Voyage up the Volga. Costume-clad hosts enchant passengers on cruise packed with folklore and national history
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The pleasures of strolling along the shore, whether through a birch wood or a busy terminal dock, awaited early-risers. In Rostov-on-Don, we found people on the quay to be friendly and smiling and not averse to posing for pictures. Perhaps because it was the holiday season, many of them were indulging in ice cream before 9 a.m.!Skip to next paragraph
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As a large pleasure boat docked, a troupe of young ballerinas dressed in tutus performed a welcoming dance for us to an accordionist's music. It was an idyllic scene that diminished the specter of arms races and nuclear tests.
On-board activities included a Russian tea party, where costumed waitresses served the tea from an impressive samovar and passed around chocolate bears and cookies.
Also featured were a blini-tasting party, a passengers' amateur night of entertainment, daily Russian-language lessons, Intourist movies on art and travel in the USSR, and three lectures by Prof. Jonathan Sanders of the Russian Institute of Columbia University.
Mr. Sanders's topics included ``Cossacks and Cowboys'' and ``NATO and Plato,'' and he was always available to answer questions on any facet of Soviet life.
Islands, memorials along the way
The day spent at Don Cossack Island turned out to be a distinctly Russian swimming experience and an opportunity to watch citizens at play. Half-hour troika rides operated by thatch-haired, costumed boys provided a bit of Chekhovian atmosphere.
A distinctive Russian bouillabaisse was served, and everyone got to keep their wooden spoons, painted with folklore figures.
Another island day, this one set aside for relaxation, included a shish kebab picnic as well as swimming. But the highlight was a hilarious King Neptune musical, presented by several of the passengers, under Clavdia's direction. Clavdia didn't speak a word of English, except for the command ``Applowse!'' - to which everyone responded with vigor. Otherwise, she managed to communicate with place cards and her expressive eyes.
Of all the excursions that focused on war memorials and Lenin monuments, the most impressive was Mamayev Hill in Volgograd, the scene of fierce fighting in World War II. Today the hillside is covered with awesome statues, particularly ``Victory,'' a torch-bearing woman who seems to dwarf New York's Statue of Liberty.
Lenin's house in Ulyanovsk contains intriguing artifacts, such as an oil lamp attached to two globes. When lit, the lamp shows the rotation of the moon around the earth. Ulyanovsk is a highlight for the aesthete because of the charming gingerbread houses on the surrounding streets.
The kremlin (walled city) in Kazan, the 700-year-old capital of the Tatar Soviet Socialist Republic, is also filled with architecturally striking buildings, though some might think its star-filled blue onion domes are straight out of Disneyland.
Personal visits, unhurried pace
In addition to sightseeing, there were people-to-people encounters like the Friendship Society party we attended in Togliatti, the visit we made to a youth camp in the birch-forested outskirts of Kazan, and our trip to a day-care center in Ulyanovsk.
These offered enjoyable and valuable opportunities for firsthand knowledge and understanding.
The frequent tours from the ship seemed tranquil in comparison to the pace of sightseeing elsewhere in the world. No one can complain about missing any highlights in the cities we visited, except for the houses of worship.
Among the other sights were Leningrad's Hermitage Museum and Peterhof palace; Moscow's Red Square, Kremlin, and Novo-Devichiy convent; stupendous views of Mt. Ararat; the superb monastery at Garni outside of Yerevan; and the city of Tbilisi, Russia's answer to New Orleans, with its balconied houses interspersed with magnificent baroque palaces, art galleries, and an opera house.
The overwhelming encounters with people and their customs and culture make this a particularly worthy trip. Its chief side benefits were the fostering of a better understanding and a heightened personal awareness of the visitors' more privileged lives at home.
If you go
The International Cruise Center is sponsoring two 20-day Volga River cruises this year aboard the 160-passenger Alexander Pushkin or Maxim Gorky. These tours depart the US on July 18 and Sept. 1. Fares, including all land costs, range from $2,460 to $2,835. Air fare is additional. For reservations, contact your travel agent or the International Cruise Center, 185 Willis Ave., Mineola, New York 11501; 800-221-3254.