I’d like to open proceedings with a confession: I have never before in my life written a travel piece with even the faintest modicum of honesty or integrity.
The truth of the matter is that when a tourist board wallah has laid on first class travel, handed you the keys to sprawling hotel suites, laid on lavish restaurant meals, barged you to the front of the queue for every attraction within a fifty mile radius and plied you with enough booze to float an aircraft carrier there’s a quid quo pro expectation that you’ll write some gushing claptrap that paints whatever destination they’re peddling as something akin to the Garden of Eden prior to the whole regrettable snake and apple business.
If you’re wise enough, you’ll have written nine tenths of a travel feature the week before you’ve even started packing by subtly rephrasing the mountain of PR guff they’ve sent and the itinerary they’ve provided in advance. Based on personal experience, I’d wager that eight out of ten of the flowery travel pieces you see at the back of the weekend papers have been dashed off in a similar fashion in half an hour and bear zero resemblance to the bacchanalian orgy that the trip inevitably descended into. The remaining fifth are written by chaps who have been nagged to within an inch of their lives into bagging a free family holiday by the old ball and chain, gone cap in hand to Thomas Cook and been offered a week of wholesome poolside drudgery at some Disney-esque development atop a cliff in a remote corner of Majorca.
Anyway, I have decided to break from my usual fayre of Jeremy and Seumas and the expletive-ridden ramblings of that gelatinous Gleska police officer and attempt my first ever honest stab at a travel feature by describing the thrills and spills of a fortnight on board a cruise ship in the Baltic Sea. This is all a bit self indulgent, I realise, but I did find the whole thing rather fascinating. Jolly Scandinavian cities aside, the heart of the thing is two thousand people all cooped up on what is, essentially, a floating Wetherspoons for 14 nights. It is, without exaggeration, twenty four carat people watching gold.
More importantly, we paid for the thing with our own cold, hard cash so I’m under absolutely no obligation to describe everything from the bath taps in the room to the summit of a mountain as stunning, breathtaking, delicious, sumptuous, wonderful. glimmering, marvelous, exquisite, heavenly, dream-like, life-changing, glorious, imperial, majestic, awe inspiring, joyous and all that sort of soppy claptrap.
It’s also worth bearing in mind before I really get going that my esteemed GP colleague, Mr Sweaty Dave, recently wrote a piece about a cruise with more or less the same itinerary as this one, so if you’ve got better things to do than try and sift through all my waffling for crumbs of lucidity, there exists an infinitely more sensible and concise guide.
Right then, a drop intro for form’s sake.
TO most people, they conjure up a dreary fortnight of sea sickness, airline standard food, drunken arguments and contracting an incurable strain of the Norovirus off a gravy ladle in the buffet.
But it seems the cruise industry has upped its game from the bad old ‘floating biohazard petri-dish’ days, stopped serving up nineteen eighties school dinners and….
Anyway, you get the picture.
I kept these initial concerns to myself because firstly, Mrs DH had set her heart on having a big celebratory holiday in Scandinavia to mark her graduation and secondly, I’d already spent some time quietly costing out a DIY tour of that region and could actually hear my wallet screaming for mother mercy from my pocket as the hypothetical bill began to spiral into remortgaging the house territory.
With this in mind, a cruise seemed the least ruinous way to go and so we trotted off down to the city of Newcastle, where the good ship HMS Gammon was anchored. I named it such soon after taking a good look around the departure lounge at the demographic of my fellow guests as we were waiting to board. Without putting too finer point on things, it was a scene so lacking in diversity that I now keep a photograph of it in my wallet in the faint hope of one day meeting Jon Snow and asking him to sign it to see if it triggers some kind of catastrophic cerebral incident in the miserable old coot.
The people watching entertainment began early doors because it turned out that sitting down and waiting for a single letter of the alphabet to be called out over a tannoy is too complicated a process for around a tenth of the general public to grasp. The spectacle of these people barging to the front of the queue (some did it twice) and arguing the toss with the check-in staff made me genuinely wonder how they’d even managed to find Newcastle on the map without getting confused, swallowing an Ariel three-in-one pod and setting their own hair on fire in the process. We watched this for about half an hour, musing upon which of these people was the most likely to end up falling overboard looking for a toilet, until our number was up and we were finally ushered aboard the Gammon by a team of grinning South Pacific types.
Once we’d walked about five miles around the thing looking for our cabin, we fancied a spot of lunch so had a stroll up to the buffet. There we were greeted with a scene resembling something between a Red Cross aid drop in 1980s Ethiopia and the bit in The Walking Dead where the fortified compound is surrounded by a ten-deep crowd of drooling zombies. It was a throng of humanity falling over each other to get to within snatching distance of whatever morsel they could lay their hands upon. It was all barging and elbows and snarling and muttering about where the hell the start of the queue is and oh my good God where did you get that omelette?. Little old ladies stood stock still in frozen panic amid the chaos, kitchen staff tripped over lost, weeping infants as they tried to sweep up broken crockery and someone was hysterically yelling Geeeoooorrggeee, Geooooooooooorrrrgggeee…..come overreeeear….there’s a wine tap……….OH MY GOD THERE’S ANOTHER ONE FOR’T LAGER! over the feverish hubbub.
We’ll…we’ll… just get a drink and come back when the initial excitement dies down dear, says I. An hour later and the place was still in uproar. In fact, for two weeks nothing at all changed. Between the hours of 8am and 8pm the buffet was under constant undead starving African-style siege whenever I passed through. I’m surprised nobody keeled over and died, actually. Perhaps they did and it was all hushed up. Body rolled up in an old carpet and thrown overboard at four in the morning and nobody saw nothing, guv’nor.
If the overindulging at the buffet didn’t kill someone, overdoing it at the bar will have significantly shortened a few lives and obliterated a few brain cells, I’d wager.
Before you board, you’re given a handy leaflet explaining what drinks are included in your fitted-as-standard, paid-in-advance all inclusive drinks package. The long and short of it is that you can have anything you want barring the cognac, single malts, champagne, hipster IPA and the sort of fiddly cocktails only a complete scoundrel would have the black heart to ask a busy barman to put together. They actually have the brass neck to remind you to please drink responsibly, just after the bit where they you the bars are open from ten in the morning. There was a notable piece of small print which warned that the spirit measures were about sixty per cent larger than the UK pub standard, but as far as I could make out, the majority of people either did not read that or simply did not care.
Subsequently, the majority of the guests were in their altitudes for two solid weeks. The days at sea were the worst for it. They try their best to distract you from the bar with activities throughout the day. However, the majority of people could not give two hoots about cha cha dance classes or any of that sort of rot so stayed pretty much rooted to the spot all day, drink in hand. This, incidentally, was all aided and abetted by the staff, who were pouring the stuff out like they were on commission.
Find a spot near a window to sit and read straight after breakfast and some cheery Ukranian bird’s straight over, egging you on to have a glass of red because you are on holiday, sir. Then she’s back every ten minutes to top you up. That first day crossing the North Sea was really something to behold, I tell you. I will admit that I’m not a complete stranger to the concept of drinking from breakfast time, so I managed to pace things out, keep hydrated and avoid the nasty side effects. Some chaps, however, were completely gone by about lunch time. They all filed in to the quiet lounge area with the intention of kicking back in their cardigans and reading their Bernard Cornwells with a nice cup of tea but by about midday you could see a few of them melting into their chairs, unable to focus on the page. By one o’clock, a few had nipped off to the buffet and returned with plates laden with the most baffling combinations of foodstuffs I’ve ever clapped eyes upon. One fellow had shepherd’s pie, curry, chips, sandwiches and a hamburger on his plate, along with a separate bowl full of mashed potato and peas. If you’re ever curious about the effect six pints of John Smith’s has on someone unaccustomed to pre-lunch binge drinking, look no further than the first day at sea aboard a cruise ship.
I’m absolutely convinced that those bar staff would have served you up literally anything at any time without blinking an eye. I floated the notion of testing this theory out by going up and ordering a pint of brandy but was forbidden from doing so on health and safety grounds by Mrs DH, who really can be a terrible killjoy at times.
This relentless persecution of empty glasses also raged on during dinner time, where you got the full waiter service, three courses and a glass of port after dessert. By this time, you hear the most unbelievable drivel tripping off people’s tongues as they try to make jolly small talk with the waiters. My favourite overheard exchange of the whole trip went like this:
Bellowing, half cut, middle aged geordie: So where is it you’re from, lad?
Waiter: I am from Serbia, sir.
Bellowing, half cut, middle aged geordie: *furrows his brow for a few seconds* Oh aye, Serbia. We’ve been there…..We’ve been to Corfu, haven’t we Janet?
Then there’s even more drink laid out for you. They put on some entertainment for you every night in a cavernous theatre at the front of the ship, the approach to which is lined with a gauntlet of long tables laden with wine, cocktails and beer. Most people grabbed two or three to see them through this nightly song and dance production, which most of them trudged out of at the end of grumbling and complaining about. I couldn’t see the problem, myself. Okay, it’s a bit tacky and stage school end of term production-ish in places but at the end of the day, there’s a troupe of pneumatic young dancing girls prancing and gyrating in front of you for forty five minutes so it’s hardly a night in the trenches of the Somme for a chap with red blood coursing through his veins and a keen eye in his skull. Fifteen years ago, it would be the flagrantly homosexual cruise director and a few of the waiters floundering their way through The Buddy Holly Story three nights a week and, if you were lucky, a washed up working men’s club comedian telling mother-in-law jokes with tears in his eyes in a last ditch bid to make enough cash for the next payment to his loan shark.
It doesn’t stop there in terms of booze, either. Most of the Gammon’s guests would stagger to the boozer at the back of the ship after the show to get a couple of nightcaps while the shiny Butlins’ Redcoat-esque entertainments officer insisted upon staging a mock gameshow every night. Inevitably, these ill-advised pursuits descended into farce because whoever they managed to drag up for a spot of Family Fortunes was too soused to string a sentence together, let alone process and answer basic questions. These quiz shows were quite evidently the Redcoat chap’s baby and the most entertaining aspect was to watch him dying inside as the whole thing was completely ruined by the antics of drunks.
This was the general pattern of things for 14 nights. You could escape it for a while when the ship was in port but you’d always end up with a bellyful before bedtime one way or another.
Anyway, that’s the booze situation covered, and so now onwards the most interesting aspect of life aboard the Gammon – the other passengers.
Five days. That’s how long it took for a lot of marriages and relationships to start crumbling. Over the course of an ordinary working week, I’d say most couples probably only spend about five hours per day together and so have sparse opportunity to properly start getting right on each other’s thruppenny bits. Living on a ship for two weeks completely removes that safety net. You’d sit at breakfast most mornings amid middle-aged married couples who, between them, would create an atmosphere so dense with tension that it virtually had its own weather system.
Typically, a husband would mumble something inaudible – probably about it being high time they finished eating and got off the ship to get to their bus trip or whatever it was they were up to. This would be met with an furious hiss and a slight rattle of crockery from the wife, who would be keen to register her intense irritation whilst not causing too much of a scene. The fellow would then mumble something about a quarter of an hour, to which the lady would stand up abruptly, sling her handbag over her shoulder and march off with a face like thunder. He’d then be left to try and leave the table naturally in a futile attempt to make this look like a joint decision. From there on in there would be these little hushed spats going on everywhere you looked. You’d sometimes see them ashore, bickering over their street maps or just wandering joylessly around with nothing at all to say to each other about anything. Sometimes they’d sit through entire meals without speaking a word to one another. I really don’t see the point if it gets to that stage. I’m fully aware that every romantic relationship eventually dies down into routine and loses a bit of zip and excitement as time wears on. However, if you can’t even have a laugh and at least enjoy the company when that happens the jig’s up, I’m afraid. Either get divorced or if that’s too complicated make some kind of don’t ask, don’t tell arrangement between yourselves. Just do whatever it takes to avoid being dragged into the circle of hell a lot of marriages seem to become.
Myself and the good lady? We managed to avoid any major conflict. My advice is to spend at least an hour out of each other’s sight every day with no offence taken by either party. That applies whether you’re cooped up on a ship or spending the weekend at home. Then again, I’m an infuriating blighter who very much enjoys his own company so for God’s sake don’t cite me in any divorce papers if this suggestion backfires on you.
The young couples were a bit of a hoot, though. They boarded arm in arm, full of the first flushes, ready to explore lots of exciting new places they can tell their grandchildren tales about in the bright rosy future rolling out before them in their innocent, lovestruck minds. However, within a few days he’s realised she’s perhaps an alcoholic with mental health issues and it’s dawned on her that he really isn’t interested in seeing any of the sights they’d discussed because there’s probably no WiFi signal at the Hermitage so he won’t be able to get his football accumulators sorted on the old betting app.
The best spot to enjoy a bit of mid-cruise heartbreak was the deck above the disco. I found the cabin a bit on the stuffy side, so took to taking the air up there most nights to cool down a bit before retiring to bed. There you could eavesdrop on all sorts of drunken live action soap opera playing out between young couples, whose unsuitability for each other had been brought into ultra HD focus by a few simple days in each other’s company. I don’t think any of them realised that this old scoundrel was sitting just a few yards away in a high backed wicker chair, chuckling away to himself at the whole sorry spectacle. The best one I can recall came from a pair of young Scousers.
Her: You were looking at her. Looking at her the whole time and not once at me.
Him: For…for f**k’s sake Emma, she was the singer in the show. Where was I supposed to look?
Her: That’s not the point. You’re on holiday with me, not with some f**king slut singer.
Him: I’ve never even spoken to her. I was just watching the show. There were lads up there singing too.
Her: You’ve never tagged me once on Facebook either. You’re ashamed of me. Just admit it.
Him: I’ve not put anything on Facebook to tag you in because I can’t get a f**king signal you daft bitch.
Her: F**k you. I’m just going to get a flight home when we get to the next place. I’d have more fun back at me mum’s house than on this sh*t cruise with you. *flounces off*…….I’m off to bed….go and find your singer you selfish c**t.
At one point, I was up there watching a rather impressive electrical storm in the distance while some dumpy little thing from Sunderland poured her heart out to me about how her man had ruined the whole fortnight because he’d been locked in some kind of hellish cycle of drinking as much Foster’s as he could handle before passing out, sleeping until 5pm, going for dinner and then getting back on the cooking lager until closing time. “He’s never even been off the ship once,” she sobbed. “I’ve been walking around by myself for days.” Why she thought a complete stranger skulking around alone on deck at midnight drinking a large brandy and staring at distant lightning could offer her any sort of coherent advice I’ll never know but any port in a storm, I suppose, if you’ll excuse the pun.
Another good laugh were the youngsters there on holiday with their families. I went on a cruise with my parents when I was about eighteen and it was as frustrating as hell. There’s a lot of tipsy skirt prowling about the place on the hunt for a holiday fling but its nigh on impossible to close the deal on account of you sharing a cabin with your 14-year-old brother and her sharing with her old gran. There are 1,500 other passengers on board and 800 staff so there is literally nowhere quiet to slink off to for a moment’s privacy as far as I could see. And the good Lord knows I scoured the damned place back then. The dawning of this reality seemed especially pronounced among the young ladies, who took to chatting up any unaccompanied fellow under the age of forty before it dawned on them that nobody but elderly widows go on cruises alone and no man in his right mind is, in a million years, going to veer off onto the highway to the danger zone with a nineteen-year-old midwifery student in such close quarters to his missus and her built-like-a-Panzer-tank father.
Other notable types on board were the middle aged cruise bores. They’re like vegans in that they’ll shoehorn into any conversation the fact that they’ve been on every single ship on every single route available in the brochure for the past fifteen years since Jim took early retirement and the kids left home. I really couldn’t have cared less if this ship had a slightly bigger dining room than the Pearl of the Caribbean or whatever ship they were on in 2007. However, this sort of chit chat was inescapable so I just started making up the names of cruise ships I’d been on as a coping mechanism.
Cruise bore: We were on the Fred Olsen Braemar last year. Lovely little ship. Have you been on it?
DH: I regret to say that I have not. We did do the Volga river cruise on P&O’s The Jazz Singer a couple of years ago, though.
Cruise bore: I…I don’t think I’ve ever seen that one in any brochures….
DH: It’s marvelous. You must give it a whirl. It’s got its own branch of Sainsbury’s on board. And a twenty four hour circus. Nizhny Novgorod’s a beautiful city too. Only five passengers disappeared there when we visited.
I suppose I’d better mention the staff too. There seemed to be a natural hierarchy among them. Filipinos were mainly in charge of preparing food and cleaning the cabins, Chinese and Caribbean types were entrusted with waiting tables and Eastern Europeans and Indians were charged with looking after the busier bars and doing the front of house schmoozing job. They get signed up for a year away from home at a time, they said, but the payoff is that the wages they bank go an awful long way in these awful third world dum…pardon me, developing economies they hail from. The most interesting thing was how some of the guests treated them.
Personally, I’m of the Lord Grantham out of Downton Abbey school of thought when it comes to the downstairs staff and underlings. Treat them kindly and take a bit of an interest in their lives and things are a lot easier in the long run. It paid dividends, because both the Indian fellow and the Ukranian popsy at the pub were slipping me premium package cognac and single malts free of charge by the end of the whole thing. However, there were an awful lot of people who went full cotton plantation driver on the poor buggers from the get-go. No please, no thank you, no small talk, no joking, only imperious commands. The scousers seemed the worst for this, despite the faux salt-of-the-earth left wing credentials so many of them seem wear on their sleeves. Clicking their fingers at waiters, speaking to them like they were dumb animals, complaining they were taking too long to get their drinks, the works. Poor form, if you ask me, and as common as muck to boot.
It was also fun watching the odd doomed marriage middle aged husband getting a bit #metoo with the waitresses when they’d escaped to the bar alone and had one too many. There was one notable incident in which a spoddy little bald headed fellow found out that tapping a Ukranian girl on the rump without prior consent is a one way ticket to hell. Through him like a dose of salts, she went. The idiot kept looking around for other people to step in and help him, too. Don’t look at me old chap, I thought, she’s slipping me large Hennessys off the books so I’m not going to rock that particular boat. If you’d treated her with a shred of respect rather than patting her buttock like she’s some pox riddled hooker in a greasy Bangkok cathouse she wouldn’t be looming over you and calling you a pervert in front of fifty of your countrymen now, would she?
Don’t get me wrong. I can see how having giggling far Eastern types and high cheek-boned slavic sorts running around after you day after day can do funny things to a fellow’s mind. Towards the end of the trip, I had a rather vivid dream in which the ship had been wrecked and I, along with a number of waitresses, were in the sort of scenario the chaps in Mutiny on the Bounty found themselves in on Tahiti before old Bligh dragged them back out to sea and started flogging them. Luckily for me, they can’t clap a chap in handcuffs for what goes on in his subconscious. I’m sure they’re working on that, though.
Right. I think that covers the important aspects of life on board. I suppose I’d better move onto what the actual places were like, given that this is supposed to be a travel piece and all.
A five minute stroll into the centre of Oslo got me wondering why they hadn’t put newspaper down in anticipation of a gaggle of Brits trampling through the place. I know the Norwegians have eye-watering amounts of cash swiped from their bank accounts in tax every five minutes but at least they can comfort themselves in knowledge that the place is kept absolutely spotless. They have robot lawnmowers keeping their parks nice and neat and driverless cars scooting around. Think Ikea-meets-Bladerunner, or a friend’s house in a new-build development that you’re terrified of spilling even a drop of red wine in because his missus is seriously jittery about keeping the carpet nice.
It’s not a particularly spectacular place – I suspect the best parts of Norway are a few hundred miles to the north – but pleasant enough for a day out. I’d probably get bored there after a couple of days, and stony broke to boot, given that we passed a place advertising hamburgers at £25 a pop on the way back to the Gammon.
Imagine a pleasant British town in which all the benefit harvesters, beggars, ethnic minorities, anyone shorter than six foot five and all those earning under £30,000-a-year has been quietly shipped out and replaced with people who look like the product of a secret Nazi breeding project and you’ve got Gothenburg. It looks great on the women but the chaps just scream lebensborn to me. I’m an inch over six feet tall but I felt like a midget there. Aside from all that, the Swedes apparently built Gothenburg to troll the Danes, who were raking it in by taxing anyone who even thought about sailing south through the Kattegat and into the Baltic during the seventeenth century. That’s a damned good reason to build a city in my book. Other than that, it is eerily clean and orderly. has some nice green spaces and is blighted by minimal levels of enrichment. However, if you wanted to spend a weekend there, you’d need to consult your mortgage adviser. £8.50 for a 33cl bottle of beer is the going rate. I suppose it keeps the riff-raff and stag parties out, though.
You’ve really got to wonder about the mentality of the Soviets. Only a socialist could gaze upon a quaint medieval walled city and think to themselves: “We should surround that with hundreds of brutalist concrete tower blocks. That’d improve the place no end.”
Not even the old city completely escaped the cold hand of the communists. About a hundred yards after walking through the old city gates you’re offered the chance to take a tour of the KGB torture cells they operated in one of the grand old town houses. I’d rather like to go back to Tallinn and stroll around when it’s not completely crawling with Japs and Yanks because it’s really rather a charming looking place. The local delicacy is a blood sausage, which tastes like something between black pudding and haggis. The natives are a bit humourless and stony-faced, but I suppose that’s understandable given that the place had the communist boot on its throat for so long. And before that Imperial Russia. And before that Imperial Sweden. Literally every time the poor blighters ran their own flag up the pole it seemed to be torn down within five minutes by regimes of varying degrees of oppressiveness. Things like that probably work their way into people’s psyches over the centuries, I suppose.
The commies really did have some neck renaming the place Leningrad. The only influence Lenin had over the place, as far as I could see, was to shroud all the splendid work the Romanovs did with a dense forest of horrific grey tower blocks. However, once you fight your way through all of that nonsense, the core of the city is a thing of such grandeur that it knocks Paris straight out of Headingley for six, through some poor bugger’s skylight and into a cocked hat without touching the sides. You could quite genuinely lose weeks just wandering around just staring at it all.
Whilst in St Petersburg,we also took a trip out to see the Peterhof. I’d studied Peter the Great at school and he always struck me as a decent chap. Dragged Russia out of the dark ages, built himself an entire city from scratch on a swamp, demanded dwarfs be brought to the court for his entertainment and absolutely loved a drink. They’ve probably taken him off the curriculum these days because he didn’t speak out against the slave trade or do enough to advance transgender rights in eighteenth century Siberia or some other snowflake-triggering frippery. The interior of the Peterhof is a bit Footballers’ Wives, owing to the crass tastes of Peter’s daughter, but you can still see the old boy’s writing desk, Catherine the Great’s bed (which I wager could tell you some cracking stories) and a seemingly endless feedback loop of mirrored ballrooms and dining halls. The gardens are the most interesting part, though. Peter rigged the whole place up with elaborate “trick fountains” that he could set off and drench visitors with. Some of them are disguised as trees and flowers and others were set off if you stepped on the wrong cobble stone. He also had a drinking den built at the far end, which he ended up living in full time because he could get a bit of quiet drinking time there with his cronies. He’d have you branded with a hot knife if you crossed the Rubicon into full blown alcoholism though. so I imagine you’d need a good few years of training before you accepted an invitation to one of the big chap’s week-long, vodka-fuelled soirees.
That evening we went to see Swan Lake. I’m not even going to attempt to critique a ballet because all I know about it is that it all looks rather pleasing and requires the sort of balance and poise a big, lumbering ape like yours truly could never hope to achieve in a thousand years. What I will say, though, is that the Russians had an impressive way of dealing with the Japs who ignored the “no filming” signs by getting a couple of icy looking Red Sparrow-esque girls to blind them with laser pointers from the wings until they got the message.
The next day, we were taken to see the Hermitage. According to the Russian guide, you could spend a month wandering around the place and still not lay eyes on everything. She was my kind of girl, by the way. She got everyone around all the famous Rembrandts and Da Vincis for form’s sake but made a point of showing us her own personal favourites. “If you look carefully at this one it is very amusing because there is a cow urinating”…..”This one is of the god Bacchus. Look…everyone is drunk, including that leopard and all the children.” You could hear her calling the Japs every name under the sun under her breath through your earpiece too. As I say, my kind of girl. According to her, they’re relaxing the visa regulations for St Petersburg soon, apparently, so it’ll be easier to hop over for a weekend without having to go through the whole Russian Consulate rigmarole. She also told me women outnumber men by eleven million over there, her included, so that’s certainly something to chew over.
For some reason, I thought Helsinki would be as bleak as hell and built entirely with a view to keeping the snow and frost at bay. It’s completely the opposite. It’s pretty solidly built but consists of wide, sweeping streets and and tasteful architecture. It’s civilised, but it is not as smug with itself about it as Norway and Sweden are. There isn’t too much high rise nonsense and enrichment seems to have been kept to a minimum. The women all seem to have a bit of a devilish glint in their eye too, and you’d be playing on a level field given that the chaps don’t seem to be as lebensborny as the Swedes.
It is worth noting that at every other port, the souvenir markets were stuffed with the usual tat – magnets, t-shirts, baseball caps. The Finns had two stalls – Reindeer hides and hunting knives, God love ’em. One thing they should definitely start exporting, however, is their savoury doughnuts stuffed with moose meat. Greggs would make a killing if they started serving those up, that’s if Maccy’s don’t beat them to the punch and start serving up McMoose Doughnuts. Helsinki was perhaps my favourite stop, despite the low expectations I had for the place. The only minus point was that the Sibelius memorial is included on the tour bus stop so it’s perpetually infested with Japs barging their way in front of it and doing their stupid peace signs. I guarantee they knew as much about Sibelius as I do about their most renowned plinky plonky koto composer or their loudest taiko drummer. That’s not the Finns’ fault though, I suppose. They can hardly ban the little pests because they spend money like pikey lottery winners when they’re abroad.
A DDR holiday resort, which was on the itinerary entirely as a base to bus people off for a day out in Berlin. We’ve already been so instead took the train into Rostock. Rostock is a tad underwhelming but it’s a pretty enough place to wander around for a few hours. Warnemunde itself was like a sterile, orderly kraut version of Blackpool. You could just imagine them all there in the DDR glory days, enjoying the fortnights away they’d been given as a reward for ratting out their neighbours to the Stasi for turning the television off when Karl Eduard Von Schnitzler was in full flow on Der Schwarze Kanal. Also, I’d bet by last mark that if we’d given that long golden beach a closer inspection, it would have been absolutely teeming with fat nudists too, because dumpy krauts can’t seem to help themselves when it comes to that sort of thing. Many a childhood caravan holiday on the continent was marred by a couple of fat, middle aged cabbage bashers rocking up on the adjoining pitch and sunbathing with their bratwurst and sauerkraut on show to the world. As if the blitz wasn’t bad enough.
They dragged a kraut sea shanty choir up onto the pool deck for a bit of a laugh before we set sail, too. They weren’t bad, to be fair. The part where they started singing It’s a long way to Tipperary put me in mind of a wartime concert party at Eden Camp. They were a far sight better than the dindu who decided to start rapping on the train on the way into Rostock, anyway. Auf dem kopf, auf dem kopf, auf dem kopf, auf dem kopf, went the chorus. Vladimir Putin, Vladimir Putin, Vladimir Putin, Vladimir Putin. None of the krauts blinked an eye at this behaviour. That sort of nonsense would probably get a man killed on the Glasgow Central to Dumfries service.
The same Nazi supersoldier demographic as Gothenburg but with everything on a far grander scale. You can tell the Swedes really meant business during their glory days. Everything built on a huge, towering scale along wide streets, military statues up everywhere, huge green spaces. The Royal Palace is a bit of a statement piece and the narrow streets on the old Gamla Stan island are well preserved. The Swedes are a little unusual, though. They’ve got a real fetish for those electric scooters and none of the cafes accept cash any more because they’re fixated on phasing out paper currency. I’m not entirely on board with the fashion over there of wearing a sharp suit but skipping the tie and wearing trainers with it, either. Some of the police go around on segways wearing cycling helmets, which looks completely ridiculous.
All in all though, a very impressive place. We didn’t see much of the ROP menace but to be fair we only spent six hours entirely in the city centre so I’m not going to make a disingenuous Owen Jones-esque “I didn’t see it so it doesn’t exist” observation. To be fair though, a baying horde of jihadis could have blown up the ABBA museum with a swimming pool full of nitroglycerin and I’d probably have been too distracted by the Swedish womenfolk to notice and commotion.
Here’s the odd thing about Copenhagen – everyone flocks to that bloody mermaid statue. I genuinely don’t understand why. It’s an unremarkable little metal statue of a mermaid without a particularly pretty backdrop. However, it’s like catnip to tourists. We walked by at around nine in the morning and there was a queue of people waiting to take a photo of it. It was the same story on the way back at around half past five. Walk for twenty minutes and you’ll be in Amalienborg square watching the changing of the guard or perusing Frederiks Kirke or walking around the grounds of Rosenborg Castle or standing outside Christianborg Palace. The mermaid is literally the least impressive thing about Copenhagen.
We did pass a synagogue, which was under the guard of two armed police officers, so I suspect there may be a touch of the old ROPenhagen to Copenhagen.
Incidentally the national dish, “Stegt flaesk” is haram-tastic. It’s essentially just a mountainous pile of fried pork fat and potatoes. The stuff of nightmares for the ROP but mana from heaven for the stout Germanic peoples of northern Europe. There seemed to be more of a drinking culture among the population there than in Sweden and Norway and the women had the same devil may care look in their eyes as the Finnish ones. There’s also a bust of Churchill, so they clearly haven’t forgotten who their real friends are.
After another magnificently drunken day crossing the North Sea, that was that and we all filed off the Gammon and back to reality.
Now, don’t worry. I shall not detain you for much longer. This is usually the part where I implore everyone to beg, steal and borrow in order to go on the same stunning, breathtaking, delicious, sumptuous, wonderful. glimmering, marvelous, exquisite, heavenly, dream-like, life-changing, glorious, imperial, majestic, awe inspiring, joyous trip that I’ve been on. However, I’ve gone so far off piste in terms of style it hardly seems worth it now and besides, I’ve serious doubts anyone is even still reading at this point.
It’s quite simple, really. The pros of a cruise are that you get to see an awful lot of foreign culture whilst being waited on hand and foot by an army of fawning foreigners, free of the worry of overspending on booze, dinners and transport while you’re away. The cons are the fact that you don’t get to hang around anywhere for long enough to see all the sights and you end up marching around with one eye on the clock trying to see all the things you’ve set your heart upon seeing. Also, don’t go if being around other people triggers you, you really won’t like it. So much as glance in someone’s direction and you’ll be subjected to a full run down of all the other holidays they’ve ever been on since 1975. Also don’t go if you’re teetotal and don’t bother if you’re trying to lose weight because you’ll either fall off the wagon or end up bursting into tears at the first Weight Watchers meeting you go to when you get home. Also don’t go if you can’t stand your spouse or don’t know them all that well. And don’t do it if you’re Jon Snow, because the volume of gammon on show will trigger you to within an inch of your life and you’d probably end up ruining the whole thing for everyone else with your self righteous left wing monologues. In fact, don’t bother if you’re David Lammy either. The concept of being on a boat bigger than the pedalos at Flamingoland would prove quite confusing and upsetting for you, I’d imagine.
Right ho. I think that’s all the important angles covered and every demographic catered for. Gosh, that’s nearly seven thousand words. That’s about three times as much space as these things usually get. It’s remarkable what a chap can get published when he hasn’t accepted de-facto bribes and there are no on-the-spectrum sub editors, pernickety lawyers or IPSO busybodies to spoil all his fun.
© DH 2019