Nations unite to cruise the north
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.