Travel

Fat Margaret, the Mad Monk and smelly herrings: It’s Holiday Time!

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Disasters, as they say, come in threes. Stevie Gerrard has left Liverpool FC to ply his trade in Los Angeles; the least said about the general election the better; which means we set out on our Baltic cruise wondering if our timing was wise. Sinking without trace when we’d paid in advance for our drinks (Mrs. Blog is essentially teetotal so I’m obliged to drink for both of us) was the last thing we needed, if you see what I mean.

Never one to pass up an opportunity for a spot of sightseeing we were probably in a minority of cruise passengers to divert into Harwich before embarkation in order to check out the splendidly conserved Electric Palace, one of Britain’s oldest (1911) cinemas. (This blog was formerly a member of the Cinema Theatre Association which devotes its attention, not to films but to the splendid buildings they were or are shown in – and the Electric Palace is a belter.)

We were then serenaded with the refrain of Mull of Kintyre as we sailed away by what I took to be the Harwich and Parkeston massed pipers, providing passengers with a slightly surreal “Sound of Essex”.

Mrs. B had laid down a few cruise guidelines for me in advance, having viewed some preparatory videos and scrutinised the leaflets: no politics, no singing of football anthems in the bar, no participation in the dads’ bellyflopping competition. And would I like to give thought to the “Beat the Bloat” package in the on-board spa?

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Having helpfully explained to me how to work the shower in our “stateroom” (CABIN), Mrs. B suffered a sudden setback when Captain Stig announced on our first evening the prospect of Force 5 winds and rough seas. At which point she started mainlining on Stugeron seasickness tablets and couldn’t be raised until Day 4.

When she did come round it was to discover (and I had to choose a suitable moment during a Showtime Spectacular to break the news) that Wi-Fi would be unavailable during the cruise other than at a price which even she couldn’t justify. (I did spot her at one stage trying to scale the rock climbing wall for a signal for her cell phone.) I could tell it was getting to her when she offered to give up two hot stone massages for an hour’s connection to her beloved internet – OK, I had said, comparing our addictions, that I wanted to have Steven Gerrard’s babies, but that was — more or less —  a joke.

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Mrs. Blog is nothing if not resourceful when it comes to picking up a signal on her cell phone

 

Our only previous cruise having been along the River Nile at the start of the recent troubles, I hadn’t realised that other cruise ships don’t necessarily carry armed guards in the spa and restrooms. Perhaps they were present but incognito.

Copenhagen was our first port of call. We had chosen not to sign up for the package excursions – other than in St. Petersburg where it’s easier to go with the group than arrange one’s own visa – and were happy to explore under own steam and on foot. This was my fourth visit there, and Mrs. Blog’s second, so we were relaxed about what ground we covered and enjoyed some delicious, if Danishly priced, Smorrebrod in Tivoli Gardens.

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What my Dad would no doubt have referred to as “messed about food”

 

Back on board to put on my best M&S shirt in time for dinner.  I was a little surprised as we reached the restaurant to be greeted by two exiting diners who handed me their dirty plates and informed me that the hand sanitiser needed refilling.  A little further into the restaurant and I became conscious that the entire waiter cadre, male and female, appeared to have been kitted out in the same Blue Harbour range of men’s leisure wear that Mrs. Blog favours for me. At least I now know somewhere where I’ve got a head start for a handy job with excellent prospects for travel and meeting people.

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If I sit here like this for long enough, someone’s bound to fill my glass…

 

We found ourselves in one of the lounges after dinner, relaxing over a couple of drinks. Well, relaxing until presented with the bill with its additional 18% gratuity and an invitation to add yet another tip on top – having already pre-paid a total of nearly £200 for tips before the cruise. The music on board was varied and enjoyable and we rose to demonstrate our best dance moves. Indeed, we cleared the floor with our cha cha, though probably not for the right reasons.

A highlight of the next day at sea was the helicopter transfer to Stockholm of a crewman suffering from appendicitis. The chopper didn’t land; a paramedic was lowered to the ship and brought the sick crewman back up in a cradle. One could only hope that the patient had the presence of mind to capture the moment in a selfie – though, as Mrs. B sagely pointed out, if it were a female being transported she might not have been prepared to ascend to the helicopter in front of the watching passengers unless her hair was right.

We witnessed two further medical rescues during the cruise – a second helicopter “event” for an ailing passenger, and a transfer to a Danish port of another passenger using the cruise ship’s own tender, the Danish lifeboat service having – so we were informed – declined to assist “owing to the sea being rough”. Which just doesn’t look good in my book.

Always on the lookout for an opportunity to grab a bit of limelight, I did contemplate devising a “condition” which might justify a spectacular evacuation of my own, with the prospect of a lucrative book deal and possible film tie-in. I was carrying a cut on the end of my index figure, incurred when putting out the recycling on our day of departure, and I thought about flirting with norovirus by only using the hand sanitiser on alternate days, but neither of these got me past first base.

The ship lays on a programme of fun activities each day. Mrs. B and I don’t really do fun these days and we decided to pass on the demonstration of towel sculpturing that we’d already taken in during our previous cruise along the Nile. You can have too much fun…

Tallinn, birthplace of Skype! Home to Fat Margaret!

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We arrived in Estonia’s capital almost without noticing. This blog is enough of a geographer to have worked out in advance that the planned clockwise tour of the Baltic would mean that views of land were more likely to loom up on the left hand side (oh, alright, the port side) so that’s where I booked the cabin. Unfortunately the cruise was postponed for health reasons from last summer and I hadn’t twigged that the cruise would, on its new date, be in an anti-clockwise direction….

Anyway, Tallinn. Very accessible on foot from the ship, a delightful old town and another delightful lunch of beetroot soup and (I never thought I’d say this) assorted pickled herrings. Our highlight, and seemingly off the radar for most cruise passengers, was the Museum of  Occupations. Nothing to do with jobs, and everything to do with the battering that this small nation has taken through the centuries from waves of foreign invaders and enforced evacuations. WW2, amongst others, looked very different over there from the GB perspective that Mrs. Blog and I grew up with.

Next stop St. Petersburg and two days of organised excursions. We had been warned that Russian immigration officials don’t do “welcoming”. Showing our passports on landing to a smartly uniformed young officer, we struggled to comprehend what additional paperwork he wanted from us. In response to his third attempt to tell us that he needed to see our (excursion) “tickets”, Mrs. B uttered the words “Tickets! I thought you said chickens!” The world held its breath while the official risked a swift one-way trip to the gulags with just the hint of a smile.

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A traditional friendly hug and greeting from a Russian border official

 

I had visited the place forty years ago in its Leningrad days, making my own travel arrangements, and it seemed a little sad to be making even less contact with “real Russians” than under the previous regime. While permitted a “safe”, sanitised glimpse of the city and its magnificent architecture and palaces, we felt that we knew little more about Russia than when we arrived. We did learn that Ra Ra wasn’t Rasputin’s real first name and we even visited the palace where he was murdered. We spent a couple of hours in the Hermitage, including the Tsar’s winter palace, going “wow” a lot at the scale of the museum and its contents but, not being into Russian religious art nor Rubens’ portraits of repulsive children, it was a shame that we were not able to seek out some preferred exhibits for ourselves. And basically, I think most of us wanted to speed round to the dining room in the winter palace where the Provisional Government was “stormed” to mark the start of the Revolution in October 1917.

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But why would anyone want to harm this chap?

 

We were also taken to a number of spectacular churches in the city and told how, during the communist period, some had been turned into ice rinks or, in the case of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, a Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism. Now, that I would have fancied seeing.

Onshore days were now coming thick and fast. Next stop Helsinki, again in easy walking distance of the cruise terminal and one of the highlights of our holiday with its range of (mainly modern) architectural styles, lively markets and delicious lunches and cakes. How do they make potatoes seem so enticing? We took in the Sibelius monument, comprising over 600 hollow steel pipes welded together in a wavelike pattern; we were informed that the pipes had been fabricated elsewhere and erected in Situ, which we took to be a different Finnish town.

Stockholm followed, the next day. Another city I vaguely remembered from my hitchhiking days of yore. We visited the Nobel Museum in the old town (we take our holidays seriously) and tracked down the spot on a busy city centre shopping street where Sweden’s then prime minister, Olof Palme, was shot and killed in 1986. Having a reputation for outspoken opposition to imperialist and authoritarian regimes, and a fierce critic of Franco, Salazar, apartheid and the Hanoi bombings inter alia he was clearly the kind of politician that this blog could do business with. There has been no shortage of suspects.

Much against Mrs. Blog’s better judgement we went in search of the fabled surströmming , or soured herring, allegedly the world’s most foul-smelling foodstuff. According to German food critic and author Wolfgang Fassbender, “the biggest challenge when eating  surströmming is to vomit only after the first bite, as opposed to before.”

At the end of last year a cabin-owner in Norway called in a fermented herring expert from Sweden to “disarm” a 25-year-old can of surströmming, which he had become terrified would explode. Inge Hausen contacted an explosives expert from the Norwegian army in desperation after finding the can, which had swelled so much that it had lifted his roof by two centimetres. He was referred to Ruben Madsen of Sweden’s Surströmming Academy, who travelled to Norway to carry out the procedure, watched by crowds of journalists. “What I will do is first reduce the gas pressure – slowly, slowly, slowly, because it’s risky, and then open it,” explained Mr Madsen, who describes himself as “the king of surströmming”.

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It’s suppertime in Malmo, and the guests start arriving…

 

In the circumstances it may be just as well that we didn’t succeed in “sourcing” any of this tempting treat, though I will put an appropriate suggestion to our local branch of Waitrose. And then move house.

Our final shore visit turned out to be something of a damp squib as sea conditions were too rough to make a landing at Skagen on Denmark’s Jutland coast (and too rough, as we have seen, for the Danish lifeboat service), so we were treated to three successive days “at sea”, which tested the ingenuity of the ship’s Entertainments Manager. To avoid having to sign up for Body Sculpt Boot Camp, Napkin Artistry or Karaoke Power Hour, I eventually succumbed to a special one hour offer on Wi-Fi and, as I can see from my “search history”, I happily googled away my hour on “Rasputin”, “Olof Palme”, “cruiser Aurora”, “Alfred Nobel”, “Paavo Nurmi” and “Are there any famous Estonians?”

We arrived on English (Harwich) tarmac early on Saturday morning to find the car with a flat battery but eventually made it back to Sussex via “Constable country” (Flatford Mill, the Haywain and all that). We seem to have become institutionalised and are currently finding it hard to accept having to make our own cups of tea and not being able to choose from a range, not only of menus but of dining rooms. This will no doubt pass.  But I do think we need a holiday…

 

This blog warmly commends the staff and volunteers of Harwich’s Electric Palace cinema

http://www.electricpalace.com/

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2 thoughts on “Fat Margaret, the Mad Monk and smelly herrings: It’s Holiday Time!

  1. Elaine says:

    It is amazing that Superfast Broadband has not reached reached The Baltic. A situation like that can lead a Margaret to desperate measures. The view is probably better from up the mast though so that makes the effort worthwhile.
    Is St Petersburg different from Leningrad essentially? Has The Hermitage Collection become less European ? Has St Peter’s still got its malachite?
    You are very lucky people…but you do need another holiday after this. You must be exhausted fending for yourselves in the home galley.
    Welcome back to reality, for now.

    • Hi Elaine! To add to Mrs. Blog’s acute sense of loss, her iPad also became cracked beyond repair during the cruise. Inconsolable, or what? It seemed to me that Nevsky Prospect et al appear somewhat shinier than they did 40 years ago, but there does appear to be a lack of investment in the upkeep of all the wonderful architecture. Plenty of malachite in the Hermitage.

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