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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Cruising to Christmas: Part 2

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You may also wish to check out BLOG 54 for Cruising to Christmas Part 1. Or not.

Evening of Thursday 24 December, Christmas Eve

So there we are in the ship’s restaurant, anxiously awaiting news of Santa. When the announcement eventually comes through from the bridge that he has landed safely on the poop deck (it’s called poop deck, so just get over it), a heartfelt round of applause rings around the room. It is an emotional moment. (You have to be here to appreciate this fully.)

In this evening’s quiz we drop to third place. I put it down in my own case to over-excitement, with the big day being now just hours away.

Friday 25 December, Christmas Day

At sea, between Madeira and Lisbon. Little evidence of a “white” one and, thankfully, no sign of icebergs. You should never take these things for granted.

Champagne for breakfast, on the balcony of our cabin. I recall little after that.

Clever Santa has succeeded in smuggling a few presents on board to our cabin. With reluctance I have left behind in Sussex the present from my brother, a three foot vacuum packed salmon with smoked Craster kippers on the side. Blogdaughter is taking no chances and has brought along her own “Santa Stop Here!” sign from home. Mrs. Blog and I both receive – from each other — a copy of Ben Fogle’s new book, Labrador, clearly intended to prompt the other in respect of searching out a replacement for our much loved Molly. So, if you’re short of a copy…

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I have spared Mrs. B from the gift that I have bestowed on one or two friends this year, a coffee table book of photographs of Soviet Bus Stops.

For dinner we have booked a table in the ship’s premium restaurant in order to ensure something of an occasion. The meal is excellent, and the smartest dressed that I can ever remember being on Christmas Day.

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Blogdaughter and “author”: note the firm grip on the wine glass

Starter…

Close up of dishes on buffet

…and “main”

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Nothing gets in the way of the nightly quiz. We manage to come second, mainly by dint of still being conscious, which may not be the case with all of our competitors.

Saturday 26 December, Boxing Day

We are warned that the average cruise passenger should expect to put on between 7 and 14 pounds during the trip. I forego the classes on Secrets to a Flatter Stomach and Burn Fat Fast but decide to reduce the size of the spoonful of sugar that goes into my coffee, at least in each second cup.

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The ship newsletter reminds us that we will be asked to complete a feedback form at the end of the cruise. Under “suggestions” I shall point out that they are wasting their time and space in providing stairs – we have yet to see anyone else use anything other than the lift, though some might have benefited from the exercise.

We are in Lisbon today. If this comes up in the quiz tonight, I shall maintain that this lies in Portugal, though I suspect I may have to compromise with my team member (see Cruising part 1) and settle for calling it Spain.

I have been here before for a conference, years ago. The city centre is very attractive but seems to have become somewhat grubbier over the years – unless it’s just that I spend more time these days checking where my feet are going. As usual I am carrying several changes of outfit for Mrs. Blog in the event of sudden and extreme climate change.

(I follow my normal practice here of requesting assistance from Mrs. B in sourcing appropriate illustrations for the blog. I suggest to her that, “for comic effect”, we would benefit from a photograph of a Victorian lady disembarking from a liner, supported by teams of servants bearing enormous trunks, chests and suitcases. Her use of the words “ladies” and “large chests” in the search engine takes us to some interesting, though unsuitable, websites.)

It proves to be bitterly cold upstairs on the open top tourist bus but, being a man, and despite being totally inappropriately dressed (we were off the coast of Africa when I last left the ship), I am not prepared to follow Mrs. Blog and Blogdaughter in seeking refuge downstairs.

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There is no quiz tonight. The various question masters are all busy being Buttons or Ugly Sisters in the rehearsals for tomorrow’s panto. Which, happily, means we are undefeated this evening.

Sunday 27 December

We attend a talk in the ship’s theatre on Alan Turing, the codebreaker. I am finding it increasingly difficult queuing behind fellow passengers who remain motionless for minutes at a time as they try to recall where they last saw their husband/wife, food tray or teeth. Were they like this before they came on board? Have they in fact remained on board from some previous cruise, unable to find the exit?

The talk on Turing is excellent. There is a couple behind me seeking clarification on one or two things, like the meaning of “gay”, and “computer”.

The panto is also a great success. It offers me the opportunity to adopt a response of ironic amusement to the on-stage merriment while in fact loving it and wishing that all theatre could be this enjoyable. It’s hard to tell whether the little ones at the front or the more mature members of the audience are picking up most on the bawdy humour. It is a relief to be sat in the upper stalls and thus relatively safe from being addressed directly by Fairy Godmother or any of the cross-dressing cast members.

The quiz is back on this evening. Because of the two night gap since the last one, the previous winners are not docked the usual point to handicap them. One of our team loudly disputes this. I am embarrassed. We shouldn’t be taking it this seriously. Unless we win, of course. We don’t.

Monday 28 December

It is vital, I inform the family, that we take in as much of the entertainment as possible today as it has all been paid for and this will be our last opportunity.

We watch, and hugely enjoy, the Ventura Vocalists performing in the atrium. (It’s like that big staircase thing you’ve seen in ocean bottom images of the Titanic, though with more bling. And fewer fish, obviously.)

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These are passengers who have assembled during the cruise to practise and perform an assortment of carols and popular songs — as well as “These are a Few of my Favourite Things”. We recognise some of the choir and they put on an excellent show. I’ve not watched any of Gareth Malone’s efforts on TV when he apparently creates a workmanlike choir from ordinary raw materials, but, if this is what it’s like, I’m all for it.

We see the new Tom Hanks/Mark Rylance film Bridge of Spies which is on our “to do” list anyway, so that’s saving money. And we also go to the last night entertainment in the theatre, a somewhat raunchy “straight to cruise” rock musical. All in all this is almost too much excitement in one day.

But the best is still to come. We have clearly saved something for the last quiz night and prove to be runaway winners of the bottle of sauvignon blanc. Happily, our correct answers are nicely spread across the team. Our “frequent cruiser” (27 in four years, and counting) knows that the Nepalese flag is the only national one that isn’t either square or rectangular; our elderly couple remember the Christian names of the Andrews Sisters; Blogdaughter surprises neither of her parents by cleaning up on any alcohol related questions; Mrs. Blog knows the medical term for blackheads and I can now die happy, having dredged up the name Katniss Everdeen from some dark recess. We want the night to go on forever.

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Unrelated, though topical, footnote

We are just a few days into the new year and I have already broken a number of my resolutions, which were worded as follows:

  • “I will in future refer to Downton Abbey as “drama” and not “panto”
  • “In the interests of politeness, and despite all evidence to the contrary, I am prepared to accept that the Daily Mail is actually a real newspaper and that, contrary to what I may have said previously, it is in fact suitable for use as cat litter.”
  • “Although my support for Liverpool FC is passionate, I will acknowledge that referees and their assistants are in every instant operating with 100% accuracy in their decision making.”

 

 

 

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Cruising to Christmas

 

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Thursday 17 December

We’re due on board the Ventura at Southampton early afternoon, only a couple of hours’ drive away, so we should be in for a relaxed morning – plenty of time to pack, chuck away the milk and drop off the keys. Really looking forward to it.

Ah, Mrs. Blog says she’d like the kitchen floor washed before we go, for the benefit of any burglars presumably. And the bathroom, and shower. Still, plenty of time.

Blogdaughter texts me: she expects to arrive at the house from London mid-afternoon. What time are we due to go? As she’s supposed to be coming with us and leaving the house at 1 pm, this makes me nervous. Glad we’ve clarified that.

The post is delivered (for those in America: “the mail”). There are no fewer than four Christmas cards from people that we thought had dropped off our list: normally I keep a stock of cards for “rapid response” in such circumstances, though the first class stamp tends to give the game away. This year, tough. We need to get going.

Blogdaughter arrives home at noon complaining that she’s had to rush. Needs to “pop into town” for last minute shopping. Returns from shops at 12.55 and asks if there’s time for me to make her some toast – “as she had to miss breakfast because of all the rush.” I decline but there’s something of an atmosphere. This is not helped when we eventually set off at 1.30 and blogdaughter is buried on the back seat under far too many cases. The lack of a weight limit like you get on the plane is a mixed blessing…

We arrive at Southampton with just 30 minutes to go before we set sail and join the rearguard of the queuing passengers. I am obliged to bring a suit for “formal evenings” on board and it’s easier if I wear it, rather than carry it, for embarkation. I’m not sure that it goes particularly well with the set of flashing Christmas antlers which, for sensible packing reasons, I am also wearing. In advance I had been wary of the cruise line marketing which had branded our trip “family friendly”. On the contrary, Mrs. Blog and I appear, after blogdaughter, to be the youngest on board – and by some way the most sylphlike. We plan to rectify this during the cruise (all meals have already been paid for, which means you just have to go for it.)

Mrs. Blog, more than anxious about the possibility of being sans internet for a few days, takes a last desperate look at her iPad’s BBC News app before we board and announces the sacking, “by mutual consent”, of Jose Mourinho as manager of Chelsea (a moderately successful Russian football team based somewhere in west London.) A piece in today’s Guardian describes him as an “irredeemable prick”. A little more generous than I would have been, but one can but applaud the sentiment.

We eventually file on board the Ventura which is to be our hotel, play pen, entertainment centre and care home for the next two weeks.

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It was worth paying the extra for an outside cabin…

No sooner have we found our cabin, which P&O have helpfully placed on a different deck and the opposite side of the ship from blogdaughter’s, than we are summoned to our “muster station” in the ship’s theatre to try on our life jackets and be told that we should – at the sound of the ship’s alarm in all emergency circumstances – head down to the muster station, no fewer than five decks below our own, to receive further instructions. Now, I’m not one to question authority, but I remember what happened to young Leonardo Dicaprio on the Titanic and the idea of heading towards the bowels of the ship as it gives its best impression of the Poseidon Adventure seems to me just a tad counter-intuitive. Especially having spent a good half hour shuffling here in the first place behind an extremely elderly and severely overweight clientele equipped with walking frames.

Friday 18 December

Breakfast, for which we share a table with some people that we don’t know – so that’s already different from being at home. We agree tentatively – with complete strangers (and we’re all British so this doesn’t come easy) – that we’re now at sea and are almost certainly heading south towards the Canaries where it may well be warmer than at home. But nobody wants to put their neck on the line just yet as it’s the first day. We are due three days at sea before we next see land and we need to be wary of coming across to our fellow passengers as know-alls.

Something chimes. It’s the ship’s Entertainment Manager sounding like Gladys Pugh from Hi-de-Hi! She informs us that at 10 a.m. they’ll be opening the first window on the ship’s advent calendar and we’re all invited. I carefully weigh this up as an option and decide, on balance, that I’ll go back to my cabin and read about supporter ownership schemes in football.

Blogfamily finds that it can locate its members around the ship by means of text messages bounced at considerable expense off the nearest satellite. This does not however always work with blogdaughter who is unable to determine which side, end or deck of the ship she is on at any one time. For over a thousand miles we assumed that she’d jumped ship.

There are films showing in the ship’s theatre and we go to see the 2015 version of Far from the Madding Crowd with Carey Mulligan and Michael Sheen. For most of the audience the Terence Stamp/Julie Christie/Alan Bates film of 1967 is quite recent enough, as they continue to point out in unacceptably loud whispers for the next 120 minutes or so.

We decide to try the nightly general knowledge quiz and are invited to join up with an elderly couple (a category in which, on this cruise, I’m reluctant to place Mrs. Blog and myself) and a lady travelling on her own to form a “six”. We finish second, which is nice. We discover that our solo traveller is on her 27th cruise in the last four years and will be taking this identical cruise – on the same ship – just four days after it returns to Southampton. We later realise that this is just beginners’ stuff – many passengers have notched up sixty, seventy or more. There is clearly a culture here of which we know little.

With winds building to force 8 we are starting to walk with a strange gait. Mrs. Blog takes the precaution of taking a handful of seasickness tablets: I fear we may not see her for a few days.

Saturday 19 December

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Most passengers make it to breakfast. We compare notes. Overall we are inclined to agree that, by and large, the sea is now rougher than it was in the Solent. Or Southampton dock. Someone says the words “Bay of Biscay” and we all nod. We relate tales of our heroic, or nausea rich, crossings of said Bay, though the geographer in me suggests that the positioning of the Bay in some of these narrations is variable and appears to apply to many locations around the Atlantic, and further afield.

I am faced with a choice of diversions today, from The Latest in Wrinkle Remedies to Arthritis and Back Pain and Facial Rejuvenation. I think I’ll file these away with the invitation to Adult Karaoke. Eat More to Weigh Less sounds like a possibility, especially if I leave half way through…

Because of the state of the sea it is announced that tonight’s show, Blame it on the Boogie, is cancelled as the dancers prefer to remain upright to give their best.

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Instead we see a film that might otherwise have escaped our attention at home, A Royal Night Out, a “fact based account” of the night of VE Day in 1945 and apparently the last time that QE 2 and Princess Margaret were allowed out to meet “normal people” – or, in this case, the odd equerry. A couple behind us maintain a running commentary on the film throughout. I suspect they don’t get out much at home and think this is Gogglebox. If you happen to have missed this film so far, do try to keep it that way.

At 10.30 pm we turn up for the quiz again and our teammates from last night join us. We compare notes and agree that there has been a lot of swell today. Our solo “27 cruise” veteran tells us, “Stormy? I was nearly thrown across the bed last night. And that hasn’t happened for a while.” We come second again, to the same team that beat us last night. One of our team claims she heard that the winners are “professionals” and says they shouldn’t be allowed to compete. I’m not sure what that means but we now start referring to them as the brainboxes. I notice that our teammate tends to cover herself after each answer is announced by adding “I thought that was probably it.”

Sunday 20 December

We share a table for breakfast again. We agree, by a majority, that the sun is in fact now shining and that this is an improvement. Also, we believe that the sea is flatter today. We all indicate that our own cabin is in that part of the ship most vulnerable to the swell – being higher/lower/forward/aft or midships.

Mrs. B, having for the first few days joined in with the public rite of breakfast, will henceforth remain in her cabin at breakfast time and “come to” gently with the aid of her own much travelled cafetiere. This means I am now obliged to eat for two. I am also charged with taking back to the cabin for her a croissant, muffin or pastry. Surprisingly, I manage to feel furtive when doing this on our holidays at hotels around the world, despite having already paid several thousand pounds for the privilege.

After the chimes Gladys Pugh announces that at 10 a.m. there will be an opportunity to learn about Colonic Irrigation in the Lower Atrium, though I’m not sure whether this is an anatomical reference. The gym classes sound tempting but, after careful consideration, I settle for a good read in our cabin.

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Tonight I’m delighted to find that someone other than me does an almighty “Shush” at the four people sat behind us who seem to be shouting their conversation at full volume and  drowning out the classical guitarist whom we’d all come to listen to.

The evening gets even better when our regular team of six manages to beat the brainboxes and win the quiz and the bottle of wine that comes with it. This despite the unfortunate tendency of Mrs. B, when excited, to whisper her contributions rather louder than her normal speaking voice and thus share them unhelpfully with our competitors.

Monday 21 December

From the bed Mrs. Blog spots a lamppost moving past the cabin window at dawn and we find that we have arrived in Arrecife, the main town of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands.

Gladys invites us to go along and Guess the Weight of the Heaviest Passenger. Or it may have been Cake. We have not booked any of the organised excursions on this holiday in the belief that we will be able to see what we wish to see, and at lower cost, by walking, taking a tourist “hop on, hop off” bus, public transport or taxi. Admittedly this puts the responsibility on us for getting back on board in time for the evening departure, but this seems a small price to pay.

Mrs. B, ever fearful of temperature variations of anything over one degree, bids me carry in my small day sack several full changes of clothing for her, a brolly and spare shoes. You can never be too careful.

We take a taxi from the harbour to the quaint former capital of Teguise. The skies open and we take cover in a café where, Mrs. B having passed on the “free” breakfast on board, she now requires a substantial brunch. This does not sit well with me. I say this: one eats, not when one needs to but when it’s there, especially when you’ve paid for it.

Most of what there may once have been to see in Teguise appears to be closed. However, we do find an art exhibition in a former nunnery devoted to the potato as “a characteristic symbol of traditional agriculture”. Unfortunately, as we try to enter the building we are turned away by staff who have chosen today to rearrange the display. We are encouraged by the information centre staff to visit a new museum devoted to the timple which turns out to be a musical instrument traditionally associated with the island. We file this thought away for future quiz reference but head for the exit.

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A typical street scene in Teguise, complete with timpler. Timplist?

We wait well over an hour for the town’s only taxi to take us back to Arrecife and are relieved that we hadn’t done the Teguise trip later in the day when the implications of missing the boat (literally) might have exercised us. As it happens we spend a pleasant time in Arrecife, eating our first tapas of the holiday and mooching amiably around the town in the warm sunshine.

Back on board and we come second to the brainboxes in the quiz.

Tuesday 22 December

We sail through the night as seems to be the routine and arrive at Las Palmas in Gran Canaria at dawn. Gladys announces that there will be a session this morning on Fluid Retention and Swollen Ankles. We decide to give this a miss and go ashore.

We take the tourist bus through the town and get off near the cathedral and the Christopher Columbus house (the Casa de Colon, and it’s not what you think.) We find great tapas and, hoorah, free wi-fi. Mrs. B is in her element. We hop back on the bus and then get lost trying to reach the ship. Harbours don’t really lend themselves to round walks and we managed to reach the end of a breakwater, staring longingly across a wide stretch of what can only be described as sea between us and the Ventura.

We make it back to the ship in time and notice that passengers travelling in steerage class have been pressganged into raising the ship’s anchor so we can get away in good time. They’ll need to think about that next time they contemplate booking  the “supersaver” option.

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During the evening we hear a call through the PA system for the medical rescue team to attend on deck C, and later a priest. One can only assume that, with an average passenger age falling at least in the 70s, the ship’s caterers make allowance for a degree of natural wastage during every trip. Later we learn that a couple has been evicted from the ship at Las Palmas after the male had seen fit to stick a knife into his partner in a spot of “domestic”: it’s a shame that P&O don’t seem to offer any workshops on this cruise in “managing TV remote disputes.”

I’m struggling with the social etiquette of our quiz team. It’s disconcerting to find that we seem to score fewer points than the combined sum of our knowledge would suggest:

Question master: In which decade did Goldie, the golden eagle, escape from London Zoo?

Me: That was in the Sixties. I remember it well.

Teammate: No. More like the 80s or 90s. I’m too young to have remembered it if it had been the 60s.

Me: It was the 60s.

Teammate: No, definitely not.

Me: It was the 60s.

Teammate: I don’t mind settling for the 70 as a compromise.

Me: But it was the 60s.

Teammate: Here we go. Look, I’m putting it down as the 70s, that’s fair isn’t it?

Question master: Well, we have all the answers in and all of the tables have it correct apart from one. It was of course the 60s.

Teammate: We don’t seem to be having any luck tonight do we?

 

Wednesday 23 December

We arrive in Santa Cruz de Tenerife. While the meals on the Ventura have generally been excellent, this morning’s kedgeree just isn’t up to scratch. More like a very wet fish curry. Never mind, I make up for it with a full English afterwards.

We pass on this morning’s Relieving Back Pain and Improving Posture workshop and disembark.

We take a local bus to La Laguna, do a bit of sightseeing and find some more tapas for lunch. The smart modern tram back to Santa Cruz is a bonus.

Back on the Ventura I take in a Tina Turner tribute act in one of the bars. She’s very good but it’s probably a mistake to ask the audience to wave their hands in the air as this will involve putting their knitting down. We drop in on the theatre which is showcasing “songs from the latest musicals”: this, we notice, covers Oklahoma and Anything Goes.

We come second in the quiz.

Thursday 24 December

I’m tempted by this morning’s Body Sculpting, Celullite and Colon treatment in the spa but, at £83, not that tempted.

Funchal, Madeira. We walk along the front and take the cable car up to Largo da Monte, with spectacular views in all directions, a fine place at the top for morning coffee and splendid public gardens. Rather than taking the same way down we queue for Funchal’s unique toboggan ride. This, a survival from Victorian times, involves two men dressed like Venetian gondoliers scooting and steering a kind of oversized wicker basket on runners containing between one and three passengers for over a mile down roads made increasingly glassy over the years.

It’s hairy, believe me, and I don’t recall seeing anything about insurance and liability. But bl**dy exciting. I wonder whether the men, some of whom have apparently been tobogganing for several decades, develop one particularly muscled thigh and focus on being a right or left sided gondolier. Or, if they were to take the opportunity of free movement of labour in the EU, how would they define their professional attributes in terms of transferable skills. What commensurate jobs would they be asked to take? (Sorry, this is what happens to my “mind” if it’s not properly occupied.)

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We like Funchal, and Madeira. A lot. Christmas is clearly big here. We are told by a couple with whom we share our cable car that the previous night, December 23, was one almighty all night street party in Funchal. Mrs. Blog and I like the sound of that – up to 9 pm anyway, which is plenty late enough in my book. The city is adorned with climbing Santas, Christmas markets and children’s grottoes. We fit in yet another tourist bus ride before making our way back to the ship.

Being Christmas Eve we are treated to a reading of “The Night Before Christmas” through the PA system in every public space on the ship and in every cabin. It is announced that Santa has been spotted approaching the Ventura and …..

…to be continued

 

 

 

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Politics

Let’s Not Hear it for the Silent Majority!

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During my years of what I like to call “public service”, on reading that the general public had been consulted on some vital issue or other and had expressed a range of unfathomable and almost certainly contradictory views, I was generally inclined to feel charitable. Some of my best friends were, after all, members of the general public and they couldn’t all be wrong all of the time.

But the Silent Majority?  Give over, as my father would have said. If ever there’s a reason not to bother to read on, it’s finding the words “I’m writing to you on behalf of the Silent Majority” at the head of a letter or email. Actually does the Silent Majority do email? Or does that belong in the same rather scary world as, say, asylum seekers, teenagers, eastern Europeans, or indeed anyone beyond the front door?

How shall we recognise the Silent Majority if we should pass in the street? What shall we talk about? Oh no, silly me.

C’mon Silent Majority, engage! What have you got to lose? What is there to be frightened of, other than having to think, read and perhaps even listen?

Ten things you should know about the Silent Majority:

  • They support Donald Trump

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….from my favourite publication, the Onion

Actually, that’s all you really need to know, but here are a few other helpful pointers:

  • The Silent Majority believe “we’re all in it together” and the UK has a government of “one nation Tories” devoted to the wellbeing of all
  • They know that foodbanks are just a conniving, political trick
  • They’re certain that global warming is (a) a good thing, (b) a myth or (c) something we shouldn’t be expected to do anything about in this country as the Chinese are still going hell for leather
  • They’re sure that immigrants are generally a bad thing, especially if they live in Lincolnshire or Northumberland and probably won’t meet any
  • They may well, for crying out loud, vote UKIP on the basis that at least that’s a party that can’t follow what’s going on either
  • They’re not on Facebook because you have to have friends to do that and be able to communicate, although not necessarily with joined-up writing
  • They’re confident that, unlike all other nations, at least our history of engagement with the rest of the globe has been an uninterrupted narrative of ethical intervention
  • The Silent Majority (US branch) knows that the way to reduce gun crime is to arm all of its citizens

 

  • And, most important of all, they’re absolutely NOT A MAJORITY OF ANY KIND! And thank heavens for that.

 

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Trump’s majority support gather in their tens of thousands…

 

 

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The Republican Party candidate for the Wild West constituency seeking out ethnic minority groups to canvas

 

Well, that’s that off my chest. Some other seasonal thoughts:

Mrs. Blog and I went to see our much lamented former MP Norman Baker last week promoting his political autobiography at the Lewes Speakers Festival, just one of the ways in which our little town regularly punches above its weight when it comes to (mainly left of centre or green) politics, the arts, fireworks, beer and bloodymindedness. When this blog posed the question to the speaker, “How should any Guardian reading pinko liberal in Lewes position him/herself tactically to achieve political success at the next general election?” Norman replied that all hope should be abandoned and that despair was the only reasonable response – or something to that effect, I recall.

Blog spoiler: I bought a copy of Norman’s book “Against the Grain” and asked him to sign it to Blogdaughter (that’s not her real name, by the way, but I think she might recognise herself) with the words “Sorry that I didn’t make your Save the Manatee fundraiser, Regards, Norman.” Children’s memories run deep, you understand, and I didn’t want her resentment from 1997 to continue to fester. Well, she’ll get to unwrap that on Christmas Day on our cruise ship off Madeira and Boy will she be surprised – she’s expecting a new winter coat.

Spot that seamless link to Christmas? It’s a gift.

Mrs. B is as usual stockpiling the holiday essentials – eyeliner, facial cleansers, that sort of thing, while I just deal with the trivial but “boy” stuff like tickets, passports, guide books, maps and euros. And unlimited supplies of Boots Muffles Earplugs — I’ve heard that the cruise is “family friendly”.  We’ve paid a decent amount of money for this trip so it goes without saying that we shall take a dim view if we hear that the weather here has been fine while we’ve been experiencing Hurricane Ethel.  Provided Santa is able to trace us out there on the foamy brine this blog will report back in due course on the huge array of presents which it expects to receive. But no more nasal and ear hair clippers this year, thanks: I haven’t really done justice to last year’s.

And, for the benefit of any would-be burglars, a warning: Clint Eastwood, no less, has offered to provide homeland security for us while we’re away, so, make my day, just try it…

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Politics

As I was saying….

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It has been brought to my attention that I’ve become a tad dilatory on the blogposting front lately. Nothing terminal, I can assure you – if I had indeed departed for the great Website in the sky, I’d be sure to let you know.

What, I hear you ask, is the explanation for such neglectful behaviour on my part? Well, for one thing, I have found absolutely nothing to laugh about emanating from our self-styled “government”, which cuts down a little on my scope. You won’t, I feel, wish to read of my despair each morning over your cornflakes when you have enough on your plate, or bowl, without me adding to it.

On a slightly brighter note, I read in the Sports section of my daily broadsheet that one David Pocock, playing for Australia in last weekend’s rugby union world cup final, uses his acquired status in the game and public profile to raise issues important to him, like fair trade food, rhino poaching, gay marriage and climate change. And, as he weighs in at over 18 stones, I’m definitely on his side.

Welsh singer and TV presenter Charlotte Church weighs, I understand, considerably less – though the Daily Mail is no doubt seeking counter-evidence plus damning photos of cellulite and “glisten stains” for its online subscribers as we speak. But I’m definitely a fan of her newfound campaigning role on the environment, the government’s austerity measures and sexism in the music industry. Doesn’t mean I’ll be buying her records anytime soon, though.

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In the other corner, let’s hear it for our very own Baron Lloyd-Webber who took the trouble last week to fly home from New York in order to help the government get its tax credit cuts for the poor through the House of Lords. He failed, but thanks any way for trying, Andy – it’s the principle that counts. Lloyd-Webber understands what it’s like to be poor better than anyone, because he became rich by writing a musical about Jesus. And if there’s one thing Jesus couldn’t stand, it was the poor whining on about being hungry. In response I shall stop going to Llloyd-Webber’s West End musicals – and if that doesn’t bring him to his senses, I don’t know what will.

If I need another excuse for my recent blog-gap, it may be found in a confession that, despite popular demand, I’m starting work on another book. I know, it’s what the world needs right now. I’ve just read Bill Bryson’s latest contribution, “The Road to Little Dribbling”, and, how can I put this, while Bill’s early travelogues set a standard for amusing raconteurship (is that a word?), other writers like Tim Moore and Michael Simkins now do this kind of thing so much better, leaving Bill to growl around the country complaining about the cost of sandwiches and the sheer stupidity and bloodymindedness of almost everyone he meets.

So, here’s where you come in. I’m embarking on my own travelogue, though I won’t ask Bill B to provide a celebrity endorsement. Have you heard of “crowdfunding”? You haven’t? That’s handy. In that case, it involves each of you out there sending me a cheque for £1,000 to fund my travel costs in exchange for a mention in the book. I promise it will be the last time you hear from me. Literally.

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Or, if you prefer…

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Meanwhile, Blogfamily does have one trip of its own sorted. Christmas will be spent on a cruise to the sunshine in the Canaries, with Christmas Eve spent in Madeira, the big day at sea, and Boxing Day in Lisbon. (Burglars, is that all the information you need right now?)  Blogdaughter is a little concerned about how Santa is expected to find us if we’re not in our proper place – oh, ok then, it’s actually me that’s worried. Blogdaughter believes this cruise will enable her to avoid the tyranny of the Christmas sprout – but I see no reason why we shouldn’t be able to arrange a special sprout-based surprise for her onboard.

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The Blogfamily cabin, decorated as I have requested online…

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…and what happens if you insist on an outside cabin

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I’m worried that the cruise is advertised in the brochure as “family friendly”.  I mean, who wants kids swarming (sorry, that’s a David Cameron word, usually restricted to refugees) round them when you’re trying to have a nice time at Christmas?  The term brings to mind other words and phrases that send a shiver. When scanning the TV schedules for a box office movie (we know how to live the life) I’m quick to move on when spotting descriptions like:

  • Romcom
  • Teenage
  • Slash
  • Steven Seagal
  • Avant-garde
  • Critically acclaimed
  • Lighthearted
  • Family
  • Hilarious consequences
  • Action packed
  • FX
  • Lord of the bl**dy Rings
  • Madcap
  • And, probably worst of the lot, “Caper”

You may feel this doesn’t leave us with many, and you may be right. Mrs Blog wants me to add Jennifer Anniston and Cameron Diaz but this is my list. So, no. Let’s switch over and watch Doc Martin, some dark Scandinavian murdering or Michael Portillo seeking to reinvent himself as a decent human being by travelling first class on posh trains and trying his hand at making pasta. It’ll take more than that, Michael – some of us have long memories.

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The “Portillo moment” — a happy memory from May 1997…

In terms of film terminology, I understand that “snuff” has generally negative connotations. But I say this: it all depends on who’s appearing in it. Does Jeremy Clarkson make movies? Does Jose Mourinho?

What else do I have to report?

Well, Lewes will go all weird and fiery again on 5th November for our annual bonfire celebrations and Blogfamily will be marching as ever with our chums and neighbours in Commercial Square Bonfire Society. Don’t be put off by what you read: it’s ages, really, since we stopped throwing Catholics on the fire. Something to do with health and safety, I believe, or equalities. We’re allowed to burn effigies of the famous – my money’s on Baron Lloyd-Webber this year.

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The spirit of Arthur Brown is alive and well at Lewes bonfire

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On the following day Mrs Blog and I will be entertained to tea in the House of Lords (she still harbours an ambition to be ennobled for her services to retail). We will no doubt still be reeking of gunpowder and cordite from the previous evening. Wonder who we might take with us if someone were to light a match…

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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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Travel

A Balti cruise? Sounds good to me.

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It began with a misunderstanding. Dreams of a leisurely drift around the Indian Ocean, stirring myself only to dunk a casual vegetable samosa in my G&T while awaiting the purser’s call to tiffin. Or, at the very least, some kind of executive style pub and biryani crawl along Rusholme High Street.

It transpired that what Mrs. Blog had in mind was neither of these but a 12 day package around the Baltic, or Hanseatic Sea, as we traditionalists still prefer to think of it. Carefully scrutinising my appointments diary — and finding it empty from 2007 until the Qatar World Cup in 2022 – I indicated that I might be able to fit it in. With one proviso: if I needed to be specially kitted out for this adventure, Mrs. B would carry this out at her favourite branch of M&S without the pleasure of my company. Most of our combined shopping trips involve us going our separate ways: a recent retail-based conversation went as follows:

Me: “I’ll be in Waterstones, then the bank, then I need to call in at the station to collect some tickets, then the beer shop. I’ll be about an hour. Where will you be while I’m doing all that?”

Mrs. Blog: “I’ll be looking round the hair conditioners.”

 

Mrs. Blog enjoyed a successful pre-cruise shopping trip, sourcing outfits for both of us, appropriate for ship and shore. Smart casual, but not too showy…

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This blog has some limited experience of cruising.

I see that my Urban Dictionary carries the following definition:

   “to search (as in public places) for a sexual partner; to go about the streets at random but on the lookout for possible developments.”

Neither of these prospects appealed to Mrs. Blog.

We had enjoyed a cruise along the river Nile a year or two back, just before the latest round of political instability developed full momentum. After suffering some minor back spasm (now I think of it, I omitted to mention this to my travel insurer but, as readers of previous blogs will be aware, I was refused cover anyway, so sod ‘em.)  As I was saying, after experiencing some back twinges, I arranged for a robust, manly massage from the chap on the boat who had it in his job description. This took place on the open deck at the very rear of the boat (I understand “stern” may be the technical term.) Alongside me, and I occasionally knocked into him when turning over, sat a surly Egyptian in military uniform with a machine gun resting in his lap as he puffed on his cigarette and gazed down the river. I’m not sure whether I found this reassuring or not. On a happier note, I can also recall during the “Egyptian party night” seeing Mrs. Blog playing “pass the bottle through the legs” with the rest of our group – and that’s not a line I expected to write. (This event is disappointingly absent from the photographic record of our trip.)

Our only other “near cruise experience” took place during a holiday in British Columbia when Mrs. B and I took a BC ferry ride from the northern tip of Vancouver Island up the coast through the “Inside Passage” to Prince Rupert, near the Alaskan border.  When hunting for the ferry schedules in order to make a booking, I came across some very topical news items about the sinking of the ferry on which we hoped to travel. There had been loss of life and the consequential suspension of the service rather hindered my attempts to finalise arrangements.

After some deliberation I opted not to share this potential bombshell with the head of the household on the grounds that no good would come of it. In the event, the schedules were reinstated just in time, the trip was safely booked and navigated – fortunately without passengers drawing attention to the scene of the disaster – and Mrs. B remained comfortably unaware.

Unaware, that is, until the last day of the holiday when we were guests at a barbecue in Victoria.

“So, where have you managed to get to while you’ve been over here?” asked our host.

We outlined our itinerary.

“The sinking didn’t put you off then?” he asked.

Silence ensued, with a noticeable raising of one blogwifely eyebrow.

“Did you not know about our disaster?” he pursued.

“Until a minute ago, just one of us did,” I replied.

You could have cut the atmosphere with…   Anyway, it was at least a week before conversation was grudgingly recommenced in the Blog household.

 

Mrs. Blog and I savouring a private moment on our delightful voyage through the Inside Passage

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So, our track record on the cruise scene is not an unblemished one. But we remain optimistic and we’re due to wave a fond farewell to the white cliffs of Harwich, or whatever they have over there, shortly.

Mrs. B and I take the view that, if we weren’t spending our pensions on trips abroad, Blogdaughter would only be wasting the money on fripperies like housing, paying off her student loan, and eating.

The brochure for our Baltic cruise helpfully contained some archive illustrations

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We like to prepare thoroughly for holidays. I have been trying to train the goldfish to accept that “holiday blocks” lurking on the floor of the tank are in fact edible and a perfectly valid alternative to their usual “top down” provisions, but I fear their innate conservatism is a considerable obstacle. I may have to resort to seizing them individually and pointing their noses towards the revised offer.

For this holiday it has been resolved that a much postponed dental check-up should be fitted in before departure (this is for us, not the fish), as you can never be too sure that the ship’s part-time dentist cum engine stoker isn’t still deploying the “piece of string round the door handle” approach to extractions.

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We have scanned the on-board cruise facilities and entertainment programme. Gym? I don’t think so! This is a holiday, for goodness’ sake. Nor are we likely to be taking up the casino option – the last time I gambled it involved a game of cards called Newmarket and my winnings from Aunty Win and Uncle Len were paid in matches. I like the sound of the live show and very much hope it will resemble the “End of the Pier Show” at Cromer, to which I took Blogdaughter, where the star turn was a ballad singer whose arms grew longer as he sang. Tell that to the kids today? Hopeless.

In preparation for our trip we have recommenced dance lessons.  This will not be a pretty sight.  Mrs. Blog tells me that, during our most recent lesson, and with her head turned elegantly – as is proper – to one side, she caught a glimpse of us in a wall mirror and thought that, in the right light, our embrace might conceivably pass for dancing rather than grappling. But the moment was fleeting.

Mrs.B is, I know, anxious about her iPad and whether she will have full access while onboard and onshore to the limitless treasures of the internet. If not, she fears that she may have to speak to me more than is decent.

Mrs.Blog is not what is called a good sailor, but she doesn’t lack pluck

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For my part I intend to avoid the mistake, made on one previous occasion, of posting as my out-of-office message for my day job the words, “Yippee! I am now on holiday! You can send your urgent messages where the sun don’t shine, I don’t care!”  (It didn’t read quite so well when I returned to work.)

We may just have time before we depart to fit in one or two classes to brush up on our conversational Finn or Estonian, which is sure to come in handy on our return. I have learned the majority of my Scandinavian language skills from watching The Killing and The Bridge on television so I can happily translate for you words like “blood stain splatter”, “scene of crime tape”  and “perp” but not, sadly, such useful phrases as:

“Mrs. Blog would be grateful to know if your toilets flush”

“Do icebergs often travel this far south during May?”

“Do Somali pirates really travel this far north?”

“Your nation seems disposed towards introspection and, if I may so, surliness”

“When Mr Farage says you are a country of benefits scroungers, I’m sure he does not have you personally in mind”

 

Counting down the days now.  We’ve committed to one or two excursions for when we arrive in port. I’m optimistic that I can manage to explore Harwich under my own steam, but I see that in Stockholm we’ve booked to go on a boat trip round the islands – as a change, presumably, from being on the cruise ship.

No doubt you’ll get to hear how we get on. I hope you enjoy the general election – but only if we’re on the same side.

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