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Mediterranean Musings

Image of the P&O cruiseship Britannia
P&O’s Britannia

So Mrs Kates and I mooched off to the Mediterranean for a much-delayed two-week cruise that was supposed to be to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. As it happened, it was the day of our 33rd anniversary that we set off for Southampton.

The lead-up hadn’t gone well, making us wonder whether a holiday can be jinxed. The Cursed Cruise­­—sounds like a title from The Three Investigators series of books. That was down to me.

Around five weeks before the cruise, I suffered an infection in my left forearm from some insect bites. I do a lot of walking in the countryside and the culprit was probably a horsefly—the little sods seem to like tucking into me. It necessitated a course of strong antibiotics and, we think, triggered the worst attack of psoriasis* I’ve ever experienced. My usual go-to steroid treatment didn’t touch it.

Worse, the day before we were due to leave, I noticed fresh red marks (not psoriasis patches) on my right shin and calf. They were slightly swollen, hot and tender to the touch. Fresh insect bites—again, probably horseflies—and too late to do anything about them. Bugger.

Image of a horsefly
Horsefly, aka little sod

After a day or two aboard ship, my lower leg looked as though it had a severe case of sunburn and had swollen so much I could only manage to fit into one pair of shoes in the evenings, a low-backed pair of slip-ons. The onboard doctor diagnosed cellulitis and prescribed another course of strong antibiotics. Ideally, I needed to rest my leg and keep it elevated. Easier said than done on a cruise.

We were determined not to allow these mishaps to ruin the holiday and we had a good time despite them. What follows is a brief recount of some of the highlights. Since this blog is mainly about writing and reading, I’ll mix in some literary flavour where I can.

A word or two about the ship and some of the passengers we encountered. Britannia is a ship we haven’t sailed on before, but we will definitely be keen to board her again. Although she’s big, we rarely felt overwhelmed by crowded spaces. The staff are, as always on P&O ships in our experience, approachable and incredibly hard-working, and massively enhance our enjoyment of the holiday.

We chatted to quite a few of our fellow passengers in bars or restaurants or around the decks, and unfailingly encountered friendly people, with more than a smattering of fellow Welshies. But it was in the main dining room we struck gold. We had club dining, meaning we had the same table reserved at the same time every evening in one of the main restaurants. We shared our table with an awesome young couple from Liverpool (one of them is originally from Manchester, she’ll want me to make known) and, despite (or, maybe, because of) the generation gap, hit it off immediately.

We didn’t eat in the main dining room every evening, and neither did the young couple, but when we were all there at the same time, the evening passed in a flash of lively chit-chat and reminiscing about how much we were missing our pets at home: cats Taco and Nacho in their case, pooch Milo in ours. They celebrated their 5th wedding anniversary while in port at Ibiza and went ashore for a celebratory meal where they met and had photos with a well-known club DJ. My and Mrs K’s clubbing days being far in the past, we hadn’t heard of him, but the couple’s enthusiasm was so infectious we felt as though we were fans, too.

Our waiters often had to stand about waiting for us to stop yakking so they could finish clearing away. (Sorry, Birini and Sonam, you were fantastic, too.) A huge thank you to our lovely table fellows A and C, you helped to make our cruise a memorable one. And come on, you Reds!

Image of dog
Milo (badly in need of a trim)

It being a cruise, there were, naturally, ports of call. Here they are, in the order in which we visited them, with an occasional bookish note and snap from the hundreds we took.

Gibraltar

We have visited Gibraltar on many previous cruises and it has become one of our favourite ports. I like to partake of a pint of San Miguel in one of the local pubs and Mrs K enjoys a glass of sangria in the main square while watching the world (well, at any event, the passengers from whichever ships are in that day) go by.

We’ve explored most of the Rock, inside and out, but this time decided to visit the Trafalgar Cemetery at the far end of Main Street. It was well worth the stroll through the intense heat (to which we hadn’t yet had time to become acclimatised­­­, though a pitstop for liquid refreshment eased our path). The cemetery is a place of great tranquility amidst the hustle and bustle of touristy Main Street. It contains two graves of sailors who took part in the Battle of Trafalgar and died of their wounds on Gibraltar. I found myself a little awestruck.

Image of sign outside Trafalgar Cemetery, Gibraltar
Gibraltar

Ibiza

Although we have enjoyed holidays on the Balearic islands of Mallorca and Menorca, this was our first visit to their sister island Ibiza. We wanted to see as much as we could in the limited time available so opted for a guided excursion to the north of the island, taking in quaint villages and picturesque resorts, before stopping for a bite to eat and some liquid refreshment in Santa Eularia.

Image of yacht in bay
Ibiza

Palma, Mallorca

We had nothing planned here as we’ve visited a few times before. We just got off the ship and went for a little wander.

French novelist Albert Camus (I’ve read The Stranger and The Plague) stayed in Palma in 1935 and apparently met his first wife in Mallorca. Totally unrelated, the pic is of a gun emplacement outside San Carlos military museum that overlooks the cruise terminal.

Image of gun emplacement
Palma

Cagliari, Sardinia

Here we spent a cultural morning being entertained by Sardinian folk dancers and singers, while sampling local sweets and cheeses and wines. A most enjoyable morning, indeed.

Sardinia is the subject of a travel book, Sea and Sardinia, about a visit to the island, including Cagliari, by D.H.Lawrence and his wife in 1921.

Image of sun rising over island of Sardinia
Sunrise, Sardinia

Malaga

One of the oldest cities in the world, Malaga is known as ‘the land of poets’. Hemingway is said to have written his nonfiction work The Dangerous Summer while staying in the city.

We took an excursion to visit Marbella, which we found a little disappointing with its preponderance of high-rise, soulless buildings (at least in the part which we got to see), and Puerto Banus, with its array of billionaire’s yachts lining the marina partly shrouded by an eerie sea mist, the occasional Ferrari and Lamborghini parked alongside. How the other half live, eh.

Image of expensive yacht in marina
Puerto Banus

Cadiz

One of my favourite books from my early teens was Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie. I also enjoyed his follow-up As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, Lee’s memoir of his 19-year-old self’s journey to and around a Spain about to be engulfed in civil war. He leaves his home in rural Gloucestershire (the setting for Cider With Rosie) and sets off for London, calling in Southampton along the way. In Spain, he starts at Vigo (a port we have been to on a previous cruise) and visits Cadiz, Gibraltar and Malaga. His description of Cadiz is evocative: ‘…a city of sharp incandescence, a scribble of white on a sheet of blue glass, lying curved in the bay like a scimitar and sparkling with African light.’

We, too, are fond of Cadiz and took this opportunity for a wander around parts of the city we haven’t seen previously, before eventually settling—sweaty, footsore and thirsty—in a pavement bar near the port, where we enjoyed a late lunch and a beer or two. Mrs K watched agog when she asked for a glass of sangria and they descended upon our table armed with five bottles of alcoholic beverages and a bottle of lemonade. They proceeded to mix her a sangria by sloshing ‘measures’ into the glass. “How is it?” I enquired. “Delicious,” she replied, “though strong.” Hic

Image of Cadiz cathedral
Cadiz cathedral

 

If you’re been detecting a bit of a theme, you could be right. It’s probably fair to say that when we go on a cruise, we tend to eat and drink our way around the Mediterranean, or Baltic or Norwegian Seas…

Here’s to the next time. Cheers!

Image of Sam & Mrs Kates raising champagne glasses
Back on board for a champagne sailaway

 

* I’ve suffered with psoriasis for many years, a condition which causes my body to produce too many skin cells, making the skin on parts of my body (usually my knuckles, elbows, knees and ankles) inflamed and flaky. Actually, ‘suffered’ is overstating it. It’s not contagious, doesn’t cause me much discomfort apart from occasional mild itchiness and is usually controlled by ointments prescribed by my GP. It’s never been so bad that I’ve needed to see a dermatologist about it. Until now.

A Baltic Odyssey

According to our local guide, Alexander Pushkin is to the Russian people what William Shakespeare is to us Brits. Although born in Moscow, he has strong associations with St Petersburg, which happened to be one of the ports of call on our cruise around the Baltic Sea.

We enjoy cruising and usually choose the Mediterranean for the sunshine. Occasionally, though, we opt to go north and have cruised to the Norwegian fjords and the Arctic Circle. This Baltic trip attracted us for the variety of ports in six countries we’d never before visited.

This isn’t going to be a lengthy post; it’s more an excuse to say a little bit about the cruise and show a few photos. But, to obey my self-imposed rules about what I post on this site, I have to include a link, no matter how tenuous, to reading or writing. Thus, Pushkin. I regret to admit that I haven’t read anything by him and, honestly, will probably never do, though at least he is now on my reading radar.

Anyway, the ports. My favourite? Based on what we did there and the sheer beauty of the place, it has to be Tallinn in Estonia. Here’s a view of the city—the black-domed church above is also in Tallinn.

Copenhagen is probably a close second. Once home, of course, to Hans Christian Andersen (another writing link; go, me), whose association is commemorated, amongst other things, by the statue of the Little Mermaid.

Riga (Latvia) is also beautiful; Skagen (Denmark) is chocolate-box quaint; Helsinki (Finland) gave the impression of being unfinished, there was so much construction work going on, though is still lovely; Kiel (Germany) is interesting, though a little strange (they have a park called Hiroshima Park, which contains a statue of Bismark). The port that made the deepest impression, for not necessarily all the right reasons, was St Petersburg, the city of many names.

Our first sight of Russia was underwhelming, sinister almost: row upon row of ugly concrete apartment blocks poking from the mist. We passed many more on our coach ride into the city centre, a lot of them in a state of disrepair. It was grim, a dystopia, Orwell’s vision of the future brought to life.

Then the sun burned away the fog and revealed a city of stunning contrasts. Fairytale churches and cathedrals; glistening gold-domed towers and spires; forbidding, official-looking buildings; imposing monuments. The square behind the Winter Palace, said our guide, is larger than Red Square in Moscow.

If you ever visit St Petersburg, take a tour around the Hermitage Museum. Formerly a palace complex of the Tsars, it has been preserved in much the same state as it was in 1917 when the city was known as Petrograd, the Romanovs held power (until the abdication of Nicholas II in February) and the October Revolution was signalled by a blank shot from the battle cruiser Aurora (coincidentally, the same name as the ship in which we had cruised into St Petersburg). Here are snaps of them both.

Apparently, if you were to spend 30 seconds viewing every single exhibit the museum holds, it would take you around eleven years to see them all.

We spent a few hours there and barely scratched the surface.

It was a jaw-dropping tour, marvelling at the lavish opulence—I’ve never seen so many grand chandeliers and ornately decorated ceilings, so many paintings outside of a specialist gallery by masters like Da Vinci and Rembrandt, more gold (I imagine) than even the Vatican—while privately thinking it was little wonder there was so much discontent among the masses to have such riches in the midst of what must have been at that time severe deprivation.

St Petersburg (then known as Leningrad) is also famous for the failed siege by Germany in World War II. This is the hotel where Hitler planned to host a dinner to celebrate his conquest. He apparently even went as far as having invitations printed with only the date left blank.

We only spent hours at a stretch in these ports, enough to gain a flavour. But, without exception, the places we visited were captivating. If you’re ever wondering whether a trip to the Baltics is worthwhile, I’d say, resoundingly, yes.

To finish, a snap of me supping a stein of locally brewed beer in Kiel. These things have to be done. Cheers!