It was the passage back from New York to Southampton on the Queen Mary that undermined our prejudice against cruising. We had seen the effects of several large "blocks of flats" parking themselves outside Venice or Dubrovnik for a few hours. This did not seem to us to be "proper travelling." (We suffer from a form of inverted snobbery which sees "proper travelling" as requiring some effort and hardship - long waits on cold platforms for connecting trains or weary searches for an acceptable hotel in a strange town, for example) But we had such a good time crossing the Atlantic that the urge to repeat the experience became quite irresistible. In addition, the opportunity to visit several Baltic capitals and St Petersburgh - places that would be difficult to travel to independently without flying - was very attractive. That all this was possible on a Fred Olsen cruise starting from our own local port of Rosyth, a twenty minute car ride away and on a small cruise ship that could get into a smaller port without overwhelming it with thousands of people, were the clinching details.
Boudicca sailed out of the Forth, bound for Copenhagen. Even the cold grey North Sea looked good on that first evening.
After a day at sea, Boudicca tied up next morning close to the centre of Copenhagen. We spent the morning exploring the 17th century Nyhavn before returning to the ship for lunch - the economic option in expensive Scandinavian countries! We know Copenhagen quite well so for the afternoon we had booked ourselves on a guided bus trip to somewhere new - a small nearby fishing village called Dragor Havn.
The village itself was pretty enough, though unremarkable save for the mirrors outside every kitchen window which, according to our guide, allowed housewives to look left and right from their cottages to see what was going on.
The story of the Danish passive resistance to the German occupation during World War Two, particularly of how they saved their Jewish population is a fascinating one. This is the last surviving fishing boat that was actually used to smuggle Danish Jews across to Sweden and safety.
No ferries are needed to cross the Sound today - as afficionados of Scandi-noire TV series will know. The magnificent Oresund Bridge now links Denmark and Sweden by road and rail. Part of the crossing is made in a tunnel which emerges on an artificial island before the viaduct and and cable-stayed bridge itself. The combined length of the three elements of the crossing is about ten miles.
On the bridge the roadway runs on the top deck and the railway, which gives a thirty five minute link between Copenhagen and Malmo runs underneath. It has created a new economic zone which includes parts of Denmark and Scania with thousands of people, living on one side and working on the other, commuting each day across the bridge. No Brexit-like sentiments in this civilised part of the world...
After two more nights at sea we woke up next morning to see a new view from our balcony. This was Tallin - notorious these days for Ryanair financed and cheap booze fuelled stag parties of which, I am pleased to say, we saw nothing.
Tallin is known for its well preserved medieval quarter. At each stop passengers have the choice of paying for some sort of guided tour, or doing their own thing. In Tallin we chose the second option taking a short ride into the town on a shuttle minibus provided. We were soon walking beside a spectacular medieval city wall, punctuated at intervals by characteristic towers.
Inside the walls is a pleasing jumble of narrow alleys, pleasant streets and open squares.
We drank beers and eventually had lunch at a cafe round this square and watched the world go by for a while.
The towers along the city wall looked different to anything we had seen before but there is something very familiar about the architecture of this old city, especially in the gable ends of the houses. It is a former Hanseatic Port and similar houses can be seen in Bruges, Amsterdam or even in our own Crail and Culrose along the Forth.
Looking back to the port from a high tower we can see Boudicca dwarfed by the arrival of a "block of flats." The advantage of a ship like Boudiccais is that at our next port, St Petersburgh, we tied up in the heart of the city, as high up the River Neva as it is possible to go whereas the larger vessel is restricted to a deep water berth some twenty miles from the city and its passengers travel in by bus
Boudicca slowly made her way up the Neva River to the heart of St Petersburgh and tied up next to a submarine. It would have been nice to have been able to leave the ship and stroll about, but our exit was guarded by a border post and to pass through this freely we required visas costing £200 each. The only way to get out to see the sights was to sign up for the some of the wide range of guided excursions organised by Fred Olsen. We were not too unhappy about this. Our excursions took us to the places we wanted to see without the hassle of finding our own way in a city we did not know, with a language we could not speak and with street signs we could not read.
Our first half day excursion was to the Peterhof Palace which is several miles outside the city on the shores of the Gulf of Finland.
Like much of what we saw in St Petersburgh, I found Peterhof quite stunning and a little bit bonkers. It well justifies the comparison and description as the Versailles of Russia. We were given a tour of the sumptuous interior of one of the palaces. We were required to wear overshoes to protect the richly decorated mosaic floors and were not allowed to take photographs.
Outside there are extensive formal and less formal gardens with many ornamental fountains and cascades. These operate through gravity. The palace and some of the gardens stand on a thirty metre high bluff which overlooks the lower gardens and feed the fountains below from large reservoirs behind the palace.
Dotted about in the gardens are palatial summer houses.
..and fountains...lots of fountains...
The ubiquitous water features do not flow continuously but are turned on at prescribed times which makes a fine spectacle when they all burst out together.
...have I mentioned that there were lots of fountains...?
We were taken to have lunch in a Russian restaurant, which was interesting because local people were also eating there, though the only Russian feature of the meal was that it was served with a shot of vodka. I suspect that this is a bit like serving haggis to tourists in Edinburgh: done to meet the expectations of the visitors and not something locals would normally do. On the way to our next museum and to make my day I was able to photograph my very first Russian train through the windows of the bus!
(I know...I know!)
We had only just finished one madly opulent, gold encrusted cultural experience and were plunged immediately into another.
This time it was at the Hermitage Museum, visible from our ship, which houses over three million items of art and culture, including the world's largest collection of paintings, in a complex of palaces on the banks of the river. One of these is the Winter Palace where pivotal events in the 1917 Russian Revolution took place. In the Hermitage photography is allowed - as you will probably notice...
Just as one can only see a tiny fraction of what is on offer on one visit to the Hermitage, this is a brief selection of the many things that caught my eye.
Opulent rooms with a colour scheme dominated by gold...
and the glimpse of a familiar face...
This was the absolute highlight for me. Our guide showed us into a side room where these four men sang a folk song in close four part harmony. There was a tenor, a baritone a bass and a basso profundo. I have never heard anything so beautiful as the sound their combined voices made or heard voices so completely fill a space . When they began their performance I was at the front of our small group. By the time they had finished I was at the back behind six rows of Chinese tourists, who had been drawn by the sound like moths to a flame. Perhaps our guide forgot to shut the door...
Room after room: hall after hall...
..large vases and more Chinese...
Eventually I reached saturation point. From a quiet window alcove, free of other tourists, there was a glimpse across the river of the Fortress of Peter and Paul, our destination the next day.
The second day of our stay in St Petersburgh fell on a Sunday and the city was very quiet. Our first activity was a cruise on the canals to which end we were taken by bus to a huge square and then led for a half mile or so to the canal boat. This was the nearest we got to exploring the city on foot.
I was never sure what this is, but I liked the light on the colourful window shades.
St Isaac's Cathedral.
This is where we boarded the canal boat. The cruise was disappointing from a photographic point of view. It was impossible to get a clear shot of any of the features we were shown because we were below street level and every shot I did take was filled with the backs of people's heads.
A fact that became stored in the memory on the canal cruise is that every bridge over the canals is painted a different colour. This helps people to navigate or give directions, for example, "Your bus is parked near the blue bridge."
Our visit to the Peter and Paul Fortress was led by this lovely Russian girl who's job resembles herding cats. She did her best to keep us together and spoke to us through supplied headphones - a very helpful idea. She warned us at the end of the trip that, if we did not replace our numbered headphones in the right order, we would answer to the KGB - this raised a laugh, but also achieved its objective!
The fortress is the original defensive position around which St Petersburgh was developed in 1703. It is dominated by the Peter and Paul Cathedral.
The common theme of almost everywhere we went in St Petersburgh is opulence. As a display of wealth and power, sufficient to impress any visiting foreign dignitary, St Petersburgh does a very effective job. I have never seen so much gold!
In a building adjoining the cathedral are the tombs of all the Czars.
More recently the body of the last Czar, the murdered Nicolas 2nd has joined his ancestors along with memorials to his family who shared his fate. It is a trite and obvious thought, but the extreme wealth which he and his family displayed, when contrasted with the general conditions of the population as a whole in those days, must have given some added impetus to the events of 1917. I am not trying to claim that the Romanovs can be compared with or are as bad as, say, your average modern banker - one would not exert oneself unduly to prevent them being lined up and shot: obviously. I am merely trying to suggest that ordinary people have little fellow feeling toward a privileged elite who appear to live on a different planet.
At the end of our second day in St Petersburgh, Boudicca turned round and headed back across the Gulf of Finland and into the Baltic again, We were heading for Stockholm where we would arrive at dawn after two nights at sea. On sea days we played bridge.
Modesty forbids I should say more....
The arrival at Stockholm is spectacular being preceded by a transit of the Stockholm Archipelago with its thousands of small islands in a beautiful dawn light.
After four hours the city finally revealed itself and we were not disappointed. Most prominent in our initial view is the oldest part of the city, known as Gamla Stan where we spent most of our brief visit. Cities dominated by water seem to have an extra dimension. Not only do they seem more attractive, there are cleaner and more direct ways of getting around.
Gamla Stan is one of the islands of the archipelago and we walked all round it, being presented with the opportunity to check out Swedish trains as we did so.
Interesting narrow streets...
...and attractive squares. Again we noted the similarity to other Hanseatic cities, where gables like these and "no two the same" houses can be seen.
An old sailing ship moored across an inlet tempted us to walk around to it and then enjoy a stroll around the headland.
The old sailing ship we were most interested in was this one - the Vasa. The Vasa is the Swedish Mary Rose. It sank on its maiden voyage in 1628, being overloaded with too many canon too high above the water line and therefore unstable.
Unlike the Mary Rose it was salvaged, some years ago, more or less intact. It is now imaginatively displayed in a purpose built hall. Visitors can inspect the hull and all its stunning detail at close quarters from three levels.
It is a must see exhibition for any visitor to Stockholm.
The Vasa museum from the outside.
We had got to the Vasa museum on one of the many water taxis that crisscross the harbour but decided to walk back along the head of the inlet to the pickup point for the bus back to the ship.
Boudicca fell into line behind this Helsinki bound ferry to make her way back to the open sea. Next stop, Visby, the largest town on the Baltic island of Gotland.
There is no berth large enough for Boudicca here and passengers were taken ashore by tender. This is a tricky operation with so many elderly passengers and Fred Olsen was taking no chances. Several burly sailors were on hand to manhandle the passengers into the tender and similarly at the landward end of the trip.
Visby was a quiet and very pleasant little town with a lot of Viking and Hanseatic history. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.
We had a pleasant walk through the town and then round the outside where there are medieval fortifications in a remarkable state of preservation which form a complete ring around the old part of the town.
Visby has been fought over by Danes, Swedes, Russians Teutonic Knights and pirates and the need for some sort of protection is clear
From the highest point of the wall we can see Boudicca above the tiled roofs of the town. Perhaps it is the welcoming family atmosphere that the staff on the Boudicca so skillfully create, but while on the cruise one looks on her as a temporary home and with genuine affection. Indeed, for weeks afterwards I found myself checking the Fred Olsen website, to see where she was.
Visby seems to have been attacked by almost everyone at some point. It has the finest collection of ruined churches in the world.
Medieval timber framed buildings in the town centre.
A pleasant square where we had a good lunch.
While we were ashore, the wind speed increased and getting everyone back on board proved quite tricky in a choppy sea. I suspect Fred might give Visby a miss next time. It took about an hour to get the last tender on board, with the captain manipulating the ship to provide more shelter, but this was achieved in the end without drowning any elderly passengers and we set off for our final stop, Oslo.
Boudicca, showing her age a little, but still looking very handsome tied up in the centre of Oslo.
We take a ferry across the harbour which gives us a fine view of the City Hall on the way to two maritime related museums we are keen to visit.
The Viking Ship Museum has the largest collection of preserved Viking ships. the only place that comes anywhere close for a Viking experience is Roskilde in Denmark.
The sheer size of these things is truly impressive.
I just love the shape, curving in three dimensions. It is an example of how the perfect fusion of design and function can become a work of art. This design has not been improved since. You can see exactly the same shapes if you stand beneath the cobles on Filey's Fisherman's Landing.
This was once a sheltering superstructure built onto the deck of a longship.
Don't miss the Viking Ship Museum if you visit Oslo! And within a short walk..
...is the Kon Tiki Museum. A Norwegian adventurer, Thor Heyerdahl had the theory, since completely disproved by DNA evidence, that the Pacific islands were originally populated from Peru. This was in 1947. He tested the theory by building a balsa wood raft, named Kon Tiki, and succeeded in sailing it as far as Easter Island. This showed that his idea was theoretically possible, though proved little else.
This is a reconstruction of course, but it helped me imagine how untidy, five blokes confined and living together in a small space for three months would be.
After the museums, like everyone else on the cruise, we returned to Boudicca for lunch (free) rather than finding somewhere to eat in Oslo (eye wateringly expensive), after which we went for a walk, which somehow took us through the main railway station.
Both the suburban train and the intercity train gave the impression that this is not a system lacking in investment.
An extraordinary building caught our eye. This is a concert hall with a white marble roof that slopes down under the water of the fiord and also provides a fine view point from the top.
And so our final visit came to an end and Boudicca set off south down the Oslo Fiord. Our journey north had been made at night and early morning, so it was good to see such beautiful scenery slowly passing for the first time. The house with the flag is Fred Olsen's house and as his ship sailed past it, each saluted the other by dipping flags.
As a final treat the sun setting behind the mountains of Southern Norway provided a colourful spectacle which had me standing transfixed and watching for about forty minutes as the sky slowly darkened.
A fitting end to an enthralling trip!
So is this "proper travelling"? Yes and no! It is rather like tasting a spoonful from each course of a huge banquet. On a cruise one arrives at a new place, goes out and enjoys all the best bits and moves on. Although a variety of great experiences are on offer, it is no way to get to know a place properly.
This is not to say I wouldn't like to do it again....