KIEV, Ukraine -- Europe's third-longest river, the Dnieper, gets so little traffic that when a vessel is sighted on the waterway, it's somewhat of an event. Quite a contrast with some of the region's other rivers.
"The Rhine has traffic like a highway," explains Henry Seiler, hotel manager of Viking River Cruises, "while the Danube has 159 ships. Here on the Dnieper, there are only six cruise ships on this big river."
For much of its 2,285-km course, it's a pastoral scene with trees lining both banks. There are a few beaches along the way, an occasional fisherman or pleasure craft, and once in a while, kids jumping from docks into the river to cool off.
Perhaps the most notable man-made attraction on the river is the Zaporozhye lock -- which, at 37.4 metres, is said to be the second highest in the world, after a 40-metre-high lock in Kazakhstan.
The lack of mass tourism, not just on the river but in Ukraine itself, may be part of the attraction for the 200 passengers on this 11-day journey from Kiev to Odessa with Viking River Cruises.
Just beyond the riverbanks are grand palaces, ancient cities, 1,000-year-old monasteries and cathedrals, and the former homes of famous writers such as Anton Chekhov, Mikhail Bulgakov and Alexander Pushkin.
Ukraine is still a young country, having only achieved independence in 1991, though it's been hankering to run its own affairs for much longer. The Cossacks -- rebels who formed self-governing communities -- had long been central to the country's identity, and asserted the concept of Ukrainian self-determination as early as 1654.
On an excursion to Khortytsya Island in the heart of Cossack territory, the story of these men -- considered heroes by some and villains by others -- is recounted in a museum along with displays of artifacts including Cossack weaponry. Nearby is a recreated Cossack "sich" or fort, complete with a wooden church and some typical dwellings. There's also a highly entertaining performance by Cossack descendents who demonstrate their renowned horsemanship skills and facility with a whip.
Khortytsya Island, it's worth noting, was selected by citizens in a nationwide competition in 2007 as one of seven wonders of Ukraine. During the cruise, we visit several of the other "wonders." Among them: The Greek archaeological site of Chersonese, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site; and in Kiev -- St. Sophia Cathedral, built in 1037, and the Monastery of the Caves (Kievo-Pecherska Lavra) -- a huge complex of monuments, museums and gold-domed churches.
By day seven, after leaving the river and entering the Black Sea, one of the first ports-of-call is the Tartar city of Bakhchisarai on the Crimean peninsula -- home to the Khan Palace. Described as one of only three Muslim palaces in Europe, it contains mosques, harem quarters, fountains and lovely gardens, where a newly married couple poses for photographs.
Crimea was once a stop on the Silk Road from China and had been occupied throughout history by various people including Greeks, Mongols and their descendants the Tartars. It was under Russian rule however, that much of the town was destroyed. Although Catherine the Great spared the palace as she reportedly found it "romantic."
Palace buffs can definitely get their fix in Crimea. The resort destination of Yalta alone has the Livadia Palace -- site of the 1945 Yalta Conference between Franklin Roosevelt, Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill, which determined the fate of post-World War II Europe; and the Aloupka Palace, which took 23 years to build and was completed in 1851 as a summer home of a local governor.
At many of the ports-of-call, such as Kiev and Sevastopol (where there's a chance to see a performance by the famous Black Sea Fleet Band), our ship docks conveniently close to town, so during free time, it's easy to explore on your own.
In Odessa, for example you can take the free funicular up the hill and stroll along the tree-lined promenades, visit the Pushkin museum or admire the gorgeous opera house. On the way back to the boat, walk down the Potemkin Steps (192 stairs), immortalized in the 1926 epic film Battleship Potemkin, where you may encounter musicians, artists and touts with exotic animals.
For all its splendour, Ukraine, we learn through museum visits and on board lectures, is a land with a turbulent history: Centuries of foreign domination, including most recently the USSR; heavy casualties in World War II (6-8 million Ukrainians were killed); and a famine engineered by Stalin in 1932-33 that claimed an estimated seven million Ukrainian lives.
Today Ukraine is a country in transition. There are signs of change and hope. In Yalta, an imposing statue of Lenin almost hovers over a McDonald's restaurant. Protesters are not an unusual sight.
"You wouldn't have seen that under Soviet rule," remarked a British traveller.
One of the lasting impressions occurred on the second day in Kiev, when I was among dozens of people transfixed by the sight of a double rainbow over Independence Square. Perhaps an omen of good things to come.
In the Footsteps of the Cossacks is an 11-day tour from Kiev to Odessa or a 12-day journey from Odessa to Kiev. Nine guided tours, all meals, most lectures are included. Cruise fares start $1,830 US. For details on Viking Cruises, see vikingrivercruises.com or call 1-877-668-4546. The current exchange rate is very favourable for North Americans with $1 US equal to about 7.87 UAE. A useful guidebook is Lonely Planet Ukraine.