The Best European Cruise

| Thursday, 20 Oct. 2011
Viking River Cruises'  in-depth exploration of Soviet history via river boat was the best Europeab cruise I ever took The Church of the Spilled Blood in St Petersburg is just one of many unforgettable sites in Russia.

The Best European Cruise

Viking River Cruises has been offering cruises between the cities of Moscow and St Petersburg for almost 20 years now; I took one such cruise myself in 2002. I still consider it among the most impressive cruises I have ever taken, largely because of the national obsession with the Soviet Union I shared with my fellow Americans in the 1950s through '80s.

These cruises pull back the Iron Curtain, and you will come to fully understand why the famous Soviet experiment failed. You'll get a chance to fully explore the Soviet capital city of Moscow, the Imperial capital city of St. Petersburg, and the much smaller and less notorious towns and villages of the hinterlands where regular people lived in an intrigue of political experimentation and suppression.

Viking River does a fantastic job of bringing to life the entire history of the Soviet Union, Imperial Russia and the roots of the Russian Orthodox Church.

This is the only fleet in Russia entirely owned by a western company, and the fact that they have been able to expand this fleet to four, large vessels shows the attraction of this particular Viking River offering. These boats are larger than average riverboats; they look more like ships - with four passenger decks and larger public rooms for dining, entertainment and the important lecture series offered onboard. They were built in Russia, but they have been owned by Viking River Cruises for many years now - meaning they are completely safe and up to the standards of comfort and service that western cruisers expect. (Do NOT get these cruises confused with the Russian tour boat that sank in a completely different part of the Volga a few months ago).

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There are a few different itineraries to choose from, but the only differences among them is how many days you spend in the bookend cities; Moscow or St Petersburg. My recommendation for regular cruisers is to spend as much time in Moscow as possible, since a regular cruiser is very likely to revisit St. Petersburg some day. You will never find a more convenient way to see Moscow - one of the most expensive cities in the world - because you won't need to use local hotels, restaurants or taxis. You will sleep and eat on the riverboat, and Viking River provides the tours while your river boat remains docked in the cities.

The renovations made to these vessels include expanding and adding balconies to several staterooms on the upper decks. When I sailed on the Viking Peterhof in 2002 it had several tiny cabins below the hull line that had two mere bunks and a bathroom area so small you could literally shower while sitting on the toilet. Those cabins have been ripped out and replaced with bigger, standard staterooms as one would expect on a European riverboat. Every stateroom now has hotel-style beds, a refrigerator, a safe and premium bathing products. Public rooms now have modern, Scandinavian décor.

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But you will be there to experience Russia. Every cruise requires six days to travel between Moscow and St. Petersburg - regardless of which city you begin in. You can book cruises from 11 to 13-days, but I highly recommended the longer cruises which give you more time in the bookend cities. The most enticing option is the 13-day Waterway of the Czars cruise from Moscow to St. Petersburg where select departures will include performances by the amazing musicians of the Mariinsky Theater, lectures by the Smithsonian Institution on Russia's history, myths and legends, and (on some sailings) a "behind the scenes" look at the vast art vaults of the Hermitage Museum.

Another new adventure is a new offering I first heard about from a fellow cruiser. You can be invited into a regular Russian citizen's home for dinner and conversation in one of the communal apartments in St. Petersburg known as Kommunalkas. Here you can all talk about how you each perceived the other as children, and share laughter over a history on both sides that invoked tremendous fear in many of us as children.

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Online Inspiration

Viking River has created a new web site called TheRealRussia.com where you can experience an insider's tour of Russia, just like Viking River passengers. The site features video webisodes by Karine Hagen, daughter of Torstein Hagen, the founder of Viking River Cruises. Karine has spent more than two decades studying and living in Russia, and in the webisodes, she takes the viewer behind closed doors at the ballet, into the rural home of babushka Nadya and her family, and literally underground at the Hermitage, to explore her favorite Russia, "the real Russia."

As I said, this is still truly one of the most memorable cruises I have ever taken. I recommend that you book early and get an upper level suite where you can look out on the stark beauty of Russia. You will be inspired by the vitality of the people who managed to live through the most severe repressive economic and political conditions imaginable. For more information, go to VikingRiver.com.

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