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Get an intimate view of the landscape
River cruise in Russia a leisurely way to see the world up close
There's only one way any American is likely to see this windswept two-mile-long island at the north end of Europe's second-largest lake and the 700-year-old all-wood Church of the Transfiguration, whose 22 onion-shaped domes dominate the landscape.
That's via a river cruise between Russia's former czarist capital of St. Petersburg and the current capital of Moscow.
A cruise here is a very different experience from what you get aboard any typical ocean-going luxury liner. For one thing, the typical river cruise ship carries about 200 passengers and 100 crew, a far cry from the city-sized populace aboard ships operated by the likes of Princess Cruises, Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Holland-America.
Yes, there is the same level of sumptuous and fine cuisine on a river cruise, but there are defined mealtimes and no perpetually open buffets. There's usually a glass-lined bar or lounge where passengers can enjoy watching the landscape slide past in far more intimate detail than you'll ever see from a large cruise ship. The scene in these is most reminiscent of the dome cars once featured on cross-country trains in America.
Passengers will become better acquainted with the crew than is usual on the big ships, too. And there's the chance to walk around quirky towns and islands no ocean liner will ever reach.
There are at least half a dozen high-quality river cruise lines offering journeys along arteries like the Danube and Mekong, the Volga, the Nile, the Rhone, Yangtze and Rhine — a place for almost every taste.
Among those firms, Viking River Cruises — with US headquarters in Los Angeles — dominates. Viking operates 34 ships on major rivers in Europe and Asia, carrying about 30 percent of the world's river cruise passengers in ways that allow even the handicapped to get up close and personal with both big cities and small towns.
The river ship bringing us to Kizhi and its unique and sturdy medieval Russian Orthodox church, built mostly of Scott's pine wood without so much as a single metal nail, is the 210-passenger Viking Truvor, one of four boats Viking operates on the Moscow-St. Petersburg run, which traverses the Neva and Moskva rivers plus Europe's two largest lakes — Lakes Ladoga and Onega -- using more than a dozen locks along the Volga-Baltic waterway.
From the Truvor's fourth-deck Panorama Lounge, you see the bones of a Cold War submarine parked alongside the canal; dachas (summer homes) big and small, A-framed and brick, from plush to ramshackle; to say nothing of the occasional black bear or moose taking its leisure by the water's edge at twilight (which comes about 11 p.m. in the summertime at this Alaska-like latitude).
There's a low-key quality to visiting Kizhi and most other rural stops on this 12-night voyage, which includes three days of touring (guides provided by Viking) in each of the two big cities that bookend the experience. You visit Red Square and the Kremlin, the Hermitage and Peter the Great's plush Peterhof palace, among other landmarks.
But it's the smaller places in between that make a river cruise most different from the usual cruise experience.
On Kizhi, you'll walk to all the sights, as there's not a car or truck in view when you alight from the Truvor onto the island's small pier. It's about half a mile of wheelchair-friendly boardwalk from pier to United Nations-designated world landmark church, a jaunt made by virtually everyone on the riverboat — almost none of them younger than 55.
Then walk through the church, see icons dating from the 12th century and hear a three-man choir sing a hymn or two and offer to sell you a compact disc of similar music. Then move on next to the nearby log residence of a local family, which until recently brought its cattle and horses indoors to provide warmth during the long winters.
"In Russia," remarked one Viking guide with typically sardonic Russian humor, "we have nine months of winter every year and three months of disappointment."
The guides both at the small waystops and in big cities are strikingly frank about their country and its politics. They frequently crack snide jokes about President Vladimir Putin ("our perpetual president," one called him), but you also pick up a deep sense of national pride whenever the guides (some of whom also worked for the Intourist agency during Soviet times) discuss World War II.
The bottom line: If you want to see more than just the big cities, if you think you'd love traversing wild forests and logging camps but don't like the idea of driving and dealing with road signs written in Cyrillic lettering, a river cruise may be the way to go.
Fares run about $5,000 per person on Viking's Waterways of the Czars excursion, not including airfare. But Viking and some other lines occasionally offer two-for-one deals and somewhat lower prices for those willing to book a year or so in advance.
Thomas D. Elias writes a syndicated column about California public affairs for the Appeal-Democrat Opinion pages. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.