Sunday June 18th – La Spezia – Italy
I think dawn breaking must have woken me this morning. It was about 06:15 and we were entering La Spezia harbour. This is a first visit here for me and the only stop in Italy on this cruise. From my balcony it looks to be a typical northern Italian small port, built on the small area of land between sea and the hills. My coach trip to Lerici and the Gulf of Poets was supposed to leave a 09:00 but I have received a note saying it doesn’t now leave until 12:30 so I’m in no rush this morning.
As I had never heard of Lerici I ‘Googled’ it before booking the excursion and it described it as ‘a stunningly beautiful village’ about 8 km southeast of La Spezia with a lovely old castle, located in The Bay of Poets, so named because it is where Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned. I read it is a gem of the Italian Riviera with a fabulous beach and well worth a visit. Well, I certainly hope so, I will tell you if it lives up to the hype when I return to the ship this evening.
We are docked in a commercial port today and the authorities insist that passengers leave and return to the ship by free shuttle bus, no one is allowed to wander the port. The bus drops people at the dock gates with the town directly outside. Being Sunday, I wonder if the shops will be open. Mind with a 5,200-passenger cruise ship in port I suspect it may well be worth them opening.
So, it’s my standard breakfast time of 08:00 this morning and I am placed on a table of eight, three people I have breakfasted with before. A man from Mansfield and a couple from Bournemouth who are travelling together but have separate cabins. I think I mentioned it before, this is the lady who talks all the time, quite pleasant but never shuts up. The man travelling with her is quite the opposite and hard to drag a word out of. Two other couples make up the eight and seem pleasant enough. As usual it’s Rice Krispies to start and today a mushroom omelette and a couple of rashers of back bacon. The mouse of a man next to me asks how I got an omelette when it’s not on the menu. The answer is very simple you ask. Just as I was explaining to him, the Toast Girl slides a rack of unasked for square toast in front of me and that starts another explanation!
I think I will find myself a spot in the shade to read this morning, I don’t want to get all hot and sweaty before my coach ride. I can’t remember the programme for the trip, but I rather fancy a fancy Italian ice cream in a seafront cafe gazing at a beautiful beach and tranquil sea. We can all dream. As it’s Sunday I bet Lerici is full of tourists and the beach is a mass of bodies!
I didn’t get a chance to have any lunch as I had to be down at the excursion coach at 12:15. The coach departed bang on time and spent ages working its way to the dock gate and then across town past the container port and the armaments factory that the Americans bombed in 1943, to the coast road south. It was only a short ride to Lerici, and the guide handed out little receivers and earphones to use on a walking tour of the town. As we left the coach, we were told to turn on the receivers.
We were led at a stately pace down the narrow streets and alleys of the town and through a tunnel that had originally been dug as a WW2 air raid shelter. The tunnel took us to the town’s parish Catholic church, which was very ornate for a parish church. Then down more narrow pedestrianised streets, past umpteen restaurants where many locals were enjoying Sunday Lunch and into the town square. Three sides of the square are all restaurants, cafes, ice cream parlours and cake shops. The fourth side is the sea wall and yacht basin. We are led across the square to another tunnel where there is another lift to a viewing area at the base of a castle on a promontory. The views over the bay and the town are lovely.
Then we are free to wander for a couple of hours and told to meet under a huge magnolia tree in the town square. I wandered off around the bay in the direction of the beach. It is absolutely heaving on the beach and loads of people are in the sea where they are just standing waist deep, in groups, chatting! And found a bar I fancied and got a local draft beer; I have no idea what it was, but it was quite decent. I sat in the shade and watched the world pass by. As it got a bit nearer time to meet, I wandered slowly back to the square, being a bit early I bought a tub of delicious coffee ice cream and sat on the wall under the magnolia and ate the ice cream.
We were all back on time, which is an excursion miracle, and were led back to the coach pick-up point. The coach was supposed to be back at the ship at 16:30 and it pulled up bang on time. The forward and midships gangways were in use and there was quite a queue at midships so I walked to the forward access as that better served my cabin. On reaching it and showing my pass to a security man I realised I was on my own. Everyone else was using the other gangway. The beauty of that was that at the top of the gangway is a bank of eight lifts and just me to take up to my cabin!
Now I’m back in the cabin I can cool down with a nice glass of cold water before a shave and shower before dinner. For a change I didn’t have soup this evening. Instead, I had mushroom pate, and it was extremely tasty. There were several main courses I fancied but in the end, I had what was on the menu as prime rib of beef and didn’t regret my choice. The meat was melt-in-the-mouth tender. My only slight disappointment was no Yorkshire pudding to go with it. The apple crumble and custard for dessert was delicious. I must say the food on board is excellent. When you consider how many meals are being produced every day the standard is amazing. As usual I have my after-dinner coffee and head for the Crows Nest for a drink or two and watch the sun go down, it happens about 10:30 in these parts.
Monday June 19th – Marseille
An overnight hop from Italy to France and a new port for me. I was supposed to visit here last June but due to “unrest” in the port we put into Toulon instead. As that was a French Naval port it was considered safer. It was eight o’clock and I was just off for breakfast as we came through the breakwater and into the harbour by nine, we were all secure and the captain announced we were free to go ashore. Today you are asked to carry your passport. Spain and Italy have no such requirements, but the French being French they have to be different!
Anyway, I had an enjoyable breakfast, with my usual Rice Krispies and today a mushroom omelette and bacon. The Little Toast Girl was on duty guiding people from reception to their allotted table this morning and greeted me with a cheery ‘Good Morning’ and as we walked to the table, she told one of her toast deliverer colleagues to bring me a rack of white square toast. No sooner had I sat down and been poured my first cup of coffee than the toast arrived.
A Scotsman and his wife arrived at the table next, and he chatted away. It soon became very apparent that he hated the SNP and Wee Krankie in particular. He felt Scotland was better off in the Union, the EU was a waste of time and that Wee Krankie should be in prison sharing a cell with that transvestite who claimed to be a woman. I think I agree with him.
I am on a short tour around Marseille later, but as it doesn’t go until two o’clock this afternoon I think it’s back to the cabin to collect my Kindle for a morning in the sun. I had just got to my cabin door when a voice called me. It was my cabin steward and he explained that he had removed my shower head for descaling but if I needed it now, he would put it back immediately. I won’t need it until I am back from my excursion, so I said no, I didn’t need it yet. I see the sun is on the balcony. I think that’s my morning sorted.
At least my trip today, unlike yesterday, gave me a chance to have lunch before going. The cruise port is a long way out from the centre of town and for those not on excursions, there are, once again, shuttle buses, which are said to take thirty minutes to get to the drop-off point outside the cathedral. Anyway, I had a burger and fries, and I must say the burgers really are good. When I went ashore, I was directed to my excursion bus and we set off right on time, sweeping past a massive queue for the shuttle buses and this was despite there being loads of them departing just as soon as they filled up.
The coach drove out of the cruise port and then past the container port and then the massive ferry port where there must have been twenty ferries loading cars and trucks. We then swung into town for a ride around. We stopped at a huge water feature with a statue up high and water flowing down over several steps down to a large pool.
Apparently, the city had once relied on a series of hand pumps for its drinking water and the fountain celebrated the arrival of a piped water supply from a river. We then went up to the church that is high on a hill overlooking the city. Again, the story was that this was the last holdout of WW2 German soldiers in the city, who believed that the Allies would not attack a church. Fortunately, they had to surrender as they ran out of food and water so the Germans’ theory was never actually tested.
Finally, down to the old port where we had 45 minutes to wander around. I found a seat in front of a bar and bought a beer. Opposite me was a large catamaran and I was intrigued by a man who I soon realised was magnet fishing off it. As I watched he appeared to have caught something and with a bit of difficulty hauled out a battery-powered scooter that you see all about the place. Once it had been dumped on the promenade, he returned to his search and soon found something heavy that he had to call for help to haul out. This time he had caught a muddy old bike and it was dumped next to the scooter.
I continued to watch as he recovered several tins and metal bars and the pile on the prom continued to grow. I was disappointed when the coach turned up to take us back to the ship, but I continued to watch as people board the coach and just before we departed he found another bike this time an electric one from a hire company. I would have loved to have stayed and watched what else he found but the ship was waiting, and we had to return to it.
Despite the traffic on the way back to the ship being heavy we got back a five exactly on schedule and leaving me plenty of time to shave and shower before dinner. We were supposed to be all back on board by 5:30 but an announcement informed us that a tour bus had broken down, but it had been fixed but was expected to be at least 15 minutes late. We eventually sailed at quarter past six.
I was placed on a sharing table for eight this evening, some of the conversation was a little bit difficult as we had one blind man, one very deaf man and a mouse of a lady who hardly said a word. At least the food was good and the couple to my right were excellent company. I choose chicken and mushroom soup for my starter, there was loads of chicken, but I didn’t find any mushroom in my bowl! For mains tonight I had a gammon steak with a fried egg, pineapple, chips, peas and grilled tomato. Dessert was marmalade frangipane tart and custard. I asked for vanilla ice cream as well and was quite full as I washed it all down with a coffee. I think it will be vodka and lemonade tonight, I don’t think I have room for a beer!
Tuesday 20th June – Barcelona
Good morning all and hello from Barcelona. I am feeling a little sad this morning as it’s my birthday and I am feeling much older. As we approached Barcelona, in the early morning as it was getting light, we had to pick our way through a host of ships riding at anchor including at least two other cruise ships, tankers, ferries, container ships and slab-sided car carriers. It is misty and overcast here but warm. I have been to Barcelona numerous times in the past, both on cruises and when staying at nearby resorts. Back in the 1960s I even stayed just down the coast in Stiges, which was then a very pleasant beach resort. It still is a beach resort but in the intervening years has become the place for gay holidays. I was rather surprised to see an excursion to there was on offer. I shall be avoiding it like the plague!
I thought I would do something different today as I have somewhat exhausted trips around town having been to the Nou Camp, The Olympic Park, The Church of the Holy Family, The Goudi Tour and The Ramblas. So today I am booked on an afternoon trip entitled ‘Montserrat, Mountains and Monastery’ which includes quite a long coach ride, a trip on a funicular railway and a tour of the monastery. We have been warned we need walking shoes and a warm coat as it can be chilly up high in the mountains.
We entered the harbour about seven o’clock and made our way to the turning basin, where it swung through 180° and went astern into one of the cruise terminals. There are already two cruise ships in port, so it is going to be a busy day in the city. Suppose I better get out of bed and head for breakfast, I’m not sure what I fancy this morning, I’m still a bit full of dinner from last night. I eventually decided on Rice Krispies; a ham omelette; hot buttered toast and coffee. I drained my first cup and the waiter asked if I would like a refill. Of course I said yes, and my cup was duly filled. After my first sip I realised the top-up had been tea. Still, it was hot and strong, so I drunk it and then had another cup of tea!
Spent the morning in the weak sun, reading and with my excursion leaving just after midday I had no time for lunch. The coach sped out of town and soon joined the motorway, it was then that I realised I had forgotten my phone and hence no pictures from me of this trip. After an hour or so the Montserrat Mountain came into view. We left the motorway and carried on a bit until we came to the railway station at the bottom of the mountain. The courier went and got the train tickets, “Forty-seven singles up the mountain please”. The train was waiting for us and off it went, slowly at first and then speeding up once the rack and pinion engaged, and the train steadily climbed up to the monastery at about 800 metres above sea level. It is a spectacular ride. A sheer drop on one side of the track and a vertical rock face on the other!
At the top station the courier once again went and got tickets for the group to see the ‘famous’ statue of the Virgin Mary who is holding a globe in one hand. The idea is that you must touch the globe for good fortune. As our tickets were for an hour-time, we were led into the basilica to see the monastery. It was very ornate but there was no way it could it take up all the time until we were due to see the Virgin, so I found myself a seat in a huge square in front of the monastery and watched to world go by.
When the time to go in arrived, our party gathered at the entrance where we were corralled in a holding line before going in. We went down long dimly lit passages until we reached several flights of steps winding up to the brightly lit statue in a cubbyhole high up behind the alter. The Madonna was protected by a perspex dome with only the right hand grasping the globe protruding through the shield. Everyone got a few seconds to touch the globe and mutter a prayer or otherwise.
Then it was down the steps on the opposite side of the statue, and a fifteen-minute walk up a hill to the coach park where our bus was waiting. Far from being chilly and needing a coat, the sun had come out and it was a hot and sweaty WG who was delighted to collapse into his seat on the air-conditioned coach! At four thirty the coach set off for the cruise terminal as it had taken an hour and five minutes to get to the station at the bottom of the mountain, I had my doubts as to whether we were going to make it back for the 5:30 all aboard time. The coach had to negotiate the twisty, turny road that led down from the mountain with fabulous views on one side, with a sheer drop to the valley below.
Once on the motorway, the driver put his foot down and we belted along, but as the ‘all aboard’ time arrived we got stuck in a traffic jam. Fortunately, in addition to the courier we had a member of the ship’s shore excursion staff on board, and he phoned the ship to say we were on our way but where stuck in heavy traffic. He was sat behind me I heard the conversation. Apparently, we were not the only bus stuck but probably the one that would be last back to the ship. It seems that a wildfire had broken out to the north of the city, helicopters were dumping water on it, but the whole of the motorway network around the city was snarled up.
We were indeed the last bus back and we were hustled through the security checks and back on board only half an hour late. As I got back to my cabin the captain came on the Tannoy to announce that all buses were now back, and everyone had been registered back so he was preparing to sail. However, as we had missed our slot, we would have to wait for an MSC ship and a ferry to leave and we now had a sailing time of 6:40. I was just happy to be onboard and went for a shave and a shower to wash away the grime of the day. As it is my birthday, I have a booking in the ship’s posh restaurant for dinner. I am dining with old friends from a previous cruise. This is such a big ship I have not yet bumped into them, but we have arranged to meet via the ship’s phone.
I have just had a wonderful birthday meal with friends in the ship’s Epicurean restaurant. An amuse-bouche of watermelon juice and mint. This was followed by potato and black truffle soup, the soup bowl arrives in front of you with a little pile of diced potatoes, chives and truffles in the middle. A waiter then brings an individual jug of soup and pours it around the perimeter of the little pile of potatoes, it’s all show but the soup was delicious. For my main I had a perfectly cooked whole Dover sole. It is served off the bone, so you get four fillets. It was accompanied by a separate bowl of three-time cooked chunky chips, tiny new potatoes, asparagus and green string beans. The fish was served in a lemon butter sauce and a little jug of additional sauce appeared also. It was a delight.
Next came a scoop of mango sorbet as a palette cleanser and then for dessert I chose panna cotta in a white chocolate globe with candy floss and meringue. It was all lovely. The meal concluded with coffee and chocolate truffles. Not only was the food delicious but the service was second to none. The time slipped by as it does when in good company and enjoying the meal, before we realised the restaurant was down to only three occupied tables and we thought we better leave! We then slipped next door to the Crows Nest for a nightcap. If any of you ever go on a P&O cruise, I recommend you try the Epicurean for a meal, I’m sure even the fussiest eaters will not be disappointed
In Chapter 5 – Sea days, Vigo and home
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