In Russia, we learned that you don’t sip vodka. You drink it straight out of a shot glass and follow it with a sweet pickle, preferably one homemade by the sweet young grandmother who has invited you and eleven of your shipmates into her Uglich home for the afternoon.
This is what we’re doing in Uglich, a river city that sits on the shores of the Volga River just a few hours from Moscow. I, millennial travel writer, look at my mom, baby boomer on her first international journey, and together, we smile, tip our glasses, and let the warm, stinging moonshine do its magic. Across the room, our fellow American, Canadian, and British guests gulp down the contents of their glasses, cough, clear their throats, and laugh at the ease with which our host, Elizaveta, drinks hers with true Russian poise. A few of our shipmates have brought gifts from their own homes for Elizaveta and her family, and the grandkids are running around the yard playing with the ribbons they pulled from some of the presents. Elizaveta fishes out some photographs of her and her students—she has been a middle-school math teacher for almost 30 years—and talks to us about her love for collecting replicas of famous religious Russian Orthodox icons. She pulls a beloved one off the shelf and, with the translation help of our tour guide, Andrey, tells us a little bit about how much she loves the gold-plated detail on this particular rendition of Mary. Although I don’t ask her right then, I can tell: she loves this work.
That’s the thing about traveling with Viking: because their ships are intimate and their trips immersive, we aren’t just here traveling to Russia: we’re traveling with her.
That morning, we’d done what most river cruisers do when they visit the tree-lined street of pretty, 1000-year-old Uglich: we listened, we learned, we walked. We took a guided tour of the city’s most iconic image, St. Demetrios on the Blood, the turquoise-blue onion-domed church that sits on the shores of the Volga River and is covered with golden stars. We admired the meticulously restored architecture of the green-domed, gold-plated Cathedral of the Transfiguration, and we stood in awe, inside, as we examined the splashes of color and detailed paintings from its floors to ceilings. Then, we visited the city’s Kremlin, the place where Dmitry, Ivan the Terrible’s young son, was banished, died, and entombed, and we stopped at the city’s famous open-air market to bargain for hand-painted matroyshka dolls, woven shawls, palm-sized lacquer boxes, and fragments of amber.
However, instead of finishing there, we did something unexpected: we broke into groups, hopped a local bus, and headed for the countryside.
According to Wilhelm Steinbrunner, the Viking Truvor’s hotel manager, these special home visits are rare and not so easy to set up: it takes time to interview families in advance, to set up contracts, and to ensure that the families are well-compensated for the time they open up their homes to visitors. As he says, “we really rallied for these home visits, because they are such a real way to get to know a destination.” They’re still unique, too: of all the countries to which Viking cruises, they still only offer home visits in Russia, Hungary, and Romania. He’s right, also, about how special they are: of all the excursions my mom and I did on our two-week journey throughout Russia, I remember Uglich perhaps most fondly of them all.
To me, this is what makes Viking’s cruises so special: by taking their guests to community plays, local art festivals, and after-school programs for elementary children, it’s clear that they embody their belief in supporting local economies and ensuring that guests and locals have a chance to meet and get to know each other. Of course, Viking does its ship days beautifully, too: Whether it’s a vodka tasting night, folk dance lessons, Russian language practice sessions, lectures on the Romanovs and the Cold War, or round-table discussions on contemporary life in modern Russia, their commitment to cultural immersion is clear from ship to shore. There wasn’t one day we didn’t learn something new about Russian history and culture; not a day that we didn’t practice our Russian, eat a pelmeni or try a new borsch recipe, listen to someone play the triangle-shaped balalaika with its three strings, or see the works of a new Russian artist.
My mom and I came to this journey with very different connotations of Russia, she having lived through the Cold War and the fall of Communist Russia, me having grown up in a world of watching the majestic cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow regain their rightful places among Europe’s other great Renaissance cities. But what we learned—together, and with our eyes and hearts open to the possibilities of this once-closed country—is that even a place like Uglich, a place neither of us had ever heard of, a place that literally means “corner of the Volga River,” is full of open doors. In fact, it is now a place we speak of often, and with love.
More About Viking River Cruises
Viking River Cruises is the world’s premier river cruising company. With state-of-the-art ships, cozy accommodations, fresh, locally-sourced cuisine, and guided excursions, Viking’s customer service and commitment to ethical touring is truly unparalleled. For us, Viking provided airport pickup and all ground transport, helped us arrange our excursions, and worked with us to create an unforgettable experience—one that was the perfect recipe for this mom and daughter traveling duo.
For more information on the Waterways of the Tsars cruise itinerary, see Viking’s website at www.vikingrivercruises.com or call them toll-free at 1-800-706-1483.