Published: July 20th 2012June 6th 2012
June 6, the beginning of our Viking River Cruise: Mandrogi
On the evening of June 5 we sailed up the Neva River into Lake Ladoga, the first of the connecting waterways taking us on our river journey through Russia. Lake Ladoga, located in northern Russia
near the border of Finland, is Europe’s largest freshwater lake and the 14th largest lake in the world and an important link in the system of waterways connecting St Petersburg to the River Svir, Lake Onega and the White Sea to the north. At the head of the Neva River on Lake Ladoga our ship floated by the restored stone Oreshek Fortress
that glowed a warm burnt Sienna orange in the late evening light. This fortress is where Ivan the VI and Lenin’s brother Aleksandr Ylyanov met their untimely ends. I was surprised but thankful that a lake this large could be flat calm for it made for a very pleasant sail as we watched charming country homes, and endless expanses of smooth water pass by our ship’s window. The sun began to set well after dinner but it wasn’t until after I had gone to bed that the sun finally began to dip below the
horizon, and yet even then we had a light dusky gray for our night sky.
When we woke the next morning our ship was still in the placid waters of the Lake Ladoga Canal, that that Peter the Great used to connect the great lakes Ladoga and Onega. As we sailed into the Svir River, we began to see the shore line reflecting the rich green and white of the beautiful silver birch trees in the calm blue waters. I am getting quite accustomed to my morning Qi Gong with Chris, our delightful Cruise Director. I find that it is both meditative and energizing, much like the Tai Chi classes I take at home. Of course the peaceful scenery and tranquil river help to relax me too.
Our first destination on this cruise was on the Svir River at the Mandrogi Museum
, a reconstructed village of authentic wooden houses dating back to before the time of Peter the Great. As our ship approached the village of Mandrogi, large bugs began appearing on the windows of our cabin along with plenty of fat rain drops. That was not encouraging at all.
On the surface Verchnie Mandrogi has an
artificial Disney-like quality to it with plenty of perfectly painted and crafted buildings, a stark contrast to the real Russia we have seen that is in various stages of much needed repair and maintenance. But if you can look beyond the in-your-face touristy aspect of Mandrogi and see some of the less contrived reproductions you can find a bit of authentic charm in a few of the 150 year old buildings where men and women work inside on their crafts
of painting, weaving, woodworking and jewelry making. The rain had stopped and the sun occasionally showed its face but it was still quite chilly as we walked throughout the village stepping in and out of the many shops selling matrioshka dolls, amber jewelry (amber is petrified pine sap millions of years old most commonly found in the Baltic Sea in shades of yellow, brown, white and green with green being the most rare). Hand painted lacquer boxes and other things uniquely Russian were being worked on in public view. I stood watching several women, clothed in traditional Russian costumes, using a magnifying glass to hand paint the tiny matrioshka dolls. Dave and John soon returned to the ship, having little
interest in shopping and even less interest in mosquitoes (oh they of little imagination). Donna and I enjoyed the more Williamsburgian side of this place with the old wooden windmill, the cows grazing
and mooing along the grassy shore and the less commercial (and more rustic) buildings with lovely craftspeople inside. These, too, were the less crowded places which also had its appeal. I found a book of the genealogy of the Russian rulers that I had been looking for so it was a good stop for me. We had been told that Mandrogi was famous for its meat pies with forest mushrooms, cabbage, green onion and egg, so I enjoyed that with a Mors (wild berry) traditional Russian juice drink.
Back on board the ship, as we sailed along the Svir River, we watched the chef demonstrate the art of making pelmenis and although they were good (they resemble meat-filled dumplings or tortilinis) the pelmenis Donna and I shared at Sadko were far better. In the long evening twilight, the four of us gathered around the card table in the Panorama Room for a "round of golf" as the beautiful Russian wilderness floated by. June 7, the island of Kizhi
The sun was shining brightly as we sailed north through the flat waters of Lake Onega, Europe's second largest lake. This lake is an important part of the Volga-Baltic Waterway system seeing more than 10,000 commercial ship voyages each year. Our destination was the island of Kizhi near the center of Lake Onega. This 3 1/2 mile long and half mile wide island is home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kizhi Pogost, a national open air museum
now home to nearly 80 historical wooden structures dating back to the 15th century that have been moved here from various parts of Karelia. The tiny Church of the Resurrection of Lazarus, built in the 14th century, is the oldest wooden church in Russia and would to unnoticed but for a sign designating its importance because it seems so insignificant near the larger magnificent wooden multi-domed Church of the Transfiguration
. This glorious church was built (mostly) without nails and really steals the show perched at the top of a grassy knoll overlooking Lake Onega. Devoid of any color, other than the natural gray and brown from the aging wood, this magnificent structure with its numerous onion domes rivals
any other in its splendor and majesty.
Natalia, a very sweet woman as our local guide, explained the restoration techniques used in these historic buildings. To highlight her comments a bearded man sat on the steps of an outbuilding with a hatchet and a block of wood that he was cutting into shims used in the reconstruction, but what was of special interest to me was that he was missing his first three fingers. Several wooden buildings were open to the public including a small church and some rooms with hand painted sleighs, woven rugs, lacework and linens. I did succumb to temptation and bought a very lovely hand beaded necklace from a charming woman demonstrating her craft.
Walking to the wooden bell tower at the far end of the island we watched a man playing the bells high up in the tower and listened to the deep, rich tones as they resonated throughout the meadow. Looking back across the green meadow filled with yellow dandelions and mustard, the rustic windmill
gave an excellent point of scale to the large wooden church with its 22 timbered onion domes. And the weather was quite a surprise. The sun and
warm temperatures in the upper 60s was a welcome respite from the cold rain we had been not enjoying, and we were only 500km from the Arctic Circle! Despite the mosquitoes, I would have been glad to stay longer on the sunny birch lined shores of this sweet smelling island but our short visit was over.
Back on board we resumed our card games as we sailed on the Mariinsk Canal System, also known as the Volga-Baltic Canal, through its 7 locks, to continue our tour of the famous Golden Ring of Russia. June 8, the Kirillov-Belozersky Monastery in Kuzino
By now I am looking forward to beginning my day with Qi Gong, it is a wonderful way to stay energized throughout the day! After breakfast we listened to a lecture on Russian history as the ship passed by Krokhino, a church ruin abandoned due to the rising waters of White Lake
and the Sheksna River. The White Lake is in an area of the country known as the Vologda Oblast, and the town of Belozersk, one of the oldest towns in Russia, lies on its banks. During the 17th century it became known as the Tsar’s fishing grounds.
A number of rivers drain into this lake resulting in widespread flooding over the centuries. We passed by many decaying and submerged forests and old churches and monuments left standing forlorn and separated by water from the mainland. The relative desolation of the Vologda lands were an attraction to monks looking for solitude resulting in the construction of many monasteries such as the Goritsky Monastery and Convent
, now a World Heritage Site, established in 1544 is the only female monastery in Vologda Oblast. At the time it was convenient to “divorce” a wife by sending her to a monastery where she was forced to become a nun. It was also a convenient place to “dispose” of extra female children. In the 1930s this monastery was shut down and most of the nuns were executed. Since the 1990s a small community of nuns have started to live in the convent. And now a little more history:
Russia, from the Finnish word Ruotsi meaning men that row, is the world’s largest country with an amazingly diverse culture, landscape and culinary traditions. The rugged landscape that we encountered with its abundant birch and pine trees, looked very similar to the landscape I
knew in parts of New England but of course the architecture and poorer houses in these remote areas bring you quickly back to reality. I learned that Rus means “red-headed people” which helps to explain why I saw so many redheads in Russia! The beginning of Christianity in Russia:
The Finns first settled Russia in the north. The Slavs (early Russians) had trade relations with the Vikings, Muslims and Scandinavian pagans who worshiped trees, animals, and stones, all symbols of strength. These Slavic tribes were ruled by Prince Rurik, founder of the first Russian Dynasty, for whom our ship was named. Near the year 800 most of Europe was baptized except for Russia. At this time the Russians embraced the Muslim religion and developed fine arts replacing pagan idols. Soon an emissary was sent to Rome and was impressed with the Christian religion. After the siege of Constantinople, it became politically important to convert the Slavs to Christianity and to make friends with their enemies. In 988 the wild Prince Vladimir, who had over 800 wives, finally settled down, adopted the Greek Orthodox religion, married a Byzantine woman and forced Christianity on his people. In Kiev there were only
4-5,000 people and soldiers began pushing the "Russian Indians" into the river to baptize them, in this way, Christianity was started in Russia. The Russian Imperial double headed eagle, the official Russian symbol until the Soviets came into power, came into being with the marriage of Ivan III and Princess Sophia of Constantinople in 1497. This symbol represented the important dual sovereignty merging the past and future Russia.
And oh those conniving Tsars: After Boris Godonov, the transitional Tsar, came Michael Romanov in 1613, beginning the Romanov Dynasty with even more intrigue, coups and mystery. Unraveling the contradictory histories that were told is quite confusing so I was glad to have purchased my book on the Russian Tsars, their history and genealogy in the village of Mandrogi. Maybe I will have sorted out the convoluted history of Russia before my next trip. Or maybe not.
We arrived in Kuzino
in the disappointingly cold and rainy mid afternoon to visit the green domed Kirillov-Belozersky Monastery
founded in 1397 by St Cyril, founder of the Cyrillic language. Our guide Nadia took us through this, the second largest monastery in Russia after the Sergiev Posad Monastery outside of Moscow. Ancient white
stone buildings dotted with green onion domes form a walled complex with beautiful gardens and stone paths made from pavers and old grave stones. Sadly it was pouring rain and we could not enjoy the serene atmosphere of this religious complex. Inside the 15th century church, in a maze of small rooms, we found a large collection of hand painted icons lining the walls. In some of the rooms mannequins in traditional costumes and crowns were on display depicting the early 15th to 17th century princes
, boyars (noble people) and warriors. These costumes had been recently used in an historical documentary. Famous icons from Moscow were displayed behind glass in two of the rooms making viewing a bit more challenging. These beautiful icons have travelled to museums all over the world and glass was necessary to protect the precious icons in their travels.
In a room not far from the gift shop Donna and I found two colored cartoons depicting a naked woman on horseback with shackles on her ankles, fire coming out of her head, arrows piercing her body and a monk in black in the foreground. I wish I had taken a photograph of these drawings for
it made me think of Katniss in the Hunger Games. Of course we were able to pass through a display (and shop) of the beautiful lace work and linens the area is known for but I had to put the shopping brakes on somewhere.
We dashed outside through the pouring rain to a tiny chapel to listen to a beautiful men's choral group. Their voices resonated in the arched stone ceilings as they sang religious and folk songs of their region. It was very moving and of course I had to buy (another) CD. After the little concert we walked (again through the pouring rain) on the cold, slippery wet paver stones. I felt a bit uncomfortable walking on the old gravestone markers now repurposed as a walkway. We worked our way to yet another stone church
in this large complex to another tiny chapel where we viewed more beautiful frescoes and a smaller altar. I managed to photograph one of our more eccentric fellow travelers wearing her “unique” summer clothing and flip flops in this cold climate. She became a most entertaining subject for Donna and me. Unfortunately I was unable to walk around the beautiful grounds of
this monastery because the heavens had really opened shedding copious amounts of water upon us forcing us back on the bus for an early exit.
Back on board we set sail again through the White Lake and enjoyed a special Russian dinner. A bit ironically, our charming Filipino waitstaff Dave, Norman and Lisa dressed in Russian costumes for this special event. Norman was the most entertaining and we looked forward to his intelligent comments and upbeat attitude at every meal. We started our special rich Russian meal with Siliotka, a Russian salted herring with potato followed by a small bowl of beef borscht with sour cream and a piroshki (a bread stuffed with meat and mushrooms similar to priogi). For the main course we enjoyed Pojarksy Koreletti, a delicious pork and chicken meatloaf enveloped in a crisp mashed potato crust that was very tasty and surprisingly light. We ended the meal with Sirniki, Russian curd blinis with a strawberry melange. Blinis are not John’s favorite. We watched the desolate wilderness of the Vologda Oblast pass by our window as we gorged ourselves on this enormous Russian meal. June 9, the Golden Ring City of Yaroslavl
Once again Donna
and I started our day with Qi Gong but this time John and Dave joined us. After another rich breakfast, John experimented, again unsuccessfully, with blinis, (he found them too small and thick) we went to the forward deck to see the fairytale town of Tutayev with its many beautiful onion domed churches peeking at us from the fog. The weather has not cooperated much on this trip and again it is cloudy and foggy with spits of rain.
By the time we arrived in Yaroslavl
, another UNESCO World Heritage site, it was brisk and threatening rain. Hopeful for better weather but carrying our umbrellas, we walked into what was so far the best kept city on the river cruise. Lovely old buildings, most in decent shape, lined the busy streets of this important commercial city dating back to the 11th century. Catherine the Great used Yaroslavl as her model city in her massive urban planning reform ordered for the whole of Russia between 1763 and 1830. The town was renovated in the neoclassical style but kept some of its significant historic structures like the Spassky Monastery that dates from the late 12th century, an elegant rotunda and the
remnants of the ancient trading center.
We had been teased for two and a half hours, held hostage in the ship as we docked across from this lovely city while the ship refueled. Outside our stateroom window Dave and I had a perfect view of the magnificent golden-domed Cathedral of the Assumption
but we wondered why we could not have been left to explore the town on our own while the ship was sitting across the river. After the ship docked at the city harbor we finally had a chance to see this stunning church up close and from the inside. A service was being held so we were only able to stand at a distance but once again we stood in silent wonder at the sounds of the priests chanting, the smell of incense and the beautiful voices of the choir echoing throughout the ancient stone walls.
Legend says that Yaroslavl was founded in the early 11th century on the spot where Prince Yaroslavl killed a bear. We walked around the green domed and uniquely asymmetrical exterior of the Church of Elijah the Prophet
before entering the church. Inside every inch of the church’s walls, doorways, arches
and high ceilings are covered with ancient frescoes
and punctuated by beautiful golden icons. Together with the unusual pews, this church creates a veritable museum of Old Russian painting and culture. Ancient Slavic text was hand painted on parts of the interior walls and we are told that to this day they have not been able to decipher its meaning. Again we were entertained in a small domed part of the church by an excellent quartet of Russian men singing religious and folk songs and, again I was so impressed I bought their CDs. An easy way to bring home a bit of the wonderful Russian culture that I can listen to again and again.
We left the church and went into the city market to sample some cheeses, meats and pickles. Many kinds of pickled cabbages, partridge eggs, fish, salamis and local honey were piled on counters tempting shoppers to buy. Outside the market stalls burst with an assortment of clothing for the local consumer. We quickly passed through the maze of stalls and into the pedestrian streets to find a tiny chapel where yet another church service was being held.
At one time there were over
70 churches in Yaroslavl but many were torn down during the Soviet years. Now there are approximately 40 churches remaining in the city. In earlier times it was considered a nobleman's duty to build a church as a favor to God. Since there were many noblemen in ancient times there were many churches built and likely there was a competition to see who had built the most impressive church.
Our last stop, next to the oldest theater in Russia, was another “shopping opportunity” disguised as an art gallery selling fine lacquer boxes with prices ranging from $150 to 5,000 US dollars. I was surprised to learn that these famous Russian lacquer boxes are made of paper mache, not wood. Seven coats of lacquer go onto each painted box and have proven to withstand floods better than wood. The fine art of lacquer box painting came from generations of icon painters but the miniature details in these tiny boxes are often painted with the assistance of a fine squirrel hair and a magnifying glass. Other more contemporary crafts and watercolors by local artists were displayed on the walls but were not for sale.
On our way back to the
ship it began to rain in earnest and we saw a newly married couple get out of the car in the pouring rain. The groom stood outside and lit up a cigarette while his bride, also outside in the pouring rain, waited for the someone to get an umbrella to cover her wet head and long white dress. It was finally the driver who walked by her new husband with the umbrella in hand. I can’t see that marriage lasting terribly long.
During dinner we our ship returned up the same Volga River, once more passing the fairytale onion dome churches of Tutayev
, and I enjoyed them again as they sailed by our windows. June 10, the charming town of Uglich
The sun was shining brightly when we woke up at the dock in Uglich (pronounced oo glich) and it was warm! What a relief because the bright blue domes and the gold crosses of the Church of St Dmitry absolutely sparkled in the glorious morning sun.
We left the dock and walked into the old Kremlin town to board an antiquated bus reminiscent of those in Guatemala minus the chickens. We bounced along to our host
family visit on the other side of town. On the way we were able to observe the various small family suburban style 19th century homes, more like Dachas with gardens and country lanes.
Our host family were artists working at home. Vladimir
, the patriarch, trained as a watch maker working with elaborate filigree but evolved into a well respected maker of elaborate silver filigreed icons.
He showed us an icon he made that was commissioned by the church worth over a million rubles. Other examples of his work were passed around the table in the form of photographs. His oil paintings, that he does for relaxation, hung on the walls. Twelve of us were seated on opposite sides of a combination of small tables and benches that served as a long dining table. The table was set with shot glasses, lovely small china plates and elaborately decorated flatware. Vladimir made three toasts with his strong moonshine (homemade vodka). Each shot was accompanied with a slice of sour dill pickle. His wife Marguerite had made small cakes topped with a tasty tart currant jam made from her gardens. Vladimir listed the many fruit trees and vegetables growing in their yard
and tomato starts were siting on the dining room window sill waiting for warmer weather to be planted in their garden. Their 9 year old daughter Leeza was also showing promise as an artist. Her father proudly showed us photographs of her work using an airbrush.
When we had consumed enough of the tea, (Marguerite’s teapot was covered by a tea cozy called a baba), cakes, moonshine and pickles we bade our hosts farewell and boarded the non-chicken bus back to the center of town. From there we were met by another local guide who lead us into the churches.
The provincial town of Uglich, which dates back to the 10th century, has some of the most beautiful churches and monasteries in Russia. The first town records date back to 1148. After Ivan the Terrible's son’s accidental death in 1584, his remaining son Dmitry moved to Uglich, the former Kremlin. He was murdered seven years later by the boyar impostor Boris Godunov. This resulted in yet another "church on spilled blood", the Church of St Dmitry on the Blood
. Dmitry's death and the short reign of impostors ushered in the Time of Troubles. By the 17th and 18th
centuries the noblemen of Uglich began to build more churches to honor their families. The old Kremlin of Uglich was constructed during the 15th-19th century and includes the Church of St Dmitry on the Blood and the Cathedral of Our Savior’s Transfiguration. We were taken into the beautiful Church of St Dmitry (sitting on the shores of the Volga River) to see the beautiful frescoes and icons. No matter how many churches, frescoes and icons I see I find that each one is uniquely different from the other. We also visited the Cathedral of Our Savior's Transfiguration
with, again, more beautiful frescoes and icons. We enjoyed yet another quartet of Russian male singers but one member of this group stood out with the deepest baritone I have ever heard, I could actually feel his deep vibrato.
There were Babushkas (Russian for old lady or grandmother) selling bunches of flowers in the city square and I bought a bouquet of lily of the valley which is perfuming our cabin as I write. A woman of the evening, or possibly a woman with a mental problem, paraded in her heels and elaborate dress for all the men in town, quite a
contrast to the babushkas in their customary conservative costumes, but although she was a bit extreme in her style no one seemed to pay her any notice beyond a nod of the head.
Donna, John and I decided to explore the town by walking away from the town center to explore neighborhoods and smaller churches. We found interesting colorful cottage-like homes, many with gingerbread windows and doors and at the corner of one street we found an old church, perhaps part of an old convent or monastery that was being restored. Donna and I walked up the new concrete steps and into the crumbling church interior with its faded frescoes and peeling walls. It made us appreciate the restoration that had been done on the completed churches and respect the amount of work that was needed to complete those churches that were still being restored.
We walked back to the city square shopping in stores along the way. Donna bought a lovely vase and some amber earrings and I found a malachite bracelet for 260 rubles!
Our brilliant sunshine was going under the clouds as we boarded the ship but not before I ran into the Viking Cruise Ship's
owner, Karine Hagen
walking along the shore with her Babushka friend
and a local host. She smiled sweetly for my camera being well accustomed to photographers.
Back on board we enjoyed typical Russian foods and beer on the foredeck as we sailed back out to the Volga River, the national river of Russia
. The Volga is considered the greatest of Russia’s rivers and is intimately linked to its history. At 2,300 miles in length it is the longest river in all of Europe. Believed to be a cradle of prehistoric people known as the Proto-Indo-Europeans, the Volga served as a vital trade route for the growing towns, fortresses and trading posts. Some of the largest medieval cities in the world were settled along the Volga River. There is still evidence of trade on this river. The canal is actively used for oil and lumber export, evidence by the huge piles of lumber accumulating on the river banks along our route.
During our sail we passed by many Russians enjoying their weekend camping, boating, fishing and swimming along the wooded shores but we wondered how they put up with the ferocious mosquitoes. Later in the afternoon we passed Kalyazin, another lone belfry that once belonged to the church of the trinity dating back to 1654. That is all that remains from Stalin's flooding of the rivers to create the canals and waterways connecting St Petersburg to Moscow.
In the evening we all dressed for the Captain's Dinner and very much enjoyed the company of our new friends Inga and Susie from New York. I won't even mention the sad talent show that followed the dinner but I will say that without the hysterical kvetching with Donna, Inga and Susie I would have retired to my cabin much earlier.
Sometime after leaving Uglich we left the Volga and we slept through the Moscow Canal and it's many locks.