Booker Prize-winner SHEHAN KARUNATILAKA went on a European cruise expecting opulence, kitsch and packaged fun, but found two weeks filled with discovery, surprise and hours of peace.
You've never spent this much time on a boat. But you and your spouse have been set afloat for 15 nights on a cruise ship from Norway to Spain. You're to make nine stops across Europe's west coast, much like the great Viking longboats did centuries ago. You have many questions, but first, the most important. Is this a boat or a ship?
On the Trade Routes of the Middle Ages cruise, your two-week voyage from Bergen to Barcelona, the captain clarifies this in his welcome speech. "If the captain is Italian or Greek, it is a boat. If the captain is Norwegian, it is a ship. Welcome to my ship."
The captain of the Viking Venus isn't the only one who does jokes. The grinning bartenders make wise cracks ("Please have a double, it'll save me an extra walk"), the tour guides have punchlines ("Andalusia has only two seasons: summer and hell") and the cruise director attempts bits of stand-up before singing opera. The travel consultant who shows you around the lounges, pools, sun decks, libraries and restaurants remarks: "This is not luxury travel, it merely happens to be luxurious."
With a capacity for 930 guests and 420 crew, the Viking Venus is merely a medium-sized ship. Though when you first board this modest vessel, you have no point of reference and every space looks colossal. The windows offer panoramic views of rolling seas and twinkling ports. The grainy wooden textures, angular designs, hanging tapestries, colourful spaces and shelves of books seem curated by people who love art, culture, history as much as they do sea voyages.
Your preparation for this tour was to read David Foster Wallace's incendiary critique of cruise ship culture titled, A Supposedly Fun Thing That I'll Never Do Again. As well as YouTube clips from that ubiquitous 1970s show, The Love Boat. Neither prepare you for what's ahead. You go in expecting opulence, kitsch and packaged fun, but your next two weeks will be filled with discovery, surprise, hours of peace and moments of delight.
Viking Cruises define themselves as "the thinking person's cruise ship" and are described by what they are not. The travel consultant proudly informs you that there will be "no children or funny hats. No umbrella drinks or tuxedoes. No butlers, no bingo, no disco, no casino." It means that amidst the feasts, the games, the pampering and the performances, there will be room for resident historians, edifying excursions, libraries compiled by Royal booksellers and illuminating discussions on the Vikings.
The first leg is Bergen to Bruges, with a quick stop in Amsterdam. It is the part of the cruise where shore excursions are best explored on bike, despite the wintry temperatures. All three cities offer flat streets steeped in history and beauty. You are still acclimatising to life on the choppy seas, warming to your balcony view of the ocean and waking to a new landscape each morning.
All tour guides are not created equal, and a passionate or knowledgeable one can bring a city to life in a short space of time. You are blessed with an excellent one in Bergen, a pony-tailed Venetian who says he came here for the "bland food and the freezing weather". While you do enjoy your moose burger and second helping of halibut, you are less enamoured by the icy drizzle that blows in from the mountains.
The Italian from Norway takes you to the wooden townhouses at Bryggen, pastel-coloured homes by the water that appear to be made of Lego. He talks about the Hanseatic league, the first traders from history, that you will meet on your tour. Thousands of young men from medieval Germany who arrived at this plague-ridden town and established a monopoly in dried cod that lasted for centuries across Northern Europe. They lived and worked here in the cramped quarters amidst the smell of fish and a strict ban on fraternising with local females. "The things you will do for a 2000 per cent profit," quips our guide.
The shore excursions can range from a panoramic overview that lasts a few hours to day-long immersive experiences, like climbing Mount Ulriken, the highest of Bergen's seven mountains, flying over the neighbouring fjords or understanding Norway's role in the Second World War. "Maybe this place was too cold even for the Nazis," deadpans the Canadian in your group.
Most destinations are best discovered with only your senses and your curiosity as a guide.
When you spend a day in a port, the best you can hope for is to do a few things well. In Amsterdam it was a canal ride, followed by a museum visit. Even on gloomiest days, this city can work its charms. For the bigger museums like the Van Gogh or the Anne Frank House, pre-booking is essential, unless you wish to spend your one day in a rainy queue. You opt for the Moco Museum, a townhouse filled with dazzling modern art from the likes of Warhol, Basquiat and Banksy, which is just as inspiring as the main attractions.
In Bruges, you opt to bike through fairytale streets surrounded by medieval churches, bridges, inns and the largest horses you've ever seen. Most destinations are best discovered with only your senses and your curiosity as a guide. You just make it to the last shuttle before the ship leaves port, exhilarated and ready for a gin by the piano bar.
There is a sea day amidst this first leg, where there's nothing scheduled and everything to do. You acquaint yourself with this great ship, with your fellow explorers and with the spouse you are travelling with, who has been enjoying the spa, the gym, the daily sushi, and has stopped googling sea disasters. The journey is mostly smooth, except when the ship wobbles, usually when you're trying to balance a lobster, a steak and a guilt-assuaging salad on one tray. Often you are unsure whether it is the cocktails or the moving deck that is making you lightheaded.
The journey is mostly smooth, except when the ship wobbles, usually when you're trying to balance a lobster, a steak and a guilt-assuaging salad on one tray.
You try out the Nordic bathing ritual, which sounds far worse than it feels. Best done after those occasional gym sessions or those three-hour treks across unfamiliar cities. Ten-minute sauna, 10-minute cold tub, five-minute jacuzzi, five-minute snow grotto. Repeat. You have done these on every sea day and every other excursion day. You spend too much time researching its health benefits and for the rest of the trip your phone tries to sell you home ice baths.
Sea days are for catching up on your Enrichment Lectures, Port Talks and Evening Shows. These take place at the Star Theatre at the fun end of the ship, but you can catch the live or recorded version on your stateroom TV.
The Port Talks are done by the cruise director who unpacks the city you are about to visit, while the onboard historians give you delightful morsels of European history in witty and informative 45-minute sessions. You learn who the Goths and the Vandals were (mostly Germans), that the Vikings never wore horned helmets (a myth invented by German composer Wagner's costume designer) and that the Holy Roman Empire wasn't holy or Roman or an empire. (It was mostly... German apparently.)
The rest of the time is spent finding corners to stare at water from. The top sun deck offers the infinity pool at the back or the games garden at the front featuring shuffle board, mini golf and ping-pong. There's a smoker's corner where the conversation is lively and acoustic guitars make an appearance after cocktail hour. And quiet recliners in the Wintergarten, next to the open-air rooftop pool. There's also the Explorer's Lounge where, surrounded by paintings, book shelves and model ships, watching for dolphins becomes a competitive sport.
David Foster Wallace describes every ocean and sunset as having its own set of colours and proceeds to list the different blues and golds that he savours from his cabin. Gazing at hypnotic waves and mesmerising skies, you realise that history resides not just in museums and books but along these seascapes.
Gazing at hypnotic waves and mesmerising skies, you realise that history resides not just in museums and books but along these seascapes.
Humans discovered one another by building ships and braving storms and by trading, raiding and pirating their way to places like your homeland Sri Lanka. You note that on this trip you will visit all three of Ceylon's former colonial masters: the Dutch, the Portuguese and the British.
The passengers are mostly retirees, mostly American and mostly Caucasian. The staff are younger than you and come from across the seven seas. Your room guy is Indonesian, the spa lady is Zimbabwean, the cellist is from Montenegro and the dessert expert is from Chile. And none of them know where you can watch the cricket or the rugby.
While 827 passengers eat gourmet food and pretend to be Vikings, there are two world cups and two possible world wars kicking off elsewhere. Neither become topics of discussions. There should be a word for the blank stare you get on a cruise-liner for mentioning the cricket or the rugby. Even the Indian restaurant manager is clueless.
You meet a Kiwi couple who share your predicament, and most importantly share their recommended VPN and streaming connection. You watch the All Blacks win, and Sri Lanka lose from your sunset balcony. One cannot live on history and culture alone.
You have a whistle stop in Paris where you skip past the famous Tower, triumphant Arc and crowded gallery to go walking around Montmartre, reliving that beloved film Amelie and gazing down on the City of Love from the domes of Sacre Coeur. At Falmouth in Cornwall, you visit the Lost Gardens of Heligan and marvel at the flowers, the fruit trees and landscaped splendour, and welcome the sun, that will be with you for the rest of your voyage. At Porto, you ditch the bike for the tour bus which navigates the steep inclines for you, allowing you to take in the stunning architecture and spectacular vistas.
Onboard there are more sea days, so you take in the Edvard Munch paintings projected on the ship's atrium and visit the Viking exhibit. Viking Cruises take pride in their Norse heritage, and emphasise Viking values of courage, discipline, hospitality, creativity and enterprise, while glossing over all that plunder and pillage. Indeed, this is very much the tightly-run ship, and despite sharing it with 827 other explorers, you never feel crowded during the excursions or packed in like sardines during meal time.
One week in, you've made peace with the buffet, no longer piling your plate with everything, but choosing judiciously from the delights on offer. You've enjoyed the Nordic spa facial and the pedicure, and gotten to know your fellow explorers, mostly curious retirees who've traded in their gated communities for a floating one. You and your spouse are the only cruise virgins here, most are on their fourth or their nineteenth.
Stateroom fever has set in and you watch old couples fighting at dinner and holding hands at the evening performances. You are treated to Norwegian violin maestros, Spanish flamenco troupes and talented vocalists singing 1960s standards and country classics aimed squarely at a demographic that doesn't include punks like you. When the resident flautist plays the theme from Titanic, it is accompanied by a rocking ship, some nervous giggles and your spouse googling ship wrecks.
You arrive safe and sated in Malaga and realise this tour has been curated like a reverse Nordic shower, the icy northern climes have now given way to a sauna and round the clock sunshine. Malaga remains your favourite port and you make a familiar promise to return for a longer stay. The Moors, Venetians, Romans, Byzantines and Goths have all left their mark on the buildings, the cuisine and the cobbled streets. You meet an almond seller who looks like Picasso, walk past Antonio Banderas' house and buy enough magnets that warrant purchasing another fridge.
Cartagena and Barcelona, your last stops on this voyage, continue your love affair with Spain. Gargoyles and mythical stone beasts stare down at you from cathedrals built on mosques that were built atop churches, and tell you that like your buffet plate, there is not enough room to see it all. Though you are grateful for being granted a taste.
As the ship docks in Barcelona, you realise that you haven't washed a dish or visited a grocery or answered an email in 15 days. That you'll miss the colours and smells of a new city every day. You will return to your world cups and wars and it will be a while before you step in an ice bath or have a daily lobster.
Barca is inevitably a whirl of Antoni Gaudi and a last-minute plunder for gifts to take home. While you gape at the Sagrada Familia, your guide warns you that Gaudi died after being run over by a tram. You realise you should look both ways before crossing streets or oceans. And that while history has not ended wars or plunder, travel like world cup sport can bring cultures together. And that even for wealthy humans in their twilight years, it's never too late to learn about the good stuff. That the world is a work in progress and constantly evolving like a work of art. And that this applies to our cities and our lives and the journeys we choose to take.
The ship: Viking Cruises' Viking Venus
The size: 465 cabins, 930 guests, 227 metres long
Get on board: Trade Routes of the Middle Ages is a 15-day voyage of western Europe from Bergen to Barcelona, with pitstops in ports such as Amsterdam, Bruges, Paris, Portsmouth, Falmouth, Porto, Malaga and Cartagena. It's priced from $10,195 per person for a Deluxe Veranda Stateroom with flight credit of up to $2500 per couple on 2024 and 2025 sailings, until November 30, or until sold out.
Good to know: The Trade Routes of the Middle Ages voyage has limited sailings - only six scheduled for departure in 2024 and just two in 2025. If you miss out on booking this cruise, other similar options are the 15-day Iceland, British Isles & Iberia voyage from Barcelona to Reykjavik (priced from $9995 per person) and 15-day Rhine & Viking Shores & Fjords journey from Basel to Bergen (priced from $10,990). Alternatively, you can also book the eight-day Viking Shores & Fjords cruise from Bergen to Amsterdam (priced from $7695 per person).
Explore more: vikingcruises.com.au
The writer was a guest of Viking Cruises.
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Pictures: Shutterstock; supplied