Voyage up the Volga. Costume-clad hosts enchant passengers on cruise packed with folklore and national history
A VOLGA River cruise offers a most luxurious and unhurried opportunity to get acquainted with the Soviet Union, past and present. The river is a ribbon that acts as the cultural, as well as physical, boundary between Europe and Asia. The Russian revolutionary tradition was born along its shores along with Lenin, whose birthplace, Ulyanovsk, is beside the river. His statues and billboard-sized portraits dwarf the central squares of every town and city we encountered.Skip to next paragraph
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Like the Chinese, the Russians make sure tourists see as much as possible. Typical bus tours for Volga cruise-boat passengers include visits to youth camps, circuses, hospitals, day-care centers, museums, and monuments - especially monuments. Commemorative markers tend to dominate the country's parks and highways.
Shifting scenes of the Volga
The Volga itself has a singular beauty, yet an enormous variety of scenery. Unlike the Mississippi, the Nile, the Rhine, or the Amazon, it rarely narrows, except for access to 13 locks and the place where it diverges from the Don into a narrow canal. Most traffic on the river consists of hydrofoils, boats hauling logs, and freighters marked with the ubiquitous red hammer and sickle.
In some stretches, the Volga is so wide that its vague, distant shores appear as mirages over large, silver expanses of water. Fishermen and swimmers use its sloping concrete embankments for their pleasures. In some places, craggy yellow cliffs, similar to those along the Yugoslav coast, mark its edges.
But sometimes one sees verdant hills, birch forests, and small ``Doctor Zhivago''-like villages, with their clusters of colored ``gingerbread'' houses. Farmhouses and barns of unpainted, weather-washed gray wood make one think of the sets for ``Fiddler on the Roof.''
In contrast, ornate two- and three-storied Victorian boathouses of mint green, electric blue, and garish pink with white gingerbread-trimmed windows resemble frosted cakes.
Most of the locks are very elegant, with walls bordered by gilded Parisian-like street lamps. The approach at twilight can be a memorable experience. After the boat arrives between towering walls in the lock, the water slowly rises. Then - as if they were scrolling downward on a television screen - flowers, trees, and houses suddenly appear, with rooftops last. When the lock opens, the boat sails out into the widened river, whose shores are lit with twinkling lights, and sudden cool breezes fill the decks.
Ten days on the S.S. Alexander Pushkin is considered the highlight of the International Cruise Company's three-week ``Lands of the Golden Horde'' tour of Russia. And this traveler would agree that the charms of the floating hotel win out over the exotic attractions of Leningrad, Moscow, Armenia, and Georgia.
The 1,100-mile Volga cruise is not a typical fun-and-sun voyage, of course. Activities are controlled by Intourist, the national tourist agency, with set hours for relaxing, swimming, and entertainment.
Our group was enchanted from the start. That was when Clavdia, the diminutive entertainment director for our cruise, clad in a folk costume, welcomed everyone aboard with the traditional cakelike bread and salt. Spirited music by a three-piece combo accompanied passengers up the gangplank of the white, Austrian-built vessel.
Once on board, we discovered identical picture-windowed staterooms, decorated in cheerful prismatic colors. There was ample room for storage, plus showers and makeup tables. A complete inspection of the ship revealed that all public rooms were equally spotless and attractive.
Service in the dining room was good, but passengers sometimes had to cling to dishes to prevent an over-zealous waitress from whisking them away. The fish, salad, and soup courses, as well as cakes intended for dessert were frequently put upon the table all at one time.
The food was delicate and fresh, featuring such Russian specialties as stuffed cabbage, borsch, blinis, stroganoff, and Siberian stew, as well as vegetarian dishes. Caviar appeared several times, in mounds of red, black, and gray.
Promptly at 7 a.m., a broadcast through cabin loudspeakers opened with recorded sea gulls and folk music, then the tour program for the day, selected news, and an invitation to exercise on the sun deck.
Breakfast, where the starched linen napkins stood at attention, was served promptly at 8.