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A river cruise through the heart of Russia

Two-week journey on the Volga explores country’s long history

A trip along the mighty Volga River in Russia provides an incredible history lesson – whether about conquering tsars and invading armies, quests for a waterway from the Baltic Sea to the Caspian Sea, the Orthodox Church or the culture and lives of everyday people.

That perhaps is why river cruises are so popular along Europe’s longest river, with dozens of ships plying its 2,293 miles each summer. Most excursions are from St. Petersburg (via the Neva River and canals connecting to the Volga) to Moscow or vice versa. A few are offered to the port city of Rostov on Don, and even fewer to Astrakhan, where the Volga delta drains into the Caspian Sea. The latter is the one we took in September 2015, a 13-night cruise from Moscow to Astrakhan aboard the Russ, operated by Vodohod.

Cruise prices vary widely – even on the same cruise, depending on who you book through. We used ExpresstoRussia and found that our price was on the low end; its price this year is $2,400 to $2,800 for that cruise, depending on whether you start in Astrakhan or Moscow. You also can book directly with Vodohod.

My best advice is to select when and where you want to go and then check the prices through cruise companies and agents. Be sure to note what currency (often euros) they’re billing in, and check exchange rates. The accommodations vary as well – we were not on a luxury ship but found the accommodations sufficient and the crew friendly and helpful.

September was a perfect time for the cruise – the weather was mostly pleasant, with an occasional light rain shower, and the nights cool enough that we did not often need to run the somewhat noisy air conditioner in our tiny cabin. And fall colors were beginning to show along the river.

Moscow, then south

We boarded the Russ on a Tuesday afternoon at the North River Terminal in Moscow, and we remained in port until Thursday evening. Shore tours into Moscow – to the Kremlin grounds, Red Square and the Tretyakov Gallery – were provided on Wednesday and Thursday, including free time in Moscow. The port was easily accessible via metro and a short walk.

We opted to pay extra for a folk show, “Kostroma,” at the theater at the Cosmos Hotel, and although our tour van was stuck in traffic for two hours en route, we made it on time, and the show was well worth it. The costumes were spectacular, and the entire show was well-produced. And the ship provided a late dinner for those who attended the show or took the Moscow by Night tour.

We set sail at night and went through six locks while we were sleeping – but there were more to come where we’d be able to see how they work.

In 1690, the town of Uglich built St. Dmitry on the Blood church on the spot where the body of 10-year-old Dmitry, the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible, was discovered in 1591. The palace where the young prince lived has been turned into a museum.

Our first stop was in Uglich, perhaps most famous for the May 15, 1591, death of Dmitry, the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible. Dmitry was banished to Uglich after his father’s death, and the 10-year-old was found with his throat cut on the palace grounds. It was officially ruled “an accident.” The city in 1690 built the Church of St. Dmitry on the Blood on the spot where he died, and it still stands today.

Our stop there was only about three hours, as were the next two at Yaroslavl and Kostroma, two principle cities of the Golden Ring, a cluster of cities northeast of Moscow that are steeped in Russian history as well as that of the Orthodox Church. Tours in the smaller towns included the kremlin (fortress), a church, the central part of the city and sometimes a local music performance.

Passengers crowded the decks as we entered this lock near Uglich and then waited for the water to drain so we could depart at a lower level. Completing the waterway from the Gulf of Finland to the Baltic Sea entailed building dams, reservoirs, canals and locks.

In Kostroma, we had a short time in the local market – long enough to pick up some fresh fruit and delicious Russian chocolates. People often set up art and craft booths near the ports, but the actual town markets are the most interesting and we were lucky to hit a few along the cruise.

Onboard activities

Between ports, the ship offered a host of fun and cultural activities – Russian language classes, dance and song classes and informational talks on the cities for the upcoming stops. Most activities were free, but the vodka tasting party was an extra 750 rubles (about $13) – and well worth it. The crew dressed in traditional costumes and relayed many of the customs about vodka drinking. Along with about five shots of vodka, we were served pickles, fish and blini (pancakes) with caviar.

All meals were included, and we were assigned to a specific table in the dining room – generally by language – for the duration of the cruise. Many of the passengers were from western Europe – France, Italy, Norway – and only a handful from the United States.

Breakfast was a buffet with ample choices; lunch was the main meal, usually four courses and then a three-course dinner. We usually had a few options for lunch and dinner from which we could select daily.

The food was generally tasty, but sometimes inconsistent and often not hot enough for my taste.

Also, while non-alcoholic beverages were served with meals, bottled water was not provided for free during the cruise. Many passengers brought a large jug of water to keep in their cabin; I purchased a jug during a port stop because the onboard water charge was pricey.

Native costumes, military monuments

Our next stop was Nizhny Novgorod, formerly known as Gorky. It was closed to foreigners from the 1930s until 1991, as military aircraft, including the MiG were manufactured here. Most of the churches were destroyed or converted to other uses during the Stalin years.

A group of performers wait for their time on stage during a festival in Astrakhan in September 2015. The city was celebrating its birthday and the festival offered free entertainment. Much of the festival took place along the Volga River embankment.

As we headed south, evidence of Mongol and Tatar cultures increased. In Cheboksary, we were greeted by Chuvashi performers in native dress, noted for its symbolic embroidery. Later, on our own, we stumbled upon the national museum with a Chuvashi room, and while it appeared closed, we were allowed to visit. As in much of Russia, the placards are only in Russian and there were no pamphlets in other languages, but the native costumes and linens were beautiful.

In Kazan, there is a mosque within the old kremlin walls (along with an Orthodox Church), again showing the Tatar influence on that city.

War memorials and other military monuments seemed to increase in number and size as we went south toward Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad). Samara (formerly Kuybyshev) also was a closed city until 1991 because of aviation- and space-related manufacturing. It was also home to Stalin’s bunker, a command center 12 stories below ground, which is a popular tour.

This enormous statue, the Motherland Calls, is the centerpiece of Victory Park in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad). The park is dedicated the heroes of the 1942-43 Battle of Stalingrad. It is among the tallest statues in the world, and is the tallest of a woman. It is 279 feet from the tip of the sword to the bottom.

The centerpiece of the tour in Volgograd was Victory Park, where an 279-foot statue of Mother Russia holding a nearly 100-foot sword stands atop a hill. The park also includes an eternal flame, where visitors can see the changing of the guard. One of the most moving parts of the park are long “rubble” walls meant to simulate the destruction in the city during the 1942-43 Battle of Stalingrad.

After a “day at sea,” we reached Astrakhan, the end of our journey. The city was celebrating its birthday with a festival that included children’s activities, performances and plenty of vendors – and even a fireworks show for our last evening onboard the Russ.

Sue McMillin, a longtime journalist and former city editor at The Durango Herald, is a freelance writer and editor living in Victor, Colorado.

A few details

Visas are required for entry to Russia; visa services are relatively inexpensive and eliminate the headache of trying to get everything right. I used GenVisa in Washington, D.C.

If you have time, arrive in Moscow a day before the cruise. It helps with the time change and ensures you won’t miss your ship if there are delays.

Along with a round-trip flight to Moscow, you’ll need to book a one-way flight from Astrakhan to Moscow after docking (or a flight to Astrakhan if your cruise starts in the south).

Carry rubles for shopping in local markets.

Check if bottled water is included in the cost of the cruise (or a drinking water dispenser to refill water bottles).

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