city, we set out from the Pest side where riverboats dock today. Once a wealthy city, Budapest built the first subway in Continental Europe, had the first public telephone system and first telephone exchange, and stimulated by an order from the Parliament builders, the first mass production of light bulbs.

We zigzagged amongst the monumental buildings, many in Art Nouveau style, crossing to Buda on one suspension bridge to then climb up to the medieval battlements to a viewpoint overlooking the Danube. Winding back down, we took in the famous Gellert Hotel and its spa to then to cross back over a handsome suspension bridge decorated with tongue-less lion statues. The architect was said to have committed suicide when he saw the empty mouths at the opening ceremony.

Belgrade

For the stop at Belgrade, Yugoslavia’s capital, Marshal Tito, the dictator, did his best to keep the Soviet Union at bay. We tied up in a small cove off the main channel and had a bit of a climb to reach the city center. The city has foundations of many previous incarnations.

Belgrade experienced 115 major battles, and since Roman rule, has been completely destroyed 44 times, had 40 different names and served as a capital of five different states. It was a bit much to even try to take but a superficial overview in the time allotted.

First Small-Ship Cruise

It’s a bit of a climb from the Danube to the center of Belgrade. * Photo: Ted Scull

Drama at the Iron Gate

Continuing on down the Danube, we next came to the Iron Gate, a dramatic series of gorges created by the Transylvanian Alps crossing the river. The Danube changes its character to a rapidly flowing torrent with waters roughed up by its narrowing and dropping fast enough to create dangerous rapids. Our pace quickened, and I could sense tension in my body. To the left we passed a pair of steam locomotives standing by to haul the upriver traffic. Now, for safety reasons, that traffic had stopped to permit the downriver traffic to pass.

Today, the rapids have now been tamed by dams and locks providing safe navigation and hydroelectricity. The passage is scenic and safer but no longer genuinely dramatic.

Welcome to Romania (Not)

Cruising overnight, the Amur eased up to a landing marked Giurgiu, a river port with road access to Bucharest, the Romanian capital. Across the river was the port of Ruse in Bulgaria. Our crew had the lines ready to hand over to the Romanian receivers but they just stood there looking at us. With our boat now alongside the floating landing stage, the captain ordered the crew to jump ashore and tie up the boat.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Landing station at Giurgiu, Romania before troops arrived to prevent going ashore. * Photo: Ted Scull

The men hesitated, and then without any warning, a contingent of Romanian soldiers marched around both sides of the terminal and stood at attention. A Romanian officer yelled something across to our captain, now standing outside the pilothouse, first in Romanian (a Romance and not a Slavic language). There was silence, and the Romanian officer gave an order, and his troops lowered their weapons then took several thumping steps forward.

That was it, we were not welcome. Our captain rang the telegraph, and we moved off the landing and made a wide arc to dock at Ruse, across the river in Bulgaria.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Ruse, Bulgaria’s most prominent government, a billboard to post portraits of heroic leaders. The red letters are a salute to the 9th of September. * Photo: Ted Scull

Not Wanted

The Romanian demonstration provided an official snub against Russia, something that increasingly became a pattern prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union many years later. As the Bulgarian stop was scheduled for the upriver transit, nothing was planned, so we simply spent a few hours ashore wandering through a sleepy, medium-size Bulgarian river city.

With a full moon rising above the river, we proceeded in the growing darkness, and during the night, the Danube would turn north and then east through Romanian territory. In the morning we eased over to a landing at Ismail, a Romanian port about 50 miles in from the Black Sea.

RELATED:  Cruising the Danube River on the New AMA Magna.  by Gene Sloan.

RELATED:  Beer & Biking on the Danube River with Scenic.  by John Roberts.

Changing from a Boat to a Ship (Small)

The Amur pulled up astern of the small Soviet passenger vessel Kolchida. Those who were leaving here, including our trio, disembarked and walked forward a few hundred feet to the Black Sea ship and boarded for our one-night voyage.

We sailed about an hour later through the marshy, flat Danube Delta. There were lots of birds about and still enough evening light when the ship sailed out into the Black Sea for the overnight sail to Yalta.

The Kolchida on the Danube

The Kolchida.* Photo: Ted Scull

Chess, and the Winner Is …

Some Russians my age approached me asking, in Russian, if I played chess, and when I indicated yes, they set up a table at the stern. About a dozen others, college students returning home, surrounded the two players. Everything happened so fast, with my Russian opponent moving his pieces very quickly. I did not play that way. I concentrated as hard as I could and tried not to take too long, and after about 20 minutes, I had him in checkmate. I was not sure how it all happened. Did he let me win? Anyway, I was rewarded with a beer with the ship now rolling to the Black Sea swells.

Dinner was just passable as I assume all the ingredients had come from Russia, while the riverboat took on stores in Vienna its turnaround port. It would be an introduction to the Russian menus that would little from day to day and eventually became a non-topic. You just ate what was put in front of you. Then I took to my bunk, and in the morning, when I awoke, we were approaching a steep coastal landscape with Yalta sprawled at its base.

Yalta and Beyond

My friends stayed several days, and I remained in a seafront hotel for two weeks, as it was cheap and I could practice my Russian on anyone who would talk to me. My tourist level included a guide and car every five days, so I managed to see the site of the Yalta Conference and the Valley of Balaclava, the location for the charge of the Light Brigade, a battle between the British and Russians.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Ted atop a large hill overlooking Yalta and the Black Sea. * Photo: Tony Milbank

Leaving Yalta, I then another five weeks, traveling independently by train, and in between, a 21-day tour starting out in Moscow and then to Stalingrad (now Volgograd), followed by a two-day paddle steamer voyage to Rostov, Sochi, Kiev, and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).

First Small-Ship Cruise

Soviet sidewheel riverboat at a landing on the Volga River. * Photo: Ted Scull

Again, on my own, by train to Riga, Latvia’s capital, Moscow, Warsaw and Paris where, in the latter, I resided for eight months. But that story is for another day.

RELATED:  Danube River Cruise with Aboard the New AMA Magna.  by Gene Sloan. 

RELATED:  Beer & Biking on the Danube with Scenic.  by John Roberts.

Looking Back

My basic Russian came in handy when traveling on trains, trams, buses, seeking directions, ordering meals and having a minimal chat. Visiting the Soviet Union was time well spent, if not unsettling at times.

During the group tour, one member, a young English fellow who spoke fluent Russian, vanished about 10 days into the itinerary, and there was no explanation forthcoming from our guide.

Ted in Red Square

The author in Red Square, Moscow.

On the riverboat between Stalingrad and Rostov, some of us apparently fraternized a bit too much with the Russian passengers. We were relegated to one lounge and sat at separate tables at one end of the dining saloon.

When in Moscow, I meet some students in Red Square, and they invited me to their homes. Later, when I returned to the city by train, I was discreetly handed a message as I walked along the platform warning me that my friends would be arrested if I met up with them again.

Ted in Paris

The author on the Pont Alexandre III, Paris, named after a Russian czar,

Soon after settling in Paris, my friend from college, who shared the Russian language class, came to visit for several days. We exchanged stories and there were plenty. He then sold his motorcycle and headed home. We still connect all these years later.

My six weeks in the Soviet Union and eight months in Paris were life changing. I had grown up quite a bit by the time I stepped onto the pier in New York.

Ted’s First Small-Ship Cruise Was Just the Beginning …

Beginning with the Danube just after graduating from college, I became smitten by rivers and river cruising. When I had the time and money, I began to collect them with subsequent travels: Rhine, Rhone, Moselle, Elbe, Soane, Volga, Don, Nile, Yangtze, Mekong, Amazon, and closer to home, St. Lawrence, Ohio, Mississippi, Columbia, Snake and less than an hour’s walk, the Hudson.

Every one is different and has stories galore to tell, and I find them all intriguing in their unique ways.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Pandaw’s colonial design fits well into the Mekong River setting. * Photo: Ted Scull

The growth of river cruising has been a phenomenon, adding a fabulous new way to see our world, and so much of it developed along rivers. They provided routes of discovery, development, conquest, retreat and travel before decent roads and steam railways.

Leisure cruising started first on the Nile in the late 19th century on a river that was the most important geographical factor in the development of early civilization.

Nile River cruise vessel

SS SUDAN recalls the early style of Nile River cruise vessels. 

Modern river cruising has developed so fast, especially in Europe, and the resulting competition has driven innovation and cruise ship-style luxuries. Travelers can still choose between the plain and fancy.

I happen to prefer the riverboats that don’t try to be the be all and end all of the latest luxury cruise package. I like to concentrate on the river, its scenic delights and commerce and to go ashore in ports to see what this river is responsible for.

First Small-Ship Cruise

Today’s much larger riverboats, seen here on Russia’s Volga River. * Photo: Ted Scull

My favorite riverboats have been the 1926-built Delta Queen, built for transportation, then a long life of cruising with a genuine link to the past, the outstanding replica stern-wheeler, American Queen, and Pandaw ‘s fleet of small-size boats with their fetching colonial atmosphere.

I would also be more than happy to sail again in the likes of the Amur, the riverboat that began my story. It gave me the initial entry into a new means of travel and the results are evident. I don’t know what happened to her, but her sister Donau has continued on for decades, most recently housing cyclists who sleep on board and cycle from a different port during the day.

quirkycruise bird

 

 

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Viking Jupiter's terrace

Viking Jupiter

By Judi Cohen.

I am a small-ship “connoisseur” accustomed to ships under 300 passengers, which is how QuirkyCruise.com defines a small-ship cruise. However, when presented with the opportunity to cruise on Viking’s new 930-passenger Viking Jupiter in the Baltic Sea I immediately said “yes!”

Having never visited Russia, seeing St. Petersburg on the 8-night Baltic itinerary was a major draw. While it wasn’t exactly a “small-ship,” it featured the advantages of larger ships, while also offering some of the intimacy and highly personalized service of a true small-ship. I like to think of it as a “small big-ship.”

Viking Jupiter

The new Viking Jupiter. * Photo: Judi Cohen

The Viking Jupiter took us from Stockholm to Berlin, with stops at the ports of Helsinki, Tallinn and Gdansk. The historical and gilded riches of St. Petersburg, of course, were the big draw for most passengers.

My two-day visit to St. Petersburg provided just a taste of the city’s rich art, architecture and history. I hope to return to do a true small-ship river cruise, on the Volga River, and see more of Russia, including Moscow.

Russia cruise with Viking

Judi and Lawrence at the Church of the Spilled Blood. * Photo: Judi Cohen

In the spirit of Quirky Cruise’s small-ship ethos, Russia’s Volga River cruises are an ideal way to visit both Moscow and St. Petersburg in combination with a Baltic itinerary. Small-ship cruises to this region are offered by various cruise companies including a 13-day Viking cruise on one of their five 200-passenger boats.

Meanwhile, Ponant Cruises and Tauck both operate 12-day small-ship Russia/Baltic Sea cruises using Ponant’s 184-passenger Le Dumont D’Urville with two full days in St. Petersburg. Emerald Waterways does a 12-day river cruise on the 224-passenger MS Rosia with stops in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

6 “Small Ship” Moments on the Viking Jupiter

While the Viking Jupiter has features you would typically find on larger ships including a variety of dining choices, numerous bars with live entertainment, and a luxurious Nordic spa with gym and treatment rooms, the ship felt intimate and uncrowded giving it a small-ship feel.

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#1: Optional Small-group Shore Excursions

In St. Petersburg we chose to pay for two small-group tours in addition to taking the panoramic coach tour of St. Petersburg that was included at no extra cost (Viking offers one free tour option in every port). We did a full-day “Behind Closed Doors” tour of the 18th-century Hermitage Museums and a half-day walking tour of the 1950-era St. Petersburg metro system, museum-like itself.

With only 13 guests on each tour, they were similar to excursions and tours I have done on previous small-ship cruises.

 Winter Palace Hermitage Museum

The gorgeous Winter Palace Hermitage Museum. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Hermitage museum entrance

Entrance staircase in the Hermitage Museum. * Photo: Judi Cohen

Our Hermitage Museum guide was knowledgeable about architecture and art history, and contributed to our learning and enjoyment. Our guide during the metro tour, which was a highlight for me, led us into the system to see some of the oldest stations that were built as “palaces of the people” rich in Soviet history, with their fascinating art and sculpture.

St Petersburg Metro System

Kirovsky Zavod Station, part of the stunning metro system. * Photo; Judi Cohen

St Petersburg metro stations

Avtovo Station light fixtures. * Photo: Judi Cohen

These small-group excursions felt much like the tours I have enjoyed on other small-ship cruises along the Mekong and Irrawaddy with Pandaw and the Brahmaputra River with India-based Adventure River Cruises. As on these smaller ships, on board the Viking Jupiter, there were many opportunities to immerse myself in the artistic and historical presentations offered on board by local experts. There was even a magical performance one evening in the ship’s Star Theatre by the famous Russian Mariinsky Theatre.

Other passengers told me about the small-group premium excursions they took (ranging from about $75 to $300 per person), including a tour of the Stutthof concentration camp in Gdansk, Poland; reindeer feeding in Nuuksio National Park; and a bicycle tour in Helsinki, Finland. Several premium excursions at additional cost were offered in every port.

#2: Private Balcony in our Cabin

Our cabin had a private balcony that provided a quiet and private place to relax, read and reflect. It reminded me of smaller ships I’ve been on that also had private balconies, including the 195-passenger Viking Einar that I cruised on along the Rhine River in 2019.

RELATED: Cruising on the new Viking Einar … by Judi Cohen

balcony of Viking Jupiter

Judi’s husband Lawrence on their cabin balcony. * Photo: Judi Cohen

#3:  Intimate Dining Experiences

Mamsen’s is a small take-away café aboard the Jupiter named in honor of Viking founder Torstein Hagen’s mother. Located on Deck 7 in the Explorers Lounge, serving light traditional Scandinavian dishes, snacks and pastries, it was never crowded and became our go-to spot for early breakfast and light bites throughout the day.

With comfortable seating in sofas or at tables with chairs, Mamsen’s felt very warm, welcoming and cozy…and the open face shrimp sandwiches and signature waffles were delicious!

waffels aboard the Viking Jupiter

Mamsen’s signature Scandinavian waffle. * Photo: Judi Cohen

 #4: Afternoon Tea

Like many of the small European river boats, traditional high tea was served every afternoon in the Wintergarden Conservatory on Deck 7. Separated from the pool by floor-to-ceiling glass doors, I found the Wintergarden to be one of the most beautiful areas on the ship. The blonde wood ornamentation looked like trees climbing the pillars and covering the roof and created the feeling of being in a forest!

afternoon tea on the Viking Jupiter

Afternoon Tea in the Wintergarden on Deck 7. * Photo: Judi Cohen

#5: Explorers Lounge

The Jupiter had many comfortable and quiet sitting areas with books neatly organized on library shelves. However, we kept going back to the Explorers Lounge on Deck 7 and the upper level above it, called the Observation Lounge, to read, rest, have a snack or drink, or watch the waves through the expansive windows.

While seated in the sofas, complete with fur throws, we could also enjoy the warmth from the faux fireplaces. I never felt like I was on a large ship in these lounges.

Explorer's Lounge on Jupiter

The lovely ocean-view Explorers Lounge. * Photo: Judi Cohen

#6: Musicians in the Atrium

The multi-level atrium typical of big ships, felt cozy each evening when a pianist or a trio of musicians played sweet music there for hours. The Viking Bar and the surrounding Living Room lounge, that actually felt like our own living room at home, drew us back nightly for pre-dinner cocktails  and again following dinner.

After only one night aboard, the musicians welcomed us back warmly and it felt like they were playing just for us! Very few other passengers were there in the evenings, which made it feel even more intimate.

musicians on Viking Jupiter

Musicians performing nightly on Deck 1. * Photo: Judi Cohen

For anyone who wants to get the best of a larger cruise ship with many of the benefits of a small ship, I would recommend the Viking Jupiter.

The Jupiter’s attentive personal service, small-group shore excursions options, cozy and comfortable lounge areas with music, and casual dining all combined to create a wonderful “small-ship” feeling.

The added bonus was having some “big-ship” features such as a spa, gym and multiple pools, plus 24-hour room service so we could enjoy refreshments on our private balcony. Having been teased with the history and riches of St. Petersburg for only two days, I am ready to go back to experience Russia in depth!

Viking Jupiter's terrace

On the Aquavit Terrace leaving Stockholm. * Photo: Judi Cohen

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Viking River Cruises

Viking River Cruise in Ukraine

By Gene Sloan

I am sitting at the very front of the Viking Sineus, in the glass-lined Panorama Bar, looking out over what may be the most tranquil stretch of water in all of Europe. For the past few hours, we have been steaming northward on the Dnieper River from Dnipro, a Ukrainian city of nearly one million people, toward the bustling Ukrainian capital of Kiev (pop. 2.9 million), and I have yet to see another ship of any size.

No barges, no tankers, no day boats carrying tourists. We have passed a few small fishing boats, but nothing like the numbers you see on other European rivers. It seems even the locals have forgotten about this 1,400-mile-long waterway.

Viking River Cruises on serene Dnieper

Ukraine’s serene Dnieper River. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Rising in the Valdai Hills of Russia and flowing southward through Belarus and Ukraine to the Black Sea, the Dnieper is one of the longest rivers in Europe — longer than the Rhine and Seine combined. But it’s little visited by Western tourists, or anybody else for that matter, and barely used for commerce.

That always has been the case to some extent. But it’s even more so now that Ukraine is embroiled in a Civil War-like conflict with Russia-backed separatists in the country’s far-eastern corner. That has scared some tourists away, not that it should.

As of this year, the Dnieper is home to just one overnight cruise vessel of any note — the one that I am aboard. As recently as two years ago, when there were more worries about the intentions of the Russia-backed separatists, even this ship wasn’t sailing.

A TRULY QUIRKY CRUISE

Even in the best of times, the Dnieper isn’t considered an A-list river destination. Meandering through the relatively non-descript central part of Ukraine, past low-lying farmland, forests and Soviet-built industrial towns, the waterway lacks the romantic scenery of the Danube, with its vineyard lined Wachau Valley, or the medieval charm of the Rhine. Nor is it a gateway to Europe’s greatest cultural attractions. If that’s what you’re after, this probably isn’t the trip for you.

But a Viking River Cruise in Ukraine on the Dnieper has its allures. Most notably, it offers a window onto Ukraine and the Ukrainian people, who have managed to maintain an identity despite centuries of invasion and domination by outside powers.

If you’re curious at all about this long-suffering, only-recently-independent country of 45 million, if only because you’ve been hearing so much about it lately in the news, a trip on Viking Sineus can be eye-opening.

In addition to historical sites dating as far back as the 11th century, when Kiev was at the center of the mighty, Viking-founded Kievan Rus federation, the “attractions” you will see include faded Soviet monuments, Stalinist Empire-style apartment complexes and other remnants of the Soviet era (until 1991, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union), plus artifacts from the recent conflict in the east.

One moment in you’ll be looking at an 18th-century cathedral, the next moment walking through a display of bombed-out vehicles from the eastern Donbass region.

The trip also will give you a chance (unofficially, without the assistance of Viking River Cruises) to visit one of the world’s most unusual (and poignant) sites: The still-radiation-contaminated nuclear disaster zone that is Chernobyl. It’s just a two-hour drive from where the ship docks in Kiev. (More details at the end of the article.)

In short, this is a bit of an outlier when it comes to European river cruises. As quirky cruises go, it may be one of the quirkiest of them all.

Viking River cruise Ukraine sign

Hey mom … we’re not far from Baltimore! * Photo: Gene Sloan

AN ANOMALY IN THE VIKING FLEET

Viking Sineus is operated by Viking Cruises, but it isn’t a typical Viking ship. Nearly all the line’s 60-plus river vessels in Europe are of the same modern “longship” design that began rolling out in 2012. But Viking Sineus is one of a handful of Viking ships that dates back far earlier — all the way back to 1979! It also has an unusual history that, for a history lover at least, is part of its allure.

Viking River Cruises

The 196-passenger Viking Sineus was built in 1979. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Built in East Germany during the height of the Cold War and originally named Mikhael Lomonosov, the vessel initially served as a getaway for high-level Soviet apparatchiks (or so the story goes). It wasn’t until the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that it entered the Viking fleet.

The good news is Viking Sineus doesn’t feel like it dates to the 1970s. In fact, while its exterior is a bit Old School, its interior looks almost new. That’s because Viking recently revamped Viking Sineus in a major way, gutting and rebuilding cabins and public spaces with the same modern Scandinavian design found on the longships.

The massive overhaul of Viking Sineus took place in 2014. But due to the recent conflict in Ukraine, the vessel only resumed sailing in 2018. Given its schedule is seasonal, that means there only have been about 20 voyages since the ship emerged from its makeover.

Viking Sineus docked. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Cabins & Public Rooms

If you’ve cruised on a Viking ship before, you’ll feel right at home on Viking Sineus. Its 98 cabins are similar in style to those found on the longships, with light walls, streamlined furniture, big televisions and modern bathrooms. Two-thirds have balconies.

The author’s balcony cabin. * Photo: Gene Sloan

For the most part, the public areas are stylish and comfortable. If they have a flaw, it’s that the main lounge, the Sky Bar, is too small to accommodate the number of passengers who arrive at cocktail hour for drinks and nightly port talks. While the crew brings in extra chairs for the occasion (jammed edge-to-edge in rows facing the stage), it’s not a particularly pleasant place to kick back before dinner.

Viking Sineus also has a far smaller top-deck lounge space than the longships. Not that this is a problem. We saw few people heading up top during our voyage.

As is typical for Viking ships, there is no fitness center, spa or hair salon on board. Nor is there a laundry room, though laundry service is available through your room attendant for a somewhat hefty extra charge (185 Ukrainian hryvnia, or about $7, for a blouse; 225 hryvnia, or about $9, for trousers).

Viking Sineus does have a small library with books and games tucked between the rows of cabins on Deck 2. There’s also a small shop selling nesting dolls and other Ukrainian crafts.

a library Viking River Cruises

The library/game room on board. * Photo: Gene Sloan

JUST ONE EATERY

When it comes to mealtimes, there essentially is just one option on Viking Sineus, the 196-seat Kiev Restaurant. Located at the back of the ship on Deck 3, the room offers open seating for breakfast, lunch and dinner with a well-distributed mix of tables for two, four, six and eight. If you’re a couple looking for privacy, you’ll have no problem finding a table for two. But there are plenty of bigger tables, too, if you’re a larger group or eager to share a meal with new friends.

Breakfast and lunch in the Kiev Restaurant are buffet style with additional a la carte items available from servers (made-to-order breakfast options include Eggs Benedict, buttermilk pancakes and French toast; lunch brings cheeseburgers, hot dogs and a changing lineup of specials such as a pulled-pork sandwich and beef ragout). In the one exception to the one-eatery situation, early and late risers will also find coffee, tea and pastries in a corner of the Panorama Bar.

Ukrainian Favorites

Dinner in the Kiev Restaurant is a table-served affair with changing three-course menus. The highlight of the menu every night is the “regional specialties tasting” — a starter, entrée and dessert that offers a taste of local Ukrainian cuisine. A typical night might bring classic Ukrainian red borscht as a starter, followed by local butter fish with a celeriac purée and a Ukrainian plum cake.

Viking River Cruises

A classic Ukrainian red borscht was served, of course. * Photo: Gene Sloan

The dinner menu also offers a rotation of two non-Ukrainian entrees each night, plus two starters and a dessert. These dishes are mostly Continental, ranging from braised beef with an onion sauce and mashed potatoes to seared pike perch with creamy vegetables and glazed beets.

In addition, as is typical on Viking ships, an “always available” section of the menu at dinner offers a classic Caesar salad as a starter and three traditional entrees: beef tenderloin, poached Norwegian salmon and roast chicken. Always-available desserts include Crème Brulée, a cheese plate, a fruit plate and ice cream.

In general, the food on Viking Sineus is quite good, and the Ukrainian dishes stand out. My favorite dish of the trip was the Glavnaya Goose Leg with apricots and prunes that appeared on the regional-specialties menu early in the voyage. Slow-cooked and beautifully glazed, the meat just fell off the bone and boasted a wonderful, stew-like favor.

Viking River Cruises dinner

The Glavnaya Goose Leg with apricots and prunes. * Photo: Gene Sloan

As is always the case on Viking ships, beer, wine and sodas are available during lunch and dinner at no extra charge. Just be warned that the included wines, locally made in Ukraine, are relatively basic. For those who crave something swankier, a selection of extra-charge wines is available, too.

Of note, the entire dining room and bar staff, as well as nearly all other crew on board, is made up of local Ukrainians, most of whom live in the cities the ship visits. Only the captain, program director, hotel director and maître d’hotel are from outside the country (including Italy and Germany).

This lends a wonderful authenticity to the on-board experience, as if we are staying in a local hotel. The (all-female) dining and bar staff — nearly all young, energetic and outgoing — have a good command of English and are happy to talk about life in their native country. Ditto for the excellent front desk staff.

ONE-WAY FROM ODESSA TO KIEV

For 2019, Viking Sineus is operating one-way voyages between the Ukrainian cities of Odessa and Kiev. The northbound version of the Viking River Cruise in Ukraine, starting in Odessa, includes a short passage across the Black Sea before the vessel reaches the mouth of the Dnieper and heads upstream to Kherson, Zaporozhye, Dnipro, Kremenchug and Kiev. The southbound version of the trip does the same in reverse.

Viking River Cruise Ukraine itinerary

The itinerary.

For 2020, Viking is tweaking the itinerary by adding a visit to nearby Romania to the beginning or end of every trip. Instead of Odessa, the northbound version of the newly named “Kiev, Black Sea & Bucharest” tour will begin in Bucharest, Romania, with a two-night hotel stay. Tourgoers then will transfer via a long bus ride to Tulcea, Romania, where Viking Sineus will be waiting to take them across the Black Sea to Odessa and the Dnieper cities of Kherson, Zaporozhye and Kiev. The southbound version of this Viking River Cruise in Ukraine will offer the same in reverse.

Note that, for 2020, stops in Dnipro and Kremenchug are being dropped.

Here, a day-by-day look at the northbound version of the itinerary as it is offered in 2019:

VIKING RIVER CRUISE IN UKRAINE — DAY 1-4: ODESSA

If you’ve heard anything about Odessa, you’ve probably heard that it’s home to the Potemkin Steps. The soaring granite stairway made famous by Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin is the city’s iconic attraction. It’s also the best way to reach Viking Sineus if, like me, you arrive for your cruise a day early and spend the night in Odessa’s historic center. The ship docks right at its base.

Walking to Viking Sineus from a nearby hotel, I find myself offering an homage to Battleship Potemkin’s legendary massacre scene as I bump my 40-pound suitcase down the stairway’s 192 steps (you can avoid the steps by riding the adjacent incline railway for less than $1). I am pushed on not by Cossacks with fixed bayonets but by a crowd of tourists.

Viking River cruise in the Urraine

The granite stairway made famous by Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Over the coming days, I discover Odessa is more than the Potemkin Steps. Founded by Russia’s Catherine the Great in 1794, the once-wealthy Black Sea port city entices with a faded grandness. Rows of tree-lined boulevards are lined with elegant but often crumbling Art Nouveau, Baroque Revival and neoclassical buildings, including the spectacular Odessa National Theater of Opera and Ballet.

VIking River Cruises stop in Odessa

Odessa National Theater of Opera and Ballet.* Photo: Gene Sloan

As we are told during an initial tour, Odessa was one of the most important cities of the Russian Empire in the 19th century, smaller in size only to Moscow, St. Petersburg and Warsaw. As a major and wealthy trading port for centuries, Odessa, not unlike Alexandria in Egypt, was very international.

Pearl of the Black Sea

Called the “Pearl of the Black Sea,” it was a key warm-water port for Russia well into the 20th century, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.

Viking Sineus remains docked in Odessa for the first three nights of my Viking River Cruise in Ukraine, allowing plenty of time for exploring. As is typical with Viking river sailings, every day brings at least one included excursion, starting with a walking tour that hits the highlights of Odessa’s historic district.

Viking River Cruises

Odessa’s historic district. * Photo: Gene Sloan

In addition to visiting the Potemkin Steps, we ramble down lovely, pedestrian only Primorsky Boulevard, located at the top of the stairway. We stroll pedestrian only Deribasivska Street, the main shopping corridor, and stop at City Garden, where I mimic the locals by snapping a selfie with the smiling sculpture of Leonid Utyosov. I have no idea who he is, but it seems like the thing to do. (Well ok, let’s find out!  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonid_Utyosov)

Viking River cruise stop in Odessa

Selfie time with the smiling sculpture of Leonid Utyosov. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Still, perhaps my favorite Odessa site is the opulent statue of Catherine the Great (known as the Monument to the Founders of Odessa) – if only for the story that goes with it. Erected in 1900, the statue was ripped down in 1920 by the anti-Tsarist Bolsheviks, only to be put back just 12 years ago by the Ukrainians. Take that, Soviets!

World War II Sites

In another included tour, we descend into the Odessa Catacombs, a renowned network of subterranean tunnels under the city and its outskirts where Soviet partisans hid during the war. Our guide, Nadya, shows us where the partisans slept, ate and fought to the death with German-allied Romanian soldiers who were sent into the labyrinth-like lair to flush them out.

Odessa Catacombs on a Viking River Cruise

Odessa Catacombs. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Originally excavated in the 19th century as part of limestone mining operations, the tunnels supposedly stretch for more than 1,500 miles, only a small portion of which is open to the public.

A half dozen other excursions offered by Viking during our stay include a visit to Odessa’s sprawling Privoz Market with the ship’s chef, a brandy tasting at the local Shustov Cognac Museum and a night out to the opera. All come with an extra charge.

Being a bit of a cheapskate, I round out my visit with an included tour to the Odessa Fine Arts Museum. Apart from Wassily Kandinsky, you probably haven’t heard of any of the Ukrainian and Russian artists whose work is on display. But the building itself, a former neoclassical palace, is impressive, and the art is a window onto the Ukraine of old.

VIKING RIVER CRUISE IN UKRAINE — DAY 5: KHERSON

Today is the day we finally begin working our way up the Dnieper. During the night, Viking Sineus has traveled eastward along the coast of the Black Sea from Odessa to the mouth of the waterway — nearly 100 miles. The ship already is well inland by the time most passengers awake.

At first blush, our only stop for the day, the small port city of Kherson (pop. 300,000), doesn’t look like much — a mishmash of decaying, graffiti-splashed buildings that might best be described as forlorn. But for a history nerd like me, it’s beguiling.

As our guide for the day, Lena, points out, Kherson was founded in 1778 by Russian prince Grigory Potemkin, the famed lover and lieutenant of Catherine the Great, and it hides intriguing pieces of his story.

Potemkin Again

We start a two-and-a-half-hour tour with a stop at the central park Potemkin ordered built, fittingly home to a soaring statue of him. After the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks tried but failed to topple the statue with two tractors — a metaphor, perhaps, for the movement’s struggle against capitalist ideals. Another stop brings a visit to St. Catherine’s Cathedral, also built under Potemkin’s watch and now his final resting place.

Viking river cruises in Kherson, Ukraine

The Potemkin statue. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Catherine the Great, who dispatched Potemkin this way to develop the region, famously traveled down the Dnieper to see how he was faring (supposedly past hastily constructed “Potemkin villages” designed to show progress). You can see the chair in St. Catherine’s Cathedral where she sat during her visit.

Viking River cruises to Ukraine

Catherine the Great’s chair. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Our touring also brings us to the aging building that once housed the school for the legendary “night witches” of World War II — the all-female band of Soviet aviators who terrorized Hitler’s invading army with daring tactics. They were known for cutting their engines during bombing runs and gliding to their targets so they wouldn’t be heard coming.

Viking River cruise in the Ukraine

The aging building that once housed the school for the legendary “night witches” of World War II. * Photo: Gene Sloan

A final stop delivers us to the Monument of Glory, a World War II memorial that is classically Soviet in style — that is, taller and more triumphant than all reason. But I have spotted something even more alluring at the end of the adjacent park: A World War II-era, Soviet T-34 tank. It takes a little hustle, but I make it there and back in our allotted 12 minutes of free time.

Viking River cruise to see Soviet-era tanks

A World War II-era, Soviet T-34 tank. * Photo: Gene Sloan

By lunchtime, Viking Sineus is churning northeast on the Dnieper on its way to its next stop, Zaporozhye.

VIKING RIVER CRUISE IN UKRAINE — DAY 6: ZAPOROZHYE

If you’re a lover of engineering marvels, you’re in for a treat this day. Just be sure to be up early. As it approaches Zaporozhyre, Viking Sineus must traverse one of the deepest river locks in all of Europe. Located at one of the biggest hydroelectric dams on the Continent, the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station, the lock raises the ship 108 feet — nearly 11 stories.

Viking River cruises Ukraine cruise

The lock at Zaporozhyre rises up almost 11 stories. * Photo: Gene Sloan

The dock for Zoporohyze is just north of the lock, and within minutes of passing through it, we are touring the city.

An industrial center of 700,000 people known for steel, aluminum and aircraft engine production, Zoporohyze isn’t a place you go to see grand monuments, historic sites or charming neighborhoods. What it offers is a glimpse of everyday life in a typical Soviet-era Ukraine city.

Heading into town by coach, we parade down eight-mile-long, six-lane-wide Sobornyi Avenue, which our guide bills as the longest central boulevard in all of Europe. As dreary as it is meant to be grand, with a succession of blocky, Stalin-era buildings, it is lined in places with loudspeakers that once spouted out Soviet propaganda.

Notably, a road sign declares we’re just 234 kilometers (about 145 miles) from Donetsk, a key city at the edge of the Donbass region where pro-Russia separatist forces have been battling against the Ukrainian military since 2014. Barely mentioned on Western newscasts in recent years, it is a simmering struggle that has left around 13,000 people dead. Our stop in Zaporozhye is about the closest we will get to the conflict zone. In theory, we could drive to it in a few hours, and that’s a bit surreal to contemplate. But the reality is that, in terms of this cruise, it’s a world away.

During a stop at Zaporozhye’s central park, I ask a young barista at a coffee stand about the situation. She tells me she and her friends initially were worried the Russia-backed soldiers might continue westward right into Zaporohyze. But things have settled down, and the worry has dissipated, she says. The bigger issue now, she says, is that it’s become hard to get an apartment, since so many Ukrainians from the East have fled this way and filled them up.

Viking River cruises

Coffee carts in Zaporozhye’s central park. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Talking to locals such as the barista offers a snapshot of the struggle that is life in Ukraine. She tells me she makes the equivalent of about $17 a day, and that’s quite good, she says. The typical person she knows makes about $250 a month. Ukraine, you will learn on a visit here, is incredibly poor by Western standards, in addition to having suffered terribly from war and famine over the past century.

After our short tour of the city center, we head to Zaporozhye’s main tourist attraction, a reconstructed Cossack fort on Khortytsia, an island in the middle of the Dnieper. Intertwined with Ukrainian and Russian history, the Cossacks were centered here from the 16th to 18th centuries. Later in the day, we return to the island for a display of Cossack horsemanship.

Viking River Cruises

The reconstructed Cossack fort. * Photo: Gene Sloan

From the Cossack fort, there is a great view of the entirety of the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station, which itself is a site with a significant history. Hailed as one of the great achievements of Soviet industrialization, it was the third largest power plant in the world when it opened in 1932, just behind the Hoover Dam and Wilson Dam in the United States. During World War II, retreating Red Army soldiers dynamited the dam to keep it out of German hands, resulting in a tidal surge that killed as many 100,000 people.

VIKING RIVER CRUISE IN UKRAINE — DAY 7-8: DNIPRO & KREMENCHUG

As noted above, Viking will be dropping stops in Dnipro and Kremenchug in 2020. As a result, I won’t go into great detail about our visits to the two destinations, other than to say that Dnipro, in particular, was intriguing. Once home to the Soviet Union’s rocket program, it was for many years a secretive “closed city” that was off limits to foreigners. It only opened to outsiders in the 1990s.

In Dnipro, I sign up for a wonderful (and quirky!) extra-charge tour to the Aerospace Museum, where we ogle once-classified artifacts of the Dnipro rocket program while a retired engineer talks us through the city’s role in building an intercontinental missile that could hit the United States.

Viking River cruise visit to Dnipro

Dnipro was once home to the Soviet Union’s rocket program. * Photo: Gene Sloan

The stop is paired with a visit to what is roughly translated as the “Technical Museum Time Machines,” an oddball temple to retro-cool, Cold War-era cars, toys, video games and other memorabilia.

Our visit to Dnipro also brings an included tour to the city center, where we survey the small but display-packed National Historical Museum. It harbors everything from 2,500-year-old stone idols found in the region to Cossack clothing and weapons.

Just outside, a more timely, open-air exhibit labeled the “Museum of Russian Aggression in the East of Ukraine” is filled with bombed-out vehicles, bullet-ridden road signs and other poignant reminders of the conflict just down the road.

Viking River cruises museum visit

The open-air “Museum of Russian Aggression in the East of Ukraine.” * Photo: Gene Sloan

VIKING RIVER CRUISE IN UKRAINE — DAY 9-10: KIEV

Viking is saving the best for last by devoting the final two days of this Viking River Cruise in Ukraine to Kiev. The Ukrainian capital is by far the most vibrant, stylish and historically interesting city in the country. Built on hills overlooking a bend in the Dnieper, it offers iconic attractions such as St. Sophia’s Cathedral — a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with 1,000-year-old frescoes and mosaics — and lovely squares and parks for strolling. There’s also plenty of restaurants, bars and other nightspots.

Visiting Kiev on a Viking River cruise

And another angle on stunning St. Sophia’s Cathedral. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Kiev also is the place where the story of Ukraine’s recent struggle finally comes into focus. One of the sites we visit during an initial tour of the city is Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the square that was at the center of Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution of 2014. Peaceful now, it was for several days in 2014 the site of dramatic clashes between protestors and government forces that ended with the ousting of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych (now in exile in Russia). Makeshift memorials with pictures of the 100-plus people killed during the conflict line the area.

Approaching Kiev aboard the Viking Sireus

Approaching Kiev. * Photo: Gene Sloan

We approach Kiev on a perfectly sunny afternoon, and our program director, Oliver, ushers us to the top deck of Viking Sineus for a celebration. Leaning on the railings, we marvel at the golden spires of Kiev Pechersk Lavra, a walled monastery complex once home to 2,000 monks.

Viking River cruise in Ukraine in Kiev

Kiev’s walled Pechersk Lavra monastery complex. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Later, we will descend by candlelight into its subterranean caves, dug by the priests that lived there as hermits. The labyrinth-like complex still holds their mummified remains, laid out in glass coffins.

Kiev has quite a bit to offer, enough for Viking to operate an overlapping mix of seven different tours during our two-day stay. Many are built around themes such as Jewish Kiev or Ukraine During World War II. But I make a last-minute decision to skip nearly all these outings to spend a full day visiting what may be the region’s most intriguing (and disturbing) destination: The site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

I Chose Chernobyl

Just 62 miles north of Kiev, the radiation-contaminated area around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, known as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, has been open to visitors with permission on a limited basis since 2011 — as long as they don’t stay long.

While mainstream tour operators such as Viking don’t offer excursions there, several local companies in Kiev will take small groups into the area for several hours at a time, handling the required paperwork and smoothing things over at checkpoints.

Along with two other Viking Sineus passengers, for $99 USD a piece, I sign up for a visit with a company called Solo East, which picks us up in a van right at the ship for the two-hour drive to the exclusion zone.

Chernobyl visit on a Viking River cruise

All aboard for the Chernobyl Express. * Photo: Gene Sloan

At the first checkpoint, we are issued radiation detectors that will monitor our exposure, although the official word is that it will not be significant (if we follow the rules). At the same time, we are told not to touch anything or sit down, lest we contaminate ourselves. There still is plenty of radiation around.

Viking River cruise in Ukraine

Radiation detectors are a must. * Photo: Gene Sloan

A bit to my surprise, we can motor right up to the melted-down reactor, which recently was covered in a new (and supposedly safe) containment structure. But the most gripping part of the experience is wandering through nearby Pripyat, the small city built to house the power plant’s workers.

Ukriaine Viking River cruise stops in Kiev

If I was standing here 33 years ago, I’d be dead. The dome behind me is the new containment structure over the melted-down Reactor #4. The amount of radiation released during the accident was 400 times the level of the bomb over Hiroshima. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Once home to nearly 50,000 people, it was evacuated in two days after the disaster and is now a ghost town on an epic scale. We shuffle down its eerily quiet main streets, empty of people — past government buildings, a hotel, a movie theater, a stadium and the small amusement park with a yellow carousel that is shown in so many Chernobyl documentaries. It’s all slowly crumbling and being retaken by the forest.

Chernobyl visit on a Viking river cruise

Pripyat was abandoned. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Viking Ukraine cruise

Pripyat was evacuated in just a few days, including this amusement park. * Photo: Gene Sloan

Given the terrible impact that the disaster had on the people of the area and beyond (recently recounted in the five-part HBO series Chernobyl), it’s a heavy experience. But it’s also enlightening. And that may be the best way to describe this river cruise in its entirety.

From stories of man-made famine in the Soviet era that left millions dead to World War II devastation to more recent struggles, we hear a lot that is sobering on this trip. But we also leave with a better understanding of a place that, despite it all, seems to be moving forward.

IF YOU GO …

For 2020, Viking plans 10 departures of its new “Kiev, Black Sea & Bucharest” tour starting on May 28. The final sailing ends in early October. Including the added Bucharest stay, the trips will be 11 nights in length — one night longer than this year’s itinerary.

Fares for the trips start at $3,799 per person, based on double occupancy, with the rates including lodging, most meals, tours during every stop, and beer and wine with dinner.

The northbound version of the itinerary can be extended with a three-night pre-cruise stay in Vienna and/or a three-night post-cruise stay in Istanbul that are priced at $649 and $1,199 per person, respectively. Passengers on the southbound version of the trip have the same two options in reverse. There also are pre- and post-cruise Romania tours available for $799 per person.

Visit Viking  for more info on a Viking River Cruise in Ukraine.

Gene SloanGene Sloan has written about cruising for more than 25 years and for many years oversaw USA TODAY’s award-winning cruise site, USA TODAY Cruises. He’s sailed on nearly 150 ships.

Check out Gene’s other insightful articles for QuirkyCruise.com: Danube River cruise on AMAWaterway’s new AMA Magna.

 

 

 

 

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CrosiEurope

Small Ship Cruise Line Review: CroisiEurope

A family-owned French firm based in Strasbourg that started up in 1976 now operates one of the largest inland waters’ fleets in Europe with both river and canal boats. The river cruises travel on waterways throughout Europe, providing one of the main attractions for those looking for less traveled destinations.

In addition, coastal cruises fan out from Naples to the Amalfi Coast, Aeolian Islands, and Sicily, from Naples to Greece, and along Croatian coast and Montenegro. Additional river and island coastal cruises, beyond Europe, appear below. The total fleet worldwide now numbers almost 50 vessels. The firm caters to English speakers as well as European nationalities, and bien sur, the French.

CroisiEurope

Danube River scene. * Photo: CroisiEurope Cruises

Ships, Years Delivered & Passengers

The river fleet numbers 40+. A sample listing follows. A “P” following a ship’s name indicates Premium, the newest and heavily remodeled vessels with larger cabins and more amenities.

Seine: SEINE PRINCESS-P (b. 2002, renovated 2012, 134p); BOTTICELLI (b. 2004, renovated 2010, 150p); RENOIR-P (b. 2018, 110p)

Rhine & Danube: LA BOHEME (built 1995, renovated 2011, 162 passengers, 108 sq. ft. cabins); BEETHOVEN (b. 2004, renovated 2010, 180p, cabins 140 sq. ft.); LAFAYETTE-P (b. 2014, 86p, cabin size N.A.); VIVALDI-P (b. 2009, 176p); GERARD SCHMITTER-P (b. 2012, 174p); EUROPE (b. 2006, renovated, 2011, 180p); FRANCE (b. 1999, renovated 2011, 156p); LEONARDO DA VINCI (b. 2oo3, renovated 2011, 174p); MODIGLIANI (b. 2001, renovated 2011, 156p); VICTOR HUGO (b. 2000, renovated 2019, 96p); MONA LISA (b. 2000, renovated 2010, 96p); SYMPHONIE-P (b. 2010, renovated 2017, 108p); MONET (b. 1999, renovated 2007, 156p); DOUCE FRANCE (b. 1997, renovated 2017, 110p). N.B. The Moselle has been added with cruises embarking in Basel.

Rhone & Soane: MISTRAL (b. 1999, 158p, cabins 118 sq. ft.); VAN GOGH-P (b. 2018, 110p); CAMARGUE-P (b. 2015, 108p); RHONE PRINCESS (b. 2001/renovated 2011, 138p)

Garonne/Dordogne: CYRANO DE BERGERAC-P (b. 2013, 174p, 140 sq. ft)

CroisiEurope

Cyrano in Bordeaux. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Loire: LOIRE PRINCESS-P (b. 2014, 96 p, cabin size N.A.), a sidewheel paddle boat with a shallow draft designed to negotiate shallow waters.

Douro: GIL EANES-P (b. 2015, 32p, cabin size N.A.); MIGUEL TORGA-P (b. 2016, 136p); VASCO DA GAMA (b. 2002, 142p, cabins 129 sq. ft.); INFANTE DOM HENRIQUE (b. 2003, renovated 2014, 142p); FERNAO DE MAGALHAES (b. 2003, renovated 2011, 142p); AMALIA RODRIGUES (b. 2019)

SW Spain: LA BELLE DE CADIZ-P (b. 2005, renovated 2010, 176p, cabins 118 sq. ft.)

Po (Italy): MICHELANGELO (b. 2000, renovated 2011, 156p, cabin size N.A.)

Elbe & Moldau: L’ELBE PRINCESSE-P (b. 2016, 80p, cabin size N.A.); L’ELBE PRINCESSE II-P  (b. 2018, 86p, cabin size N.A.); N.B. These two are paddle wheelers with the ability to navigate shallow waters to reach the center of Prague. VICTOR HUGO (b. 2000, renovated 2019, 96p); MONA LISA (b. 2000, renovated 2010, 48p)

Russia & the Volga: ROSTROPOVITCH (b. 1980, rebuilt 2010, 212p, cabins 126-243 sq.ft).

French Canals: Six French hotel canal barges built 2014-2016 and one renovated 2013; five taking 22p and one 24p, operating in Alsace, Burgundy, Champagne, Loire & Provence.

Coastal Ships: In addition, the CroisiEurope also runs LA BELLE DE L’ADRIATIQUE-P (b. 2007, renovated 2017, 198p), a five-deck oceangoing ship operating in the Mediterranean (Italy, Sicily, Croatia & Greece) with all outside 151sq. ft. cabins.  In October 2019, the line takes on the former Silver Discoverer (Silverseas and originally built for the Japanese market as the Oceanic Grace in 1989)  to operate as LA BELLE DES OCEANS (120 passengers) on itineraries beginning in East Asia then working its way westward to Europe. SEE BELOW.

Canada & the St. Lawrence: New for 2020: Cruises (11 nights) will begin at Montreal with an overnight then a flight to St. Pierre et Miquelon, French territorial islands near the mouth of the St. Lawrence and just south of Newfoundland. The coastal vessel LA BELLE DE OCEANS (120 passengers) will cruise to Cap-aux-Meules (Magdalen Islands), Gaspe and Perce Rock, Baie-Comeau, Tadoussac at the mouth of the Saguenay then upriver to Chicoutimi and along the St. Lawrence to Quebec City and Montreal (with a full day and overnight aboard before disembarking. This itinerary is likely to appeal to the French from France and to the growing North American market. Cruises operate between mid-June and mid-September (the beginning of fall footage).

Mekong River: INDOCHINE, a colonial-style boat operates on the Mekong (b. 2008 and taking 48 passengers in 172 sq, ft. all outside cabins); INDOCHINE II-P (b. 2017, 62 passengers, in 242 sq. ft. all outside cabins; LAN-DIEP (b. 2007, 44p), TOUM TIOU I (b. 2002, 20p) and TOUM TIOU II (b. 2008, 28p).

Southeast Asia, South Asia, Persian Gulf & Middle East: BELLE DES OCEANS (built 1989 & 120p) Cruises November 2019 to February 2020. Thailand & Malaysia 9 days; India & Sri Lanka 11 days; Dubai & Oman 8 days; and Jordan, Egypt, Israel & Cyprus 10 days.

CroisiEurope

Belle des Océans. * Photo: CroisiEurope

Inland Southern Africa: A relatively new offering is the riverboat AFRICAN DREAM (b. 2017, 16p) operating on Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe, southern Africa. The cruises are paired with a land stay at a lodge on the banks of the Zambezi River on the Border of Namibia and Botswana.The vessel takes just 16 passengers with 8 suites, including two with balconies. In 2020, the 16-passenger ZIMBABWEAN DREAM, built locally at Harare, will arrive to provide a second vessel for the Lake Kariba cruise portion of a longer tour that includes Victoria Falls and Botswana’s Chobe National Park with stays in riverside lodges.

The colonial-style Mekong riverboat used by Croisieurope is between cruises at Ho Chi Minh City.

The colonial-style Mekong riverboat used by CroisiEurope is between cruises at Ho Chi Minh City. * Photo: Ted Scull

Passenger Profile

While the first language aboard is French, English is also used for all announcements and entertainment, and is widely spoken amongst the crew. For some British and North Americans, the international experience is a major plus, though you will likely be in the minority. German, Italian and Spanish passengers may also be aboard.

Passenger Decks

The riverboat fleet includes three and four deckers, including the top open deck.

Price

$$  Expensive

Included Features

All drinks, from wines to beer, cocktails and soft drinks, are included in fares during the main season from April to October. For North American passengers, all excursions are included, from walking and motor coach tours, to even, for instance, a thrilling helicopter ride on the Bordeaux itineraries from Pauillac over the vineyards of the Medoc region.

CroisiEurope Cruises

A helicopter ride over the vineyards near Bordeaux is a highlight of a Garonne River cruise. Photo: Heidi Sarna

Itineraries

The usual Europe rivers are included such as Rhine, Moselle, Elbe, Main, Danube, Seine, Soane, Rhone, Douro (Portugal), Gironde and Garonne (SW France), and St. Petersburg to Moscow along rivers, canals and across lake and reservoirs.

More unusual are the Guadalquivir and Guadiana rivers in Andalusia (Southern Spain); the Po in Northern Italy; the Loire from St. Nazaire inland to Nantes and Angers (via shallow-draft paddleboat); Amsterdam to Berlin (unusual route) via waterways that connect the Rhine and tributaries with the Elbe across Northern Germany; and the Elbe and Moldau inland as far as central Prague by new shallow-draft sternwheelers 80-passenger L’ELBE PRINCESSE and L’ELBE PRINCESSE II (2018) taking 86 passengers. European river cruises operate nearly year-round.

Beyond Europe, Botswana‘s Chobe River in southern Africa plus Victoria Falls, and Mekong in Cambodia and Vietnam, are exotic options, plus ocean cruises to Malaysia and Thailand, India and Sri Lanka, the Persian Gulf, Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean.

In another category, canal cruises operate on waterways throughout France using 22-passenger barges. Coastal cruises operate from Naples to Italian ports, islands and Sicily, and in the Adriatic to mostly Croatian ports and Montenegro and Greece, including Corfu.

Since 2018, CroisiEurope is a booking agent for selected 9-night cruises of the St. Lawrence River aboard the newly rebuilt MS JACQUES CARTIER, calling at Quebec City, Montreal, Kingston, Toronto and Niagara Falls and passing along the St. Lawrence Seaway.

LA BELLE DE L’ADRIATIC operates in the Mediterranean. * Photo: Croisieurope

Why Go?

A French cruise line with an international passenger list may appeal to English speakers who would like to travel with Europeans (with French, Belgian and French-speaking Swiss in the majority), rather than just mostly North Americans.

When to Go?

The cruises operate during the best weather seasons, and the busy travel months of mid-June to September can often be avoided by choosing a spring or autumn date. Some departures are geared to the flowering bulb season in Belgian and the Netherlands, grape wine harvest in France and Germany, and a European-style Christmas (with markets) and New Year’s.

Autumn colors after the grape harvest along the Moselle in Germany. * Photo: Ted Scull

Autumn colors after the grape harvest along the Moselle in Germany. * Photo: Ted Scull

Cabins

Most are of small to moderate size, outside with windows, beds in twin or double configuration. Some newer boats have larger cabins if that is an important factor, and some offer a few single cabins. Amenities include radio and TV.

Small Ship Cruise Line Review: CroisiEurope

A standard cabin aboard Cyrano de Bergerac. * Photo: CroisiEurope

Public Rooms

All boats offer a forward lounge with bar for viewing and enjoying the entertainment, a dining room that seats all at the same time, and a top deck with both open and sheltered seating. During passages under very low bridges, the deck may have to be cleared of seating and railings.

Dining

Breakfast is a buffet while lunch and dinner are fine French cuisine set served three-course meals with complimentary beer, wine and soft drinks. It pays to like the local food; there is a lot of duck on the menu as that’s a very popular French dish in its various permutations. Passengers are assigned tables according to their language. Some North Americans may find the full lunch menu a bit much, so you may wish to skip a course.

CroiseEurope

An elegant lunch onboard with complimentary wine. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Activities & Entertainment

Pre-dinner and sometimes post-dinner games, dancing and live music from a duo on the electronic piano and guitar. Basically, the it’s social interaction amongst the passengers that holds sway rather than sophisticated entertainment.

The Salon Bar on the Symphonie. * Photo: CroisiEurope Cruises

Special Notes

Consider the international flavor, which might be a plus or minus for you.

Along the Same Lines

CroisiEurope is probably the most international of the riverboat lines we cover. Others may cater only to English speakers (including those who speak the language well in addition to their native tongue) or specific nationalities such as German and Swiss or Spanish.

Contact

Go to www.croisieuroperivercruises.com; 800-768-7232.

TWS

 

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Checkmate on a Black Sea Cruise

Checkmate on a Black Sea Cruise

by Ted Scull.

Back in my college days, I signed up for a year of Russian and on the first day of class, the professor gave us our assignment — learn the Cyrillic alphabet overnight or don’t bother to come to class tomorrow. So, a friend and I stayed up well past midnight and were ready for the challenge the next day.

Checkmate on a Black Sea Cruise

Soviet riverboat AMUR sailing the Danube. * Photo: Ted Scull

Not too long after, I wanted to use my Russian and planned a trip to the then USSR. A friend and I booked a Soviet riverboat leaving Vienna, sailed down the Danube bound for the Black Sea and Yalta in the Crimea. The group aboard was mostly European, including Russians, and no other Americans.

Checkmate on a Black Sea Cruise

Bulgaria & the Black Sea

Changing Ships

A week later we arrived at the Bulgarian port of Ismail located near the mouth of the Danube. Here we left the riverboat and boarded a small Soviet ship for Yalta.

We followed a twisting channel through the marshy delta, and around a bend, suddenly there was the Black Sea ahead of us. The ship began to rise and fall in the light swell.

Walking to the stern to look back at the coast line, we encountered a group of people sitting at chess tables and speaking Russian. They turned towards us and asked in Russian if we played chess, a word I recognized, and I said, “Da” (Yes). They asked where we came from and seemed pleased with the response. Two seats were vacated, one facing a youngish fellow across the chess board. The group mostly stood around us.

The Match

My opponent made his moves very quickly, and that was not the way I played. After a bit, I realized the need to speed up a bit and concentrated hard.

There was complete silence, and in about 15 minutes, I surprised myself by being able to say “mat” for checkmate.

The Russians cheered, my opponent smiled and shook my hand, and beers were ordered. The conversation that followed was a bit hit and miss, and soon we were called for dinner.

To this day, I do not know if I was meant to win, though my opponent did not make any obvious errors that I could determine. But in the era of the Cold War, my first Russian encounter could not have been more hospitable.

Checkmate on a Black Sea Cruise

Ted Scull at the fantail. * Photo: a fellow passenger

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Mother Russia River Cruising

By Theodore W. Scull.

Before a much more recent Russia river cruising stint, I had traveled to Russia for the first time during the Soviet Union era that ended in 1991. It had been a closely orchestrated experience overseen by Intourist, the official state travel agency. My four-week visit back then was part guided tour and part independent stays drawn from a list of accessible cities. In my case they were Yalta and extra days in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) and Moscow. Travel within Russia was by train, airplane, local bus, and a side-wheel riverboat on the Volga and Don rivers.

Russia River Cruising

The absence of low bridges permits much larger riverboats than in Western Europe * Photo: Ted Scull

While my wife and I had taken two Baltic cruises that called at St. Petersburg, I longed to press on inland to see what the country was like today. For my wife, it would be an all-new experience.

I looked at tours but did not want one that hopped by air from city to city as I was equally interested in what was in between. I wanted to see Mother Russia, the national personification of that country and not unlike the term Fatherland that applies to many other countries.

Recently, relations between the U.S. and Russia have slipped back to a variation of the Cold War days, but that was not a deterrent for us. Russia is hardly the only country where we are not on best terms.

Russia River Cruising with Viking River Cruise

A half dozen years ago, we chose Viking River Cruises’ 13-day Waterways of the Tsars that plied between St. Petersburg and Moscow using a complex of connecting rivers, canals, lakes and a reservoir. Viking has a long track record operating in Russia that dates back 20 years.

The riverboat would serve as our hotel for three nights in both cities and then convey us through the countryside making a half-dozen stops along the way.

We arrived in St. Petersburg by Russian train from Helsinki, Finland, a most comfortable daytime journey passing through deep forests and farmland. It was the way that V. I. Lenin had arrived in 1917 just prior to the Russian Revolution.

Several Days in St. Petersburg

As we exited St. Petersburg’s Finland Station, the locomotive that had brought Lenin from Helsinki to Russia to stage the 1917 revolution was on display at the end of the platform. After a 30-minute taxi ride to the Neva River, we  boarded a riverboat considerably larger than those on the Danube, Rhine, Rhone and other Western European rivers, because of the absence of low bridges.

Transfer by car service took 30 min.

For a description of the riverboat, see our  QuirkyCruise Viking River Cruises review.

With the first three days docked on the Neva, we used the riverboat as our hotel. On the first morning, the bus you entered and the guide assigned to that bus were yours for the entire tour program. Tatiana, our guide, was a highly informative woman with an engaging personality. During the academic year, she taught English and French at university level.

Tours leaving from the dock visited the stupendous Hermitage and Winter Palace, Peter and Paul Fortress where the czars and czarinas are buried, and Catherine’s Palace and gardens at Pushkin.

Russia River Cruising

Tatania, our guide, throughout the rver cruise.

Also, we arrived at most sites at the start of the day, and while that meant an early rise, we faced much less crowding and enjoyed our visits. As a bonus, we had free time to wander amongst one of the world’s finest art collections. One evening we attended a delightful performance of Swan Lake.

Our guide also carefully explained how to use the subway and bus in St. Petersburg and later at Moscow. On those days when the included tours did not operate, passengers had the choice of paying for optional tours or going on their own. We chose the latter as I can read Cyrillic letters learned from a one-year Russian language course in college. However, few others did.

As Russia uses a broad rail gauge, trains were especially roomy as were the stations.  It was a half hour to the city center at Nevsky Prospekt (the main boulevard) and there we toured on foot using our Lonely Planet guidebook.

St. Petersberg's Nevsky Prospekt,

St. Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospekt, main shopping street. * Photo: Ted Scull

St. Petersburg, a planned city with its center dating from the early 18th to the early 20th century, was a delight to explore. It is laced with fine avenues and tree-lined canals and dotted with charming neighborhoods and well-tended parks.  We especially enjoyed the richly decorated interior of Kazan (Russian Orthodox) Cathedral and the main bookstore beautifully housed in the ornate former Singer (Sewing Machine) Building.

The former Singer Sewing Machine building, now a bookstore in St. Petersburg. * Photo: Ted Scull

The current Waterway of the Tsars Viking River Cruise itinerary, operating from June to October, covers some 870 miles, while as the crow flies, the straight-line distance is just 400 miles. In the 18th century, Peter the Great tried to link St. Petersburg, his new “Window on the West,” with Moscow by water, but the technology was simply not there. By the mid-19th century, a continuous waterway opened eventually joining the Baltic Sea, St. Petersburg and Moscow and via the Volga and Don Rivers to the Caspian Sea, Sea of Azov and Black Sea.

In the 20th century larger vessels demanded deeper and wider canals, and Joseph Stalin, employing huge gangs of slave labor, completely transformed the water route to what we see today, though some sections were not finished until the 1960s. The monumental architecture at the canal locks unmistakably reflects the Stalin era.

Russia River Cruising

Stailin-era canal and lock construction. * Photo: Ted Scull

Through Lakes Ladoga & Onega

Slipping the lines, we sailed up the Neva River into Lake Ladoga, the largest in Europe, for a happily smooth crossing of the southern end and into the Svir River leading to Lake Onega, Europe’s second largest freshwater body, again almost a millpond.

Mandrogy

The stop at Mandrogy, a replica village built on the site of one destroyed during WWII offered craft demonstrations and souvenir shops and little else. The following stop at the Kizhi Island village, a UNESCO World Heritage site, presented a wonderful open-air museum of indigenous wooden architecture exhibiting small and large churches, with an octagonal plan, an elaborate bell tower or one with 22 onion domes and varying styles of private homes from the prosperous to peasant. While it seemed a stage set, the collection was authentic.

One of the historic wooden churches (22 domes) on Kizhi Island. * Photo: Ted Scull

Volga-Baltic Canal & Its Locks

The boat then cruised south through wind-whipped waters to join connecting rivers forming the Volga-Baltic Canal that led across circular White Lake and eventually into Rybinsk Reservoir. We passed through a series of impressive Soviet-era locks that could handle two large riverboats at once, each raising the vessel 45 to 50 feet. En route we also encountered quite a lot of freight traffic — small tankers, bulk carriers (transporting coal, grain, gravel, lumber) and container ships.

Goritsky

From the river landing at Goritsky, it was a short ride to the Monastery of St. Cyril, founded in 1397 and eventually becoming Russia’s second most important ecclesiastical, cultural and political center.  Assumption Cathedral, the oldest building on the site, dates from 1497, and the impressive mile-long walls and 23 defense towers were completed in 1666.

At its height, the 30-acre monastery and its 11 churches owned 400 villages and 22,000 serfs.  With their emancipation in 1861, the place fell into poverty, the complex closed down, and five decades ago it became a museum including an outstanding collection of religious icons.

Russia River Cruising

Monastery of St. Cyril. * Photo: Ted Scull

Back on the river, the evening could not have been prettier, with colorfully painted wooden houses clustered in small villages lining the wooded riverbanks — this pastoral scenery, a perk of Russia river cruising. People did watch us pass from shore, but it is not customary for them to wave.

Volga River

In the morning, we entered the legendary 2,300-mile-long Volga River, the mighty Mississippi of Russia that flows south into the Caspian Sea forming one route followed by early trading merchants between northern Russia and Asian kingdoms.

Yaroslav

The day’s stop was Yaroslav, a mid-sized city older than Moscow that is celebrated its millennium in 2010. We mingled with the locals at the street produce market, visited a 17th church with icons and frescos covering every inch from floor to ceiling, and promenaded through a pretty wooded park high above the river. It was a weekend and lots of families were out for a stroll.  If I made eye contact and said a greeting, I usually received a reply, but none were initiated by the locals unless they had something to sell. Occasionally, in a market, I would ask another shopper what something was — both in English and Russian — and sometimes that prompted a response and a halting conversation might ensue. It’s worth trying to make a personal link with the residents.

Uglich

The last call before Moscow was Uglich, which once boasted 100 churches, and is now was a sleepy town with a delicate panorama of pretty red, blue and gold domes of the remaining churches lining the riverfront.  We walked past rows of wooden houses to the edge of town, some attractively maintained with decorative wood trim and others in poor states of repair, reflective of the uneven wealth in the new Russia.

Mother Russia River Cruising

Uglich once boasted 100 churches, and is now was a sleepy town with a delicate panorama of pretty red, blue and gold domes of the remaining churches lining the riverfront. * Photo: Ted Scull

Moscow

The approach to Moscow was along the Moscow Canal, a prestige project that Stalin oversaw. Construction cost more than 100,000 lives, and following its rapid completion in 1937, the supervisors were also killed so not to reveal the appalling working and living conditions.

We docked among numerous other riverboats in the shadow of a huge Stalin-era maritime station on the outskirts of Moscow, the sprouting skyline seen about 15 miles away.

With my last visit during the Soviet era now decades ago, I was not prepared for how vibrant Moscow has turned out to be.  Yes, vast Red Square, St Basil’s colorful onion domes and the Kremlin walls, churches and museums were much the same spectacles, but now everything in the heart of the city had experienced a face lift. The streets were always clean, but today the parks and flower beds were very well attended, and the shops had lots to sell, with GUM, the former department store, the most poignant proof. Once little had been on display and now it was packed with trendy designer shops, though during the present economy, with many more lookers than buyers in evidence.

The traffic, almost non-existent a quarter century ago, was truly maniacal all day long, and one was never sure how long it would take to get from one place to the next.

On our free day, my wife and I used the metro, accessed just inland from the Northern River Station, and marveled at its convenience. Trains arrived every one to two minutes and the stations ranged from chandeliered palaces to Art Moderne to heavy Soviet style with heroic bas-reliefs. Sometimes it was fun just to get off, have a look around and get on the next train.

A mural in the moscow subway

A mural in the Moscow subway. * Photo: Ted Scull

We toured some of the better inner-city neighborhoods with lovely small parks, narrow lanes, and attractive architecture and had lunch in a small café that could have been in Paris.

Three days was not enough for Moscow, and we envied those who were staying on. I revisited the National Hotel where I roomed all those years ago, and apart from the layout, its dowdy Intourist atmosphere had been completely transformed in a boutique beauty, with prices to match.

Moscow's Red Square

Moscow’s red Square is a major meeting place for locals and visitors. * Photo: Ted Scull

As Russia is a difficult country to travel through independently, a river cruise solves many of the hassles and hurdles. Staying aboard a riverboat in St. Petersburg and Moscow smooths out the packing and unpacking rotations, but the remote landings require long drives to and from the city centers.

Viking River Cruises’ Viking Surkov

The Viking Surkov riverboat (renamed Viking Helgi and upgraded) proved to be a fine, well-run conveyance, and the guides that traveled with the riverboat were uniformly excellent in their knowledge and presentation. Russia is a very complex country and difficult to fathom, so one cannot expect to be an expert on much after a dozen days. However, the country has a very long history and a proud culture to share with those who take the time to be open to it.

Russia River Cruising & the Lines that Go There

AmaWaterways

Uniworld

Scenic

Viking

Volga Dream

 

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Mother Russia River Cruising

By Ted Scull.

In the aftermath of two cruise-ship visits to St. Petersburg, my wife and I longed to plunge deeper into Mother Russia. While I had visited and stayed in several Black Sea ports, I had not traveled inland since the Soviet era, and my wife had never been beyond fringes of St. Petersburg.

As we had so enjoyed an earlier cruise on the Danube from Budapest to the Black Sea with Viking River Cruises, we decided to book its 13-day “Waterways of the Czars” from St. Petersburg to Moscow — via a highly complex waterway made up of several rivers and canals, numerous locks, three lakes and a reservoir. The riverboat would serve as our hotel for three nights in both cities and in between convey us through the countryside making stops along the way.

St. Petersburg to Moscow via rivers, canals, lakes and a reservoir. * Photo: Viking River Cruises

St. Petersburg to Moscow via rivers, canals, lakes and a reservoir. * Photo: Viking River Cruises

We arrived in St. Petersburg by Russian train from Helsinki, a most comfortable seven-hour journey passing through deep forests and farmland, and at a fraction of the cost of flying.

As we exited St. Petersburg’s Finland Station in a reversed car with drive, the locomotive that had brought V. I. Lenin from Helsinki to Russia to stage the 1917 revolution was on display at the end of the platforms. The drive down the Neva River to the ship took about 30 minutes.

Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg's grand boulevard. * Photo: Ted Scull

Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg’s grand boulevard. * Photo: Ted Scull

Embarking at St. Petersburg

Viking River Cruises' riverboat tied up on the Neva just outside St. Petersburg. * Photo: Ted Scull

Viking River Cruises’ riverboat tied up on the Neva just outside St. Petersburg. * Photo: Ted Scull

While Viking Surkov is the line’s marketing name for our handsome conveyance, the Cyrillic letters on the bow and stern read Alexei Surkov, named for a Russian poet who lived between 1899 and 1983. A year after his death the riverboat bearing his name was completed in an East German shipyard, one of a large class measuring 423 feet in length. She takes up to 210 passengers and a Russian and Filipino crew of 114 at 15 miles per hour. Since our cruise, the vessel has been renamed.

The cabins, all outside, and most with picture windows that open, are arranged on three of the four passenger decks. Categories A through D, the bulk of the accommodations, measure a generous 161 square feet. Our cabin included a bathroom with stall shower and a 26-inch flat-screen TV

The highest Sun Deck held the Sky Bar, a big-window lounge with both conversational seating and chairs lined up in rows for briefings, the enrichment program and screening films. During the mornings and afternoons while cruising, one of the six traveling guides presented a lecture on the Romanovs, Russian Revolution, Stalin era, Cold War, Russia today, or the Russian language.

Viewing lounge on the highest deck. * Photo: Ted Scull

Viewing lounge on the highest deck. * Photo: Ted Scull

Aft on Sun Deck has seating around tables under cover, while deck chairs with attached sun canopies are set out in the open.

The cheerful forward-facing Panorama Lounge on Upper Deck is furnished with chairs, square tables and a sit-up bar for six. It serves as an ideal room for watching the passing scene in cool or inclement weather and offers a daily afternoon tea.

A wraparound deck on this same level and a narrower version one deck down have comfy chairs for sightseeing and a path for constitutional walks.

Main Deck has two stairway lounges, the forward one by the reception, and a centerline amidships lounge cum library. Free Internet access is offered, and passengers proved polite about sharing the facilities.

Coffee, tea, and water were always available near the entrance to the dining room, and early breakfast pastries were on offer from 6:30am.

The dining room, with open seating, helped us meet lots of different people, occasionally making dinner dates in advance. On some evenings, we opted for a quiet table for two. Australians and British came close to equaling the number of Americans and Canadians, with a few South Africans and New Zealanders added to the English-speaking mix.

Dining room with a row of window tables. * Photo: Ted Scull

Dining room with a row of window tables. * Photo: Ted Scull

Breakfast and lunch were buffets, and dinner was served from a menu. The lunch buffets were the most creative and varied with ever-changing salad choices and themed hot entrees – Italian, French, Mexican, and Indian. Overall, dinners were good and varied, though not necessarily memorable, with the exceptions being the soups, tasty breast of duck and beef stroganoff. Dress was casual at all times, and a few men put on jackets for the captain’s reception. The onboard currency, referred to as units, turned out to be euros.

Mother Russia River Cruising: The Itinerary

The “Waterway of the Czars,” operating from early May to mid-October, begins either in St. Petersburg or Moscow and covers some 870 miles, while the straight-line distance (as the crow flies) is just 400 miles.

In the 18th century, Peter the Great tried to link St. Petersburg, his new “Window on the West,” with Moscow by water, but the technology was simply not there. By the mid-19th century, a continuous waterway opened, which eventually joined the Baltic Sea, St. Petersburg and Moscow — and via the Volga and Don Rivers to the Caspian Sea, Sea of Azov and Black Sea.

In the 20th century, larger vessels demanded deeper and wider canals, so Joseph Stalin, employing huge gangs of slave labor, completely transformed the water route to what we see today, though some sections were not finished until the 1960s. The monumental architecture at the canal locks unmistakably reflects the Stalin era.

Three Days at St. Petersburg

On our cruise, the first three days were spent docked along the Neva River, a 30- to 45-minute drive from the center of St. Petersburg. When the riverboat is full, as was the case on our August cruise, passengers separate into six buses; and on the first morning, the bus you enter and the guide assigned to that bus are yours for the entire tour program. Most everyone was satisfied with their guides, as we were with Tatiana, a highly informative woman with an engaging personality. During the academic year, she is a teacher of English and French at university level.

Tatiana served as our wonderful guide for the week on the rivers. * Photo: Ted Scull

Tatiana served as our wonderful guide for the week on the rivers. * Photo: Ted Scull

On today’s tours, most cruise lines use headphones so the guide is speaking in a normal voice directly into your ear and not shouting above the din of others. Also, we arrived at most sites at the start of the day, and while that meant an early rise, we faced much less crowding — such as at the wondrous (and popular) Hermitage Museum where, as a bonus, we had free time to wander amongst one of the world’s finest art collections. One evening we attended a delightful, if familiar, performance of Swan Lake.

Tatiana also carefully explained how to use the subway and bus in St. Petersburg and Moscow. On some days when the included tours did not operate, passengers had the choice of paying for optional tours or going on their own. We chose the latter, as I can read Cyrillic letters and we are experienced using public transit abroad. However, few others ventured out on their own.

We used the public bus connection to the metro for the half hour ride to the city center at Nevsky Prospekt (the main boulevard), and from there we toured on foot using our Lonely Plant guidebook.

St. Petersburg, a planned city with its center dating from the early 18th to the early 20th century, was a delight to explore. It is laced with fine avenues and tree-lined canals and dotted with charming neighborhoods and well-tended parks. We especially enjoyed the richly decorated interior of Kazan (Russian Orthodox) Cathedral and the main bookstore beautifully housed in the ornate former Singer (Sewing Machine) Co. headquarters.

Singer Building, now a fabulous bookstore on Nevsky Prospekt. * Photo: Ted Scull

Singer Building, now a fabulous bookstore on Nevsky Prospekt. * Photo: Ted Scull

Mother Russia River Cruising: Getting Under Way

On the third day, we began the cruise in earnest by sailing up the Neva into Lake Ladoga, the largest in Europe, for a smooth crossing of the southern end. We exited into the Svir River leading to Lake Onega, Europe’s second largest freshwater body.

The first stop at Mandrogy, a replica village built on the site of one destroyed during WWII, offered craft demonstrations and souvenir shops. The less said the better about this touristy stop, especially when compared to the next call, Kizhi Island village. This UNESCO World Heritage site presented a wonderful open air museum of indigenous wooden architecture exhibiting small and large churches — some with octagonal plans, one with an elaborate bell tower, and one with 22 onion domes – plus and varying styles of private homes from the prosperous to peasant.

Too many onion doms to count at Kizki Island Village. * Photo: Ted Scull

Too many onion domes to count at Kizki Island Village. * Photo: Ted Scull

The boat then cruised south through wind-whipped waters to join connecting rivers forming the Volga-Baltic Canal that led across circular White Lake and eventually into Rybinsk Reservoir. We passed through a series of impressive Soviet-era locks that could handle two large riverboats at once, each raising the vessel 45 to 50 feet. En route we also encountered quite a lot of freight traffic hauled by small tankers, bulk carriers (coal, grain, gravel, lumber) and container ships.

A Russian riverboat passes en route to the next lock. * Photo: Ted Scull

A Russian riverboat passes en route to the next lock. * Photo: Ted Scull

From the river landing at Goritsky, it was a short ride to the Monastery of St. Cyril, founded in 1397 and eventually becoming Russia’s second most important ecclesiastical, cultural and political center. At its height, the 30-acre monastery and its 11 churches owned 400 villages and 22,000 serfs. Following emancipation in 1861, the place fell into poverty, the complex closed down; but 40 years ago it became a museum with an outstanding collection of religious icons.

Monastery. * Photo: Ted Scull

Monastery of St. Cyril. * Photo: Ted Scull

Entering the Volga River

Back on the river, the evening could not have been prettier, with colorfully painted wooden houses clustered in small villages lining the wooded riverbanks. In the morning, we entered the legendary 2,300-mile-long Volga River, the mighty Mississippi of Russia that flows south into the Caspian Sea forming one route followed by early trading merchants between northern Russia and Asian kingdoms.

Commerce moves along the Volga. * Photo: Ted Scull

Commerce moves along the Volga. * Photo: Ted Scull

The day’s stop was Yaroslav, a mid-sized city older than Moscow that celebrated its millennium in 2010. We explored the street markets, visited a 17th church with icons and frescos covering every inch from floor to ceiling, and promenaded through a pretty wooded park high above the river. When night fell, lightning illuminated the sky.

Uglich, the last call before Moscow, once boasted 100 churches and now is a sleepy town with a delicate panorama of pretty red, blue and gold domes lining the riverfront. Independently, we walked past rows of wooden houses to the edge of town, some attractively maintained with decorative wood trim and others in poor states of repair, reflective of the uneven wealth in the new Russia.

One of the once hundred churches in Uglich. * Photo: Ted Scull

One of the once one hundred churches in Uglich. * Photo: Ted Scull

Arriving in Moscow

The approach to Moscow was along the Moscow Canal, a prestige project that Stalin oversaw. Construction cost more than a 100,000 lives, and following its rapid completion in 1937, the supervisors were also killed so not to reveal the appalling working and living conditions.

Our ship docked among numerous other riverboats in the shadow of a huge Stalin-era maritime station on the outskirts of the city, its sprouting skyline visible about 15 miles away.

Red Square, Moscow. * Photo: Ted Scull

Red Square, Moscow. * Photo: Ted Scull

With my last visit during the Soviet era, I was not prepared for how vibrant Moscow has become. Yes, vast Red Square, St Basil’s colorful onion domes, and the Kremlin walls, churches, and museums were much the same spectacles, but now everything in the heart of the city had experienced a face lift. The streets were always clean but today, the parks and flower beds were so well tended. And the shops had lots to sell – with GUM, the former department store, providing the most poignant proof. In the Soviet era, little was on display here; but now the space was packed with trendy designer shops – though with the present economy, there were many more lookers than buyers.

Moscow’s traffic, once almost non-existent, was maniacal all day long, and we were never sure how long it would take to get from one place to the next.

Moscow on Our Own

On our free day, my wife and I used the metro, accessed just inland from the Northern River Station, and marveled at its convenience. Trains arrived every one to two minutes, and the stations styles ranged from chandeliered palaces to Art Moderne to heavy Soviet style with heroic bas reliefs. Sometimes it was fun just to get off, have a look around and get on the next train.

We toured some of the better inner city neighborhoods with lovely small parks, narrow lanes, and attractive architecture, and had lunch in a small café that could have been in Paris. I revisited the National Hotel where I roomed all those decades ago, and apart from the layout, its dowdy Intourist atmosphere had been completely transformed in a boutique beauty, with prices to match. Three days was not enough for Moscow, and we envied those who were staying on.

As Russia is a difficult country to travel through independently, a river cruise solves many of the hassles and hurdles. Staying aboard a riverboat in St. Petersburg and Moscow eliminates the packing and unpacking rotations, but the remote landings require long drives to and from the city centers. Also, scores of vessels make this same trip, so expect double and triple parking at landings, and at some sites, possible crowding and maybe a bit of a wait.

Our riverboat proved to be a fine, well-run conveyance, and the guides, traveling with us, were uniformly excellent in their knowledge and presentation. Russia is a very complex country and difficult to fathom, so one cannot expect to be an expert on much after a dozen days. However, the country has a very long history and a proud culture to share with those who take the time to be open to it.

Waterways of the Czars now use the Viking Helgi, Viking Ingvar, Viking Truvor, refurbished 2013/2014, and carrying 204 passengers on five decks.

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By Matt Hannafin.

Welcome to the end of the earth, the place where East lies to the west of West. Sitting just two and a half miles from Alaska at its closest point and stretching over 1,400 miles from north to south, the harsh, sparsely populated, but spectacularly beautiful Russian Far East is unlike anyplace most travelers will ever experience. Going there is like falling off the map, like sailing into the distant past or distant future, like waking up in a world where civilization has barely got a foothold. It seems too fantastical to be real, but at the same time it’s the realest place you’ll ever be.

 

Sailing through the Northwest Passage on the Hanseatic. * Photo: Hapag Lloyd

Sailing through the Northwest Passage on the Hanseatic. * Photo: Hapag Lloyd

Get Your Berings

Twelve thousand years ago, during the last Ice Age, this was a place scientists now call Beringia, a thousand-mile grassland steppe that stretched from Siberia to the Alaskan mainland, forming the “land bridge” by which hunters crossed into and settled the Americas. When the ice age ended, rising seas flooded Beringia, making islands of its volcanic peaks, turning highlands into coast, and delineating the boundary between North America and Asia. Today, the Asian half of Beringia comprises Russia’s Far Eastern territories, from Chukotka in the north through the Kamchatka Peninsula to the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin Island in the south.

Straddling the Arctic Circle, Chukotka is as stark and unforgiving as the face of the moon. Permafrost, strong winds, and the cold, subarctic Oyashio ocean current conspire to keep the landscape treeless, leaving a naked, minimalist tableau of rock, sea, and sky painted here and there by moss-green tundra. Massive, glacier-scoured peaks slope up from a flat silver sea, rolling cloud banks breaking over their ridges like waves about to engulf everything below. In winter, nights here can last 21 hours and temperatures dip to 35 below; in summer there’s enough light to read at midnight, and the tundra blooms with a profusion of wildflowers. Human occupation is sparse: Though Chukotka is larger than France, it is home to only about 48,500 people — fewer than live within the two square miles of New York City’s Chinatown. About a third of the population is made up of Chukchi, Chuvan, Evens, Yukaghir, Yup’ik, Cup’ik, and other native peoples, most of whom rely for their subsistence on fishing, reindeer herding, and whale, walrus, and seal hunting.

One of the Kuril Islands (Wikipedia)

One of the Kuril Islands  *  Photo: Wikipedia

About 87 miles north of mainland Chukotka, Wrangell Island is larger than the state of Delaware but has a population of fewer than 20, all of them rangers or scientists there to monitor or study the island’s flora and fauna. Wrangell and its surrounding waters are a zapovednik, a federally protected nature reserve that functions as a breeding ground for polar bears, walrus, and seals. In summer, thousands of birds nest in its jagged cliffs, and more than 400 plant species spring from the cold soil, more than double the number found on any other Arctic island.

Immediately south of Chukotka is the Kamchatka Peninsula. More welcoming than Chukotka, with a generally subarctic climate that rarely dips below 18°F along the rainy coast, Kamchatka closely resembles Alaska with its rugged landscape of snow-capped mountains, lush coniferous forests, salmon streams, and clear lakes. The wildlife is similar too, with the world’s largest population of brown bears plus moose, reindeer, eagles, and whales. Part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, it is also home to 160 volcanoes (29 of them active) and other geothermal features, including hundreds of mineral springs, hot springs, and geysers. Huge stretches of the peninsula are protected nature preserves, and more than half of the region’s 322,000 people live in its main city, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, located along the southern coast. About 110 miles to the east, the Russian-controlled Commander Islands are the westernmost tip of the US Aleutian Islands chain. Stark, dramatic, treeless, and thinly populated, they’re noted for their marine life and migratory bird population, and for being the final resting place of explorer Vitus Bering, who died here in 1741.

Extending more than 800 miles from the southern tip of Kamchatka to the northern coast of Hokkaido, Japan, the Kuril Islands chain is actually the visible peaks of 56 submerged volcanic mountains, 49 of which are still active. As in Kamchatka, this manifests in numerous hot springs, boiling lakes, and dramatic geological formations. Geopolitics play a big part in the life of the Kurils: For the past 150 years, Japan and Russia have contested ownership of the islands, though Russia has been in control since it wrested the chain from Japanese forces in August 1945, in the very last days of World War II. The usual port of embarkation or debarkation for Kuril Islands cruises is the town of Korsakov on Sakhalin Island, northwest of the southernmost Kurils.

Breathtaking scenery. * Photo: Nobel Caledonia

Breathtaking scenery. * Photo: Nobel Caledonia

See the Sights

  • Watch the wildlife: Wildlife viewing is one of the main draws of Russian Far East cruises, with birdwatchers especially drawn to see the 46 species of migratory seabirds who nest here in summer. Kamchatka’s Koriakskiy Reserve alone sees some 700,000 white-fronted geese, bean geese, whooper swans, little brown cranes, and other birds annually. The cliffs of the Kuril Islands are also home to innumerable rookeries. On land, Kamchatka has the densest population of brown bears in the world, while Chukotka’s Wrangell Island has the world’s greatest density of polar bears, who come her to birth their cubs. Wolves, wolverines, red foxes, Siberian musk deer, musk ox, moose, and reindeer also roam the region, while walrus and blue, fin, sperm, humpback, grey, orca, beluga and other whale species swim in the cold waters offshore.
  • Hike the tundra: Tundra is basically the only thing that will grow in the wet, permafrost-underlaid soil of Chukotka and northern Kamchatka. Essentially a micro-forest ground-cover of grass, mosses, heath, lichens, and dwarf shrubs, tundra can range from a few inches to a few feet thick and make for an unusually spongy hiking experience. Tread lightly to minimize damage, and be extra-careful in the thick stuff, which can hide ankle-turning holes and boot-soaking puddles. Hiking polls aren’t a bad idea.
  • Experience Native culture: At various villages, visiting groups are often treated to programs of traditional song and dance, their storylines depicting heroic tales from the past or traditional activities such as hunting and sewing skins. Songs are sung in unison by the group and include imitations of walrus and seal vocalizations. Underpinning it all is the sharp attack of walrus- or reindeer-skin hoop drums, the only instruments used in the region’s traditional music. Reminders of Native history also dot the region, including the remains of Ainu villages in the Kurils and, on Chukotka’s uninhabited Itygran Island, hundreds of sun-bleached whale ribs and jawbones standing upright in the ground like an Arctic version of Stonehenge.
  • Poke around in Cold War & WWII history: From 1945 to 1990, the Iron Curtain that separated East and West was known in this part of the world as the Ice Curtain, across which alert, suspicious eyes were always gazing. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, many of its Far East bases were simply abandoned. Today you can find remains throughout the region, but especially so in the Kuril Islands, which also hold ruins and remnants of the Russian-Japanese struggle in WWII and before. There are Japanese bunkers on Urup, a Soviet gulag on Atlasova, an abandoned airbase on Matua, and, most evocative of all, the Kraternyy Naval Base, a once-secret Soviet submarine station located within a flooded volcanic caldera on Simushir Island. Built in 1978, it was abandoned just 15 years later. Today, its decaying buildings are littered with maps, charts, broken electronics, and gas masks, while nature gradually reclaims the gun emplacements, half-sunken boats, and other equipment outside.
  • Collect volcano sightings: Kamchatka and the Kuril Islands are together home to more than 200 volcanoes, 78 of them active. If the weather cooperates, you could view dozens. Among the more notable are Kamchatka’s 15,584-foot Kluchevskoy (the largest active volcano in the Northern Hemisphere) and 11,575-foot Kronotsky (possibly the most beautiful, perfectly formed volcano in the world) and 7,674-foot Alaid, the tallest and most beautiful in the Kurils, resembling Japan’s Mount Fuji.
  • Soak in a natural hot spring: Beyond scenic beauty, the presence of all those volcanoes also means Kamchatka and the Kuril Islands are both blessed with hundreds of natural hot springs. Good spots for a soak include the extinct volcanic caldera on Yankicha Island in the Kurils and the hot springs of Kamenistaya Bay in Kamchatka’s Kronotskiy Biosphere Reserve. 
  • See the US from Russia: Technically, Sarah Palin’s chestnut about being able to see Russia from Alaska (and the reverse) is true, but you have to go to impossibly remote Cape Dezhnev to do it, and you have to hope there’s no fog. The extreme northeastern point of the Eurasian continent, Cape Dezhnev is named for explorer Semyon Dezhnev, who was the first European to sail through the Bering Strait. Today there’s a monument to him on a rocky hill, near an abandoned Soviet border guard station.
The local fashions. * Photo: Nobel Caledonia

The local fashions. * Photo: Nobel Caledonia

Culture Shock

The Russian government maintains a restrictive and complicated visa regime for travelers, so be prepared to get your application in on time and filled out correctly. When arriving, expect immigration and customs checks to be thorough and strict, and be sure to keep your passport and visa with you at all times while you’re in-country. On the cultural side, take your shoes off if you’re entering someone’s home, wear a head scarf (if you’re a woman) when entering a Russian Orthodox church, and don’t point with your fingers as it’s considered rude.

Choose a Cruise

A number of exploration-minded cruise lines explore the Russian Far East on ships that carry between 48 and 184 guests, including Aurora Expeditions, Polar Cruises, Heritage Expeditions, Arctic Odysseys, Lindblad Expeditions (which merged with the former Orion Expeditions), and Hapag-Lloyd Cruises.

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