Travels with Charley:
Cruising Russia on Viking Pakhomov
by Charles McKelvy
I have written extensively about the Viking River Cruises “Waterways of the Czars” trip my 86-year-old mother and I took in Russia in October 2007. Until now, I have not written about the cruise itself, focusing instead on shore activities in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and points in between.
Now, I would like to take you aboard our ship, Viking Pakhomov, which was fully renovated in 2003 and offered us 423-feet of cruising comfort on three decks. Designed for a crew of 114 and 212 passengers, Viking Pakhomov featured a walk-around promenade deck, two restaurants, lounge, bar, library, sun deck, souvenir shop, sauna, internet station and laundry service. There was a doctor aboard and a hairdresser.
Mom availed herself of both the doctor and the hairdresser, but more on that presently.
We boarded the ship as soon as we arrived in Moscow, and we slept on the ship all 13 nights of our cruise. I had a small cabin on the main deck, near the reception desk, and Mom was quartered with a friend in a large cabin on the middle deck.
There were no escalators or elevators, so I had to “assist” Mom up and down the stairs, or ladders, as they are called on a ship.
Yes, I am probably the only passenger on that cruise who actually lost weight.
And trust me, I did not lack for food.
They fed us quite well, spasiba very much, and they honored my request for a strictly vegan fare with imagination and flare.
I’m sure you have seen the Viking River Cruises ads on PBS, so you know these people are a class act.
They certainly were for us, and we cruised Russia in style and comfort.
So come aboard with me now and get a flavor for life on a river ship in the heart of Russia in October.
Yes, it was getting colder by the day when we were there, and it even snowed during our visit to a monastery in Goritzy. And, yes, there were passengers who had dressed for summer weather in Atlanta. (What is with people from Atlanta?) Well, we had typical October weather in Russia, and Mom and I were prepared. I was, after all, a Boy Scout, and I took the Scout motto, “Be Prepared” to heart.
Meaning that Mom and I were caparisoned for the brisk Russian autumn.
Still, I was the one who spent a good deal of time on the promenade deck, just drinking in the passing scenery of Russia. I was warm and toasty in my winter parka, and I pretty much had the promenade to myself, except for another passenger or two. I recall one woman walking laps as part of her daily fitness routine.
Mom and most of the other passengers preferred to spend their days in the library, playing bridge as Mom did, or sitting in their cabins.
Viking Pakhomov was a good, seaworthy, river ship, so there were no gimmicky distractions for the passengers such as one would find on a cruise ship in the Caribbean.
But we didn’t fly all that way to Russia to be distracted by bells and whistles. We wanted to see Russia; we did, and Viking Pakhomov was the perfect platform from which to do so.
My favorite shipboard memory came the day we were sailing over a village that had been deliberately flooded by Stalin to create a waterway between Moscow and what was then Leningrad. The top of a church was all that was there to remind us of this feat of brutal dictatorship. As we passed the church dome, one of the Russian guides stood next to me and asked: “Do you feel them?”
“What?” I replied.
“The bones of those who died to make this waterway. I feel them.”
I thought about it, and, yes, I did feel them, too.
Cruising the waterways of Russia tends to do that to a person.
I knew I was in Russia every moment on that ship; I was particularly keen to it when I was leaning on the rail and watching the passing scenery. It was fall, remember, so there was color in the birches and other hardwoods. The ducks were on the wing, and occasionally a couple of local duck hunters would appear in their motorboat.
It was like cruising the Mississippi, but so much more. We were plying the Moscow Canal, and then the Volga-Baltic Waterway, and then Like Onega, followed by the Svir River, and then across the vast expanse of Lake Ladoga to the Neva River and the city Peter the Great built, St. Petersburg.
I was the only passenger on deck for the crossing of Lake Ladoga because the seas were running, the skies were cloudy all day, and the mighty Viking Pakhomov was put to the test. And, yes, I remembered from a history test that the lake that so much reminded me of our own Lake Michigan figured prominently in the lifting of the siege of Leningrad during what the Russians call “the Great Patriotic War.” Supplies could not be brought to the embattled city until Lake Ladoga made a handy ice highway by freezing sufficiently enough to bear the weight of trucks.
What a lake, and what an honor to cross it on a stormy day.
But the good ship weathered the open seas as well or better than any American ship I had been on, and I had been on a few, having served in the U.S. Navy.
Life on board was a delight. When my mother cut her leg while getting settled on a bus during our stop in Yaroslavl, we did avail ourselves of the on-board doctor. He was a delightful man who gave my mother excellent medical care and talked openly of the comparative merits of our two healthcare systems.
We were pampered by the crew, fed almost to excess at every meal, and borne across the Waterways of the Czars in comfort and style aboard the good ship Viking Pakhomov.
And, yes, I would gladly sign up for another cruise on the Waterways of the Czars any day, at least when the pandemic has passed.