Sunday, November 10, 2013

November 9th – Catching The Train To Seville

As we were leaving the ship today in Barcelona, we thought that this would be a good excuse to spend some time in our favourite city in the world – Seville. So, we caught a taxi to Barcelona Sants train station to catch the AVE high speed train to Seville.

Getting the train is so much more relaxing that flying, and seeing as the train reached speeds of up to 300 kph, it probably saved us time, as we watched the bleak landscapes of the Castilian plains whizz past us in the blink of an eye.

We're staying here for a month, so we've rented a little apartment in the centre of town – we can't wait to explore the city in detail.

November 8th – Last Day in Barcelona

The good weather continued for our last day of the cruise in Barcelona.

Of course, all visits to Barcelona have to include a stroll along the legendary Ramblas (Barcelona's most popular, most touristy and most atmospheric walkway), so we thought that we'd get it out of the way at the start of the day, as we walked up from the port. On the way we popped into the city's colourful main market, La Boqueria, which was its usual riot of colours, sights and sounds.

Our destination today was to an art gallery that we hadn't been to before, MACBA – Barcelona's contemporary art gallery. Suitably enough, it was housed in a large white minimalist modern building, that let its weird and wonderful art do the talking. A couple of times as you walk round, you see a mop and a bucket or a bag on the floor, and you're not sure if they've been left there by the cleaner or whether they're a brilliant piece of social commentary.

As ever with contemporary art, I think I understood about 10% of it at most, but it confirmed how much Barcelona is a city that likes to think differently, and where art and architecture are a hugely important part of the local (Catalan) psyche.

From here, we just did some casual wondering through Barcelona's atmospheric streets – passing striking modern architecture, past fantastic modernist buildings of the 19th century, along narrow Gothic streets of stately late-medieval mansions, and along the sparkling waterfront. It's always been Barcelona's unique combination of styles and attractions that's been its biggest draw.

We'd walked our socks off, but in the evening we just about had enough strength to make it to the Born District to visit the lively El Xampanyet bar, for a glass or two of cheap cava and some tasty tapas. A great way to end a lovely cruise on the Silver Spirit.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

November 7th – Sampling Palma’s Big City Feel

Yesterday, sleepy Mahon had felt decidedly "small town" – and, after a day in cosmopolitan Palma, it felt even more so. Because, Palma's an enjoyably lively town, where you firstly forget that you're on one of the most touristy islands in the Med, and secondly, you forget that you're on an island at all – it has a big city feel that you don't expect of an island town.

We had a day of just general wandering around its historic streets (which bear more than a passing resemblance to Barcelona's), ducking down narrow medieval alleys, strolling down wide 19th century boulevards, and visiting chilled out bars and cafes.

Now that I'm writing this blog, I'm struggling to think of what we achieved in the 8 hours that we were out exploring, but it was good fun and definitely makes me want to spend more time in Palma. Actually, I can think of one achievement that I particularly enjoyed – we went to the wonderful market to have some of the best, freshest, and cheapest calamares that I've had in a long while. Superb.

Great weather, great views, and great food – a good combination before we get to our final destination, Barcelona

November 6th – Sailing into Mahon’s Harbour

Sailing into Menorca's capital, Mahon's spectacular harbour is one of the great approaches to any port in the Mediterranean, so I was up on the bridge to narrate what we were passing on our way in. This is probably the most protected harbour in the whole of the Mediterranean, as we pass through a narrow approach, and then sail for almost 4 miles down the length of the harbour to Mahon at its end.

This incredibly sheltered harbour (it feels like a lake rather than the sea), plus Menorca's strategic position on the Mediterranean trading routes, has made the harbour a heavily contested possession over the centuries, so I was pointing out the heavily fortified defences put in place by the Spanish and the British over the centuries, and the mansions of the British Admirals (including Admiral Lord Nelson) who lived on the harbour in the days when Britannia Ruled These Waves.

In fact, Britain ruled Menorca from 1708 until 1802, so there was plenty of British heritage to discover in Mahon, and in the neighbouring town of Es Castel, which was called Georgetown in the 18th century, when it was founded by the British. So, we walked along the coast to Es Castel, to sample its quiet atmosphere, and see what relics of British rule we could find from the days when this was a garrison town. There were a few surviving Georgian buildings with their trademark sash windows along the grid pattern of streets laid out by the British military, plus you could clearly see that the town square was once the parade ground for the army.

But, perhaps the best feature of Es Castel is its atmospheric fisherman's port, the Cales Fons, which is a great place to station yourself for a drink in one of its seafront bars, and just savour those views across the magnificent harbour with all its historic fortifications. Being in this "British" town, makes you wonder what this place would be like if history had been different and Menorca had stayed British – after all, Gibraltar was granted to the British in the same Treaty as Menorca, and that's still British.

After a lovely relaxing drink, we trekked back to Mahon, to sample its somnolent, end of season atmosphere – very quiet indeed, but at least a reminder that this is still one of the least spoilt of all the Mediterranean holiday islands.

November 5th – Promenading Anglais Style in Nice

Just before we set sail for Monte Carlo on the 3rd, a big storm blew up in the Mediterranean, so the captain made the sensible decision to stay in port overnight to avoid the worst of it. Having said that, when we did leave on the morning of the 4th, it was still pretty rough. Normally, after 3 weeks at sea I've got my sea legs, but the Med hads been like a millpond up to this point, so I was feeling pretty rough all morning – fortunately, it had calmed down by the time of my lecture in the afternoon, or the lecture would have been given from my bathroom!

Our delayed departure meant that unfortunately we were running a day late, so we had to miss out on Marseille, and dock in Nice rather than Monte Carlo.

However, Nice makes a pretty appealing second choice, so we got up early to go for a power walk along the beautiful Promenade des Anglais – marching at a much faster pace than the sedate promenades of my English Victorian counterparts after whom the seafront was named. At this early hour, and at this late stage in the holiday season the Promenade was delightfully empty, but it still looked pretty good in the morning sun.

Having walked the length of Nice, we headed back into town to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art, which had some interesting exhibitions on Matisse, and lots of works of art by an artist I hadn't encountered before – Yves Klein. Apparently, Klein used to get naked women to cover themselves in paint and then roll around huge canvases to create his art, which seems like a pretty good way to make a living to me. Actually, the end results were surprisingly good, plus the other great thing about the museum is that the views from its roof terrace across town were fantastic too.

Nice always looks pretty good, but after a rough day at sea, it was looking pretty wonderful today.

November 3rd – Strolling Livorno

From the big industrial port of Livorno, we normally head off to Tuscany's more famous (and more beautiful) cities of Florence, Pisa and Lucca. However, we didn't fancy the long trek today, so we decided to explore Livorno in a bit more detail.

This is hardly the most lively of towns, and on a Sunday it was even quieter than normal, so this was a day to do as the locals do – take a stroll along the surprisingly nice waterfront, and settle in for a coffee in a busy neighbourhood cafe.

Livorno is never going to feature on Tracy's "I could live there" index, but it's not a bad place for a quiet Sunday.

November 2nd - turnaround day in Civitavecchia

All roads did not lead to Rome today...

Friday, November 1, 2013

November 1st – All Saints in Sorrento

On another sunny day, Sorrento was looking at its best today, its atmospheric town centre crammed onto the top of the cliffs that face over the bay to the brooding cone of Mount Vesuvius. Having walked our feet off yesterday, we decided to take it easy in a place that we've visited lots of times over the past 18 years.

As today was All Saints Day, the town was busy with locals promenading up and down the pedestrianised streets, so we headed away from the crowds to visit the Marina Grande, Sorrento's much quieter second bay where it was just about warm enough for a couple of brave locals to be going for a swim.

After this, we headed back into town to sample some wifi, some more Cannoli (not as good as Sicily's), and have a drink in a busy cafe.

Sometimes it's nice to have a lazy day.

October 31st – Uncovering Some Gems in Manic Messina

Messina in Sicily has witnessed over 3,000 years of history, and was one of Italy's boom towns in the 16th and 17th centuries, but you can't find much evidence of that in the modern city. That's because the city has suffered one of the most unlucky 20th centuries imaginable – in 1908 it was almost totally destroyed in a huge earthquake that killed 80,000 of its then 120,000 population. The re-building work was nearing completion when the Second World War broke out, and Messina's strategic position overlooking the Straits of Messina, meant that it was heavily bombed by the allies – in fact it was the most comprehensively bombed city in Italy.

The result of all this, is that 21st century Messina isn't exactly what you'd call a beautiful place (in spite of its attractive setting) – most of the city is modern and traffic-filled, while its suburbs are lined with uniform concrete apartment blocks. Much of the traffic comes straight off the ferries constantly shuttling across the Straits, and is held up in congestion long enough to create lots of noise and grime, before heading off to Sicily's more fabled attractions.

Most cruise ship passengers follow suit and head off to the gorgeous little town of Taormina, or to the awesome volcano Mount Etna; but our mission was to discover the best of Messina. We first headed to its most historic site – the impressive Gothic-Romanesque Duomo, which was built by the Normans in the 12th century. This was pretty much destroyed in both the 1908 earthquake and World War Two, but unlike the rest of the city, it has since been faithfully reconstructed. Its size, ornamentation and sense of history, gave us a glimpse into what Messina would have been like if it hadn't suffered those 20th century disasters.

As we explored, the constant hooting of the traffic contributed to the sense of chaos - cars parked everywhere (on pavements, or double and triple parked), rubbish bins overflowing, plenty of graffiti, and one of the more comprehensive coverings of dog mess on those pavements you could actually walk on. All this meant that it was easy to overlook the fact that there were actually some nice bits of belle epoch architecture surviving from the early 20th century re-build. Plus, what all this traffic and modernity couldn't mask was one of Messina's main assets - the warmth and liveliness of the city's irrepressible people. So, to sample some of this, we stationed ourselves in a busy pavement cafe, ordered some cannoli, and watched some of the vibrant local life – a priest counselling his parishioners, trendy young things gossiping away, smart pensioners in their suits chewing the fat noisily.

Then it was time to embark on today's main mission – to trek to the edge of town to visit the wonderful Museo Regionale, home to two masterpieces by Caravaggio. So much artwork was lost from Messina's sumptuous array of historic churches in the earthquake that it must have been a national tragedy for Italy's art world; but, a lot of what was salvaged from the ruins has been gathered in this quiet little museum. For us, the main draw was the chance to see the two Caravaggios (The Raising of Lazarus and The Adoration of The Shepherds) – in any other art museum around the world, you'd be jostling for space in front of a work by one of the Renaissance's greatest masters; here, we were the only people in the museum. How ridiculous to put one of Messina's greatest assets right on the edge of town.

The Caravaggios themselves were suitably dramatic and dark – the mercurial artist was on the run from a murder charge in Rome, and then on the run from a further misdemeanour in his previous stop in Malta, so the darkness in the paintings may have been a reflection of his dark mood at the time. The interplay of light and shade on the paintings really drew you in, and the good thing about being the only people there was that we could pore over the paintings from close up and from distance to get their full impact.

Seeing just one Caravaggio is reason enough to visit any city in the world, so to see two was marvellous. So, having satiated our artistic curiosity, it was time to satiate our growing appetite and gorge on some lovely Sicilian seafood in a local restaurant, before heading back to the ship.

Art, food, and atmosphere – three things that Messina does very well indeed.