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A Russian river cruise may not be the most obvious holiday, but it’s a perfect way to discover Moscow and St Petersburg and enjoy some stunning countryside.
We’re aboard Saga’s MS Surikov, a comfortable craft with only 120 passengers for our 10-night adventure.
Saga thought of everything, from free Russian language lessons to films about the country’s colourful history.
Traditional music was played nightly in the Copenhagen bar and the passengers, including Spaniards, Vietnamese and Belgians, made for a lovely cultural mix.
The cruise gives a fascinating insight into the lives of famous figures such as Ivan the Terrible and, of course, Vladimir Putin.
We started our holiday in the Russian capital, and the minute we landed we were whisked off to the ship for our evening briefing.
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Next morning, a trip to the Kremlin Armoury gave us the opportunity to see the elaborately embroidered clothes, jewels and
diamond-studded coaches belonging to the 15th-century Tsars.
A trip to Red Square followed for obligatory souvenir photos with St Basil’s Cathedral’s colourful domes.
Below ground, Moscow’s underground network is equally impressive. There are incredible 1930s Art Deco stations and massive statues paying tribute to both communism and Russia’s war dead.
Each night we dined on board and it was largely delicious, although on a couple of nights the menu felt a little basic. However, the drinks were cheap – happy hour cocktails were £3 and a Russian lager about £2.50.
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Our journey between Moscow and St Petersburg had us sailing through huge locks and stopping at lively riverside towns and tiny rural villages.
A highlight was the island of Kizhi, one of 1,600 in the giant Onega lake and home to a wooden church complex complete with 30 domes.
The remote village has now become a tourist attraction, with many cruise ships docking each week, yet it has managed to maintain its charm.
In the hamlet of Goritsky locals set up tiny stalls selling everything from souvenirs and vegetables to fish caught in the nearby lake.
The Volga and the other rivers between Moscow and St Petersburg are busy working waterways.
Huge tankers passed us with cargoes of oil and grain, while small boats carried fishermen and swimmers. At times, we passed through lakes so large you could not see land.
While on other occasions the river was so narrow we squeezed past tankers with just inches to spare.
Then we edged into St Petersburg, and what a city.
We got our bearings on another inclusive bus tour taking us past the major sites, criss-crossing rivers and canals, before venturing into the Hermitage Museum.
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It’s a vast complex, where works by Rembrandt and Leonardo da Vinci sit among more than three million exhibits.
As author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said: “Russia has an ancient, deeply rooted autonomous culture full of riddles and surprises to Western thinking.”
He was certainly right.
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