On a Slow Boat Through Russia

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Roger Lawson of Columbia is the latest contributor to our Your Vacation in Lights feature, in which we invite Travel section readers to dish about their recent trips. It's a big, confusing travel world out there, and you can help your fellow travelers navigate it. Your hot tip could be the next guy's daymaker; your rip-off restaurant, the next family's near miss. To file your own trip report -- and become eligible to win a digital camera -- see the fine print below.

WHAT: A river cruise in Russia.

WHO: My wife, Mary, and I, plus longtime friends Suresh and Claudia Patil, with whom we have taken four international trips.

WHEN: July 4-15. Though July is the rainiest month, we experienced only two days of rain.

WHY: To see the land of the czars and visit St. Petersburg and Moscow, rich with histories of art, architecture, politics and violence.

THE TRIP: We flew from Dulles to Munich, then on to St. Petersburg. We spent the first two days in St. Petersburg (where we boarded the boat), followed by several river stops. On the ninth day, we arrived in Moscow, where we spent a day and a half.

COST: We booked with online travel provider Gate 1 Travel and paid $7,300 for two, including travel insurance and meals.

SHIP LIFE: We cruised aboard the Ivan Bunin. All tourist ships that ply Russian waters were built 20 to 30 years ago. The cabins were small and the bathrooms cramped: The shower was wedged between the toilet and the sink and was separated from them by only a shower curtain. Cabins described as suites were slightly larger. The food was not up to Western European standards, but remember, this is Russia. Dinners were served with soup and salad, and entree portions were generous.

WE BRAKE FOR CULTURE: Each stop along the rivers and lakes en route to Moscow gave us a different insight into Russian history. For example, we saw the 22-domed Church of the Transfiguration, a fairy tale of Russian architecture in Kizhi. Built of wood without nails, the church and adjacent farmhouse reveal the harsh reality of living in the frozen north, where there are only two people per square kilometer. Also interesting: Goritsy, a 14th-century fortress and monastery; Yaroslavl, site of the Church of Elijah and its stunning frescoes; and Uglich, for beautiful cathedrals and palaces.

FANCY FEET: In St. Petersburg, we attended a performance of "Swan Lake." Seeing the Russian ballet was the experience of a lifetime. And in Moscow, we saw a folklore show at the Russian National Theater, a spectacular performance of dance and costumes.

BIGGEST SURPRISE: St. Petersburg and Moscow are flourishing cities with many new buildings. The Russian government spent more than $1 billion to spruce up St. Petersburg for the 300th anniversary of the city's founding in 2003. In Moscow, there is lots of construction, with glass towers surrounded by ancient buildings. The city's parks are beautifully maintained.

MOST UNDERWHELMING SITE: When the ship arrived in Mandrogi, we were given a map but not a guide. The UNESCO site was like a tourist trap, with many shops hawking crafts.

THE TOUGHEST LESSON: While affluence is evident in St. Petersburg and Moscow (so many Mercedes cars), we were told that more than 40 percent of Russians live in poverty.

FAVORITE SOUVENIR: The hand-painted nesting dolls called matryoshkas, considered the symbol of Russian folk art.

NEXT TIME: We would dedicate more time to the Hermitage and Moscow, absorbing the art and culture.

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