Cruising down Russia’s ancient waterway

You might recall the names of great Russian rivers like the Volga or the Yenisey from geography lessons, but the Oka is unlikely to be one of them despite its easy-to-remember and affirmatively sounding name. Yet, as the main transport route of the ancient Muscovite princedom, it has more history and at least as much appeal for travellers as its more famous sisters.
With Oka cruises now resumed after a 20-year break, a chain of millennia-old historic towns along its banks are beginning to rival the Golden Ring as worthwhile destinations in the vicinity of Moscow.
The Oka river is one of two major tributaries of the Volga, and its basin borders on that of the Dnipro, which is why Kievan Slavs – led by their Viking princes – used it as the main route for colonising the lands that form the historic core of what we now know as Russia. Wooden Viking-style boats, the ladyas, were pulled by ropes across narrow and low-lying watersheds in the manner lately depicted in the Netflix series Vikings (the siege of Paris episodes).

Originating in southern Russia, the Oka flows north via the pretty town of Oryol before resolutely turning to the east near the industrial city of Kaluga. For the next few hundred kilometres, it skirts the border of the Moscow region – its wooded banks have long been favoured by the residents of the Russian capital as a place for weekend picnics and for building their summer cottages. The river passes the first cluster of dachas (country houses) and bohemian haunts near Serpukhov and Tarusa.
This upper section of the Oka is not covered by cruises – they originate in Moscow and follow the Moscow river down to its confluence with the Oka at Kolomna (120km east of Serpukhov and 113km south of Moscow), a little gem of a town and a popular day-trip destination for Muscovites. The main highlight is a section of the wall and the two towers that remain from the town’s kremlin (medieval fortress). Other remainders of the ramparts and towers are scattered around the courtyards of 18th-century merchants’ stone houses and traditional wooden cottages.

A couple of local museums stage shows celebrating major local crafts. One is dedicated to the production of large bread loafs, known as kalachi. Another is all about the Russian-style marshmallow, pastila. Both shows end with a tea party prominently featuring each of the products. But the quirkiest sight in Kolomna is Artkommunalka – a museum-cum-art-residence that meticulously re-creates the atmosphere of a 1960s communal flat, which housed millions of people during Soviet times. A variety of interactive tours and quests are on offer (all in Russian), but perhaps the best experience is to pre-order lunch in the communal kitchen and play kitchen dissidents for the duration of your stay.