Many years ago, in the distant past, I was an apprentice to to printing trade. Master printers were then called 'journeymen'. These days, in retirement, I have apprenticed myself to the classical guitar.
 
I have come to accept I will never be a guitar master. The guitar will always master me. It intrigues and delights me, but doesn't yield its secrets easily. Hard work and practice make difficult and complex skills easier, but even then, if ever I'm tempted to bask in the sunshine, my guitar waits to humble me. It's a humiliating experience to have a string buzz or my finger select the wrong string when I least expect it on material I have played perfectly multiple times before.
 
There are, of course, other bits that I manage to play badly most times. A string insists on buzzing discordantly when I play the barre chords in the music below:
 
 
That's ok. I am a humble person, mostly. I am learning that my guitar will cooperate on this, as in every other matter, only when it is satisfied that I know my business properly. Near enough is never good enough it seems.
 
 
My guitar, on the other hand, is not humble in the least.
 
It has every reason to act like an aristocrat. When everything comes together, harmony and voices from nylon strings are truly beautiful things. I hear them, transcendent and ethereal, and marvel at how flesh, nail and sinew, nylon and wood coax them into being. The sounds decay almost as soon as they're launched, but live afterwards in the spring in my step and the inner smile in my soul.
 
Now and then I clutch the guitar closer as I play, and feel my chest cavity resonate with its notes.
Truly beautiful. Worth every hour of practice I will ever do, to learn how to create them on demand and tame them at will. The guitar has won my heart. My hand and finger dexterity is struggling to catch up.
 
In the meantime I am grateful for the sense that progress is happening, even if it is slower than I would want. I read somewhere that it takes about ten thousand hours to master the guitar. I have been playing up to ten hours a week for two years. That makes it only another 18 years or so to go.
 
I read somewhere else that there is no end point in playing an instrument; that it is a never-ending journey that you can enjoy along the way. Maybe in that way I can see myself as a journeyman, if not a master.
 
A guitar journeyman? I'll cling to that.
 
 
A Guitar Progression
Adventures in Guitar Consciousness
 
I posted the image below on this blog one year ago. It shows the old Yamaha guitar I used to strum and sing along with before life got in the way and it was left in a cupboard for 40 years. When I posted this I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, making music with my old instrument again. I was so pleased that after months of ploughing through all the teach yourself books on Kindle, I could play stuff. Well, I could play easy stuff, sort of, after lots of practice, and never without mistakes. The music in my head was beautiful. The sounds coming from the guitar were a little less so.
 
 
 
 
Listening to the former, and ignoring the latter, I began to tell myself I wasn't all that bad at it. My own opinion of course, untainted by contact with anyone who could actually play notes, chords and arpeggios without having their audience looking around for the exit.
 
Emboldened, I turned up at the door of a classical guitar teacher. You know! Someone who knew their way around a guitar; had a Masters degree in guitar performance and another one in composition. He combines private tuition with live performances on the national stage solo and in ensembles. If I had been looking for someone to massage my ego I should have looked elsewhere.
 
Luckily, I swallowed enough pride and humility to let him teach me things about technique and practice I had no idea even existed. He was polite, but he left no doubt that what I had been doing by myself had been largely a waste of time if I wanted to learn to play beautiful music. That he was in his early twenties was inconsequential of course, but it did not really make things easy for an old codger more used to giving instructions than accepting them.
 
I began again, from square one. Concentrating on correct fingering, posture, hand and finger dynamics, fingernails, breathing and paying respect to quavers and crochets as they were written on the page, saw me progress – far too slowly for my liking – through the book he recommended for preliminary students (pre-schoolers and the like). All the while, I was straining. Impatient to play real music, I often became angry with myself and with him, frustrated by how long it was taking to learn simple skills. As he reminded me though, ever so gently, the skills were not simple skills. They were complex fine motor skills. The process was not unlike a child learning to use a pencil for the first time. It would take practice and time. No shortcuts, was his repeated advice.
 
He was right of course.
 
So, another year has passed. I've purchased a more expensive guitar (below). I've learned much about playing the classical guitar and am playing pieces from the AMEB grade 3 level. Big deal I guess. Hundreds of school kids do that too, and better than I do. But I am beginning to realise that I do not care about that at all. I just love learning and playing.
 
 
I love the music I can coax from my guitar. On a good day I can almost slide into a trance while brain and fingers work together in a way impossible just twelve months ago. I can play a piece like L√°grima (Francesco Tarrega) imperfectly, but just as its name (teardrops) suggests, I hope one day to play it well enough to moisten the eyes of any listener. Another piece by Tarrega, Adelita, is more difficult, and could take me longer to get my fingers (and brain) around. So be it. The journey is what matters. The destination can be left to itself.
 
Other things I have learned at the feet of my young teacher this past year:
 
Getting angry with myself at mistakes or mastering a technique more slowly than I would like is pointless. It achieves nothing. A mistake is a mistake; nothing more; nothing less. Shrug it off and continue playing. Which reminds me of another of his maxims:
 
 
Do not stop when you have made a mistake. Continue to play as if nothing happened. Most probably your listeners will not have noticed (even though it is a clanging, jarring event for you). (Great advice, I guess, for future concert performers).
 
You cannot practice correct technique enough. Nothing short of perfection is sufficient. (Near enough is not good enough in this game).
 
Practise slowly; very slowly. In this way you can identify flaws in your technique and deal with them before they become ingrained. This is also the best (only?) way to learn a new piece. Practice a few bars at a time, very slowly. If you can play it perfectly, slowly, you can also then play it fast. (So he says anyway, and I am starting to believe he is right).
 
Caress the guitar as you play. Become one with it. Be part of the music. Use it as a meditation technique if you like. (I am trying this).
 
Do not interpret the music your way until you can first play it the way the composer wrote it. (I rankle at this).
 
The metronome is your friend. (Yes, well, maybe).
 
 
There is, however, one particular aspect of the guitar I continue to struggle with. Just one, I hear you think. Well there are many to be honest. For instance I always want to progress more quickly than my technique allows. I continue to become frustrated and grumpy when I can't play something right, although I am getting better at going with the flow. I detest the metronome but I suffer it because I know it is doing me good. No, the one aspect that is providing a big challenge to me – still – is overcoming anxiety and nervousness when playing in front of other people.
 
My teacher has no specific advice for me on how to remain calm and how to still jittery, disobedient fingers and thumbs when playing in public. No advice that is, apart from his observation that I need to work on it. Maybe he is not too worried as I am unlikely to be playing in front of a concert audience ever. That is so, but I really would love to be confident of playing for friends, even if I am a silly old man who needs to understand he is past performing age.
 
 
Well there you have it: A synopsis of a year of classical guitar lessons. Learned heaps. Feel good about myself. As my teacher tells me . . . God bless him . . . “a couple more years and we will have you playing beautiful music”.
 
 
 
Posts have been a bit sparce on this blog lately. Is it that I've had nothing to say? Have I struggled for inspiration?
 
Yes, and yes. Simple answers for simple questions. We could leave it at that if you like. I will wish you a Merry Christmas and a safe journey, wherever you are bound.
 
 
Or, you could stay with me a while, as I prod and rattle a cage or two (gently of course).
 
 
(Europa Rosarium, Sangerhausen, Germany)
 
 
 
You're still here then? I'm glad you stayed.
 
Let's begin with the fairies that live at the bottom of gardens. My garden has a few, but they're shy and good at hiding. I sometimes think I notice a trace as a leaf, deftly pulled aside by tiny fingers, springs back into place, or a rustle in a garden bed makes me look up from my book. Our dealings are fleeting you see, nothing more than an inward smile and a whimsical nod to mark them.
I sense you shifting uneasily and wondering where this is going. Relax. You are in safe hands.
 
Some people of course would deny that any such fairy beings exist. Where is their imagination I ask? Where is their trust and innocence? What are the stories that light up their lives and transcend the everyday? Well I suppose they might have trust; in things different from those I trust in.
 
Can't pretend to be an authority on what others might trust in but I can account, with some authority, for myself.
 
 
Christmas, for example. There is a spirit in Christmas that speaks to me even though I can't see it or touch it. However much I try to dissect it, analyse it, or explain it away as a creation of consumer culture, it defies me. It is as real as anything in life. I feel it. That's enough for me.
 
Christmas delights me in spite of myself. I can't put my finger on exactly why. Coloured lights, Christmas trees, and carols play a part, but they are not Christmas in themselves. Giftwrapped presents? No, while they're nice, they're not Christmas. Family gatherings? As much as I love everyone in my family, such get togethers can be trials as much as delights. Any of these things can be missing and Christmas would still weave its magic.
 
Christmas gives me a renewed passion for life and for others. It reminds me that I am part of something larger than myself. It causes me to think about my life and how I'm spending it. It inspires me to do better than I have in the past. Memories of Christmases past stretch back through the years and passages of my life to childhood; to where it began for me. At this time of year I remember my grandparents, long gone, and how they loved me. I hear long forgotten Christmas carols, unwrap long discarded presents again, smell those delicious cooking smells again, taste figs, dates and stone fruit of all types in my mind. Such are the memories that return every year.
 
Christmas anchors me. It reminds me of who I am and from where I come. It cuts through the layers of my selfishness, even for only a week or two. Just as with fairies at the bottom of the garden, I am richer for its presence in my life, whether or not I can understand it, quantify it, commodify it, or tell myself I'm too old to be taken in. It is as real as I am. What more do I need to know?
 
 
I am noticing this Christmas time that our culture has changed significantly. Some of that leaves me sad. So be it. Change is inevitable and we can either accept and work with it, or not accept and be sidelined by it. I know that increasing numbers of people in my culture do not share my Christian faith, or have any spiritual dimension to their lives for that matter. I am comfortable with that. I think Christendom has done a lot of damage along with the good. Churches have allowed themselves for the past 1700 years or so to enjoy the trappings of power and the riches that come with it. That was a mistake, for which Christians in today's world will pay an increasingly heavy price as people turn towards churches with hostility. The Christian gospel was never about power and influence. It was always about setting people free. A pity churches largely forgot that for so long.
 
 
 
For some people, life is no doubt nasty, brutal and short. I have been luckier, although no doubt like you I've had a few ups and downs. Part of my good fortune has been to know that there is more to life than toys and prizes; more than self interest; more than is apparent to eyes and ears. I have learned that it is just as much folly to sneer at another person's faith as it is to deny the possibility that there might be fairies at the bottom of every garden, never to be discovered by those who will not see.
 
 
Whether you share my faith, or a different one, or believe you have none at all, I wish you a Merry Christmas and hope that you might catch a glimpse of the fairies who are surely there at the bottom of your own garden.
 
 
 
 
I am not you.
 
I see what you see,
but I see differently.
 
Let me be.
 
 
(A Garden in the Alhambra Palace, Granada)
 
 
I do not need
to think like you,
but I might need to hear
what you have to say.
 
 
Don’t exclude me
or demonise me.
My heart beats as yours does
and I breathe as you breathe.
 
 
We touch the same air
and live in the same streets,
but you look ascance at me.
You question my sincerity and motives,
as you preen in the righteousness of your own.
 
(The anger of zealots expressed on a church wall in Granada, Spain)
 
 
You float through life in a bubble
self referencing,
self affirming,
convinced of your moral superiority.
 
 
I believe
as sincerely as you do
but hold a different truth
in my heart.
Mine is as precious to me
as yours is to you.
 
 
We flatter ourselves
that we own the truth.
Maybe if our truths have no room for each other
there is no room for either of them?
 
If what I value makes me unworthy;
If how I see things excludes me
from your regard;
then so be it.
 
I will let you be.
 
 
(Embossed door of the Sagria Familia Cathedral in Barcelona)
 

My urge to write comes and goes. Could be something to do with tides or phases of the moon. Or maybe the influences are more subtle, less easily attributed. More ethereal.
My state of mind for instance. It wanders, you see. My inner world is a labyrinth and my mind has a habit of sauntering through the corridors, pausing here and there to pick up an image, a memory, thoughts or a feeling, sometimes mislaid, sometimes waiting to be made sense of, catalogued and tidied away. I don’t have the plans for the building, and for some of its rooms I don’t even have a key.
That’s one reason I write blog entries. The process of writing serves to tidy up my inner world and to help me make sense of stuff I don’t have a key to access. It’s a healthy thing to do, I guess.

Now and then I use photographs as a stimulus to writing. And so it is today. Four photographs and one short video clip are my mystical muses.

What is it about us?

Look at this image of the city of Sydney by night. The world of the immediate. A world of lights and sound and tastes; where anything can happen, good and bad, benign and dangerous. The unspoken seduction of crowds, noise and lights brings people together in large numbers, as it has always done.

Why is it then that the monuments we build as testaments to our ingenuity are such contradictions? Cities across the world are showcases for the best we can do. We walk down their streets and reassure ourselves that we’re cleverer than people were in the past; that life is purposed by canyons of concrete and glass; and that we’re in control.
And yet . . .

You don’t need to look too hard to see cities struggling to match words with deeds. Communities in name only, they breed alienation and nurture inner emptiness in the souls who tread sterile urban wastelands. Blank faces, and eyes that don’t meet other eyes: Testaments to the loneliness of crowds.

City living the pinnacle of human ingenuity? Or have we got some priorities badly wrong?
Perhaps that is a bit harsh. Humans are social beings. Well, most of us are . . . even me. I enjoy a night out on the town as much as anyone, but this morning I’m in a mood to wonder why our cleverness does not often guarantee our happiness.
What is it about us?

We start out well enough . . . if we’re lucky enough to have parents who want us and care for us. I reckon these little fellas have a lot of things right in their approach to life. Living in the moment they carry no burdens. Trusting and loving, they elicit love and delight from everyone they meet.

Simple, isn’t it? So why do we find it so hard?
What did we lose along the way as we learned to take our place in the world? Our innocence? Our Wonder? Our trust? Ourselves? I don’t know. Maybe these changes are inevitable and necessary, but I wonder. Is it necessary for adults to lose their sense of wonder and their connection with themselves?
So is there an answer; an antidote to a damaged adult soul?
I’m going to be bold and claim that love is all when it comes to human well being and happiness. There is no material success; no job title; no salary or position of power means a jot of anything to me compared to loving and being loved. If I were ever tempted to forget that I would only need to look at those boys’ faces above.

As a grandparent, this is all clear to me. As a parent, to my shame, it was not always so. I wasted a lot of time and opportunities chasing mirages, and in the process took the love of my family for granted.

Why is it, that so many of us sacrifice our lives on the altar of material assets or power or seductive dreams when the substantive things escape our notice? Are we just slow learners? Or are we wilfully blind?

The mystical musings continue as I remember a beach in northern Spain. The photograph speaks of journeys. The beach begs to be walked, and the path rising to the top of the hill suggests a destination somewhere out of sight. How often have I walked such tracks? How many times have I found the journey more satisfying than the destination?

How often in my life have I chosen to follow paths, some actual, some metaphorical, hoping to find new things? A new start. A new experience. A place where things made better sense. Sometimes I found what I was looking for, and sometimes I got lost, badly lost. What I didn’t realise was that what I was seeking was not to be found at the end of a journey so much as inside myself.
That self knowledge is hard earned. It has cost me and those I love lots of cuts and grazes, and grief. Now the people I have learned to admire most are those who put others first, and go about their lives at peace with themselves and walk gently in the world. They are treasures. Perhaps you know someone like that? I would like to be one someday.

And to finish these mystical musings, I would like to share with you a short video I recorded last year in a monastery in Armenia. It is an Armenian group (obviously) who perform traditional folk songs and elements from the unbroken 1500 year old traditions of the Armenian Apostolic church. I cannot remember the group’s name, but I suppose a bit of work with Doctor Google would remedy that.

The songs were Armenian. It did not matter. I stood barely breathing, as I listened. The floor could have opened up beneath me and I would have floated, completely immersed in the moment. A mystical experience? Yes, even despite the presence of other tourist groups who, while temporarily silenced, soon wandered off chattering amongst themselves about I know not what.

I listen to this clip periodically to remind myself of the experience, and to be confronted again by the insights it gave me:
That there are things in this life that transcend the daily routine and matters we think are important. That when all else fades away these things will remain as strong and clear as ever. Love is one of them. Belonging is another.

 

 

One final thought:

Being able to stand outside one’s self and see, hear and feel the cries of others is the greatest thing I know. I am grateful for the times, here and there, I can manage to do that, and can only hope people can forgive me when I can not.

 
(My photograph. Taken in Bad Frankenhausen, Germany)
 
Enough travel and photography for a while. Plenty more of that coming soon. Time now for some rebalancing. A little philosophy perhaps?
 
I started off intending to write my thoughts on life. Then I got distracted and my topic expanded, so here I am, writing about life and death.
 
 
Life?
 
Yeah, well. What would I know about your life and how you should live it? Very little, except for this hard won gem:
Don't try to tell anyone else how they should live a good life. It won't work and it just makes you look foolish when your own dross floats to the surface. So I won't try to tell you what I think you should do, because I don't know.
 
I do know what works for me though, and I'd like to share some of it, so if you have the time and interest, pull up a chair.
 
 
Death?
 
Try not to be put off. Maybe I've got something worthwhile to say and maybe I don't. The only way you will find out is to read on.
 
I cannot write about dying from personal experience. But then, can anyone?
 
It seems to me I'm on a conveyor belt called life. That belt has one destination. It travels at different speeds and has different lengths for different people, but there is no pause button and no reverse switch. I can ignore this, or rage against it, but it will change nothing.
 
I believe people's value doesn't diminish when they are dying. In the hospice where I volunteer I see more than a few people stripped of health, strength, independence, and sometimes even consciousness, awaiting death. Never yet have I come across any whose value was not obvious.
 
I don't think treating anyone as if they have no remaining value is excusable, especially not on the grounds of convenience. Dying is inevitable. Losing human worth and dignity is not.
 
Hiding death away as something shameful or unnatural is wishful thinking. Surely living life as though death is some sort of mistake or flaw in the fabric of existence is delusional. If every one of us will die at some stage, and we will, then death is a most persistent mistake.
 
Now, that all that is good in theory. Whatever we might prefer to be the case, death is a natural and inevitable part of life. But does that mean a person should always be left to die naturally, even when in extreme pain?
 
No I don't think so.
 
It's just that I don't trust any medical professional or judge or other expert to tell me when I lose my value as a human being. I do not want any such people having the authority to decide when a dying person is no longer of value and their life is to be extinguished.
 
When convenience is allowed to determine ethical responses to the suffering of the dying then anything and everything enters the mix. There is no ultimate boundary to what is acceptable. Does a medical degree confer superior ethical judgement and values? Experience says not. I can think of a few people I would trust to make decisions about my treatment when I am incapable. They are all people who love and value me, and there is not a technology expert or ethicist among them.
 
If and when I am suffering terrible pain and am close to death I will be reaching for that morphine button in whatever dose needed to dull the pain, whether it shortens my life or not. If I cannot do it myself I hope and trust that someone will do it for me.
 
I cannot imagine that any sane person would want a “bad” death. On the other hand, a “good” death, for me, is not just about escaping terrible pain, or avoiding gross discomfort. That's only part of the story.
 
I would eagerly avoid pain wherever I could but somethings more elemental, more important, if left unaddressed, would open the door to a “bad” death for me: Leaving stuff unresolved; missing the opportunity to be real and honest with myself and those I love, to list just two.
 
The opportunity to leave this life at peace with myself and my loved ones, knowing I am loved beyond my illness, deformity, disease, whatever, would be a wonderful thing. To depart knowing I matter to those around me: I could not wish for a better ending to life.
 
 
Living
 
Things I wish I had learned much earlier:
 
It is good just to be. 'Doing' is necessary and all very well but 'being' is what matters. I no longer ask people what they “do”. I am more interested in who they are.
 
Learning to accept what is, rather than grieving for what should be, or should have been. If only!
I'm getting better at it, but as they used to say on school report cards: “Room for improvement”.
So many regrets, so many traumas, so many injustices, so many things I want to take back or do again properly. They would smother me if I let them. I can't carry them all. Better to accept that they happened, to lay them down gently and watch them float away. There is peace in that, and grace, as I have discovered with a sense of wonder.
 
Looking for someone or something to blame is pointless. It takes me nowhere useful. It is a dead end. Hanging on to stuff has been something I have done a lot of over the years. Putting stuff down and letting go has seen me on a learning curve, often a very slow learning curve. It seems to me that such a skill would have made an enormous difference to my life. Better late than never, hey?
 
Making amends where possible. Often it is not possible, but just as often it is. Things broken can not always be put back together entirely, but there are degrees of repair. Better to try, than to leave a grievance festering untended. Easier to put down a burden too, when I have humbled myself and tried to make amends.
Making an apology is not always an easy thing. Being able to put ones self in the other's position is not always possible but now and then I manage it.
 
Being envious of the success, wealth or good fortune (or whatever) of others is a giant waste of time. Self evident now, but not always so. There were always plenty of opportunities to look over there at how much easier someone else had it, and cling to the resultant feelings of injustice.
I do not much look at what others have any more. I could no longer care less. I wake up each morning. The sun is shining (mostly). What more do I need or want?
 
Needing to have others think or believe as I do was never good for my blood pressure or sense of well being. Having prised my hands away from the tiller on this one, my days are much gentler and more peaceful these days. What someone else thinks or believes is their business and has no affect on me. Well, that's true in theory at least. If what they think or believe is ignorant or stupid, or threatens my way of life (and I remain convinced of my ability to judge such things by the way), I can still get up a head of steam, but at least I no longer feel the need to argue. Live and let live, as far as is wise, I say.
 
Showing love is just as important as feeling it. People will not automatically know that I love them unless my actions show them. Showing love is more than just providing material support. It means taking the time to listen, to empathise, to hug, to put myself last, and to say repeatedly how much my loved ones mean to me. I'm embarassed to admit that it took me so long to realise and act in this area. I could blame my childhood upbringing for that, but as I said above, blaming is a waste of energy.
 
Family and friends are the most important aspects of life. Nothing else matters if these relationships are damaged or broken. No material success, no self gratifying achievements mean anything next to the love of family and friends. Once again, it would have been better for me to have appreciated this much earlier.
 
Music and art feed the soul. I always knew this, but now live as though I believe it. Two years ago I started learning to play classical guitar. I've now reached a level where other people can realise what I am playing is music and that gives me great joy.
 
And finally . . .
 
There is much wisdom and philosophy in wine, but the more wine, the less you remember.
 
 
And to finish, in case you agree they have some relevance, I include the lyrics of Steve Earle's “Pilgrim”:
 
 
I am just a pilgrim on this road, boys
This ain't never been my home
Sometimes the road was rocky 'long the way, boys
But I was never travelin' alone
 
We'll meet again on some bright highway
Songs to sing and tales to tell
But I am just a pilgrim on this road, boys
Until I see you fare thee well
 
Ain't no need to cry for me, boys
Somewhere down the road you'll understand
'Cause I expect to touch his hand, boys
Put a word in for you if I can
 
 
“Pilgrim”
Steve Earle and Del McCoury Band.
 
 
from http://www.steveearle.net
 
 
 
(Arriving in Budapest sitting on the top deck. A memorable experience.)
It’s been a while since my last post. Looking back at those words, I think some lacked charity. I could have been a little more upbeat, but there you have it.
In the time since, I haven’t felt the motivation to write. I enjoyed the break quite frankly, but now it’s time to clear the cobwebs and resume.
We had a great time on the cruise. We really did!
Two weeks coasting downriver on on a river cruiser was certainly no hardship. Neither was it totally what I expected. Were my preconceptions blown out of the water (um . . . so to speak)? Well, no, not really. I enjoyed the experience though (we had a ball) and would recommend it highly with a couple of qualifications. First the qualifications (that probably say more about me than they do about the cruise experience):
It was undoubtedly elitist, ¬†travelling downriver in a cocoon of comfort while the hoi polloi went about their business in the towns and villages along the way. Rather than an opportunity to experience and interact with different cultures, it was more an experience in travel voyeurism where the natives were visible but kept at a safe distance. A kind of travel pornography if you will, but maybe that is going too far. A kinder way to describe the cultural dimension of the cruise might be as a kind of travel Disneyland where the punters float past scene after scene of romantic tableaux hiding paper mache and timber frames and also, incidentally, the reality of life in the communities along the Danube. Shore excursions saw us contained in hermetically sealed bubbles (a.k.a. tour coaches) or in tour groups; obedient little chicks following our guide. At least we weren’t required to wear the funny hats or name badges I saw some poor groups had. It was possible to do your own thing on shore, but mostly we didn’t bother, as we were in holiday mode and it took energy.
(Top: Bratislava. Bottom: Vienna)
Environmentally irresponsible too, for all I know. I don’t have the data on grams of Carbon Dioxide produced per person as I see the more aware (and priggish) tour companies preening about self righteously on their websites. No doubt it was not kind to the planet, all that diesel fuel keeping the lights, kitchen, air con and beer fridges humming 24 hours a day while we sailed blissfully downriver without a care.
So that’s the downside in a nutshell: Not the sort of travel experience we were used to. Too cosseted, too artificial, too . . . comfortable . . . well you get the drift I hope. But that’s not the whole story.
(Cute houses in Lower Hungary)
There was however, a big upside, and it more than compensated. We had a wonderful time just being in the moment. We didn’t have to plan anything, cook anything, buy anything (except drinks, and they were totalled up for payment at the end), walk very far except to our cabin. The meals were silver service and a serious threat to any lifestyle improvements you may have made before boarding. Food, food and more food; all prepared professionally by chefs and mighty hard to refuse.
Lying in bed at night with the curtains open watching the riverbank sliding past in the moonlight and listening to the gentle sound of the hull slicing through water is an experience like no other. No other, that is, unless you fall asleep without closing the curtains and wake in the morning with your ship moored next to a busy wharf with people walking past your floor to ceiling window which is open to the world, or next to another ship where staterooms like yours are a hand span away from your window. It pays to remember to close things up before you drift off to sleep.
(River bank in the morning. It is wonderful to wake up to such as this.)
There was another big upside. Tour coaches and guides notwithstanding, we simply would never have seen anything of countries like Serbia, Croatia and Bulgaria if we hadn’t been on this cruise. I can’t imagine we would ever have turned at at the border to any of them in a hire car. Which saddens me a little, as they are beautiful countries with a lot to offer.
Oh, and the crew were completely professional and attentive. I have never encountered such a group of people who were so focused on service excellence. They did this without being in any way obtrusive. Five stars of approval to them.
So, would I travel with this cruise company again? Absolutely and without hesitation. They do what they do very well. Provided you understand and are seeking the type of holiday experience they provide, you would have to be very hard to please if you didn’t enjoy it.
Cruise company: Avalon Cruises
Ship: Avalon Passion
Cruise: Danube Cruise between Vienna and the Black Sea (14 days).
Quality and Customer Service: 10/10
Holiday Experience: 9/10
Value: 8/10
(Moored at St George at the mouth of the Danube, looking out to the Black Sea)