From Russia, With Love

Vantage Travel Team January 2, 2018

From Russia, with love: A Vantage Writer shares her own experience in this exciting destination

From Carley Thornell, Vantage Copy Director

Sometimes there are places we feel are a part of us, even before we’ve traveled there. For me, Russia was one of those places. Growing up in a house filled with matryoshka nesting dolls, listening to stories of my great-grandmother talking to someone from the Old Country on the phone in Russian interspersed with words like “Coca-Cola,” the Motherland had always been tops on my bucket list. This past summer, I was lucky enough to be able to travel to St. Petersburg and Moscow on vacation — and I’m also lucky enough to work at Vantage, writing our new Imperial Russian Waterways: Moscow & St. Petersburg river cruise itinerary for 2018 and 2019.

Growing up in the ‘80s, Russia was merely a land where President Reagan and that man with the funny birthmark on his head eked out a cordial agreement between two previously estranged countries, and movies like Red Dawn hinted at a totally dystopian society. So what would I find when I finally got there, almost three decades later?

Traveling in July, I found a land totally resplendent in all of the glory of early summer — and even more time with extended daylight hours to enjoy St. Petersburg during the White Nights (Beliye Nochi), the curious natural phenomenon that occurs in late May through early July due to the city’s location near the Gulf of Finland. This is the same scenic Gulf the waters of Peterhof flow into — one of the highlights of the area, often called the “Russian Versailles.” The palace, commissioned by Peter the Great, is now filled with stunning artwork and fountains that operate seasonally, which you can enjoy on a Vantage tour. The city is also known for its amazing artworks at the Hermitage, a series of six buildings once the domain of Catherine the Great. We take you there, too, on an included tour, but you may just want to return independently to see more of its three million works!

In Moscow, art lovers can rejoice with a visit to the Tretyakov Gallery, and its 100,000 works charting the development of Russian painting from the 10th to 20th centuries. Or, stand in the middle of Red Square (a UNESCO Site), and witness where history was made while marveling at the popping colors of St. Basil’s Cathedral. The domes date back to the mid-1500s but you’d never know it from the pristine condition they are kept in. 

The architecture here is indeed as expansive as the Russian steppes and everything here is grander in scale than many Americans may be used to. Marvelous statues adorn every bridge spanning the glistening Neva River and all of St. Petersburg’s massive canals. The country’s tallest obelisk is yours to discover on an optional tour to Poklonnaya Hill in Moscow, which commemorates Russia’s victory over Napoleon.

Political context and intrigue will also be covered on your Vantage tour, with fascinating onboard lectures that include history, Russian fairytales, handicrafts, and food — including a bread ceremony and vodka tasting. The spirit is never served without a snack, and it was marvelous to taste fresh-from-the-oven rye bread and in-season just-plucked dill throughout my city explorations. Onboard the ms Rostropovich, you too will enjoy Slavic culinary specialties that just may change your preconceptions of Russian food. You’ll savor regional dishes, such as pelmeni and borscht — or enjoy the opportunity to do so in your free time, like I did, for a truly eye-opening experience — and enjoy teatime during a home-hosted visit along the Volga River in Uglich. That’s what appeals to me so much about this Vantage trip: not only enjoying the best of what Russia’s iconic cities have to offer, but the opportunity to immerse yourself in the culture of villages like Mandrogi and Kizhi Island. The latter of these is home to the Church of the Transfiguration, an ornate structure with 22 domes, built entirely without nails!

While I only had six days to enjoy this fascinating country, I’m excited for Vantage travelers like you to be able to fully enjoy everything Russia has to offer. I may have peeled back a layer of that onion (dome) or two — but it certainly feels like there are a few more matryoshka waiting to be opened in my travels and a return visit is calling. . .