Thursday, May 15, 2014

April 30th – Coming Home

So, after 114 days, 52 lectures, 5 bridge narrations and so many unforgettable experiences, this cruise has finally come to end.

My personal highlights include – Madang, Angkor Wat, Bhutan, Burma, and Istanbul, but the whole experience has been wonderful, with a fantastic atmosphere onboard (the best of any World Cruise I've been on).

We now have some time at home, before heading onto the Continent in our campervan (the opposite end of the luxury scale to what we've experienced over the past 4 months on the Silver Whisper!) and I'll blog the highlights.

My next cruising assignment is on the Silver Wind for a month in October/November, Barcelona to Dubai:

And, then after that, it's back to the Whisper for next year's World Cruise – can't wait!

April 29th – Barcelona - Our Final Day

If this fantastic cruise had to end anywhere, then I suppose that a wonderful city like Barcelona is a fitting place to leave it on a high. No matter how many times I've been to Barcelona, it's always a place I look forward to coming back to, and experiencing its world-beating mix of history, architecture, culture, holiday atmosphere, shopping, food and drink.

We explored the atmospheric Gothic Quarter, before heading into the Eixample area to see some of the Modernist masterpieces that the city's famous for. Unfortunately, by the time we'd got to Barcelona's most iconic sight, the Sagrada Familia, it appeared that most of the city's tourists had already got there before us. A broken down ticket machine ensured that the long line of people waiting to get in hardly progressed in the 20 minutes we joined it, so we decided that standing in a non-moving queue was not the best use of our short time here.

So, we had to satisfy ourselves with just the outside view of one of the most remarkable buildings of our age, and then do a bit more shopping. In the early evening, we joined up with a few of our onboard friends for one last meal – meeting in the wonderful El Xampanyet in La Ribera. It may be a bit on the touristy side, but there's a great atmosphere to enjoy in there, which ensured that the cruise ended much as it's been throughout – with plenty of good food, good drink, and most of all, lots of laughter.

Pics to come...

Friday, May 9, 2014

April 28th – Misjudging the Weather in Monaco

When we sailed into Monaco, the place was looking gorgeous, its crowded skyline lit up by the sun, and the rows of superyachts bobbing on the twinkling harbour. However, as we only have 2 days left, we decided to use the morning to pack up 4 months of accumulated rubbish and prepare ourselves to disembark – not much fun.

We had decided to do our exploring after lunch, which was impeccable timing because the skies had now turned black and there was a distinct chill in the air. However, it seemed silly to be in this beautiful part of the world and not go ashore; and besides, someone had given us their tickets for the hop-on hop-off bus which would involve the minimum of effort. How could you go wrong? Well, very wrong....

Almost as soon as we climbed aboard our open-top bus, the heavens opened and the rain came thrashing down. We pulled our large umbrella over us to cover us as much as possible, while we listened to an "English" commentary given by someone with a thick Northern accent who sounded like they'd just learnt to read. So, as we got steadily soaked, cold and miserable, we mainly saw the inside of our umbrella rather than the magnificent sights of one of the world's smallest (and richest) countries, before the torture ended and we got back to our starting point at the port.

With our drenched trousers now sticking to us and our umbrella utterly mangled by the monsoon, we ran back to warm up in a nice hot bath. Never mind ........

April 27th – Tasting Tuscan Wines

Today we were very generously asked by the Signature Travel Group to accompany them on a trip into the heart of the Chianti wine region, for a day of bacchanalian pursuits – 4 months onboard the Silver Whisper has left us perfectly trained to take on this challenge.

We drove from Livorno into the beautiful Tuscan countryside, to the town of Greve in Chianti, a real gem of a place. We've travelled a lot in Tuscany and never stopped in here, which was a shame, because it's a really attractive place, full of arts and crafts, and dedicated to food and wine – my kind of place.

After a fun time of exploring the historic streets of Greve, we went into the countryside to have a tour round an atmospheric Renaissance Villa that's still in private hands. The building was slightly crumbling and draughty, but that gave it a lived-in charm that really made you wish that the owners had enough money to restore it to its former glories. The gardens were beautiful, while we were to find out that the farmland outside produced some delicious food, and some very quaffable wine.

We were served dishes that were wonderful in their simplicity, while the copious wine served ensured that the volume levels steadily increased as the afternoon went on. As the cruise draws to an end, it was great to have an informal occasion like this to share stories and plenty of laughter with our fellow travellers.

As you can imagine, it was a pretty sleepy coach journey back, but everyone had had a great time.

April 26th – Avoiding The Crowds in Civitavecchia

The Canonisation ceremony in Rome taking place the day after our visit to Civitavecchia, has deterred us from braving the crowds and braving the traffic; so, instead, we opted for a lazy day at the port. To be honest, there isn't much to Civitavecchia, but it's a pleasant enough place that combines a working class atmosphere with that of a faded seaside resort.

On a day of low expectations, we actually had a pretty nice time, visiting the market, having a pizza (decent, but not as good as yesterday's), taking a walk along the seafront promenade, and having a drink at a cafe. Seeing as I gave the last of my 52 lectures yesterday, it was nice to relax, chill out, and feel like I was really on holiday.

PS. Apparently Rome wasn't that bad if you stayed away from the most touristy sights, and everyone that made the effort to go there said that they were glad they had.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

April 25th – History and Pizza in Herculaneum and Sorrento

Someone said to me the other day – aren't you fed up of ruins by now? The answer was, no I'm not - and today's visit to Herculaneum confirmed exactly why. This may be a much less spectacular ancient site than Pompeii, and it may be much smaller than Pompeii, but it's more manageable and on a more human scale than its more famous Vesuvian-destroyed counterpart.

Because, our visit really brought home the way that everyday life was lived by the Ancient Romans, and reminded us how little has changed in the 2,000 years since its destruction. People still went to the shops, they went to fast food joints, they went for a drink, and leisure was a large part of the daily routine – even if the main leisure activities back then were going to the baths or to a brothel, rather than going to the cinema or watching TV today.

The remarkable thing about Herculaneum was that it was largely destroyed by a river of hot mud rather than burning ash raining down on it, so quite a few of the buildings have their roofs still intact, and many of the wooden beams, doors, and furniture were carbonised and so are still visible. The colours of the plastered walls are still almost as vibrant as ever, while some of the mosaics are incredibly fresh - as you walked down the Roman cobbles, you really felt like you were following in the footsteps of the Ancients.

Having satisfied our hunger for history, the only thing left to do was to satisfy our hunger for pizza – and, after years of searching in Sorrento, we finally think that we've found the perfect pizza, at Da Franco restaurant. This is hardly an upscale restaurant, but the long line of locals willing to queue for the experience was a good sign that it wasn't a tourist trap either. You're crammed onto tables with other people, there's not much choice, you're not given a plate, and the knives and forks are plastic – but, the pizzas are simply the best. Thin crusts that don't get soggy, delicious tomato sauce, and fresh mozzarella – my mouth is watering just writing this.

Fascinating history and delicious food - yet another wonderful day!

April 23rd – Rediscovering Ancient Athens

The last couple of times I've been to Athens, there's been a bit of a depressing, melancholy air to the place. We've been caught up in anti-austerity demonstrations, we've been bothered by persistent beggars, and we've noticed a decline in infrastructure and an increase in graffiti. However, this time, I think that things are getting better – it may just be me, but people seem happier and there seems more of a sense of optimism about the place. Of course, it's impossible to tell from just a daytrip, but I hope that Athens (and Greece) has hit the bottom (economically), and is now on the way back up.

Our mission today was to try to rediscover some of the glory days of Athens, from the Ancient times, when this city was at the very centre of western civilisation. For an immediate immersion in Ancient wonders, we headed straight up to Athens's Number One sight, the superb Parthenon, at the top of the Acropolis.

Ever since I've been coming here, the Parthenon has been wreathed in ugly scaffolding, so I was hoping that it would have been removed by now – but, sadly the job of rebuilding and preserving the Parthenon is moving as quickly as the job of rebuilding the Greek economy, so the scaffolding's still there. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, the entire complex of buildings is as impressive as ever, while the views of the sprawling (largely concrete) city below are magnificent.

From here, we walked through the Plaka, to the Ancient Agora – Athens's commercial heart, sitting below its spiritual heart, the Acropolis up above it. Through the jumble of ruins, there was just enough remaining to imagine the splendour of the old city; although our next stop, the Roman Agora, was confirmation that the city's time in the limelight was only a brief one. Because, within a few hundred years of the construction of the Parthenon, the Romans had taken over, and the city was reduced to the status of being a relatively minor cultural centre.

After some delicious food, we went to watch the faintly ridiculous spectacle of the Changing of the Guard outside the Parliament Building – the goose-stepping, skirt-wearing, pompom-clogged stamping soldiers keeping impressively straight faces as they performed their slow-motion show for us tourists. Finally, we went to see some more Roman ruins at the Temple of Olympian Zeus – its forlornly tumbled columns a reminder of how much this city has witnessed over the last 2,500 years.

Athens may be experiencing a pretty miserable downturn at the moment, but the reminders of its glorious past are still acting as a wonderful example of how this city can get back on its feet again.

April 22nd – Springtime in Lesbos

Lesbos is one of the lesser known of the Greek holiday islands, and that's no bad thing. The fact that it's not inundated with tourists means that its quiet capital city, the pleasant waterside town of Mytilene, has an unspoilt, genuinely Greek atmosphere to enjoy.

In fact, the sum of most people's knowledge of Lesbos is that it has some sort of connection to gay women – the result of it being home to the ancient poetess Sappho, who may or may not have been gay. Actually, many of the inhabitants of Lesbos, are not overjoyed by the fact that the name "Lesbian" has now come to mean both a native of their island and a gay woman, although their attempts to get the term banned in the Greek High Courts has not had any success so far. To add to the confusion, the name of the island is actually pronounced "Lesvos", so maybe the islanders should just be happy with the name Lesvians.

Anyway, we had a lovely afternoon exploring the Mytilene's impressive castle – a ruined fortress whose history tells the complicated back story of the island. It was built by the Byzantines (using stones and marble from earlier Ancient Greek and Roman constructions), it was then significantly re-inforced by the Genoese who took over in the 14th century, and then it was remodelled by the Ottoman Turks who invaded in the 15th century, and ruled for over 400 years, until 1912, when the castle (and the island) reverted to the Greeks. Aside from all the history, what made the castle even better to explore, was that it was covered in beautiful spring wild flowers, and gave up some amazing views over the town and the sparkling Aegean beyond.

After this, we decided to trek up to the Ancient Roman theatre, which is on the top of the hill overlooking the castle. As we were unsure which road to take, we asked in a shop for directions. Unbelievably, the person in the shop stopped what she was doing, and decided that she was going to give us a lift up there on the back on her moped. When we suggested that three people on a moped (2 of whom had been on a cruise ship for the last 4 months) would be too heavy, she insisted on driving up there at a snail's pace, with us puffing and panting up the hill behind her. It was now getting embarrassing, because we weren't even sure we were that keen to see the theatre, so once she'd got us onto the final road, we eventually persuaded her to leave us and get on her way. As it turned out the theatre was shut by the time we got up there, so it was a waste of energy all round; but it was a great example of the traditional Greek island hospitality (and maybe an indication that there isn't much to do here, other than show round lost tourists!).

By the time we'd got back down, the town was now largely shut too, but it was nice to walk around, to discover a few relics of its Ottoman past (the old mosque and the Turkish baths, now abandoned and fading away), and to explore the attractive waterfront. A drink in a seaside bar completed a most enjoyable afternoon, and ensured that Lesbos has been the first destination on this cruise for quite a while to feature on Tracy's prestigious "I could live there" index.

April 21st – Exploring Istanbul

It's been a couple of years since we've been in Istanbul, so it was lovely to have the opportunity to explore the city again, and to experience its heady mixture of East and West. The great thing about the city is that it feels so familiar and safe to westerners, yet it has so many exotic touches that it really feels like you're being immersed into a completely different culture (which in many ways you are).

We took the Shuttle Bus to the Grand Bazaar, where various passengers embarked on some epic shopping trips. Whilst I enjoy the atmosphere in this vast Aladdin's Cave, I can never find anything that I really want to buy, so we resisted the constant entreaties to enter the countless carpet, jewellery, leather, and lantern shops. Instead, we headed through the outdoor market down to the Golden Horn, which had a much more genuine atmosphere in an environment that was aimed at the local market rather than at us tourists – again though, there was nothing I actually wanted to buy!

We explored the Hippodrome, marvelled at the architectural audacity of the Aya Sofya (which was unfortunately closed as it was a Monday), and visited the enormous Blue Mosque – each of these set-pieces a reminder of the glorious times when this was one of the most important cities on the planet – Roman Byzantium, Byzantine Constantinople, and Ottoman Istanbul.

After a so-so lunch at Pandeli in the Spice Market, we just had fun wandering the atmospheric streets, and soaking up the lovely spring atmosphere – I've never seen so many tulips.

Istanbul was as fascinating as ever – in some ways it seems to be getting more modern and prosperous (there's much more of a sense of wealth and vibrancy about it than Athens say), but in others it seems to be getting more traditional and overtly religious, with headscarves seeming to be more prevalent. That's the great thing about Istanbul, it's always changing.