The third and final part in the series is now published.
The third and final part in the series is now published.
Part two of the three part series has just been published on Point Hacks.
Stay tuned for the final installment tomorrow.
Hello fellow navigators!
Check out the case study on this trip which has just been published on Point Hacks.
This is the first article in a series of three. After this you will know all my secrets to travelling the world!
This post invokes the spirit of the Navigatrix’ 6 year old cousin who always asked “what was the best and worst thing about your day?”
We will get the worst things quickly out of the way, as we did not have many of those:
Now for the good things, of which there are many:
We could go on and on…
See the video below for mussels so fresh they are still spitting water.
We awoke to the edge of a typhoon blowing through Hong Kong. The rain was pouring down and no visibility across Victoria Harbour to Kowloon. Accordingly, a leisurely breakfast in the Member’s Lounge on level 38 was in order.
By mid morning the rain was clearing so we headed out to Causeway Bay on the lookout for some specific shoe stores. This was the first time we have stayed on Hong Kong Island (we are usually at Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon) and were delighted at the ease of getting around undercover. Indeed, it is possible to spend most of the day out of the weather. We went downstairs in the lift; through subway tunnels connecting Pacific Place, the Admiralty buildings and metro station; metro to Causeway Bay; more subway tunnels to Times Square shopping mall. It was only about two hours later when we went to the Jardine Bazaar street market that we actually headed outside. On the way we walked through Bowrington Road food market with its eye popping (for Westerners) food – fish with offal on display; pig legs with trotters still attached; and plenty more. Not a refrigerator or ice in sight, not that the ice would last long in the stifling humidity.
Hong Kong is busy – everyone knows that. However it seems Hong Kong Island is even busier. The metro was packed, the shops were busy, the roads were crowded and grid locked and the footpaths barely have room for one person let alone opposing pedestrians. For the first time, the Navigator found the bustle of Hong Kong somewhat overwhelming. Maybe we just needed more time to adjust and acclimatise.
Our shoe shopping expedition was fruitless and we decided it was too hot to head for the music store when we didn’t really know where we were going. We returned to the hotel from some lunch and a rest to take advantage of our 4pm late checkout. After checking out of the hotel, we caught the airport express shuttle back to Hong Kong Central and checked into our flight using the amazingly efficient remote desks. It is possible to check into almost any flight departing from Hong Kong airport up to 48 hours beforehand. Boarding passes are issued and luggage is forwarded through to the airport. This service is available at Hong Kong Central and also Kowloon station.
We still had time for more shopping, so headed across to Tsim Sha Tsui. The Navigator bought some music electronics he had hankered for since Ochanomizu in Tokyo and then we headed to Harbour City shopping mall for the Navigatrix. By 7pm were done, so headed back to the JW Marriott to pick up our carry-on luggage and then repeated our shuttle journey back to Hong Kong Central. Within twenty minutes the Airport Express had returned us to Hong Kong Airport.
Once through security we headed to the Cathay lounge, this time going to the Pier lounge at the far end of the main concourse. This is largest lounge in the terminal complex – the business class space alone is over 3,000 square meters. The lounge is organised into five different zones, all connected by a corridor running the centre like a spine. Each zone becomes progressively quieter as you progress through the space, from the buffet to the bar to the noodle bar to the tea house to the rest zone. There are plenty of showers and change rooms located at either end of the lounge. The beauty of being in the lounge at 8pm was the space was almost empty so we had our pick of chairs, the food and bar service was brisk and the ambience was quiet. The food was fantastic - the Navigator had vermicelli with vegetables, bean sprouts and a generous spoonful of Schezuan chili oil, as well as a pork steamed bun. The Navigatrix had chicken, salad and rice from the buffet. Later there was cheese, biscuits, chocolate praline parfait and Haagen Das ice cream. The showers were fantastic with plenty of hot water pressure, Aesop cosmetics and lots of room to change.
The food and the ambience was perfect and it was a shame to leave but alas our flight was boarding. We had flown Cathay Pacific business class from Hong Kong to Osaka on day 2, so the cabin and service was familiar to us. Even at midnight there was a meal service but we both opted for the lighter fare of leek and potato soup combined with a dish of ham, fetta and olives. The pilot warned of turbulence from the nearby typhoon and indeed it was quite bumpy for the first few hours of the flight. We both managed to get some sleep, although the Cathay business class seat was not without its challenges for the Navigator’s 183cm frame. Although the personal video screen only protrudes approximately 5cm from the partition, he repeatedly bashed his knee when turning over. However that was the worst of it and we both managed a relatively comfortable sleep.
We woke to breakfast being served (a full English offering again – better than BA but not as good as Finnair) and then we approached Sydney Airport from the north and landed directly. Observing our approach via the onboard camera, we could see the shadow of the plane getting closer... closer... closer until we touched down. We zoomed through customs and after a short wait for the bags we were in the cab and home within 90 minutes of arrival.
That’s it! Our 51 night holiday was over (yes, we have lost count in the blog titles). Despite the Hong Kong stopover we were still really on Barcelona time so it took a couple of days to fully get over jetlag – there were plenty of daylight naps over the following four days. We had a fantastic time and thoroughly enjoyed all of our destinations. Stay tuned for one more post where we will wrap everything up.
Another travel day.
We organised our flights to get a day of sightseeing. In the morning we visited the local panadería (bakery) for pastries and then headed out on foot. We visited the Gaudi apartments Casa Mila and Casa Batlló but this time without tickets so we could only admire the exterior. Gaudi is not the only architect of note in Barcelona. The Casa Amatller next door is no less impressive.
Today was a Sunday and we learnt a valuable Barcelona lesson. Apart from the tourist attractions, everything is closed – and we mean everything. Not even the high end retailers like Hermes, Chanel or Gucci let alone Zara, H&M or the Apple Store.
With time running out we returned to the hotel to pick up our bags then headed for the airport. Our Pakistani taxi driver talked about the cricket all the way to the airport. “What’s a man from Pakistan doing in Barcelona?” we asked. “At home there are few opportunities for work,” he replied. “Did you know any Spanish before you came here?” “None, but after a year I could speak it well enough. Now my Spanish is better than my English.”
We were mindful of warnings about long queues at Barcelona airport but we arrived with three hours to spare and were able to easily check in and navigate security and passport control. We read newspaper articles later in the week about nightmare queues in the days after our departure. The British tourists complained it was punishment for them leaving Brexit – curious, it is not just the Brits who need to show their passports to leave Europe.
Unfortunately there are no airline operated lounges in Barcelona airport, therefore we had to use the shared lounge in the international section of the terminal. It was not bad, more so bland and very busy. We were able escape the heat and change into a fresh set of clothes, so mission accomplished. Some small children were running around and managed to break some of the fixtures - that travelling family either escaped before detection or were politely escorted from the premises.
The BA flight to Heathrow was uneventful with the predictable coronation chicken or cheese and tomato ciabatta served for dinner. In BA’s race to the bottom, it seems you are either served this menu, or the fish/chicken selection we were offered from Iceland. There’s nothing wrong with it, rather it is just predictable. “More champagne please” is the antidote.
The flight brought us up over Jersey and the Isle of Wight before the inevitable circle for 15 minutes over London due to congestion at Heathrow. We disembarked at Terminal 3 and were bussed to Terminal 5 where we headed straight for the BA Galleries Lounge.
The flight to Hong Kong was already loading from the geographically furthest gate in Terminal 5B, so we headed onboard. BA’s long haul business class seating is curious, to say the least. BA has managed to cram a 2+4+2 configuration into all wide body jets, as opposed to most other carriers employing a 1+2+1. We selected the two middle seats, both of which face backwards. It was a little disorientating to be going the ‘wrong way’, especially while taxi-ing. The other downside of this configuration is that no seat has direct aisle access – everybody has to step over their neighbour in order to get to the aisle. Business class on this flight was only about half full, so passengers re-arranged themselves to avoid disturbance but otherwise this lack of direct access would have been annoying. Having said that, the middle ‘inside’ seats were comfortable and with the partitions raised and the beds folded out it was very nearly like sleeping in a double bed. However, this nest would be a little less cosy if the other traveller was a stranger.
The service from the BA long haul cabin crew was impeccable as always, however the food left a lot to be desired – again. It was all rather bland and tasteless with the beef main course significantly overcooked. It is also strange that a British airline is unable to suitably prepare a full English breakfast.
At Hong Kong airport we again we circled for 15 minutes due to congestion but finally made it to ground. The Airport Express whisked us to Hong Kong Central and we caught the shuttle bus directly to the door of the JW Marriott. We had picked this hotel and a harbour view room specifically to see the Symphony of Lights from the comfort of the hotel. Unfortunately the light display is really designed to be seen from the Kowloon side. Combined with low cloud this meant the performance was a let down.
In all, today was more like a 32 hour day. We had got up at 9am Sunday Barcelona time and didn’t get to sleep in a normal bed (approximately 11pm Hong Kong time) it was approaching 5pm Monday Barcelona time, thankfully lie flat beds in business class makes this a little easier.
This morning we started at La Sagrada Familia. Fortunately we had booked tickets in advance because even at 9:30 the entire day was sold out. As mentioned before, Barcelona is groaning under the weight of tourists, much like Venice. Yesterday we saw a sign on La Rambla which said "Your holiday. Our everyday." We spoke to one person who said much of the problem is driven by unlicensed apartment rentals, although this seems more to be a contributing factor rather than the main reason. The 'issues' are more like: a fantastic city, with plenty to do, with easy transport connections, relatively cheap, fantastic food and great weather. Who wouldn't want to visit? The downside of this is It seems any major tourist attraction in Barcelona now requires an advance ticket, particularly if it has anything to do with Gaudi. Our advice: do your research and book ahead to avoid disappointment.
We booked a tour of the tower and had chosen the Passion facade, which faces west. We went up the 65 meters in the lift and got out to a tiny terrace between two of the apostle towers. It was a bit of a "is that it?" moment, although the view was spectacular. We were also able to view some of the Venetian glass mosaic tile tower adornments up close. We were also close enough to touch the representation of Jesus' ghost as it ascends to heaven. After that there was a rather dizzying spiral staircase to get down to ground level.
We went to La Sagrada three years ago, so can see how the construction has moved along. The pediment over the Passion doorway (representing Jesus' ribs) is new and the scaffolding over the northern cloister is gone. Inside it seems more of the glass has been coloured. This is still the most beautiful man-made structure we have seen, with the inside looking like a forest and dappled light flooding the nave. We had an audio guide as part of our tour and so learnt more about the construction, including the imagery used to represent the sacred family and Jesus' sacrifice. However construction continues almost interminably, although the exterior is scheduled for completion in 2026. We spoke to the young woman at our hotel reception about booking a room for 2026. She shrugged her shoulders and said: “They were building it when I was born. They will still be building it when I am dead. Of that I am sure.”
As said previously, La Sagrada Familia is consecrated as a Basilica, not a Cathedral. This is because the building is not the seat of a Bishop (there is already a cathedral in Barcelona). Notwithstanding, Gaudi designed the building to be “cathedral like”.
In the afternoon we caught the bus to Placa Espanya and explored some of the Montjuic region. After a quick visit to a shopping centre inside an old bullfighting arena, we went to the Mies van der Rohe designed Barcelona Pavilion. This was another of those "is that it?" moments. The building is small and not mounted on the top of a hill or surrounded by grass as represented by the 'photo-shopped' photos. It consists of a single room, an internal courtyard with a reflecting pool and wide breezeways surrounding the building. There is a larger reflection pond outside. In the original design there was a small bathroom and kitchen but these have been given over to the shop. Having said that, the design is a minimalistic masterpiece and the attention to detail is amazing. The patterns in the various stones are all carefully aligned. The roof really does seem to float, held up by tiny polished aluminium columns. The building is still modern, over 90 years after it was first built.
It was now mid afternoon and only mad dogs and tourists were out in the sun. The temperature gauge said 28 degrees and 70 percent humidity but it felt much hotter. We walked up and around part of Montjuic before returning to the impressive Palau Nacional, which houses the Catalan Art Gallery. This building was originally built for the 1929 International Exhibition.
There is a big push for Catalan independence throughout Barcelona. People fly the Catalan flag rather than the Spanish flag and there are many "Si" banners hanging from balconies all around town. Catalonia is one of the 17 autonomous regions with Spain, which allows them to have their own President, Parliament and judiciary. Catalonia (like Basque and to a lesser extent Galicia) is trying to take autonomy that one step further. A referendum is scheduled for 1 October, which unfortunately will be only symbolic because the Spanish courts have deemed it unconstitutional.
In the evening we had dinner at one of the many street cafes lining the local streets - sardines and fried bocadones (anchovies) for the Navigatrix and paella for the Navigator. Then we caught a cab up to Park Guell, another of the Gaudi highlights originally designed as the landscape for a housing development which never built. When we arrived everything was sold out but we had the magic three words: "We pre-booked online." Tickets are essential as the main part of the park is limited to 400 visitors at a time – we were checked in and also checked out. Echoes of La Sagrada Familia abound through the space, reflecting how Gaudi used nature to influence his designs. The landscape architecture of the park is even more naturalistic, with retaining walls looking like waves, or the columns looking like palm trees. We lined up to take our obligatory photo of Barcelona and the Mediterranean from the serpentine garden bench. Everyone was very polite, even offering to take photos of strangers so everyone got a ‘private’ moment. The park is beautiful and much of it can be explored without buying a ticket. We did not want to leave but by now it was nearly 10pm and it was getting dark.
We walked to the metro (fortunately all downhill) and returned to the hotel. On the way past the Basilica we were able to see the stained glass windows lit up from inside, which was spectacular.
Disembarkation day… or “de-bark” as the US crews calls it. Isn’t de-barking when one surgically removes the voice box from a dog?
Usually the disembarkation procedure is smooth and efficient but tighter restrictions on passport control in Europe made the process more time consuming than usual. Instead of being off the boat by 9:00am as planned, it was nearly 11:00am before we made it to passport control. No matter, we found a comfortable place on the boat to wait and co-incidentally found the other Australian family on our cruise. Three generations were travelling – the grandparents were from the Gold Coast while the children and grandchildren currently live in London. In another demonstration of how small the world is, the (adult) children own a house just around the corner from us in Sydney.
When we finally made it to passport control we were finally able to take advantage of the Navigatrix’ EU passport. There was no queue to have the EU passport checked which was lucky because we could have otherwise waited for another hour.
After a cab ride to our hotel we were able to check in. Our hotel is just around the corner from La Sagrada Familia and conveniently located to metro and bus routes. After a short rest we ventured out to the old town of Barcelona. As with many cities along the Mediterranean, Barcelona has Roman origins. The old city walls are still evident in the Gothic quarter and are even incorporated into the Cathedral (Barcelona Cathedral is different from La Sagrada Familia – more on this later). We decided against spending EUR7.00 to go inside but watched with pity as two British tourists realised they had been scammed by the Romany gypsy who sold each of them a headscarf for EUR7.00 on the pretext of gaining entry to the building.
Instead we wandered through the laneways of the Gothic and Jewish quarters until we came to La Rambla. When Barcelona went through rapid expansion in the middle of the 19th century, much of the new city was planned around large plazas connected by wide boulevards. La Rambla has a large tree lined pedestrian walkway down the centre, with the cars pushed closer to the handsome Art Nouveau buildings lining the side of the road. As it is the middle of summer holidays Barcelona was heaving with people, so we occasionally escaped into quiet side streets and Plaça Reial.
One diversion took us into the central market. It was reading about this location prior to our trip that we discovered the ‘damn tourist’ phenomenon. While we understand the frustration of the locals, it doesn’t help that Mercado le Boqueria seems to deliberately court the tourists. Compared to the central market in Cadiz the stalls are flashier, has permanently installed bars and cafes, and sells significantly more snack-type foods such as freshly squeezed juice, pre-prepared fruit snacks, nuts, chocolate and so-on. We assume these wares encourage the casual observer to purchase rather than just take photos. We obliged by buying the most gorgeous pistachio seeds, so fresh they were still soft and a vibrant emerald green colour.
We continued up the hill to Plaça Catalunya and after exploring some of the shops decided to return to the hotel. It was after 4pm, we were hot and we wanted to rest before dinner. At the extraordinarily early hour of 8:30pm (at least for Spaniards - when we arrived we initially thought the restaurant was not open yet) we went around the corner from our hotel to La Bodega Flamenca. As the name suggests, this intimate little restaurant had a flamenco show. We were initially concerned this might be a cliché but all 22 guests were treated to a breathtaking display of dancing and music, without a castanet in sight. After tapas of fried whitebait, anchovies in vinegar, veal stew, iberian ham, spanish omelette and dessert of creme catalana (like creme brulee) the performers came out on stage - 3 dancers, 2 singers, a single guitarist and a percussionist who tapped on an upturned wine crate. Simple but powerful.
The show started with a song and we were immediately reminded of Spain’s Moorish heritage - the melody sounding like an Islamic call to prayer. We had no idea what they were singing about but we could feel the passion of the lyric. Then the dancing started and the flamenco rhythm pounded out from the hand claps and the foot taps. The rhythm is 12 beats to a bar with the emphasis on the 3rd, 6th, 8th, 10th and 12th beats. To a non trained ear it is extraordinarily syncopated but hypnotic nonetheless. The audience clapped along as we picked up the rhythm. As each phrase progressed to a climax the emphasis changed to every second beat, the crescendo building, building, building. At times the dancers stomped out their rhythms which would physically reverberate through the audience. At other times they tapped out the most delicate of beats in almost complete silence. This was much more than tap dancing - this was passion, intensity, elegance and grace combined.
We hope that some of the show was improvised. There was much discussion before the start of each song, as if it was “which one shall we do next?” As each dancer performed a particularly intricate sequence of steps there were cries of “Ole!” (sounding more like “Allez”, reflecting the French influenced Catalan language). The guitarist repeatedly varied the volume, tempo and rhythm of his playing, almost as if he were trying to catch out the singers and dancers. He never did and there was always much laughter amongst the performers as they matched his challenges.
This was an amazing experience and a perfect way to cap off a day in Spain. There are many of these flamenco shows in Barcelona and we hope La Bodega Flamenca is just that little bit more authentic than the shows one might see in the centre of town. We highly recommend La Bodega Flamenca to everyone on their next visit to Barcelona.
We departed from Dover on a beautiful afternoon. Dover is already a busy port and is undergoing a conversion of the Admiralty wharf and also the old hovercraft terminal into cruise boat facilities. The town is still struggling though - one of our table mates walked into town and said it was run down with many shops closed and boarded up.
Day 1: Le Harve, France.
We hired a car and explored the Normandy countryside. We spent a week in Normandy in 2008 so were familiar with the area. Sixt upgraded our car again (to a Citroen C4, which was very comfortable) so the driving was easy.
First stop was Honfluer, which is directly across the Seine from Le Harve. We crossed the Pont du Normandie (a huge suspension bridge over the Seine not unlike the Anzac Bridge in Sydney) and headed into this delightful little town. Apparently this is what Le Harve looked like before it was almost completely levelled during WWII. It is filled with wonderful wooden buildings which line narrow cobblestone streets. As it was Saturday, the markets stalls were out and the village was crowded with locals. It took some time for us to hear foreign (i.e. non French) language in the crowd. In the food market the produce was so fresh you could smell it - from the almonds being roasted to the garlic, onions and even rock melon being sliced and sold by the piece. There is a town called Cantaloup nearby - we wondered if that is where the original name comes from.
We headed to Bayeux to see the Tapestry and the Cathedral. The market was open in the narrow streets here as well. All the local shops had a stall out in the street. We had a nutella crepe and a pork sausage in a baguette for lunch - delicious. The Cathedral was being set up for a wedding and the organist was practising. Some couple was going to be very blessed today.
The Bayeux tapestry is housed in an unprepossessing building nearby. It is nearly 70 metres long and is so large it curves around the display hall. Twice a year it would be displayed inside the Cathedral as a way of telling the story (well... the victor's version) of William the Conqueror and his ascent to King of England to a mainly illiterate congregation.
No-one knows who commissioned the tapestry or designed the intricate storyboard, nor how many skilled needleworkers were required to complete the task. It is a joy to view the length of the tapestry with the aid of a hand held audio narrative. The story of each panel unfolds and tiny details that may otherwise be missed are pointed out. The tapestry has in some parts been restored, which is not surprising for a textile nearly 1,000 years old. How it survived so long, through wars and revolution, is a miracle. We even heard young children say they enjoyed the experience. The joy of a great tale of determination to gain a rightful throne still resonates nearly 1,000 years later. The only negative situation was the sign "what to do in the event of terrorism" which was prominently displayed at the doorway.
We bought pastries from the patisserie and had to shelter from a shower under the large oak trees lining the banks of the creek which runs through the centre of town. Once back on the car we headed to a garden at Castillon, a tiny village about 10 minutes away. This is not a famous garden (we googled "gardens near Bayeux") but was magnificent. It was separated into 14 'rooms', each one different from the other - for example, the water garden with its rill and goldfish pond; the rose garden; the Japanese garden and the lawn garden. The Navigatrix was delighted to discover so many plants which could be grown back in Australia - the Navigator can feel another landscaping project coming on.
We headed back through Bayeux and on to the D-Day beaches. We ended up at Arromanches-de-Bains, which is where the British came ashore at Gold Beach. This pretty village is otherwise known as Port Sir Winston Churchill. The small bay is still littered with the remains of concrete cassions, which were used to create an artificial dock for the unloading of troops and supplies for some time after the initial landings. Arromanches is a small seaside town, unlike some of the other beaches (for example Omaha Beach) which are in the open countryside. After walking around we headed toward Omaha Beach but gave up when we realised it was past 6pm and we still had a 90 minute drive back to the boat.
Just like much in our trip, we could spend so much more time in this area. There is so much to explore, even beyond the D-Day locations.
Day 2 - 3: Sea Days.
It is 1,000 nautical miles from Le Harve to Lisbon, so we have two sea days to rest, relax, sleep and eat (and also wash - how dull). By late afternoon we were still not out of the English Channel.
Day 4: Lisbon, Portugal.
We were off the boat early - so early the city was still waking up. We managed a ride on the vintage wooden tram to the hilltop castle before it became crazy busy. Within half an hour it was standing room only on the tram. The tram creeps its way up the steep hill, the buildings within touching distance from the tram window. The tram driver had to get out and tell a badly parked taxi to move because it was blocking the line. At another intersection she got out to manually change the points.
Today's tip is to buy a 24-hour tram and bus ticket for only EUR6.65 from any magazine-cigarette stand. Otherwise each trip is EUR2.90.
With our all day ticket we went up the hill again and this time stopped to walk up to the castle, then rode a little further down the hill to the Church of St Antony and then next door to Church of Santa Maria Major. Both buildings were beautiful.
Lisbon is a grand city, filled with handsome and imposing buildings which reflect a once wealthy and powerful country. The cobblestone streets still remain in the old town, as are the patterned footpaths of white and dark limestone.
We rode the modern tram (with free WiFi!) out to Belem, about 30 minutes away from the centre of town. The tram was packed like sardines because everyone was heading to the same place - Pasteis de Belem. This little cafe is home to the world famous Portuguese custard tart. There is a queue out of the door all day long. According to Rick Stein on another of his Long Weekend episodes, allegedly they sell over 25,000 of these tarts each day. "We will need two each," said the Navigatrix and she was right. The custard is sweet but not too much and the delightfully crispy filo pastry melts in your mouth. The cinnamon baked onto the top of the custard gives the pastry a tiny hint of spice. It was only when we finished all four tarts that we discovered the packets of icing sugar in the bag.
There was a queue to get inside the massive monastery at Belem so instead we wandered around the outside. We only found out once back on ship the queue was for the cloister and one could go into the church for free - with no waiting! We also went to the memorial to Frederick the Navigator, a spectacular building shaped like a boat and pointing out to sea. At the foot of the memorial is a map of the world showing all of the Portuguese discoveries in the early 1500s. We overheard a tour guide telling his group how the Vatican divided up the world - Portugal would get everything east of a line down the middle of the Atlantic and Spain would get everything west. Except Portugal made "a mistake and forgot to turn left after Africa", which is how they got Brazil.
We returned to the city and wandered through the streets until returning to the ship. The sail out was spectacular as we passed Christ the King and just made it under the 25 de Abril bridge.
We heard lots of people say "we should give Lisbon three to five days of vacation time". It is a beautiful city with so much to see and we did not even scratch the surface.
Day 5: Cadiz, Spain.
Today we were in Spain's trading port with the Americas. Cadiz is allegedly Europe's oldest continually inhabited city and dates back to the Phoenicians in 1100BC. Cadiz itself only has a population of 125,000 but the surrounding areas are built up and the port is highly industrial. There were four cruise ships at the terminal.
Accordingly the city is highly organised for tourists. Walking maps were handed out at the dock and walking trails are clearly marked on the footpath. There are over 80 attractions within the town, each marked with a plaque with a short description. We walked the seaside walls for some time before turning into the narrow streets of the town. At one point we walked through a park which had a massive ficus tree and Norfolk Island pines, brought back to Spain from trade with far off lands.
In this part of town many of the streets are pedestrian only, so the place was quiet. We were also in a mainly residential area, so there were no tourist shops selling tacky souvenirs. For less than EUR200,000 one could have a three room apartment including one bathroom, kitchen, living area and balcony. Tempting...
Without looking for it, we stumbled into the Central Market packed with local fishmongers, butchers and fruiterers selling produce as fresh as fresh can be. This was another of our Rick Stein inspired destinations. We wandered around for ages amazed at the huge prawns with vibrant colours of red, orange, pink and white; or the mussels spitting water; the moray eels; the massive tuna being carved in front of our eyes; and other species of all shapes and sizes. We had another 'damn tourist' moment because all we wanted to do was take pictures - all the fishmongers wanted us to do was buy fish!
After lunch (fresh grilled sardines of course) we headed back to our next destination. The streets were almost deserted, apart from the turistica shops and the larger stores. Where was everybody? Afternoon siesta! Most places were shut between 14:00 and 17:30 and we nearly had the town to ourselves.
We went to the camera obscura at Torre Tavira. This periscope-type pin hole camera is housed in one of the old merchant buildings and at 45 metres is one of the highest points in town. The mirror reflects the outside world down onto a circular screen and rotates around 360 degrees. We all stood around the screen to see the town go through 45 minutes of its life. The operator can move the screen up and down to bring different areas into focus, so the view is like looking at a moving watercolour. One can see people hanging washing out of their terrace, cars navigating the tiny streets, birds gliding in the breeze, or even people walking through the plaza in front of the market. It was a wonderful outlook on the city and was even better for the commentary on key sights.
Today's tip is to go to Torre Tavira early in the morning and book your demonstration - it cannot be booked ahead of time. This ensures you get thetour in your language of choice at your time of choosing. We arrived before lunch and had to wait until 4:00pm, which was OK but could have been a problem if we arrived later.
We sailed out of town in the early evening after a wonderful day in Cadiz. There is still plenty to come back and see in the surrounding areas including the sherry vineyards at Jerez and also the Musuem of Equestrian Arts where they train the Andalusian horses to dance.
At 22:30 we sailed through the Strait of Gibralter and there was much excitement up on deck. The Rock itself was barely visible as it was only dimly backlit by lights from the Costa del Sol. We were much closer to the African side (presumably there are defined lanes for traffic in either direction) and felt we could almost reach out and touch the magical lights of Tangiers.
Day 6: Sea day.
Alas this was the last day of our cruise. We did not want to get off, unlike the MSC cruise. Sleep, eat, relax... and repeat. We also did washing (dull, again) and packing (even duller).
This is our sixth Disney cruise and obviously we love it. The service is impeccable (they even fixed the handle on our broken suitcase, which is way more than MSC could manage), the crew is engaging and the food is fantastic. Although the ships are suited for all ages, you do need to have an affinity with Disney otherwise the music, the ship's decorations and the general all pervasive Disney enthusiasm and positivity will drive you crazy. It is possible to get away from the characters in the adult areas of the ship but if that is really a bother then this is the wrong ship for you. We eagerly await the three new ships coming online over the next four years for (hopefully) new itineraries.
For two days we explored the local countryside.
The Navigatrix' cousin lives at Westgate-on-sea, in a lovely two bedroom apartment right on the seaside. It was so beautiful it was tempting to stay at home all day.
Our first stop was Margate, just a few miles down the road. We were able to walk part of the way into town. Like most English seaside towns, the high street is lined with amusement arcades and shops selling buckets and spades. On the promenade is the obligatory mini golf course. However Margate shows sign of life, particularly after the Turner Contemporary Art Gallery was opened. There are plenty of restaurants and cafes and even the local circa 1950's fun park complete with Ferris Wheel and (wooden) roller coaster has been brought back to life. This is quite different to other seaside towns we have seen in the UK, where the shops are boarded up and the private hotels are barely surviving. The package holiday and low cost airfares to the south of Spain has nearly killed the English seaside holiday. It is nice to see these towns finding their way again.
Then we went onto Broadstairs, which is an even smaller village further along the coast. This little town thrives on a connection to Charles Dickens who spent summer holidays here from 1837 - 1851. Apparently the original Bleak House is here, or so it claims to be. It didn't look to bleak to us, with a wedding reception underway in the garden. We escaped into a pub just as a shower came down and had a very English lunch - ham sandwiches, steak and ale pie, mackerel salad, baked ham and chips and of course more local ales. On the way back to the car the Google Street View vehicle passed us not once, not twice but thrice so we will be on the lookout to see if we have been digitally immortalised.
After lunch we continued around the coast to Ramsgate, which is a limb one of the Cinque Ports. The five Cinque ports are Hastings, New Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich and these were grouped together for military and trade purposes in 1155. Ramsgate port was also home to many of the small boats which contributed to the Dunkirk evacuation as well as a Navy torpedo boat flotilla. Accordingly it got quite a lot of bombing attention during the war. Tunnels had been dug into the chalk cliff since Victorian times and these were expanded to become air raid shelters. It is quite easy to see the buildings damaged by bombs, or the newer buildings constructed in the 1950s and 1960s standing alongside their Victorian counterparts.
We spent some time in the Church of the Sailors and Smack Boys. Smack boys were apprentice seaman and a home was set up for them as a place to stay when in port.
We went back to Margate for dinner in a restaurant on the seaside, complete with another spectacular sunset. Crazy people were still out swimming even at 21:30, having to wade far out into the water at low tide to find enough depth. Back at home the sky cleared enough to see the stars.
The next day we only had a half-day for sightseeing. We stopped at RAF Manston. There are two museums - one houses a Hurricane and Spitfire whilst the other has some WWI biplanes, some Dambuster memorabilia (Barnes-Wallis tested the bounce bombs on nearby Reculver Beach) as well as later model jet aircraft. We went into both and thoroughly enjoyed them - more time was needed.
Then we went onto Sandwich for a cream tea. We walked around the 14th century old town whilst rolling out Sandwich jokes like "Why aren't you playing on the beach? Because of all of the Sand-wich-is there."
We took tea in Salutation House which has a lovely 3.5 acre garden which we glimpsed from the courtyard.
Alas it was time to head to Dover. We had a lovely time with family in Kent and have resolved to come back and spend more time here as well. There is so much history and rolling countryside to explore.
Another travel day.
The bad weather cleared overnight and in the morning we retraced our path to the airport. We timed our pre-purchased fuel perfectly as the warning light was on as we turned into the car park.
For this leg we were originally booked in economy despite the ticket being business class. However we looked at availability the night before, so when checking in we asked to be moved up the front. This request was duly granted - awesome!
The flight to London was smooth and this time even had a choice of food - chicken or cod. Both were delicious.
The Navigatrix has a British passport and every time we visit we debate entering the country via the UK line. However, British Airways always offers entry to the Fast-track line which generally has been swift and painless. Indeed when we arrived from Gothenburg there was no-one in the line. Not this time. We stood for over an hour in the queue. The normal non UK line moved faster! We spoke to the Passport Officer who told us that Fast-track is paid for by BA but they only fund two officials. So during the middle of the day when there is a large volume of flights, "fast track" is a misnomer. From now on we will enter the UK on a British passport where ever possible and even the non UK passport holder can gain from the benefit of marriage.
However, we did get some Border Force entertainment. An unfortunate man was denied entry. There was much discussion, lots of waved fingers and then eventually one official stood in the lane to physically block access, whilst another official handed the man a white piece of paper and then led him away.
Avis upgraded our car (upgrade #7) from a rather cute mint green Fiat 500 to a Polo and then we battled the M25 car park. The part from the airport to the A3 was particularly brutal. Then there was an accident on the M2 as we approached Margate. So it took us as long to get from Heathrow to Margate as it did to get from Iceland to Heathrow.
We are now on the Island of Thanet (again a bit of a misnomer - Thanet has not been an island since Tudor times) in eastern Kent for the next two days, staying with another cousin of the Navigatrix. The Thames Estuary is so vast at this location it is possible to watch the sun set into the water. We did so with a local Kentish ale in hand.
Today the weather closed in and was almost like our first day in Iceland - really windy and driving rain. Our original plan was to drive part of the south coast but when the host of the Member's Lounge saw what we were planning he said "with the weather like this they will close the road." He was right - we heard later in the day that people had their bus tours to the south cancelled by the operator.
Instead we drove around town, following the route of the hop on-hop off bus and doing our own local tour. We stopped at a sculpture garden by the edge of the harbour. A rather eccentric local was standing on the rocks at the point, doing semaphore with sticks at the wind. A man gestured with his hands that he was crazy.
Further down the road was the house where Reagan and Gorbachev had their summit which marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War. This house has hosted dignitaries from around the world for some time. On the waterfront nearby is another spectacular sculpture - the Sun Chasers. Rekjyavik is full of sculptures and public art, including huge murals on many of the buildings around town.
We went to Hallgrimskirke, the Lutheran cathedral on the top of the hill. This is the tallest building in Iceland. There is a lift to the top of the tower but by now the weather had really turned, so there was not much to see. The wind was blowing so hard it was difficult to close the door of the car and the rain had really set in. The architectural style is called "Expressionist" and despite the drab grey interior and exterior it is a beautiful building. The interior is flooded with light and there is an organ with over 5200 pipes.
We were originally inspired to come to Iceland by Rick Stein. We are not foodies but somehow we were watching Rick Stein's Long Weekends and he had an episode on Rekjyavik. Just like him we will be going to Lisbon and Cadiz later on. In tribute to Rick, we decided to eat at Matur og Drykkar (translation: "Food and Drink") which is one of the restaurants he visited on his show. We looked at the menu and were turned off by cod head fish soup and salted lamb smoked in sheep's dung. Instead we went next door to Bryggjan Brugghús - a bistro attached to a micro brewery.
Here is an example of how much things cost in Iceland. We had grilled fish, beer battered fish and chips and a beer. All of this cost about AUD100.00. We are not complaining... just saying. When we were in Olafsvik waiting for the (cancelled) whale watching tour, we heard a fellow traveller from the USA complaining about $29 fish and chips from the food truck on the wharf. Another man from Norway said "things are expensive in Norway but it's nothing compared to Iceland."
Iceland is expensive because almost everything is imported. This puts an unfortunate negative slant on what is otherwise a fantastic place to visit. The people are also friendly and almost everybody speaks perfect English. The main roads are great and everything looks generally well cared for. Remember it only has a population of about 300,000 to fund the running of an entire country. We have decided to come back and give Iceland even more time. We only saw a small part of the countryside and what we experienced was beautiful. We believe one has to see more than just Reykjavik, the Golden Circle and the Blue Lagoon. Our waiter in the beer house complimented us on getting out to Snaefellsnes. We were somewhat disappointed about not making it to at least part of the south coast.
Next visit we will allow more time and tour the entire island, stopping for a couple of nights in each location to slowly appreciate the evolving landscapes.
After two days of long drives, today we opted to spend time in Rekjyavik.
We took a boat tour to an island just outside of the harbour where a colony of approximately 30,000 puffins live. These "very polite little birds" live on this uninhabited island during the summer in order to breed. During the winter months they fly to the sea between Greenland and Canada and stay out in the wild ocean without touching land. Somehow they return to the same spot to find a mate for life. There are 15 million Arctic puffins in Iceland.
As we approached the island (only 15 minutes from the harbour) we could see the puffins either fishing, floating on the surface or on the wing back to the island with food. They bring up a single puffling each year and feed on little whitebait-type fish. You can see the fish in their beaks as they fly back to the burrow. The arctic terns are the local "pirates" - they try to bully the poor puffins into dropping their catch. Sometimes they are successful.
The puffin has to work hard to fly. It must flap its wings 400 times a minute to stay aloft. They fly all the way past Greenland like that! If they are being chased and they stop flapping, the bird drops like a stone and splashes into the water. The crew pointed out a take-off stick where puffins patiently waited in line to climb to the top off the stick, face into the wind and flap away.
We only had an hour on the water so were soon back in the harbour. After that we drove around town for a while looking at some of the sights. Rekjyavik is a small town, so it only takes about 10 - 15 minutes to get from the centre to the outskirts. We even found the bacon factory and they were cooking! Mmmm.... bacon makes everything better - even a lazy drive. We also bought some beautiful Icelandic hand knitted wool wear from the Red Cross shop - this is a less than a quarter of the price of the tourist stores and supports the Red Cross resettling refugees in Iceland. We saw some (presumably Syrian) refugees in one of the shops - can you imagine the culture shock?
The weather was closing in, so we rested in the hotel before going to the Blue Lagoon (Bláa lónið) in the evening. This was a surreal experience. We bathed in nearly 100 degree milky blue water whilst the air temperature was 10 degrees, all while low cloud and mist blew overhead.
The Blue Lagoon is a bit of a dichotomy and demonstrates the power of marketing. The silica water is actually runoff from the adjacent geothermal plant. Superheated water (approximately 240 degrees) is vented from the ground near a lava flow and used to run turbines that generate electricity. After going through the turbines, the steam and hot water passes through a heat exchanger to provide heat for a municipal water heating system. By now the water is 37 - 39 degrees and the silica concentration means it cannot be used as potable water, hence the runoff is used in the lagoon. The lagoon basin itself is concrete, with artfully placed lava rocks to disguise the surroundings. That is not to diminish the experience though. We arrived for our 8pm pre booking (this is essential) and whilst there was a short queue to get in, the pool was perhaps only 40% - 50% full. Our research had suggested this was a good time. Apparently in the morning and mid afternoon the pool is nearly full.
The pre-bath shower is mandatory and we applied the hair conditioner to protect our hair from the salt. We swam into the pool from a doorway inside the building (most people strangely went outdoors to enter the water) and then floated outside. The lagoon is massive. The steam floating off the surface mixed with the mist made it at times it felt like we were the only people there, except for the lifeguards dressed in yellow survival gear, hats and gloves.
We applied the white silica mud face mask (twice!) and floated around. We even had a beer at the swim-up bar.
The mist and light rain continued but did not disturb us. We even sat in the sauna for a while until it became too hot and then we hurried back to the water. We also chatted to three Australian lads from Perth who had done a week in Iceland, crammed into a Hyundai i10 as they drove between camp sites. They said they spent $200 a night to camp next to Gulfoss. We were glad to have spent the extra $100 per night to at the Rekjyavik Hilton (where it was warm... and we got fed... and we had WiFi), although one of the blokes said "it's not often you can camp next to a waterfall". Too true... but still being warm and dry overides all of that.
After two hours in the water we had turned into prunes (or raisins as one Icelandic lady said) so reluctantly got out. A swim in a thermal spring is a must-do in Iceland. The Blue Lagoon is only 45 minutes as it is close to Rekjyavik. Bring your own towel for the cheapest (Standard) experience although the Comfort experience provides a towel, a free drink and the algae mask for only ISK2000 extra, which is reasonable value considering a beer is ISK1130. There is also an in-water massage experience and exclusive chill out area for an even higher price. We wonder if the Secret Lagoon (an hour and a half away) or some of the other lesser known thermal pools might be a more authentic experience - without the marketing hype.
It was after midnight when we returned to the hotel for a warm, relaxed and very restful slumber.
Today we had mixed fortunes. We set off for a whale watching tour from the village of Olafsvik, a two and a half hour drive from Rekjyavik. Why so far, especially when there are many whale watching tours which originate from the capital? This tour was billed as the best chance of seeing orcas, something we had wanted to since failing to see them when we toured Alaska and Canada.
The first landmark was a tunnel which goes underneath the Hvalfjörður. This tunnel is nearly 6 kilometres long and dives 165 meters underneath the water. It saves 45 kilometres of otherwise driving around the edge of the fjord.
The road to the Snæfellsnes peninsula hugs the coastline and there are more signs of life compared to the drive yesterday. Fences line the road, farmers have cut the grass for their sheep and horses and we even saw cultivated fields and golf courses. The wind whipped up today so golf would be a challenge! On the other side, mountains and volcanic cones rise up and waterfalls cascade over the edge.
Over the past two days we have seen lots of crazy people riding their pushbikes along these roads. Their camping gear is packed into the panniers. Lots of hitchhikers too. We even saw a posse of motorcyclists, their bikes loaded up with their provisions, including two spare tyres each. This is not our idea of a holiday but each to their own.
Eventually we had to cross over the mountains to reach the coastline on the northern side of the peninsula. At the top of the pass the road turned to gravel which was a little worrying on a 12% gradient. We made it safely to the bottom.
We had some time to spare and Olafsvik is a small village (and it was Sunday) so ended up in a little cafe-handicraft-museum. This was all housed in a building dating back to the mid 1800's. We had waffles (with rhubarb jam), tea and coffee while we chatted to the two ladies running the store, one of whom did some of the handicrafts. Apparently it takes her two weeks to knit an Icelandic sweater. "Do you watch TV while you do it?" we asked. "Oh no. Once I get to the patterns I have to really concentrate." We can see why the garments cost so much money.
Alas our whale watching tour was cancelled due to the windy weather. We were somewhat disappointed, having looked forward to hopefully seeing orcas. On the other hand, missing out on three hours in the rough sea was a benefit.
We took the ladies' advice and drove the longer road back to Rekjyavik, going around the end of the peninsula, allegedly Europe's most easterly point except for the Azores. Well, is the most easterly point or not? The exception did not make sense to us.
At the nearby town of Rif there is a large breeding area for arctic terns. There are so many or the birds flying around we had to slow down the car to avoid hitting them. We turned off into a side road and were able to see little chicks huddling in the grass waiting for a parent to come back with food.
Further down the road we entered the Snæfellsjokull National Park, a vast lava field from an eruption about 4000 years ago. Unlike the Hawaiian lava fields, the rocks are covered with moss and lichen so the landscape does not look quite like the moon (apparently the east of the country is like that, where the lava flows are more recent). We hopped out of the car to climb Saxhólar, an extinct volcano crater.
Snæfellsnesjokull is the mountain where the protagonists of Jules Verne's 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth' start their journey. At Vatnshellir Cave there is a lava cave where one can almost do the same thing. A small hole on the surface opens into a vast cave over 30 feet deep. It was late and it was an hour to the next tour, we were getting hungry and we still had over a two hour drive back home, so we skipped the cave and drove on.
We said previously we were on the hunt for Icelandic wool. We found some... on the side of the road! The sheep are quite timid - the beautiful Icelandic ponies are very friendly.
Despite the Sunday afternoon traffic and campervans and 4WDs heading back to Rekjyavik after a weekend away, we made it back to the hotel in time for a G&T in the members lounge. The wind has blown away most of the clouds and we were treated to a spectacular sunset at nearly 23:30 in the evening.
Today we drove Iceland's Golden Circle and took in three of the headline sites.
With no expectations we were amazed by the wide open landscape. Once out of town the scenery changes to grassy meadows spreading over rolling dales, hemmed in by rugged volcanic hills on either side. Never before have we seen a landscape so open and uninhabited as this. There are not even power poles or mobile phone towers to spoil the view. The occasional wild sheep or lone bird are the only signs of life.
First stop was Þingvellir (pronounced "Thingvellir"), a historic site and national park. It is known for the Alþing (Althing), the site of Iceland's parliament from the 10th to 18th centuries. In fact, Þingvellir translates directly to "fields of parliament". It was created here because it was a convenient central location for most settlers to meet. Each year all the tribe leaders would gather here to discuss law, exchange news where criminals tried. The lögmaður (translation "Lawspeaker") was elected for a three year term but the role was purely ceremonial, much like the Speaker of the House. Accordingly the man with the loudest voice was usually elected but decisions were made collectively. The Parliament operated here until 1799 when Iceland came under Danish colonial rule.
Þingvellir Church sits on the site of the earliest church in Iceland, built in approximately 1000 AD when Iceland converted to Christianity. The church is alongside the summer residence of the President of Iceland. The original residence burnt down in 1930, killing the then President and his family.
The park sits in a rift valley caused by the separation of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The plates are separating at roughly 2 centimetres per year and apparently earthquakes occur every day, although they are too minor to feel. All throughout the park one can see fissures and cracks where the earth is pulling apart and at Silfra it is possible to snorkel in crystal clear waters with 100 metre visibility directly between the two tectonic plates.
Back in the car to drive further into this amazing landscape. It is cold (approximately 12 degrees) and the occasional shower floats in but otherwise the weather is pleasant. Once over the hill into Laugarvatn the showers clear and there is more signs of life with farms, horses and even a few golf courses.
What's that on the road ahead? A hare? No, it's a fox. Hang on... it's a little dog! The poor thing had escaped its owners and was running terrified down the road into oncoming traffic. We stopped and tried to coax the animal closer but without success. The car behind us stopped as well and fortunately the dog jumped in. The driver said they would find somewhere appropriate to hand in the dog.
Onto Geysir - an Icelandic word which has made its way into English. The ground literally steams, with gas escaping from fissures all around. The air does not smell of sulphur as much as we expected, unlike Roturua in New Zealand. We stood beside Strokkur (you can get to within about five meters of the geysir itself) and waited. A small eruption occurred after a few minutes. Is that it? "No there will be another one. Much bigger," said a man beside us. Sure enough there was. Super heated water shot 25 meters into the air and almost all of it vapourises away. We stood beside some smaller pools - in one the water is so clear you can see into the depths, whilst the adjacent pool is a milky blue.
We headed further along the road to Gulfoss, a very spectacular waterfall. Gulfoss translates to Golden Waterfall, which according to one source is where the Golden Circle gets its name. On the road, it is almost blink and you miss it. Apart from the car park, the only other indication is the spray rising up from the gully. The water falls through two cascades for a total of 32 meters and makes a tremendous noise. The spray from the bottom cascade goes straight up, much like Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. When the sun peeks out from behind the clouds a full rainbow is visible. Gulfoss is a better waterfall than Rheinfall and even Niagara Falls as there are no tourist boats pushing up through the foam, nor the commercial developments. If it were not for the gift shop up by the car park there would be nothing - a good thing!
Unfortunately it looks like we have broken our SLR camera as it got very wet. It is currently drying out in a bag with silica gel. Fingers crossed it recovers. On the other hand we were perfectly dry with the rain gear we bought in Sweden.
We retraced our route back to the hotel and made it just before happy hour finished in the Member's Lounge. We are making full use of the lounge. Much like being on a cruise we have a buffet breakfast, then go out on a day trip and return for buffet food and drinks for dinner. Otherwise eating out is a lot of money - for example AUD25.00 for a fish soup.
We went back to our room with the stunning harbour view.
After an evening flight from Gothenburg to Heathrow, we were up at 5:45 for the next leg in our trip.
We stayed overnight in the Sofitel Heathrow. It was nice to walk 500 metres from the terminal to the hotel and then back again in the morning. They also kindly stored a suitcase for us while we were in Gothenburg. The location of this hotel is great for a late arrival or early morning departure.
The BA lounge was disappointing. The food choices were limited to fruit, cereal and pastries. Also the spa services are only available to passengers on long haul flights. The downward slide of BA continues.
Iceland is a three hour flight away from London, so not as inaccessible as one might think. We arrived to a balmy 10 degrees Celsius and rain coming in sideways. After weeks of sunny and warm weather this was a shock to the system. It's not so much the heat, it's the humidity that'll kill you. Yes, we have used that joke before.
We received another upgrade, this time for the car and discussed insurance coverage (for ash and sand damage - more on this in a moment) and petrol (IKR200 per litre - about AUD2.50). The wind was brutal - the Navigatrix' 23kg suitcase was blown across the car park before we got it in the car and the Navigator had to aim the steering wheel to about 1 o'clock to keep the car in the lane. This is why you need the ash and sand insurance, as the car can literally be sandblasted.
The airport at Keflavik is about 45 kilometres out of Reykjavik. The landscape is like a desolate lava field but interspersed with low lying Scandinavian buildings painted in oxblood red, mustard yellow or icy blue. Rock sculptures stand by the side of the road.
We were too early to check into our hotel but Benny at reception kindly took our bags and gave us access to the Member's Lounge where we got food, drinks and could take in the view. We spent some time planning our activities for the next four days.
Reykjavik has a population of 120,000 but feels much busier compared to Gothenburg's 580,000. The hotel is full, the streets are bustling with cars and the main part of town was crammed with tourists and their wheelie bags searching for their hotels. There are lots of funky art shops, bars and restaurants in town which are worth exploring but everything is expensive here as just about all of it is imported. We are on the lookout for something made with Icelandic wool.
The other thing which strikes you about Iceland is the light. We are at 64 degrees north, so not quite in the Arctic circle (66 degrees north) but as it is summer there is 20 hours of sunlight a day. The rain, low cloud and wind mean the light is constantly changing and it made for fascinating viewing throughout the evening. The rain did not last long and the wind had calmed down by the evening so the harbour was calm.
The sun was still up when we went to bed.
Today we got on the road early to visit Castle Farm before catching our flight to Gothenburg Sweden. Unfortunately we missed the turnoff - twice. We messed around for an hour trying to find our way around Sevenoaks and were about to give up when we found it.
Castle Farm is a working farm specialising in lavender. As we were an hour later than planned we missed the scheduled walking tour through the fields. We stood on the edge of the fields and admired the spectacular view of the vibrant purple rows of lavender in full bloom. Busy bees were hard at work collecting pollen. We sipped on Rose Lemonade made by the same brand as the Victorian lemonade yesterday - the rose lemonade was even better.
We continued on to Heathrow along the car park that is the M25, however we made it the airport with plenty of time. We are on a different ticket for these flights from Venice and to Gothenburg, so had to go to a third party lounge in Terminal 5. The Aspire lounge is directly underneath the BA south lounge and unfortunately was full. Initially we squashed up on a bench with other travellers. Then one of the lounge attendants came to us specifically and said "I have found some more comfortable seats for you." We thought this was over and above the call of duty and were very thankful.
The flight to Gothenburg was uneventful except for the lack of food as the caterers failed to supply the whole plane. In general BA has gone downhill somewhat in the two years. Food must be purchased in economy class and while it is quite tasty it is disappointing to have to pay. There is no entertainment on the short haul European flights either (this has been the case for some time). It seems that all airlines are on a race to the bottom and we wonder how much longer Qantas can last providing the service it does - we have resolved to complain less about Qantas.
We are staying in Gothenburg with a cousin of the Navigatrix. They (cousin, wife and two children aged nearly 6 and 1) live in a lovely three bedroom apartment about 10 minutes from the centre of the city. They love living in Sweden and we can see why:
Yes, prices are high (petrol ~ AUD2.00 per litre; Coca Cola ~ AUD2.00 for a 500ml bottle) as are taxes but life is full of trade-offs. It is summer holidays at the moment, so most Swedes are away at their country cabin ( or Thailand). Everyday feels like a Sunday with almost deserted roads and families enjoying the parks and lakes. The Swedish stereotype of blonde hair, blue eyes and absolutely gorgeous (male & female) is spot on - we were served by an Anna-from-ABBA lookalike when we picked up the car.
Holidays with small children are a different affair. No high adrenaline, high activity days or lengthy visits to galleries, museums and churches. Instead we spent an afternoon in the grounds of a castle by the seaside flying a kite and hunting for wild strawberries and raspberries. The next day we went to the park in the centre of town which houses moose, deer, a seal enclosure, pony rides and a small petting zoo. On our last day we went to a nearby lake and had a BBQ. Even trips to the supermarket and the large scale hardware store were an adventure.
We had a thoroughly enjoyable and relaxing time and everyone was very sad with it was time to leave. We flew back to Heathrow for an overnight stay before heading to Reykjavík, Iceland.
Today we set off for a drive in the Great British countryside. The Weald of Kent landscape offers the most picturesque viewpoints. We weaved our way through high hedgerows to our destination of Christopher Lloyd's house and garden at Great Dixter.
Great Dixter is regarded as one of Britain's finest gardens. We arrived just before any coachloads or crowds of Sunday day trippers and had the garden almost to ourselves.
The Navigator has (almost) come to love a great garden and surprises the Navagtrix with his insights. Anyone would enjoy the informality and colour this garden has to offer. The wildflower meadows and formal gardens surround the house and were alive with colour and buzzing with pollinators, turquoise blue dragonflys and big buzzy bumble bees darting in and out as well as a mass of smaller bees and crickets.
The colour palette of purples, rich reds and sunbright yellows in long borders made it almost impossible to take in the lush landscape. Lloyd said himself of the colourful garden "I couldn't do whites and greys because that was Sissinghurst. So I decided to do colours."
The oast houses and farm buildings take you back to a time when this was a working farm. The oast houses with their cylindrical towers were used to dry out the hops. Great kilns are built on the ground floor to heat and dry out the hops which were spread out on the second level. The cone towers allowed the heat to escape. These oast houses and even windmills can still be see all over Kent as a reminder of a time where this was the backbone of agricultural production. There has been a revival in hop growing to supply new craft beer brewers.
We sat out in the sun and sipped on pear cider and Victorian lemonade.
Today marked the start of the anniversary of the Battle of Britain and we lucky enough to discover there would be a flypast at the Memorial near Folkestone in the afternoon. Much to our surprise we came across a Hurricane and a Spitfire flying low over the fields nearby for another local airshow.
We continued on to reach the Memorial perched high on the clifftops at Capel-le-Ferne, between Folkestone and Dover. Marquees were set out with people dressed in WWII uniforms, reenacting how they marked the allied and enemy aircraft by pushing wooden blocks around a table. How technology has changed. The Navitrix' Grandfather was stationed at one of the many airfields along this stretch of coastline supporting the crews as they defended Britain from the aerial attacks. There were Airforce Cadet bands and huge marquees serving afternoon tea to dignitaries.
We scored a Pimms and a beer (unfortunately the Fosters had just run out - it's not often an Australian gets to have a Fosters) and sat on the hill with many others listening and watching for the sound of the approaching aircraft. We were treated with at least twenty minutes of a Hurricane and Spitfire flying low past the chalky cliffs and high into the sky over the English Channel performing loops and chases. The sound was incredible and one could only imagine how the sound of both allied and enemy aircraft over the Channel and the Downs must have sounded more than 75 years ago.
The heroic efforts of the armed forces and the general public in alerting any enemy air movements saved Britain from an invasion. The memorial commemorates the approximately 3,500 pilots who lost there lives in the three month long Battle of Britain, as well as soberly reminding us of all the airmen who were maimed or badly wounded.
Disembarkation day. Always a day of stress.
First we had the great joy of sailing into Venice on a beautiful clear morning. We were up early to witness the first landfall through our cabin window. Then we went up on deck to have breakfast and watch as we sail past St Marks, Santa Maria della Salute and then down the Guidecca Canal to the dock. We all marvelled at the seagulls who hovered and then dove down and took food out of passenger's hands.
It was time to leave. We had a tight connection to our plane and low expectations of Italian organisation. To our surprise we were off early, our bags were ready and we hopped straight into a cab at the dock which whisked us off to Marco Polo airport. It was the best EUR45.00 we have spent.
At the airport things started to go downhill. Much like the rest of Venice, this little airport is bursting at the seams as it tries to cope with the volume of passengers. It was a battle just to get to the check in desk. British Airways had three flights leaving before midday so the queue was already long. No need to stress though - we were making good time.
Just as we got to the head of the queue, the baggage conveyor belt broke down. So all check in desks ground to a halt, not just the BA desks. We all waited for thirty minutes for it to be repaired. We finally checked in and were given priority access through the security screening (does that count as an upgrade?). The Navigatrix had the pleasure of the gunpowder residue search but the officials were only interested in one of her bags. The Navigator had to manage the other three... plus the computer... and the phones... as well as the coins... and the belt. Don't forget the glasses.
By now we had lost all of the time previously gained and there was only 45 minutes until our plane departed. Unfortunately there was no time for the airport lounge, which was just as well because the queue for passport control stretched the entire length of the terminal. We are not joking - it must have been 750 metres long. Of course a queue this long jammed up the concourse, making it almost impossible to move in any direction. The Italians seemed incapable of managing any traffic flow at all, so it was almost total chaos. Fortunately, this was one time having a non-EU passport was a benefit because we eventually we moved into a shorter queue.
Then we had to go downstairs to the gate. In this little space they were trying (unsuccessfully) to manage 8 flights of passengers onto buses to get to the planes. There are only 12 gates at Marco Polo with airbridges, the other 38 'gates' are to planes parked out on the tarmac. Here it really was total chaos as no-one knew if they were in the right queue and there was a mad rush for the bus when the gate was finally opened.
Unfortunately Venice Marco Polo now rates as our worst airport experience. Even worse than Miami Florida. Next time we will leave by train.
Finally we made it onto the plane and after a further delay took off about 20 minutes late. We circled over Venice, flew over the Alps, then to the north of Paris and then into Gatwick. At passport control we had the benefit again of a non EU or British passport - there was no-one in the queue. We had the following exchange with the official.
"You're going to Maidstone?!? Must be family then."
"Cousins," we replied (OK, that's a lie).
"Off to Sweden."
"To do what?"
"Visit more cousins." (That's not a lie.)
"Iceland... and then back to the UK to visit more cousins." (Not a lie either)
"Blimey. How many cousins do you have? How long are you away for?"
At that point he gave up and waived us through.
Indeed we are staying just outside Maidstone on the Medway River. It's quite pretty with all the boats moored on the riverbank. We went into Maidstone. Now we understand why the security officer was so incredulous. We should probably not comment on people's accents but cannot help ourselves. Although hurricanes hardly happen in Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire, the leading 'H' is dropped with alarming regularity, including this corker overheard in the local supermarket: "You need to 'elp me coz I 'ate 'im. I 'ate 'im so much and 'e 'ates me."
Oh the joys of travelling to other places.
Day 1: Split, Croatia
The ship docks right next to the town and is walking distance to Diocletes Palace, the ancient palace-fortress built by the Roman emperor in the 4th century AD. The old town is built in and around the walls of the palace and is typically Mediterranean, with narrow alleyways in between high limestone walls.
Tick off another UNESCO World Heritage site - the count is now at 7. We climbed the bell tower (aka the staircase of death) and admired the view of the city. In hindsight we should have spent EUR20 for the all-in-one ticket which would have got us into the tower, cathedral, temple and crypt. We had an amazing lunch in a small restaurant tucked into a tiny courtyard, with fresh fish bought from the market we had seen earlier that day. Dessert was a delicious Crotian cake - a choux pastry delight with chocolate sauce and ice cream. The waitress had taught herself brilliant English "by watching TV and listening to music." Washing hangs overhead between the buildings but at one street boots and handbags are hung out to 'dry'. It brought a smile to everyone's face.
As we paused outside a tiny chapel and lamented it was closed, a couple approached - he was British and she was New Zealand.
"Excuse me are you Australian?"
"Do you know what happened in the rugby?"
"Lions 24, All Blacks 21."
The British man was so happy he hugged the Navigator and could barely stop himself from bouncing up and down in glee. His New Zealand wife was the grand daughter of an All Black. We were so taken aback by the husband's response we forgot to ask who her grandfather was. She was less impressed by the result.
Day 2: Sea day
The sea day is an ocean-going version of the home day. Accordingly there is nothing to report except some much needed sleep.
Day 3: Chania, Crete
We were originally scheduled for Santorini and Mykonos but high winds forced a reschedule. Both these ports require a tender and it would have been too dangerous to disembark passengers. We were rescheduled to Chania (pronounced "Har-nee-ya"). Some of our table companions were extremely disappointed because they had choosen this cruise specifically for Santorini and Mykonos. On the other hand we are delighted because we had previously visited both Santorini and Mykonos. Crete is a new destination for us, as is Katakolon (Olympia) tomorrow.
Due to the reschedule we did not know what to do and so booked a tour off the boat. This is unusual for us as we prefer to make our own plans but when in Crete, do as the Romans do. No... wait, that's not how it goes. Anyway, our tour took as to a 16th century monastery up in the hills which was beautiful. The icons and the embroidered gowns and robes were spectacular. In the 1860s when the Turks came through Crete, the monastery was under siege for two days. Rather then give themselves over to the harems, the women and the remaining abbot blew themselves up and pretty much destroyed the place. That's a sacrifice.
After the monastery the tour went to the nearby town of Rethimno, which had a beautiful old town alongside a Venetian harbour and lighthouse. We wandered again through narrow alleyways admiring the Venetian loggia, fountain and the buildings. Houses here are a mixture of Venetian architecture on the ground floor and Turkish architecture on the second floor, reflecting how the town has been overrun through time. In some places vines and bougainvilleas grow overhead, keeping the walkways wonderfully cool. At one place we saw a bougainvillea with pink AND white flowers growing from the same stem. We sampled more amazing street food - this time a spinach and cheese pie (baked the size of a pizza and cut similarly) with the thinnest puff pastry layered through the ingredients and also baklava with the most delicate pastry.
Day 4: Katakolon & Olympia
Katakolon is a tiny fishing village on the Ionian Sea but with a dock big enough for three cruise ships. Ancient Olympia is 36 kilometres away, so we boarded the bus organised by the ship. However we could have caught the local bus or even a tram which travels the entire distance had we known in advance we would be visiting here.
Yet another UNESCO World Heritage site. The ancient complex is spectacular and it is very easy to envision the gymnasium where the athletes trained, the buildings of the officials, the priests, the treasuries (apparently like embassies) and all the various temples. The stone blocks surrounding the Temple of Zeus were enormous. We went through the arch and into the stadium where the vast grassy banks are reported to hold up to 45,000 people. We guess that you lost your spot if you had to do the pie run.
The temperature was above 30 degrees today, so we took refuge in the air-conditioned Archaeological Museum. It holds artefacts from Ancient, Classical and Roman times which were recovered from the site, including a statue of Hermes (said to be the model for Michaelangelo's David) and Nike. There were some impressive statues of Roman Emperors as well as bronze shield covers and tiny sacrifice trinkets of clay, ivory and bronze. These were thrown into the fire at the foot of the ivory statue of Zeus as a dedication.
Today was another amazing experience which we were lucky to receive, thanks to the revised schedule. We have always wanted to go to Olympia and so feel very blessed by the luck of weather to have had the opportunity
Day 5: Dubrovnik
This afternoon we arrived at the utterly beguiling medieval city of Dubrovnik. We were very pleased with ourselves for navigating the public bus from the cruise terminal to the old town. We were here three years ago and did the main tourist activities of the cable car and the city walls, so this time we explored the back alleys and side streets. It was hot again today so staying in the alleys was an easy way to keep cool. We saw friends from the ship coming down from the walls nearly suffering from heatstroke.
After lunch we walked around from the old port to a swimming area with easy access to the water from the rocks. The (initially cold) water was so clear you could see all the way to the bottom. Then we met the most charming Fox Terrier dog, who just wanted someone to jump into the water with him. He ran back and forth across the stone wall, whimpering at anyone who stood near the edge. When he found someone, he stood between their legs and then 1-2-3, they would jump in together. The Navigator could not resist. After a minute to get the dogs attention, they both stood on the edge of the wall. Ready? In we went. Then the little dog swam around to the swimout, had a shake and then was off to find someone else to join in the fun.
Last of all we climbed the point just outside the old town to go into the fort but alas there was an entry fee and we did not have enough Croatian Kuna. However we did have a spectacular view of the old town with its handsome stone walls. Instead we had gelato to use up the last of our currency.
The sail out of Dubrovnik is wonderful. The suns sets as we glide passed fortified islands, monasteries converted to lighthouses and even a pod of dolphins.
We have decided (as well as some of our fellow travellers) that Dubrovnik needs at least three days to visit. This way one can get fully immersed in the town and experience everything. Frankly, Croatia as a country needs a proper visit. It is a wonderful country, not least because of the way it has recovered from the war of only 20 years ago.
Day 7: Ancona
Ancona is a city and seaport in the Marche region of Italy, about 300 kilometres south of Venice. The city is one of the main ports on the Adriatic Sea, especially for passenger traffic. The port dates back to Roman times.
We had no expectations about Ancona as we knew nothing about it. However we were pleasantly surprised. The town has a rich collection of churches, monuments and buildings dating back to the 10th & 11th century, as well as some Roman cisterns and theatre. The tourist centre is also highly organised (another surprise given this is Italy), with maps detailed walking routes to the key sights.
We climbed the hill to the Duomo, a massive domed building with commanding views over the city. This building is built on the foundations of a 2nd century Temple of Venus. This was turned into a church in the 5th century. It was rebuilt in the 10th century, expanded in the 12th century, renovated in the 19th century, nearly destroyed by bombing in WWII and an earthquake in 1972. This just demonstrates property is all about location, location, location.
We rested in the cool interior, had our moments with God and then scuttled out of the crypt when we saw the skeletal remains of the martyr Saint Cyriacus. The cathedral is named after him (Cathedral of San Ciriaco). We made our way down the hill and then wandered through the shopping district in the centre of town.
The temperature nudged 34 degrees today so it was our hottest day so far. We returned to the ship to rest. As mentioned, Ancona is a busy port. We saw this giant car ferry arrive and disgorge an extraordinary volume of vehicles. Big trucks kept coming off the boat for an hour. Then for another two hours it loaded truck after truck, from oil tankers to container trucks to car carrying trucks, as well as cars and campervans. All of these vehicles were off to Patras in Greece, a journey of 23 hours.
We stood on deck for the sail away and witnessed another wonderful sunset.
The MSC Sinfonia was a bit of a contradiction. The cabin was comfortable and the ship is quite nicely fitted out. The itinerary was great, especially (for us) with the replacement of Santorini and Mykonos for Crete and Olympia. Unfortunately MSC broke our suitcase on embarkation and even though they compensated us for a replacement, it was a hassle we could have done without. There were also noisy Italian young adults who disturbed us EVERY night at about 3am in the morning. They were so bad one night we had to ring Security, who came eventually and made them disperse. There was a bottle of Spumante and chocolate covered strawberries as an apology.
Our main complaint was the food. We were expecting Italian awesomeness but instead got plain and basic food. We did not look forward to dinner each night which was disappointing. We had first sitting and always felt we were being rushed out of the restaurant each night. Apart from the cabin staff, we also felt the service standard was poor. A particular example was the bar service. It took the Navigator 20 minutes to get served but when the Navigatrix went up the bar she was served within 5 minutes. So we adjusted... but it was not the level of service we have experienced on other cruise lines. Our South African friends even had to relinquish their passports, which meant a recovery procedure *every* day when they went ashore. It was never really explained to them why this was required. it was just was.
Accordingly, we will not cruise with MSC again and that was the consensus of many other passengers with whom we spoke.