Road Scholar (formerly known as Elderhostel) is
a nonprofit organization that offers hundreds of international and domestic educational trips for people 50 and older. I recently returned from a two-week Road Scholar cruise on a Russian riverboat.
I grew up during the Cold War, so my impression
of the USSR was colored by US propaganda. The Soviet Union and the Russians were scary. They were Communists. The country was surrounded by an Iron Curtain. When I was in grade school, I thought this curtain was real. I pictured a gigantic theatre-type curtain hanging in thick folds and decorated with swags and tassels, but made of rusting iron.
If someone was meandering along a street in, say, Poland, and if he was walking with his head down, he might run smack into the Iron Curtain: Bam. He would bruise his nose. He would know for sure he was on the border of the Soviet Union and he would hightail it back to safety.
My late 1940s and 1950s vision of Russians: a
stern, unsmiling, military-minded mass of men dressed in storm coats and fur hats. Their counterparts were plump, dumpy women wearing babushkas.
The Kremlin was a scary place, a walled government compound.
I remember Movietone News clips of May Day
parades in Red Square that featured thousands of soldiers marching in square formations with their arms swinging in unison. They carried swords, bayonets and guns, and were followed by long lines of tanks, canons and military vehicles. A row of men with bushy mustaches, military hats and chests full of medals watched the parade from the roof of Lenin’s tomb. Even scarier: Lenin was preserved in
that tomb, pickled in formaldehyde and on display.
We spent four days in St. Petersburg; nine days
cruising down the Volga River and its tributaries; then three days in Moscow.
This was my fifth Road Scholar (Elderhostel)
travel experience and, as all the others, it did not disappoint. It was terrific.
After a day re-tuning our jet-lagged brains and
bodies at a hotel in the city of St. Petersburg, we moved to the M/S Vodohod/RUSS, a Russian riverboat with a capacity for about 300 passengers as
well as its all-Russian crew and staff. We unpacked and settled into our linen closet-sized cabin.
The cabin was so small. . .
“How small was it?” The audience of Johnny
Carson’s old Tonight Show might ask, in unison.
“Our cabin was so small, if one person was sitting on a bed, leaning forward to tie her shoe, the other person had to wait until she was finished before passing by. The bathroom was the size of a
cupboard in my basement where I keep my Christmas tree decorations.
We didn’t care. We were never there, except to
The boat stayed at the dock in St. Petersburg for another three days while we explored Peterhof, Peter the Great’s summer residence; Catherine the Great’s summer palace, including the Amber Room with its six tons of amber decoration; a moving, but gloomy memorial to the survivors and victims of the Seige of Leningrad; the Peter and Paul Fortress, and (ta daaaaa! Something I’ve been waiting to see for a half century, at least!) the Hermitage Museum. We also attended a ballet performance in the city.
St. Petersburg is at the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland, a pouchy offshoot extending eastward from the Baltic Sea. We puttered along the Neva River through Lake Ladoga, the largest freshwater lake in Europe, then through the Svir River to a village called Mandrogy.
We continued our northeasterly sail to Lake
Onega, the second largest lake in Europe, to the island of Kizhi.
Then we traveled southeast on Russia’s longest
river, the Volga, through Lake Beloye, heading south on the Sheksna River, where we stopped at a city called Goritsy.
We went through the Rybnsk Reservoir to the city
Then we backtracked to the main river and continued southwest to Uglich, another charming Russian
By the time we entered the Moscow Canal on
the way to Moscow, we had passed dozens of hydroelectric stations and a dozens upon dozens of piles of lumber stacked, ready to be loaded onto barges. The logs looked like birch. I think birch
trees are rampant in Russia.
We were lifted up on this journey through nearly two dozen locks as we made our way up the river from the Baltic Sea – upstream--to Moscow.
Our trip was enhanced by lectures about Russian
history, demonstrations of Russian dances and music, classes about the Russian language and discussions of Russian notables such as Ivan
the Terrible, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and some of the most famous Russian artists and composers.
I was pleasantly surprised by the country and the people and by hearing some of the complicated and colorful details of Russian history. It will take two or three blog entries to tell all.
My next blog will deal with visits to the five villages, details of our all too brief visit to the Hermitage, information about some palaces and Russian Orthodox churches we saw as well as some nice things I learned from face-to-face encounters with 21st Century Russians.