The Bostock Diaries
Well, who would have thought it? Anderson and his good Mrs decided at the last minute to stay at home for the Summer break and enjoy their solitude in the countryside with dogs, cats and chickens. The Rhine cruise they had booked couldn't be cancelled but COULD be switched to different names. So I got a late night call offering the trip to The Old Bag and me if we wanted....
Wasn't sure what to say at first as being cooped up with herself in a tiny cabin with no easy escape was not at all what I had in mind for a holiday. Busman's holiday too, since we had just been to most of the places en route. However, The Bag Lady decided that the luxury suite on the good ship Felicity, she of the Avalon fleet of river cruise ships plying their trade on the inland waterways of Europe, would just about do at a pinch.
Last minute packing and we set off for Heathrow to fly to Zurich to join the other passengers for the transfer to Basel where we were to board the ship. "Other passengers" turned out to be 90% American. A couple of Canadians, an Aussie or two and that was about it. Apart from us - the only two Brits aboard. And in the midst of nervous Olympic competition. Would Our Glorious Nation rise to meet expectation? Both as host and as competitors?
Amongst the paying customers, the braying donkeys were a bit on the loud side from the word go. Worse still after a drink or two at the Happy Hour two-for-one booze-up which accompanied the port talk and itinerary for the next day. Cruise Director Nico was up-beat and restrained, but knowledgable and tough when he had to be. Which was more than once as late shore-goers failed to make the departure time after their slow-motion shopping excursions.
I had heard how it was all too easy to become attached in sheer desperation, no doubt, to NEW BEST FRIENDS who would then traipse up and down cathedral steps, in and out of museums, down the cobbled tourist trail and regale us with their previous travel odysseys and adventures over the evening multi-course dinner. Indeed it almost was an eight course prandial delight. For the hungry gannets, the excellent choice of starters and nibbles of modest but filling portions would be the highlight. Sticky puds galore and cheesy-weezy afters for the wicked. Free wine and beer with dinner and an excellent bar on the main lounge deck.
Our suite was really a big, hotel-size cabin with sliding full-height picture windows which afforded full views of the river. The Old Bag quickly discovered the aft library lounge which had a smoking deck on the stern, 24 hour coffee machine and basic snacks and juices. Unfortunately, by day three, everyone else had discovered the secret bolt hole so privacy and tranquility was soon lost as the gannets and the braying donkeys made it their own. With an entire sun deck and shaded area on the top deck, what possessed them to intrude on our stately haven of tranquility I don't know. Free coffee? Well-thumbed copies of Fifty Shades Of Grey on the book shelves?
The smoking deck was popular. One passenger (swiftly named The Cadaver) was there more or less 24 hours a day. I am an early riser but at 06.00 hours, he was there puffing furiously as if it was his last. Which, no doubt, it will be, soon enough.
Veteran Rhine Human-Cargo Barge-meister Captain Manfred, a year from retirement, was a dry, wry, and sometimes taciturn soul who came to life suddenly and surprisingly on the mid-voyage crew entertainment night. Crew members bravely acted out sketches lampooning their way of life and its shortcomings. Captain M burst into song on a wireless mic, crooning his way through a medley of Phil Collins hits. The good Captain turned out to be an amateur drummer and was greatly impressed when I told him who my current boss was.
Cruise Director Nico had a job all too like my own. Itineraries to produce daily, shore excursions to organise and 130 sheep to round up, feed, tend to and nurture several times a day. I hope he was tipped well by the gannets and donkeys. Our crew gratuities were included in the deal but we gave a little extra in recognition of the good job they all did. Visit http://www.avalonwaterways.com for you American types and http://www.avaloncruises.co.uk for the Brits. Tell 'em I sent you.
A few more bloody castles were visited and Heidelberg dutifully explored. The Technik Museum at Speyer was a real treat with vintage planes, trains and automobiles galore. AND the extraordinary sight of a Boeing 747 150 ft in the air on a giant trophy stand with endless flights of see-through aluminium steps all the way up to the entrance, strictly for the intrepid with a head for heights and the quadriceps of a football mid-fielder. The weird, badly-cloned Russian imitation space shuttle Buran was there on display. This is one that was built to test the aerodynamic properties and did actually fly but not into orbit. F-15s, a Hawker Hunter, a few Migs and other gladiatorial tin cans were on display. Redolent of the cold-war years, they hovered like giant display models a few metres over my head. A post-war submarine and a couple of small ships rounded off a splendid display of technology old and new. Well worth a visit. Get there early. Opens at 09.00.
And so, on to Amsterdam, sightly shabby but heady port city of dreams, nightmares and randy sailor nights. Coffee shops with soft drugs and cafes should not be confused with each other if you want to escape with lungs and brain cells intact. Red light enticements in the form of the Red Light Escorted Tour were not for the likes of The Old Bag and me: if you are going to have an erotic moment, better in the privacy of your own home, hotel or cruise ship cabin - not in a dodgy back room off an all-too-public street. Supermarket sex really doesn't cut it.
I half wondered if you could call a number and get red light room service on the ship. Pre-order on the internet perhaps and await a nocturnal delivery, promised in 20 minutes. "But that's not the one I ordered," you might say. "Clean out of that sort tonight, I'm afraid, sir. You'll have to make do with me, mid-forties, 15 Kg overweight and missing a couple of front teeth. But all heart. Climb aboard for a rollicking half hour of abandonment and only €100 extra if you want The Old Bag to join in too. Hope you've got your sea legs, sir. Could be a rough ride tonight."
Well, as I said: I wondered.
Might go back there in tulip time - late April/early May and take a cruise of the rural Netherland countryside. Big skies, endless dykes (which you should not stick your finger in) and windmills of ancient and eco-modern vintages.
We flew back with BA and and had a couple of nights at home while I prepared the next itineraries and checked hotels and internal travel for Germany, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary where we have concerts in the next two weeks. More of those adventures later.
Oh, well - pack the bags again and pray to the Greek God Stelios (who once ruled over Easyjet) to bring us safely to Krakow. Check everyone in, send them their boarding pass .PDFs and pre-pay (awfully important, that) the excess baggage from Bristol.
Speedy Boarding at the pearly departure gate, courtesy of St Pete in a Servisair T-shirt. At least, preferable to the Cryin'air option run by that dreadful, boorish, cocky O'Leary man. Just taken for himself a huge annual bonus while the poor passenger pays ever-more inflated charges for using a credit card and for having the outrageous audacity to actually want to take any luggage on the trip. Let alone a musical instrument.... Or, to even dare to use the lavatory for free. While other budget airlines like German Wings, Air Berlin, Southwest, Jetblue, Norwegian et al. manage to offer no-frills service that does the job and doesn't insult the user, Ryanair are the most arrogant, ugly operator around. Michael O'Leary's Ego-tours. And, I don't like his hideous logos and artwork graphics. Don't get me started.
OK - sit back, fasten your seatbelts, switch off your mobile phones, close your eyes and think of British Airways. Or even Virgin. Or, better, start my own airline. I see it now, emblazoned on the tail fin: Gerald-Air will get you there. On time, in tune and intact. Maybe I should lease a Dash 8 (or Q400 as it is now) or even an old ATR 72 and ask Brucey D to take a few days off from Ironic Maiden and fly us off to flex the old Polish sausage in foreign parts. Madame - please drop your flaps and waggle your rudder while I inspect your undercarriage and adjust your trim tabs.Trust me, I'm a pilot.... G&T with ice and lemon for Sir? Have another gin for later. Snack? Savoury or sweet? Use the toilet any time. Don't bother about those stupid signs. Use your phone whenever you like.
Over and Out. GB signing off. Just kidding, you rascals. Get on a plane with me in charge and I will make O'Leary look like a caring, sharing Qantas steward.
PS - Sorry, Qantas stewards. Stereotypes are very irritating. Just trying to make the point. Just what point, I can't seem to quite remember. Must be the lack of oxygen at 35,000 ft. Should have closed the door.....