On the high seas: A voyage to the beginning of the world
Travelling with a Brob-dingnagian companion might seem like a monstrous notion. Or, you could think of it as an equivalent to Noah’s Ark, only a little more plausible. Not an itsy-bitsy ark, though.
Imagine an ark weighing 146,000 tonnes, measuring 1,068 ft with its arms stretched, and a rotund 170 ft girth. An ark that can comfortably hold 4,500 guests and 1,600 employees.
Not to forget two-storied television screens. Three-storied chandeliers. And a heated pool on the top deck. With 22 eating joints on board. Plus glitzy shows, musical performances, an art gallery, bazaars and more. Also, WiFi on the go. A real frilly ark this!
Called the Norwegian Getaway, we were prepped for an eight-day cruise to six European cities. A voyage over exactly 1,992 nautical miles. Beginning in Copenhagen, sailing through Berlin, Tallinn, Helsinki, St Petersburg, Stockholm and disembarking in Copenhagen. Quite the prized getaway that I’d been for waiting for all year long.
No, no Titanic!
It was a frigid autumn morning when I parked in Terminal 2 of Copenhagen Port. Up ahead, my eyes rested on the ship’s white hull, with a painted mermaid looking gleeful, her tail dipping into the blue of the Baltic Sea. A polite woman handed an orange key card for Stateroom 13906 complete with a private deck and Bvlgari toiletries.
A crowd had gathered at Guest Services to pick from the 56 available shore excursions. My itinerary was pre-booked online — Berlin, Tallinn, St Petersburg and Stockholm. At night, the Norwegian set sail. The ship hooted and a guttural voice reminded us about the International Maritime emergency signal — seven short blasts followed by a long one.
‘If you hear that, wrap in warm clothing, forget everything and run immediately to the Muster Points’, said the message. A sinking ship. Titanic disaster. My brain collated images from the 70 mm screen. Falling crockery. Slipping men. Drowning women. No, no. No, Titanic! I shut my eyes tight for a beautiful dream on the sea.
At Checkpoint Charlie
“This is Warnemunde. The train to Berlin will take 3 hours,” I was informed by a fellow guest, the next morning. I sat in the Norwegian theatre amidst curious tourists, waiting to punch the key card, walk out of the ship and take the train to Berlin.
An apple, a shortbread and a few stories later, I was standing next to the Berlin Wall, a near insurmountable 11.8 ft high wall stretching 155 kms around West Germany, of which 43.1 kms cut through the belly between East and West Berlin. Once a symbol of the Cold War — and hatred —
remnants of the Wall still stand chipped, hammered and painted in strokes of lilac, reds and pinks.
Not too far from the East Side Gallery is the infamous Checkpoint C, commonly referred to as Checkpoint Charlie, a single crossing point (by foot or by car) for foreigners and members of the Allied Forces. Before the sun could dip in the sea, I was back in the ship watching Chef Jackson S Punu juggling three eggs on a steel spatula, in the Teppenyaki restaurant.
Estonia for a day
Another day, another country, another breakfast in the Garden Cafe, another bus number glued on the chest and a spin around Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. A city where medieval towers are called Tall Hermann and Fat Margaret, where everything is pickled, and there’s a drink called kali (a basic cross between beer and soft drink).
It hosts the Estonian Song Festival, the world’s largest amateur choral event and stood second in a language beauty contest. The winning Estonian sentence was ‘Soida tasa ule silla’ (Go slowly over the bridge).
The 1901 Nobel dinner
Next up, in St Petersburg, I meandered through 800 bridges and 8,000 landmarks to meet the man I adore — Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s greatest poet. He was sitting on a bench in a park near Catherine’s Palace, famed for its gold rooms and the chapel’s golden cupola.
Later, in The Hermitage (see box), I poked around the 400 rooms looking for a crouching boy — a 21-inch naked boy pulling out a thorn from his foot. No, you cannot walk around the museum without a stitch. The Crouching Boy is the only Michelangelo sculpture in the museum.
After a rest day at sea, I was hot-footing Nobel in Stockholm. Nobel, the prize, not the man who started it. In the Golden Hall, Nobel laureates dance on 18 million golden mosaic tiles; in the Blue Hall, 470 metres of cloth covers 65 tables laid for the banquet topped with 6,730 pieces of porcelain, 5,384 glasses and 9,422 pieces of cutlery.
I could actually have stayed back in Stockholm to order a Nobel banquet menu at the Stadshuskällaren Restaurant, which serves all Nobel dinners from 1901. And if I did, I would have picked the 1901 menu — of a poached fillet of brill in white wine sauce, followed by a breast of hazel grouse with Madeira sauce, and fruit tartlette for dessert.
But I did not. Instead, I turned to the Norwegian for some exquisite gnocchi in Savour restaurant. Sure, I had no 18 million mosaic tiles to waltz on, but I perched my elbow on the rails and tapped my feet to the dulcet voice of the man belting Elvis’ tracks on Deck 6.
A Baltic memory
On the Norwegian Getaway, I did not hear the raucous seven short-blast distress signal. Only the exhilarating drum roll and the quiet of the ship gliding stoically on the tempestuous Baltic Sea. Noah’s ark was afloat for a duration of 150 days before coming to rest on the Mountains of Ararat.
The Norwegian Getaway floated for eight days, 1,992 nautical miles through six cities. I disembarked at Copenhagen and returned home with the blue of the Baltic in my eyes and the smile of the mermaid on the hull.
Tyson Pinto, Executive Chef, Norwegian Getaway, sure knows food mathematics — 75,000 eggs, 10,000 pounds potato, 6,000 pounds of chicken, 5,000 pounds of strip loin, 700 kgs of salt… The tall Goan chef stocks these for the eight-day voyage; with 233 chefs, he serves 25,000 meals every day across 22 onboard restaurants.
No slumgullion for breakfast, nothing bland for lunch — slow-roasted meats carved tableside by passadors in Moderno Churrascaria; the 1940s Miami redux in Tropicana Room; pulled pork, empanadas, Cuban coffee in Flamingo Bar; French macaroons, chocolate pralines, and cupcakes in The Bake Shop; a cigar corner. Even an Ice Bar where walls, ice sculptures, tables and seating are made of ice. At -8 degree Celsius, the bar is butt-numbing cold, but there’s a parka on the rack.
A museum: 10 years & 20 kilometres
It is a museum so gigantic that it could fit four squat towns on its belly — 400 rooms spread over 6 historic interlinked buildings. Actually, The Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg (Russia) houses 3 million artefacts, probably one of the largest collections in the world. If one were to stare at every artefact in this museum for only 30 seconds each, it would take 10 years. Without eating, drinking and sleeping. And 20 kilometres of walking. Without catching a breath.
Those 10 years of staring will be worth every minute — it has the world’s largest collection of Rembrandt, two of the 10 surviving paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, and an unfinished sculpture by Michelangelo. Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh, Peter Paul Reubens, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisee — they are all framed in the museum.
So are Greek and Roman antiquities, Siberian and Central Asian art, Egyptian mummies. Add to it the glimmer of gold and diamonds in the Gold Room that has a spectacular collection of jewellery and artefacts including Faberge Easter eggs, a 46-piece gold toilet setting for Empress Anna Ioanovna, and horse attire encrusted with 16,000 diamonds.
• Berlin’s public transit system (BVG) travels the equivalent distance of 8.7 times around the Earth each day, including all the U-Bahn and buses together.
• Estonia was the first country in the world to adopt online voting — back in 2005. Also, only three Estonian cities — Tallinn (in pic), Tartu and Narva – have a population greater than 50,000.
• Sweden is the first country in the world with its own phone number. All you need to do is dial it, and a random Swede will be on the other end, ready to chat, answer your questions, and tell you how the weather is.
How much it costs
Looking to take a cruise, but waiting for the best deals? TIRUN Travel Marketing, the Indiarepresentative of Royal Caribbean Cruises, has a unique Fly-Cruise program in partnership with Singapore Airlines and Singapore Tourism Board. Fares start at `41,600 from Mumbai, `41,400 from Bangalore, `35,500 from Chennai and `45,500 from Kolkata. Offers valid onboard Royal Caribbean cruises from Singapore until June 30, 2018 and need to be booked 65 days prior to sailing.
For information on packages visit tirun.com
Other luxury cruises
• Star Cruises to Phuket and Hong Kong (prices start at `13,500). starcruises.com
• MSC Cruises to Italy, Spain and France (starts at `68,350 approx). msccruises.com
• Carnival Cruises to Miami, Key West and Mexico (starts at `8,413). carnival.com
• Princess Cruises tours to Seattle, Washington among other destinations (`38,728 onwards). princess.com
• Thomas Cook conducts cruises to Maldives, Egypt, Singapore and other destinations (`22,000 approx onwards). thomascook.in
• AmaWaterways in Europe (`91,750 onwards). amawaterways.com
Norwegian Cruise Line is offering packages this season to Bermuda, the Bahamas, the Caribbean and Alaska from Miami, Rome and Barcelona among other destinations. Prices start at `14,000 approx.
For details visit ncl.com