Travel

The Discreet Charm of the Hop-on Hop-Off Bus

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Knowing that what we really, really needed this year was to hang out with lots of overweight old people keen to tell us how much they love Donald Trump, we booked a cruise in April from Dubai to Venice.

The flight out to Dubai was memorable only for the chap in the seat in front lecturing a young mum on the need for her toddler to show respect for other passengers. (He had, as it happens, complained about the wi-fi before taking his seat, occupied one entire luggage bin with various bags and rebuked a steward loudly for bringing him the same wine as he’d had previously and not a different one – but, hey, he knew how toddlers should behave.)

Our trip from the airport to our hotel was enlivened by the taxi driver showing me photos on his phone of his family and the countryside in his native Nepal while the car in front braked hard and my subsequent scream may have saved him a significant repair bill. Indeed taxi drivers throughout our few days in Dubai seemed to hail from a wide range of nations, and it seems reassuringly “equal opps” that a complete lack of knowledge of the road network, traffic regulations or visitor attractions was no barrier to employment.

Dubai, a definite first for Family Blog, proved fascinating. We learned from a video that the Maktoum family – the ruling dynasty – isn’t interested in money but in creating a Vision for Dubai in which all may share. And that many innovators are attracted from all over the world to help build this Vision (and not to make money. Though I think our Nepalese taxi driver may have been OK with making some money, as that may be easier to send home.) Mrs Blog, working on the assumption that the MacToums were of Scottish origin, has in mind setting Blogdaughter up with one of them if we can work an introduction.

….and nae’ for the money, Jimmy

Dubai has shopping malls in much the same way as a hedgehog has fleas – all over the place. At the end of the day, while the one that Mrs Blog took me to (presumably by way of retribution for some failing on my part) did boast its own ice rink, huge aquarium (the largest crocodile in the world, allegedly) and, no doubt, full-size replicas of the Great Wall of China and the solar system, it’s still a bl**dy shopping mall and therefore guaranteed to ensure that one’s will to live drains rapidly into the desert sands.

Mrs B, you will be unsurprised to read, felt differently. The discovery of several branches of Marks and Spencer put a real spring into her stride and she was observed texting to her clanswoman in Scotland “You’d love the shops here. Gorgeous. Nothing you can afford at all.” And Subway did us a nice butty.

Burqa clad women sporting fetching eye make-up and Samsung 6 phones seemed well in control of their menfolk and were clearly setting themselves for a long stint of retail experience.

Mrs B made a pit stop at the “usual facilities” but had not, some 20 minutes later, reappeared. It took a while longer, and a series of text messages and a phone call via the nearest satellite, to locate her, having emerged via an alternative exit seemingly located in a different emirate.

It’s my belief that the Hop-On Hop-Off Bus is a much maligned, guilty pleasure – and rightly so, I hear you cry. Not afforded much coverage in the Lonely Planet guides, the lack of a flexible open top bus trip for city orientation purposes won’t, in my opinion, do anything to help places like Sana’a, Aleppo or Gaza build a sustainable tourist economy. I’ve grappled with faulty headphones, wandering language channels and noisy passengers who have clearly boarded the bus, not to see or be informed, but to shout continually to each other, but I’m still a fan – and have amassed a significant collection of route maps and little red and yellow earphones which I’m prepared to donate to a reputable museum. (On the Dubai tour I assumed there was only a brief introductory commentary rather than a full narrative, until I noticed that Mrs Blog had disconnected me while rooting around in her handbag.)

After three days’ sightseeing in Dubai (only partly on the bus – we also took in the top of the Burj Khalifa, the older parts of the city, the souk and the river) we joined our cruise ship. The ship’s departure was delayed until Mrs B pronounced herself satisfied with the new ID photo taken at check-in, but eventually we found our cabin (outside, with balcony), Mrs B rapidly annexed 90% of the cupboard space and, after a few false attempts, we were soon able to find our way back to our cabin from most parts of the ship.

As Brits we were naturally appalled to find there was no kettle in our cabin but, on urgent request, one was soon supplied and an international incident was avoided. Mrs B shouldn’t be expected to start the day without a nice cup of Twinings. You can take globe-trotting only so far.

An addition to the lengthening list of “Things you only do once”: Mrs B, in sensible cost-saving mode, packed into my suitcase a large plastic bottle of stuff for washing clothes. On unpacking in the cabin, all of the liquid was undoubtedly still in the suitcase but only part of it was still in the bottle. This had an interesting, and in one or two cases terminal, effect on the contents of the case.

Before departure we were all invited to muster on deck with our life jackets, standing in searing heat while we waited for those passengers who had found more interesting things to do. At least it was an opportunity to check out the other people you were intended to share a lifeboat with if things turned turtle. It wasn’t encouraging.

…and you won’t catch me saying “Women and children first”

Later, in our cabins, we were given further instruction on how to respond to anything that might arise involving pilates off the Somali coast. This made more sense once Mrs B, whose hearing may be better than mine, clarified this to “pirates”. On the basis that this was effectively an American ship, I assumed that at least half of the passengers were armed and we should be ok. The thrust of our briefing was that access to the open decks would be prohibited for three nights and all lights dimmed with the intention that we might be mistaken for a cargo ship rather than a cruise liner. My subsequent research (very expensive wi-fi) revealed that, while no cruise liner had ever been approached by pirates in this area, cargo ships were a fairly regular target. I thought it important to bring this point to the attention of the captain but was unable to do so.

Extract from our briefing video

Our first night’s cruising brought us to Muscat, capital and major port of Oman. And the opportunity for another Hop-On Hop-Off Bus tour followed by a spot of retailing in the Muttrah Souk. A chap doesn’t like to wander too far from life’s essentials, like wi-fi, but the internet café boasted a line of frustrated users looking for a “fix” like the sort of queue I recall from university outside the only working phone kiosk.

Entertainment that evening was “Musicals from Broadway and the West End”, or more accurately “Musicals from Broadway”, though some were familiar. This was also characteristic of the food on offer (no reference to the part of the world we were passing through; a wide choice each day but essentially the LCD of what, one assumes, an unimaginative American family might wish to take with them.)  Many of these passengers do not look as though what they really need is unlimited free food 24 hours a day, or more elevators, come to that. TRY THE STAIRS FOR GOODNESS’ SAKE!  Just because there’s hot dogs and cheesecake and grits and eggs and chocolate pie and rib-eye and syrup on the counter doesn’t mean they have to go together on your plate.

 

I have come to the realisation that most bodies look better covered up, and that those which don’t are not on this ship. Mrs B tried on a dress she’d brought for the formal evenings onboard. She wondered if it might be too big but I was able to reassure her that, on this ship, it soon wouldn’t be: for some reason this seemed not to be the right answer. I suppose one could prepare in advance for this kind of trip, not by honing one’s “bikini ready figure” but by building steadily for months towards a “cruise ready body” to make it easier to blend in.

A North American flavour also arose with some of the onboard quizzes: they were much easier if you were au fait with US soaps and crime series. Perhaps they should operate a handicapping system to give foreigners like us a sniff.

Longstanding readers of this blog may know that it takes itself way too seriously when it comes to quizzes and that robust debate with the question setter is never far away. I did try to pretend to myself that it didn’t matter but I put it to you, members of the jury, “What is an appropriate response to the following?”

Questionmaster (bearing, presumably following bouts of cosmetic tweaking, an uncanny likeness to Kryten in Red Dwarf): In which country are the Victoria Falls?

Blog, whispering to Mrs Blog: They’re on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe so what shall I put? Both? Which is he more likely to have down, Zambia?

Questionmaster: The answer is Rhodesia. No, I’m not taking any other answers.

Questionmaster: Which capital city is on the River Danube?

Blog, whispering: Shall I put down all four of them? Or should we go and get a coffee?

 

“and the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is still…”

It is with some satisfaction that I can report that the team of Blog and Mrs Blog romped home in the quiz that was purely on geography, though joy was short-lived when Mrs B GAVE AWAY our prize – a yellow highlighter pen bearing the name of the ship – to the first person she met afterwards….

There followed no fewer than five successive days “at sea”, scanning the horizon for any signs of piratical activity, made doubly necessary by the captain’s clearly misguided tactics of subterfuge. Undertaking this task had the benefit of taking Mrs B’s mind off the absence of affordable wi-fi. Lacking this basic ingredient for life we were obliged to talk to one another more than seemed reasonable for a married couple and Mrs B was reduced to checking out the world clock repeatedly on her mobile as the only function that was still operating – and you don’t want to see anybody reduced to that. She was also obliged to put on her make-up in the dark which had an effect similar to seeing Bridget Jones applying her lippy in a fast-moving taxi.

Intriguingly, fellow passengers were prepared to complain about delays in being served at the bar despite having b*gg*r *ll to do for five days.

Mrs B wasn’t keen for me to enter either the “World’s Sexiest Man” or “International Belly Flop” competitions by the pool, which seemed a shame, but I guess she wouldn’t want people ogling.

We eventually succumbed to the need to renew contact with the outside world and invested in a day’s wi-fi, not least to check via Wikipedia our recollection of old news broadcasts about Aden (Mad Mitch and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders) and my favourite all-time country name, the Territory of Afars and the Issas (now Djibouti, if you’re bothered.)

Happily we made it safely through the Red Sea to landfall at Aqaba in Jordan and this was the starting point for our excursion to the wonders of Petra – “rose-red city, half as old as time” and all that. The coach trip was enlivened by a comment from our tour guide:

“One more question before I go for a motion.”

I glanced down the coach, wondering where he might have in mind, and saw one or two puzzled expressions.

“OK, here’s my motion: shall we have 30 minutes’ quiet before I start up again?”

 

I’m sure you can read about Petra elsewhere. It is of course fabulous, and will be even nicer when it’s finished, but after a couple of hours in the coach through the arid heart of “rural Jordan” I decided that my next solo coast to coast walk wouldn’t be across the Arabian peninsula.

From Aqaba through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean. I was so keen not to miss this that, when we entered the canal at 4 a.m., I took myself up onto the open deck to watch. Not too many Mister Universes by the pool at that time, I can tell you…

By this time our list of “passengers to avoid” was lengthening steadily: the elderly male American with the pigtail and his purple haired partner sporting “I Voted Trump” T-shirts; the very loud Australian man (it’s mainly men) recounting what he’d paid for a cup of coffee in every port he’d ever visited; the Brit who wanted us to know how much he’d saved on the cruise and the excursions by booking through some kiosk in Harwich; the Australian couple who’d left the UK 30 years ago and wouldn’t consider returning as the place had gone downhill ever since – I replied “Yes, they weren’t able to replace you” but received a kick under the table from Mrs Blog.

To Ashdod in Israel and another coach trip to a place we’d never been, Jerusalem. Impossible of course not to be fascinated by the Holy City, which was especially busy, being Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday in the Christian calendar, and Passover in the Jewish calendar. We toured on foot many of the locations familiar from the Bible (or Life of Brian) including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western or Wailing Wall, with literally thousands of armed police in attendance, and followed up with a visit to the highly moving Holocaust Museum. We were treated to a heartfelt running commentary from our Israeli guide throughout the day and wondered how a Palestinian perspective might differ.

We docked the next day at Haifa and opted to potter round the town rather than take another coach trip. Possibly a mistake. An attractive and interesting place but effectively closed, being Good Friday.

At sea again on the Saturday and I’m going through my books at a fair old rate. I’m not fond of Kindle, so bring the real things with me. Heavy, I know, but I don’t really bring much else. To date on this trip:

Michael Frayn: Travels with a Typewriter: one of my favourite writers and he’s been knocking out great stuff for decades

Polly Bagnall and Sally Beck: Ferguson’s Gang: “the remarkable story of the National Trust gangsters”

Olivia Laing: To the River

HG Wells: The History of Mr Polly

James Runcie: The Grantchester Mysteries

Fraser McAlpine: Stuff Brits Like

Maria Trapp: The Story of the Trapp Family Singers: I’d run out of books and “borrowed” this from the ship’s library. It’s interesting to compare this original account with the film – and I reckon both the family and the songs were a lot duller…

…plus sundry travel guides…

….well, I’ve never had literary pretensions.

Easter Sunday was spent in Athens, with public buildings again closed but plenty of eating places and shops open. We could see the Acropolis and the Parthenon from below (we’d both been before) and tucked into great moussaka (with retsina for nostalgic purposes) in Plaka. Oh, and two hop-on hop-off bus tours – have I mentioned those?

Two more days at sea approaching the final cruise destination, Venice. The cruise “entertainment” comprised a load of stuff you wouldn’t want to see or do (Family Helicopter Origami, Finish that Lyric Game Show, Walking in Comfort sponsored by Goodfeet, “Thriller” Dance Class) but we had enjoyed two classical/”crossover” concerts by a (British) pianist and young violinist, another two by a (British) electric violinist with small backing orchestra, and two by a Beatles tribute band. Now, these were good, and generated plenty of noise and atmosphere, but I’m not prepared these days to stand, wave my arms in the air and jig about on demand. If I’m going to do “fun” I like to choose my moments…

And so to Venice, the third time for both of us. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise but, even though you know what to expect, it’s still mindboggling. You could look at those views for ever and still have to be dragged away. To do something new, we took in the Peggy Guggenheim collection of modern art. For a change I recognised almost all of the names and some of the works, though at one point I had worked my way through the explanatory panel accompanying one of the exhibits and was attempting to share this with Mrs Blog when it was pointed out to me that the panel referred to the rather different picture on the other side.

 

Our hotel on the Grand Canal. There are worse places to have breakfast.

IKEA now do a nice flat-pack Bridge of Sighs

Having run out of Colgate I picked up a tube of toothpaste at a small shop in a quiet back street. Our “turning in for the night” routine in our hotel on the Grand Canal took a surprisingly tense turn when Mrs B squeezed an unexpectedly brown substance from the tube onto her toothbrush, applied it in the standard way and let out the most fearsome stream of oaths and spitting noises followed by what I feel was an unwarranted degree of abuse. Subsequent investigation of the offending tube has failed to identify quite what we bought in that shop; it may of course have been an Italian response to Brexit.

Not quite ready yet to return to the world of work, we travelled by train next day through the Tyrol to Vienna. Other European nations seem to run better train services than us.

Vienna was a first for both of us, but by no means our first hop-on hop-off bus tour of the holiday. I was pleased to see they had taken a leaf out of Hull’s book and branded part of the city centre Museums Quarter. Buildings like the opera house, Hofburg Palace, St Stephans Cathedral and the upmarket coffee houses (yum) dominate the typical images of the city but we successfully sought out the Hundertwasserhaus (check it out, amazing) and the Secession building, and half of us took a ride on the ancient wooden Ferris wheel (The Third Man, and all that.) The other half of us fancied a go on one of the Lippizaner horses at the Spanish Riding School but my blagging powers are clearly waning.

The wonderful Hundertwasser building and the cafe

If you’re going to go round in a 212 foot tall Ferris wheel in extremely strong winds, make sure it’s made of wood and 120 years old…

…and for those who remember, welcome to 1979…

And so to home to catch up with all our recorded episodes of Line of Duty (no, don’t tell us!), Broadchurch and Homeland, and managing to pick up two lousy colds en route.

Talk to you again soon.

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “The Discreet Charm of the Hop-on Hop-Off Bus

  1. Elaine says:

    This reads as a VERY exciting trip and one to keep one fit too.

    The pending danger of pyr-a-tees was always in the background and yet the continuous mode of transit, on one foot only, was practised throughout. So brave! When I was a schoolgirl we all went to an international hockey match in Llanelli. I hopped of the coach before it had stopped and promptly fell over. The driver waited for me to stand up again before moving on to the next stop, which was kind of him. I hopped home.
    The Liquid Crystal Display was a shade puzzling 🤔 but Google clarified it succinctly
    and LCDs are now part of my world.
    It must have been mind boggling to see the sights of so many Marks and Spencer’s on international display. A true sign of the UK’s relevance in the wider world outside EU.

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