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moved here to create the

moved here to create the Open Air Museum of Architecture. Sailing toward Kizhi across the waters of Lake Onega (the second-largest lake in Europe) was like crossing a tranquil sea. Eventually, land came into view once again with a series of islands, pristine and uninhabited save the occasional dacha, or summer house. In the warmer months, folks from Moscow and St. Petersburg come here to escape the city, and to fish and hunt. In this precious part of the world, there is no pollution. The air and water are pure. We had reached the northernmost part of our journey and were just 300 miles from the Arctic Circle. Kizhi—or rather, the Transfiguration Church—could be spotted on the horizon, much to everyone’s excitement on deck. As the tall wooden church loomed larger, we noticed something else: The top of the church appeared to be floating on air. Moving closer, we could see that it was supported by scaffolding, but even with restoration work being carried out on the Transfiguration Church Kizhi is unbelievably enchanting. THIS ASTONISHING PALACE IS A TESTAMENT TO THE IDEA THAT, FOR RUSSIAN ROYALTY, LESS IS DEFINITELY NOT MORE Size is not everything, however, and the smaller Church of Intercession (called the Winter Church because it is heated) is equally beautiful in its simplicity. The 200-year-old Merchant’s House is also fascinating. Gazing out of the window across the windswept island to the icy waters, you can sense what life must have been like during those dark, seemingly endless winters. That evening, we sailed back across Lake Onega and along the Svir River toward Mandrogy, the perfect place to meet local artists and admire their handcrafted goods including jewelry, pottery and woodwork. After watching the late-night sun set across Lake Ladoga (the largest lake in Europe), we slept soundly. And when we awoke, we were in St. Petersburg. It would take more than nine years to view every exhibit in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum for one minute. Our guide selected a few paintings to show us including one of Rembrandt’s last works, The Prodigal Son, painted in red and brown because he could not afford any other colored paints. The story Above: Red Square in Moscow is a must-see destination, home to the Kremlin, the State Historical Museum and St. Basilʹs Cathedral 78 VIKING.COM EXPLORE MORE 2020

TRAVEL of Rembrandt’s poverty sits in stark contrast to the opulence of the Hermitage Museum in the Winter Palace, once home to the Romanov tsars. Enormous columns of jasper and giant vases of malachite greet you in one gilded room after another. Catherine the Great is credited with starting the collection. “As far as art is concerned I am not an amateur, I am a glutton,” the empress of everything is reputed to have said. Equally if not more glorious than the Hermitage is Catherine Palace in Pushkin. Built by Empress Elizabeth I and named after her mother, this astonishing palace is a testament to the idea that, for Russian royalty, less is definitely not more. Indeed, what we had the privilege of seeing was the sixth version of the palace—the previous five buildings, complete with furniture, were all razed to the ground because Elizabeth did not like them. At long last, she said “yes” to Rastrelli’s baroque masterpiece. Inside this vast blue-and-white painted confection (blue for the color of Elizabeth’s eyes, white for her skin) there is a room for everything, including a dessert room in which even the plates are edible. But it is the Amber Room that is the most impressive. Six tons of the highest-quality amber were brought from the bottom of the Baltic Sea and made into panels that cover the room. The intricate carved faces and flowers glow in a spectrum of honey-rich colors, from gold, brown and orange to red and green. June in St. Petersburg is the time of “White Nights,” when the sun sets at 1:00 AM and rises just two hours later. The people make the most of their brief, precious summer and celebrate at a variety of events and festivals. And what more perfect way for us to join in the celebrations than by spending an evening at the ballet? The performance of Swan Lake at the historic Alexandrinsky Theater was a wonderful treat. Sipping champagne on the balcony during the intermission, I felt I was living the life of one of those Russian royals. Our three days in glorious St. Petersburg concluded with an optional boat ride along some of the canals that crisscross this beautiful city. St. Petersburg is considered an open air museum, with more than 2,000 UNESCOprotected sites including the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood. This remarkable church is one of the most visited buildings in the world, and after our canal boat ride we were given a tour inside. When it came to exploring Russian churches and cathedrals (by this stage, to be honest, I had lost count), Viking had saved the best for last. Every inch of every surface here is decorated lavishly. The floor is made of sparkling semiprecious stones, and the walls and ceiling feature 7,000 square feet of gleaming gold mosaics in the Byzantium tradition. The church, which stands on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, took 24 years to build. As a glorification of eternal life, there is nothing else in the world like it. Although 12 days does not seem like an especially long time to really explore a country, looking back on our journey I feel that we got to know the real Russia. I did not just learn, I understood. I did not just look, I went inside. And inside not just palaces, but humble village houses, too. I talked with local people, ate with them, listened to their music and was welcomed into their world. And what a world. GETTING THERE: The 13-day Waterways of the Tsars® itinerary sails from Moscow to St. Petersburg, or in reverse. Go online: Watch a video of the Waterways of the Tsars itinerary at EXPLORE MORE 2020 VIKING.COM 79