Na­tions unite to cruise the north

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holidays Afloat - Sue Hart

WE Spa­niards do not eat lunch at 11.30am, says the tall man in the crum­pled linen jacket. He is sit­ting in the back of the bus as we speed through the out­skirts of St Petersburg. Our guide for the day, Svet­lana, a car­i­ca­ture of old Soviet bossi­ness, has an­nounced we will be eat­ing early and leav­ing at 12.30pm (sharp) for the Her­mitage Mu­seum.

Ev­ery­one on the bus turns to the man and laughs ap­pre­cia­tively at his will­ing­ness to send up him­self and his coun­try­men. How many of us lunch at that time? Then we re­alise he is se­ri­ous.

He and his com­pan­ions do not in­tend to eat at such an hour and they ex­pect sa­cred Span­ish rit­u­als to be ac­com­mo­dated.

On our Baltic cruise aboard the el­e­gant old-world Marco Polo, the ri­val­ries and pe­cu­liar­i­ties of na­tion­al­ity groups are a source of amuse­ment. Pre­dictably, close neigh­bours dis­like each other the most. The Cana­di­ans don’t bother with the US cit­i­zens, the New Zealan­ders are stand-off­ish with the Aussies, the Ger­mans and French ig­nore each other, and the South Africans of Bri­tish ori­gin are huffy with the Afrikan­ers. At our din­ner ta­ble, it is only the pres­ence of Aus­tralians that pre­vents con­flict be­tween the English and the Scots.

For most pas­sen­gers, St Petersburg is the high­light of a nine-day cruise that be­gins in Copen­hagen and ends in Stock­holm. St Petersburg is beau­ti­ful, es­pe­cially with two full days in port at the height of sum­mer, the sea­son of white nights, with the sky still bright at close to mid­night.

Svet­lana’s lit­tle joke (she does smile oc­ca­sion­ally) is that St Petersburg has an av­er­age of only 30 days of full sun­shine a year and as we are so for­tu­nate to have per­fect sum­mer weather for our visit, we should be pay­ing dou­ble for our tours.

Yet it is the un­ex­pected mo­ments of travel that truly de­light, and the high­light of the trip turns out to be Tallinn, the lovely an­cient cap­i­tal of Es­to­nia. Usu­ally de­scribed as the new Prague, Tallinn is be­com­ing a favoured des­ti­na­tion for Bri­tish stag par­ties, but no drunken Cock­ney louts are ev­i­dent, at least not in day­time.

It was im­pos­si­ble to ob­tain in­di­vid­ual visas for Rus­sia, hence the or­gan­ised tours, but in Tallinn we roam freely. The cen­tral square is hum­ming with ac­tiv­ity and al­though its steep-roofed build­ings pro­claim it as a north­ern Euro­pean city, its vi­brant buzz and wel­com­ing open-air cafes evoke mem­o­ries of, say, Siena.

Nat­u­rally, Tallinn’s side streets are filled with gift shops (ripof­feries, my un­cle calls them) but the linen, prints and sil­ver are ir­re­sistible.

Away from the tourist heart, we wan­der for hours along nar­row cob­bled lanes, ex­plor­ing the ex­ten­sive old town: me­dieval build­ings, the high stone cas­tle and onion-domed churches, the arch­way lead­ing to a wind­ing, stepped path, where a mid­dleaged vis­i­tor bat­tles up­hill, the smile on her face be­ly­ing the ef­fort in­volved in a hard day’s ‘‘ tourist­ing’’. Even we (slightly) younger pas­sen­gers feel we have earned a drink as we sit on deck that evening with con­ge­nial new friends. Next morn­ing we will have the en­chant­ment of four hours’ steam­ing into Stock­holm through an ar­chi­pel­ago of tiny is­lands cov­ered with tall green conifers and the hol­i­day houses of pros­per­ous Swedes.

Fas­ci­nat­ing des­ti­na­tions, good food and com­pany, no pack­ing and un­pack­ing: lit­tle won­der we baby boomers have em­braced cruis­ing. The day-long spar­ring be­tween Svet­lana and the Spa­niard is an un­likely bonus that con­tin­ues to re­sult in bond­ing among pas­sen­gers from all cor­ners of the globe.

‘‘ Spain!’’ is the in­evitable cry as we wait at each ren­dezvous point for the late­com­ers, and our na­tional dif­fer­ences dis­solve into shared laugh­ter.

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