Travelling Down the Volga
What to see on the Volga?
- Ancient Slav Villages: Though many have sadly been abandoned, some of the Slav’s first settlements still live on. In wooden cottages which were built without a single nail, villagers continue their way of life undisturbed in Russia’s vast countryside.
- The Romanovs’ Seat of Power: The picture-perfect town of Kostroma in the Golden Ring was the home of Russia’s Imperial family 500 years ago and in many ways it seems to be a part of an era when Tsars still ruled.
- Mongol Bastions: The great cities of the Golden Horde stretched from China all the way to southern Russia. To this day, the Mongols’ influence can be seen in cities like Kazan and Samara, with cultures very distinct from that of western Russia.
- Modern Russia: The Volga continues to play a central role in Russia. Great cities like Moscow, Volgograd (former Stalingrad) and Nizhny Novgorod still live in time to the ebbing of its tides.
Travelling down the Volga
With the world’s deepest lake and Europe’s longest river within its borders, Russia is the ideal country to be explored by cruise. The most famous of river cruise voyages within Russia is undoubtedly the Volga. When the Slavs emigrated from Kiev — marking the beginning of Russia as we know it — they chose the leafy forests around the Volga to settle in. While many of these first slavic settlements remained as quaint villages, a handful grew into Russia’s main medieval cities like Nizhny Novgorod and Kazan. Almost 1000 years later, the Volga is still the bloodline that keeps these cities alive. It also remains the best and, indeed, the only way of visiting all western Russia’s historic sites — stretching from the Caspian Sea to Moscow — in less than two weeks.
Regardless of the cruise (and there are many), there are only two routes up the Volga. The longest, starts at the sultry city of Astrakhan on the Caspian sea. Cruises starting here take 14 days to sail up the Volga, stopping at many southern locations that few foreigners get to see. The second option is shorter, taking only 11 days. Setting off in Nizhny Novgorod, however, means that the journey only covers the European part of Russia which, while beautiful, is not nearly as diverse as the South.
The Jewels of the Volga River
On the sun-kissed beaches of the Caspian Sea, an ancient Mongol city stands as a living testimony to Russia’s diversity. Unlike some of Russia’s glitzier cities, this city provides a truly authentic picture of Russia; with both old and new, poor and prosperous, Muslim and Orthodox districts. All cruises departing from Astrakhan start with a tour of its pearly-white Kremlin built by Ivan the Terrible before setting off for Volgograd.
In the South’s main city (which is better known by its former name, Stalingrad) the world’s tallest statue of a woman stands proudly. ‘The Motherland Calls’ is a staggering reminder of the hardships Stalingrad suffered during WW2. Along with visiting the statue, cruises stopping here include an excursion to the tens of thousands of soldiers’ graves and other somber war memorials to be found in what once was a city at the epicenter of WW2.
3. Southern Cultural Centers
Saratov and Samara have more similarities than just their names. Both are exceptionally cultured cities; with Russia’s oldest circus, a renowned provincial art gallery and a most unusual manor house (named the House with Elephants) tucked within their rather unassuming cityscapes. Panoramic tours of both cities will uncover these treasures and all cruises include an in-depth excursion to Samara’s classical art museum.
4. Kazan & the Chuvash Republic
The last and greatest of the truly southern cities on the Volga is Kazan. As the capital of Tatarstan, it is home to exquisite mosques and historic outdoor markets along with Orthodox Christianity’s most important cathedral. Both geographically and culturally, it is the place where East meets West.
Cheboksary, the next stop, doesn’t boast a 500 year old kremlin like Kazan. However, the distinctive culture and language of the Chuvash people make this agrarian town, famed for its beer and tractors, a fascinating place to visit.
5. Nizhny Novgorod
The traditional brick-red walls of the Nizhny Novgorod kremlin on the banks of the Volga mark the beginning of western Russia. All the traditional symbols of Russia, from multi-colored cupolas to log houses, can be found in the city. Tours of this city could include admiring Repin’s works in the city’s art gallery to riding on the cable car that stretches over the Volga and which the city’s residents use as a bus!
6. Jewels of the Golden Ring
The ancient river posts of Kostroma, Yaroslav and Uglich are by far the prettiest towns on the Volga, if not the whole of Russia. Travelers come from far and wide to see the izbas (traditional log houses) that look straight out of a fairytale and the countless, gold-domed cathedrals that give the region its name. The first of the towns, Kostroma, has the distinction of being the home of the Romanovs before they became Russia’s ruling family. Despite the influx of visitors, it has still managed to keep its rural charm. Yaroslav, the first Russian city founded on the Volga and the crowning jewel of the Golden Ring, is a UNESCO heritage site and home to some of Russia’s oldest monasteries (one of which still keeps a live bear). In contrast, Uglich, barely features on the maps of tourists despite its historic and religious importance. According to The Telegraph, the petite, red and gold church which was built on the site where Ivan the Terrible’s son was murdered is one of the world’s most beautiful.
Most river cruises give their passengers two days at least to explore the megapolis that is Russia’s capital. Tours to the Red Square and Kremlin complex are naturally a must. Walking tours down the main historical thoroughfare, the Arbat, are also found in almost every cruise’s programme. Higher-end cruises tend to take their passengers to Moscow’s other impressive sites, like the Tretyakov State Gallery or the Novodevichy Convent, while 3 star cruises leave passengers to discover Moscow for themselves.
- The Nizhny Novgorod - Moscow route, while missing out on Russia’s vibrant southern cities, allows for a fuller understanding of ancient Rus’ by stopping at some of the key slavic settlements that are sadly overlooked by most travelers. These towns include:
- Gorodets: A village of artists which produce the most prized traditional Russian crafts, like painstakingly painted matryoshkas as well as pryaniki, a form of gingerbread that is so ornate that it is considered art.
- Plyos: This town of less than 2,000 people has attracted notable people for centuries simply due to the beauty of its rolling hills and misty forests. Though today the owners of the town’s picturesque dachas are rather dull billionaires, in the 19th century this village was teeming with artists including Russia’s most celebrated landscape painter, Isaak Levitan.
- Myshkin: Named after a mouse which saved a prince, this village is very mice — literally. Almost all the village’s buildings have some sort of connection with mice and, yes, it is ever so slightly reminiscent of Disney Land. Tiny museums, such as the valenki and vodka museums, can be found all over the village.