20 September 2016

A Cruise on the Med.

5.30 a.m. is not my best hour the day, especially when I have to drive through the lanes of Hertfordshire's countryside to reach Stansted airport in time for a flight to Palma.  It had rained hard during the night and there were water puddles in every dip in the road, making navigation more difficult.  My Best Beloved knows the area well, so she was playing the part of rally navigator.  We were on our way to join our cruise ship, Ocean Village Two, for a seven day cruise around the Mediterranean that would take us to Palma, Tunis, Naples, Sorrento, Capri, Pompeii, Sienna, San Gimignano, St Raphael and Corsica.

I had booked the car into valet parking, and the parking man was waiting for us at the arrivals terminal, where I handed the keys of our car over, with some trepidation regarding its safety.  A tour of inspection, a signature on his receipt form, and we were pushing our trolley of luggage down the walkway to the departures hall.  We checked in at the Thomas Cook desk, where our luggage was accepted without complaint, so we must have been within the weight limit.  I had tried to convince Noelin that she needed to leave some reserve weight allocation of the 25kgs unused, in order to bring back souvenirs, such as carpets from Tunisia.

We queued for ages to go through the security checks, and eventually fed our hand baggage into the maw of the x-ray machine.  I carried my LoewePro Slingshot camera bag containing my Pentax K10D and a couple of lenses and  Noelin carried her Loewe Reporter shoulder bag containing her Canon 400D, two lenses, Canon Powershot A550, spare battery, make-up compact, lip gloss, perfume, tissues, wet wipes, alcohol hand spray, reading glasses, passports, cruise tickets, parking form and boarding passes. I'll have to pay her more.

Noelin's bangles always set off the alarms, and my belt buckle was also a culprit, but eventually, without having to get undressed completely in front of a thousand other passengers, we were allowed through into the departures hall, where you are invited to purchase as many bottles of drink as you can carry, to take on board the aircraft with you and to party with, all in the name of duty free commerce.  My belt buckle was regarded as a potential weapon by the security people, but they didn't care if I broke a bottle of scotch over the flight attendant's head and slit the pilot's throat with the jagged end.  Strange.

We took a coffee and a pastry at one of the many cafes around the shopping concourse, and used the toilet facilities before our flight boarding time.  No one looked at our passports, and we could have been Mr & Mrs Bin Laden if we had worn dish cloths on our heads.  We boarded the Stansted "transit" and were whisked automatically along a robotic track to our boarding gate area, where we walked another mile and a half before we came to gate 53.  Maybe they ran out of track.

Another wait, and eventually we were called to board the Thomas Cook Airbus A320, and to occupy seats A & B in row 25. That put Noelin at the window and me in the centre, with a lavender rinsed elderly lady of the unwashed masses on the isle, trapping us in the event of an unforeseen in-flight occurrence.  After a short take off run and thrust to FL 250, the seat belt light went out and we were allowed to change our seats if we wished - the aircraft was only half full.  We asked the lady to let us by, and chose an empty row of seats nearby, on the opposite side.  That put Noelin at the window and me on the isle with an empty seat between us.  I needed it because otherwise I would have had to hang my legs over the back of the seat in front of me, or remove my knee-caps in order to sit facing forward.  As it was, I could raise the arm-rest between my seat and the centre seat and curl up sideways.  The alternative was to sit with my legs in the aisle and risk having them amputated by the food and drinks trolley.  Neat.  Just as well I wasn't interested in the in-flight entertainment, which was presented on a small LCD TV screen that extruded from the overhead rack above my head.  There was another five rows further forward, but I wasn't offered binoculars.

Two and a half hours later, the captain warned of our imminent landing at Palma Di Mallorca, in a rich Oxford accent that gave one confidence in the odds of survival.  After a perfect touchdown, we chained up at the gate and vacated the aircraft onto a bus which took us to a superb terminal building, recently built.  A short walk past a glass booth where an overweight Spaniard in a khaki cap glanced at the two red passports in Noelin's hand and waved us through into Spanish Majorca.  We rescued our suitcases from the baggage carousel, and trollied them outside to a waiting coach, with "Ocean Village Two" displayed on the front.  

A 20 minute drive around the bay and through the city of Palma took us to the harbour, where we disembarked in the shadow of the ship that was to be our home for the next seven days.  Leaving our baggage to the baggage handlers, we walked up the gangway and into another security check, where Noelin's bangles did their thing.  It was 12.30 p.m.

The MV Ocean Village Two

At the reception desk in what is referred to as the village square, we were each given a plastic credit-type card with our names and cabin number engraved on the face.  This is what was to be used for all access, purchases etc while on board - no cash is handled on the ship.  All of our incidental expenditure would be charged to our cabin account, and at the end of the cruise, billed to the credit card or debit card that one is required to register before sailing.  We also were each given a plastic card type key for our cabin door, and a neat wallet to keep both cards in.

We spent the next two hours having a nice lunch of cold meats, herring roll-mops, salads and cheese with a pint of Stella Artois (the only draught lager they have) in one of the many restaurants, selected from a vast array of dishes on offer.  Although we were originally told that our cabin would not be available until 3.00 p.m., we made our way to deck 10 at 2.30 p.m. and found the house keeping lady just leaving, and our suitcases outside the cabin door. 

One of the buffet dining areas
 The cabin was spacious enough - more so than many hotel rooms we have been in, with a dressing room with plenty of hanging space and drawers, and a spacious bathroom with a big shower cubicle, a double bed, armchair, dressing table and TV.  After doing some unpacking, we made our way up to the promenade deck and watched the sunset, accompanied by a sun downer while the ship cast off from the queue-side and set sail for Tunis.

The Med can be a duck pond, and the Ocean Village Two has the advantage of being designed and built according to the most up to date criteria as far as stability is concerned, therefore it is no surprise that the only way to tell if the ship is moving is to see if the scenery is moving.  Apart from a low rumble when the engines start up, we may as well have been in a brick and mortar hotel.  None of this up and down stuff, or leaning from side to side.

 We showered and changed before exploring the various restaurants and the menu’s on offer for supper that evening.  We settled for a seafood starter followed by an oriental main course, and a desert from the always mind blowing selection of puddings, gateaux, fruit salads, crepes and pastries.  Filter coffee and a delightful, soft stilton with nice French bread finished it all off.

The next morning we were back in the Plantation restaurant, bewildered by the sheer range of choice of breakfast dishes on offer.  It was about this time that we realised that there were a large proportion of passengers on board who could only be described as sun-slugs.  They started their day feeding at the fry-up trough, piling their plates high army style, with a final large ladle of baked beans on top, even though there was no restriction on the number of times that one could go back for seconds and thirds.  Dressed totally inappropriately for being in a restaurant, in bathing costumes, shorts and skimpy tops, obese, odiferous, devoid of manners and foul mouthed.  

Sun Slugs

From the restaurant, they would waddle straight out onto the sun decks and lie on loungers for hours, slowly becoming broiled red.  If only they realised the dangers of skin cancer, they would never be so foolish.  It would be these same sun-slugs that we would see when ashore, demonstrating to the local populace the total lack of refinement in the British people, and confirming to the French everything that they hate about les Anglais.  There were exceptions, of course, just as we were exceptions!  We met a charming couple with two teenage children who came from Southampton, and another retired couple who lived in Guernsey, and who warned us about never sailing in the Bay of Biscay.  As this was their 15th cruise, they were qualified to know.

During the afternoon, we visited the “Action Ashore” desk and booked the shore excursions that we had decided to go on – some were motivated by expediency and safety, such as the guided coach trip from the ship to the old quarter and the souk in Tunis – rather than risk being kidnapped by an Arab taxi driver and held to ransom for an exorbitant fare to return to the ship and not miss the sailing time.  Others were because we wanted to experience the people and places, and food, of the region.

The day passed rapidly, and we had a great supper, again chosen from the vast array of dishes on offer.  It was a balmy night, and we spent some time walking on the upper promenade deck looking down on the entertainment taking place on the stage next to the swimming pool one deck below us.   We called time out at 10.30 pm and hit the sack with our cabin balcony door open to the ocean breeze.


We awoke to the noise of the gangways being put in place in Tunis harbour.  The sun was rising over the ancient town and we were excited about our planned trip to the old quarter and the souk.  We dressed in a hurry and hit the restaurant deck for a quick breakfast as we had to be on the quayside to board the coach at 08.00.  The coach drove through the city of Tunis, which is a typical African 3rd world, overcrowded, unplanned town.  But contrary to expectations, there was just about no litter!  Lots of building rubble as many buildings were either under construction or being demolished for replacement, but no rubbish.

The old quarter of Tunis is where the prime minister and the defence minister and the finance minister have their offices, near the parliament building.  All of these ministries require lots of big black cars, which were all lined up in the town square adjacent to the government area.  The sentries on duty at the various ministries are dressed in traditional dress uniform, with the flowing cape, voluminous blouse and pantaloon pants with the embroidered waistcoat and massive sword hanging from a silk cummerbund.  Only the 7.62 assault rifle broke the spell of a bygone age.
Our guide’s name was Ali, and he was very proud of his country and its people, and actually very knowledgeable.  He led us single file into the old quarter, and eventually into the labyrinth of the souk, where our first stop was a carpet shop.  The merchant was called Abdul, a jolly fellow who offered me 30 camels and a carpet in exchange for my Best Beloved.  It’s her hair, you see.  Golden blonde, and although she was warned to wear a hat to cover her hair, Abdul had a sharp eye.  I tried to negotiate for 30 camels and his carpet shop, so that I would have a means of earning a living when my Best Beloved tore up my boarding pass, but he wouldn’t go that far.
Tunis souk

After a reluctant farewell from Abdul, we were left to our own devices for the next two hours, and Noelin and I explored the alleyways and byways of this fascinating part of the old town of Tunis.  This souk has been a busy place of trade and commerce for over a thousand years, and the ghosts of the past, from the time of the silk and spice trade with the east, were very real.  We enjoyed the Tunisian people – they were friendly, happy, cheerful and welcoming.  As long as one is aware that to barter is part of the culture, there are bargains to be had in the souk, and many items are hand crafted, such as brass and silver ornaments, pottery and ceramics, glassware, silk fabrics and ladies clothes, shoes and sandals and carved wooden articles.  This is besides the amazing gold and silver jewellery, which is sold by weight.

Silversmith in Tunis
When we returned to the coach, we were exhausted and very thankful that we hadn’t attempted to make our own way by taxi.  Once back on board ship, we hit the showers and dressed for supper, another repast of unlimited choice.  We watched the harbour of Tunis slide by at sunset and the lights of the city soon disappeared into a blue-black sea as we set course for Naples.  We slept very well.


I was woken by the noise of a hydrofoil jet engine and in the pre-dawn light from the eastern sky through the cabin balcony windows; I could see Noelin out on the balcony, watching the early morning ferries from nearby islands and from Capri and Sorrento, arrive in Naples harbour where we had docked at 06.00 a.m.  There were few clouds in the sky and no wind at all, and we could hear the hum of the city waking up to another day.  The ferry terminal was alongside our quay and the ferry boats were disgorging their loads of city workers.
Naples ferry harbour
 We had to be on the quayside at 08.00 a.m. to board our coach for a shore excursion – we had chosen to take the guided tour to Sorrento and Pompeii instead of going into Naples itself, which was still recovering from the dustbin workers strike.  Just as well, as some people who went on the Naples tour wound up trapped in their coach for two hours because of marching demonstrators, and others who took the “go-it-alone” route were held to ransom by unscrupulous cab drivers.  The demonstrators were protesting about the drive-by shooting of a businessman by the local cosa-nostra a few days before we arrived.

We had a good breakfast of cereal, croissants, cold meats, herring, cheese, melon, tea and coffee before making our way through the security gate, and down the gangway to be directed to a line of parked coaches, where our front seats had been reserved for us in the last coach in line.  Our guide was a fiery Italian brunette in her mid thirties who, I learned, had a degree in archaeology, specialising in early Roman history and Pompeii in particular.  She was charming and could answer any question.  

We set off on the auto route for the Amalfi coast and Sorrento, and after a very pleasant journey we arrived in Sorrento at around 10.00 a.m.  After being given advice on where to go and what to do, we were left to our own devices for the next three hours, and we wandered around the narrow streets of the old part of Sorrento, taking photographs and drinking in the character of the town.  We had a pizza lunch on the sidewalk and made our way back to the coach point at 1.15 p.m.  The coach meeting point was a shop specialising in furniture inlaid with marquetry, which is the speciality of the region, and given a couple of thousand euros and a large truck, I could have shopped until I dropped.  One particular armoire made of Circassian walnut inlaid with olive wood marquetry was a work of art that I could have lived with without second thought.

Pompeii central piazza
From Sorrento we drove over the hills to Pompeii, with Mount Vesuvius looming ever closer in the background.  Pompeii is more that a ruined town – it is a stage set waiting for the actors to come alive.  It takes little imagination to visualise the hustle and bustle of the streets and the voices of the merchants in the shops and the rattle of the iron shod chariot wheels on the stone paved streets.  Having had its 20 ft covering of volcanic ash removed, everything is covered with a fine coating of grey dust, and I would prefer to visit Pompeii just after a rain shower next time.  If one knows anything about Roman history, or if one has read anything about the tragedy of the destruction of Pompeii by an eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 AD, one can sense the presence of the ghosts of the people who perished in that terrible event.  At the time of the eruption, Pompeii was still being re-built after being severely damaged by an earthquake 17 years earlier.   

Pompeii street
The evidence of this “work in progress” explains some of the strange construction laid bare by the archaeologists; stone walls topped with brick, and granite columns also seemingly built of stone as well as brick.  It seems that after the earthquake, the sort of funding and artisan labour that originally built the city in all of its marble and granite grandeur was no longer available, and re-construction was done using flint and brick, and the result covered with a layer of plaster.  I stood in an atrium reception room where many a guest must have been entertained by the owner, Ceius Secundus, and his family, who were obviously proud of their dwelling decorated as it was with spectacular hunting scenes depicting lion and antelope.  I could feel the presence of the host of the house smiling at my astonishment.
Interior of villa at Pompeii

The streets are an enigma.  Paved with large granite or limestone rocks, they are not particularly level or even, which would not have been difficult to achieve considering the Roman expertise in dressing stone and in road making.  Despite this, there are grooves worn in the stone by iron shod wheels, attesting to the passage of many chariots and carts and the stones of the raised kerbs are worn concave on top by the passage of many feet.  

A street in Pompeii - note grooves worn by cart wheels
Every 100 metres there are three stones laid across the street, with gaps for the chariot wheels to pass through, and which were obviously used as bridges or stepping stones to enable one to pass from one side of the street to the other without stepping into the street itself.  Does this mean that the street surface, some 30 cm lower that the top of the kerb stones, was awash with effluent?  I can’t imagine such a civilised people tolerating the resulting stench!  I must do more research.

We had too little time in Pompeii – our guide, knowledgeable though she was, moved us along at such a pace that Noelin and I eventually ignored our group and just used the time that the guide spent at each place of interest giving her talk, making our own way along and taking our photographs, which is what we really came for anyway.  We had a group of Japanese tourists hot on our heels, and occasionally we had to allow them to over-run us in order to finish taking a particular shot.  More annoying were some of our own group of people from the ship, who continually complained about being bored, or about the heat (it was around +26C) or about the dust, or who just had no interest in Pompeii at all.  Why did they come along?  As it was, we spent two and a half hours and only saw a small fraction of what we would like to have seen.

Just before we re-boarded the coach for the return trip to Naples, outside the entrance to Pompeii that we used, is not only a sidewalk vendor who sells bottles of cold lager for six euros, but also a large cameo factory shop, and we were enticed down into the basement showrooms by our guide, who was wearing a cameo that we had admired.  

A Cameo brooch
Well, given another couple of thousand euros and not much space, we could have become cameo brooch collectors.  Unfortunately, one either has the wherewithal to buy a decent cameo, or one mustn’t bother, as there is no such thing as an inexpensive cameo, unless it is of low quality and then it’s not worth having.  We tore ourselves out of the grasp of the sales lady and made our way back up to the waiting coach empty handed, to the chagrin of our guide, who was no longer wearing the cameo that we had so admired!  Caveat Emptor!

On the drive back to the harbour, we remarked that every available piece of open ground between the houses was cultivated with vegetables, fruit or flowers.  Remarkable.  We should all take a lesson.  We arrived back on board again exhausted after another very enjoyable day, full of interest and memorable experiences.  A quick shower and a sun downer on our balcony, and we were prepared to attack the offerings at the Plantation restaurant, where we had a choice of either oriental dishes or Italian cuisine.   We chose the Italian, and sat at a table out on the deck, looking over the lights of Naples as our floating hotel prepared to cast off and get under way for our next port of call, Livorno.

Entertainment on board the Ocean Village Two was a mixed bag.  There was usually a stand-up comic in the one cocktail lounge – this one fitted with a stage, lights and sound system.  The theatre usually hosted a cabaret show by a troupe of English dancers called “Freedom to Move”, in good weather there was usually something happening on the sun deck stage, which is a space-frame stage next to the swimming pool on the upper deck, there is a casino for those with a gambling bent, or one can just relax in one of the cocktail lounges such as the one that specialises in martinis.  (The Manhattan (gin) martini was passable, and came in a genuine martini cocktail glass of the large variety.  Two of those will flatten a hardened drinker; one was enough to finish my day off in style.   There were about 20 different martini cocktails to choose from,  but we only had a week….)  The various acts are not of west end standard by any means, and apart from a tribute to Queen on our last night aboard, which was very good, the talent was strictly amateurish.  One comic in particular, who supported the Queen tribute act, was painful.

Entertainment on deck


We were moored in Livorno harbour in the north of Italy by 7.30 a.m. on Saturday morning, from where we were to tour Tuscany, and the towns of San Gimignano and Siena.   Livorno is nothing to shout about – it’s an industrial harbour some way from the actual town, with a view from the quay of the monastery on the hill overlooking the town, across the harbour pool.   After our usual breakfast feast, again taken out on the deck overlooking the harbour, we disembarked and found our tour coach and guide waiting for us on the quayside.  We had reserved the two front seats behind the driver that we prefer on a coach, and our guide, Chintia, was seated across the isle. 

Livorno harbour
We set off in superb weather and soon found ourselves in the Tuscan countryside, which is probably the most spectacular and recognisable landscape in Europe.  No matter where one looks, the view appears to have been specially created to be perfectly formed and each breast of a hillside, group of Cyprus trees or red tiled villa appears to have been perfectly placed just so, to create an impossibly beautiful vista, straight off of a master’s canvas.

San Gimignano is the “City of Towers” and its towering edifices can be seen from afar, as it is built on the crest of a hill that dominates the Elsa valley in the Tuscan countryside.  The towers date back to the 11th and 13th centuries and were built as a sign of the wealth of the family concerned.  There is folklore that they were used as look-out towers to spot enemies approaching in feudal times, but this seems impractical – the town wall would have been a better location for this purpose.  As it is a walled town, our coach drove around the outer perimeter before allowing us to disembark at one of the town’s gates.

San Gimignano

From within, San Gimignano is not a pretty town, and there are no spaces of exposed ground where anything grows.  Brick walls and stone cobbled streets are all one sees, with some impressive squares or piazzas.  It must be a pretty depressing place to live.  While we were looking at the frontage of the church in the main piazza, we noticed a wedding party preparing to enter the building alongside the church, and before long a car pulled up and the bride alighted, who was a substantial woman indeed.  She was joined by the groom and maid of honour, who would have made a much more handsome couple.  This was obviously an arranged marriage, and a very local one, as I cannot imagine anyone who is not a long time resident of the town, being allowed to marry in any of the town’s churches.  If you are born here, you can live here and marry here, otherwise, vamos!  

Towers of San Gimignano
Many of the ground floors of the houses bordering the main thoroughfares have been converted into boutique shops, selling the locally made, and justly famous, pottery and ceramics, as well as all sorts of hand crafted souvenirs.  There is none of the “made in china” rubbish that one sees elsewhere – and the quality of the goods on offer is extremely high.  There are also cafeterias, pizzerias and restaurants offering a vast range of delicacies and local produce, especially the Tuscan pastries and Pain Forte or “Strong Bread”.  We did not have sufficient time to explore the entire town, and we would have liked to climb up to the top of the town wall, but we just made it back to the coach park at the appointed time.

San Gimignano ceramic shop
We drove through the back lanes of the Tuscan hills for a half hour before coming to a farm house where we were seated at tables overlooking the Tuscan hills with San Gimignano in the distance.  We were served a superb lunch of local dishes made from ingredients grown or made on the farm.  There was home made penne pasta, cheese, salads, tomatoes, fillet of trout, bread and a very good Chianti wine as well as a fruity white, both from the farm’s vineyards.  It was a simple, yet memorable meal, and we could buy the ingredients from the farm’s shop.  I could have found a comfortable corner and slept for the rest of the day, but we were soon back on the coach and on our way to Siena.


The walk from the coach drop-off point on the outskirts of Siena, to the old town proper, is about two miles.  It settled our lunch, and gave us the chance to appreciate the beauty of this ancient town from a distance.  At the time of the Emperor Augustus, a Roman town called Saena Julia was founded in the site.  The first document mentioning it dates from 70 AD. The Roman origin accounts for the town's emblem – a she-wolf suckling the infants Romulus and Remus. According to legend, Siena was founded by Senius, son of Remus, who was in turn the brother of Romulus, after whom Rome was named. Statues and other artwork depicting a she-wolf suckling the young twins Romulus and Remus can be seen all over the city of Siena. 

Siena piazza
The Siena of today is a mediaeval town, built on three hills, and the city fathers have banished the motorcar from the streets.  Vespa scooters abound, but most people walk.  Some of its traditions go back to the 10th century, the most famous of these being the Palio, a horse race with a difference.  The fact that this race demonstrates the total insanity of the town’s inhabitants does not deter them from holding it twice a year.  The town is divided into seventeen districts or Contrade.  Each is represented by a symbol depicting an animal such as a giraffe, a rat, a frog, a tortoise etc.  These symbols can be seen as cast iron or stone decorations on the buildings.  Each Contrade draws a horse by lot, and ten Contrade participate in each Palio, seven run by right, not having raced in the corresponding Palio the previous year together with three drawn by lot from the remaining ten.  The race is run around the main square of the town, the Piazza del Campo, and lasts all of 90 seconds.  The stone cobbles are covered with a layer of sand for the occasion, but it is still a dangerous affair for both spectators and competitors alike.  The prize is a flag (Palio) bearing the image of the Virgin Mary in gold embroidery.

Siena cafe'
We left our guide half way through her guided tour, in order to explore photo opportunities and we thoroughly enjoyed the bent, cobbled alleys and the misshapen buildings.  There were, as is to be expected, many other tourist parties, as Siena is a popular destination, but we managed to avoid most of them.  The trouble with these towns is that the streets become very dark by mid afternoon, as the buildings block out the sunlight and photography becomes a real challenge.  We had all been told to meet back  in the main square at 3.30 p.m. so we had a good two hours to explore and to indulge ourselves in photographing one of the most enigmatic towns in Italy.  At the appointed hour Chintia gathered her flock and marched us all back through the town, out the gate a back to the waiting coach.  We were only too happy to rest our feet, but another visit to Siena is a must.


St Raphael Promenade

Our next port of call was St Raphael, on the French Riviera.  We were woken by the sound of the power winches lowering the tender boats to the water.  After our usual superb breakfast, we made our way down to the tender gangway on deck 5.  St Raphael has no large ship harbour, only a yacht basin and a fishing harbour.  We were therefore ferried to shore by the ship’s tenders, which operated a continuous shuttle service between the ship and the yacht basin all day.  

Ships tenders
A five minute boat ride and we were on the quay side in one of the quaintest towns on the French south coast.  We had decided not to book on any of the shore excursions in St Raphael, as we wanted to explore the town, and there was no transport problem getting there.  We could have taken a tour of Monaco, or Cannes, or St Tropez and Port Grimauld, or even gone on a wine tasting tour to chateau St Martin,  but a chill out day on our own was what we needed.

St Raphael craft market
There was a craft market along the waterfront and there were many interesting items on sale – from home made nougat, to perfumes, soap, pottery, glass ware, spice mills and even fur coats.  The weather was wonderful, a blue sky with no wind and +25C.  After walking into the “old town” and visiting the real produce market, where the locals buy their produce and consequently eat like kings, and after walking around the perimeter of the cathedral while exploring the old town, we took a table at a side walk café and ordered cold lagers.  Refreshed, we walked to the end of the seafront promenade and on to the beach, so that my Best Beloved could wet her feet in the Mediterranean Sea.  It soon became apparent that it was a “topless” beach,  but I decided to be modest and keep my shirt on.  We walked back along the sea front and came to another side walk café which had a bill board outside offering a chef’s special of the day for lunch.  We found an empty table, and witnessed the waitress serving delicious looking plates of food to other patrons.  When she asked us what we would like, we asked what it was that she had served the table next to us?  She pointed to the bill board and said that it was the advertised “chef’s special”.  We ordered two servings, and had the most delicious lunch that we could remember.  
St Raphael sidewalk

Although the food on the ship was very good, this was the real thing, two portions of baby beef, grilled to perfection and covered in a delicious red wine and black currant sauce, with pomme-frites, roast vine tomatoes and broccoli.  Cordon Bleu cooking at it’s very best.  Good food, good company, good wine and good surroundings, we watched the local people going about their business, and although it was a Sunday, there were plenty of them about.  The French are easy to spot – they always dress with flair,  and they are not obese.  The British are easy to spot – they dress very inappropriately, and they are obese.  It’s a shame, really.  We made our way back to the dock at 4.00 p.m. and the anchor was raised at 6.30 p.m. We set sail into the sunset for Corsica, island of mystery and home of the legendary bandit pirates.


Ajaccio is the capital of Corsica and it is a very impressive town.  Because the Corsicans are not a fishing people, and have always lived in the interior of the island away from the coast, the coastal towns are relatively young and consist mainly of holiday accommodation or holiday villas. Some of the world’s wealthiest people live here, and there is a wonderful mix of sophistication and simplicity.  The indigenous bush is called Maquis, and it is practically impenetrable.  Corsican bandits used to hide out in it and were completely safe from capture as a result and this is the origin of the term "maquis" used to describe resistance fighters during WW2.  The flora is very similar to the fynbos of South Africa’s  Western Cape, but much denser, as it is not subject to annual burning.

Coach in Corsica mountains
We had booked to go on a coach tour of the interior countryside, and our guide was a pleasant and very knowledgeable fellow by the name of Michelle,  who sported a thick pony-tail and knee length pants.   He must have had pirate genes in his bloodline.  In our usual reserved front seats, we drove through the town before climbing the hills beyond, into the Ziptoli mountains.  The scenery is spectacular and some of the vistas leave one breathless.  When we reached the upper heights of the Mercujo Pass, the road became very narrow with a precipitous drop down the mountainside to the lakes below.  Looking down out of the coach window, we couldn’t see the road, and the coach seemed to be suspended in space a thousand feet above the valley.  

Corsica interior

We stopped for refreshments at a family run restaurant built on the mountainside, and we ordered coffee and a slice of the local cake made from chestnut flour.  Our driver was very skilful, and safely brought us down to the coastal plain without mishap  I would not travel that road after heavy rains, as the danger of a landslide was all too apparent by the scars in the mountainside.

We were back on board by 12.30 p.m. as the ship sailed at 1.30 p.m.  We had a superb lunch sitting at a table out on the deck at the stern, and watched Corsica recede into the horizon as we sailed for Palma, where we would arrive at dawn the next day, and where we would take our leave of this floating food hall for our return flight home.


Palma de Mallorca terminal
We were told to leave our check-in luggage outside our cabin door after 6.00 pm, tagged with the pink labels that were supplied.  This we did, and the next morning we were docking in Palma harbour when we awoke.  With only our camera bags to worry about, and our overnight bag, we had our last breakfast on board and at 9.00 a.m. we disembarked and went to the terminal building on the quay side, where we identified our luggage and took it to the waiting coach, which was waiting to take us to the airport.  Although all of the cruise literature has Palma as a part of the itinerary, giving the impression that one has at least a half day there to see the place, this is not the case.   On arrival, we were driven from the airport directly to the ship, which we boarded immediately.  On departure the reverse – we were taken directly to the airport after breakfast, so we still don’t know what Palma is actually all about.

A long walk
Palma airport was still being built, therefore it was not fully functional, but it will be a magnificent airport when it is completed – in fact Heathrow could take a lesson.  The only down side is the long walk from the check-in to the boarding gate for the bus that takes passengers from the terminal to the aircraft.  A mile of marble and glass.  Perhaps in future the bus will be replaced by proper boarding gates and connecting ramps.  I have always regarded the use of busses to take me to my aircraft as somewhat third world.  The only time I thought of fourth world was at Alice Springs in Australia, where there was no bus, and we had to walk across the apron from the aircraft, which parked a good ¼ mile away, to the terminal, in the noon sun, when the temperature was +40C!  Well done, Quantas.

Although our return flight was on the same type of aircraft as our outward flight, an Airbus A320, we enjoyed more leg room the second time around.  We moved to an empty row of seats as soon as the seatbelt sign went out, and had a much more relaxing flight.  Touchdown at Stanstead was after 6.00 pm and by the time we had retrieved our baggage it was 7.30.  I rang the number for the valet car parking to have our car brought around to the terminal.  The ‘phone rang a long time before it was answered and then a sleepy voice told me that the car would be there “right away!’  We waited and we waited, a full hour before my Volvo appeared.  It had mud up to the door handles, it stank of cigar smoke and the interior carpets were filthy with mud and rubbish. 
Rip-off valet car parking
I was furious and gave the guy who had delivered it, a piece of my mind.  Little did I know that I would discover a couple of weeks later, on telly, that I was the victim of a scam where what appeared to be legit car parking companies were actually scammers out for a quick buck who took your money and your car and parked it in a field somewhere.  There was no security, no shelter and no insurance.  My Volvo also had over 150 miles clocked up since I had handed it over on departure at Stanstead.

Never mind – we will always remember our first cruise around the Mediterranean and we pray it will not be our last.  We may even consider booking ourselves onto a cruise full time, back to back, when I have to quit work and retire.  We won’t have to worry about paying rent, fixing the roof, grocery shopping, cooking meals, getting the telly fixed, cleaning the windows or any of the other nuisances of living in a house.  It will all be taken care of, with 24/7 room service to boot, and wonderful live entertainment every night thrown in!

We can dream, can’t we…..? 


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