M1710 – The Rivers of Spain and France


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.



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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.


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