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