It is from modest beginnings in the Valdai Hills, an upland region of north central Russia about 200 miles south of St. Petersburg, that the Volga River takes shape, though it is no larger than a stream as it meanders throw those hills. Only after several tributaries join it, does the Volga River begin to resemble the sprawling and expansive waterway that flows through the densely populated western section of Russia.
The 2,294-mile-long Volga is the largest river in Europe; in fact, at some of its widest points a person standing on one of the river’s bank cannot see the shoreline on the opposite side. Predictably, the Volga has been recognized as the national river of Russia; and because it is so instrumental in the daily lives of so many Russian people, the river is often referred to as “Mother Volga.” It’s no wonder then that Volga River cruises, which allow guests the opportunity to explore a large swath of the river, are a highly sought after travel experience.
Gourmands and those with a fascination and love of epicurean delicacies are likely to have some familiarity with the Volga, since the river’s delta is home to four species of sturgeon—Russian, Beluga, Sterlet, and Stellate—the source of world-class caviar. The Volga’s delta is also the confluence of hundreds of smaller rivers and streams, which makes it the largest estuary in Europe, and a habitat for flamingos and pelicans—the only location in Russia where those species can be found. That estuary is also a bountiful area for commercial fishing. However, the Volga River’s impact on Russia’s bounty of natural resources is not limited to where it meets the Caspian Sea. The entire river valley is exceptionally fertile thanks in large part to the Volga, itself; and in that area large quantities of wheat, as well as salt, potash, and natural gas are harvested.
Exploring Saint Petersburg - The Neva and Svir Rivers
Predictably, the majority of a Scenic Volga River cruise is conducted on the Volga; however, the journey begins with four full days in Saint Petersburg. The former imperial capital of Russia—previously known as Petrograd (1914 – 1924) and also Leningrad (1924 – 1991)—Saint Petersburg is connected to the Volga via the Neva and Svir Rivers, which meet at Lake Ladoga, the largest lake in Europe and the world’s 15th largest freshwater body of water.
Saint Petersburg was founded in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great, and because of its system of navigable canals, it is often referred to as the “Venice of the North,” a nickname that it shares with eight other European cities, including Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Stockholm. Despite its relatively young age in comparison to other Russian cities, Saint Petersburg is considered the cultural capital of Russia, as well as the country’s most Westernized city.
A river cruise on the Volga River most commonly sails between the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. While travelling this epic waterway you will also enjoy time on the Svir, a 140 mile long river that connects Lake Onega and Lake Ladoga. You won’t be surprised to discover that the Volga River is rooted in Russian culture and is often referred to as ‘Mother Volga’ in literature and local folklore. With so much to see and so much ground to cover, a Russian river cruise is one of the easiest and most fulfilling ways to navigate this epic land of stark contrasts.
The Influence Of Peter The Great
As you might expect, given that the city was founded by Peter the Great, there are a number of historic sites, monuments, and museums dedicated to the city’s founder—a leader who was instrumental in revitalizing the strength of the nation through the creation of a navy, a modernization of the Russian alphabet, the development of a Senate-based form of government, and the secularization of schools, among other accomplishments. In short, he embraced many of the ideals that were revolutionizing Europe as part of the Renaissance and the Reformation. Not-to-be-missed tourist sites in Saint Petersburg include: The Cabin of Peter the Great, the tsar’s first residence; the Summer Palace and Gardens, a royal park that once hosted aristocratic receptions and gatherings; the Peter and Paul Fortress, a stronghold that was built as the city’s first line of defense and today features a cathedral that is home to the tombs of every Russian emperor; and Peterhof, an imperial estate founded on the shores of the Gulf of Finland that is made up of numerous adorned palaces and is considered the Versailles of Russia.
A Cultural Immersion along the Volga River
A Scenic Russian River Cruise along the Volga also introduces guests to lesser known cities and villages in Russia, such as Kizhi Island, an isolated tourist destination set at almost the center of Lake Onega. The island has been settled for at least 600 years, though today it is lightly populated and home to an open-air museum made up of more than 80 wooden buildings, many of which were moved there during the 1950s as an act of preservation. The most famous of those buildings, the Kizhi Pogost, is a protected World Heritage Site.
In the small river town of Goritsy travelers can visit the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery, which was built in 1397 and is home to a vast collection of Russian Orthodox icons. While parts of the monastery complex (made up of two priories and 11 churches) are run by a local museum of history, art, and architecture, parts of the complex still function as an active monastery—one of only four in the region and the only one that accepts women.
Scenic Russian river cruise guests also can explore Yaroslavl, a city located at the intersection of the Volga and Kotorosl Rivers. It is one of eight principal cities that make up the Golden Ring, a group of ancient cities and towns that were instrumental in the founding of the Russian Orthodox Church. These cities feature key monuments and examples of historic Russian architecture. Yaroslavl, a World Heritage Site, is widely considered the unofficial capital of the Golden Ring and is believed to be older than Moscow.
Experiencing Russia’s Capital via the Moscow Canal
Much like the start of a Scenic Volga River Cruise, the journey culminates with four days in one of Russia’s largest and most important cities: the capital of Moscow. The city was founded sometime before the mid-12th century (the earliest known reference of the city’s existence is dated 1147) and is one of the world’s largest—it ranks 14th in metropolitan area and 10th in population. Sometimes called The Hero City or The Third Rome, Moscow is steeped in culture, science, and political history. After all, the city has served as a capital of numerous states, including the Grand Duchy of Moscow during medieval times, the Tsardom of Russia, the Soviet Union (from 1922 to 1991), and the Russian Federation of today.
Like Saint Petersburg, Moscow is a city that is simply too expansive, too complex, and too rich with culture and history to fully explore in four days’ time. There are a handful of sites that Volga River cruise guests must see; including: Red Square, which is home to the city’s most famous edifice, St Basil’s Cathedral; the Kremlin, one of the largest museums in the world, which is particularly noteworthy considering two-thirds of the Kremlin are closed to visitors; the State Pushkin Museum of Visual Arts, which displays painted and sculptural masterpieces in lavishly decorated rooms; and the Aleksei Bakhrushin Central Theatre Museum, which chronicles the evolution of Russian theatre, though it signs and displays are only written in Russian.
Scenic’s Volga River cruises take place aboard Scenic Tsar, a 361-foot vessel that was launched in 2012 and can accommodate 112 passengers in 56 cabins, as well as 71 crew members. The Scenic Tsar was the first boutique ship to join the Scenic Cruises fleet, and it was the first newly built vessel launched on a Russian river in more than 25 years.