Article by Trevor Claringbold
It’s well known how nervous travellers are about ‘going it alone’ in unfamiliar countries. Get on an organised trip with your tour company to some unknown place… fine. But go and find a local agent in the city you’re staying in, to book you a trip somewhere… hmm, not for most people. But those are exactly the trips you should try, because usually it’s the local’s who know the best places to see. And despite a general belief to the contrary, they usually won’t rip you off anywhere near as much as your tour operators!
Take St Petersburg, for example. Most tourists enjoy the visits to the various palaces, the Hermitage museum, and maybe the old fort. But one of the best trips can be booked through a number of small back street travel offices there. It offers a 2-night river cruise to Lake Ladoga and the Island of Valaam.
The journey begins in late afternoon, as you board your ship – a former German Rhine cruiser now called the ‘Kabargin’ – on a quayside lined with other similar vessels. It’s not a new ship, but is nicely fitted out, comfortable and clean. The evening meals are pleasant and filling, and there is a bar and lounge to relax in afterwards. If you are fortunate enough to travel in June, when this part of Russia celebrates the ‘White Nights’, you’ll get to see the river at its evening best. Although not exactly Arctic, the sun never completely sets for a few weeks, so you are treated to a three hour sunset!
Departing St Petersburg, you’ll glide almost silently along the river past small villages, children swimming, people fishing, and a number of large commercial barges travelling back to Russia’s second city. It’s interesting and pleasant, if a little chilly, to sit on deck as the sun dips, and just watch the scenery pass by. At a little after midnight, with the sun gone, and only a golden glow over the horizon, you’ll pass the impressive fort that guards the point where the river ends, and the huge Lake Ladoga begins. The lake is so vast that as you sail across you cannot see any land, so, like most on board, it’s a good time to head to the cabin and get some rest for the busy day ahead.
The next morning, you’ll awake to a different world. The ship slows as it manoeuvres into a glorious sheltered harbour on the island of Valaam. The waters are a deep translucent blue, and almost perfectly still, as they reflect the dark green pine trees that line the shores.
Valaam is a small island surrounded by about 50 even smaller ones, some little more than a rock. It is a popular place to visit for both Russians and Finns, mainly because of its famous monastery. This dates back to the 14th Century, although a Swedish raid destroyed the original in 1611, and the modern Transfiguration Monastery and Cathedral were built with money from Peter the Great. By all accounts it was a tough place to survive, even though now it looked to me like an idyllic setting. I learned that even the soil for the orchards had to be transported here by boat, and the climate is strangely out of sync with the rest of the region by several weeks.
After an initial guided walking tour around the mooring area, you’ll join a small motorboat to head around to the other side of the island. Here the pretty village and the monastery are located. It’s the perfect opportunity to get some super photos of the coastline, and the impressive cathedral too as you near the jetty. There is ample time to explore the monastic grounds, and visit the cathedral itself. This area was part of Finland between the First and Second World War, and during that time most of the monasteries treasures were removed. Valaam reverted to Russian control after WW2, but only in the last few years has money and effort been put into beginning a restoration project. It is an amazing place to visit, atmospheric, and beguiling. You’ll feel almost like an intruder as you walk around, and certainly it’s a place that demands respect.
There is time to wander back across the island towards the ship, along an easy, well-marked track. The scenery is beautiful, with the tall trees giving teasing glimpses of many inlets from the lakes. The air is fresh, clean, and with an unmistakable aroma of the pines, and there is a sense of stepping back in time, as horse-drawn transport is more common than motorized vehicles.
There are plenty of resting places along the way, for the less fit, and there is plenty to see, with numerous small birds providing a serenade as you pass. The route is dotted with other religious structures too; a chapel, monuments, even small crosses.
It takes around 45 minutes to arrive back at the harbour, where a small circle of souvenir huts vie for your attention. They are, however, quite a pleasant selection, and not rushed or pressured. You’ll join the other passengers on the Kabargin, with time to take in the wonderful surroundings one last time before getting on board ready for the overnight trip back to St Petersburg.
One point to beware of however… As you slip effortlessly from the quayside, the Captain likes to treat the passengers to some rousing patriotic music played at full volume from the ships loudspeakers. A sudden reminder that you are on your way back to the real world!