Being the largest country in the world, a phenomenal 17,1 million km², Russia occupies one-tenth of all land on earth. To experience a true Russian adventure requires a lot of research, as the country has so much to offer in the way of art, history, architecture, nature, music and culture. One lifetime would never be enough to encounter all of that.
Danie and Cecilia Cilliers, owners of the Talisman franchise in Mbombela, are keen travellers. “It’s an illness,” Danie laughs, as he jokingly explains the urge to go on yet another adventure. Last September the couple had the opportunity to travel the Russian waterways from St Petersburg to Moscow on a luxury four-deck vessel, a distance of 1 321 kilometres.
Cecilia explains that Russia has always been one of the places they planned to visit as there are so many things to see and do. After doing a lot of research, she found a London-based company that specialises in all-inclusive Russian river cruises. Danie wanted to experience another Oktoberfest in Munich, and a trip to Russia in the middle of September gave them the opportunity to stop over in Munich on their way back home. But first the Russian adventure awaited them!
The Neva River
Their trip started in St Petersburg, situated on the Neva River just off the coast of the Baltic Sea. It was founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703. Just outside St Petersburg is the Peterhof Palace that was built to serve as the Tsar’s country home, but had to be no less spectacular than the Palace of Versailles of Louis XIV of France.
A visit to Peterhof stands out as one of the highlights of their tour, says Cecilia. What makes this palace so impressive are the numerous fountains in the gardens that draw millions of visitors every year. The Grand Cascade on the northern façade is formed by 64 different fountains and over 200 bronze statues. The Joke Fountains were specially designed to catch unwary passers-by with a spurt of water, and is quite fun!
The Hermitage Museum took their breath away. This is the second-largest art museum in the world. Empress Catherine the Great established it in 1764, a mere 112 years after Jan van Riebeeck stepped onto Cape soil. This museum has a magnificent collection of art from various eras worldwide, and collections from a variety of old masters.
The Hermitage Museum
One of the most interesting things about travelling from St Petersburg at sea level to Moscow at 161,75m above sea level, is the various locks that are used to make the journey possible. A lock is used to lower or raise boats and ships travelling on the rivers or canal waterways. Entering the lock, with the water streaming in to raise or let out to lower their vessel, was so exciting.
They also crossed Lake Ladoga, the largest freshwater lake in Europe, and with the waves reaching a swell of more than 3m it was an unforgettable experience.
On the way to Moscow they stopped at various small towns and places of interest. Danie explains that the countryfolk are still extremely poor as a result of the communistic regime that only came to an end in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“Some of the towns were just incredibly beautiful. We really had the chance to see the Russian countryside, with small towns similar to our own Pilgrim’s Rest, but beautifully preserved. The country is full of the most magnificent churches and it was very interesting to visit places like Uglich, a town that originated back in 937, and the island Kizhi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where you find the most fabulous examples of Russian architecture,” says Cecilia.
For Danie, a visit to the Kremlin in Moscow was a personal highlight. This is the fortified complex in the centre of the city and includes five palaces, four cathedrals, Kremlin Wall, Kremlin Towers and the Red Square.
Saint Basil’s Cathedral on the Red Square in Moscow
“When you walk on the Red Square, it is as if you walk back in time; the history of Russia and its people engulfs you. In Moscow we also had the opportunity to travel on the Moscow Metro, the underground railway system with 12 lines and 223 stations. It almost feels as if you walk into an art museum when you enter these stations, as they have the most beautiful chandeliers and works of art on display,” says Danie.
War memorial in Yaroslavl
For this couple this cruise was one of the most interesting and impressive holidays they had ever had. A whole new world opened up. The boat had wonderful meals, luxury accommodation, entertainment and cultural activities. All the excursions were an adventure on their own, and gave them the opportunity to experience this country’s culture at its best. “We have travelled to many places and this was our first Russian experience,” says Cecilia.
“When we departed on the trip, we knew nothing about Russia, but our minds were blown away. They preserved their buildings, their history and their art in such a magnificent way. My best advice for anyone is to go to this magnificent country, to experience a tiny portion of its magnitude. This certainly will be a trip to treasure; one we will remember for the rest
of our lives.”
Danie and Cecilia Cilliers on Kizhi Island
Text: ALITA STEENKAMP