Thursday, December 10, 2009

December 9 – La Palma

From Madeira, we sailed south overnight to the Canary Islands, to visit the most Westerly of the islands (and one of the least touristy), La Palma. It's a beautifully green and fertile volcanic island, featuring an unspoilt landscape of steep slopes and volcanoes, extinct and still active.

I went on a tour up to the spectacular La Caldera de Taburiente, over 2000 meters above sea level – this huge Caldera is the largest in the world, at over one mile deep and 17 miles in circumference.

To get there, you have to pass over the steep line of mountains that runs down the middle of the island, and at the top, you pass through a mile long tunnel through the mountain, and you emerge at a totally different landscape from the one you left – on the eastern side of the island, it's full of dense vegetation, while on the west, the mountain is covered in a unique forest of tall Canarian pine trees – it's lovely to breath in the amazingly clean air, scented with pine.

At the Caldera, the weather was beautifully clear and the views across the pristine nature were just amazing – people on the tour who'd experienced the wonderful views of the Rockies, felt La Palma was even more impressive.

Tracy did a tour to the site of La Palma's last eruption, the volcano of Teneguia in the south of the island, which last erupted in 1971, watched a demonstration of potters and tasted yet more wine!

At the end of our tours, we had about an hour to explore the island's capital, Santa Cruz de La Palma. Unlike many of the Canary Island capitals, Santa Cruz is scarcely touched by tourism, so there's a genuine feel to the place, as you explore its historic streets of 17th and 18th century mansions, featuring their trademark wooden balconies, hanging over the cobblestone streets. We passed bars and restaurants busy with lunching locals, and wished we had time to savour a bit more of the local culture.

So, after this dash around town, we went back to the ship and stayed on deck for the sailaway into the Atlantic – as we won't be seeing land for the next 7 days, we wanted to savour the views.

December 8 – Madeira

After a fairly rocky journey from Gibraltar, it was a welcome sight to see the volcanic island of Madeira looming up for our first stop in the Atlantic.

Today we were exploring some of Madiera's fertile and mountainous interior, passing by steep slopes of banana plantations, and roadsides of the colourful flowers that the island's famous for. Madeira is renowned for being locked in an "eternal spring", with consistently warm weather that rarely deviates from 20 degrees centigrade, and almost-constantly blooming flowers. Being a tiny dot in the Atlantic, the weather changes pretty quickly here, so we experienced warm bright sunshine at the coastline, and rain showers as we climbed up into the clouds covering the hillsides.

Madeira is also famous for its wine, so by 10.30am, we were at a restaurant tasting some of the delicious locally-produced wine – the sacrifices I make in the cause of research!

At the end of the tour, we stayed in Funchal, Madeira's relaxed capital city, so we explored its pretty historic streets, laid out by the first colonists in the 15th and 16th centuries. It's a lovely place to be, so last time we were here, this was a place that Tracy had picked out as a town we could live in, but having climbed and driven up so many steep hills today, I think it's going to get knocked off the list (I'm sure this will cause much mourning in Funchal).

Monday, December 7, 2009

Dec 6 - Gibraltar

Today we returned to the United Kingdom, or at least a semblance of Britain, in its Crown Colony, Gibraltar – you could tell that this wasn't real Britain, because there wasn't a cloud in the sky and the sun was hot. As we were arriving at 1pm, I was on deck from 12, giving a commentary over the tannoy, as we passed through the pillars of Hercules from the Mediterranean into the Atlantic. It's not often that you can be on deck and see two continents, three countries (Gib (UK), Spain and Morocco in the distance), and two major bodies of water.

We've been to Gibraltar many times before, and as Tracy's monkey-phobia now prevents us from going up the rock, we limited ourselves to sampling a typical slice of British culture – going to Morrisons supermarket. As we entered the supermarket, we could have easily been back in Blighty – mothers shouting at their badly behaved children, overcrowded aisles stocked with all our old favourites, and Christmas songs playing on the PA. There was a limit to how long we could soak up all this British culture, so we stocked up on quality British staples like wine gums and chocolate, and made our escape.

Dec 5 – Alicante

Our first stop on our transatlantic journey, was the port of Alicante on the Costa Blanca. Alicante was the site of my first ever foreign holiday when I was four – seeing as my only memories of the trip were my brother almost drowning, the waves being taller than me, and having a stand off with my Grandmother when I refused to eat her food, it is difficult to tell if it has changed much since then.

Alicante is famous for the quality of its luminescent light, and it certainly lived up to its reputation, with incredibly bright blue skies and a hot sun, warming it up to 22 degrees – it felt like a summer's day. With all the people sunning themselves on the beach, swimming in the sea, and strolling along the seafront promenades, you can see why so many Brits come to this area for the winter.

We explored the old town, visiting the Cathedral, the ornate Ayuntamiento (town hall) and the art nouveau market, where we stopped for a drink and overheated in the morning sun.

Our next stop was to get up to the Castillo, sitting at the top of the steep hill which dominates all views of the city. We briefly contemplated walking up there, but instead, reason prevailed, and we took the lift the 548 feet up to the top. The views from the castle across the town were stunning.

Dec 3 & 4 – Barcelona

We didn't get into Barcelona until 3pm, so we had a lazy morning, getting ourselves ready for the city, Tracy removing all jewellery and precious items from her person, "just in case". We walked into town, and explored the atmospheric Gothic Quarter, while Tracy went in and out of all the trendy shops and I loitered in a supportive manner. We visited the Christmas market in front of the Cathedral (which wasn't completely covered in scaffolding for the first time in years), and looked at all the Christmas decorations they were selling.

The Spanish are particularly keen on Nativity scenes, and in Catalonia they also have a peculiar addition to all the figurines of the Holy Family, Shepherds and Wise Men. He's a statue of an old man called the "Caganer" – he's dressed in traditional Catalan costume, and he's pulling down his trousers and squatting, doing a big Number Two on the floor. It seems quite unlikely, but nearly all Nativity scenes on show in Catalonia, do contain the Caganer, who's meant to bring good luck. Not wanting to look a good luck charm in the mouth, no matter how disgusting, we bought the smallest and cheapest Caganer we could find.

After some more shopping and sightseeing, it was time for one of Barcelona's chief attractions (for me, at any rate) – eating and drinking. We went to one of our favourite bars, El Xampanyet, in the Born district. It's a traditional old cava bar, with bright lighting, tiles on the walls and a lively atmosphere, where they sell phenomenally cheap cava by the glass, and lots of fishy tapas. After this, we stumbled over to La Mercat de Santa Catalina, where the old market has been renovated, and a trendy restaurant and tapas bar have been added. Having gorged on more delicious tapas, we got a cab back to the port and slept like babies.

Our second day in Barcelona was disembarkation day, so, the announcements for passengers to get off the ship started pretty early, which made us get up earlier than we'd have liked to. We blearily made our way into town again, to meet our friend Claire and her Mother, who were on a weekend trip to Barcelona.

After much catching up, we walked them round some of Barcelona's main sights - the Ramblas, La Boqueriea (Barcelona's colourful central market), the Gothic Quarter, the Cathedral, La Ribera, the Born. We'd totally forgotten that they'd been up since 5am for their flight, so when we finally worked out that they were flagging, we took them to a nice restaurant in the Gothic Quarter that we'd discovered the day before. Many people think that Barcelona is an expensive city to go to, but if you choose the right place, there's some excellent value out there – a good quality three course dinner, plus a glass of wine for €10.90 a head.

So, after much catching up, we said our goodbyes, and made our way back to the port for our final cruise of this session – a two week journey across the Atlantic to Miami.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Dec 2 – Toulon

Another beautiful day in Provence to explore the untrendy town of Toulon. As the home of France's Mediterranean Fleet, and a place that was bombed pretty heavily in the Second World War, Toulon has a bit of a reputation for being a place you should head out of as quickly as you can – a kind of poor man's Marseille.

That's not really doing the place justice at all, because it's actually a fairly pretty town, with an attractive waterfront, and some great beaches within 15 minutes walk of the town centre.

It's only 5 minutes from where the ship docks into the centre of town, so we explored its lively street market (the biggest in Provence), wandered its medieval warren of streets, and stopped in a café on the harbour, to bask in the sun.

As we did some further exploring, we joked that we might bump in Jonny Wilkinson, English rugby's greatest star, who is now playing for Toulon's ambitious rugby team. Then, just as we were passing the train station, we noticed that there was a coach dropping off a bunch of enormous and grizzled men in tracksuits. Then we saw England's Golden Boy himself, walking towards us, obviously desperate for an opportunity to have his photo taken with me. I kindly accepted his request, and gave him a couple of insights into the world of rugby without trying to look too star struck.

Scarcely able to believe the chances of this encounter, we walked to the town's lovely sandy beaches. It says something of the high quality and beauty of Provence's coastal towns and beach resorts, that somewhere as nice as Toulon is dismissed by the guidebooks as merely "a gritty seaport".

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Dec 1 – Monaco

Monaco was bathed in lovely winter sunshine, so we decided to do a walk around town – it's not often that you can walk across an entire country in a matter of a couple of hours.

We were lucky enough to be docking right in Monaco's harbour, one of the most exclusive berths in the world. We were docked next to a huge private yacht, the Lady Moura, which was scarcely much smaller than our ship. We looked it up on the internet, and it turned out that it was owned by a super-rich Saudi businessmen. Apparently, it even has an artificial beach, complete with sand (not sure why a Saudi Arabian would transport sand around with him), and the dining room, has a 75 feet long dining table.

We walked up to Monte Carlo, the home of conspicuous consumption, to see the Casino, and then we had a peek into the exclusive designer shops, filled with ridiculously-priced, ostentatious and impractical stuff. We also had a look in a few estate agents' windows, to see if we were ready to move to Monaco yet. We found a fairly ordinary and tiny looking flat of 40 square meters, that was a snip at €1.3 Million – I don't think Monaco's ready for us just yet.

Nov 30 – Genoa Not Portofino

It had been a pretty rough night at sea, with the ship creaking and lurching all night, so it wasn't too much of a shock to get the announcement first thing in the morning, that we wouldn't be able to anchor at Portofino as planned. With 40 mph winds, the tender operation would have been far too dangerous. So, instead, the ship made its way to nearby Genoa instead.

Actually, Tracy and I were intending on getting the bus and train to Genoa anyway, so we weren't too disappointed to be avoiding the fun and games of Italian public transport. The main point of our trip was to go to a wonderful restaurant that we'd found last time we were in Genoa – a real backstreet place with a handwritten menu, and benches where you sit to eat with the locals.

It was a good thing that our plans for the day weren't much more ambitious than this, because the weather was atrocious, and it bucketed down non-stop, which meant that it wasn't really the right conditions for exploring Christopher Columbus's home town.

So, we made it through the puddles to the restaurant, and settled in for the afternoon – Tracy had stuffed anchovies (she's decided that this would be her choice for her final ever meal), while I had a risotto, followed by a lovely pasta and pesto Genovese, the town's delicious trademark dish. All this, plus half a litre of wine for 14 Euros!

After lunch, the plan had been to go to Genoa's Cathedral to see the Holy Grail, but a combination of the appalling weather, the apathy that half a litre of wine at lunchtime can bring, and the fact that we've already seen the "other" rival Holy Grail in Valencia's cathedral, meant that this plan was put on hold, and we fled back to the shelter of the ship.

Nov 29 - Florence

Today, was the first day of the cruise when it actually seemed like winter, so it was a cold day in Florence.

Our first stop was the Museo Bargello, where Donatello's provocative bronze statue of David was the star attraction amongst a great collection of renaissance sculpture. He looked very effeminate compared to Michelangelo's nonchalant David in the Piazza della Signoria.

The Florence marathon was on, so we briefly clapped at a few flagging runners and then supported them from the safe distance of a cafe.

For most tourists, Florence is about a bit of culture, a bit of shopping, and a lot of food; so after a spot of retail therapy and a delicious ice cream, all bases had been covered, and so it was time to meet up with the tour group for the journey back to Livorno.