Play Without Words

From the outset of Matthew Bourne’s Play Without Words, the atmosphere drips off the stage.

A kaleidoscopic jazz lust dream, this dance-ballet-play charts the story of a young couple in an increasingly swinging sixties.

With each character played by multiple dancers, the action literally swirls around the stage and an impressive rotating central staircase – the centrepiece of Lez Brotherston’s iconic set of London landmarks.

The dance is intimate, sexual, and intriguing, as improvised and as regulated as the best jazz. The performers duplicate, reinforce and deviate as sexual tensions between the engaged central couple, their servants, and a confident, over-amorous old friend spills out across both Soho and the more respectable corners of the capital.

Terry Davies’s score, performed live by a talented quintet led by Michael Haslam, and its ever present rumbling of a sneering trumpet is evocative and complex.

This is less bombastic, less hyper-real than most of choreographer Matthew Bourne’s oeuvre; more delicate, more sad, and more human.

Anticipated love is felt keenly, a gasp mid-tryst is heard throughout the auditorium, betrayal and distrust flashed in pulsing lights, beating drums and theatrical fights.

This is a perfect sultry and sophisticated midsummer night’s dream.

How Like An Angel

There is an inscription in one of the chapels at Norwich Cathedral that reads “except for the still part there would be no dance”.

In How Like An Angel that still point is a transfixed, emotionally toyed with audience that sit in the heart of the church as a phenonemal combination of music and physical theatre unfolds around them.

A collaboration between Australian circus company Circa and vocal ensemble I Fagiolini the show was first performed in Australia, where it received some criticism for being performed in cathedrals.

But they seem a perfect venue, not just for the blend of spiritual choral music that pervades the performance: the small choir literally pursuing the audience with original and traditional music from across the centuries and continents.

The dance mixes daring aerial moves with physical, catwalk theatricality, as the angels falteringly grow accustomed to their bodies, collaborative and playful at first.

With confidence comes arrogance and competiveness – literally climbing the pole in a allegory that matches Paradise Lost.

This is an astounding and awe-inspiring group of strong and powerful actor-acrobats backed by an inspiring score.

A true testament, as Hamlet’s words suggest, to the glory of man – and some would say the glory of God.

Nutcracker!

If there’s one phrase that describes Matthew Bourne’s imaginative retelling of the Nutcracker, it’s “oral feast”.

And, yes, I do mean oral, not aural. While Bourne makes great use of Tchaikovsky’s famous score — embellished with hints of jive, flamenco and more besides — the cast spend an inordinate amount of time licking things. Quite often each other. For those familiar with Bourne it will be no surprise. He specialises in bold and bawdy ballet and this is no exception, and good to gobble all up.

Top of the table is Hannah Vassallo as Claro, the orphan girl who is taken on a fantastical journey. Beautifully expressionate, she held her own throughout and took the audience’s affection with her as she tried to capture the heart of the Nutcracker (Chris Trenfield).

Sophia Hurdley and Luke Murphy were charmingly comic Cupids, and Tom Jackson Greaves is deliciously rakish as Knickerbocker Glory.

Anthony Ward’s set and costumes make a fabulous impact. From the monochrome of the orphanage to the saccharine explosions of Sweetieland, they are at one with the action.

You can’t help but leave delighted, emotionally exercised, and humming those famous tunes.

Stewart Lee

For a man who professes to dislike the internet so much, Stewart Lee is an ardent fan on one of its trendiest aspects: the meme.

is act is almost entirely based around the recurrence of motifs: building them up in the audience’s mind and returning back to them again and again, hoping that the growing conspiracy of insider knowledge that he creates in the auditorium will repay with bigger laughs with every reoccurence.

The most wicked part of this conceit is that Lee is so naked in its pursuit – actively bragging about the emptiness of his show while taking close to £20 a seat from a near-sell out Theatre Royal crowd – and that the audience loved it.

So he gets away with a show that has Scooby Doo, self-aggrandising shop names, and the acts of other comics as its main themes, and does so with enviable panache, deceitful confidence and a still-growing fan base after more than two decades as a professional comedian.

He can do this because as well as pursuing an almost Platonic study of comedy he is very funny. Alongside the metaphysical dispositions there are very good gags, both of the bold, crude kind, and slow burning jokes that take hold after a few cogs have turned in the listener’s head.

Lee made much of his previous visits to Norwich at the Art Centre and the Playhouse, and was perhaps too close with an observation that his style of comedy works better in smaller venues. It deserves Theatre Royal-sized audiences and their big belly laughs though.

An Inspector Calls

Rarely has the Theatre Royal stage’s potential been so richly exploited as in Stephen Daldry’s production of An Inspector Calls.

The nineties fly-tower allows for something epic, and designer Ian MacNeil’s exemplary staging conjures just that: from the atmospheric weather of the street scenes – real rain! – to the jaundiced glamour of the household at the centre of Priestley’s classic tale, every detail is poetically and masterfully executed.

The play explodes the world of the well-to-do Birling family, whose lives are turned inside out by the arrival late one night by a police inspector, some time on the eve of the first world war. As the characters’ inner secrets are exposed so are the set’s, in powerful and dramatic style.

Kelly Hotten’s portrayal of the young Sheila Birling is flawless as she crashes from darling to distraught daughter, emoting with genuine resonance.

Her bragging father (Geoff Leesley) and imperious mother (Karen Archer) personify their roles expertly; the old guard desperate to avoid public embarrassment at a time when seismic shifts are unavoidable.

Tom Mannion as the eponymous inspector is crisp and domineering, clipped and direct — the embodiment of inevitability — and John Sackville’s Croft switches suitably from carefree to contrite as his role in the sorry tale becomes clear.

Priestley’s tale avoids the trap of being a narrow morality tale, and Daldry and his cast elicit both pathos and levity from the script, flexing and tensing the audience’s emotions.

It is a rich visual and visceral feast that never misses a beat and a brave opening show for the Theatre Royal’s 2012: it’s going to be very difficult to top. Don’t miss it.

The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church

Sending someone to review Daniel Kitson is unfair.

No matter how literate they might be, expecting them to compete with a wordsmith of his quality, who can apparently effortlessly stand on stage and tell a warm, emotional, funny and expertly crafted story for ninety minutes and then condense it to a few hundred words is setting the bar too high.

His festival show, The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church, starts as the story of man writing suicide letters. 57 of them. It turns into an action-packed celebratory journey through two decades of a stranger’s life in epistolary form, with Kitson conjuring characters from the pages of more than 30,000 – probably imaginary – letters, merging them with his own life and exploring the need to connect.

Kitson is an unrivalled storyteller and deserved the sold-out crowd at Norwich Arts Centre, a venue perfectly suited to his theme and the tone of his performance which resembles more a conversation (though admittedly a rather one-sided one) than a theatre piece.

He is cerebral without obfuscation, wildly imaginative and believably precise. His narrative ranges deliciously from belly-laughter evoking material to melancholy that almost draws tears.

He is, in short, something well worth living for and his stay was regrettably brief.

Dusseldorf

Boringly efficient, straight-laced and humourless – that’s Germany, right? Wrong. James Goffin found Düsseldorf in carnvial mood and ready to party.

Trips can be memorable for different things.

Sometimes it’s the people you are with, sometimes the things you see and do. If you head to the German town of Düsseldorf during carnival season what’s most memorable are the phrases you never thought you would hear – surreal snatches of conversation. Because if you enter properly into the carnival spirit they’ll probably be the only thing you remember through the constantly-lubricated celebrations that take over the city.

There’s much more to the city than carnival – it has a rich architectural heritage and some stunning modern buildings, a thriving artistic community and great luxury shopping – but for a few days each year there is only one thing that matters, and anything goes. And that’s carnival.

“Is he dressed as an apple?”

The whole escapade actually begins on November 11 at 11.11am when the Hoppeditz – who we would recognise as a jester – awakes, kicking off the party season. A few months later on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, events begin to build to their crescendo when the old women of Düsseldorf storm city hall and take the lord mayor hostage, taking over control of the city and kicking off one of the first of many street carnivals. (They also have a habit of cutting men’s ties – try not to think of the symbolism.)

Cue my arrival on the Friday night, just as things were hotting up. After a short taxi ride to the city centre – think Norwich airport to the city, rather than Heathrow to London – we were in a hotel bustling with people in costumes ranging from military uniform to pieces of fruit. There isn’t really a theme to carnival, other than to enjoy yourselves and, apparently, to get all your sinning out of the way before Lent.

There are more than 300 carnival events and costume balls in this period, and in the final weekend the old town is branded the longest bar in the world thanks to the sheer number of revellers filling the streets. We retired reasonably early after a late flight… the city kept going.

“What’s the German for cobblestone?”

The Saturday morning of carnival is quieter – not least because most people are still in bed – and is a great time to explore the more shy and retiring parts of Düsseldorf.

The city’s history goes back to the eighth century, but modern-day Düsseldorf sprang up in the 14th century. It has a charmingly compact and very walkable centre, that includes narrow streets and squares with many older buildings well-preserved and sensitively renovated for modern use.

The Konigsallee – or King’s Street – is perhaps one of the most impressive roads, comprising wide tree-lined boulevards around a central canal and lined with dozens of upmarket shops. It is known throughout Germany for its shopping pedigree, and is topped off with a large park for when the capitalism gets a bit too much.

Other escapes include the city’s many museums and art galleries. Perhaps the most unusual is the KIT on the banks of the Rhine. A subterranean gallery, this strange and captivating space was left over from construction works on road tunnels and converted in to a highly unusual exhibition space that rapidly tapers out in height at one end and bows out in to a gigantic curve at the other. It hosts regularly changing exhibitions that mix modern art from across Europe with the work of Düsseldorf’s own artists.

Also nearby is the quirky Apollo Theatre, hiding under a bridge and offering modern vaudeville and circus-style shows – perfect for a night out without language barriers.

The city has a prominent Japanese population. That influence was felt in our hotel, the Hotel Nikko, which was originally founded by a Japanese company and still features a top-notch traditional Japanese restaurant. It is also evident in the surrounding shops, and in the calm environs of Düsseldorf’s Japanese garden – created by the local Japanese community in the northern park to reflect the links between the two countries.

“Well, it’s a story…”

Our visit to the old town was led by Renate, a local tour guide who was certainly enjoying carnival and determined to fill us in on some of the city’s strangest folk stories.

Take for one the legendary Schneider Wibble. A tailor working under French occupation, Wibble decided he’d had enough of Napoleon’s ways and said as much – prompting his quick arrest. Suddenly he realised that being in prison might not be good for his wife or his business and so persuaded a friend to take his place (the French apparently didn’t notice). Things got more complicated when the patsy died in custody, prompting local outrage and a virtual state funeral – all watched by the still-very alive Wibble. He eventually came back as his own long-lost brother and (re)married his wife, and is now remembered with statues and animated clocks in the city.

Another tale involved one of the symbols of Düsseldorf – a cartwheeling boy. According to Renate the tradition started when a carriage carrying a noblewoman broke down, the spokes of the wheel splintering. A boy took the place of the spokes to enable the carriage to continue on its journey. The more official version is that children began spontaneously flipping when they learned of Düsseldorf’s victory in the 1288 Battle of Worringen. Either way, it’s a story…

A story that is a little easier to believe is that of Killepitsch – a speciality liqueur made in the area since 1955 and apparently born out of the bombing raids of the second world war. The story goes that two friends were huddled in an air-raid shelter and promised each other that if they survived they would invent a drink to celebrate, and the liqueur – which is made up of 98 herbs, berries and fruits – was born. It certainly packs a punch and is one of the mainstays of carnival.

“Did I just pay to wax a man’s leg?”

Lined with a few shots of Killepitsch ourselves we headed to Saturday’s Tunten Laufe – or drag race – an annual event where the city’s transvestites battle it out for primacy.

There are some things that transcend language and – helped by some traditional locally-brewed altbier – we got on with joining in the carnival songs and double-entendres even though we didn’t have the slightest idea what was going on. But that’s carnival.

Later things got even stranger when hopping between bars in the very busy old town I somehow managed to get involved in waxing a man’s leg in the street. I’ll never be entirely sure what happened, but he seemed to leave happy, if a little less hirsute. Which, I was assured, was perfectly normal.

The next day the festivities continued with a family day where the normally serene Konigsalle is taken over by thousands of people in fancy dress, spending the day drinking, dancing and singing. The streets are stuffed with people, with a fantastically warm and friendly atmosphere, although it would be hard to take offence from someone dressed as a tub of Nivea.

Events round off on the Monday with a giant parade of floats through the streets, drawing in a million spectators who all get in to the spirit too – and then carnival is finished for another year, the streets go back to being spotless and all our sins our forgiven. Hopefully.

Bunny

Bunny deserves something better than this review.

Or rather, Rosie Wyatt – who delivers an astounding one-hour monologue as the heart of Jack Thorne’s play – does.

As Katie she deftly tells the story of an afternoon walk home from school in Luton, an seemingly innocuous adventure that becomes the canvas for a revealing series of events.

A fight, stand-offs, romance – or at least the casual, confused, hurtful teenage kind – and the sometimes tumultuous coallition of cultures that makes up life in modern Britain are woven together with revelations of her formative experiences, all told in a passionate, authentic and evocative voice.

Thorne (who wrote the screenplay for last year’s excellent The Scouting Book For Boys, based in a north Norfolk caravan park) expertly unfolds the story, interspersing the day’s events with memories of birthday parties, shoplifting and sex; the dialogue nestling unsettlingly between street patois and the Guardian-reading vocabulary of Katie’s parents.

Against a subtle and sensitive backdrop of animated illustrations by Ian William Galloway and Jenny Turner, Wyatt crafts this in to an exceptional and captivating performance, blissfully unaware of herself but displaying her character’s fully self-conscious state and gently mimicking the other players in the retelling both verbally and physically.

The performance won last year’s Edinburgh Fringe First Award and it deserves to win many more; it also deserved a bigger audience in Norwich, and the Playhouse more support for bringing drama of this calibre to the city.

Switzerland

James Goffin returns from Switzerland full of positive praise about a country he had believed to be extremely ‘neutral’.

I’d been warned about the Swiss.

The report was that they are very pleasant, and very organised. But when it came to having a good time, they were a bit too, well, civilised.

Referenda and clean streets are one thing, but occasionally you want to cut loose, have a few drinks and relax – and not get up in curfews and noise laws. Everything would be, like Property Ladder on steroids: extremely neutral.

As I was going to Switzerland to visit a series of festivals and see what the country has to offer outside of its traditional winter skiing holidays, this was something of a worry.

My trip started with something of a quirk – a brief stay at the Yotel at Heathrow. A cross between a caravan and a container park, Yotel offers compact beds rented out by the hour. The rooms can’t be described as spacious but that’s not the point – they are stylish, surprisingly comfortable, freakishly purple and have everything you need to ensure you start or finish your trip refreshed. Because you’re not paying for floorspace you’re not using, they also cost must less than a standard airport hotel and are sited right in the heart of the airport terminal.

Flying into Geneva got things back on a more conventional tack. The airport sits directly on top of the railway station so we were quickly on the way to our first stop thanks to the startlingly efficient Swiss train service.

Travelling by train is a great way to see Switzerland – many routes offer spectacular views with the tracks twisting round corners to reveal mountains and lakes. Tourists can buy a Swiss Pass rover ticket that offers either inclusive or half-price travel on most trains, buses and boats, plus free entry to 450 museums. Prices start from £163 for four days of second-class travel.

We headed first to the Lavaux vineyards – and with wine from the outset, chances of a good time were increasing. A series of terraces leading down to the shores of Lake Geneva, the area has been producing wine since the 11th century and was declared a world heritage site in 2007. The Swiss are a little selfish with their wines and you’ll struggle to find it outside of the country, which given the quality is a shame.

The wines are produced in small quantities by family growers, many of whom offer tours and visits in the summer.

Next stop was Montreux for the annual jazz festival. We boarded a paddle-steamer on the banks of the lake for the transfer. Our journey was pleasantly sedate, but the boats run at night as party boats – complete with bars and bands.

It was becoming clear that things wouldn’t be so straight-laced after all.

Montreux is at the heart of an area dubbed the Swiss Riviera. It’s a compact town dominated by the rows of classic hotels lining the lakefront. We stayed at the Grand Hotel Suisse Majestic which boasts traditional yellow awninged balconies on the outside but has been completely modernised inside, including a glitzy but unpretentious terrace bar and restaurant.

The annual jazz festival in July is a huge draw, and has grown to encompass a much wider range of music than its name suggests, from Simply Red to Massive Attack, as well as the more chin-stroking jazz acts. It is housed in two large concert halls by the lake, but spills out into the surrounding streets with free concerts, discos and outdoor bars and stalls running into the early hours. If you want to cut loose, you can and there is a brilliantly relaxed atmosphere.

For a less formal – and cheaper – festival experience, Lausanne’s Festival de la Cite is a great alternative to Montreux. Sponsored by the city authorities, it includes 120 music, theatre, dance and art events – all free to attend – and attracts about 95,000 people a year for events as diverse as classical performances in the city’s 13th century Gothic cathedral to pop acts on a specially-built stage in the main square.

Lausanne is much bigger than Montreux, extending up the rising slopes next to Lake Geneva, but it’s easy enough to get round thanks to its metro system – the first in Switzerland.

Walking through the old city is rewarding in itself, though, with a complex street pattern of hidden alleys and steps, including unusual covered wooden staircases.

The Ouchy district is home to the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee, and the Olympic Museum, set in a gorgeous landscaped park. My interest in sport normally extends only to avoiding it but the museum still captured my attention, exploring the history of the Olympic movement and issues like the use of science in sport. For those who want to get sporty themselves, Lake Geneva offers every sort of watersport, with dozens of land-based sports catered for on the Ouchy embankment.

Lausanne has a much wider selection of hotels than Montreux, making it an ideal base to explore the region. We stayed at the impressive Hotel Angleterre & Residence, which actually consists of six differently-styled blocks reflecting 18th, 19th and 21st century design, close by the waterfront.

A very different atmosphere is to be found in the nearby Alpine mountain regions. Already very busy in the winter months thanks to its high-quality skiing, the area is increasingly popular in summer too. There are more than 180 miles of marked walking routes and 80 miles of bike routes, taking in mountain lakes, Alpine farms and some spectacular views. Col de la Croix farm is open to the public with the chance to see cheese-making in action – and then relax with some fresh bread, coffee and examples of the cheese you’ve just seen being produced.

Stay in a hotel in Villars, Gryon or Les Diablerets during the summer and you’ll receive a free pass for activities and transport in the region, including golf, tennis, swimming and archery, steam trains and gondola lifts; although just strolling and resting in the mountain air while taking in the chocolate box vistas of wooden chalets, forests and streams is refreshing enough on its own.

A major attraction all year round is Glacier 3000. Part-owned by Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone, it offers summer activities that include huskie rides, hiking and snow bus tours, as well as mountain views from its vantage point, restaurant and terrace. If you’re brave enough you can also try the Via Ferrata – or Iron Road – a climbing route up the mountain so named because of the metal steps fixed in to the cliff face.

Glacier 3000 also boasts the Alpine Coaster. A first glance this doesn’t look much, a winding track carrying 30 sleds, but once you’re on it and are being thrown around the 520-degree loop at 25mph it’s suddenly a lot more nerve-wracking.

There may be little après-ski in summer, but there is still good food and drink to be had. We stayed at the Eurotel in Villars and while the hotel facilities are more basic than those in the main cities the restaurant was easily a match, with chef Joel Quentin offering unique Alpine flower gastronomy using freshly-picked local plants.

The nightime activities are a little more restricted – and more pricey – than in the city, but even in a small town like Villars there is still a decent range of restaurants, bars and clubs to visit.

Summer in Switzerland offers much more than the straight-laced stereotype might suggest. From world-class music festivals to summer sports, I came away anything but neutral about Switzerland. It got a big thumbsup.

The Woman In Black

It’s been scaring theatregoers in the West End for 21 years, but has the latest transfer of The Woman In Black kept its edge?

Adapted from Susan Hill’s novel, the play tells the story of a lawyer – Arthur Kipps – convinced his family has been cursed by the eponymous dark lady and sees him retell his experiences, aided by a hired actor.

The production is a challenging double-hander, bringing out strong performances from Robert Demeger as the tragedy-struck solicitor and Peter Bramhill as his enthusiastic acting coach.

Billed as a “the most terrifying live theatre experience in the world” the production actually contains more than a few comic touches, particular-ly in earlier scenes – although the audience’s laughter was distinctly nervous as the story unfolded.

In fact, there was possibly too much humour in Demeger’s early portrayal of Kipps, making it harder to build tension later, but his performance was an undeniable achievement, mixing multiple personas in his reversed role of supporting actor.

Bramhill’s switching between the carefree actor and his bestruck ‘character’ was also impressive, demonstrating his skill and emphas-ising the play-within-a-play nature of the scripting.

Neither wavered once during the best part of two hours on stage.

There are shocking moments – and the resolution is undeniably dark – but even those of a nervous disposition shouldn’t be scared off seeing The Woman In Black; if you are you’ll be sacrificing the chance to see virtuoso performances by two fine actors.

Great Distraction of 2010

Burlesque was back in Norwich for the first day of the 2010 Norfolk and Norwich Festival – and it was as camp as a row of Spiegeltents.

Hosted in the impressively glam surrounds of the Chapelfield big top, the Great Distraction show was curated by New York performer Julie Atlas Muz and featured music, acrobatics, side show comedy and performances that defy detailed description in a family newspaper.

The audience, including many who’s outfits matched the spirit of the evening, lapped up the nipple-tasselled theatrics of Miss Dirty Martini, and got very much involved in the antics of Trixie Little and the Evil Hate Monkey’s simian ballet. Sound confusing and chaotic? Well, that’s the Great Distraction.

There was some noticeable seat-shifting during Mat Fraser’s Seal Boy circus sideshow routine, with many unsure whether it was right to laugh at a disability – even one highlighted by someone facing it – but that was the only uncertain moment in the show.

Ms Muz’s own spots combined dance, humour, film noir and a healthy sprinkling of nudity; basically burlesque at its best. Definitely a distraction that holds your attention.

Baltic cruise

Worse things happen at sea, or so the saying goes. James Goffin took a cruise around the Baltic and its famously picturesque cities, to see what a holiday on the high seas is really like.

WHEN I told my friends I was going on a cruise, their reactions were a little mixed.

While most thought the idea of travelling to Scandinavia, the former Eastern Bloc, and Germany all in one trip was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, there was also a little concern that at a tender 28-years-old I’m a little short of my pension to go on a cruise.

Those suspicions were somewhat confirmed when I arrived at Harwich to board the Ocean Majesty – my home for the next 11 nights.

Not only was there was a dedicated security queue for people with pacemakers, but the only people my age at the departure gate were dropping off their parents.

Still, with the promise of some fantastic destinations at the forefront of my mind I climbed the gangplank. I didn’t have much time to get my sea legs before we left port. We weren’t always blessed with the calmest of seas for the five days afloat, and, we were a bit buffeted by the waves.

The ship was subject to a £1m refurbishment last year, and now has 273 cabins.

Poor weather meant the first formal night of the cruise was postponed, to allow the seasickness to subside before we got to meet the captain, with a bit more dignity in our dinner suits and cocktail dresses.

The evenings have one of three dress codes – and although the service lives up to the formality, the food sadly doesn’t. The servings were plentiful and there’s a good choice, but the quality was more microwaved than Michelin.

The subject of food divided the guests I talked to, with as many praising it as avoiding it. The main problem for someone as picky and impulsive as me was that the set meal times and menus grew frustrating; whereas on a normal holiday you can pop down the road to find something you fancy, on a boat no-one can hear your stomach rumble but the waves.

By the third day we had arrived in Oslo.

I found myself on a coach heading to Vigeland Park – a sculpture park with hundreds of pieces created by Gustav Vigeland over 16 years.

Interesting though it was, the tour was overlong, and the next stops to the world’s first ski-jump, and a roundabout close to where Edward Munch was inspired to paint Scream, didn’t help. My advice (with the exception of Russia) would be to take either a walking tour with the option to abscond if necessary, or go it alone.

Prior to arrival in each port there is an informative talk on the city and the country. With free maps available and English speakers in most of the stops, it is easy enough and much more enjoyable to find things for yourself – not to mention cheaper. The excursions range from £19 for a two-hour bus tour to £89 for a fullday trip to Berlin, and can soon add up.

For Copenhagen I started off on a walking tour before splitting off to explore independently. The city is beautiful and so are the people, which makes relaxed people-watching a particular pleasure here.

The family behind the Carlsberg brewery funded two museums, a botanical garden and the famous Little Mermaid statue.

Next we headed to St Petersburg. Tourists in Russia need an £80 visa unless travelling in a tour group, which makes booking the organised trips crucial if you want to avoid two days stuck on the ship – and the city is far too good to miss.

The gaudy wealth on show in the gold-leafed roof caps, sits strangely with the obvious deprivation around the port.

The scale of the Hermitage Museum and Catherine’s palace at Pushkin serve as reminders of the extent of the Russian empire in years gone by.

Evening trips to the ballet and a folklore show went down well too.

I was doubly lucky to be able to team up Rebecca, a gorgeous and talented young lady the same age as me and a Russian speaker to boot.

Together we ditched the coach tour and explored St Petersburg on our own – risky but worth it and the definite highlight of the whole trip. But a strong word of warning: our plan to get the Metro back to the ship that evening descended into chaos when we found the station shut.

Without Rebecca to translate and help find an alternative way to the port I would have found it impossible to get back – and the Federation’s immigration officers aren’t known for their understanding.

Our next stop was Tallinn, capital of Estonia.

At its heart is a rambling connection of narrow cobblestoned streets, with churches and cafes nestling down alleyways. Its simplicity was a sharp contrast to St Petersburg, and if I hadn’t got food poisoning from my lunch there I could have easily fallen for its charms.

Warnemunde in Germany was our final destination, ostensibly as a gateway to Berlin – so long as you fancy 12-hours on a coach.

The town itself and nearby Rostock are pleasant, serving as small seaside resorts for natives and tourists alike.

There are plenty of boutiques and cafes that make for a relaxing day of strolling and shopping.

The question that remains for me at the end of the trip is whether a cruise with a few precious hours in each destination is worth it when city breaks by plane are so easy and affordable.