Saturday, May 18, 2019

May 18th – The World Cruise 2019 Ends in London

So, after 133 days of travelling around the world, visiting 52 ports in 31 countries, our World Cruise has come to an end in the best stop of the lot – London!

We had a gentle cruise down through the Thames Estuary and then excitement mounted as the skyscrapers of London came into view. Passing the Millennium Dome and Canary Wharf, we glided into Greenwich where we’ll be disembarking tomorrow morning.

What a great way to end what’s been a fabulous last 4 and a half months. It’s been so long that we can scarcely remember where we’ve been, but arriving back in Europe and visiting my 2 favourite cities in the world – Seville and London – has really been a great way to end our 8th World Cruise in a row.

Tracy and I will next be at sea in late September on the Sliver Shadow….

May 17th – A Gentle Penultimate Stop in St Malo

As you approach St Malo’s forbidding fortifications from the sea – the grey of its solid stone merging into the grey of the brooding skies – you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is one of France’s most historic cities.

There is an enormous amount of history to discover here; yet, most of what we were seeing were post-war reconstructions, after the city had been on the receiving end of a terrible hammering in fighting between the Germans and the Americans. But, they’ve clearly done a fantastic job, which makes St Malo absolutely perfect for a low-octane day of bracing walks around its walls, exploring its windy beaches, wandering its atmospheric shopping streets, and stopping in for lunch in one of its many restaurants.

We managed to achieve all these things very well, on an enjoyable penultimate day of the world cruise. Seeing as the world has been our oyster for the last 4 and a half months, of course, it was appropriate to end our world tour eating some lovely oysters.

What a gentle way to cruise into the last couple of days of this World Cruise!

May 14th & 15th – Eating and Drinking Round Beautiful Bordeaux

There can’t be many better city centre locations to dock than Bordeaux. You have a lovely approach to the city down the Gironde, passing by winelands, green fields and chateaux, before you arrive at the harmonious golden stone buildings of what is for me France’s most elegant city – Bordeaux. Then, you’re right in the centre of town, overlooking an attractive park, where young people come to picnic or promenade along this gorgeous riverfront.

This being a gastronomic centre, in the evening, of course we had to go out for a meal, although we chose to go Lebanese rather than French, and a very good choice it was.

But, the next day was the main event, because we had been invited by some very generous friends to join them on a trip to St Emilion for an exclusive vineyard tour. We were visiting Chateau Fonplegarde, which is a Grand Cru Classe vineyard that has been bought by a wealthy American couple who have spent a fortune doing it up and improving their wine.

I don’t think that I’ve ever done a more in depth wine tour than today – we were taken around the terroir, saw the vines, explained their growth cycle, and taken through the processes that turn the grapes into the nectar that we were about to taste. Some vineyards like to pretend that this is all down to a kind of magical alchemy – but, the level of care and science that we were shown at work, prove that this is no magic, but a carefully controlled process from soil, to vine, to pruning, to picking, to crushing, to fermentation, to ageing in barrel, to bottling.

And of course, we had to experience the fruits of their labour, by tasting a 2011 vintage – it was beautiful.

Then, after a bit of a tour of the gorgeous little village of St Emilion, we were treated to a superb meal in a local restaurant. Even though it feels like all I have done is eat and drink over the last few days, I somehow managed to find a little extra space for some more gastronomic gluttony.

I think I have discovered what the phrase “joie de vivre” is all about!

May 13th – Savouring the “Guggenheim Effect” in Bilbao

When people talk about “The Guggenheim Effect”, they’re referring to the remarkable impact that the spectacular Guggenheim Museum had on sparking the renaissance of Bilbao. From the 1990s, Bilbao has rejuvenated itself from being a decaying and polluted post-industrial relic, into now being the lively, thrusting, cultural centre that it is today.

But, if we’re talking about “The Guggenheim Effect” in relation to this cruise, then it was an effect of inducing extreme happiness and contentment in a group of 200 or so World Cruisers, nearing the end of their journey. Because, today’s farewell dinner at the Guggenheim Museum proved to be a spectacular success.

Of course, you can’t have many better locations than this truly amazing building; while, the food (by a Michelin-starred chef) was probably the best that I’ve ever had at a mass-catered event. The ambience was added to by an excellent children’s choir that reduced many people to tears with their innocence, enthusiasm and beautiful voices.

Events like this are exactly why people go on World Cruises with Silversea – no expense was spared in its staging and we were totally spoilt, but it retained its personal level that reminded us that we’ve become one big (mostly happy) family over the last 4 months.

PS. In the morning, seeing as we didn’t have a lot of time to go into Bilbao and back, we did a lovely walk from the port into the very pleasant town of Getxo, to see its attractive beach, historic old town, and taste some great Basque tapas.

May 11th – Enjoying Lisbon’s Renaissance

don’t think that I’ve ever seen Lisbon look better than it did today. The cloudless skies were deep blue, all those historic buildings were sparkling in the sun, and the city seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance these days.

When I was last here a few years ago, Portugal was in the grip of the financial crisis and austerity, many of Lisbon’s streets were looking pretty run down, and I was offered heroin on its main streets quite a few times. But, in the intervening years, it’s fairly obvious that there’s been a lot of investment in the city, which is now looking much more prosperous.

Admittedly, parts of Lisbon still have a fairly “lived in” feel – but, that scruffiness has always been part of the city’s charm – so, I hope that all the new boutique hotels, the tourist tuk tuks, and the commercialised tourist trade don’t dilute too much of Lisbon’s down-to-earth charms.

As long as you don’t mind hills, Lisbon is a great city for just exploring at random, and seeing what historic gem you come across next – a half-excavated Roman amphitheatre, sitting below a Moorish castle, next to crumbling medieval buildings, across from Renaissance churches – this place has so much character.

So, we walked our socks off up and down multiple hills, before having a superb lunch in the classy Solar do Presuntos Restaurant in the centre of town – absolutely delicious fish and seafood were had by all.

So, Lisbon was a great place to start this final leg of the World Cruise – it’s hard to overstate just how happy everyone has been to be back in Europe after the challenges of West Africa. But, when you’re in a superb city like Lisbon, it’s hard not to be happy.

May 8th & 9th – Seville’s Fantastic Feria

As the ship finished its docking manoeuvres on the Guadalquivir at 11pm, our sensible thoughts of going to bed after dinner were swiftly changed by the mass of bright lights and the muffled sounds of music and jollity we could see and hear floating across the river. They were calling us not to miss the chance to visit the sensory overload that is Seville’s Feria de Abril – the time when Seville’s already party-mad population, lose themselves in a joyful riot of music, dancing, eating and drinking.

We were lucky enough to know someone who had a caseta (one of the private tents), so we were able to experience the Feria as the Sevillanos do, and join in with the eating, drinking, and (on Tracy’s part) – the dancing. All the women were dressed up in their traditional Flamenco dresses, and the whole place was buzzing. 3 fun-filled hours passed in a blur, and with the party still buzzing it was time to stagger back to the ship at 2.30am.

Understandably it was a slow start to the following morning, but it was nice to reacquaint ourselves with our favourite city, and experience Seville’s laid-back charms. Then, it was time to return to the fair to see the action at day time.

It was no less colourful, and with all the people parading around on beautifully-groomed horses or in shiny horse-drawn carriages, there was a really exotic air to the fairground. I did wonder if the ship’s first-time visitors to Seville were thinking that the city always behaved like this, but even the party-loving Sevillanos can’t keep up this level of sleeplessness and hedonism for more than a week.   

We had a great time at the fair, and then we headed into town for a bit of shopping and tapas. But, it appeared that most of the shop owners and workers were too busy partying to open, so we had to settle for tapas instead. Unfortunately, there was a bull fight on, so pretty much every bar was showing it on TV, which wasn’t great for a pair of animal lovers like ourselves. However, as we’d just bumped into a couple of the bullfighters leaving their hotel on the way to the bull ring, there was a grim fascination to watching the bloody action through our fingers, and wishing that it was a more equal fight.

Anyway, as ever, we had a wonderful time in Seville – it’s impossible not to in this fantastic city. I can’t wait to come back here for a few weeks in October.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

May 7th – Breaking-the-Fast in Casablanca

When you visit Casablanca coming from Europe, you can be hit by its sense of chaos. But, when you’ve just come from West Africa, it feels like an oasis of calm, and a lesson in organisation. Because, the city is like a stepping stone between Africa and Europe, a halfway house between the First and the Third World.

Actually, visiting on the first day of the holy month of Ramadam, was not perfect timing. People are understandably a little subdued – not surprising considering that they have to fast during daylight hours (which are about 14 hours at this time of year) – and most of the restaurants and caf├ęs, plus some of the shops are shut.

However, we had a nice time exploring the Nouvelle Ville that had been laid out by the colonial French to look like a European town – an atmosphere that it retains to this day. We concentrated on visiting Place Mohammed V, the town’s main square which was being renovated last time we were here – it was now looking pretty good, and the ground-breaking new Grand Theatre (CasArts) building was nearing completion.

Then we took the new tram system to the beach, where we were meeting some friends for lunch. It was cheap, clean and highly efficient, while our fellow passengers were all very friendly. On the way, we passed through a massive new development outside of the city centre – a new “Finance City” where large numbers of skyscrapers and upmarket apartment blocks are being built on what was once scrubland. If they can find enough businesses to fill the offices, and enough well off people to occupy all those apartments, then Casablanca will be doing pretty well.

When we got off the tram, I had never realised that Casablanca had such a beautiful beach, but I was very impressed by what I saw. I couldn’t work out if the beach was pretty much empty because - a) it was Ramadan; b) the locals aren’t into beaches or exposing too much flesh; or c) it was just that it was during the day and mid-week – probably a combination of all three.

After a promenade down the beach, our lovely friends Herve and Colette had somehow found a restaurant that would open to create a feast for about 40 of us from the ship – it felt a little wrong to be eating so well while the rest of the city was fasting, but what can you do?

In fact, that evening, just as we were resting our stomachs, another friend Sidney, had managed to find a restaurant that was open at night time; so, we pretended like we’d been observing Ramadam all day and joined a delicious break-fast buffet.

It was ironic that it turned out that I have rarely eaten so much food, on this day of all days, but if we ignore that, I have to say that I’m really impressed by the direction that Casablanca is going. Our driver in the evening told us that he thought that Morocco was a giant that was finally waking up, and given the amount of construction we saw around the city, it’s waking up pretty quickly.

May 3rd – Dakar – A Colourful City of Contrasts

Just driving out of Dakar from the port brought home the best and the worst of this crazily busy city. What we saw from the coach window was a jarring mixture of the modern and the medieval, an unsettling juxtaposition of the shiny First World and the scruffy Third World. As we drove along smart toll highways that wouldn’t look out of place in France, we passed by dusty unpaved streets that can’t have been improved in the last 100 years.

The roads were packed with cars – from clapped out old Renaults, to modern SUVs. We saw crazily overcrowded minibuses with people grimly hanging off the sides, sharing the roads with ancient horse and carts. It reminded me of Egypt – a country that is similarly struggling to adjust to the modern world, and where society appears to be just as polarised.

We were heading to the Pink Lake – a lake that didn’t appear to have got the memo, and so looked more dirty brown than pink. But, we had a tremendous adventure along the way. At the lake, we transferred into a battered 4x4 truck that must have been at least 50 years old. It took our driver 5 minutes to hotwire the truck, as its battery laboured to even turn over. When I suggested that maybe we should get a truck that actually worked, I was told that this one was fine.

But, what we were greeted with was an amazing sight. The salt pans were being worked by a team of incredibly hard-working people filling huge buckets with salt from the lake and then carrying them on their heads to dump them onto great piles of salt. It was an almost medieval spectacle of the hardest of hard labour – the buckets weighed about 10 kilos (22 pounds) and they were doing a bucket load every couple of minutes. When I heard that they were earning maybe a couple of dollars a day, it made me feel very humbled. Suddenly our lives in the West seem very easy.

Then, when it was time to go, rather predictably, our ancient truck wouldn’t start. Then, the replacement truck (obviously their second best model) they sent over arrived with a flat tyre. This was just about able to give us a jump start, and we set off into the bleak sand dunes worrying that if we ever stopped, we would be marooned there forever.

We had a fascinating visit to a dusty sand-filled village where it seemed like there were twice as many children under 10 than there were adults, before we had a hair-raisingly bumpy ride across a beautiful beach and through some vertiginous dunes. Once we were back on the road, it became obvious that the bumpiness of our ride wasn’t just because of the rough conditions – our tyre wasn’t just flat, it had pretty much sheared off the wheel.

The state of our truck seemed to encapsulate my impressions of Senegal – exciting, colourful and wonderfully adventurous if you wanted to take it on, but woefully under-invested in, and malfunctioning to the point of total breakdown.

On our journey home, we were treated to a fabulously wild “Lion Dance” by some intimidatingly huge men – the audience of us 14 and about 500 enthusiastic villagers were treated to a wonderful if slightly bewildering spectacle.

Finally, the day was rounded off by a fantastic evening “Silversea Experience” on Goree Island, the old slave island off Dakar – as ever it was a sensory overload in a really magical location.