As the minibus pulled up alongside, Anna the Guide confided that the two beautiful boats ready to take us through the canals of St Petersburg were named after a piece by Prokofiev (and possibly Shakespeare). Romeo and Juliet awaited. We scampered aboard and took comfortable seats at the rear of the first boat. “Now,” said Anna. “You must cross over to the next boat.” Our eyes turned to the boat alongside.
It would be polite to say that Juliet was no longer in the first blush of her youth. Her ample girth was highlighted by a mass of ranked spindly dining chairs, the kind being vigorously freecycled across the UK. Her seaworthiness would have been questionable, had we not been destined for the canals. We made a sprint for the rear, both to avoid the spindly dining chairs, and to stand a better chance of swimming for it, if needed. With a dieselly, voluptuous belch, Juliet was on her way, scampering from the amorous attentions of the younger, sleeker Romeo.
“Now,” said Anna. “You must be very careful of your heads. If you do not duck the bridges will…” and she made a graphic show of decapitation. Rolleyes ensued as we hit a particularly vigorous junction with the Neva River and Juliet wallowed. We started measuring the distance to the river bank in line with our various swimming proficiency certificates. Juliet shuddered even more alarmingly as we entered the first canal to hear the cry of “duck”. Seated, I could have touched the bridge above without straightening my arm. Standing clearance…well, I wasn’t planning to chance it.
“Now” said Anna. “There are no toilets at Peterhof, and the ones on the hydrofoil will have very big queues. So you should use the ones on the boat here.” As the cries of “duck” became more frequent, the chances of making it forward to the head became ever more rendolent of a retro “It’s a Knockout” contest, where obstacles race towards the hapless contestant. With the risk of decapitation ever on my mind, I climbed spindly dining chairs and ducked where necessary until I reached the splendour that was Juliet’s dank waterless dungeon of a toilet. It measured precisely five feet eight inches from floor to ceiling. I know, as my hair gave that ceiling its first cleaning in many a year. “How was it?” asked the elegantly attired woman in front of me, as I returned to my seat to yet more calls of “duck!”. Our eyes met in commiseration. “Grim” I replied.
There were no queues for the hydrofoil. And the toilets at the Summer Palace, where we lunched in great splendour, were of such fabulous gilded and mirrored Faberge-esque beauty that there was a queue taking pictures in the ladies. Welcome to Russia.