Friday, July 16, 2010

Why a River Cruise?

Some people – actually most people – asked, “Why Russia?” And, “Why a river cruise?”

The first question is easy to answer – that was Patty’s dream. Maybe it was because Shaun was passionate about Russian history, about Kings and Queens, Russian fairy tales and the Russian military. Patty became interested when Shaun bought books on Russia, St Petersburg and Moscow and on Russian art and architecture.

Why a river cruise?

I’m going to quote Howard Shernoff here again. “You cruise Russia because no other way of touring the country comes remotely close to providing the comprehensiveness, depth and convenience of overall travel.”
  1. A river cruise is like being on a floating hotel.  You only unpack once and stay in the same room for nearly 2 weeks. 
  2. The cruise personnel transfer you from airport to boat and back again at the end of the cruise.
  3. You have three meals a day, free tea,coffee, hot chocolate etc all day, cocktail hour, 5 star cuisine and complimentary wine at dinner.
  4. The cruise includes land excursions to many places of interest, with an experienced guide.
  5. You visit places on islands not reached by car or train.
  6. You don't have to stand in queues for tickets, tour groups are often ushered through without having to wait too long.
  7. You are offered optional guided excursions.
  8. You are offered lectures on Russian history, language lessons, vodka tasting etc.,
  9. You are treated like a special guest. 
I can’t imagine backpacking across Russia – not at our age! Nor could I imagine travelling around Russia by car; 10 000km of potholed roads from West to East, maps and signs in Cyrillic, no ultra-cities to stop at.
Many people asked why we didn’t go by train. Patty and I did think about the famous Siberian Express but were warned that many trains have only basic facilities, small compartments, inaccessible for wheelchairs, getting on and off the train would be difficult so that wasn’t really an option. And besides, unless you are fluent in Russian, can read Cyrillic and know exactly where you are going and how to get there, I think sightseeing by train would present the same problems as going by road.

There are hundreds of River Boats cruising between Moscow – St Petersburg – Moscow, from 1 star to 5 star. We originally booked on the Rus – a 3 star boat - but had to change when we found that it didn’t have a lift and there was no way Patty would’ve been able to climb up and down those steep, spiral stairs to dining rooms and bars.

I Googled “Russian river boats with elevators” and discovered the Viking Cruise boats. They have been recently refurbished and now offer 5 star accommodation and cuisine.

We would highly recommend a river cruise in Russia (but not if you are disabled – read the previous post.)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Russian Cruises for people with disabilities

Due to a respiratory disorder Patty has a partial disability, can only walk for short distances, and has difficulty climbing stairs. Because of this we decided to hire a wheelchair to take with us to Russia.  We considered taking her little motorised scooter but it is heavy and the battery constantly needs recharging. If the battery ran down whilst on an excursion we could have been in trouble!
We knew beforehand that there would be challenges as the question about disabled guests is covered on the Viking River Cruises website.

Q:  Will the ship be able to accommodate a disabled passenger? What about the shore excursions?

A:  Viking River Cruises welcomes disabled guests but wishes all guests to understand that challenges will exist on board and during shore excursions. Some ships have elevators and some do not; some ships have split-level decks and/or significant thresholds that could make movement difficult. Under appropriate circumstances guests are permitted to use motorized scooters and wheelchairs on board. Shore excursions may require movement over cobblestones or up and down stairs; accordingly, a physically challenged guest will require the services of a responsible adult since crew availability is severely limited in most circumstances.

So what were the challenges?

On the boat
  • As there were usually two or three boats moored alongside each other, it wasn't possible to get her over the raised frames of the boat doorways while she was in the chair.  She had to get out of the wheelchair and step over the frames and step up and down the ramps that join the two or three boats together and walk through two or three boats to get to the Kirov.  A person who cannot walk would not be able to do this. This could have been overcome with extra, portable platforms at the same level as the gangways that join the boats.
  • The cabins are fairly small so Patty had to walk around inside the cabin. It was not spacious enough for the wheelchair to manoeuvre inside so she would not have managed if she was a permanent wheelchair user.
  • Most wheelchairs require doorways to be between 32" and 36" wide and her chair only just fitted through the door.  A motorised chair would not have fitted through the door.
  • A paraplegic or more disabled person would not have been able to access the en suite shower room and toilet as it is raised off the cabin floor.  In addition it is too small to accommodate a wheelchair.  

  • There is only one lift (elevator) on the boat, at the aft, and as our cabin was close to the forward reception it meant a long walk/push to get to the elevator and access the dining room and bars on higher decks. The spiral staircases are very steep and the steps are narrow.  If the elevator had broken down Patty would have been restricted to the main deck where our cabin was situated.
  • The space between the cabin walls and the spiral stairs was so narrow that we only just managed to get the wheelchair through. 

  • The passages are narrow and when the cleaners stacked packages of clean towels or cleaning equipment in the passage-ways, we had to keep moving them aside to get past.

  • In the dining room, the tables were arranged close together and it was often impossible for Patty to get to the buffet at breakfast and lunch time. 
On Land:

  • We were picked up at the airport in a bus that is not accessible for disabled people. This would be the first hurdle for a paraplegic or other disabled person to overcome.

  • None of the buses used on the land excursions were accessible - ie: no ramp or hoist. These are high, modern coaches and although Patty was able to climb up the few steps into the bus with some assistance, a more disabled person would not be able to get into the buses.

  • In St Petersburg there was a long ramp down to the pier where the boat was moored so it was fairly easy to get off and back onto the boat. In Uglich, Patty had to climb 23 steps to get to the village path for the walking tour of the town.

  • Very few of the churches, monuments, palaces, museums etc we visited are accessible for disabled people. Patty was able to climb the stairs to the Hermitage and used the elevator inside to get to the upper rooms (even though our guide told us that the elevator was out of order), but she missed out on a lot of places because she couldn't climb the stairs to get into the buildings and would not have been able to climb the stairs inside the buildings.

  • Patty managed at Mandrogy, Kizhi and Uglich but only with the help of a few willing passengers who helped push the chair on wooden boardwalks, gravel and cobbled paths.

  • In the towns and villages there were very few places that had ramps off the sidewalks or at intersections.  Often Patty had to get out of the chair so that I could lift it up onto the pavement.

  • A common difficulty was cobblestones - which we found in most places we visited.
The cost of the various tours and excursions are included in the the price of the cruise and a disabled person would have to forgo most of them as they are inaccessible due to architectural and other barriers.

Excursions Included in the Viking Cruise:

St Petersburg:
Hermitage Visit (entrance up a flight of stairs) and evening performance of Swan lake (not accessible - Patty didn't go).
Pushkin Palace (limited accessibility) afternoon City Tour of St Petersburg.

    • Mandrogy (limited accessibility)

    • Kizhi Walking Tour (limited accessibility)

    • Goritzy (limited accessibility - monastery not accessible, see cobble stone paths)
    • Yaroslavl - Coach and Walking tour. (Limited accessibility to churches or monuments)
    • Moscow - City Tour and Metro (not accessible): Red Square, Gum Dept Store and free time (for some reason, those who did not go on the metro were kept on the bus for 2 hours instead of being taken to the Red Square): Walking tour of the Kremlin.

      Besides all the challenges, we thoroughly enjoyed our river cruise and Patty was able to more than she thought she'd be able to do. This was because she can walk and was able to get in and out of the bus and in and out of the wheelchair when necessary.( are advertising a new ship to be launched in 2011 - the Katarina - that will have large, wheelchair accessible cabins and en suites. However, this doesn't change the inaccessibility of the many places in Russia that one would hope to visit.  I honestly cannot recommend a Russian River cruise to someone who uses a wheelchair permanently or who needs a walker unless they are prepared to be confined to a floating hotel for 12 days and forgo all the sightseeing tours and excursions that are included in the cruise price.

    Sunday, July 11, 2010

    General impressions of Russia

    We only visited a minute part of Western Russia, the largest country on the planet, 10 000 kms wide (6 300 miles) from West to East, with 14 neighbouring countries - Azerbaijan, Belarus, China, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Mongolia, North Korea, Norway, Poland, and Ukraine.  
    58% of Russia consists of Siberia and much of that vast land is uninhabited. We can only comment on the small part of Russia that we visited on our 1300km cruise from St Petersburg to Moscow.

    Driving into St Petersburg from the airport, the countryside looked tired and depressing, like many airport environs we passed through light industrial areas (nowhere near the old city) to get to the River. The terrain was exceedingly flat with lots of tall chimney stacks from all the factories and huge, nuclear-looking towers that are actually water boilers for providing heating to dozens of city apartments. The summers are short here and winter temperatures drop to below -30oC. Heating used to be cheap but now, like everything else, it is very costly. The bumpy roads from the airport had potholes and other signs of wear and tear and the many light industrial buildings were bleak and grey. We did not see any houses, only row upon row of blocks of flats. In the past, individuals weren’t allowed to own land but now it is possible to buy land and build homes or start a business, but only the very wealthy can afford to do so. Everybody lives in apartments – rows and rows of un-plastered concrete blocks 5 to 8 stories stories high.
    During the soviet period, thousands of these apartment blocks were built to house the people – some tiny, one room studios with no heating or private bathrooms, only shared toilets and showers. One or two families would occupy these tiny apartments.
     A coat of paint would soften their facades and brighten up the whole appearance of these concrete jungles but at the moment they are a dismal reminder of the Soviet era. Wealthier families who could afford a Dacha – a summer home outside the city – could not build anything larger than 25m² or have any heating. Since then, more modern buildings have gone up but they are very expensive – between $1 and $2m for a small, two roomed city apartment.

    It wasn’t until we sailed down the Neva and out of the city precincts that we saw a few summer homes on the banks of the river.
    In the USSR it was very difficult for individuals who were not government officials to own cars so there was no reason to build good roads. Since the ‘new era’ hundreds of thousands of people have bought cars and it became necessary to repair, widen and improve existing roads and to build outer ring roads around the cities.
    Traffic and pollution is a huge problem in both St Petersburg and Moscow.  One good thing about the previous era restrictions is that a very efficient public transport system was established and it is easy to travel about on bus, tram, train and river. The old roads still have tram lines and overhead cables although they are only used in a few parts of the city now. We were told about a growing Russian Mafia (who some say were linked to the KGB) who have amassed great wealth and influence since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and who control the black market.

    On Day 3 we drove into the St Petersburg’s old city centre and were surprised at how beautiful it is. Peter the Great travelled extensively in the west, including to Paris, and came back determined to establish a western type city on the Neva. At the start of the 1700s, he drained marsh land in the river estuary and in just 9 years (and many hundreds of thousands of forced labour deaths) the city of St Petersburg was ready for occupation.Wealthy families were ‘encouraged’ to build mansions in the new city and it has the elegant, graceful look of Paris with wide boulevards, oak and plane trees and streets lined with every fashion label shop you can think of. Today you’ll find Kentucky Chicken, Pizza Hut and even a McLenin burger chain.
    The Mayor of St Petersburg is a woman and our guide told us that she has focused on cleaning up the facades of buildings and monuments and adding flowers to the city parks and gardens.
    Nowhere was this effort more evident than in Pushkin, a suburb of St Petersburg, with no industries or factories it is a beautiful ‘green’ suburb with flower baskets, lots of trees and beautiful monuments – like Catherine’s winter palace. In St. Petersburg no building in the city centre is higher than 4 stories so the church towers, steeples and domes are visible from all angles.
    The many canals, rivers and bridges, decorated in wrought iron and elaborate light posts give it a Victorian air and a well deserved nickname – The Venice of Russia.

    Moscow was a revelation! We didn’t know what to expect but it wasn’t
    the large, clean, gracious city with up to forty percent of its space devoted to parks and gardens. There are few sky scrapers. Most of the buildings are only a few stories high and many are elegant with pastel, pilastered facades. The metro has been described as "the people's palaces" and is by far, the most ornately decorated transportation system in the world. The stations contain bronze sculptures, Florentine mosaics, fresco ceilings, chandeliers, art nouveau benches, stained glass and ceramics reflecting the tastes, cultural perceptions and stereotypes of the Soviet Union. Even the interior of the coaches have paintings - no litter here and no graffiti!
    The many golden domed Orthodox Churches give the city an almost
    eastern look. The city is dominated by the walls and fortifications of the Kremlin which was the biggest surprise of all! Behind the walls are
    gardens, courtyards, statues, five churches and cathedrals, elegant government buildings and a view over the red square. The Moscow Canal – built by gulag prisoners in the Stalin era - gives Moscow access the White Sea, Black Sea, Baltic, and the Sea of Azov – which is why Moscow is sometimes called the "port of the five seas". The biggest problem in Moscow is traffic and pollution. It is also the 4th most expensive city on the world according to Mercer.

    The Russian People
    Our guide told us that the large majority of the people in Russia are poor. Many take summer jobs away from their families in order to exist through the long winters. The contrast between the magnificent,  opulent palaces and gracious buildings with the new developments around the city is noticeable and stark.  Our guide (a St Petersburgher) seemed bemused by the changes that have occurred in his country and his city.  I’m not sure if he has soviet leanings or whether the changes have been too rapid. Once upon a time everyone was subsidised with apartment, heating, transport, jobs etc. There was no crime because the KGB were police, judge and jury and were allowed to arrest anybody without reason and impose sentence. Now, they are on their own to create their own lives based on how hard they work and how much they earn. Apartments are very costly, heating is expensive and there is tough competition for jobs. The poor have become poorer, they have over 10 million illegal immigrants and crime is a problem. There are crime riddled, no-go areas in most cities. The conundrum is that they have democracy - whether they want it or not.

    When we queried why so many of the hospitality staff on the boat were from the Philippines, we were told that although Russians were hard working and efficient, they were not naturally warm and friendly and that they hardly ever smiled. This didn’t go down well with paying passengers and more and more were replaced by Filipinos who are naturally warm and smile constantly.  They also have a lovely sense of humour and, unlike our guide or some of the Russian crew, we could share a joke with them.
    In our little book “Russia by River”, Howard Shernoff tells us that the Russian people are amongst the warmest in the world. That wasn’t our experience, or the experience of most of the other passengers. 
    The few Russian people we met, besides those working on the boat, were stern, aloof, and invariably without humour. These included somewhat surly waiters and waitresses in restaurants, disinterested shop assistants – some were short and abrupt and at times verged on being rude – and aloof staff in the museums or other monuments we visited. Few people made eye contact, few responded to a nod of the head or a greeting and most never smiled.  Only one Russian smiled at us on this trip - a dear old woman selling flowers on a bridge. We gave her some money and gave her back her flowers. We got a lovely, toothless smile in return. With many locals, it was as though most of them were afraid that they were being watched and could not be seen smiling at or talking to foreigners. For years, America was the great big Bogeyman, but now they have to welcome American and other foreign tourists and treat them as friends.
     For years they couldn’t trust anyone, not even their neighbours, and now they are expected to welcome foreigners from all over the world with open arms! It must be very difficult to change the mind-set of a people even though the politics have changed at the top.

    Russia is very different from any other European countries we've visited.  As Shernoff says," In Russia the streets look normal and the people look more or less like average Americans.  But that appearance belies a culture, history and a way of thinking ... that couldn't be more different than any other you've encountered elsewhere. This paradox makes Russia alternately maddening, mystifying, enchanting and exciting."

    Saturday, July 10, 2010

    5-Star Cuisine on the Viking Kirov!

    Thomas Harder has been executive chef on the Viking Kirov for over 7 years. He trained in Germany and worked in the fantastic 5 Star Widder Hotel in Zurich.  He and his team is responsible for providing meals for up to 200 passengers every day.  The food is of a very high standard and quality, with an amazing variety of dishes to choose from, not only at dinner but also at lunch time. His presentation of dishes is superb and many passengers were enticed to try the attractive vegetarian dishes.  His menus are well balanced with a separate 4 courses for vegetarians, suggestions for Healthy Meals, a regular menu consisting of Hors d'oeuvres, Soup, Main Course, 2 desserts, an international selection of cheese and 'Always Available' - grilled chicken breast, poached salmon, grilled silrloin steak and Caesar's salad. A beverage recommendation is offered to accompany each dish  including an apertif,  Rose, White and Red wine and a Digestif.  At lunch time there is also a wide selection of salads to choose from the Salad Buffet.  The only complaint we heard from passengers was that there was too much food at lunch time and that the cream used for desserts was not fresh cream but a non-dairy cream.