Inside an onion-domed church, brilliantly decorated floor to soaring ceiling with antique icons and biblical scenes, what sounds like a chorus of 50 voices reverberates throughout the chapel.
In reality, only five men sing out – the remarkable acoustics of the building take care of the rest. At the end of the service a huge bronze bell cast 400 years ago tolls just once, the sound lingering in the air for the better part of a minute.
If there is anything that typifies the enduring soul of the Russian people, a weekday worship service at the St. Demetrius on the Spilled Blood church in Uglich is it. The visit to the rural village, located on the shore of the Volga River, and its well-attended church (the site where Ivan the Terrible's son was murdered in 1591 – hence the name) demonstrates how strong Russians' religious faith remains, despite 70 years of Communist repression.
It was just one of many experiences during a weeklong river cruise last month that revealed a Russia vastly different than I experienced on previous visits, which had focused on the imposing cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Sailing along the Volga and Svir Rivers on the new Scenic Tsar (the first Russian river cruise ship built in 25 years), we visited villages and towns with 1,000 years of history – whose buildings and unhurried lifestyles still evoke the Russia of Boris Godunov, the scenes of Alexander Pushkin's fairy tales and the rural stories of Leo Tolstoy.
Many of our stops were at small outports difficult to access by any means other than the river. Each day brought more church visits and descriptions of events, invasions and triumphs that happened generations ago but still live in the memory of locals as though they occurred yesterday.
In the now prosperous port of Yaroslavl, we visited a thick-walled monastery that was a refuge for nobles during an era of famine and political intrigue in the early 1600s. The local guide described that "time of troubles" as though she'd seen it for herself. In a sense she had, because wherever we went we saw art and painted lacquer boxes whose scenes commemorated acts from before even the discovery of the New World.
Every day of our cruise included a free shore excursion led by local guides who proved affable and insightful. But I longed to break loose. For while it was remarkable to see so much art, the people are just as iconic.
On my first visit to Russia 25 years ago, I encountered locals who were stoic and suspicious as they stood in line for rations of basics such as potatoes and butter. Buildings in desperate need of repair also waited, in this case for supplies caught up in red tape.
Visiting 15 years later, I found folks with renewed optimism – but still little reason to smile as they tried to rebuild cities and an economy in the post-Soviet era.
Today, it seems Russians are making up for lost time. Capitalism reigns. Tales of corruption make international headlines, but that doesn't stop the winners from splurging in Moscow. Stores are packed with luxury goods. Roads are clogged with new European and American cars. You're hard-pressed to see a red star, a statue of Lenin or a Lada. Money is the name of the game, for better and worse.
The small towns provide a sedate change of pace. Rural Russians still prefer to walk rather than drive and get their news from the personal grapevine, getting involved in prolonged discussions on street corners.
Whenever I got an hour or two of free time after our tours, I had wonderful experiences checking out cafés, book stores and markets (which always featured artfully arranged produce – and a display of vodkas).
Lunches were often eaten on shore in country homes-turned-restaurants. Borscht, blinis, roasts or kebabs were invariably served up with ample shots of vodka. The standard Russian vodka bottle is 500 millilitres – "big enough for three people," one waitress explained. Tradition calls for it to be emptied in the course of a meal. During floor shows, musicians played lively folk tunes on a baffling variety of instruments as the wait staff sang along.
After a couple of shots many diners would get up and clap, the braver ones joining in the chorus of the crowd pleaser Kalinka.
My best experience in serendipity was while exploring during an unscheduled stop (due to technical issues) in Vytegra, a port that seems caught in a time warp of the 19th century. The railroad bypassed the then-thriving logging town – and things haven't changed much since. Residents' yards have garden plots with a patch of cabbage, often protected by a snarling dog. And quaint though the town's log buildings may be, many are in need of serious repair.
I passed two carpenters fixing one of the century-old homes – using pegs to hold the rafters together, rather than nails. Practising one of the Russian phrases I'd picked up, I greeted them with "dobroe utro" – good morning.
They eyed me curiously, then beckoned me over. While we didn't have a common language, we shared a love of craftsmanship. I marvelled at the intricate carving around the doorways and windows – and that these homes have no insulation other than thick wood walls to protect against winter temperatures that can plunge past -40.
I was glad to get back to the warmth and modern conveniences of my ship. But as the sun set over the river bank lined with stands of birch trees, I could see why Russians fiercely love their lands and traditions.
Vodka in hand, I raised a toast to Mother Russia.
IF YOU GO
Scenic Tsar, a river cruise ship launched in Moscow this summer, is run by Scenic Tours, one of Europe's largest tour operators. Other river cruises in the area use chartered ships that were built in the Communist era; they tend to carry about twice as many passengers and have smaller accommodations. On the Tsar, 93 per cent of the cabins have walkout balconies and cabins on the third deck are as spacious as you'd find on ocean-going ships.
Each day includes a complimentary shore excursion led by local guides and all meals on-board are prepared from fresh ingredients bought from local farms along the route.
By the time the new season begins in April, the cruise line has promised to adjust some bugs – such as installing mute buttons on cabin speakers, which blare out regular announcements, and sound proofing the dining room to block out engine noise and vibrations.
A 15-day package includes four nights in both Moscow and St. Petersburg. Fares from $7,430 a person include transfers, all shore excursions, wine and beer at lunches and dinners, WiFi and gratuities.
For more information visit scenictours.com or call 866-689-8611.
The writer travelled courtesy of Scenic Tours.