Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Cruisin’ Down the River: Uglich and Yaroslavl

We took our very first cruise in 1993. I remember it well. We decided to break with the tradition of Hawaii winter holidays and do something different. We ended up on the ‘Mexican Riviera’ with my dad and the girls.

I hated the first few days. I was embarrassed to be part of an organized group and I didn’t like the regimen of fixed seating dinners and tours. I disliked the steel band that constantly played by the pool, and being harassed by waiters always trying to sell some unusual cocktails. But by the third day I was beginning to like the steel drum music, and looking out for the waiters. By the seventh day, I was sorry to leave the ship, and vowed to do more cruises. We have done quite a few, although not as many as Warren Gill. But then, no one has been on as many cruises as Warren.

This cruise started off pretty much like the Mexican cruise. I was not happy. While the exterior of the ship was in excellent condition, and the cabin was quite large with a big opening window, there was an awful smell in our room. No one could do anything about it until I made an appointment with the Cruise Director and invited her to visit us. She brought along a translator, but there was no need for words. She only had to open the door to know something was terribly wrong. Fortunately she somehow got the problem fixed.

A big part of any cruise experience is the meals. Our meals lack the presentation that we are used to from other ships. But despite their descriptions and appearance, most have been surprisingly tasty. Except for the breakfasts. They generally consist of large platters of cold salami, cheese and what looks like uncooked bacon. Hot items include such things as fried cabbage patties which one Dutch guest described as looking like they had been already eaten! Fortunately, there is some fresh fruit and porridge; but granola seems to be out of the question.

We are scheduled to make five stops. The first was Uglich, one of Russia’s most ancient towns. We were greeted by a couple of locals playing the saxophone and accordion. Judging by their singing, Sally believed they had consumed a lot of vodka. But they were trying very hard to entertain us, and earn a few rubles.

I was fascinated by the town. I didn’t know what to expect, but didn’t expect what I found. There was a broad mix of architectural styles with a combination of wood and stucco buildings sited along very wide streets. The old churches were topped with multiple onion shaped domes. We visited the 16th century Church of the Transfiguration and Dmitry’s Blood Church, named after the son of Ivan the Terrible who was murdered in the town. At the City Art Gallery and one of the churches, we were treated to more music; this time by respectable young choral singers who were very good, and didn’t forgot to mention that their CD’s were available for 30 euros or $43.

After a few hours it was time to return to the ship. But before doing so, I picked up some more herring and vodka. Fortunately, shopping was a bit easier since I had started to learn the alphabet in my first Russian class earlier that day, as well as how to count to ten. However, I still had trouble sorting out my kopeks and rubles since there are 100 kopeks in a ruble, and a ruble is only 4 cents! A cheap bottle of vodka costs about 135 rubles. A spicy pepper vodka, similar to the one served by the Lubells one New Year’s Eve, cost me 350 rubles. (That’s the one that knocked us all out by 11:15)

The next day we were signed up for the vodka and bliny tasting. But first, we were off for a tour of Yaroslavl, a larger city of about 600,000. We never got to see the more modern areas. Instead we focused on the old town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, stopping off at the 16th century Monastery of the Transfiguration, and the Church of Elijah the Prophet. There we enjoyed yet another choral concert in yet another chapel covered in hundreds of gilded frescoes. Then we were taken to a park area where every year the age of the city is planted in flowers. This year it is 997, so a major celebration is planned for 2010.

We returned to the ship for lunch, followed by another Russian class, and screening of a 4 part History Channel documentary about the Czars. If you ever get a chance to see it, you should. The Czars and their families lived incredible lives. It’s no wonder most came to such untimely endings.At 4 o’clock, we decided to pass on the Russian Folk Song Lesson but at 5 we joined about 50 others in the Tchaikovsky dining room where the vodka and bliny tasting took place. It was very well done. Well, I thought it was well done since Sally doesn’t drink vodka! (She did once in 1965 and hasn’t quite recovered.) Dinner that evening was a salad followed by a choice of a Russian meat or was it a chicken dish? Or perhaps that was the night we were offered cabbage cooked in milk and stuffed peppers. Surprisingly, lunches are a bigger meal than dinners, with a salad, soup, main course and dessert. While many menu items taste better than they look, we would not recommend a Russian cruise for the cuisine. Or the music. As soon as Demitri gets on his electric keyboard to play Midnight in Moscow, Sally is out of there.

On the first few evenings, there was not a lot to do. There were a couple of music bars but even we felt too young to have to listen to the musical selections. Thank goodness we didn’t bring Claire along. She would have jumped overboard rather than have to listen to Demitri’s music. And it’s not just his music. In the rooms there is a piped music system, and we have to listen to some very strange selections. At 7 this morning they were playing Herman’s Hermits and Paul Anka! Where do they find this stuff?

However, notwithstanding the smells in the room, the look of the food, and the music selections, when we pull into one of the many locks along the rivers, or sail past old villages with charming wooden houses and magnificent onion domed churches, I can’t help but think what a great experience this is. It was exciting last fall to look at a map of Russia, and contemplate a cruise from Moscow to St. Petersburg. It is even more exciting to do it. There are constant surprises: the gigantic abandoned industrial operations; the lumber yards with piles of small diameter logs; the quaint old villages, and the remnants of the Communist Era. We have passed under some amazing bridges and seen some impressive scenery. I am now starting to enjoy many aspects of the cruise, and am looking forward to three more stops before we reach St. Petersburg. After all, I still have a lot of vodka and herring to get through.

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