Thursday 14th August. We have never regarded ourselves as the sort of people who go on cruises, yet here we are going on a cruise. A mediterranean cruise at that! The flight to Barcelona is uneventful, having left the car at Marseille airport as instructed. As we approach for the landing, we can see a cruise ship moored on one of the jetties and since there was only the one, it had to be ours. A taxi quickly whisks us from the airport and drops us at the ship, which looks absolutely huge when standing next to it; much bigger than from the air.
Our cases are whisked away, check-in is completed and we walk into the bowels of the ship. We have entered on deck 1 and our “stateroom” is on deck 8 so it’s up in the lift we go. It’s a glass lift on the side of the ship giving an ever increasing view of the harbour surrounding us as we go up. Then, here we are … verandah stateroom 8002, our home for the next ten days. The ship is the five star MS Noordam, one of the fleet of the Holland-America Line which started out as a passenger service between Holland and America in 1873 and completed it’s change to a cruise line in 1989.
Our room is comfortable, with lots of room to unpack and space to store cases under the bed. The bathroom is small but works well. The large double glass doors lead our onto our private verandah with it’s two seats, views and fresh air. Lots of pieces of paper to read to find out what is happening around the place. To us the ship it seems big!
Barcelona. Our first night is spent in Barcelona harbour and today we get the chance to explore the city. Jacqui spend some months in Barcelona when she was in her late teens and so is keen to take a look around. The local port bus drops us off at the bottom of La Rambla, the main road into the heart of the city. Although we were the only ship when we arrived, three more have docked overnight and so there are throngs of people as we walk up the wide street under the shade of the trees. The centre of the street is given over to pedestrians and there are lots of tourist tat shops and cafes.
We love the atmosphere as we stroll. We notice a surprising number of shops selling flowers and plants and packets of seeds which is a bit of a mystery.
We have limited ambitions for Barcelona and they centre mostly around looking and one or two of the Gaudi designed buildings. We hover a while in the Place de Catalunya among the pigeons which must have migrated from Trafalgar Square when they were evicted from there. They are still enjoying the peanuts. We watch a young man blowing huge soap bubbles for squealing children.
Now we walk up the Passeig de Grecia to the Casa Batllo, the first of our Gaudi buildings; a hotel. We are among crowds of people admiring this amazing building from the street. Such courage of the city to allow such unusual buildings.
The one we really want to see is Gaudi’s church, the Sagrada Familia, which is a footsore distance away along a criss cross of roads. As we round the corner and get our first view of the church my breath is literally taken away and tears come to my eyes. It is such a thing of beauty that for a moment, to my surprise, I am quite overwhelmed by the sight.
Once again, there are crowds of people and so we cross off any idea of trying to get inside. Everyone is looking upwards at this amazing building. Satisfied, we wander back through the narrow winding streets of the old city to catch the bus and return to the ship feeling tired and with aching feet.
The ship is big, although we are told it is only medium size (1,800 guests), and we begin to take in our surrounds. I apologise in advance to those of you who may know these things but to us it is all new and we are not yet sure what we think about it. Several times already we have wondered what we are doing here.
Our room is compact but comfortable, has a verandah, and is immediately behind the bridge up near the top decks. Above us is the Lido deck with full spa and gym facilities, two swimming pools (one with a retractable roof) and adjoining bars, hot tubs and surrounded by loungers.
There is a large casual dining area open for most of the day where we choose to eat breakfast, lunch and sometimes our evening meal. A small restaurant serves specialist italian food. Above that, right across the front of the top deck, is the Crows Nest Bar and lounge with a 270 degree view forward and lots of comfortable seats from which to enjoy it.
We find ourselves still awake enough at eleven to witness the leaving of Barcelona and the city lights slip quietly into the distance before we retire for the night. We awake to the rhythm of the boat rocking. Our first day is to be at sea and there is a force eight gale blowing outside. The ships stabilisers are dong a grand job but for the first time in years I feel the slight uneasiness of nausea. Luckily breakfast quickly solves that problem and as the day goes on the heaving sea abates and the lines of people walking around the ship stop swaying from side to side as they go. It’s a day to explore and find out what we have let ourselves in for.
Breakfast is a sample of things to come and a chance to look at the effect when a choice of everything you could possibly eat is arrayed before you. Freshly cooked omelettes and every variety of eggs, bacon, sausages, hash browns, baked beans; all sorts of fresh fruit and cereals, juices and hot drinks … an endless supply; croissants and other pastries; pizza and pasta; sushi and other asian delights … the list goes on … take as much as you like! The tables give a view of the passing ocean; the napkins are linen; the beautiful orchids flowering on every table are not plastic.
Most of the facilities are below on decks two and three. At the front across both decks is a several hundred seat theatre where the nightly shows take place at 8pm and 10pm. At the back, again across both decks, is the main dining room, open for breakfast lunch and dinner with full waiter service and three or four courses to choose from. A bit like going out to your favorite posh restaurant every night; the waiters help you into your chair and spread your napkin on your lap before handing you the menu. If you want really posh, you can go to the up market (extra cost) restaurant in the centre of the ship, again across both decks, for a full silver service lunch or that special romantic dinner.
After another evening show in the theatre given by the extremely good singers and dancers of the entertainment staff, we flit from one music venue to another before once more retiring for the night. On one level, it all feels too much, and on another there is the feeling that one mustn’t waste the opportunities that are here. (I write this sitting in the Crows Nest and I am interrupted by the man placing a small vase of fresh flowers on every table). I guess this is called luxury, Holland-America claim 5-star status … all my life I have managed to a large extent to avoid such things and now, here we are in the middle of it. I am not sure what I think about that but it seems to be what is happening.
Saturday is not only a day at sea, but it is a formal dress day. For some reason, I don’t pass muster on the formal dress, jacket and tie is minimum … tuxedo if you have one … and this means that we have to forsake the dining room downstairs for the casual dining room on deck 9. Hardly much of an inconvenience except that you have to serve yourselves … and the choice is bigger. People do love to dress up though and although the men tend to look much the same in their mostly dark jackets, the women all put on their best and finest with jewellery to match. Quite a show.
Early Sunday morning finds us on the veranda in our dressing gowns witnessing the intricate manoevers required to bring the ship up to the quay in the port of Marseille, our first stop. We have been staying not far from here in Sanary, so the view of the hills surrounding the city is familiar.
After breakfast a shuttle bus drops us at the old harbour and we begin our exploration of the city. The basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde stands sentinel on the hill overlooking the city and we make that our destination for the day. We walk around the harbour full of boats of all sizes, through the tourist market on the wide plaza next to the city and then into the streets winding their way up the steep hill towards the Basilica. We stumble on the massive walls of the Abbaye St Victor as it’s huge bells ring out to the faithful. Inside the vaulted brick arched ceilings are free of frescoes. Candles burn in front of a seated Mary and Child … Mary seems to be the favourite all over France.
On upwards through the winding streets towards the Basilica standing alone on the rocky hilltop. Up the final steep flight of steps and we join the crowds who have preferred an easier climb by bus or the small tourist train.
The view across the city is stunning. What changes this church must have seen through the centuries as Marseille transformed from a fishing harbour into the second biggest city in France.
Inside, the high domed ceilings, with their striped arches are bright with frescoes – many decorated with gold leaf and sit in complete contrast to the Abbaye below. Here, in among the crowds of tourists with clicking cameras, the faithful sit and listen to the sermon given from the small dias at the alter. Outside, we take in the views in all directions before taking the direct descent down the steeps steps back to the city and the ship once more.
The casino is only open when at sea, but when it is open is well used. The library has an extensive collection of books and big comfortable chairs where you can enjoy your cappuccino from the small cafe; computers to check your email provided that you are happy to pay for the expensive internet access; a small section dedicated to those who like to play chess, scrabble or do jigsaw puzzles. An art gallery where you can buy paintings or to join in the art auctions. There are shops for that specially designed piece of custom jewellery, your next watch or a tee shirt or two to remember your trip. Oh, and duty free booze and smokes.
We are already enjoying the ritual of watching the departure from the port each evening from our balcony. The ship is just so manoeuvrable and with the help of local pilots gets in and out of seemingly impossible places. From our perch on deck eight we get a birds eye view of the whole thing. Another sunset on a warm summers evening, somewhere on the Mediterranean. Then it’s time for dinner once more.
Look out for part two of this cruise in a few days …