Sunday, June 26, 2016

June 2016 – Three Weeks in Palma de Mallorca

Our three weeks in Palma delivered everything we'd expected, and also a few surprises along the way. Of course, we expected the non-stop sunshine, the beautiful beaches and coastline, and the wonderful historic heritage of Palma itself – they didn't disappoint.

But, we hadn't expected the city to have such a resolutely urban dimension – with all the positives and a few of the negatives that big cities bring. The apartment we'd chosen to stay at certainly gave us the chance to experience Palma's more gritty side – we were about 10 minutes walk out of the city centre, near to the wonderful Pere Garau produce market. This part of town is about as multi-cultural as you can get in Spain – loads of Chinese shops and restaurants, a large South American community, an Arab community centre round the corner, Indian shops and African hawkers on the streets. But, there was a friendly, lively and "real" feel to the area, one that feels a world away from the tourist sites thronged by cruise ship passengers, only a few minutes away.

Unbeknownst to us when we booked our apartment, next door was a squat owned by a gypsy on the run the police, populated by a few anti-social people who needed the police called on them at least once! However, our rustic apartment itself was large, airy and a nice place to hang out in – basically, we've worked out that if we have good wifi and a washing machine, we can stay virtually anywhere!

Actually, Palma as a city has gone right up the list of Tracy's "I could live there index". The city's 20 minutes from an airport with great connections around Europe, excellent public transport, it's on the sea with some great beaches, it's cosmopolitan (in addition to its multi-cultural feel, we also went to see a great version of Nabucco at its lovely opera house), the shopping is good, and the food scene is really excellent. 
On that last note, we had some really good meals here - from tapas (La Vermuteria Rosa is highly recommended); to vegetarian (at Bon Lloc we had the best vegetarian meal we've ever had); Mallorcan/Catalan food (Tast was classy); and, of course, some great paellas by the sea. My only complaint is that the tapas bar scene can't compare (in variety, quality, or liveliness) to Seville, but perhaps we've been spoilt. It certainly can't compete with Seville on its late night scene – by 11pm, most places we were in were closing down, although maybe we weren't in the right places.

We went on some lovely day trips out of town – to Valdemossa (to see the imposing monastery where Chopin and George Sand stayed); on the vintage train out to beautiful Soller; on the normal train to see the massive market at Sineu; on the bus to Deia, with its stunning cove; out to the spectacular peninsula at Formentor – this island is beautiful. 

Closer to Palma, we hired bikes and cycled along a 10 km cycle path along the coast – it was fascinating to see how the beaches got more and more developed the further from Palma we went. As soon as you got past the airport, the paella restaurants disappeared and you were in a world of German bierkellers and British pubs – it felt like a parallel universe.

When most people think of Mallorca, they tend to think of concrete, boozy resorts like Magaluf – but that's an entirely avoidable side of the tourist industry which hardly impacts on the rest of the island (at least at this time of the year). There's some very sophisticated resorts to the north, a very agricultural feel to the centre of the island, and of course, busy, historic, cosmopolitan Palma (like a mini-Barcelona)  at the hub of it all.

Overall, we had a fantastic time – when you wake up to blue skies every day, when you can stroll down to a beachside bar and have a sundowner most evenings, but also enjoy a big city feel, it's a fairly compelling combination. Me encanta la isla bonita!

PS. After a three-hour delay at the airport because of a French air traffic controllers strike, to be greeted by torrential rain, flooding, train and road chaos, and then getting the shocking news of Brexit the next day, our holiday bubble has well and truly burst. The only thing to do is to go away again! After a few days in London and Devon, Slovenia will be our next trip.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

April 30th – London Calling

So, after 115 days, 32 countries, 51 lectures, 6 bridge narrations, 12 pounds lost, and 1 bout of pneumonia, it's time to say goodbye to the World Cruise. 

As ever, it's been a fantastic experience and one that we'll never forget. We saw 2 of the New Seven Wonders of the World (Petra and the Taj Mahal), while others were lucky enough to see 2 more (Machu Pichu and the Great Wall of China). We've eaten at 4 of the best restaurants we've ever eaten in (Lima, Bali, Dubai and Venice). We met up with lots of old friends and made lots of new ones. It's been exhausting, but it's been a blast. 

So, now we return to London to catch up with friends and family, and just as importantly to catch up on some sleep. 

There's no cruising for us for 6 months, so after a summer of travelling on our own (Palma de Majorca, Cote D'Azur, Stresa, and Sicily), we'll next be on the high seas in November on the Silver Spirit, sailing from Barcelona to Barbados, and then down the Amazon to Manaus and back.

Should be a great summer...

April 28th-29th – Last Stop Venice

This World Cruise has certainly finished on a high, with 2 fantastic days in the superb city of Venice. It started with a magical sail-into the Lagoon, as the city's church towers and palazzi slowly revealed themselves to us in the distance. My enjoyment of this serene scene is slightly different from the rest of the passengers, because I'm up on the bridge giving a narration over the PA system trying to point out what we were passing. This city is initially about the slow reveal as the anticipation mounts as we creep closer, and then, all of a sudden, there's fabulous buildings all around you – I tried not to sound too frantic as I pointed out the architectural gems that were now all around us.

That afternoon, we had time for a bit of exploring, before preparing ourselves for the masked ball that Silversea had prepared for the World Cruisers. This event certainly has a "wow factor" from start to finish – from the water taxi ride along the Grand Canal, to the visual impact of the stately 16th century Palazzo Pisano sitting on the Canal itself, to the costumed string quartet serenading our drinks reception, and finally to the magnificent restaurant, lit entirely by candles and overlooked by enormous frescoes. This was a wonderful way to finish a fantastic cruise, as we celebrated the friendships made over the last 4 months.

The next day, we had been invited to have lunch with a couple of new friends in the fantastic Cipriani Hotel, on the Giudecca across from St Marks. As the place where George Clooney had his wedding reception, the levels of luxury and magnificent service were out of this world. In keeping with the overall theme of this world cruise, there was much laughter, some delicious food, and plenty of vino.

Venice is probably the best place you can imagine to end a world cruise – fascinating history is all around you, understated opulence can easily be found, and the city's visual impact needs to be seen to be believed.

We are leaving this cruise on a high!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

April 27th – Feeling The Love at The Crew Show

One of the joys of being on a World Cruise is that after 4-months together, you really get to know, and appreciate, the wonderful crew onboard.

Then, at the end of the cruise, when you go to the Crew Show, you get to find out that the person making your drinks, cooking your dinner, or cleaning your room, is a really talented singer, dancer or entertainer. Because, for most people, the Crew Show is the most entertaining night you can have on a cruise, a night of unbridled fun where the audience just want to show their appreciation for the hard work and talent of the crew. 

There's not many nights where you laugh so heartily, clap so hard, sing along so lustily, or just sit back and enjoy the fun as on the Crew Show. This is what the World Cruise is all about!

April 27th – Dubrovnik – is “The Pearl of the Adriatic” Losing its Lustre?

It's obvious why so many people come to Dubrovnik, the so-called "Pearl of the Adriatic". There's nowhere else in Europe that's maintained its medieval look as well as this exquisitely preserved walled town. Over the centuries, the town has survived pirate attacks, earthquakes and the ravages of the Yugoslav Civil War; yet, to me, it seems to be under its greatest threat today, as it submerges under the sheer weight of tourism.

Since the bombardment of the Serbians in 1991-2, in which 70% of its buildings received direct hits, the town has been sparklingly restored – so well restored in fact, that some people have accused it of being like a medieval theme park. That's probably not fair, but it is true that the amount of tourists thronging its streets, and the unashamed tourist focus of the entire town has probably killed some of the old magic of Dubrovnik.

Whenever I've been here, there's always lots of tourists in town; but, visiting right at the start of the season, and with only one other ship docked alongside us (albeit a huge Holland America monster), I wasn't expecting the town to be quite as jam-packed as it was today. The tourists were (quite literally) wall-to-wall, as those wonderful medieval walls were lined with a slow-moving constant procession of visitors. The fact that they were charging an extortionate 120 Kina ($18/€16/£12.50) to walk those walls managed to stop us joining the wall-climbing throngs. With prices like those, I don't know whether they're trying to keep the numbers down, or just milk the tourists for all that they're worth.

In my experience, the Croatians I've met have been some of the friendliest people you meet in this part of the world, however, today we experienced a certain weariness among the people we encountered in Dubrovnik's tourist trade. If they're feeling a little fed up with tourists already at this early stage of the season, I shudder to think how grumpy they'll be by the end of it.

In my (humble) opinion, the city's authorities need to do some hard thinking about how the tourist trade progresses here. Does the "pile them high, sell them cheap" (ok, not so cheap) methodology have a long-term future in a city as small as this, no matter how beautiful it is? People come here because of its historic atmosphere and its harmonious architecture – but, if the chief impression Dubrovnik has on them is of tourist hell, how long will they keep coming. 

Dubrovnik is without doubt one of the most visually attractive cities in Europe, but if you can't get to appreciate it because of the number of tourists in your way, then this pearl is in real danger of losing its lustre.