M1716/7 – Back-to-back on Braemar

Introduction

It is a sign of how much my life has changed this year that I find myself starting to write a cruise blog almost exactly a month since the cruise set sail – or rather cruises – for as you have probably guessed from the title of this post, it was two consecutive cruises taken ‘back-to-back’. Regular readers will know why I have stopped blogging cruises as I actually take them, and this time my much busier life with my fiancée Carol has meant it’s been almost two weeks after our return before I have found the time to sit and write this – I hope I can remember enough about what happened on the cruise to make this post interesting!

The two cruises in question were M1716 – Scenic Fjords & Waterfalls of Norway (8 nights), and M1717 – German Waterways (10 nights).  The first and third cruises I made with Fred. Olsen were to the Norwegian fjords, way back in 2007 and 2008 – and they are so beautiful I was very glad to be making a return visit. By contrast the German waterways were completely new to me, other than making a transit of the Kiel Canal which I did on a Baltic cruise in 2010. The two new cruises were on the Fred. Olsen ship Braemar, the same ship as we had sailed the Rivers of France and Spain on a few weeks earlier.

The new cruises had originally been selected to be particularly suitable for my elderly friend Barbara, who was due to join Carol and I, since if she did not feel up to leaving the ship while it was in port, she could still enjoy plenty of scenery as we sailed the fjords and waterways. Sadly however she was too unwell to join us for either cruise after all, so unexpectedly Carol and I found ourselves on our first cruises by ourselves.

This was the first time either of us had done ‘back-to-back’ cruises, and we were interested to see how it would all work out, especially on the changeover day. Unfortunately we had to change cabins for the second cruise, but we had been reassured that this was made as simple and easy as possible for us. There would also prove to be a number of other ‘firsts’ on these cruises – more on this later…

 

M1716 – Scenic Fjords & Waterfalls of Norway

 

M1716_map_web_original

As you will see from the map, the main emphasis of the first cruise was sailing many of the most scenic fjords in central and southern Norway, with just three ports of call – Eidfjord, Skjolden and Bergen.

 

Sailing from Southampton

We sailed from Southampton around an hour earlier than usual on a lovely sunny afternoon, which meant not only we could enjoy good views of Southampton Water and the Solent, but also we could stay on deck for further than usual before having to go below to have our dinner, which allowed me for once to take some photographs as we sailed past the Isle of Wight and Portsmouth:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Cruising Lysefjord

After a day and a half sailing up the English Channel and the North Sea – the latter thankfully calm with distant views of many oil rigs – we reached our first fjord and began our scenic cruising. Unfortunately someone had forgotten to tell the weather, for it was very damp and misty, which meant we all but failed to see the two significant features to be seen in Lysefjord – Preikestolen and Kjeragbolten.

Preikestolen – otherwise known as the Pulpit Rock – is a mountain plateau that hangs 604 meters above the fjord. It has an almost flat top, some 25 by 25 metres in size, and many people hike there to stand and admire dramatic views of the fjord below. On my cruise in 2007 I had taken a tour on a small boat from Stavanger around Lysefjord on a bright and clear sunny morning, and had had wonderful views of Preikestolen, but this time we only caught a brief glimpse of it between the low clouds and swirling mist – the contrast between the two days and experiences is quite striking:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Further up the fjord lies Kjeragbolten, a 5-cubic-metre rock wedged in a crevasse on the Kjerag mountain, suspended above a 984-metre deep abyss. Like Preikestolen it is a popular tourist destination, and is accessible without any climbing equipment. My tour in 2007 had not ventured far enough up the fjord to see Kjeragbolten, so it was a great disappointment that this time the low clouds and mist completely obscured it.

Here are some of the other photographs I struggled to take in Lysefjord before we retreated to the warmth and dryness of our cabin:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Cruising Hardangerfjord

With fingers firmly crossed for better conditions, I was up on deck bright and early the following morning to enjoy and photograph our sailing up Hardangerfjord towards our first port of call – Eidfjord. Cruising in the very early mornings in Norway – whether it is up the inner channel of the coastline, or up the fjords – is an absolute highlight for me – everything is so serene, peaceful and beautiful. In the early mornings the water is flat calm and acts like a mirror – giving amazing reflections of the mountains. When I was first on deck – around 5:10 – I was the only one there, and even by the time we had sailed under the Hardanger Bridge and reached Eidfjord around an hour and a half later there were only a handful or so of us to witness breathtakingly beautiful conditions and scenery. I find it astonishing that the vast majority of passengers – Carol included – would rather be in bed than witness this spectacle:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Eidfjord

The village of Eidfjord lies around 15 kilometres east of the Hardanger Bridge at the head of Eidfjorden, an inner branch of Hardangerfjord. It is the largest settlement in the Eidfjord municipality, but only has a population of around 550 people. As we approached the small quay several blue lights flashing in the village caught my attention, and I could see that they were on fire engines, and a number of firemen on tall ladders were tackling a house fire:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As we ate our breakfast in the small restaurant  high on the ship we had good views of the village below in the bright sunshine, and afterwards Carol and I went out on deck to take some photographs in the bright clear conditions:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The tour we had selected in Eidfjord was to the Hardangervidda National Park, where we would see the mountain plateau, a waterfall and a lake & dam; having first visited a Nature Centre providing information about the Park. At the Nature Centre there were exhibitions and displays featuring live fish and stuffed animals & birds, and the inevitable gift shop, but the clear highlight was a twenty minute film about the Park. This was shown in a cinema with five large screens displayed in an arc, and was mostly aerial scenes shot from a helicopter swooping over the landscape, with an excellent soundtrack. It was easy to feel that the whole building was banking and turning as the helicopter swept over the fjords, waterfalls and lakes. It made a very dramatic and memorable experience, and I was so impressed I bought a DVD of the film, even though I knew that on a normal television it could not possibly have the same dramatic impact. (On returning home Carol and I have watched the DVD a couple of times, and have been impressed how good it still looks on a single screen).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Leaving the Nature Centre we took the narrow twisting road though the narrow valley of Måbødalen, with its many hairpin bends, climbing steadily up onto the Hardangervidda mountain plateau. The plateau is the largest peneplain (eroded plain) in Europe, covering an area of about 6,500 sq km, with an average elevation of around 1,100 metres. The plateau consists of barren moorland, interspersed with numerous lakes, pools, rivers and streams.

Our first stop was at the Fossli Hotel, which is situated on the top of a high cliff overlooking Vøringfossen, a stunning waterfall with a total drop of 182 metres, and a major drop of 163 metres. While most people on the tour retired to the hotel for a coffee, I was more intent on photographing the waterfall from each of the many viewpoints provided:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We then drove on across the plateau to the Sysen Dam, where we had another photo-stop. Here we walked part-way across the dam, admiring the views of the lake and of the surrounding countryside, as well as the many tiny flowering plants which struggle to survive in this high and difficult terrain:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Our coach then took us back the same way to Eidford, but here the guide asked the driver to take us through a different part of the village so that we could see both the old and new churches. As we returned to our ship we could see that the weather was closing in once more, so Carol and I quickly set out for a walk around the village. We found some interesting sculptures, including two faces – one of which was convex and one was concave – I will let you decide which was which:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The rain then set in, and Carol returned to the ship while I pressed on to quickly grab some photographs of the churches and an impressive war memorial nearby:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

By the time I returned to the ship it was raining heavily, so as I had watched us sail up the fjord that morning, I didn’t bother to go up on deck to watch us sail back down.

 

Cruising Nærøyfjord, Sognefjord & Lustrafjord

The following morning we cruised Nærøyfjord,  an 18 kilometre branch of the large Songefjord. Nærøyfjord is stunningly beautiful, and is only 500 metres wide in places. It has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2005, and the National Geographic Society rated it number one natural heritage site, jointly with Geirangerfjord.

While normally I would have been up on deck bright and early to watch and photograph every moment we were in Nærøyfjord, unfortunately that morning was also Carol’s birthday, and celebrating that took precedence. By the time we got up on deck we were already sailing back down Nærøyfjord towards Songefjord. To my delight the sun was out, and I was able to take plenty of photographs of this stunning fjord:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We were also interested to watch the videographer they had on board flying his drone around the ship, taking videos of her as she sailed this beautiful fjord:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Skjolden

Having returned to Songefjord, and sailed further up this fjord to Lustrafjord, we eventually sailed into our second port of call, Skjolden, early in the afternoon. Skjolden is located at the innermost point of the Songefjord system, over 200 kilometres from where the fjord meets the open ocean. It is a very tiny village of some 200 people, but even so there was no time to look around as we were only there for the afternoon and we were due to be out on a ship’s tour to the Jotunheimen National Park.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Jotunheimen National Park covers over 1,150 square kilometres of the Scandinavian Mountain Range, and is a very popular area for hiking and climbing. It contains the two highest mountain peaks in Northern Europe, Galdhøpiggen at 2,469 metres, and Glittertind at 2,465 metres; and over 250 peaks rise above 1,900 metres, with numerous valleys carved by glaciers in between.

Crossing the Jotunheimen National Park is the Sognefjell Mountain Road, a national tourist route, and at 1,434 metres it is the highest mountain crossing in Northern Europe. Our tour took us along this mountain road, and as we climbed high into the mountains there was plenty of snow to be seen, despite it being mid-summer. There were two photo-stops, the first at a viewpoint on the way up into the mountains, and the second longer one beside a lake on the high plateau:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

On the way back to our ship we had a final photo-stop to view the dramatic Asafossen waterfall:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Bergen

The next day we sailed into our third and final port of call, Bergen, the second-largest city in Norway. Bergen is a busy port, with over 300 cruise ship calls each year, bringing nearly half a million passengers to the city. The city was founded in the 11th century, and for a short while it was the capital city of Norway. From the 13th century it was a bureau city of the Hanseatic League, the commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and their market towns. A range of wooden quayside commercial buildings from the Hanseatic trading period known as the Bryggen are on the UNESCO list of World Cultural Heritage sites and a very popular tourist attraction.

Both Carol and I had visited Bergen before, and were therefore content to just go ashore by ourselves and wander around the city for a while, rather than take a formal tour. Knowing that there were several other cruise ships in port, we decided to leave the ship early and try to get ahead of the crowds. Walking from our cruise terminal towards the city centre we first passed the Bryggen, and stopped to look around the lovely old wooden buildings with their narrow alleyways in between before they got too busy:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Bergen is famed for its high rainfall, indeed nearly all of my previous visits there have been on wet days. Unusually this time it was dry and just partially cloudy, so I wanted to take the opportunity to take the Fløibanen, a funicular railway which runs up Mount Fløyen, from which there are stunning views across the city. I had last been up there way back in 2005, but since then had never had the weather to make the trip worthwhile. Regular readers may remember that Carol is not good with heights, but she bravely agreed that we could take the trip, provided the queues for the train were not too long, which to my relief was the case. Once at the top, Carol hung back while I went to the edge of the viewing areas to take some dramatic panoramic shots:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

When we returned to the city station we found that the queues for the railway were now stretching way down the street, so our early start had definitely paid off – at least from my point of view!

We then spent quite some time wandering around the city’s streets and parks, and as usual we were on the lookout for the quirky or unusual for me to photograph:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Cruising southern fjords

The next day we had one final morning of cruising the Norwegian fjords before we returned to the UK. We cruised an array of fjords in Southern Norway – Hidrasund & Strandsfjorden, Flekkefjorden & Stolsfjorden, Fedafjorden & Listafjorden and Rosfjorden. While these were very attractive, especially in the bright sunshine, they lacked the drama brought by all the high mountains featured in the earlier fjords in Mid Norway. We did see several oil rigs that had been brought up into the fjords for either repairs or storage, and at one point we passed though a very narrow gap between the shore and an island, which emphasised how steeply the sides of a fjord descend into the water:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Returning to Southampton

We then spent the next day and a half sailing back to our home port, Southampton. There is a definite rhythm to a shorter cruise on Fred. Olsen, including the formal nights at the beginning and end, the British Night part way through, and the crew talent show & gala buffet at the end. I am not sure how conscious or subconscious the decisions were, but we found that we went to the British night sing-along and show on the first cruise, and the crew talent show & gala buffet on the second cruise, thus as it were merging the two cruises into one longer cruise with the same rhythm.

 

Changeover Day in Southampton

It did seem rather strange not to be packing everything up in our suitcases on the final day of the Norwegian cruise, and on the day we arrived back in Southampton while we still had to be up very early for breakfast, we could just sit back and relax while almost all the other passengers were anxiously waiting in their coats for the call to disembark the ship.

We had been told that the crew would take all our clothes hanging on hangers to the new cabin using a set of rails on wheels, so all we had to do was gather together our things in drawers and on shelves. Once our new cabin was ready, a crewman duly arrived to wheel our stuff there – most of our bags also went on the bottom of his trolley. By around half past ten we were all unpacked and installed in our new cabin, and we were able to set off and enjoy an almost empty ship. It all seemed very peaceful and quiet, and we almost resented it when the new set of passengers began boarding around half past one:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

When I first booked these back-to-back cruises, I was told that what happened for lunch depended on how many people were also staying onboard. If there were enough they would open a restaurant for us, otherwise we would need to use room service. In the event there were only half a dozen of us staying on, and when we returned to our new cabin around midday we found a tray had been left in the cabin for us. All that was there for the two of us were half a dozen finger sandwiches and a few small pastries.  This was the one aspect of handling the staying on board we didn’t think they got right, for when we went up to the cafe a little later so that Carol could have a hot drink, we found they were serving soup, one main course and a hot dessert up there, as well as a range of sandwiches and cakes for the boarding passengers – surely it would have been simpler and better all round just to have directed us up there too.

 

M1717 – German Waterways

M1717_map_web_original

As you will see from the map, the second cruise took us to four ports of call in Northern Germany – Flensburg, Travemünde, Hamburg and Bremen – sailing a fjord, the Kiel Canal and several rivers on the way.

 

Sailing from Southampton

Once again we sailed at the earlier time  from Southampton, but the contrast between the starts to the two cruises was quite marked – while the first cruise set off in warm sunshine and we could stand and watch from the bows of the ship, this time we sat huddled at the sheltered stern of the ship, and after a while retreated under an awning when it started to rain.

This time we had two full days at sea, retracing our steps though the channel and up the North Sea, but this time looping over the top of Denmark before sailing south again in the Baltic Sea towards our first port of call, Flensburg. Once again we were blessed with calm seas.

 

Unexpected award

Fred. Olsen operates a loyalty scheme called Oceans, each night you spend on board earns you an ‘Oceans Point’, and there are different membership bands providing different rewards for the number of points accrued. There used to be three bands – Blue, Silver and Gold – but recently more were added so now there is Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum and Diamond Elite. Following our long World Cruise earlier this year, Carol is a Gold member, and I am now Platinum. During each cruise a cocktail party is held for members who are Silver and above, and during the party an award is made to the person with most points on that cruise, who has not already won the award in the same 12 month period.

I have known the award to go to people with points in the high hundreds, or even over 1000 points – so I was greatly surprised to find I was to get the award on this cruise with my 476 points! Apparently there were two ladies on board who had around twenty points more,  but they had already won an award this year.  The Oceans scheme is administered on board by the same lady who does future cruise bookings, and we knew the lady on board this cruise as she was also on our world cruise and had done a cruise booking for us then. She know about how Carol and I met and got engaged on the World Cruise, and asked if the Captain could tell our story when he presented my award at the cocktail party. I received a voucher towards another cruise and a bottle of bubbly, and Carol received a lovely bouquet of flowers from the Captain – another ‘first’ on this cruise:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Flensburg Fjord

On the third day I was up on deck just before 7am to watch and photograph us sail up Flensburg Fjord, the westernmost inlet of the Baltic Sea. After the high mountains surrounding the Mid Norwegian Fjords, and the hills around the Southern Norwegian fjords that we had seen so recently, the surrounding countryside seemed very flat. However it was a lovely still and sunny morning, and once again there was hardly anyone else also up on deck to see the lovely scenes unfold. I was particularly taken by the cute little black pilots boat:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As we approached our first port, Flensburg, located at the far end of the fjord, the numbers on deck did increase. We docked against a quay which was clearly normally used for sand and gravel – there were no luxuries here like cruise terminal buildings, the gangplank just let down to a gap on the quay where the piles of sand and gravel had been pushed aside:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Flensburg

Our first port of call in Germany, Flensburg, is located just south of the German-Danish border at the innermost tip of the Flensburg Fjord, and is Germany’s northernmost mainland town. It was founded around 1200 by Danish settlers, who were soon joined by German merchants. It never became a member of the Hanseatic League, but it was still an important and busy port, especially for the export of herrings which were sent to almost every European country. Later in the 18th century the rum trade became very important, it was refined in the town from cane sugar imported from the Danish West Indies.

Following the Second Schleswig War in 1864, Flensburg passed from Denmark to the Kingdom of Prussia, and since then the German language has prevailed in the town. In 1920 the League of Nations decided that the German-Danish border would be settled by a vote, and while some of Flensburg’s northern neighbourhoods returned to Denmark, Flensburg itself voted to remain in Germany. Even to this day around 25% of the population of Flensburg remain Danish, who run their own schools, libraries and Lutheran churches from which the German majority are not excluded.

In May 1945, Flensburg was the site of the last government of Nazi Germany, the so-called Flensburg Government led by Admiral Karl Dönitz. This was in power for just one week from 1 May (when Hitler’s death was announced) until the German armies surrendered and the town was occupied by Allied troops.

Carol and I had originally booked a longer tour from Flensburg, but having seen and heard in the port talk on board ship how attractive and interesting it looked, we changed our booking to a half day tour in the morning so that we could explore the town during the afternoon. Our tour was to visit the nearby Glücksburg Castle, one of the most important Renaissance castles in Northern Europe, and to view the roses in its nearby Glücksburger Rosarium.

There were two coaches in this tour, and our coach visited the Rosarium first, while the other visited the castle. The Rosarium covers more than 10,000 square meters, and is home to over 500 different varieties of rose, including English, modern, rambler and common wild roses. We were given a guided tour by two guides, the first giving detailed information about the types and varieties of the roses, along with their propagation methods in German, after which the second guide translated this information into English. While for those passengers who were keen gardeners all this information might have been very interesting, but there were many like Carol and I who found all this rather slow and tedious, and we began to wander off by ourselves. We thought it would have been better to say at the start of the visit that they would be a guided tour with detailed information for those who want it, and for the others just a time and a place to reassemble so that they could freely wander off on their own.

Unfortunately the roses were just past their best, but I still managed to get some good photographs of them. We were also entertained by a pair of very large and hairy dogs next door, especially when one of them stood up on his back legs leaning on the gate – looking for all the world like a man dressed up in a dog suit:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We then walked around to the Castle, which looked very dramatic being mostly surrounded by water. The castle was built between 1582 to 1587 by Nikolaus Karie, for John II, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg. It was built at the site of a former monastery, and building material from the monastery was partly reused in the castle. Once complete, the grounds of the monastery were flooded to create a lake which almost entirely surrounds the castle.

The castle is built on a 2.5 metres high granite foundation that emerges from the water. The base area is a square with sides of nearly 30 metres, consisting of three separate houses with their own roofs. The great halls and the vestibule are situated in the middle house, while the living space is located in the two side houses. A chapel is part of two of the houses. On each corner of the castle there is a tower with a diameter of seven meters. On the court yard front there are two stair towers, these form the only connection between the floors of the castle. The castle is the seat of the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg and was also used by the Danish kings.

We were given a guided tour around the insides of the castle by a local guide dressed in historic clothing:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As we walked back to our waiting coach I was able to get some good photographs of the castle surrounded by the lake:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

After returning to our ship for lunch, Carol and I set off to explore the town on foot, having taken the shuttle bus from the quay to the town centre. We loved walking around the old buildings, and found plenty of quirky things to photograph too:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Travemünde

The following morning we sailed into our second port of call on the German Waterways cruise, Travemünde. Travemünde began life as a fortress built by Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony, in the 12th century to guard the mouth of the River Trave Trave in Lübeck Bay, and the Danes subsequently strengthened it. It became a town in 1317, and in 1329 it passed into the possession of the free city of Lübeck, to which it has since belonged. The fortifications were demolished in 1807.

Travemünde has been a seaside resort since 1802, and is Germany’s largest ferry port on the Baltic Sea with connections to Sweden, Finland, Latvia, Estonia and Russia. The old lighthouse is the oldest on the German Baltic coast, dating from 1539, but this is no longer in use, having been replaced by a light on top of a hotel tower block which dominates the seafront. Another attraction of Travemünde is the Flying P-Liner Passat, a museum ship anchored in the mouth of the Trave.

I went up on deck to watch our approach to the port, and as we did so I could see rows and rows of the strandkorb wicker beach chairs that are a feature of nearly all the seafront resorts in Germany. Constructed from wicker, wood panels and canvas, they usually seat up to two persons, with reclining backrests, and are designed to provide comfortable seating and shelter from wind, rain, wind-blown sand and the sun. There were also good views of the old lighthouse, the Passat and another tall ship Mare Frisium, and the lovely old buildings along the river bank:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The tour that Carol and I had booked in Travemünde was a simple coach transfer to the historic city of Lübeck, where we had free time to walk around and explore by ourselves. We were provided with a map of the old city, which we used to make our way around. While there were many lovely old buildings to be seen, we were both a little surprised just how many modern buildings there were in between, largely as the result of extensive damage sustained by the city during the second world war. There was still more than enough to occupy our time before we rejoined our coach for the return journey to the ship, and we left feeling there would be plenty more to see if we were ever to return that way:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

After lunch on board the ship, Carol decided to rest on board, so I set out alone to explore Travemünde itself. I set out along the river waterfront, where many stalls were being set up, heading towards the beach area as I wanted to take some closer photographs of the strandkorb wicker beach chairs:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I then headed inland to see the train station, famed for having two clocks – an analogue one showing the current time, and a digital one showing the time of the next train – said to be so that people on the beach can see when the next train is due to leave. From there I walked through a wooded parkland area, where the birds were singing – it was a most unexpected bonus to have such a woodland walk in the middle of a cruise! The path brought me back to the two roads running parallel to the river waterfront, and just as I finished exploring those the rain started in earnest, so I quickly made my way back to the ship:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Shortly before we set sail late that afternoon a male voice choir from the Passat sailing ship had been due to sing to us from the quayside. The heavy rain meant this had to be relocated to the ship’s theatre, which was fine for us passengers, but the crowd of locals and tourists that had assembled on the quayside were left disappointed. We were treated to just a short concert, as the same choir were booked to provide a much longer one while we were docked in our next port, Hamburg, three nights later:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Kiel Canal Transit

It was another early start the following morning, to watch the ship enter the lock at the eastern end of the Kiel Canal at Kiel-Holtenau at around 6:30. The Kiel Canal is a 98-kilometre long freshwater canal passing through the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, and links the North Sea at Brunsbüttel to the Baltic Sea at Kiel-Holtenau.  The canal was finished in 1895, but widened between 1907 and 1914 to meet increasing traffic and the demands of the Imperial German Navy. After World War I, the Treaty of Versailles required the canal to be open to vessels of commerce and of war of any nation at peace with Germany, while leaving it under German administration. The government under Adolf Hitler repudiated its international status in 1936, but after World War II the canal was reopened to all traffic.

An average of 250 nautical miles (460 km) is saved by using the Kiel Canal instead of going around the Jutland Peninsula. All permanent, fixed bridges crossing the canal since its construction have a clearance of 42 metres. The maximum length for ships passing the Kiel Canal is 235.50 metres, and the maximum width is 32.50 metres, meaning only smaller cruise ships like those belonging to Fred. Olsen can use the canal. Despite these size restrictions, it is the busiest artificial waterway in the world.

As we passed through the lock at Kiel-Holtenau we were joined by three sailing ships. As the water level difference is small, there is no requirement for the mules we saw in use on the Panama Canal earlier this year (see W1702 – A man, a plan). Once again I was surprised how few people were up on deck to watch us transit the lock:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Once we were safely through the lock, I joined Carol for breakfast in the restaurant on the upper deck. It was lovely, but slightly surreal, to sit on a cruise ship watching the countryside slip past as we sailed down the canal, especially as it was not possible to see the water from that height. We then spent much up the time sitting up on deck at the stern of the ship watching us drift along the canal:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

After some time we reached the impressive Rendsburg High Bridge, which carries the railway line between Neumünster and Flensburg across the canal. The bridge was erected between 1911 and 1913 to a design by Friedrich Voss and replaced earlier swing bridges. The steel viaduct has a length of 2,486 metres and is supplemented by embankments that bring the overall length of the structure to about 7.5 kilometres. The cantilever main bridge is 317 metres long, has a main span of 140 metres and provides the required clearance of 42 metres above the canal’s water level.

Beneath the railway track there should be a Schwebefähre (suspension ferry) – a gondola that carries up to four cars and foot passengers across the canal forming a transporter bridge. Sadly the gondola was struck by a cargo ship in January 2016, and sustained severe damage, and has had to be removed. A replacement gondola is currently under construction. I had seen the gondola in operation when I went through the canal in 2010, and was disappointed not to see it in action once again:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

By mid afternoon we reached the lock at the western end of the canal, at Brunsbüttel. This time there were plenty of people up on deck to watch us pass through:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Once clear of the canal, we then sailed up the River Elbe, and arrived in our third port of call, Hamburg, mid evening. Carol and I had considered going ashore to explore once we had docked, but on seeing we were docked next to a huge building site, we decided to wait until the morning and full daylight.

 

Hamburg

Hamburg, officially Freie und Hansestadt Hamburg (the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg) is the second largest city and a state of Germany, with a population of over 1.7 million people. The official name reflects Hamburg’s history – it was a member of the Hanseatic League, a free imperial city of the Holy Roman Empire, a city-state, and one of the 16 states of Germany. Before the unification of Germany in 1871 it was a fully sovereign state, and prior to the constitutional changes in 1919, the civic republic was ruled by Hanseaten – a class of hereditary grand burghers. Although the city has  repeatedly suffered great damage – by the Great Fire of Hamburg, the floods, and military conflicts including WW2 bombing raids – the city has managed to recover, and emerged wealthier each time.

Located on the River Elbe, Hamburg is a major port, and it is also a global service, media, logistics and industrial hub, with headquarters and facilities for many international companies. It is also a major European science, research, and education hub, with several universities and institutes. Hamburg has been an important financial centre for centuries and is the seat of Germany’s oldest stock exchange and the world’s second oldest bank. The Reeperbahn is among Europe’s best known entertainment districts, and famous for where The Beatles first started.

After breakfast the following morning we went out on deck so that I could take some photographs of the huge building site that had greeted us the night before:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We were docked close to HafenCity, a vast urban regeneration project of part of the former Hamburg free port, which is the largest urban redevelopment project in Europe by landmass – around 2.2 square kilometres. The ground-breaking ceremony was held in June 2001, and the whole project is not expected to complete until sometime between 2025 and 2030, by when the area will be home to around 12,000 people, and be a workplace for around 40,000.

Carol and I were booked on two shore tours, one during the afternoon and one in the evening. Knowing the weather forecast was not good, we set off early to explore the local area in foot. We passed an array of modern buildings in the first part of HafenCity to be completed. The architecture of one or two of these was interesting – a rounded tower block with balconies twisted like ribbon, and the striking Elbphilharmonie concert hall with its complex curved roof – but all too many were just boring boxes:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Just a little further we came to an area where the old brick warehouses had sympathetically been restored, and the contrast was very apparent. I felt it a shame that the design for all the new buildings did not at least give a nod to the heritage they were built in by echoing in some way the old warehouses so close to them or even each other. It seemed to me as if a whole load of architects had each been asked to design a building, without being shown what was there already, or what each other had designed.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Before long the rain really started to set in, so we made our way back to the ship, and rested there ahead of our tours later in the day.

The afternoon tour was in two parts – a coach tour with a couple of photo-stops around the city centre, then a visit to Miniatur Wunderland – the largest model railway in the world. The first stop on the coach tour was at the Rathaus – the town hall – a lovely building in the heart of the city. It was constructed between 1886 & 1897, and still houses its original governmental functions with the office of the First Mayor of Hamburg and the meeting rooms for Hamburg’s Parliament and Senate:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

On the square outside the Rathaus the local guide pointed out a man in fancy dress busy sweeping up. He told us that the local tradition is that if on your 30th birthday you are still single, you must sweep the square until released by being kissed by a virgin!

DSC04107(Copy)

Our coach tour continued around the city, passing along the Reeperbahn, once infamous as a red-light district, but now theatres and music halls have moved there it has become a popular entertainment district:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Our second photo-stop was at St Michael’s Church, the largest baroque church in Northern Germany, with a 132-metre high spire. The church is the third to be build on the site, construction was completed in 1786. Here we were supposed to view the inside of the church and hear an organ recital, but unfortunately a posh wedding was about to take place and we were not allowed to enter it.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Instead our guide took across the road to see Krameramtsstuben, or Grocer’s Apartments. Built between 1620 and 1700 as homes for widows of members of the Grocers’ Institute, these timber-framed buildings form the last of the 17th century enclosed courtyards of Hamburg. They demonstrate how close together the houses used to be built, and therefore how easily fire could spread within the city. For some reason these signs hanging at the end of the street amused Carol:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We were then driven to Miniatur Wunderland, which is located on the top two floors of one of the regenerated old brick warehouses we had seen on our walk from the ship that morning. On hearing that we would have two hours to view the attraction, Carol was concerned that she might get bored, but in the end we both said that we would have both like much longer to really see everything there was to see in this fascinating attraction.

It was started by two men showing off their model railway system, but it has grown and grown over the years to be the largest model railway in the world – although it is really so much more than a model railway. Currently, there are 9 completed model layouts: Austria, Knuffingen, Middle Germany, Hamburg, USA, Scandinavia, Switzerland, Knuffingen Airport and Italy. More layouts are planned, with proposed construction dates listed right out to 2028 – it looks like we will have to wait until late 2021 to see England and Scotland represented. Here are some of the astonishing statistics from their website:

  Current (Autumn 2016) Current Planning Until 2028
Leased Floorspace 7,000 m² 10,000 m²
Layout Size 1,490 m² over 2,300 m²
Construction Areas 9 13
Track Length 15,400 Meters approx. 20,000 Meters
Trains 1040 approx. 1,300
Wagons more than 10,000 17,000
Longest Train 14.51 Meters 14.51 Meters
Signals 1,380 1,900
Switches 3,454 4,000
Computers 50 64
Lights approx. 385,000 over 500,000
Buildings and Bridges 4,110 6,000
Figurines 260,000 400,000
Kidnapped Figurines (annually) 3,500  
Cars 9,250 11,000
Trees 130,000 200,000
Man Hours 760,000 900,000
Staff 360 360
Construction Cost 20,000,000 € approx. 25,000,000 €

It really was the case that the more you looked, the more there was to see, with so many little touches and details to amuse and fascinate you. Every so often the lighting would change to night-time. Here are just a few of the 280 photographs I took there:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We only had a short turn-around time back at the ship before it was time to set off on our evening tour, a cruise by boat on the city’s waterways. We were taken by coach to the city centre to board our boat. It turned out that the boat we were supposed to use was broken, so instead we got to use a very modern electric one – it’s glass roof was covered in solar panels – and it glided silently around the Inner and Outer Alster Lakes. We could see many interesting buildings on the banks of the lakes, but at one stage we were overtaken by an old steam boat!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

On the way back to the ship our coach took us for a shorter tour of the city, including back along the Reeperbahn once more:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Our ship remained in port for a second night, and set sail for our final port, Bremen, very early the following morning. We spent that day sailing down the River Elbe to the sea, and then around to the River Weser which we then sailed up, reaching Bremen around 9pm that evening.

 

Bremen

Our fourth and final port of call on this cruise, Bremen, lies some 60km south of the mouth of the River Weser. The area has been settled since around 12,000 BC, and the city’s first stone walls were built in 1032. Part of the Hanseatic League, the city grew as a major port, but silting of the river now prevents access for larger ships, which now dock at Bremerhaven at the mouth of the river – Bremen and Bremerhaven together comprise the state of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen. Bremen is the second most populous city in Northern Germany, and a major economic and cultural hub.

The tour we had booked in Bremen was a guided walking tour around the historic old town. A coach dropped us close to the market square, where our excellent guide began our tour of the many wonderful old buildings and statues to be seen in the city, including the UNESCO-listed Rathaus or town hall, the Cathedral, the statue of Roland the city’s protector, and the famous status of the donkey, dog, cat and rooster from the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale ‘Town Musicians’:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Our tour included a visit to the Schnoor, a small, well-preserved area of crooked lanes, fishermen’s and shipper’s houses from the 17th and 18th centuries, now occupied by cafés, artisan shops and art galleries:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The tour continued along part of the riverbank, then looped back to the market square once more:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

At the end of our tour we elected to remain in the city and explore some more by ourselves, returning to the ship later by shuttle bus. Later that afternoon we reluctantly set sail for Southampton and home.

 

Dinner at the Captain’s Table

On our last formal night which was on the way back to Southampton, Carol and I received another unexpected invitation – this time to have our dinner at the Captain’s table. This was another ‘first’ on this cruise – on all the twenty something cruises I have made with Fred. Olsen this has not happened before.

As well as the Captain and his fiancée (they also met on board ship), there were 10 passengers at the dinner table. At the pre-dinner drinks we asked the Captain how people were selected, he said that the Oceans award winner was always chosen (hence our invite), and then a mix of longstanding passengers and new ones. It was a lovely meal and evening, at the end of which we were presented with a photograph of everyone there, complete with a personal message from the Captain written on its folder:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Conclusion

These were a most enjoyable pair of cruises, and it was lovely to be reacquainted with the stunning Norwegian fjords, and to discover how attractive and interesting the historic towns and cities of Northern Germany are. The cruises were made even more memorable by the ‘firsts’ we experienced – remaining on board for a ‘back-to-back’, receiving the Oceans award and having dinner at the Captain’s table.  Doing short cruises ‘back-to-back’ works well and is definitely something we would consider in the future, as otherwise they would be over far too quickly having got used to sailing on very long cruises.

Advertisements

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