Russia’s northern lakes are beautiful, serene and easily reached from St Petersburg. So why do so few foreigners take this magical trip?
It always surprises me 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 I like to try, because usually it’s the locals 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 my best trip was booked through a small back-street travel office, offering a two-night river cruise to Lake Ladoga and the Island of Valaam.
The following evening I boarded my ship – a former German Rhine cruiser now called the Kabargin – on a quayside lined with other similar vessels. It was not a new ship, but was nicely fitted out, comfortable and clean. The evening meal was pleasant and filling, and there was a bar and lounge to relax in afterwards. I was fortunate to travel in June, when this part of Russia celebrates the White Nights. For a few weeks at this time of year, although not exactly Arctic, the sun never completely sets.
We departed St Petersburg, and glided 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 was interesting and pleasant, if a little chilly, to sit on deck as the sun dipped, and just watch the scenery pass by. At a little after midnight, with the sun dipping just below the horizon, we passed 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 it was a good time to head to the cabin and get some rest for the busy day ahead.
The next morning I awoke in what seemed like a different world. The ship had slowed as it was manoeuvring into glorious sheltered harbour on the island of Valaam. The waters were now a deep translucent blue, and almost perfectly still as they reflected the dark green pine trees that lined 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 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 walking tour around the mooring area, we joined a small motorboat to head around to the other side of the island. This is where the pretty village and the monastery are located. For me, it was the perfect opportunity to get some super photos of the coastline, and the impressive cathedral as we neared 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 monastery's 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. I felt almost that I was intruding as I walked around, and certainly it’s a place that demands respect.
There is time to wander back across the island towards the ship, and I certainly enjoyed this opportunity. The scenery is beautiful, with the tall trees giving teasing glimpses of many inlets from the lakes. There is a sense of stepping back in time, as horse-drawn transport is more common than motorized vehicles. The route is dotted with other religious structures: a chapel, monuments, even small crosses.
It took me around 45 minutes to arrive back at the harbour, where a small circle of souvenir huts had opened. For once, it was quite a pleasant selection, and not rushed or pressured. Myself and the other passengers on the Kabargin had time to take in the wonderful surroundings one last time, before getting on board ready for the overnight trip back to St Petersburg.
I was certainly glad I had found the trip, and it is one that will always be high on my list of most surprising destinations. As we slipped effortlessly from the quayside, however, the passengers were suddenly treated to some rousing patriotic music blaring from the ship's loudspeakers. A sudden reminder that we were on our way back to the real world!
River cruises to Valaam can be booked via Solnechny Parus, Vosstania 55, St Petersburg, or directly with the Monastery’s tourism office in St Petersburg.