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RUSSIAN RIVERS : A Cruise Between St. Petersburg and Moscow, Along the Waterways of the Czars, Reveals Russia's Hidden Heart

March 06, 1994|Julian More | More, who lives in France, is the author of eight books, most recently "A Taste of Burgundy" (Abbeville Press). He is working on his next book, "Pagnol's Provence."

Peter the Great loved water. He learned to sail at the age of 12; he studied navigation and shipbuilding; he even worked in the shipyards of Amsterdam--after he had become czar. He also built the first Russian navy and commanded ships in successful sea battles against the Turks and Swedes. And in 1703, on the Neva River delta, he founded the great, lovely, canal-laced seaport of St. Petersburg, which became known as "the Venice of the North."

St. Petersburg was a glorious city, a miracle of 18th-Century town planning. Built literally from the ground up--and the ground was a morass of marshland and islets--it grew into a complex of about 35,000 buildings, many of them designed by architects imported from Switzerland, Italy, Germany, France and Scotland. Peter stocked St. Petersburg with aristocratic families, distinguished merchants, artisans of every kind. Science, art and literature flourished. In 1712, he declared it capital of the Russian Empire.

Today, St. Petersburg--having been renamed Petrograd and then Leningrad in the meantime--has reclaimed its historic identity, and reminders of its former glory are everywhere. Golden domes and soaring spires are still reflected in its canals, and the vivid yellows, greens, reds and blues of its rococo and neoclassical palaces have a stage-set brilliance--especially when illuminated by the sharp-etched light of the setting sun. Catherine the Great's famed Hermitage may be in trouble--plagued by vandalism, threatened by unstable riverbank soil and humidity--but its stunning Rembrandts, Picassos and Matisses and its gold-and-crystal chandeliers are still bathed in limpid, northern light bounced up through the windows off the Neva.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 20, 1994 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Column 6 Travel Desk 3 inches; 80 words Type of Material: Correction
Traveling in Style--Three photographs in the story "Russian Rivers," in the March 6 issue of "Traveling in Style," were incorrectly credited. The shots of the Transfiguration Church on Kizhi Island, teen-agers selling souvenirs in St. Petersburg and dachas on the banks of the Volga River were taken by the author of the article, Julian More. Also, the cruise between St. Petersburg and Moscow described in this article may be booked through a U.S. agent, Waterways and Pathways to Worldwide Adventures (tel. 800-392-9888), in addition to the London agency listed.

And on the quayside, in the city's working port district, a brass band props up a notice reading, in English: "All the money you provide will be used to revive the great cultural heritage of our city." They are playing "Tiger Rag."

We've come to the port to board the M/V Sergei Kirov, a sleek, 1988-vintage German-built riverboat that is to take us, and about 250 other passengers, from St. Petersburg to Moscow. In a way, this is another legacy of Peter the Great and his love for water. Today, an intricate network of lakes, canals, rivers and reservoirs connects the two cities, passing through some of the most beautiful countryside in the Russian heartland, past remote islands and villages hard to visit any other way. Peter didn't construct this network himself, but he inspired it and got it started.

In 1961, these waterways were opened to Russian tourism; in 1991, foreign visitors were invited to ply the route for the first time. It used to take the czars and their families 18 days to make the cruise. We took 11, including two nights each in St. Petersburg and Moscow, using the Kirov as our hotel.

And an international hotel it was: The boat's captain and crew were Russian; the chefs were Swiss (serving food that was light, tasty and occasionally Russian); an English company booked the cruise, and the public relations was American--personified by a zippy, young, first-generation American-Russian cruise director from San Francisco.The accommodations were well-designed, comfortable double-berth cabins.

The night of our departure, the captain made a speech of welcome, and we drank toasts in reddish Russian champagne. Then off we went. Almost at once, the warehouses and factories of the port district gave way to an almost bucolic landscape of romantically dilapidated homes with vegetable gardens and little orchards alongside, interspersed with a surprising number of new dachas sprouting along the riverbanks. Then the silver birch and fir trees thickened, and we glided almost silently into the twilight.

During the night, the Neva bore us into Lake Ladoga, said to be the largest body of fresh water in Europe, about 136 miles long, 80 miles wide and as deep as 730 feet in some places. The navigation channel was slightly choppy in the brisk wind, and the vast moonlit expanse of water was a dramatic change from the confines of the Neva.

The next morning, we sailed out of the lake into the placid Svir River, its banks so densely wooded in places that we felt as if we were sailing through a primeval forest. The air was filled with the sweet scent of sawdust, and we passed small sawmills and great rafts of logs. Then came a long stretch of dachas crowding the river, their backs giving onto more dense woods. Here and there, a fisherman waited patiently at the water's edge for a catch of pike, bream, perch or Baltic salmon. All the way to Moscow, we were to pass through landscapes like this one--riverfront communities with what looked like sheer wilderness behind them.

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