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River Cruise Season Arrives
By Anton Razmakhnin The Moscow News
Try a new way of seeing Russia along its vast river system

Have you ever seen the Moscow River Station? This picturesque Art Deco building stands at the far north of Moscow, near the Rechnoy Vokzal metro station. From October until May, the place looks abandoned; but with the arrival of May, the River station is busy again. From here, small vessels called river trams depart for suburban areas, while two, three and four-decked cruise liners are ready to take passengers along the rivers of European Russia. Recently, cruises along the Volga have shown a dramatic increase in popularity, and this includes travelers from abroad. This should be no surprise: exploring Russia by river is not only beautiful, but also a safe way to see the best the country has to offer.

For over a century, river cruises have been popular in Russia. This was because river transportation was the most convenient way get to certain areas along the Volga, the Oka and the Kama rivers. River travelers used regular passenger lines that existed on all of the big Russian rivers. Historically, the number of rivers able to accommodate steamboats was several times greater than today. Due to the negligence of river administrative bodies during the last 30 years, many important river routes have degraded. But in the past, it was possible to travel along any large river at very reasonable - as well as expensive - rates. Today, however, cheap tickets for regular trips from Moscow no longer exist. However, high prices are somewhat understandable given that the quality of the transportation has greatly improved over the years. Today, the lowest package available to riverboat passengers is aboard a 3-star cruise liner.

Excursions that start in Moscow follow the Moscow - Volga channel, passing five lakes and breath-taking scenery. Excursions that depart in the evening follow the channel throughout the night; in the morning, passengers will awake to the powerful Volga, and possibly in time to glimpse the abandoned bell-tower of Kalyazin jutting ghostly from the water. The tower is the only artifact left from the town of Kalyazin, which was flooded in the 1930s in order to deepen the river. There are stories that some inhabitants of Kalyazin ignored orders to leave the city and even tied themselves to their houses. They perished when the river water rose.

Eventually, river cruises from Moscow take one of two routes. Some riverboats turn north towards the Rybinsk artificial sea and head for Karelia, Kizhi, St. Petersburg and even the northern island of Solovki with its beautiful monastery. Others go further down the Volga to Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, Samara, Saratov and Astrakhan, with an optional route to Perm along another great river, the Kama. Each route has its obvious advantages, so choosing one is never easy.

Cruising the Volga to Nizhny Novgorod is the best-known and most popular route for viewing central Russia. Excursions will pass by the ancient towns of Yaroslavl and Kostroma. A small settlement near Kostroma is the most picturesque place in Russia - at least that was the opinion of the great landscape painter Isaac Levitan. Real estate prices are also impressive - today they compete with decent Mediterranean resorts. Next stands Nizhny Novgorod, a well-developed industrial center and the ancient capital of all the Volga. The town deserves a day-long trip. Some packages offer return routes to Moscow from Nizhny - through the Oka and Moskva rivers. This route is extremely beautiful, but unfortunately unavailable this year due to low water levels. This is unfortunate, because the Oka boasts some of the sweetest vistas in Russia: the schedule would include Murom and Kasimov, fabulous small towns with ancient as well as ethnic treasures. The journey to Nizhny Novgorod and back takes 7 days, regardless of the route.

Other routes are longer and more expensive - but they are certainly worth the expense. Journeys to St. Petersburg through the Volgo-Baltic river system represent the majestic aura of Russia's North: pale colors, stones and rocks, wooden churches... Almost every liner heading to the North visits Kizhi, a place definitely worth seeing. This is a tiny island with the world's largest and nicest wooden ensemble, including the 21-head Transfiguration church. Most liners turn from Kizhi to St. Petersburg, while some go even farther to the North, to the White Sea and Solovki Island.

For passengers who opt for the southern route through Nizhny Novgorod to Astrakhan, they will experience the rather exotic aura of Asian Russia.

From Kazan to Astrakhan, the Volga becomes more and more oriental, with the woods and fields on its coasts giving way to the harsh steppes. Eventually, the mighty Volga broadens to 1 kilometer and more, the weather gets really hot, and water-melons are trophies from these places. In Volgograd - once called Stalingrad, the town where the hottest battle of WWII took place - a massive memorial on the hill symbolizes victory and the drama of war. Meanwhile, Astrakhan is famous for its fishing opportunities: avid fishermen should make plans for a separate 4x4 trip to the place.

River cruises are a very specific sort of travel; you either love them or you don't. But in any case, this is a unique opportunity to see Russia comfortably and without unwanted adventures. If you have enough time - and money - the Volga River will certainly deliver.

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