Saturday, 24 May 2014

Gibraltar, a confused country

Sad to have returned to the ship for a final evening, but happy to be sitting on the sundeck, albeit in the shadow cast by the monumental Holland-America cruise ship beside the Thomson Majesty, now resembling something a little less majestic, and instead something a little more like a rubber dingy. While other guests are still convinced it is hot because we are abroad, I am donning my scarf as a shawl and wishing I had something to cover my legs. Quite the contrast to the shiny pink mass of bodies surrounding us.

Not too keen, but not too lazy, we set off at about 10 into Gibraltar, aiming to beat everyone else up the mountain (if that's what one calls it?)! Yet again, a slightly longer walk than expected, we eventually reached the 'lower station' where we fou d the cable car to take us up to see a view of the island and to meet the monkeys. The warm, welcoming, kind and friendly tour guide who accompanied us in the cable car did an excellent job of being sufficiently intense enough for none of us to fancy alighting when we reached the top for we were told;

'One simple rule: monkeys very smart, humans very stupid'

... well thanks a lot Mr tour guide! So we emerged with these images of red-eyed, sabre-toothed, grabby, scratchy, screamy beasts, not at all keen to go beyond the viewing platform which was, at this point, totally monkey free. Nevertheless, bravely we ventured on, and were greeted by macaques that, on appearance, were really very cute and fluffy indeed! We did fall witness to the side of them more akin to my imagined monkeys, but fortunately we were obviously too busy playing the part of smart human to become a target.

The view from the top was quite something. Hypnotic, and definitely the best way to experience Gibraltar, we spent most of our morning wandering up and down the top and gazing out to sea (whilst avoiding monkeys from above).

When our tummies started to rumble, signifying it was time for lunch, we headed back down accompanied by a far more amiable cable car attendant, to whom we chatted about life in Gibraltar and expressed how confused we found it. Here was a prime example of this, as here was a man who looked exceptionally Spanish, yet spoke with the clearest Cockney accent, despite having lived in the country for several years!

On our way down, we were reminded that the Botanical Gardens stood at the foot of the mountain, and it was suggested that we ought to have a look, so we were convinced to take a detour en route to food. Set on quite the steep slope when one comes from the flatlands of Norfolk, we were glad to find a well-positioned bench half way up, upon which we rested a while (perhaps a while longer than intended following a rather unfortunate nose stud incident), content in the afternoon sun, overlooking a bed of succulents from Africa, with views of the sea still in the distance.

Upon our initial walk to the cable car we had passed along the main street where souvenir shops stocking monkeys of all shapes, sizes and colours stood between British banks, M&S, Next and Topshop (a very surreal sight, it has to be said)! In true British style, we decided that the climate was just right for an M&S picnic, so when we finally found the energy, we lifted ourselves from the bench to go and locate food.

To our horror, while there was a small food selection in this particular M&S, there was nothing particularly suitable for a picnic, so our search continued. From our original civilised picnic plan, we then sort of fell into a 'traditional English pub', which again in true British style was perhaps rather dodgy, but it did the job and was another surreal experience.

From the pub, we continued our fall into Topshop, McDonalds (for the facilities) and even Morrisons (for flight food)!? I really cannot express how bizarre a day we had!

Back on the ship, we braved the sun deck for a short while before retreating inside where I promptly fell asleep on the window seat (the perfect length for a proper lie-down). I awoke in time for a pre-dinner drink and to be utterly confused by Ahmed's (belly-dancing waiter from the Crew Talent Show) lack of ability to speak fluent English (he was North African, this was a terrible misjudgement on our parts) when he provided us with our drinks and we 'discussed' his rather unique talents.

Once back in the cabin to get ready for dinner, I managed to fall asleep again while I waited to shower! Dinner this evening looked a little like this:

Starter - pineapple mojito
Soup - minestrone with pesto
Main - linguine with dried ham and sage
Dessert - New York cheesecake

For the final time, we went to hear the sombre sounds of the Boras Duo before retiring to pack and sleep properly (I was SO TIRED). Sadness swept through us all while that 'end of holiday feeling' took over. Cruise holidays are certainly the type that you never want to end!

Monday, 19 May 2014

Cadiz, Spain

Following on from the ‘left guests’ debacle in Casablanca, we did wonder whether we’d be late arriving back into Spain. However, our 10am arrival was as it should have been, so breakfast on the deck was accompanied by the view of a fellow Thomson ship in port (this one enormous and German; we looked a little pathetic to say the least). As we had eight hours in port, and weather in the mornings had failed us in the first few ports, we had decided to give ourselves a well-deserved lie-in (in hindsight, it seems we had quite a few ‘lie-ins’), with a view to heading out late morning/early afternoon (Cadiz was small, we were sure we weren’t going to miss much).

It was all very civilised. At about midday, we set off on the free shuttle bus from the ship to the port terminal... which took less than two minutes. Having walked for forty out of port in Casablanca, we were more than a little dumbstruck to say the least!

From the sun deck over breakfast, we had a-spied a cathedral, so as was becoming the habit, we followed the tower and headed off for an explore. This tower was located in no time at all, and in true British fashion we then joined the queue wending its way from the doors to have a look inside. However, once we had managed a sneaky peek through the door, we decided that the exterior was as good as it got so made a hasty escape and went instead to find postcards (that point in the holiday when you suddenly realise you haven’t sent any, so have a sudden desperate need for them).

Instead, we found ourselves t the bottom of a street that looked like it would lead us to a sea front, so we were drawn by the promise of a paddle. While the lampposts (and dare I say the reek of urine?) may have been reminiscent of Cromer, the colour of the sea, the bronzed bodies and unusual shells reminded us that we were in fact in Spain. Quick to take off our shoes, we rushed along the sand to dip our toes in the clear water... fresh!

Sand batted from our feet with scarves (they’re just so multi-functional), we went back the way we had come to have another go at a postcard search, and to perhaps make a stop for lunch while we were at it. Of course when in Spain, real Tapas is the order of the day (and Sangria, which was amazing, by the way!), so we sat ourselves outside a little café, where orange trees grew and nobody understood anybody (or maybe it was just us, but it all seemed a little... relaxed?). Sangria we managed to order no problem at all, then we made our tapas order and were later confronted with our order which can only be described as being for an excessive amount of food.

Having made an excellent attempt at a crazy amount of food, we were finally able to heave ourselves up in order to walk off the tapas babies we had gained. We found that Cadiz seems to be in some sort of horse-shoe, as we stumbled upon the ‘other side’ of the sea which was very beautiful; lots of garden, pretty benches and fish just below the surface of exceptionally clear water! From the sea, we wound our way back towards the main square as we were reminded of our postcard mission. Here we encountered my parents (even somewhere so small, bumping into familiar faces when on holiday is a very surreal experience) so stopped to exchange pleasantries and to take postcard shop recommendations before going on our merry way.

Having finally discovered a little shop with pretty postcards, we travelled back on the shuttle bus (a little embarrassed to admit that actually, but when one has been wandering all day... all afternoon?) for tasty dinner delights and the Baked Alaska Parade:

Starter – tuna & caviar
Soup – asparagus
Main – lamb shank
Dessert – chocolate walnut coffee cake & mystery sweet sugary things

After dinner was the usual cards accompanied by the Boros Duo and another glorious sunset for which we again risked our lives out on the slippery, blustery decks! Moonlight across the black water followed the sunset – which we witnessed from behind a curtain in our window seat whilst waiting for the Crew Talent Show (I’m not entirely sure whether other guests were impressed by our seating arrangement, but I was pretty content). You know you’re a seasoned cruiser when you’ve seen the same talents from the same crew members before. The belly-dancing barman was a new and welcome addition though... 

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Casablanca, Morocco

SUNSHINE and a rainbow of containers greeted us as we stepped out onto the promenade deck in Casablanca, Morocco. To avoid the inevitable and our not returning to the ship due to a camel replacement, we ventured out with the parents for the day in order that a male would be in tow (it was also really lovely to actually spend a day with them on holiday, obviously)!

After wending our way through the docks (why are they SO HUGE in Morocco?), narrowly avoiding cyclists, motorbikes, cars, lorries and trains (!?) as we crossed the roads, we arrived in the city and headed for the minaret towering over all other buildings. Says Dad ‘it looks quite close actually’... famous last words? It turned out to be one of those buildings that as we got closer, it got further away, and moved around yet another corner (yet it had initially appeared to be in a straight line from where we were heading, of course). Eyes up so we didn’t lose sight of it, goodness knows what we passed on our mission; I sort of imagine us looking like a Lesley Nielson leaving a trail of destruction behind us in our desperation to reach our goal. Nevertheless, we finally managed to get there, and it was quite a magnificent sight to behold – surrounded by the sea at most angles and possibly one of the largest, most imposing buildings I’ve ever seen standing alone in the same manner.

Once we had managed to walk most of the way around it and taken endless photos with various geological hammers, we headed along the way were presumably meant to come when we approached the mosque (we had instead chosen to slope through the back entrance past numerous barriers and guards; trust us) alongside beautiful walled gardens and fountains.

Our next goal was the medina, so again we ventured through areas that could only really be described as ‘off the beaten track’ where stray kittens, cats and children ran amok and chickens were sold very, fresh, shall we say? Shouts of ‘Bonjour! Holá! Morning! Welcome to Morocco!’ (they were determined to find some way to communicate!) echoed through narrow passages as we scurried along, our heads turning avidly about in an attempt to look carefully enough to take it in, but not so carefully that we looked like we wanted to buy anything.

Morocco is quite exhausting, so there were lots of bench stops, often spent dodging bouncing balls kicked by small boys who sparked debates about the Moroccan education system. Of course each bench stop was brought to an abrupt finish as a seller or two would make their advances and we would all spring into action right on cue to move on to the next stop.

After the medina, we took to aimless wandering down whichever street took our fancy. Through our aimless wandering we discovered pigeons en mass (just like Trafalgar Square, only a lot smaller but somehow with just as many pigeons), men in ‘traditional’ dress, a park or two, a couple of squares, a cathedral and a highly exciting post office (I really can’t decide why or how said post office ended up being the subject of a photo on all of our cameras?)...

The walk back to somewhere always feels that much shorter once you know where you’re going and before we knew it, the ship was upon us and waiting for our tired selves to collapse onto our favourite window seat where I promptly fell asleep for a good hour – why is it that holidays wear you out so much?!

When I awoke, it was time for dinner (how convenient):
Starter – chicken fritters
Main – roast turkey
Dessert – pistachio parfait

only THREE courses – you’d think I’d have been starving after the exhaustion that is Morocco, but clearly not!

We sailed away a little later than we had from the previous ports, so after dinner we were just in the nick of time to head out on deck to watch us cast off. The scene that we were met with was all very exciting and dramatic. Man in suit marching around looking very important while other men in fluorescent jackets ran up and down the port-side looking panicked. We managed to decipher that we must be running late, and all came up with varying back-stories as to why or because of whom this may be. The most popular story was one of the important looking man’s wife and/or mother who had been hustled into a dark and potentially dangerous corner of the medina on a seemingly innocent shopping excursion. The reality of the situation transpired to be something none of us had quite expected, as suddenly from the distance there emerged an entire coach load of passengers! Heads hung in shame as we all waved majestically from above them, tongue in cheek.

Captain Panaphapolopolis (or whatever his name was) was off at break neck speed, presumably to make up time, so we went to find somewhere we might feel a little less buoyancy and found ourselves in a show lounge and immersed in yet another quiz. This one did not prove quite so lucrative, but thankfully we enlisted the help of a friendly, single gentleman who turned out to be rather a quiz master (just unfortunately not marriage potential)!

As we sat playing cards after our honourable defeat, we suddenly realised that we were finally in for a proper sunset, so made our way onto the ‘sun’ deck, which by this point of the evening was incredibly windy, where we blew about trying to get some nice photos (apparently not the easiest mission in my heels on a deck covered in sea-spray)!

An early night followed; perfection prior to our late arrival into Cadiz the next morning. What a day!

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Portimão, Portugal

As I write this, the sun has fiinally made an appearance so we have landed on the beach. The wind is a little keener than we would like, but after being tantilised by sunshine first thing, only for it to have done a disappearing act by the time we disembarked, dressed in bikinis and armed with beach towels alongside other 'day on the beach' necessities, we're quite pleased to have been able to stop on the sand for any length of time at all!

As it was Sunday, we allowed ourselves a nice, lazy start following our early Saturday night (it involved an ice bucket, but unfortunately it was not to rest champagne, but a sore foot). Breakfast on deck, blinded by the sun, we then headed down to our cabin to prepare to move our lazy Sunday to la plage (or should I say, 'praia', when in Portugal?). Praia da Rocha, we were told, was where we were expecting to find a fortress from the 15th Century and sea views that would make us go weak at the knees. Instead, when we emerged from our cabin having been received by glorious sunshine with breakfast, we were faced with yet more complete cloud coverage, which was pretty hard to see beyond. Less than impressed by Portugal at this point.

All the same, we dragged ourselves along the gang plank and towards the beach, wondering whether when we reached the sand, the sun would see it was wanted (rather desperately) and swiftly return to us. It did not. The sand was cold, the sea even colder (and we're from Norfolk!), but when on holiday...

Along we trudged to a headland in the distance, where through some very elegant bent-over-double-shuffling through a caved tunnel in the rock we found a cove reminiscent of a Famous Five story that we hoped might be the ideal spot to shelter us from the wind. Wrapped in our towels, we managed to sit it out for a few minutes before swallowing our pride and making the executive decision that it was time to head inland in pursuit of hot chocolate (it was that cold!).

Settled inside a café overlooking the sea, we drank (or maybe ate) the thickest, most incredible hazelnut hot chocolate with spoons, while the clouds above us finally started to break, suggesting the sun may finally be making an appearance! Nevertheless, our hopes quickly vanished as the next lot of cloud arrived, and we resigned ourselves to the rest of our day spent on board the ship. Rather than let ourselves feel too depressed over our failed attempt a beach day, we decided that we would have a civilised sit-down lunch in the restaurant then spend the rest of the day in a similar vein... inside, in the warm.

To make the most of our visit to Portimão, we took a turn down the high-street as opposed to trudging back along the cold and windy beach, where I was rather distracted by holiday shopping potential, and overwhelmed by flip-flop choice when confronted with a Havaianas shop - HEAVEN. Next thing we knew, I was buying a beach mat, and suddenly we were aware of the presence of blue sky, and furthermore, sunshine! So, without further ado, we landed on the beach. Before we knew it, bikinis were revealed and we were dipping more than our toes in the Atlantic sea; complete bliss.

It could literally not have looked more different...

Sadly, after the long wait, we had to head back to the ship for an early departure. Thank goodness again for the parents and their expert skills in landing well-located sun loungers, we joined them on the last two available at the front of the ship on deck to continue enjoying the sunshine accompanied by the cocktail of the day and some Mr Porky's. Hypnotised by the gentle heat from the sun, I was just drifting off when the ship decided to bid its farewells to Portugal and the horn blasted FOUR TIMES (completely unnecessary, I'm sure)!? 

After the debacle of the previous evening's dinner sitting, we decided to be ready earlier, and to try out the other, smaller restaurant on the ship:

Starter - chicken & leek terrine
Main - Salmon pasta
Dessert - Paris Brest - yum!

where I discovered that my napkin folding skills have deserted me, and apparently all I am now capable of creating just looks rude, and nothing like a beautiful rose! 

Serious concentration face.
Silly 'ooh look what I made instead' face.
One benefit of late appearances from the sun is the fact that the blue sky then remains into the evening, which on a ship gives way to much excitement over the possibility of a stunning sunset! As soon as food was done and dusted, we rushed out on deck for more Titanic moments as we were blustered around. Unfortunately, although there were very pretty skies, the cloud coverage on the horizon meant there was no pretty sunset this time. Beautiful all the same though!

A round of cards, and we made our way to the show lounge for Man in the Mirror... yeah. Tipply ship, tipply jeering from the crowd (actually, just us), but we stuck it out to the end (they were quite good at playing toy drums, we'll give them that) before disappearing to bed in anticipation of the next day's Moroccan antics.