One of crime novelist Robert B Parker's characters (not Spenser, his hero) says that to go on holiday with a lot of white heads would be a living death. So I did in order to test the idea. Well aware of the thought that human beings divide pretty much into two categories – not men and women (a contentious enough claim these days), but the Quick and the Dead
Either you're keeping up with the fast pace of life and the blur of changing events; or you're not – you're stagnating, marginalised, or even actually dead. The world of cruising is packed with quick white heads set on packing it in before they finally pack it in. They are the international bucket-listers: the Venetian Rialto, the Parthenon, the stupas of the Far East, the icebergs of Antarctica and the wildebeest of the Serengeti. The quick have little interest in the slow (those who cannot afford to travel) though, as we shall discover, their interest in the famous dead is constantly on show. Medically, the dead intimidate; culturally, the dead fascinate.
The airport lounges of Schiphol and Logan and Dubai, the facilities of Ushaia, the offers and deals of Viking and Cunard and Royal Caribbean, and what altitude sickness is really like at Machu Pichu and Everest Base Camp. Far from dead, having graduated from tourists to travellers, this is a cohort game for the classical delights of the Mediterranean. The Grand Tour continues to live on despite the appeal of world travel.
In the cruise party we joined, there certainly was quite a lot of both mourning ('probably my last one') and celebrating ('two more booked for next year') going on. With 95% Americans what do you expect? A sprinkling of Brits (and two Scots – vive la difference
) and an odd Aussie or two. A representative sample then of the best and worst of the human race, and on holiday the best and the worst of us is transparently on display. Even, and perhaps especially, in a group whose life journey, that pilgrimage through the vale of tears, has reached the point of one foot in the grave, or at least one toe in the River Styx.
This was a group determined to confront the coming of the light, stand with a fist against Father Time and Mother Nature, and reach out for the bourbon and the stars. Abba and Beatles concerts on board reminded us what it was like when we were young, walks around Naples what it was like to be poor, visits to Monaco what it was like to be filthy rich, sarcophagi showing us what the Romans did with their (posh) dead, and Roman Catholic churches memorialising the timeless virtue of saints and martyrs in a heady stench of candles.
The lady from Vermont was on the prowl for a third husband. The man with the 'Vietnam Veteran' cap wept at the American Cemetery near Florence and got us all going. Plaintive was the T-shirt message 'One Last Marathon'. Others were markers of identity and purpose: a visit to the Rockies, class of 1980 at Washington College, a just-bought alliance with the University of Pisa, a partner in X Investments of Boston; 'No is my starting position', 'Never agree'. 'I really like 3.14 with my meals' (What do you know? A mathematician who knows what pi is). Body art from military tattoos to Giverny floral displays, if you need to get physical.
On board, the silver spirits package (unlimited access) was nicely balanced by the unobtrusive availability of the Friends of Bill, cabins were a home from home, and minions took care of the heavy lifting. The search for identity in a roman à fleuve
world of cruise tourism. The passage of time is no brake on our human search for identity. It reminds us that we can safely include ourselves among the quick and not the dead, and none of us wants to die – at least not yet. Nothing, then, like a Mediterranean cruise for warding off what Hardy (in his poem I Look into my Glass
) called 'the throbbings of noontide'.
If it's Wednesday, it's Madrid. Looking at the paintings of Aesop and Don Christobal, and Philip IV when old, all by Velasquez hanging in the Prado in Madrid, added a tantalisingly thoughtful dimension to the presence of time having passed and yet having been held in suspension by art. These were images of men caught by the painter for eternity: the dwarf of Philip IV with his haunting eyes, the portrait of a man whose face was a dead ringer for a street entertainer in Dubrovnik, or the figures in The Forge of Vulcan
who will labour for ever and whose muscular bodies contrasted so starkly with the apples and pears profiles of the American travellers.
These were images of the past brought to life as much by the lively narrative and cunningly entertaining anecdotes of the tour guides as by Velasquez himself. As the group stood stoically in front of The Surrender of Breda
and Las Meniñas
(where Velasquez represents himself as father of the family), similarities between the men and women in the tour group and the men and women in the paintings were more than clear. Watching the watchers – people-watching – is a flâneur's
delight. Christine Coulson's Metropolitan Stories
(Other Press, 2019) imagines the people in the paintings, and the statues, looking at the visitors and wondering about them – a fascinating conceit of a novel.
Any visit to Madrid must, they say, include the Prado. Above all Velasquez and the true master Goya. On the bucket list of must-sees comes the Third of May 1808
(where Spaniards were shot by Napoleon's soldiers), The Naked Maja
(a two-for since she appears fully dressed as well) and Saturn devouring his children. His pictures of members of the Spanish court show them both in their glamour and as they are, warts and all: the decidedly plain and ageing Maria Louisa of Bourbon-Parma, Queen of Spain with a Mantilla; the Infanta Maria Josefa (sister of Charles IV, a woman who never married) as an old woman (her face raddled yet framed by flashy jewellery); and the Machiavellian static and sinister elegance of Count Floridablanca.
As we looked at the paintings, I looked at the lookers: take away the clothes, adjust for period, look at the flesh, observe the emotions – time stood still. It was a time-shift engineered by the genius of Goya. The fidelity of the likenesses blends with the intrinsic satirical intention they reveal. Who really are these people? Goya seems to be asking, just as an observer might tease out when watching those very watchers.
Goya's Black Paintings
, like his sketches of the insane and the diseased, of bull-fights and street scenes, evoke a range of responses: some wake up, others recoil, some go on looking for the rest-room. Late Goya portraits look into the very soul of their subjects. Our Lady from Vermont wore her heart on her sleeve and, as she sprayed on the eau-de-cologne, might have cried herself to sleep: in a sense she may become a portrait in the future, or at least a memory for her fourth husband. The trappings of the tourist and the trappings of the royal subject fail to disguise the inner woman. The pavement artists in Florence missed a chance to go down in art history.
Madrid was only the start of things. To the ship berthed at Barcelona (Gaudi will have to wait for another visit) and off to Marseille, Pisa and Florence. And at Florence the magnificent Basilica of Santa Croce. The artistic heritage of the artworks and monuments here is quite astonishing – frescoes by Giotto, a Crucifix by both Cimabue and Donatello, Vasari's Last Supper
, and tombs to Michelangelo and Dante, Galileo and Rossini (and Marconi and Fermi too).
Surrounded by cenotaphs is an unsettling experience – civic splendour, cultural overload, the persistent click of photography, whether to tread on gravestones. Some many dead white men, so many sexless angels and bearded saints, so much Roman Catholic grandeur in the country only nominally religious, so much historical stuff we convince ourselves we know a lot about.
The 19th-century French writer Stendhal, when he was there, wrote that he was in 'an ecstasy [being] close to the great men whose tombs I have seen'. The comprehensive guidebook told us that the body of Dante was to have been brought to Santa Croce but that the city of Ravenna (where the poet died) held on to it. Bodies of course mattered a lot – royal ones for court painters to capture, the insane for viewers to ogle, tombs to encapsulate and memorialise bodies when they're dead, reliquaries to preserve body parts of holy saints.
Further on our cruise, we were to encounter such reliquaries in the cathedral at Dubrovnik in Croatia – a gilded embossed example purportedly containing the head of St Andrew the Apostle and a hand-to-elbow reliquary of St Blaise, the patron saint of the city. The cruise party thought this was all very well, but long ago people knew no different. If they believed that old bones could work miracles, good for them, but today we had medical insurance, portable heart monitors, and the sanctuary of a second home somewhere warm. And yet.
Group chat never exposes what people really think. One to one revealed more than a little cognitive dissonance in our group of travellers. Some 21st-century scientific scepticism (medics heal, not saints; my gym routine and my shrink keep me young) coexisted with the eternal gullibility of every age to stay young forever, rely on complementary remedies, place faith in the Lord (Jesus saves, yes there is an afterlife) and the pension plan, and the healing power of the Mediterranean sun. The Tuscan villa – part of the post-cruise extension – offered more than enough for anyone searching for eternal youth: aromatherapy, remineralising body masks and purifying saunas, giving homogeneity to the skin and calming the mind. It was impossible to be sure if the Vietnam Veteran or the Lady from Vermont felt better after these wellness rituals, but they both admitted that the Chianti (anointed and consumed) really did help. Maybe the four-poster bed helped too.
You will understand what I mean when I tell you that the flight home undid all the good work of the holiday – airline food is not really good for the metabolism nor time shifts for the body clock. Neither was it all sweetness and light among the white heads – the old couple who wanted to move cabins (into ours) and then spread rumours that we were 'the nasty Scottish couple', a pervasive anti-British sentiment ('they're almost just like us'), a sentimentality about Scotland ('we'd love to go there one day'), gun culture as a culturally given, Trump as good guy, Europe as museum, China as enemy number one (patriotism plus paranoia – the current American malaise), Italy turning fascist (what a pity for such a nice place).
For all that, the cruise was a glimpse into human nature, an education in the fine art of looking, an insight into the genius of Spanish and Italian art, a grand tour of the spirit. As it always has been, and is now for us today. Mark Twain in his travelogue Innocents Abroad
spoke of things tourists should not see or know (like the plague in Lisbon and the whores in Naples). Being Twain, too, he couldn't resist satirising his fellow travellers – after all many of them had strong views on their own superiority.
For us some edgy things peeped through the cultural curtain – the latent racism of some tourists, Croatian memories of Serbian atrocities in the 1990s, the challenges of immigration for Naples, the tat sold by street-sellers, and how fine wine can also test the limits of tact. The living statue of a leper on the steps of the Uffizi was a memento mori
, the tempus fugit
message for a party too keen to notice as it hussled through the queue.
Yet we got there, kept up, saw lots of dead people and plenty of live ones, watched the watchers, rejuvenated our fading bodies, walked miles (more in Schiphol than in Naples), became super fit, and were proud to count ourselves as the quickest of the quick. You don't know what it's like to feel 80, our Vietnam Veteran told me. Never give up hoping, said the Lady from Vermont. I'm wondering what on earth she'll do with the little wooden Pinocchio in red and green once she gets home. She might even regard it as a metaphor for the misinformation and confusion of the modern world.
Dr Stuart Hannabuss is a writer and reviewer based in Scotland