MARCO POLO IN THE BALTIC; PASSING THROUGH THE KIEL CANAL

Lazy Sunday afternoon; I’ve got no time for worries. Close my eyes and drift away…”

Steve Marriott, Lazy Sunday by the Small Faces.

The words of that iconic song flitted through my mind like a butterfly surfing a gently rolling meadow as the Marco Polo made a sublime, sedate passage down past the tree lined banks of the Kiel Canal, bound for Warnemunde on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon.

It was as perfect a day as you can imagine; a brilliant summer sun shone benignly on the still, sparkling waters of the fabled waterway. Children were flying kites in rainbow hues, people walked their dogs, and lovers strolled arm in arm under the gently waving trees. Rustic waterside inns dotted the meandering waterway like random exclamation marks, their outdoor terraces full to overflowing with crowds that spilled out almost down to the edge of the canal itself. Many of these looked up and waved at the Marco Polo as our beautiful ship passed by in stately procession. From their vantage point, she must have been quite a sight.

From my own vantage point on the gracefully curved aft terrace decks, I took in this slowly unfolding panorama as it gradually unwound behind us, picking idly at chocolate cake and cookies as the sun beat down directly on us. From where I was, the scene below presented an intriguing contrast.

Because we were so close to the land, everything seemed almost close enough to touch; cows grazing in slow motion on a patchwork quilt of gently rolling fields, local ferries beetling across the waterway in our wakes. The odd cyclist went barrelling by, sometimes ringing a shrill, tinny sounding bell in salute. There were people enjoying picnics and small, dainty yachts that flitted like toy boats across our track. The slow, rolling pace at which all of this unwound gave it a kind of dreamy quality, a chocolate box pretty hinterland that our ship slipped through without leaving a trace behind her.

At the same time, there was a sense of utter, unreal detachment on board the Marco Polo. The view down below and our gentle pace gave the entire scene a sense of exaggerated height, it was an almost Olympian panorama that just unfurled behind us like a series of gently muffled drum rolls. We could just as easily have been on a magic carpet ride as anything else.

Yet that same, sedate waterway has history in spades. It was originally built as the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal, solely in order to give the pre world war one German navy a way of passing from the Baltic through to the North Sea. Nowadays, this fantastic, beguiling stretch of water forms a perfect short cut; it slices right across the base of Northern Germany and Denmark. For those cruise ships small enough to use it- and there are not that many of them- the Kiel Canal saves many hours’ sailing time around the Jutland peninsula.

The Bismarck came this way, too. That vast, tiger shark of a battleship transited the Kiel Canal three times during her brief life; there are still photographs of her, passing under the Rendsburg Bridge, her phalanx of anti aircraft guns bristling like a host of drawn swords.

Any way you slice it, getting that huge ship- twice the size of the Marco Polo- through the relatively narrow canal was one fantastic feat of seamanship; and now, here we were on a perfect Sunday afternoon some seven decades later, ambling lethargically along in her wake. Our passage, it has to be said, was much more peaceful and enjoyable.

So, on we went. We meandered under vast, vaulting bridges that cast long, fleeting shadows across the sun splashed teak real estate on the aft decks of the Marco Polo, only to vanish again as we emerged back into the sunshine. Under my feet, the decks trembled slightly as the ship moved cautiously forward on her way. A good, ice cold German beer seemed an apt, poetic way to enhance the flavour of this fantastic scenic smorgasbord.

For those few, slowly unwinding hours, all seemed well with the world. A kind of surreal, dreamy calm suffused the Marco Polo like the aroma of freshly gathered hay. Only the odd, sporadic car horn briefly disturbed our gentle reverie. I hardly dared breathe, in case I unwittingly shattered the spell forever.

Up ahead lay the fairy tale cities and old world charm of the summer time Baltic; a string of compelling dream destinations with few equals. Soon, the Marco Polo would emerge from the Kiel Canal like the proverbial genie, freed from its bottle, intent on achieving this riot of riches in one stunning, spectacular sweep.

Yes, life looked pretty sweet on that balmy, benign, Sunday afternoon.

‘Close my eyes and drift away……’

Sunlit aft terraces on the Marco Polo

Sunlit aft terraces on the Marco Polo

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