For five days we travel north along the Volga, Svir and Neva rivers, crossing the Ladoga and Onega lakes on our way to St. Petersburg. Along the way we navigate 17 locks, the first of which draws nearly everyone out on deck to watch as the Priboy drops eight meters. "Just seeing the Stalinist engineering projects, the enormous scale of them, the big Communist seals on hydroelectric plants," says Paul Wescott. "This is stuff you read about."
The pace is relaxed, but there is always something to do: learn the Cyrillic alphabet during Russian language lessons, listen to a folk music concert, watch a film on the Romanovs, play the wooden spoons in an all-ship talent show. Or simply watch the changing scenery. Thick forests, green plains, small towns, busy public beaches and occasional barges,all these pass while we watch from deck.
Mel and Barbara (Brent) Biedermann '43 relax on deck.
"There's something very conducive to relaxing and opening up on a trip like this," says Jim Foritano. "It's the boat. It's the rhythm and it's the fact of us all being in a very enigmatic country. We're all open to the adventure and that has been a great experience."
We stop in several towns and cities during the voyage,Uglich, Yaroslavl (where we are invited back for its millennium celebration in 2010), Svir Stroy. We see brightly painted churches and bustling city markets, hear concerts of native music. And at every dock we are met by a local band playing American standards,"Stars and Stripes," "Hello Dolly",while vendors sell matryoshka dolls, chess sets and lacquer boxes.
The highlight is Kizhi Island, a remote UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to an outdoor museum of wooden churches and structures. On this small island, we see the Transfiguration Cathedral,30,000 wooden shingles adorn its 22 cupolas and shimmer in the midday sun. The guides tell us to keep on the paths because of the poisonous vipers. I never see a snake, but the warning keeps our group together.
Every day Antolini and McCarthy offer lectures onboard the ship. One day it is McCarthy's "The Literary Myth of St. Petersburg." "I find it fascinating. I'll go home and read some Gogol," says Jane Coddington. Another afternoon Antolini plays us music from concerts we have heard in churches along the way, explaining the evolution of Russian music. "We've certainly had our share of the cultural development," says Bob Ferrell.