A Guide To Cruising On Russia's Rivers
With its magnificent cities and world-class museums, historical towns and tree-lined waterways, Russia has much to offer when it comes to cruise holidays. What's more, the country's remarkable waterways system enables ocean-going ships to travel all the way from the Mediterranean to the Arctic.
Moscow, hundreds of kilometres inland, is linked by rivers, canals and other waterways to five seas: the Aral Sea, Baltic Sea, Black Sea, Caspian Sea, and the Sea of Azov. Geographically, river cruises operate in three main areas: Central European Russia, Northwestern European Russia and Asian Russia.
Principal Russian Rivers
Europe’s longest river at 3,690 kilometres and historically the cradle of the Russian state, the Volga is western Russia’s main waterway. It divides into three parts: the Upper Volga, from its source in a small lake northwest of Moscow to the confluence of the Oka; the Middle Volga, from the confluence of the Oka to the confluence of the Kama; and the Lower Volga, from the confluence of the Kama to the mouth of the river itself at the Caspian Sea. It has more than 200 tributaries that, if counted with the main river, would add up to 357,000 kilometres.
From about mid-March to mid-December, the Volga is navigable throughout most of its course, although it is subject to much flooding in May and June, when it is fed by an immense amount of melting snow. Several canals connect the Volga with such points as the Baltic Sea, Sea of Azov, Black Sea, River Don and Moscow.
The Neva River connects to the Volga River canal, then to the Volga (including the Vytegra, Kozva, and Sheksna rivers), and the Don. The Mariinsky Canal, which connected the Neva with the Volga in 1810, was one of the most outstanding pieces of hydro engineering of its time. It was upgraded in the 1930s, but was eventually superseded by the Volga-Baltic Canal System, opened in 1964.
From the tip of the Tsimlyansk Reservoir on the River Don to the Volga just 29 kilometres south of Volgograd, the 101-kilometre Volga-Don Canal, opened in 1957, provides a waterway between Moscow and the former capital, St Petersburg. Linking the Caspian Sea with the Black Sea, it has 13 locks.
The Volga-Don Canal links the lower Volga with the Don in Volgograd Province in south-western Russia. The Don flows in a generally southerly direction until it turns more to a south-westerly direction, from just to the north of Volgograd, and empties into the Sea of Azov to the east of Rostov-on-the-Don. There are three sections to the river: the upper course, middle course and lower course.
At 2,200 kilometres, the Dnieper (Dnepr) is Ukraine’s most significant river. It dissects the country and has acted as its commercial artery for centuries.
From its source southwest of Moscow, it flows south through western Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, all the way to the Black Sea. Navigable throughout its entire course, it is ice-free for eight months of the year, making it a vital traffic route for Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.
It flows through the modern port of Kiev, the huge industrial centre of Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhzhya, site of a large hydroelectric station.
The Neva starts its course from the freshwater Lake Ladoga and flows just 74 kilometres to the Finnish Bay of the Baltic Sea. If you cruise across the lake in late summer to get to the monastery on Valaam Island, you might find the eight-hour crossing a trifle choppy at times.
Russia’s second city, St Petersburg, is built on 42 islands in the Neva’s broad delta and, like Venice, is divided by a complex system of canals. You can skate on the river when it freezes over in mid-winter.
It is worth bearing in mind that the country’s size restricts how much one can see on a single visit. The most popular cruise is between Moscow and St Petersburg, which lasts from seven to 10 days. Add an extra day or two in each city to see the sights and take in the ballet, art and museums.
The locks on the extensive Volga–Baltic Canal System are particularly fascinating. A stop at Mandroga Island caters for nature lovers, and a crossing of two of Europe’s largest lakes, Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega, is more like a sea voyage.
Other river cruises take place during the summer from Kiev (one of Europe’s oldest cities), Yakutsk, or the Siberian town of Tiksi (on the White Sea), on the mighty Dneiper River.
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Seven days – Moscow to St Petersburg
By far the most popular cruise route is from Moscow to St Petersburg. The cities are only 650 kilometres apart by land, yet the cruise passes through 10 different rivers, canals, lakes and reservoirs.
Apart from the attractions of Moscow (Red Square, the Kremlin, the Tretyakov Gallery, the Bolshoi) and St Petersburg (the Hermitage complex, Peter and Paul Fortress, Peterhof, the Mariinsky Theatre), the trip offers a fascinating glimpse of everyday Russian life in the countryside and villages along the river banks.
From the Moscow cruise terminal in the north-west of the city on the Volga-Baltic Canal System, riverships proceed through the city of Uglich, with its monasteries, churches, museums, and magnificent Palace of the Uglich Princes. It then calls at Kostroma for an excursion through pretty countryside to the Ipatyevsky Monastery, burial place of the Gudunovs, and Yaroslavl, a major port and university city.
After an overnight crossing of the Rybinsk Reservoir and Beloye Lake, the cruise calls at the farming village of Goritsy on the Sheksna River. Next you pass through six impressive locks on another stretch of the Volga-Baltic Canal and across the vast Lake Onega, 248 kilometres long and up to 80 kilometres wide.
At Kizhi Island, one of the lake’s 1,650 islands, there’s an Open-Air Museum of Architecture and the world’s biggest wooden church, the Transfiguration Church, with 22 onion domes.
On the 218-kilometre Svir River, which connects Lake Onega with the even larger Lake Ladoga and is frozen over from December to April, the landscape is majestic but rugged. The rivership calls at the small village of Svirstroy, where passengers can chat to villagers and buy handicrafts.
The river is a challenge to navigate because it has many dangerous shallow stretches, blind bends, debris such as floating logs to contend with, and often fog.
One of the 70 rivers that feed Lake Ladoga is the Neva, which takes you to St Petersburg, one of the world’s most northerly cities. If you arrive in late June, you will experience some of the 21 'white nights' when the sun doesn’t fully set.
Most riverships dock at a terminal in the north-west of the city, about a 15-minute walk from the nearest metro, though cruise companies usually lay on transport to the centre.
Most Russian riverships carry up to 250 passengers. Those aimed at the local market can be somewhat dilapidated (cabins are practical but with minimal furnishings, lighting is limited, particularly in bathrooms and there may be no blackout curtains on windows).
Others have been refurbished or completely rebuilt and are jointly owned by Russian and European or American companies, or chartered to major operators like AMA Waterways, Saga Cruises or Uniworld. Scenic Tours’ luxurious Scenic Tsar, the first new-build ship on Russia’s waterways for more than 25 years when it launched in 2012, carries just over 100 guests; while Viking River Cruises’ Viking Akun was fully refurbished for 2014.
There are few single-occupancy cabins. Keep windows closed unless you enjoy sharing your sleeping space with mosquitoes.
All meals are provided, typically in self-serve buffet style for breakfast and lunch, with sit-down service for dinner. In general, the cuisine aboard most Russian riverships is hearty but monotonous. Breakfast and lunch can be repetitive. Dinner typically consists of four courses, plus cheese.
The food is generally highly salted. Potatoes and cabbage are common, as is the prevalence of butter and cream in sauces. Desserts and pastry items tend to be very good, and plentiful. Vegetarians and macrobiotics should note that such items as tofu and tempeh are hard to find.
Both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks are very expensive. Basic table wines may be included with lunch and dinner, depending on the operating company.
Specialist guides accompany cruises and give talks about the country’s life, history, culture, art and politics. There may also be poetry readings, as well as classical concerts, usually by balalaika and bayan instrumentalists (the bayan is a type of chromatic button accordion). Other diversions may include vodka tasting, cookery demonstrations, basic language lessons and folk-song concerts.
Russian riverships normally carry a doctor, and have a decently equipped medical centre. A no-smoking environment prevails, except for the outside decks.
Officially, all transactions and purchases on land must be made in roubles although, at some street kiosks, foreign currencies may be accepted. Riverships are currently prohibited from exchanging money. This is best done in cities such as Moscow, St Petersburg or Yaroslavl.
If you buy Russian icons, genuine antiques or wood-burning samovars for making tea you may have trouble exporting them.
Carry mosquito repellent, especially when visiting nature sites such as the Valaam Archipelago.
The season is limited: think May to October for river cruises. Early mornings and nights can get chilly so pack accordingly.
Photography of any kind is forbidden in St Isaac’s and St Nicholas cathedrals in St Petersburg and flash photography is banned in all museums. You can buy a permit to take photographs without flash or videos in the State Hermitage Museum or Peterhof Palace.
Wheelchair accessibility is poor or non-existent on Russian riverships as well as on public transport, and in museums.
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This article was written by Douglas Ward from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.