Cultural Immersion On The Scenic Tsar In Russia
To begin at the end. The captain’s farewell party at the end of a cruise is usually a trite affair, all limp jokes, cheap fizz, shrivelled canapes and see-you-again-soon sentimentality.
Not on the Scenic Tsar. At least not wholly. But then the Scenic Tsar is Russian and Russia is different.
After Captain Oleg had delivered a stilted address, translated by Ludmila, the hotel manager (the Russian crew members all spared us having to grapple with their surnames), the cruise director, Diana, took over. She was a small, forceful woman with a pugnaciously short haircut and a puckish sense of humour.
Politicians were all very well, she said, but when it came to understanding one another, the most important job was done by the common people, “face to face, looking in each other’s eyes”. Russia, she added, “has seemed like an alien country but, you see, we are just like you".
For someone like me, who harbours the quixotic belief that among the benefits of tourism is what it can teach us about the other people on the planet, this was a template. Yes, we drooled over Faberge in the Kremlin Armoury in Moscow and gazed at the Rembrandts and da Vincis in the Hermitage in St Petersburg, but we also had two question-and-answer sessions with panels comprising students, as well as members of the ship’s staff.
And we enjoyed daily access to uniformly the most impressive set of guides, on the ship and on shore, I have encountered anywhere. Knowledgeable and articulate, they were as humorous as they were intelligent.
No subject was taboo; in fact the passengers, mostly Australian and British, were far more bashful about deciding which topics were appropriate than the Russians ever were in discussing them. Pussy Riot had yet to hit the headlines, but a question about Moscow’s policy on Syria, which caused a sharp inhalation of collective Western breath, was debated with candour.
Tatyana, a guide in her late 50s, gave an engrossing, first-hand account of the changes wrought by Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika. “For the first time everything that had only ever been discussed in kitchens was now on television,” she told us.
Today people are sceptical about elections. Many believed the Yeltsin years marked the end of democracy in Russia. When, in 1996, the unpopular president was re-elected with a surprisingly comfortable majority, there was a saying: “It doesn’t matter how you vote; it matters how you count.”
On Nevsky Prospekt in St Petersburg there is a stencilled sign preserved from the 900-day Second World War siege. It warns citizens that during artillery bombardment the most dangerous place to be is on the sunny side of the street. It could be a metaphor for Russia’s baptism in the market economy.
They send icebreakers through these waterways in late April to clear the way for freighters; Scenic Tsar performs much the same role in dispersing stereotypes. This was a rare holiday experience, a cruise that visited as many misconceptions as monuments, a voyage through Russia the misunderstood as well as Russia the magnificent.
In a nation that has undergone the bewildering transition from hammer and sickle to Hummers and Cristal, yet whose average income is less than $A24,000 a year – only marginally higher than that of Gabon – exposure to such funny, informed, uninhibited Russians was a mighty and unexpected bonus.
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But what of the bits of the cruise where there are expectations? The ship itself was constructed in the carcass of an existing river boat but the rebuild was so extensive that it was registered as a new vessel.
The only bits inherited from the original are the dimensions. Compared with most of the 40-odd cruise ships in these waters, it is smaller and smarter.
It carries a maximum of 112 passengers in 56 cabins. All but four have balconies, although with eight nights of the cruise spent berthed, the pleasures of mine, on the portside, were somewhat negated as there was usually another ship tied up slap alongside. One was reluctant to open the curtains, let alone the balcony doors.
Scenic Tours, an Australian company, has upped the yardarm in the standard of river cruise ships on the Rhine and Danube by introducing luxury touches from high-end ocean cruising in its fleet of spacious river ships. Scenic Tsar is not in that league but, compared with other Russian ships, it has raised the game with all those balcony cabins, sophisticated bedroom lighting and White Company shower unguents.
On board are the core ingredients of contemporary cruising: live music every night; no shortage of well-prepared food, or choice, from uncontentious menus; a spa and a sun deck the length of two cricket pitches laid with what might be described as 'astro-teak' – matting striped to look like caulked timber. Lined throughout with white plastic veneer, the whole ship feels fresh and light. It’s like travelling in a bathroom cabinet.
What also distinguishes the Scenic Tsar is that it is all-inclusive – well, almost. You do have to pay for drinks in the bar, though beer, soft drinks and a choice of indifferent house wines is included with meals.
There’s a wine list if you want to trade up. But you are not billed for Wi-Fi or tips.
Nor are you charged extra for excursions and that is valuable because Scenic’s programme is impressive. Of Russia’s 15 cultural World Heritage sites, we visited four.
In Moscow, besides the sights that everyone wants to see, such as the Kremlin and the Novodevichy Convent, we got to ride the metro, go to a circus and see a performance of the National Dance Show. Not many groups get to enter the 400-year-old St Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square, Ivan the Terrible’s cluster of gaudy churches with fancy-dress domes.
When we were there, a five-strong men’s choir was luxuriating in the acoustics. At the tap of a tuning fork, sumptuous harmonies rose, echoing, in a tower of auburn brick and curled across icons darkened with age.
And the visit to the Moscow space museum ended with an exclusive opportunity to question a cosmonaut about cosmic loos and weightlessness. Alexandre Laveykin, who spent six months on the Mir space station, could talk with authority about both.
In St Petersburg, as well as the glittering palaces of Peterhof and Pushkin, with their mirrors and gold and the fabulous chamber of amber, we had our own concert of ballet. It was staged by dancers from three of the city’s great companies, including five from the Mariinsky Theatre.
To the accompaniment of a 30-piece orchestra, they pirouetted and jeteed amid the cream and gilt of the private theatre of the Vladimir Palace. Just for us, and just as contemporaries of Tchaikovsky would have performed in the same room 140 years ago.
After four days in Moscow we sailed, happy to leave the city’s appalling traffic jams. One group on the previous cruise only kept to its schedule by abandoning its coaches and taking to the metro.
Lunch of vitello tonnato and vegetable curry was being served as we left our berth at the Northern River Station and entered the Moscow Canal. It’s a baleful waterway built by Gulag labour in the 1930s.
Thousands who died in its construction are said to be buried in its banks. As a piece of engineering it provided an invaluable link between the Moscow River and the Volga, securing for the capital abundant fresh water and, eventually, river access to five seas from the Baltic to Yalta.
On the move
For us, it led to rural Russia, away from the sullen apartment blocks, the old factories and new bridges and into a riverscape of wooded banks, here and there cleared to make way for new houses with their own docks and the occasional identical slinky motor cruiser. It was the Norfolk Broads with freight ships and fast hydrofoils.
In the river towns of Uglich and Goritsy we eyed icons, convened in a convent, marvelled in a monastery, and took cheer from extravagant churches. Everywhere we ran the gauntlet of souvenir sellers and their baldpated hordes of matryoshka dolls; we posed with statues of Lenin, who these days looks more like a man hailing a taxi than a visionary haranguing the masses. If he shaved, he’d be Putin.
In Russia’s northern republic of Karelia, we crossed the two biggest lakes in Europe, Ladoga and Onega, took tea and piroshky pasties with a family in Svirstroy and landed on the island of Kizhi. There are places that still catch the breath of the most experienced traveller. For me the Church of the Transfiguration on Kizhi was one.
It’s a thrilling building built of sweat, reverence and hewn pine by Karelian carpenters 300 years ago. At the water’s edge it stands, a silvery architectural fancy, hooded by pointy cowls and budding with bulbous domes, 22 of them dressed in scaly shingles of aspen.
The building is a wonder, and appears in the film, Anna Karenina, one of its few actual Russian locations. They filmed in winter in minus-30C and, in the words of Sarah Greenwood, the set designer, “There were wolves on the ice and bears in the wood.”
It took the unit 30 hours to get there, the crew being taken by hovercraft, the set by military helicopter. If they had waited for summer and taken a ship, they might have avoided Anna’s fatal fascination for trains.
At Petrozavodsk there was one of the on-board Q&A sessions. Polina, a bright 23-year-old who ran the ship’s gift shop, was asked what changes she would like to see in Russia.
Her answer was as subtle as it was succinct: “I want our elderly people to go on a cruise to Australia on a 5-star ship.” Touche.
To which I would add a further hope, that when they do, they get as riveting an insight into life in Oz as Scenic Tsar gave us into Russia.
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This article was written by Peter Hughes from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.