Vodka and the Volga, Beluga caviar and the Bolshoi Ballet, Communism and cathedrals – Russia is, as Winston Churchill described it “a riddle wrapped up in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

Those words were spoken in 1939 and are as apt today as they were then. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has made huge progress in its tourism industry, allowing access to its many treasures and welcoming visitors, well not with a smile (generally the Russians are dour and humorless) but with an attractive offering of tours and extremely efficient tour guides. The iconic 10 nights/11 day cruise from Moscow to St Petersburg (or the reverse) is full of wonderful surprises. River cruising is always a relaxing way to travel and the countryside along the Volga, although very flat, is extremely varied and pretty. The pace is steady and relaxed.

There are a plethora of magnificent classical buildings to see in both of these enchanting cities.

Whether you choose to travel 5 stars or 3 stars rest assured that you will experience cleanliness throughout, great food and plenty of on-board entertainment. Generally speaking cruise ships carry passengers from many different countries. Some groups come with their own private Tour Leaders but each and every group is assigned a dedicated on-board tour guide who is able to speak the local language.

Moscow and St. Petersburg are expensive cities and the disparity between the inconceivably wealthy and infamous oligarchs and Russia’s poor is vast. There is however an emerging middle class but generally speaking life is extremely tough.

In both Moscow and St. Petersburg massive construction sights and monstrous, modern office buildings compete for space with beautiful classical architecture and many are hypercritical of such development. In fact war is raging between the classicists and modern developers, many of whom are accused of destroying Russia’s architectural heritage in their relentless pursuit of greater wealth and political recognition.

However there are a plethora of magnificent classical buildings to see in both of these enchanting cities. The buildings inside the walls of the Kremlin seem at odds with its role as the seat of a modern, global economic and political powerhouse. There is a gentleness and unassuming atmosphere that beguiles and charms the visitor. Around Red Square and inside the Kremlin and its grounds are a number of churches – St Basil’s Cathedral, Assumption Cathedral and Cathedral of the Archangel to mention a few, the Bell Tower of Ivan the Great, the Tsar Bell, the Mausoleum of Lenin – a veritable mix of iconic buildings illustrating the history of the Russian nation. The Armory palace is home to a number of the famous Faberge eggs.

St. Petersburg is without doubt the more beautiful of thetwo cities and there is a wealth of museums, palaces and churches to visit. It is the fourth largest city in Europe after London, Paris and Moscow. It has preserved much more of the culture, arts and history of the time of the Tsars and great artists and writers like Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy are lauded to this day. Apart from The State Hermitage Museum the Peter and Paul Fortress there is the Marinsky (the former Bolshoi) Opera and Ballet Company to see. It is also home to the third largest cathedral in the world – St. Isaacs’s Cathedral with a dome that is gilded using 100 kilograms of pure gold. A great day trip from St Petersburg to Pushkin and Catherine’s Palace is well worth doing.

Sandwiched between these two splendid cities is the gentle and demure Russian countryside. It appears sparsely populated, as most of the riverside towns are set back from the water’s edge.

There are five stops along the route, Uglich, Yaroslavi, Goritsy, Kizhi and Mandrogi. Apart from Yaroslavi, these are quaint towns with single storied buildings, a general dealer where one can buy additional supplies if need be, and of course the vendors who have a huge variation of well crafted souvenirs for sale.

For the most part the sightseeing at the stops along the river revolves around churches, some are in good condition, and some are under reconstruction while others are in a total state of disrepair. After decades of repression during the time of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church is experiencing a much welcomed come back and hundreds of churches are undergoing massive restoration.

One doesn’t need to be hugely adventurous to visit Russia. The Volga Cruise is a marvelous way to travel and to experience the abundance that this country has to offer. Jump aboard!

Words: Julien Erwin