Saturday, May 12, 2012

May 12th – Journey’s End

So, after 127 days at sea, 52 lectures, 5 bridge narrations, 29 countries, 12 pounds lost and 1 fainting episode, we are coming to an end of an epic journey, and heading back to Southampton tomorrow.

The plan is that we're now going to be in the UK for a bit, with brief visits to Spain and Greece, before we head down to Spain again in the campervan to hopefully learn how to surf (this may be a physical impossibility at this advanced stage of our lives, but we can dream!).

We're next going to be at sea in September, back on the Silver Whisper, sailing from Southampton to New York, then sailing up to Canada and back a couple of times, before heading south for some warmth in the Caribbean.

See you soon!

May 11th – Cognac Tasting

For our second day in Bordeaux, I joined the ship's tour to the brandy-producing town of Cognac. Of course, this isn't any old brandy they produce here - in Cognac, they've made their brandy into an art form, and they go through a number of very particular processes that give their product a unique quality that allows them to charge an arm and a leg for every bottle.

We went to the largest Cognac house of them all – Hennessey – a place where the visitor experience is as slick and silky smooth as the best Cognac. You catch a boat over the Charente River to visit their ageing warehouses, and as soon as you enter the dark buildings, you're hit by the heady aromas of Cognac – according to our guide, Hennessey has about €1 billion worth of Cognac of various ages (some well over 100 years old) stored in its different warehouses.

These aromas we were smelling are part of the so-called "angel's share", as each year about 2-3% of the contents of the ageing barrels are lost into the atmosphere by evaporation. Since that's the equivalent of 20 million bottles of wine a year, those angels must be very happy indeed.

On our guided tour, we were taken through the complex processes of Cognac production, and the magical blending processes that ensure that every single Cognac bottle of a certain classification will taste exactly the same. Of course, to test that, we had to pit our expert palettes against the Cognac, so we had a tasting of a couple of different ones. I'm not used to drinking Cognac in the morning, but even at this odd hour to be having a brandy, you could tell it was pretty good stuff (even if it was a little too strong for me).

Just to prove that the day was turning upside down, after having the quintessential after-dinner drink, we then went for dinner at a local restaurant – where the food was typically excellent.

A culinary feast like this is the perfect way to finish off our 4 and a half months of travelling around the world. About a week ago, I'd actually lost around 12 pounds in weight over the course of the world cruise – I think I've put I've put it all back on again over this last leg from Monaco.

May 10th – Bordeaux La Blonde

This morning we sailed 60 miles up the massive Gironde Estuary, into the Garonne River to sail into the heart of Bordeaux, one of France's most attractive provincial towns. Just as I was relaxing enjoying the views, I was called up to the bridge to say a few words over the PA as we sailed in. I didn't get a chance to say too much, because the pilot then decided that he wanted the ship to turn in the river about a mile upstream from our berth, and then reverse the rest of the way in – I don't think the captain needed my commentary putting him off these complicated manoeuvres.

Once we made it in – we had an amazing location, looking face-to-face with Bordeaux's wonderful array of mainly 18th century limestone buildings, built during an amazing trading boom, when, aside from its lucrative wine trade, Bordeaux would also have received trade from all around France's far-flung empire, and its port grew into the second busiest in Europe (after London).

It was another boiling day, and in the sunshine, Bordeaux certainly lived up to its nickname of "Bordeaux La Blonde" as its golden limestone buildings sparkled in the sunshine. In the last decade, the Blonde has had her roots touched up, as the city's been given an expensive makeover as its abandoned industrial warehouses have been torn down, its historic buildings cleaned up and restored, and a new super-modern tram system has been installed. All this good work was recognised in 2007 by UNESCO, who listed about half of the city's area as a World Heritage Site – in doing so, this became the World's largest urban Heritage Site.

So, we explored the prosperous streets of this wealthy wine-producing town, and there was no sense of the economic problems that were obvious on the streets of Portugal or Spain. Bordeaux has always been a wealthy place, right from the time when it was run by the English in the Middle Ages – the time when the English first fell in love with a drop of claret, so starting an international love affair with Bordeaux's wine. It was under the English that most of the impressive Gothic Cathedral St-Andre was built, so we went to see this little piece of England in this most French of towns.

Bordeaux isn't a place of a great deal of must see sights or set-pieces, it's just a place to wander, to soak up the atmosphere, and to settle down in one of the many cafes or restaurants (I've never seen more restaurants in one town) with a glass of vin rouge and enjoy the ever-so-chic views.

What a great place to dock for the final stop of the cruise.

May 9th – Visiting Bibao’s “Other” Museum

I've never been to Bilbao when the sun's been shining – it's always been raining or at least very grey. So I was unprepared for quite how good the city looks on a sunny day like today, when the temperature rose to a boiling 31°C. Of course, the amazing architecture of the Guggenheim Museum has famously given the city a "wow factor" since it opened in 1997; but, quite often the rest of the city is overlooked when compared to this unbelievable piece of modern architecture.

Today, we got to appreciate what a good job the city's authorities have done in revitalising the rest of the city. When we first came to Bilbao in the year 2000, we parked our campervan right next to the Guggenheim on a piece of barren wasteland – now, this area is made up of smart office blocks, modern apartments and green parks. In fact, the whole city appears to have totally bounced back from its post-industrial decline, and seems to be doing very nicely – we didn't see one "Compro Oro" shop (We Buy Gold shop) in the city centre, while Palma and Cadiz's streets appeared to be awash with them.

The locals appeared to be quite happy too. We noticed that there was a real party atmosphere out on the streets, something that was explained by the fact that Athletico Bilbao, the local team, was playing in the Europa Cup Final against Athletico Madrid that evening. These people are football mad at the best of times, but the fact that the local team (which can only pick people whose family come from the Basque region) was playing in a big final against a team from the capital, turned this into a big occasion for all Basque Nationalists. Everywhere you looked there were the red and white stripes of the football team, and most people were wearing Athletico shirts, scarves or hats – I hope they win.

Having been to the Guggenheim before and been slightly underwhelmed by its collection of weird and wacky modern art, today we decided to go to the Museo Bellas Artes, the Fine Arts Museum, and see what they had to offer. It was a pretty good collection, moving from medieval art, to some good examples of the Spanish greats (El Greco, Zubarran, Murillo and Goya). It was all very well done, but it felt a shame to miss out on the good weather, so we went to the riverside for an obligatory walk around the stunning Guggenheim Museum.

As you walk around this literally amazing building, you come to the conclusion that it looks like no other construction in the world – it's hard to imagine what was going through the architect, Frank Gehry's mind when he came up with the design (other than some fairly strong hallucinogens). On a sunny day like today, the sun shining off the titanium panels of its sinuous curves seem like an explosion of light. A quite breathtaking building.

All too quickly, our time in Bilbao was up, so it was time to leave Bilbao and its football crazy people to their Cup Final party. Sadly, we learnt that evening that they'd been thrashed 3-0, but I'm sure that they had a great time anyway.

May 8th – To the Lighthouse in La Coruña

La Coruña on Spain's wild Galician coast is one of the rainiest places in Spain, and today the weather lived up to its reputation. However, in years gone by, this coastline was also known as "La Costa de la muerte" to seafarers – "The Coast of Death" – so maybe we should have been glad to be alive, rather than moaning about a little bit of drizzle.

To prevent the coast from being too deadly, the Romans built a lighthouse here in the 2nd century AD - the lighthouse still survives to this day, and is the oldest lighthouse in the world still in operation. Seeing as this is La Coruña's chief claim to fame, we trekked around the coastline to visit the ancient lighthouse, perched at what was once the end of the known world. The original lighthouse was clad in modern square stones in the 18th century, but its setting on a bleak outcrop facing into the Atlantic, did certainly have something of a "world's end" atmosphere.

After this, we just explored the rest of the city, stopping off for a tapas lunch and to visit a few shops. If it weren't for the perpetually grey skies, La Coruña's wide beaches and atmospheric town centre would make this an attractive beach resort – unfortunately, the rain in Spain makes this quite an unlikely prospect.

May 6th – Meeting Old Friends in Portimao

After the tempest in Cadiz, we didn't have high hopes for the weather along the coast in Portimao in Portugal the next day. However, we had a nice surprise to wake up and see the sun shining on the attractive Algarve coast.

Today we were meeting Carla and Fernando - some old friends from home who've settled out here. They picked us up from the ship and we went for a coffee across the Arade River in the pretty little town of Ferrugad, where we caught up on a year's worth of gossip and chat. They told us how everyone in Portugal is feeling the financial pinch – taxes on virtually everything have gone up hugely as the government attempts to pay off some of its massive debts. The Algarve has been particularly badly hit, as the numbers of its mainly British and Irish clientele have dropped in a big way, and suddenly lots of the new developments are now empty. Apparently, businesses are closing down all over the place.

We shrugged off this slightly depressing economic news, and drove up to the town of Silves in the hills above Portimao. The town was an Arab stronghold against the Christian Reconquest of Portugal, and the impressive castle that we visited held out for 3 months when the Christian forces attempted to take the town in the 12th century.

After this, we went to the pretty town of Lagos which manages to combine the atmosphere of being a genuine Portuguese town with lots of history, with being a laid-back resort town. On a sunny Sunday afternoon it was positively sleepy, but we were assured that it gets pretty busy in the height of summer.

After doing some exploring, we went to one of Lagos's beautiful sandy beaches for a delicious seafood lunch overlooking the turquoise sea – even if Portugal is in financial purgatory at the moment, it can still look like paradise.

Another lovely day with friends that we see all too rarely.

May 5th - The Rain in Spain Thrashes Down on Cádiz!

In my lecture on Cadiz, I'd explained what a laid-back sun-drenched atmosphere they'd be entering into – which meant that the passengers (and I) were totally unprepared for the tempestuous conditions that greeted us in Cadiz. The wind was howling and the torrential rain was sheeting sideways – within 10 seconds of walking down the gangplank, you were totally soaked. In the morning, many people got half way down the gangplank and gave up.

As we struggled into town, every rubbish bin was filled with a growing pile of mangled umbrellas, torn apart by the furious tempest. Within 20 minutes, my jeans were soaked to above the knees, so we sought refuge in our favourite cafe by the market, where Spanish families sheltered from the conditions muttering about it being the end of the world.

Seeing as this was a place that we're considering eventually moving to, we thought that it was a waste of our time just sitting in a cafe, so we ventured out into the hammering rain again. It was a decision we soon came to regret, as we ran from shelter to shelter with the rain bouncing up off the pavement, our soaked shoes squelching through the puddles. Rather than hunting out the favourite bars that we'd planned, we ended up in dodgy bars that we'd never have gone into normally, with slightly disappointing food results.

As our moods darkened, the skies at last began to clear, and by 5pm, it was the Cadiz that we knew again (apart from the puddles we were tip-toeing around). So, we walked around the sea walls, and pondered whether this really was a place we could see ourselves living in – we were assured by the fact that one of the bar owners told us that this was the first significant rain in the last 5 months.

As the ship was staying till 10.30pm, we stayed out for the night and headed to our favourite tapas bar, El Faro. Unfortunately, we'd forgotten that the Andalucians are such night owls, and the place didn't even open until 8.30pm – which meant that we'd have to leave at 9.20 to make sure we got back to the ship for all aboard at 10.

So, we found a different bar to sit outside (on our own), while the time ticked down to tapas-o'clock. Eventually, it was 8.30, so we had the ignominy of waiting outside the door for them to open up. We knew that by 10.30, the whole place would be packed, but at this time we were the only people in there – it was like torture.

Anyway, we ignored the lack of atmosphere and started ordering some of the most delicious tapas you can find in Andalucia. Gradually, it started to fill up and get lively just as it was time for us to go back to the ship. We vowed that next time we came here, we'd get here late and stay all night.

So, we didn't see Cadiz at its best, but it's still a wonderful place.

Friday, May 11, 2012

May 3rd – Mightily Impressed by Palma De Majorca

Majorca is a place with a split personality – most people know about the island because of its (mainly low-brow) sun, sea and sand reputation; however, any time spent in its historic and stylish capital Palma, soon shows you that this is only one side of Majorca.

In fact, as you're exploring Palma's narrow medieval streets and Gothic buildings, you'd hardly even know that this is one of the most popular package holiday destinations in Europe. Palma has a genuine atmosphere that feels hardly touched by the tourist hordes (at least at this time of the year).

Aside from their common Catalan heritage, the city shares many characteristics with Barcelona – both have a stunning waterside location, and both boast atmospheric Gothic Quarters that quickly transport you to another age. Palma can't compete with Barcelona on modern architecture, but its stunning Gothic cathedral dominates the town to an even greater extent than Barcelona's Sagrada Familia.

From the port, we caught the Shuttle Bus into town (about 3 miles away), and immediately headed for the cathedral, standing opposite the stately Palau Almudaina. We amazed ourselves by being up so early that the Cathedral wasn't even open yet, so we visited the atmospheric Banys Arabs – Arab baths that were built in the 10th century, when the island was an Arab possession.

Palma's a great place to just wander at random and see what you come across next, so we put away the map and did some general exploring. For lunch, where better than a busy bar in the city's market building, serving some of the freshest fried fish you can get? You couldn't get any further away from the atmosphere of the British pubs and karaoke bars further along the coast.

After lunch, of course we were drawn to the enormous cathedral, with its lines of flying buttresses and gothic gargoyles. Inside, it actually feels bigger than it seems on the outside, as an overwhelming sense of space and light hits you. The incredibly slender columns support massive windows that illuminate the cavernous interior – our guide book told us that apparently, of all European medieval architecture, this building encloses the most amount of space in the least amount of stone – it sounds a dull statistic, but if you go there, you'll know what I mean.

We then decided that we'd do a walk away from the port along the seafront promenade – an area full of walkers, joggers, rollerbladers and cyclists. You get the feeling that if you lived here, you've got no excuse to be lazy, the fabulous setting just forces you to get out there.

As we explored, we came to the conclusion that Palma features quite highly on Tracy's "I could live there" rating – good weather, vibrant bars and restaurants, good food, excellent shopping, plus plenty of nice beaches within an easy walk of the city centre.

On a sunny spring day, there's not many cities that can look as good as Palma.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

May 1st – The World Cruise Ends in Monaco

It seems an age ago that we sailed out of Fort Lauderdale in January. At the end of my final lecture on Monaco, I did a brief review of where we've been, and it was amazing to think back to what we've seen over the last 115 days. There's been so many wonderful places, but particular highlights for me include the amazing Iguassu Falls, watching some lions tear apart a fresh kill in Shamwari, playing with the lemurs in Madagascar, doing a thought-provoking slum tour in Mumbai, and feasting on the visual feast that is Petra.

We've met some lovely people on the way, and we look forward to meeting up with many of them again on next year's world cruise. But, while Monaco is the end of the line for most people, we've got one more cruise to go, because we're carrying on to Southampton – the amount of luggage we've accumulated over this long voyage would make flying an expensive option.

So, that means that we had a day to explore in the South of France; although the fact that it was a national holiday for May Day meant that most shops were going to be closed for the day.

On a grey day, we decided to get out of Monaco, and catch the train to Nice instead where a bit more would be open. In fact, Nice was pretty busy with tourists, so the atmospheric narrow alleyways of the old town were thronged with people browsing the souvenir shops or sitting out in the pavement cafes. The streets were plastered with posters of Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, as they fight it out for the hearts and minds of France - judging by the preponderance of Sarkozy posters, Hollande's 75% tax on the rich, hasn't been going down so well on the wealthy Cote d'Azur.

We just did a bit of wandering, and, being English promenaders, we headed to the Promenade des Anglais to walk along the seafront and enjoy the views over the azure water in front of us.

When we got back to the ship, we had to get used to the fact that most of the familiar faces that we'd spent the last 4 and a half months with weren't going to be there any more.