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.