The second destination on our itinerary was Messina, port town of Sicily and gateway to the mainland. Dawn was breaking as we slipped into the harbour, dodging the plethora of mainland and inter island ferries and jet cats.
Our original plan was to go across to Palermo but more detailed research (i.e. actually reading the Lonely Planet guide rather than flipping through it) revealed that it would take over three and a half hours to get there. We were in port until eight pm but didn't fancy seven hours on the train.
Plan b was to go to Taormina instead, just over an hour away on the train, down the eastern coast and recommended by, well just about any printed matter you could find really. After a cloudy start the weather was improving so, after fuelling up for the day at the Lido restaurant we headed ashore to find the train station.
Messina is not a place that fills travel writers with joy apparently. Lonely Planet reckon the only reason to stay here is if you are waiting for a ferry or you car has broken down. We didn't see enough to form an opinion really, but it was certainly cleaner than mainland Italy although the streets were just as traffic choked. The locals were helpful too, steering us in the right direction of the station which was about a mile away from the port.
Unfortunately, the next train to Taormina didn't leave for a couple of hours, so instead we opted for the bus which we only had a twenty minute wait for. It would take longer to get there but no matter.
Well, it actually took a lot longer and wasn't the most comfortable of journeys. The suns rays were gradually coming more penetrating but it was only when temperatures and tempers got dangerously close to boiling point that the driver begrudgingly switched on the air-con. Mind you, what awaited us at the end of the journey was certainly worth it.
This beautiful small town, originally founded in in 358 BC and perched on a terrace of Monte Tauro has a more medieval feel, despite it's Greek and Roman past. Most of the buildings date from middle ages and you can spend hours wandering around the little alleyways and nooks and cranny's. Wealthy Sicilians holiday here too (and they're not ALL mafia!)
Time was marching on and we wanted to do the train ride back if possible. The train station was located quite a bit out of town and none of us fancied the long walk, so a taxi was found, fare negotiated and agreed (and adhered too!)
The station was very pretty and tranquil too, the way that only old railway stations are - at least until a train comes thundering in. We only had a few minutes to wait and surprisingly the fare was cheaper than the bus. The service may be either subsidised, or still state owned, I'm not sure but Italy (and Sicily) are one of the few places where petrol and diesel is as expensive as, if not more, than the UK.
Soon after four pm we were back on the ship indulging in a bit of afternoon tea. Traditionally restricted to cucumber sarnies and scones, now virtually everything is on offer. I opted for pizza!
Dinner was again superb, but prior to that we had an invite to a cabin party for a pre dinner illegal gin and legal tonic or two. Anyhow, after straying to two legs the night before in the shape of chicken, normal service was resumed tonight in the form of Cajun rib eye - absolutely divine. Another early night was called for though. Thankfully tomorrow is a day at sea and nothing more strenuous than sunbathing - weather permitting - is on the agenda.
Well tomorrow is now today and at the time of typing - late afternoon - we are heading across the northern Ionian sea towards our next port of call - Corfu. We were both here many years ago, and briefly again on a cruise a few years back so there are no must see or do's tomorrow other than a stroll into the town.
The weather has been good today. After a cloudy start the sun has been out and forced the mercury up in to the low twenties. We sunbathed in the morning up on the front of the ship on the top - sixteenth deck no less. Another compliment about this ship - the deck furniture is fantastic, not your usual plastic sun beds but a mix of traditional wooden steamers, actual sun beds with mattresses which can be pushed together for a romantic interlude (we kept ours apart!) and lovely cane chairs and sofas too.
As always on a cruise, food is never far away, figuratively or literally and in no time at all it was lunchtime. The choice is simply fantastic, rationally there would be, say three meat and two fish offerings, various veg and salad to accompany. Two or three times on a cruise there would be theme days, say Chinese, or British Pub Grub, something like that. On this ship you get it all every day. There really is something for everyone.
Tonight is the first formal night - time to dust down the dinner suit. This is were you traditionally get to shake hands with the captain and get a free glass or two or something resembling champagne - which is the only real reason anybody goes - on what other form of transport do you have to meet the driver?
Me again! Well currently we are at see steaming towards Alexandria, Egypt. We left Corfu last night and have been going close to maximum speed since - at least 21 knots, we passed Kefalonia and Zakynthos last night and rounded the south western tip of Crete this morning. The seas have been a little livelier too but to be honest, this ship travels so smoothly that you hardly know it. Ok, you perhaps wouldn't want to cross the Atlantic in it, particularly in winter, but it's not designed for that anyway.
So, where were we? Corfu, yes. The night before our arrival was designated the first 'formal night' which as I said in the last one, is when you get to meet the captain. Greek, as many of this cruise line's senior officers are, he was very entertaining, introducing his most senior staff as is the tradition. Polite applause followed each introduction until he got to the head chef. Now this guy is popular and with good reason - as I've already said previously, the food has, as, and will no doubt continue to be, superb. So he deservedly got the biggest cheer of the lot.
We done our first show as well, a pianist by the name of Brooks Aehron and he was fabulous, backed up by the ships orchestra he played both traditional classical and more modern stuff too, interwoven with witty anecdotes. He proved so popular that they scheduled another show, which was this afternoon, and he was even better.
Anyway, Corfu. We had no arranged plans here other than a walk into the old town but ended up renting a car and having a drive round the northern tip of the island. The tourist season has pretty much come to and end here, so there was somewhat of a ghost town feel about the place, but it was very pleasant nonetheless. We stopped briefly at Ipsos, then headed off the beaten track to a tiny little place called Agnia where we had coffee overlooking the beach.
Our drive took us back through the hills to a traffic choked Corfu town where we eventually parked up and stopped for a snack. We didn't get to really see the old town regrettably.
The ship left on the dot at five pm. Now, older cruise ships - including our all time favourite, the dear departed QE2 relied on at least two tugs to pull them away from the dock and point them in the general direction of the sea, however modern vessels are a lot more manoeuvrable. They have powerful bow thrusters to move the 'pointed' end into and away from the dock. The main propulsion comes from two pod mounted propellers at the rear which can turn almost 180 degrees almost complete flexibility of movement of the ships rear. Anyway, we pulled away from the dock, into the bay and the ship then performed an 180 degree turn on it's axis - absolutely incredible for something so vast. An another thing, there are 2,850 passengers aboard and probably nearly half as many crew, yet it never feels crowded or busy anywhere. A tribute to it's design.
Anyway, so we are leaving Corfu and easing past the old town to our right. To the edge of the bay and on our left is a little island, perhaps, at a guess about 300 metres long, if that. Well some twenty odd years ago, me and Trev were here for what masqueraded as a retail buying group conference. There wasn't a lot of conferencing done however, at least not by us save for when there was the occasional nosebag or drinkypoos to be had. Anyway, one day we decided to hire a speedboat. The guy on the quayside showed us the boat - and in particular the propeller on the outboard. This was very expensive he said and could easily be damaged if we hit any of the weed beds in the shallow sections of the bay. To ensure that we understood this he kept our passports for safe keeping.
Well, we raced away from the wooden quay and out into the bay, not far from island I just mentioned when we come to a very sudden halt, nearly throwing us both head first across the bow of the boat and into the water. Yep, we'd hit the weed bed. Thankfully, after a few panicky minutes and some deft work with the little anchor we worked the boat, and the precious propeller free and headed over to the aforementioned island.
At the time it was deserted. A short walk from the quayside brought us to these old huts laid out like dormitories with old sprung beds and skinny mattresses. The sort of bed you could - and still can find in any hotel room in Spain in fact! It appeared that it was used as a scout camp or something similar. Deciding that we'd missed nothing we started to head back to the boat. Then we saw the horse.
Now, malnourished is perhaps putting it a little too harshly but the horse did look in need of a meal. And judging by the way it looked at me it thought it had found it! A started walking rather quickly back to the wooden jetty and the horse began to follow. I accelerated to a jog, and the horse followed a little quicker. In no time at all I was running at a pace a 100 metre runner would have been proud of - and so was the horse. It wasn’t until I reached the jetty and leaped breathlessly on to the boat that the horse gave up and turned tail and trotted off!
Not much to report from today. Weather has been good - in the low twenties but a little breezy. After Egypt tomorrow we hit Israel and Israeli immigration officials were on board to clear everybody prior to arrival - common practice at some destinations. They do not stamp your passport in Israel though unless you specifically ask, as this can cause problems if you plan to visit some Arab and/or Islamic countries. Currently four; Libya, Sudan, Syria and Lebanon will not let you in if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport.
It is now dusk, and tonight is the second 'formal' night. They always have these on sea days as it apparently takes you longer to get tarted up - well some anyway!
Monday 25th October and our second afternoon docked at Alexandria, Egypt. We are due to sail tonight for Ashdod in Israel, arriving at 10:00am tomorrow morning.
We arrived in Alexandria early yesterday morning. The two day stay was for passengers who wanted to travel down to Cairo to see the pyramids - some would be staying in Cairo overnight. The port is massive, Egypt's main and also it's second biggest city with a population of around five million people. You may recall that we were here a year ago last February - in fact it was my first ever blog. According to the port guide from the cruise ship it is proud to call itself Egypt's cleanest city - not necessarily anything to shout about in our experience! The port also seems to be something of a nautical graveyard judging from the number of wrecks we passed on the way in.
We had booked one of the ships tours - a first for us as they are usually notoriously expensive - but having been here before we had done most of the usual tourist things.
Our tour took us to El Alamein, one of the most famous desert campaigns of World War two. First stop was the Commonwealth Cemetery - the final resting place for some 7,367 servicemen from all over the world, 821 of which remain un-named. A further 603, who were cremated are commemorated here as are another 11,874 who have no known grave. Wreaths and flowers are present from the service held the day before - the 23rd October - to remember the start of the battle of El Alamein in 1942.
Then it was on to the war museum before calling into the German and Italian memorials on the way back to Alexandria. The final stop was for the inevitable gift shop and papyrus factory. We stayed in the shop at least half a minute to be polite!
We were returned to the ship mid afternoon and predictably (we've been to Egypt before don't forget) the coach driver did not pull up directly outside the terminal but a good one hundred metres or so along which ensured that we had to walk past all the tat, sorry, genuine artefact sellers on the way back. The tip that the tour guide had hinted about not very subtly throughout the trip stayed in my pocket as a result!
In the evening we had our cabin party, somewhat of a tradition - providing you can smuggle enough booze on. There was only five of us so the gin and red wine, bought in Rome was plenty. Afterwards we eschewed the restaurant in favour of room service and sat watching the comings and goings in the harbour and the many coaches returning late from their various day trips.
This morning we decided to venture into Alexandria on foot for a stroll and some er, fresh air. Ignoring the inevitable hassle at the port gate from beggars and taxi drivers (the distinction wasn't always clear) we risked life and limb to cross the road - there's no such thing as traffic lights here - and the few pedestrian crossings are ignored. It has to be said - it's a bit of a dump - it makes Naples look clean and tidy. There is rubbish everywhere, the roads and paths are crumbling and the cars, many of which are old Lada's belch out fumes making it almost impossible to breathe. The irony is, most people are tidily dressed and clean too, yet they have to live and work in this.
We went down one of the side streets and ended up on the main promenade at the sea front. The beach would have been quite nice but was strewn with rubbish as was the water lapping at the edges. We turned in again down an even dirtier side street and eventually ended up back at the port.
So, it's Israel tomorrow and the port city of Ashdod. The plan is to get a local bus in to Jerusalem which takes about an hour and a half, then jump on one of these hop on - hop off bus tours and catch as many of the sights as possible. But you know what they say about best made plans........
Remember what I said about best laid plans? Well, they were to go completely tits up as you shall read but normal service was thankfully resumed the next day. So here goes:
Tuesday 26th October
We arrived in Ashdod, Israel on schedule at 10:00am. Very quickly the gang plank was lowered and we was allowed ashore. It went downhill soon after that.
Port authorities would not allow anyone to just walk out of the port gate - security apparently and understandable considering where we were. Options were limited to a taxi or the shuttle bus laid on by the cruise company, for the privilege of which we had to pay fifteen dollars each - this sort of thing used to be free of course, but in an ever more competitive market cruise companies are doing all they can to keep the base price down. It quickly became apparent that taxis were not an option. They would quite happily take you direct to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, even up to Nazareth and Galilee - for a price of course which would no doubt inflate during the day due to unforeseen circumstances. They would not however take us to the port gate or even into town to get the bus to Jerusalem. So we were stuck with the shuttle bus.
That service didn't start until 11:00am and would finish at 8:00 pm effectively shortening our time in port. We done some sums though and worked out that we would still have enough time in Jerusalem providing the shuttle left on time. It didn't. The staff were more concerned with making sure our onboard account would be charged than actually getting us into Ashdod. We eventually left half an hour late and immediately got caught up in traffic leaving the port - port computers were blamed but everyone else suspected a security alert. Halfway to the port gate an old lady had a fit and fainted so an ambulance was called to check her out. We suggested that she should go straight to hospital but the ambulance crew insisted that she went back to the ship. So after all that we eventually arrived in Ashdod at nearly 1:00pm with our plans in tatters. The journey to Jerusalem would take an hour and a half and buses though regular were infrequent. We would catch the last circuit of the tour bus there if we were extremely lucky but then would not be able to catch the bus back to Ashdod that would connect with the last shuttle bus back to ship. Half an hour was spent mooching around the shopping centre then we got the bus back to the ship, calling in at guest relations on the way back to our cabin to make a complaint. Judging by the mutterings on the shuttle bus we would not be the only ones!
Another cabin party tonight prior to dinner which was very pleasant, during which the seeds of another plan were sown....
Wednesday 27th October
Haifa, Israel. We arrived again on the dot at 7:00am and the gang plank was down soon after. A reconnoitre on deck after an early breakfast revealed that the train station was only a few minutes walk away - the port was right in town. So far, so good.
There were six of us hoping to get to the holy city and it should probably be pointed out that, certainly for me and Trev this was no religious pilgrimage rather the chance to see a part of the world that has, and continues to, shape the lives of so many. Religion, in any of it's forms is not something either of us practice. Anyhow, the clerk at the train station was very helpful and even gave us a discount on the tickets. The train soon appeared and we were on our way to Tel Aviv.
The one thing you get used to seeing in Israel is uniforms. Their form of national service is compulsory and they have to do three years although still get to live at home I believe and many young men and women in military attire could be seen on the train. Many have big erm, weapons too which takes a little getting used to!
I had done some research on the 'net using our prepaid - but still expensive - minutes on the ship and learnt that we could get our required bus to Jerusalem just outside the railway station. The timing was perfect as there was a bus just about too leave. We handed over our shekels and got on. An hour or so later we were pulling in to the central bus station in Jerusalem. Timing wasn't quite on our side here as the hop on, hop off bus - which conveniently left from outside the bus station - had not long left and would not complete it's circuit for another hour and a half. It was decided that, following a pit stop to restore caffeine and sugar levels we would get down the Jaffa Road to the old city, spend some time there, then catch the bus on it's next circuit.
Security here is ever present, the entrances to bus stations, shopping centres and the like are all guarded and have metal detectors that you have to pass through. More young men with big weapons and not just handguns either.
A tram line had recently been completed running through the centre of the city and, as it skirted the old town it would have been perfect for us. Objected to by just about everybody except the long suffering commuter (and tourist?) it still had not been commissioned and the trams lay idle, sealed and gathering dirt. It looked like we were walking.
In truth it was a bit further than any of us would have like but we eventually reached the Jaffa Gate, one of the entrances to the walled old city. We walked first through one of the market streets, made even more delightful by the fact you are not constantly hassled to by something. We had seen a sign for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - thought to be the place where Jesus was actually crucified - but ended up instead at the Wailing Wall, the most sacred Jewish site in the world. Many could be seen praying and leaving prayers, in the form of little notes between the stones that make up the wall. The wall may be ancient but it's use has been brought bang up to date thanks to the internet. You can now log on, type out your prayer and have it placed in the wall, alternatively, for a fee, an Orthodox Jew will pray at the wall fro forty days for you. You can select standard, exclusive or premier prayers, the fee varies accordingly. No, I'm not kidding!
We had only seen a tiny part of the Old City, but it was time to head back to pick up the bus at the Jaffa Gate. The problems of this part of the world are well documented and I aint gonna go into it much here. Jerusalem is as most will know divided into east and west, the west being Israeli controlled, the east Palestinian controlled. Whilst we are forever hearing on the news; Israeli this and Palestinian that, most people on both sides are simply getting on with their lives and are sick to death of it all. However, a taste of the depth of feeling that some clearly have here manifested itself to us as we climbed the steps away from the wailing wall and looked over to the eastern Palestinian side of the city. "Don't stop here" barked a passing Orthodox Jew, "There's NOTHING to see". I ignored him and took some pictures. There is generally no problem for tourists in East Jerusalem but it is apparently distinctly different from the west side. Regrettably we were not going to get to see it.
The bus took us on a whistle stop tour of some of the city's major sights including the famous King David hotel and the Yad Veshem Holocaust memorial. We missed out a few stops as the bus arrived at the station and the consensus was to start our journey back. An all to brief visit to what is a very attractive city, despite it's well documented problems. As we boarded the bus to Tel Aviv we had already decided that we would be back at some point - Tel Avis, whilst not as historically significant is apparently a good place to stay. The locals say that while Jerusalem prays, Tel Avis plays, sounds good, but there is so much more stuff in Jerusalem to see too - even for heathens like us!
The return journey went just as smoothly, everything connecting almost seamlessly. I desperately wanted to get a picture of one of the soldiers on the train (complete with aforementioned weapons) and an opportunity did present itself to do so surreptitiously as it would have been great for the blog, but the risk was simply not worth it. Had I been caught I could have been in lots and lots of trouble!
And so, about ten hours or so after we left this morning we were back on board, mission finally accomplished.
So that’s as far as ports of call goes. As I type we are eating into the 1330 nautical miles back to Civitavecchia and have two full days at sea before arriving on Sunday morning. We then have a day in Rome before flying back to the UK in the evening. There will be one more blog in a couple of days time. Probably.
Saturday 30th October and our last full day on board so I thought I'd review the trip as a whole and pick out the best and worst bits.
The hotel at Heathrow was fine - we always try and stay over the night before a flight as it makes for a less early start in the morning.
The flight itself was fine, although the in-flight meal was shocking. Heard on the news that BA have recently returned to profit - well I can tell you exactly how it was achieved - they're starving the passengers to death! Seriously, I'm sure there will come a turning point when airlines will start offering more, not less for your money.
Rome was overall, a little disappointing. Ok, we didn't get off to a good start with the greedy cabbie but that could (and does) happen in many countries. I was more annoyed with myself for being caught off guard really though. The city was pretty dirty in places and Trev commented that he didn't think they'd spent any money since he was here thirty or so years ago. He may well be right.
It was a busy weekend there too - even busier than normal because of the Pope doing his thing at the Vatican and many of the sights were simply too crowded to see properly, if at all. The positive points were the hotel, which was good value for money given it's location and the Colosseum which was simply stunning.
Several people had warned us that Naples was nothing special so expectations were low which was just as well. The Herculaneum was very interesting however but better weather would have made for an even more fulfilling visit.
Sicily was nice too, we enjoyed Taormina very much but would have welcome the opportunity to go a bit further along the coast to the base of Mt Etna. As always on a cruise though, time is always an issue.
Corfu was enjoyable too. Getting the car was a spur of the moment decision and a good one. It was unusual to find somewhere else in Europe (along with Italy) where fuel was more expensive that the UK though, but then the Greek economy is in an even bigger mess than ours.
Alexandria. The tour was good and the visit to the war graves interesting and poignant. Our walkabout was educational too but having been here and done that we've no particular desire to come back in a hurry!
Ashdod. Can't comment on the place itself but from what we saw it was just another big city, with a very modern busy port. The cruise line have redeemed themselves though over the shuttle bus debacle however and refunded the money.
Haifa. Undoubtedly the highlight and a completely new experience. Not the port specifically but because hastily remade plans came together and we at last made it to Jerusalem. As I mentioned in the last blog we will definitely be back for a more in depth look.
So, that’s everywhere we've been to but what about the ship? Well from the exterior it's quite attractive as modern cruise ships go, though they all tend to have the floating hotel look about them. Both inside and out it is immaculate and well kept but then at under a year old it should be.
They really have gone back to the drawing board with the design of this ship and for the most part it works although some aspect are a little quirky. All the bars and lounges are comfortable and offer a different ambience. The lido buffet dining area - the main destination for breakfast and lunch is exceptionally well laid out and never feels busy. In fact that could be said of the rest of the ship too, despite there being well over 4,000 people on board including crew.
Entertainment on board has been excellent and some of the best we have seen, the guest entertainers in particular. I must mention once again the pianist Brooks Aehron. He took part in another show a few nights ago and it was clear that he is popular with many others too, performing a comical routine involving a typewriter which according to the accompanying patter he had only bought in Alexandria that morning. A great story but that’s probably all it was! We met him after the show as we purchased a couple of his CD's. We congratulated him and as we shook hands he noted that we were English and had a stab at our accents. "North London?" he guessed then looked us up and down and said "Ah, no. Brighton!", grinned sheepishly and then told us about a friend of his who also lives in Brighton and had first explained to him what a Friend of Dorothy was!
The food. Oh, the food. Brilliant. Not only in quality but quantity too. Massive portions made it an effort to devour much more than two (ok, three) courses most nights even for me. The range of food on offer was excellent too.
This is probably one of the driest cruises we have done, alcohol wise which is no bad thing. The absence of real ale helped both my liver and my wallet survive a little longer and they have seriously ramped up prices anyway. Wine in the restaurant is a good three to four pounds more expensive per bottle than our last Celebrity cruise three years ago. Casting an eye around the restaurant suggested that they have gone to far as many were sticking to soft drinks.
The last word must be about the crew. Fantastic. They are all so friendly, helpful and attentive, clearly very well trained and help make a really wonderful cruise. Thanks all.
At the time of typing we have just traversed the Messina Straits between Italy and Sicily and are on course to arrive back in Civitavecchia early tomorrow morning. Then it's a day in Rome before a flight home tomorrow night. Monday morning and the return of the dreaded parcels moves ever closer. Uggh!
So, that’s it - probably, unless there's anything to report tomorrow. Until next time. Hope you've enjoyed it, we certainly have!