Introduction

My first taste of cruising was on board the long-gone, but much loved QE2, more years ago than I care to remember. I had two voyages on board her, to the Norwegian fjords and to the Med. While I could not help being impressed by her grandure and elegance, I found her rather large (despite being small compared to the modern “floating blocks of flats”), and I was always uneasy about the rigid class system on board.

When I resumed cruising a little later, I looked around for smaller, friendlier ships, and tried a week-long cruise back to the fjords on Fred. Olsen’s Black Watch. I found the small ship very much to my liking, being able to reach tiny places at the ends of fjords, and the smaller number of passengers meant places were less crowded or busy, and I stood much better chance of actually meeting the same person twice.

Once hooked, one or two cruises a year followed, gradually increasing in length, and sometimes on the other three ships in Fred. Olsen’s fleet – Boudicca, Balmoral, and Braemar. I saw and photographed many wonderful places around Europe, particularly loving both the coast and fjords of Norway, the highlight was definitely the cruise to Svalbard,  which was stunning in clear blue skies and bright sunshine for all 24 hours of the day.

Move forward 9 years, and I am just starting my 17th cruise on Fred. Olsen ships. Due to changing circumstances I am now very fortunate to be able to take more frequent and longer cruises than ever before. To record all these adventures for myself, and to share them – and some of the photographs I take – with others, I thought it was more than time I started this blog. I hope you enjoy sharing my travels

 

tmp_30592-P1000530~011195806662tmp_30592-P1030767~01-287788304tmp_30592-P1110460~02-1980738371

 

 

 

 

M1710 – The Rivers of Spain and France

Introduction

Welcome to the first of my new-style posts about the places I visit around the world whilst on a cruise ship. In my last post, W1702 – That’s a wrap, I explained how I felt I no longer had the time or the money to continue making posts after each port I visited as the ship sailed around, not least because of the ridiculously high cost of WiFi connection to the Internet on board. Instead I will write some notes about the ports offline when I get the chance during the cruise, and will then assemble these with a selection of my photographs once I am back home with fast and paid for Internet access.

This cruise set sail exactly one week after my last cruise, which went all the way around the world, had returned to the UK. I would not normally choose to do cruises quite this close together, especially when the previous one was for almost four months, but my elderly family friend Barbara particularly asked if I would be her travelling companion for this cruise, and I knew at her senior age she would not travel without me there. This is also quite a significant cruise for me, as for the first time I am travelling with my partner Carol, who regular readers will know I had only met on my last around the world cruise.

This cruise visited three ports overnight in a row, having travelled up rivers each time to reach them – Rouen, Bordeaux and Seville. It then made conventional day calls into two more coastal ports on the way back – Cádiz and Lisbon. The cruise was on the Fred. Olsen ship Braemar, which has a very shallow depth of keel which allows it to sail up the rivers, unlike the other three ships in the fleet. The cruise itinerary originally included a day call to Aviles in northern Spain on the way to Seville, but this was replaced by the call to Cádiz afterwards when the dates of the fair in Seville were changed.

M1710_web_updated_original

Rouen

We sailed into our first port of call, Rouen in France, on the very first morning of the cruise, having sailed across the English Channel and up the River Seine overnight. Nearly every cruise starts with sea days, which I like as it gives the chance to relax into the cruise, but in this case it was straight into the action as it were.

Rouen is the capital of the French region of Normandy and was one of the largest and most prosperous cities of medieval Europe. It was founded by the Gaulish tribe of Veliocasses, who named the settlement Ratumacos and the later the Romans called it Rotomagus. The Vikings overran Rouen, and their ruler, Rollo, was appointed the first Duke of Normandy by King Charles in 911. During the Hundred Years War, Rouen surrendered to Henry V of England in 1419, and it became the capital city of English power in occupied France. The teenage Jeanne d’Arc, or Joan of Arc (also nicknamed “The Maid of Orléans”) helped lead the French resistance to the English rule after seeing visions instructing her to support the cause. She gained prominence when the siege of Orléans was lifted after just nine days. Following further success against the English, she was eventually captured and put on trial in Rouen. On being found guilty she was burned at the stake in the centre of Rouen in 1431 at just 19 years of age. In 1449 the French King Charles VII recaptured Rouen after 30 years of English occupation. Rouen then flourished as a port, and for a time became the fourth most populous city in France. Rouen was heavily damaged during World War II, with around 45% of the city destroyed. The cathedral was badly damaged, but has since been restored.

I went up on deck after breakfast, just as we were approaching Rouen on a bright but misty morning. As we neared the port the ship used her thrusters to do a slow but graceful spin through 180 degrees on the spot, before a tug towed us slowly stern first up to the quay.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We were happy to remain on board that morning, as Carol and I had a shore tour booked for the afternoon. We were originally booked on a tour to Paris, but that had been cancelled, so instead we were visiting Monet’s Gardens in Giverny. This was Carol’s first visit to the gardens, but I had visited them before in September (see M1623 – Take the Monet…), but was very happy to return as I expected there to be very different plants in flower at this time of year.

The coach took around an hour and a quarter to reach the gardens. Once inside we decided to duck out of the guided tour, and just wander around by ourselves. This allowed us to visit the different areas in a different order to the coach parties, thus avoiding the worst of the crowds, although being the Saturday of a Bank Holiday weekend it was very busy there anyway. We made our way initially to the house, which I had not seen inside before due to the long queues, and went to the water gardens afterwards. We both loved seeing the gardens full of the bright spring flowers. On the way back to the ship the guide told us that the seven gardeners lift and replant the spring bulbs every year so that they can be replaced by the summer plants.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The following morning we were not booked on a tour, instead Carol and I just wanted to take the shuttle bus into the centre of Rouen and wander about. We took the first shuttle bus of the morning at 8am, and were rewarded as that early on a Sunday morning the streets were virtually deserted, and the old timbered buildings were looking at their best in the early morning light.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

That afternoon we spent much of the time on deck watching the ship sail back down the River Seine towards the open sea, enjoying the chance to see countryside, towns and villages from the ship.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Bordeaux

The downside of sailing on a ship with a shallow depth of keel is that she is much more likely to roll about in heavy seas, which is unfortunately what we had sailing down the English Channel. Perhaps surprisingly things improved as we sailed across the Bay of Biscay towards our next port, Bordeaux, also in France. To reach the port we sailed up the Gironde and Garonne rivers, but these were much less interesting to view than the River Seine.

Bordeaux is located on the Garrone River in south-western France, and is the fifth largest city in the country. It has the second-highest number of preserved historical buildings in a French city. The vine was introduced to the Bordeaux region by the Romans to provide wine for local consumption, probably in the mid-first century, and wine production has been continuous in the region ever since.

Like Rouen, I had visited Bordeaux before on my French Rivers cruise last year, documented in my previous posts M1623 – Bordeaux wine, M1623 – Bordeaux walkabout 1, and M1623 – Bordeaux walkabout 2.

We docked right in the centre of the city at lunchtime, amongst the elegant and lovely stone buildings, meaning no shuttle bus was needed to explore the city, which is what Carol and I did that afternoon and again the following morning. We particularly enjoyed the old narrow parts of the city, and finding an old antiques yard full of interesting objects and curios, and later an antiques fair with even more – too many to see in the time we had available before the ship set sail for our next port, Seville in Spain.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Seville

It took nearly three days to sail south to our third port of call, Seville in Spain. We were due to arrive at 7pm on the Saturday evening, which was the last night of the Feria de Abril festival, but it was shortly after 8pm before we finally arrived. We had sailed up the Guadalquivir River, the last part of which was the most interesting as we passed through a lock and then just squeezed though a lifting bridge before reaching our berth. We stayed in port overnight, sailing just before dinner the following evening.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Seville was founded as the Roman city of Hispalis. It later became known as Ishbiliy after the Muslim conquest in 712. It was incorporated into the Christian Kingdom of Castile under Ferdinand III in 1248. After the discovery of the Americas, Seville became one of the economic centres of the Spanish Empire as its port monopolised the trans-oceanic trade. However in time the silting of the river forced the trade monopoly to relocate to the nearby coastal port of Cádiz.

The Feria de Abril (or April Fair) begins two weeks after Easter Holy Week. There are parades of carriages and riders, fairgrounds, and a large area devoted to casetas. These are individual decorated marquee tents belonging to prominent families, groups of friends, clubs, trade associations and political parties. Here and in the streets crowds gather to eat tapas and party, and just be seen. Both men and women dress up in traditional clothing – the women look particularly striking in their trajes de flamenca flamenco dresses.

Carol and I left the ship as soon as possible after we docked in order to see more of the fair and the huge crowds of people attending it. We walked around to the area with all the casetas, and came back to the ship a different way, re-crossing the river using the lifting bridge we had passed under earlier.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We returned to the ship in time to see the second show that evening, which was put on by a group of local flamenco musicians, singers and dancers. The show was very intense and dramatic, and we could not believe it was possible to move one’s feet as fast as the dancers managed.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We then went up to the top-most deck to view the amazing fireworks which started at midnight and which traditionally close the Feria de Abril. They were set off from the river bank just the other side of a bridge from our ship, so we had a grandstand view of them, better placed than the hundreds of people gathered on the opposite bank of the river.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The following morning Barbara and I were booked on a panoramic coach tour of the city. We saw mostly the pavilions and buildings from the two world fairs held in the city – the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929, and the Universal Exposition of 1992 (Expo ’92). Perhaps what struck me most through were the beautiful jacaranda trees that were in bloom everywhere – our guide told us that in Seville they bloom twice a year, blooming again in October.

There was just one stop on the tour, to view the Plaza de España on foot. This huge building was designed by Aníbal González for the 1929 Exposition to showcase Spain’s industry and technology exhibits. It consists of a huge half-circle of buildings, with a moat on the inside of the circle crossed by bridges representing the four ancient kingdoms of Spain. In the centre of the circle is a large fountain. The walls of the Plaza feature many tiled alcoves, each representing a different province of Spain.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In the afternoon Carol and I set off for a walk around the area close to our ship, not wanting to venture far as we were tired after our busy and late evening the night before. I knew the Plaza de España was only across the park, and I both wanted to show Carol the amazing building, and to take some more photographs of it when I had more time and the sun was at a more favourable angle.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

At the point our ship was berthed, the river was too narrow for her to turn around, so when she set sail initially she had to be towed backwards by a tug downstream to where she could make her turn. This included reversing through the narrow lifting bridge, which we thought was quite a feat of manoeuvring, and we were rather frustrated that we had to be sat in dinner while this was happening. We finished dinner and went back up on deck just in time to see the ship pass through the lock once more.

Cádiz

Early the following morning we sailed into our next port, Cádiz. I have visited the city several times before, but I am always happy to return there as I find it very attractive and interesting, and the light always seems amazing there. This was a short call though, as we were to sail at 2pm that afternoon.

Cádiz is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Spain, and one of the oldest in western Europe. It was founded on a narrow promontory by the Phoenicians from Tyre in around 1104 BC, who named it Gadir or Agadir. Later it fell to the Carthaginians, and became the base for Hannibal’s conquest of southern Spain and invasion of Italy. The city fell to the Romans in 206 BC who called it Gades, the Visigoths in 410 AD, and the Byzantines in 551 before the Visigoths regained it in 572. It then fell under Moorish rule between 711 and 1262, who named it Qādis, from which the current name Cádiz is derived.

The Moors were finally ousted by Alphonso X of Castile in 1262. Christopher Columbus sailed from Cádiz on his second and fourth voyages, and the city later became the home port of the Spanish treasure fleet. In April, 1587, a raid by the Englishman Francis Drake occupied the harbour for three days, captured six ships, and destroyed 31 others – this became known in England as ‘The Singeing of the King of Spain’s Beard’. In 1596 it was captured by another English fleet, under the command of the Earl of Essex and the Earl of Nottingham. Some 32 Spanish ships were destroyed, and the city was occupied and looted for almost a month. When the Spanish royal authorities refused to pay an ransom for the city’s return, the English burned most of it before leaving with their loot.

During the Napoleonic Wars Cádiz was one of the few Spanish cities to hold out against the invading French, and it became the seat of the Spanish parliament and military high command for the duration of the war.

Once again I did a short panoramic tour around the city with my friend Barbara. It must be the fourth time I have done the tour, so I practically know the route and commentary off by heart, but I didn’t mind seeing it all again for Barbara. There were three photo stops on the tour – to see the beautiful beach and the stunning view of the cathedral in the distance, a longer one to see the cathedral square, and a final short one to see an attractive park.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

When the tour returned to the ship, I immediately went ashore again as time was so tight, this time with Carol on foot. We both loved exploring the maze of narrow streets, and we found both a church and a covered market that I had not come across before. We also found many interesting shops, but in my haste I had left my credit card on board the ship – honestly Carol! All too soon it was time to return to the ship before she set sail for our final port, Lisbon.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Lisbon

We sailed into our final port, Lisbon, early the following morning. Again this is a city I have visited many times before on cruises. Going up on deck it was clear we had sailed north, as we had left the warm sunshine of southern Spain behind and instead had clouds and a cool wind.

Lisbon is the capital and largest city of Portugal, and is the 11th-most populous urban area in the European Union. It is continental Europe’s most western capital city, being located close to where the River Tagus meets the Atlantic Ocean. Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in the world, and the oldest in Western Europe, predating other modern European capitals such as London, Paris and Rome by centuries.

According to legend, the city was founded and named by Ulysses as Ulissipo or Olissopo, from the Phoenician words “Allis Ubbo“, meaning “enchanting port”. The early history of Lisbon was a battlefield for Phoenicians, Greeks and Carthaginians. The Romans started their two-century reign in Lisbon in 205 BC. During the Romans period, Lisbon became one of the most significant cities in Iberian Peninsula and was renamed Felicitas Julia.

In 714, the Moors captured the city and resisted Christian attacks for 400 years. In 1147, as part of the Reconquista, crusader knights led by Afonso I of Portugal besieged and conquered Lisbon and returned it to Christian rule.

The 15th century saw the Portuguese Discoveries, an era during which Portugal enjoyed abundant wealth and prosperity through its newly discovered off shore colonies in Atlantic islands, the shores of Africa, the Americas and Asia; and Vasco da Gama’s famous discovery of the sea route to India. Lisbon was then the world’s most prosperous trading centre. However an earthquake in 1755 destroyed nearly the entire city, which was subsequently rebuilt by the Prime Minister, the Marquês de Pombal.

Early in the 19th century, Portugal was invaded by the troops of Napoléon Bonaparte, forcing Queen Maria I and Prince-Regent John (the future John VI) to flee temporarily to Brazil. By the time the new King returned to Lisbon, many of the buildings and properties were pillaged, sacked or destroyed by the invaders.

Lisbon was the site of the regicide of Carlos I of Portugal in 1908, an event which culminated two years later in the First Republic. During the second World War Lisbon was one of the very few neutral, open European Atlantic ports. It became a major gateway for refugees – more than 100,000 refugees were able to flee Nazi Germany – and also a haven for spies.

Once again I was booked on a shore tour with my friend Barbara in the morning. This was a longer tour though, as it combined a panoramic tour of parts of the city with a cruise along the River Tagus. I had done this tour once before, with both Barbara and my late mother, but then the rain poured down so heavily we could hardly see anything, so I was very happy to repeat the tour. This time the visibility was good, and we had good views of many of the well known features of Lisbon such as the 25 de Abril Bridge, the Padrao dos Descobrimentos (Monument of the Discoveries), the Torre de Belém (Belém Tower) , the Praça do Comércio (Commercial Square) and the Alfama district of the city.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

After lunch Carol and I repeated our usual pattern of exploring part of the city on foot. We enjoyed the narrow and historic streets of the Alfama district on our way to the Rossio Square, where I had seen many jacaranda trees flowering from the coach that morning. It was interesting to hear from the guide that the jacaranda trees only flower in the Spring in Lisbon, whereas they flower twice a year in the southern Spanish cities that we had previously visited. We then walked through the main shopping streets to the Praça do Comércio and then back to our waiting ship.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Conclusion

Not long after we returned to our ship, it sadly set sail back towards Southampton and home. Thankfully this time both the Bay of Biscay and the English Channel were calm, and we therefore had a smooth ride home. On the penultimate evening we enjoyed the usual Crew Show, where ordinary members of the crew show off their talents, and the always astonishing Gala Buffet, where the food always looks far too good to eat!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Although I had visited most of the ports before, it was still a very enjoyable and memorable cruise – perhaps my longest lasting memories will be of the beautiful spring flowers in Monet’s Garden, the quiet and lovely streets of Rouen, and all the flowering jacaranda trees in Seville, Cádiz and Lisbon.

W1702 – That’s a wrap

In my last post, W1702 – ‘tites and ‘mites, I described the visit to our final port of call on this epic cruise, Málaga on the southern coast of Spain, where I went on a tour to some prehistoric caves to see fabulous stalactites and stalagmites. Very sadly we set sail that evening to return to our starting point, Southampton in the UK.

There are three parts to this final ‘wrap up’ post from my Around the World cruise:
• photographs of some of the on-board activities and events
• some statistics and comments about the cruise
• some important news about the future of this blog

 

During the course of the cruise on the many sea days there were all sorts of activities and events going on, here are some photographs I took at the time:

• Passenger choir (with my friend Robert as accompanist)…

tmp_11725-P1110348~011204962908tmp_11725-P1110353~01851058839tmp_11725-P1070583~01529575979tmp_11725-P1060943~011868171176tmp_11725-P1060957~012130479072

• Valentine’s Day…

tmp_11725-P1060960~012055829920tmp_11725-P1060959~011152912347tmp_11725-P1060961~011869564450tmp_11725-P1060967~011177520772tmp_11725-P1060974~012089917811

• British Night…

tmp_11725-P1070049~01551689788tmp_11725-P1070066~011703789606

• Crew charity run…

tmp_11725-P1070276~011361244268tmp_11725-P1070290~011289327160tmp_11725-P1070302~011076514568tmp_11725-P1070316~01603164268

• The Generation Game…

tmp_11725-P1080775~011248481312tmp_11725-P1080787~011255104249

• Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook…

tmp_11725-P1090836~0172480859tmp_11725-P1090881~012120514376

• Dolphin racing with human dolphins…

tmp_11725-P1090596~0145739574tmp_11725-P1090609~011015239516

• Crew tug-of-war (it was lovely to see passengers, officers and crew mixing and having fun together)…

tmp_11725-P1090913~011850076093tmp_11725-P1090925~01750619250tmp_11725-P1090969~012096846301

• Pirate Party (to celebrate leaving the Somali pirates danger area)…

tmp_11725-P1100033~01460235991tmp_11725-P1100038~01493996727tmp_11725-P1100074~01553850810tmp_11725-P1100077~011810585920tmp_11725-P1100094~01~012042465355

• Build a boat from recycled materials competition (with buoyancy test from guy jumping in!)…

tmp_11725-P1100188~011923873876tmp_11725-P1100246~011182698557tmp_11725-_20170411_0549142092309321

• Easter…

tmp_11725-P1110343~011789567024tmp_11725-P1110345~011558997474

• Passenger drama productions…

tmp_11725-P1070518~01744403503tmp_11725-P1110763~011878735417tmp_11725-P1110769~011826960363

• Afternoon classical concerts…

tmp_11725-P1070204~011892142397tmp_11725-P1090553~01709404912tmp_11725-P1110770~01925481162

• Crew talent show…

tmp_11725-P1110779~01302699094tmp_11725-P1110844~01~011978946483tmp_11725-P1110851~011968473009

• Gala buffet…

tmp_11725-P1110907~011708543625tmp_11725-P1110909~01181682173tmp_11725-P1110897~012088595367

 

During this cruise we sailed for an amazing 29,600 miles in 107 days, and visited 34 ports of call in 22 countries on the way. During that time I took around 12,500 photographs and around 80 video clips, and this is the 48th post I have made on this blog about this cruise. Needless to say all these figures far exceed every other cruise I have done.

While I am naturally going to have rose tinted spectacles on when looking back on this cruise, having met someone now very special to me on the very first night, but trying hard to put that aside it really has been the cruise of a lifetime, getting to see and experience so many places and cultures that were new to me. If anyone reading this has the time and the money to be able to do a world cruise then my advice would be to grab that chance with both hands, it really does open your eyes to what a beautiful and amazing world we live in, and to how many other people on this planet live their lives.

I have been posting on this blog about my cruises since January last year, and this will be the 132nd post I will make. I’ve documented six cruises, visiting all corners of the world, from Greenland to New Zealand, from Argentina to Singapore. I have had people reading my blog posts from an amazing 29 countries around the world. A truly astonishing statistic is that WordPress says I have uploaded 4164 pictures to share with you all – I am not sad enough to read every post to count if that is correct, but if you are then please be my guest…

Over time my posts have become more detailed and longer, and they take quite a lot of time, money and effort:
• time to write the text
• time and online time to check the facts and figures
• time to select the photographs to use
• time to shrink their resolution
• time and online time to transfer them onto WordPress
– daytime Internet data rates are so painfully slow and intermittent (making dial-up seem fast) that often I’m having to be awake transferring photographs in the middle of the night
• online time to assemble the words and photographs into a coherent post
• money to pay the considerable costs of going online for a significant amount of time on board ship
– this cost has rocketed during the time I have been doing the blog

I have come to the difficult decision that I can no longer continue to document my cruises with posts on my blog during the cruise in the same way as I am doing at present, both from a point of view of cost, and because I now have obvious new calls on my time. It certainly doesn’t mean I have given up cruising, quite the contrary as I have quite a few booked already over the coming 18 months. Whether or how I post any more blog entries about them remains to be seen – for example it’s possible I might just post a summary when I get home after a cruise.

I am sorry if this is a big disappointment to you, as I have received many comments about how people are enjoying the posts. However if there is a time to bow out then perhaps it should be after the Around the World cruise, as how do you follow that?

Thank you for taking the time to read my posts, and farewell – or is it au revoir for now?

W1702 – ‘tites and ‘mites

In my last post, W1702 – Magical Malta, I described a magical day spent in the island of Malta, from our penultimate port of call on this epic cruise, Valletta. From there we had two days at sea crossing the Mediterranean Sea before reaching our very last port of call, Málaga in Spain.

Málaga is the the second-most populous city of Andalusia and the sixth-largest in Spain. It’s history spans about 2,800 years, making it one of the oldest cities in the world. It was founded by the Phoenicians as Malaka about 770 BC. Then, from the 6th century BC, it was under the hegemony of Ancient Carthage, and from 218 BC, it was ruled by the Roman Republic and later the Roman Empire as Malaca. After the fall of the empire it was under Visigothic rule, and then under Islamic rule as Mālaqah for 800 years. In 1487, the Crown of Castille gained control after the Reconquista. A new port was built and with the liberalisation of trade with the Americas, Málaga prospered. Between 1810 and 1812 the city fell into the hands of the French. In the 19th century the city was at the forefront of the Spanish industrial revolution and it enjoyed many years of prosperity; but at the end of the century a recession, followed by earthquakes, floods and failed harvests in the early 20th century, took a heavy toll on the local population. This instability culminated in the Spanish Civil War, during which Málaga and it’s population suffered terribly. Since the 1950s tourism has transformed the city.

We sailed into Málaga early in the morning, just as the sun was rising. I have sailed into the port a couple of times before, and it’s not the most lengthy or interesting approach, but I am glad I went up on deck anyway as the dawn was quite a good one to see and photograph:

tmp_5039-P1110403~01958280065tmp_5039-P1110431~01708440173tmp_5039-P1110450~01748336205

I also noticed how the ship’s bell was getting an extra thorough polish that morning, I’m sure that it being the same day that Mr Fred Olsen himself was coming on board was just a coincidence!

tmp_5039-P1110412~01552839953

The tour I had booked in Málaga was to go by coach to the small coastal town of Nerja, around 50 km east of Málaga, where we would visit some prehistoric caves nearby as well as having free time in the town itself. I was doing this tour alone, as Carol was going ashore in Málaga with her Aunt Annie.

Nerja dates back to Roman times, and under Muslim rule, it was known as Narixa, which means “abundant source”, from which the current name derives.

The transfer to Nerja took around 50 minutes, and we alighted from the coach in a car park close to the centre of the town. Our local guide led us through to an area known as the Balcón de Europa, or ‘Balcony of Europe’. This is a mirador or viewpoint which gives stunning views across the sea, and it is in the centre of the old town. This name is believed to have been coined by King Alfonso XII, who visited the area in 1885 following a disastrous earthquake and was captivated by the scene before him. According to folklore he stood upon the site where the Balcón de Europa now stands, and said “This is the balcony of Europe”. Having told us about this history, our local guide left us to enjoy just over a hour exploring the town centre.

The Balcón de Europa offered lovely views of the coastline, including beaches either side of it. At the end nearest the sea was a semi-circular area, featuring a statue of King Alfonso XII learning on the railings:

tmp_5039-P1110471~011302451195tmp_5039-P1110477~011384222777tmp_5039-P1110476~011168000257

I was pleased with this photograph I took of this area, and with the figures in silhouette it is perhaps hard to spot which one is a statue and which ones are real people:

tmp_5039-P1110483~011694502790

At the other end of the Balcón de Europa was a large paved square, with a church to one side of it. The church contained plenty of evidence of the Easter Sunday parade through the town that had been held the day before, including the three pasos, or religious floats:

tmp_5039-P1110541~0137126160tmp_5039-P1110503~01943260741tmp_5039-P1110507~011283882293tmp_5039-P1110509~012007033695tmp_5039-P1110496~01240973883

The shops nearest the square tended to be selling either beach items & souvenirs, or leather goods. Further away the shops were more interesting or upmarket:

tmp_5039-P1110469~011567109859tmp_5039-P1110515~01290763314tmp_29720-P1110490~01440481003tmp_5039-P1110538~011214933515

Regular readers might remember that when I explore a new place I like to keep my eye open for quirky or humorous things, here’s what caught my eye in Nerja:

tmp_5039-P1110512~01323294533tmp_5039-P1110519~012129411718tmp_5039-P1110537~01341752771

For once the amount of free time given felt about right, and we all reassembled at the designated spot next to a water fountain on the edge of the square ready for the walk back to the coach.

tmp_3436-P1110542~011200369118tmp_5039-P1110467~011175862290

It was quite a short drive out of the town to the location of our second stop, the prehistoric caves. On the way we passed the stunning Acueducto Del Aguila Roman Aqueduct:

tmp_5039-P1110548_edit~0173064825

The Cueva de Nerja or Caves of Nerja are a series of caverns stretching for around 5 km, which were first formed around 5 million years ago. During the Upper Miocene period, water penetrated the fissures of the marble rock and dissolved it, forming huge subterranean caverns. Seismic movement and landslides during the Holocene period forced the water to find new pathways through the caverns, and began the formation of the giant stalactites and stalagmites that can be seen in the caverns today.

Skeletal remains found in the caverns indicate that they were inhabited from about 25,000 BC up until the Bronze Age, initially seasonally by a small group of humans. By 21,000 BC the human population had taken up year-round residence in the caves and had increased in number. The first cave paintings found in the cave, dating to around that time, indicate a culture based on hunting in the local area had evolved.

Up until around 10,800 BC the hunting culture continued to develop, more prey species were being taken, which included goats, rabbits, fish and marine mammals. By 4500 BC domesticated animals were being kept, the area around the cave was being used for farming, and pottery was being created. By 3800 BC textiles and more advanced styles of pottery were being created, and part of the caverns were being used as a burial chamber.

The caves were re-discovered in modern times on the 12th January 1959 by five young friends, who entered through a narrow sinkhole known as “La Mina“, which forms one of the two natural entrances to the cave system. A third entrance was created in 1960 to allow easy access for tourists. The cave is divided into two main parts known as Nerja I and Nerja II. Nerja I includes the Show Galleries that are open to the public, providing relatively easy access via a flight of stairs and concreted pathways. Nerja II which comprises the Upper Gallery discovered in 1960, and the New Gallery discovered in 1969, is not open to the public. The majority of the cave paintings are found in Nerja II.

Arriving at the Caves, our local guide led us through a side entrance avoiding the queues, and down a staircase to the first of the Show Galleries. As he led us from gallery to gallery, they seemed to get ever larger and more spectacular, each filled with stunning stalactites and stalagmites in the most amazing forms and shapes. The lighting in the galleries is kept low, as there is a problem with algae discolouring and affecting the stone, and we were instructed not to use flash when taking photographs. Looking at the photographs I took in these difficult conditions I’m not sure that they do either the huge scale or the drama of the caves justice, but here they are:

tmp_5039-P1110599~011408009041tmp_5039-P1110601~011632320562tmp_5039-P1110620~011751798795tmp_5039-P1110627~011079566039tmp_5039-P1110630~011328967965tmp_5039-P1110645~011814965522tmp_5039-P1110648~011815796236tmp_5039-P1110659~011719834438tmp_5039-P1110681~011489146129tmp_5039-P1110692~011335056456tmp_5039-P1110708~011440181411

After climbing numerous steps we eventually emerged blinking back into the daylight, having passed through the inevitable gift shop. Outside there was a monument and sign commemorating the five friends who discovered the caves:

tmp_5039-P1110717~011771885793

We then made the coach journey back to Málaga and our waiting ship, passing the large sandy beach which our guide told us had been man-made using imported sand:

tmp_5039-P1110723_edit~01115589988

That evening we set sail for the last time on this amazing and epic voyage, for sadly the home leg back to Southampton, which we will reach after three days at sea. (I write this with a certain amount of optimism, as I write this we are entering the Bay of Biscay with gale force winds outside and lumpy seas to match, and the ship is very much on the move!).

I will be making one last wrap-up post about this long and astonishing cruise, featuring some of the on-board events and activities during the past four months, and with some important news too.

W1702 – Magical Malta

In my last post, W1702 – Crete treat, I described the treat we had unexpectedly spending a day in Heraklion, Crete, after our planned visits to Alexandria and Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt were cancelled due to security concerns.

We then had a day at sea on our way to our next and sadly penultimate port of call, Valletta in Malta. We were due to dock just before breakfast, but a medical emergency caused the Captain to put his foot down, and we actually docked around 3:15am. Needless to say I was not on deck to watch us come into port – my excuse is that it was very dark outside!

Malta, or more correctly the Republic of Malta, is an archipelago in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, which lies 80 km south of Italy, 284 km east of Tunisia, and 333 km north of Libya. The country covers just over 316 km, and has one of the highest population densities in the world. Malta’s location has historically given it great strategic importance as a naval base, and a succession of powers, including the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Moors, Normans, Sicilians, Spanish, Order of St. John, French and British, have all ruled the islands. In 1964 Malta gained independence from the British and was known as the State of Malta, then in 1974 it became a republic.

Valletta, the capital city of Malta, was founded by the Order of St. John in 1566, and was named after the Grand Master, John de Vallette, who had defeated the Ottomans. The city of Valletta was mostly complete by the early 1570s, and it became the capital on the 18th March 1571. Extremely intensive German bombing during World War II caused considerable damage to Malta, and especially Valletta. King George VI awarded the George Cross to Malta in 1942 for the country’s bravery in the Second World War – the George Cross continues to appear on Malta’s national flag. The entire city has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980.

The check-in time listed for the shore tour Carol and I were booked on was 8:05, so we were both up and about bright and early. I popped up on deck before meeting her for breakfast, and was blown away with how all the lovely stone buildings all around our ship were looking in the low yellow early morning sun. I rushed downstairs to meet Carol, and dragged her up on deck so she could see how beautiful the harbour area looked too. Neither of us had been to Malta before, and we were both immediately impressed how attractive it was:

tmp_11411-P1100862(Copy)727890378tmp_11411-P1100868(Copy)1223241284tmp_23417-P1100870~01226429472tmp_11411-P1100878(Copy)768966417

Reluctantly we went back downstairs for our breakfast, and then went to the lounge to check-in for our tour just before 8am. Unfortunately we found out that there had been a misprint, and the check-in time was really 8:50! Actually I didn’t mind, as it meant we were up and about to see the glorious early morning light.

Returning to check-in at the correct time, we were transferred by coach to the destination for our tour, the fortified city of Mdina, located in the Northern Region of Malta. The city was founded as Maleth in around the 8th century BC by Phoenician settlers, and was later renamed Melite by the Romans. Ancient Melite was larger than present-day Mdina, and it was reduced to its present size during the Byzantine occupation of Malta. During the latter period, the city adopted its present name, which derives from the Arabic word medina. The city remained the capital of Malta throughout the Middle Ages, until the arrival of the Order of St. John in 1530. Mdina suffered severe damage during the 1693 Sicilian earthquake, although no casualties were reported. The city was renovated and restored between 1722 and 1746. Today, Mdina is one of Malta’s major tourist attractions. No cars (other than a limited number of residents, emergency vehicles, wedding cars and hearses) are allowed in Mdina, this is partly why it has earned the nickname ‘the Silent City’.

tmp_16661-P1110004~011975336990

The coach dropped us off outside the main city gates, where we all boarded horse drawn carriages for the first part of our tour around the city. The carriages were very attractive, but there was very little leg-room between the two rows of seats, which meant Carol and I had our legs squashed together in the centre, whilst the couple travelling with us had their legs half hanging out the sides of the carriage.

Once everyone was safely on a carriage, we set off in procession – first outside the city walls (which seemed much of a time-filler), then inside the city itself. The latter was far more interesting and scenic, as we went down the very narrow streets between the attractive stone buildings:

tmp_11411-P1100912(Copy)1118137956tmp_23417-P1100914~011929404815tmp_11411-P1100917(Copy)539834757tmp_11411-P1100950(Copy)1909088999tmp_11411-P1100956(Copy)707467913tmp_11411-P1100960(Copy)1163066052tmp_11411-P1100963(Copy)493156195tmp_11411-P1100970(Copy)1088513185

All too soon we came to rest at the far side of the city, where we dismounted to see the dramatic views over the very thick city walls:

tmp_11411-P1100979(Copy)765851830

The remainder of our time in Mdina was to be a guided tour around given by our local guide, possibly followed by some free time if there was any time left before going to a hotel for some refreshments. Having heard how long the local guide talked to us at the city walls, Carol and I quickly decided that we would rather duck out of the tour and the refreshments, and spend the hour and a half just exploring the city on our own. This way we could see what we wanted when we wanted. Carol also had her eye on several glass shops, and we could browse those at leisure too – good job I had my faithful credit card with me!

tmp_11411-P1100984(Copy)281171749tmp_16661-P1100987(Copy)1677781644tmp_16661-P1110011(Copy)1987641122

We both loved the very narrow and quiet side roads, and the sunlight on the limestone walls and balconies was simply stunning. My shutter finger was working overtime, it was a good job I had several spare batteries for my camera with me!

tmp_16661-P1110017(Copy)521877269tmp_16661-P1110022(Copy)1473884494tmp_16661-P1110035(Copy)1181658204tmp_16661-P1110043(Copy)894868565tmp_16661-P1110056(Copy)681604070

I also went inside two large churches, which being Good Friday were busy, but I did manage to get some pictures of the stunning colourful decorations inside them:

tmp_16661-P1100994(Copy)908569491tmp_16661-P1100995(Copy)903107427tmp_16661-P1110058(Copy)415121503tmp_16661-P1110059(Copy)1648627623

We were glad that the tour had got us to Mdina early, for as time went on the city grew busier and busier with other tourists. This made us even more glad that we could escape the crowds down the little side roads, while almost everyone else was congregated together in guided groups in the main squares.

All too soon it was time to make our way back to the main gates, and out of the city to re-board our coach for the transfer back to the ship.

tmp_16661-P1110067(Copy)919656734

 

Although the coach had picked us up close to the ship’s gangplank, as is so often the case, we had to be dropped outside a terminal building to go though security there, in addition to the security checks when we enter our ship. This involved quite a walk, and we felt sorry for the older or less mobile passengers having to go such a long way around. When we returned the queue for the terminal building security check was quite short, but later several coaches from both ours and a larger ship all arrived at once, and the queues were horrendous. With people queuing for up to an hour, apparently they finally gave up scanning bags, which makes a nonsense of the whole process. I’m sure the fact that your route to the ship lead literally through a shop was of course no part of the reasons for diverting the passengers via the terminal building!

With such a lovely city to go and explore during the afternoon, Carol and I decided to grab a very quick lunch so as not to use too much of our limited time in port.

Leaving the ship on foot after our lunch, we had to walk away from where we wanted to go, in order to exit the cruise port through the terminal building. We then walked back along the road past our ship, to where there were lifts installed in the city walls. For just one Euro, we could take a return journey on the lifts to save ourselves a steep climb up and down to the city itself. At the top of the lifts was an attractive park, with viewpoints overlooking the harbour and our ship. With her fear of heights, Carol was once again nervous about coming to the edge of the viewpoints, but with plenty of encouragement and a firm hand-hold she was able to enjoy the views too:

tmp_23417-P1110087(Copy)1721204180tmp_23417-P1110093(Copy)1922190954tmp_23417-P1110095(Copy)1890273099tmp_23417-P1110096(Copy)2029567330tmp_23417-P1110104(Copy)760799198tmp_23417-P1110196(Copy)1462947617

We then walked through the park, past an attractive fountain, and out into the city itself. Here once again we were blown away by the attractive stone buildings with balconies, again set off by the lovely sunshine. We walked around for quite a while, and had good views of further buildings in the distance down side roads:

tmp_23417-P1110111(Copy)1907780070tmp_23417-P1110117(Copy)1666112275tmp_23417-P1110124(Copy)1352764871tmp_23417-P1110137(Copy)210699757tmp_23417-P1110144(Copy)2093899384tmp_23417-P1110145(Copy)1804296794tmp_23417-P1110160(Copy)1592375581tmp_23417-P1110172(Copy)513751617

On the way we passed this strange slatted wooden structure with seating inside, which Carol modelled for me:

tmp_23417-P1110130(Copy)1735027458

Everywhere we went both in the morning and afternoon there were flags flying at half mast as it was Good Friday – here is a particularly large example of the national flag:

tmp_23417-P1110158(Copy)1202326617

After a while Carol made the excellent suggestion of stopping at a café for some cold refreshments. Having rested there we started to make our way back first to the park and then to the ship via the lifts and of course the terminal building – thankfully by this time the long queues had cleared.

Around 5pm the ship set sail for our last port of call on this epic voyage – Málaga in Spain. My adventures there will be the subject of my next post.

Postscript: As we sailed out of Valletta they held a ‘Proms on the Poop Deck’ sailaway party – complete with very blue rum punch, and the powerful voice of Anthony Stuart Lloyd, a Welsh man-mountain singing the patriotic songs and hymns:

tmp_23417-P1110258(Copy)583688573tmp_23417-P1110200(Copy)1884182545tmp_23417-P1110229(Copy)1273413118tmp_23417-P1110280(Copy)411488578tmp_23417-P1110246(Copy)1721093987tmp_23417-P1110247(Copy)974953915tmp_23417-P1110302(Copy)406853807tmp_23417-P1110297(Copy)482031708

To round a magical day off, later there was a lovely sunset:

tmp_23417-P1110319(Copy)1342807670tmp_23417-P1110334(Copy)290019229

W1702 – Crete treat

In my last post, W1702 – Almost Egypt, I described how I almost visited Egypt – how I stayed on board the ship at our first port in that country, and how our visits to the other two planned ports were cancelled due to security concerns. I also described our transit of the Suez Canal, which runs through Egypt, and how as we exited the Canal our Captain announced that we would be visiting Heraklion in Crete as a replacement to the cancelled ports in Egypt.

Crete is the largest and most populous of the Greek islands, the 88th largest island in the world and the 5th largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, lying some 160 km south of the mainland of Greece. It was once the centre of the Minoan civilization (c. 2700–1420 BC), which is currently regarded as the earliest recorded civilization in Europe. Crete is 260 km wide from east to west, and from north to south it is 60 km at it’s widest point, but narrows to as little as 12 km at it’s narrowest point.

Heraklion is the largest city and the administrative capital of the island of Crete, and it is the fourth largest city in Greece. It was founded by the Muslims in 824, who built a moat around the city and made it the capital of the Emirate of Crete. In 961 it was attacked by Byzantine forces, who laid siege to the city. Eventually the city fell, the inhabitants were slaughtered and the city looted and razed to the ground. It was soon rebuilt and remained under Greek control for the next 243 years.

In 1204, the city was bought by the Republic of Venice as part of a complicated political deal. The Venetians built enormous fortifications, most of which are still in place, including a giant wall, in places up to 40 m thick, with 7 bastions, and a fortress in the harbour. After the Venetians came the Ottoman Empire. During the Cretan War (1645-1669), the Ottomans besieged the city for 21 years, from 1648 to 1669, perhaps the longest siege in history. In its final phase, which lasted for 22 months, 70,000 Turks, 38,000 Cretans and slaves and 29,088 of the city’s Christian defenders perished.

In 1898, the autonomous Cretan State was created, under Ottoman suzerainty, with Prince George of Greece as its High Commissioner and under international supervision. In 1913, with the rest of Crete, Heraklion was incorporated into the Kingdom of Greece. Heraklion became capital of Crete in 1971, replacing Chania.

The day after transiting the Suez Canal was spent mostly at sea crossing the Mediterranean Sea, and we sailed into Heraklion around 5:30 in the afternoon. I was amused to see an additional four-legged crew member in a bright orange life jacket on board the pilot boat as it delivered our pilot:

tmp_21367-P1100595~012051865812

Sailing into the port it was quite a shock to see snow lying on the ground at the top of the mountains behind the city. It had been very noticeable how much cooler and fresher the weather was since we had left the Suez Canal, but we certainly didn’t think it was that cold!

tmp_21367-P1100633~011491263143

From the ship I also had good views of the Venetian fortress of Rocca al Mare, and two Greek Orthodox churches amongst all the buildings on the hillside:

tmp_21367-P1100638~01764583010tmp_21367-P1100645~01~011888211466

The ship was staying in port overnight, and through the following day until 8pm. Some of the passengers promptly went ashore to eat in the city, but Carol and I remained on board until the following morning.

We had booked a coach tour with three stops which we hoped would give us as good as possible flavour of the island in one morning. The first stop was at the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. George Selinaris. Although we were unable to enter most of the buildings, we could view a tiny chapel that was beautifully decorated inside:

tmp_21367-P1100677~01396928019tmp_21367-P1100683~01118524021tmp_21367-P1100692~01654880048tmp_21367-P1100689~01983644691tmp_21367-P1100686~01115871615tmp_21367-P1100701~01629947569

The coach then continued the journey east along the north coast of Crete to a viewpoint overlooking Elounda Bay. Here we stopped for a few minutes to take pictures of Elounda and the island of Spinalonga far below:

tmp_21367-P1100739~011494524640tmp_21367-P1100742~011194512977

It was then a short drive to our final and longest stop, at the coastal town of Agios Nikolaos. Here the coach parked up on the quayside, and we had an hour to explore the town by ourselves. The town proved to be very attractive, with an outer harbour full of boats, and also an inner one that used to be a lake called Voulismeni until an entranceway was cut through to the sea in 1870. Historically it was thought that the lake was bottomless, in fact it is 64m deep.

tmp_21367-P1100812~012079812253tmp_21367-P1100810~01968315998tmp_21367-P1100806~0153685340tmp_21367-P1100796~011720360232tmp_21367-P1100798~011390948060tmp_21367-P1100800~011256176282

There were a number of streets full of interesting shops, and we also found a tiny and much larger churches, both beautifully decorated inside once more:

tmp_21367-P1100803~011867315325tmp_21367-P1100804~01840844406tmp_21367-P1100771~01464530576tmp_21367-P1100792~011040247339tmp_21367-P1100781~011560742017tmp_21367-P1100785~01216393136

Carol and I would have happily spent far longer exploring the town, way too soon it was time to return to the coach for the return journey to our ship.

After lunch and a short rest on board ship, Carol and I set off on foot to explore Heraklion. We walked along the seafront, past the huge Venetian city walls, to the Rocca al Mare fortress, only to find it had just closed for the day.

tmp_21367-P1100823~01692132133tmp_21367-P1100826~011132451523tmp_21367-P1100831~011617965445tmp_21367-P1100834~011836187956

We then walked up into the shopping area, where there were a few impressive buildings to be seen, as well as many touristy shops similar to those we had seen earlier in Agios Nikolaos:

tmp_21367-P1100843~01864085517tmp_21367-P1100845~01644373841tmp_21367-P1100841~011102042928

After walking around and in some of the shops for a while we headed back to our ship, pausing on a bench overlooking the harbour for a time watching the people and boats on the move.

tmp_21367-P1100818~011676092945

Despite much of the day being disappointingly cloudy, Carol and I very much found our unexpected day in Heraklion, Crete to be a treat; and we also appreciated being somewhere safe rather than being in Egypt with it’s ongoing troubles.

That evening we set sail for our next, and sadly penultimate port on this epic cruise, Valletta in Malta. Our adventures there will be the subject of my next post.

 

Postscript: I hope that this post makes as much sense as my posts normally do, as much of it was written this afternoon while I was under the ‘affluence of incahol’. Today we had a fabulous gala lunch for all the passengers about to complete sailing all around the world, at which the wine freely flowed. Those who know me will know that normally I don’t drink alcohol at all, and will therefore be amazed that I quaffed a couple of Bellinis during the meal. Carol was most interested to see what happened when I tried to walk away from the table afterwards, but to my surprise I was able to make it safely to my cabin without incident. Phew!

W1702 – Almost Egypt

In my last two posts, W1702 – Pirate precautions and W1702 – Salalah Souq,  I described the extra security measures being taken on board while we sailed the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea, and our visit to Salalah in Oman. As we neared our next port of call, Safaga in Egypt, the Captain announced that we were out of the danger area for pirates, and that the measures were no longer required and would be removed. It was also revealed that two fake machine guns had been installed on the crew deck at the stern of the ship, and we got to see one of them:

tmp_26514-P1100028~01106523207

We arrived in Safaga very early in the morning, and for once I decided to have a lie in and not go up on deck to watch us sail into port. When I did get myself up on deck later, I was very underwhelmed at our surroundings, and was glad I had voted for sleep! We were moored alongside a crumbling cement works, which made for some very non-scenic viewing:

tmp_7889-P1100129~01188067954tmp_19117-P1100099~01820004980tmp_27785-P1100122~01893240477

Carol and her Aunt Annie were especially impressed with the view outside their cabin:

tmp_13373-P1100144~01313715260

As I have probably mentioned in a previous post, I booked my shore tours at home, long before we set sail from Southampton on this epic voyage. There were two countries that I declined to book tours in, Oman and Egypt, as I felt very unsure about the security there, and wanted to wait until we were nearly there to assess whether going ashore in these countries would be safe. For Oman I did think it would be safe, and Carol and I enjoyed the tour ashore we made in Salalah.

However Egypt was a different story, and I did not want to book tours in two of the three Egyptian ports we were due to visit, Safaga and Alexandria. In the third port, Sharm El Sheikh, I did slightly nervously book a tour on a glass-bottomed boat along with several other people on my dinner table, although Carol said she had a bad feeling about Sharm El Sheikh and refused to book the tour.

This apprehension proved to be well founded when the Captain announced that due to an increased security warning level in Sharm El Sheikh, our visit there was cancelled, and instead we would stay on overnight in Safaga.

Carol and I, along with quite a proportion of the other passengers, remained on board ship throughout our stay in Safaga. Many of those who did brave it ashore were on a marathon 13 hour tour to the Valley of the Kings, which involved a four hour coach drive in each direction to get there – too much of an ordeal for me quite apart from the security problems.

When we set sail the following morning, we had an even clearer view of the cement works, but we did also get to see some slightly more scenic views of the port:

tmp_13373-P1100156~01938903071tmp_13373-P1100154~01736225247tmp_13373-P1100163~01601597463

We could also see just how busy a ferry port it was:

tmp_13373-P1100176~011856659053

We spent that day sailing north up the Red Sea and then the Gulf of Suez towards the Suez Canal. The Captain had announced that we would arrive there around 10pm and anchor up, and that we were due to join a convoy of ship’s sailing north through the canal around 4am.

The Suez Canal connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea through the Isthmus of Suez. It was constructed by the Suez Canal Company between 1859 and 1869, officially opening on the 17th November 1869. The canal offers a considerably shorter journey between the North Atlantic and northern Indian Oceans – by sailing via the Mediterranean and Red seas and avoiding the South Atlantic and southern Indian oceans, the journey is reduced by approximately 7,000 kilometres or 4,300 miles. Unlike the Panama Canal, which we traversed much earlier in the cruise (see W1702 – A man, a plan), the Suez Canal contains no locks, and sea water can flow freely from on end to the other.

The Suez Canal was originally constructed with just one lane, convoys of ship’s alternately sailing in one direction or the other, with just two passing places at the Ballah Bypass and the Great Bitter Lake. In August 2014, construction work began to expand and widen the Ballah Bypass for 35 km to speed up the transit time for the canal. This expansion was planned to double the capacity of the Suez Canal from 49 to 97 ships a day, and opened on the 6th August 2015 at a cost of $8.4 billion.

That afternoon news broke of the awful terrorist attacks in Alexandria and north of Cairo, and just before dinner the Captain came back on the tannoy to announce that in the circumstances our planned visit to Alexandria was under review. Urgent telephone conferences were planned with the company head offices, and a decision would be announced the following day.

Speculation was rife amongst the passengers as to what will happen, everyone thinking it very unlikely we would still go to Alexandria, especially when the State of Emergency was declared in the country. Some thought, or maybe hoped, that we would go to Crete instead, I thought it more likely we would get an additional day in our next planned port, Valletta in Malta.

I got up very early the following morning to watch and photograph our passage through the Suez Canal. I arrived on deck just as we were completing the passage of the shorter southern section, and were about to enter the Great Bitter Lake:

tmp_26514-DSC01459~01865800928tmp_13192-DSC01453~01712745899

Carol and I went back on deck to watch as we sailed most of the much longer northern section. Once again we were in convoy, with a warship ahead of us, and a car carrier then other merchant astern of us:

tmp_13192-P1100329~012069483089tmp_26514-P1100399~01806266204

As we travelled along there was endless sand on both banks, occasionally broken up by a road crossing with a vehicle ferry waiting for us to pass on one of the banks:

tmp_13373-P1100330~01333122204tmp_26514-P1100333~011301737064

Eventually we came to where a new town has been constructed on the eastern bank:

tmp_26514-P1100350~01541136925tmp_26514-P1100378~01628065268

Shortly afterwards we passed several monuments to the canal and those who built it on both banks of the canal:

tmp_26514-P1100359~01962737372tmp_26514-P1100365~011981485217tmp_26514-P1100367~01823206283tmp_26514-P1100371~01~01508725742tmp_26514-P1100369~01~011407809490tmp_26514-P1100370~01~01109946238tmp_26514-P1100374~01~012065296738tmp_26514-P1100376~01375590635

A while later we reached the Mubarak Peace Bridge, which crosses the canal on the outskirts of the city of El Qantara. The bridge, also known as the Egyptian-Japanese Friendship Bridge, was built by a Japanese company, and 60% of it’s cost was paid for by a grant from the Japanese Government. Construction started in 1995, and it was opened on the 9th of October 2001. The bridge has a 400-metre cable-stayed main span and two 1.8-kilometre long approach spans, and is 70 metres high.

tmp_26514-P1100410~01688362653tmp_26514-P1100416~01666879621tmp_26514-P1100415~01222467359tmp_26514-P1100418~01~01283659023tmp_26514-P1100421~011886510190

Sailing through El Qantara we did get to see a little of what an Egyptian city was like – we were in the strange situation of having almost visited Egypt – we had been in one of it’s ports and sailed through it’s canal, but never set foot on it’s land!

tmp_26514-P1100433~0166897543tmp_26514-P1100436~01817215597tmp_26514-P1100448~011472405234tmp_26514-P1100452~01112713737

It was then time for the Captain’s noon report, and as expected he announced our visit to Alexandria was cancelled. To my surprise, and the delight of virtually everyone, we would indeed be making a visit to the port of Heraklion in Crete following a day at sea instead. Our visit to Malta later in the week would remain unaffected by this change. Just an hour later we could book shore tours in Crete, showing hard and fast the planning work must have been in the previous few hours. My adventures in Crete will be the subject of my next post.

Postscript: The evening we were in Safaga, it was designated ‘Arabic Night’, and some of the passengers and crew were suitably attired:

tmp_26514-P1100136~011003230509tmp_26514-P1100137~014762298tmp_26514-P1100141~0152416930

W1702 – Salalah Souq

In my last post, W1702 – Pirate precautions, I described the additional security measures being taken on board ship as we sailed through the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, areas where Somali pirates have operated.

During this phase of our voyage, we spent a day in the port of Salalah in Oman. Here Carol and I had booked a shore tour which was a transfer to a souq, or Arabic market.

Salalah is the second largest city in the Sultanate of Oman, and the largest city and traditional capital of Dhofar Province. Dhofar reached the peak of it’s prosperity in the 13th century thanks to the incense trade. Later it decayed, and in the 19th century it was absorbed by the Sultanate of Muscat. Between 1932 and 1970, Salalah was the capital of the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman under Said bin Taimur. After the latter’s death, his son Qaboos bin Said decided to move the capital of Oman to Muscat, the largest city in Oman. The Sultan had traditionally lived in Salalah, however Qaboos bin Said has lived in Muscat since he ascended to the throne in 1970, and only makes visits to Salalah.

Salalah is one of only two places in the Arabian peninsula (besides Yemen) that experiences a monsoon season called Khareef (“autumn” in Arabic). This lasts from July to September, and during this time the brown landscape of Salalah and its surroundings is completely transformed to a beautiful and lush green, and both locals and tourists flock to the city. The Khareef also allows many fruit and vegetables to be grown in the area.

As usual I was up on deck early to watch us sail into the port, and as we approached the coast the sky was very hazy, but I could still just make out all the buildings on the low ground, with the steep hills behind.

tmp_31802-P1090647~0183567091

As the pilot boat approached it still seemed odd to see it underneath all the razor wire currently below our deck rail:

tmp_31802-P1090652~01492290567

As we sailed into the commercial harbour it was very much about things being all lined up:

– A warship with it’s crew lined up on the aft deck:

tmp_31802-P1090670~01556006300tmp_31802-P1090672~01297614066

– The local boats lined up against the quay:

tmp_31802-P1090674~011818780686

– The 4×4 cars on the quayside lined up waiting to take some of our passengers on tour:

tmp_31802-P1090683~011522116991

– Even the fish in the harbour were lined up in a shoal!

tmp_31802-P1090689~01176258161

Later Carol and I boarded our coach for our tour which provided a transfer to the local souq. The coach was rather old and tired, and the windows rather dirty, so I didn’t try to take any photographs on the way. We did have a local guide, who talked about the country and the local area, and also explained that we would actually have three things to see in our two hours of free time, the souq, a beach, and the grounds of the Sultan’s palace. Being a Muslim country, we were of course asked not to take our clothes off on the beach, but he thought we might like to take a paddle to cool off.

It took around half an hour to drive around the port and through the town to the drop-off point between the souq and the beach.

Carol and I decided to head for the souq first. We had been hoping that it would be a general souq for both locals and tourists selling a wide variety of products, but it was soon very evident that thus was just a tourist souq, with stall after stall selling identical products – we wondered how they could all possibly make a living competing with so many others selling identical things. The other problem once again was the degree of hassle you got once you walked anywhere near a stall, which made us just put our heads down and walk on by fast, rather than daring to stop and take a longer look at what was on offer. Many of our fellow passengers were doing the same, and it is surprising they don’t twig and back off when so many potential customers are walking on by fast this way.

We basically whisked though the souq in about 10 minutes flat, and emerging the other side looked at each other and wondered what we were going to do for the next hour and fifty minutes! It was fortunate that there was also the Sultan’s Palace and the beach to visit.

We entered the grounds of the Sultan’s Palace through a small door inset into huge carved wooden doors in a large and imposing gateway. Once inside, it was like stepping into another world, it was so calm and peaceful after the noise and bustle of the souq, and you can see how instantly relaxed and happy Carol was to be there:

tmp_31802-P1090702~01~011921337647

Everywhere was immaculately clean and neat, and all the buildings looked so sharp and crisp in the bright sunlight:

tmp_31802-P1090698~012038889639tmp_31802-P1090711~011461253024tmp_31802-P1090713~011044927213tmp_31802-P1090724~01476031426tmp_31802-P1090726~01650876684tmp_31802-P1090729~011846174336

A combination of gardeners and sprinklers were hard at work watering the gardens, which looked remarkably lush considering the high temperatures and lack of rainfall at this time of year:

tmp_31802-P1090718~01651388517

Just two things looked out of place in this sea of perfection – two of the clocks on the clocktower showed slightly different times, and some of the trees had rather a lean!

tmp_31802-P1090720~011275224505tmp_31802-P1090704~01235732170

We spent the best part of an hour walking around and relaxing in the Palace grounds before heading on to see the beach. This proved to be a lovely wide empty beach, with a surf crashing in. To one side there was a very substantial fence which extended out into the sea, this separated the public beach from that in front of the Sultan’s Palace. Carol went to paddle her feet at the water’s edge, while I was content to take more photographs:

tmp_20060-P1090747~011788472683tmp_31802-P1090746~01835891428tmp_31802-P1090755~01261790286

After her paddle, Carol walked over to the fence to lean on it as she replaced her shoes, and I took this photograph through it of the Sultan’s beach beyond. Quickly I became aware of shouting, and looked up to see an armed guard gesturing us vigorously to move away from the fence! This we quickly did, and we thought it prudent to leave the beach area before we got into further trouble. I did snatch one last view of the Palace area as we passed by though:

tmp_31802-P1090756~01761665362tmp_31802-P1090759~01330943907

We then decided to fill the time remaining by returning to the souq for another wander around, and this time I took some photographs as we did so:

tmp_31802-P1090761~01~012035377933tmp_31802-P1090762~01994705095tmp_31802-P1090764~011520895294tmp_31802-P1090766~01657637034tmp_31802-P1090767~011656249649

In the days before we reached Salalah there has been much banter at our dinner table about how many camels I might manage to barter Carol for at the souq as she is a blonde western lady. On April 1st the Cruise Director offered tours of the ship’s dairy to see the cows that supply the milk on board ship, and I speculated that I could keep the camels there, although I was a little apprehensive about persuading the camels to go up the ship’s gangplank. In the end the only camels I saw at the souq were these, and I didn’t think they would make a good return for Carol so she was safe!

tmp_31802-P1090765~0140515489

Almost all the passengers ended up either sat in a café on the edge of the souq, or like us sat under some trees nearby seeking rest and shade – basically the tour was too long for what there was to see and do. Finally at last it was time to re-board our coach for the return journey to our waiting ship.

On the way back I decided to take some snaps through the dirty window of the coach, just to capture some impressions of what the part of Salalah we drove through was like. Initially we passed a large area in which our local guide told us they grow many different types of fruit and vegetables:

tmp_31802-P1090773~01816310584

Next we passed an area of housing, before coming to an area where hotels and shops are being built on the edge of the city to help build the tourist industry. Our guide pointed out that while Dubai generates roughly 80% of it’s income from tourism and 20% from oil, in Oman it is roughly the other way around. With the fall in oil prices this has been a problem for Oman, and he told us that the Sultan is directing the country to invest heavily in building up the infrastructure for tourism to help combat this:

tmp_31802-P1090779~0178961262tmp_31802-P1090783~01~01108982307tmp_31802-P1090787~01~011165247365

As we approached the docks, I was surprised and interested to see an area of open water in this mainly dry region:

tmp_31802-P1090790~011796992570

Returning to our ship, we were once again glad to get back to our cabins for a much needed shower and rest. Later that day we set sail for our next port of call, Safaga in Egypt, which we would reach after four days at sea.

I had booked shore tours in almost all the ports and countries we are visiting on this epic cruise long before we sailed from Southampton, but due to my uncertainties over security, I had not booked any in Oman and Egypt. As it turned out, Oman was fine, and we both felt very safe on tour that day. However Egypt remained another story, and whether of not I even decide to leave the ship in the Egyptian ports we are due to visit is likely to be the subject of my next post.