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| Ocean Countess 2010
Canary Islands & Madeira - A cruise from Plymouth
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Having taken a diversion to introduce the Ocean Countess it is now time to return to the cruise itself. The choice of Ocean Countess as our cruise ship was important, but the itinerary mattered equally, Instead of departing from Southampton, as did Cunard P&O and other cruise lines, CMV depart from a variety of local British ports. Our cruise departed from Plymouth, and a few passengers had embarked earlier in Dublin. At the end we would all return to Plymouth. The itinerary for the 12 days included four days at sea and seven days ashore – in Vigo, Agadir, Lanzarote, Tenerife, La Gomera, Madeira and Leixoes for Oporto.
After one day at sea and good weather through the Bay of Biscay we reached Vigo, a major Spanish seaport and shipbuilding centre with a strong fishing fleet and mussel farms. We have visited Vigo twice before – once by accident when there were strikes at the docks in Lisbon and the QE2 went to Vigo unexpectedly instead. It is just possible to take a tour to the famous pilgrimage town of Santiago di Compostela when the ship is berthed for a full day, but with only five hours it was not an option. Being smaller than the QE2 we berthed at the cruise terminal, which was very convenient, although the extensive road works meant that it was not always easy to explore.
We decided to wander around the town and set off to climb up to the El Castro Fortress, passing the Santa Maria cathedral and the old town. The park area is large, with terracing and neat gardens, leading to the walls of the fortress. From the Monument a los Galeones de Rande, three large anchors, there was a good view down to the port and the Countess. More climbing and we reached the entry arch to the fortress. Inside there were pretty gardens, a fountain, and more views down of Vigo.
At the foot of the hill there is a new outdoor museum, where the remains of the Oppidum of Vigo have been excavated and three buildings of the original style have been constructed which portray the site as it would have been in Roman times. To the south a network of channels have been found indicating some type of manufacturing was taking place there. Entry was free and there was a board-walk to prevent damage of the ground.
On our way back to the ship we had time to explore more of the old town and to look inside the Santa Maria cathedral which had been closed in the morning. The shop opposite was selling shortbread of Santiago and we look forward to eating it when we get back home. The buildings had pretty iron balconies and we loitered at one shop which sold cane garden furniture. The problem would be getting it onto the train when we got back to Plymouth. The same problem applied to much of the produce in the Market Hall - which was mainly selling local fish.
After another full day at sea we arrived at the Port of Agadir in Morocco to be greeted by dry hot weather, and compulsory shuttle buses to the town for those who wanted to explore independently. We wondered whether to rush into the town for a short time but then decided it was better to bask in the sunshine on board. We had last visited Agadir many years ago, and since we had no plans to buy another carpet (we bought two on our last visit) we had chosen to pay for a shore excursion to Taroudant in the afternoon. This city is about 1.5 hours drive to the east of Agadir, set in the valley below the Anti-Atlas Mountains. Our departure through the outskirts of Agadir was slow and everywhere there were patriotic flags, red with a 5-pointed green star. The King was due to visit shortly and everyone was making preparations. The new toll motorway was very quiet and we took the picturesque local road alongside, hoping to see herds of camels or goats. There was not very much to see and few people outdoors on a Saturday. The argan bushes were replaced by olives and orange groves, and then enormous plastic sheeted hangers of bananas. Open pipes supplied water for irrigation.
On arrival at Taroudant there was a photo stop outside the walls before we were deposited inside the city. Walking through the narrow streets we visited the Grand Souk and then the Municipal Market. Most information signs were in the local language and in French. Only a small number of stalls were open, presumably because of the time of day, but there was the chance to admire the baskets of biscuits, dates, dried fruit and colourful spices. Our guide had thoughtfully arranged for a local guide to make sure the slower members of our group did not get lost. The argan bush was especially interesting because we had seen pictures of goats climbing up the bush to eat the leaves. When there is no grass it is important to capture anything which is green! In the market there were stalls which sold the argan oil, and also manufactured products derived from it – lotions and soaps for example. We watched girls grinding the argan nuts by hand and purchased a small bottle of the salad oil which is said to be between peanut and sesame oil in flavour. Other people bought pottery tangines or colourful long kaftans or slippers.
Before returning we had drinks at the Palais Salam Hotel. This example of the Salam Hotel group was based in a 16th century palace with entrance through the old city walls, and had very pleasant gardens. On our return we were fortunate to see a herd of camels, and also a group of goats climbing the argan bushes. It was difficult to believe that the goats were light enough, and the bush was strong enough, for them to climb and we had wondered whether the pictures we had seen earlier were constructed. But the goats really were up in the bushes on the outermost branches nibbling the leaves.
Agadir is level with our next port, Lanzarote, and Ocean Countess reversed neatly out of her berth and turned sharply around, heading west. As the sun set we could see the three words outlined in lights on the hillside beneath the Kasbah. Then the moon appeared as a round orange ball above the beach and we were on our way.
Our next three ports were all Canary Islands. From east to west there are seven large islands – Lanzarote and its near neighbour Fuertaventura, Gran Canaria, Tenerife and little La Gomera, Hierro and finally La Palma. Lanzarote has suffered much volcanic activity and the most popular excursion is to visit the Fire Mountains in the Timanfaya National Park. Another popular trip visits La Geria where wine is made from grapes grown in little hollows protected from the wind by a drystone wall of lava. Lanzarote has a reputation as a windy island. We berthed at the capital, Arrecife, and while we were eating an early lunch we noticed a line of racing boats rushing along and then suddenly one lost its sails and had to be rescued and towed back to the harbour with bare poles. We caught the free shuttle bus to the edge of town.
The immediate impression of Lanzarote is that the buildings are generally low, typically only two or three storeys high, and the walls are bright white with green or blue doors. Only the tall 5* Arrecife Gran Hotel spoiled the skyline. The total population is only 106,000 of which 45,000 live in Arrecife. We walked alongside the saltwater lagoon, El Charco de San Gines, with its fishermen’s houses and little bobbing boats. Only one or two bars were open. It was Sunday and definitely no shops were open except for just one souvenir shop and a corner shop selling ice creams and groceries. Stamps for our postcards were going to have to wait until tomorrow. We strolled along the promenade, then along the seawall to see the Castillo de San Gabriel. Looking back towards town there were three yachts in full sail turning a buoy; we met their owners clutching radio control equipment in the Parque Jose Ramirez Cerda. There is a serious club which meets on Sunday and the boats we saw were over two metres tall and weighed about 35 kgs - the owners were removing the batteries and keel weights before transporting them.
Just beyond the Arrecife Gran Hotel we sat with ice creams by the Playa del Reducto and its clean yellow sand, and a little white tourist train trundled past. We walked back through the deserted side streets with their closed shops and stopped outside the 17th century Iglesia de San Gines, named after the city’s patron saint. Almosts all the only other people in town were from the ship.
Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands, was only a short cruise from Lanzarote, and our Captain minimised the distance by choosing to go between Lanzarote and Fuertaventura. We arrived in Santa Cruz, the capital of Tenerife, in the dark at 0700. By 0815 we had breakfast and were on our way as the first rays of sunshine hit the ship. The original plan was to catch the shuttle bus to the port gates near the underpass to the Plaza de Espana but we were berthed so close that there was no bus. The large monument in the centre of the Plaza de Espana is the Monumento de los Caidos and commemorates the dead of the Civil War in 1936-39. Facing the square and its large shallow pool is the government building. It was raining gently and we had 20 minutes walk from the port to the bus station; we planned to spend the day at the tourist resort of Puerto de la Cruz, on the north coast. There is a non-stop hourly service, number 103, which costs 4.40 Euros each way if you pay on the bus, and by purchasing a Bono card for 12 Euros we could both travel more cheaply. The Bono cards can be bought in various denominations at the bus station with €12 being the cheapest. You put them in a machine which physically stamps them when you get on the bus and they can be used for several people on he same trip by inputing them multiple times.
The bus left at 0900 and by 0945 we were at the bus station in Puerto de la Cruz near the Florida Hotel. The old castle by the black sandy beach was still there and the beach had been tidied and upgraded. We had spent many happy holidays in the town and it had not changed very much over the years, except that more hotels and apartments had been built near the bus station, and there was an enormous car park by the ocean. Nearer to town, the old Chapel of San Francisco, built between 1599 and 1608, had been restored in 1986. The old hotels, the shops, and the flower sellers were still in the same places. We walked past the fishing harbour and along the promenade and watched people swimming in the surf before continuing to the Lido Martianez with its swimming pools. We had a nice glass of refreshing Penedes white wine at the café of the Hotel Tenerife Playa. It was here that we usually stayed when we came to Puerto de la Cruz and the hotel is a good 4* and now part of the H10 group.
We had forgotten to bring our sun hats and not wanting to buy garish ones of Tenerife we ordered two nice light brown ones with our boat name embroidered on them., This meant we had to wait while the work was done and so we went back to the Hotel Marquesa where for just 5.90 Euros there was a good buffet lunch. The hearty soup and the rabbit stew were particularly good, washed down with local Dorada beer. We looked into the church opposite. All the statues of the Virgin Mary are clothed, and this was no exception. We were now ready for the next highlight of our day which was to climb up the hill to the Botanical Gardens. After finding 3 Euros each for the entrance fee we had a pleasant hour wandering along the footpaths and admiring the trees and plants. There are plans to treble the size of the garden to 60,000 sq metres and we could hear heavy machinery at work over the wall.
Going downhill to town was much easier than climbing up and we were soon down by the promenade. We had no particular plans for shopping, although there were lots of interesting shops, so we caught the 1700 bus back to Santa Cruz. It was an excellent day trip, and the bus service generally in Tenerife is very good. We heard of other passengers who had done a complete circuit of the island during the day. The only disappointment was that we had not seen the mountain because it was covered with clouds all day. The volcano of El Teide is the highest mountain in Spain at 12,198 feet.
We still had some time to explore Santa Cruz because ‘All Aboard’ was not until 2130 and it was only 1800. Since our previous visit there is a tram service to the town of La Laguna which we will try next visit. We wandered up into the town and then back through a park attracted by the blue and white building of the Circulo de Amistad XII de Enero recreational society, built between 1904 and 1934.
Tenerife is the largest of the Canary Islands, and it is approximately triangular in shape but still only 795 sq miles and so the distance from Santa Cruz to the south coast and the town of Los Christianos is not great. The bus only takes about an hour. We were going to the island of La Gomera, within sight of Los Christianos, and there was plenty of time. Generally on this cruise the ship has arrived early at her destination, and usually she is on the move only minutes after the published ‘All Aboard’ time. This is not a cruise where we have heard missing passengers being paged by name when the ship is due to depart although they probably get a good view.
La Gomera is a small island with only 2,300 people living in the capital, San Sebastian. The Countess offered just the one tour, and that was to visit the National Park of Garajonay which gave a chance to see the beautiful countryside and its forests and steep valleys. We had enjoyed this tour on our last visit but it was a choice; there was not enough time to do that and see San Sebastian. In 1492 Christopher Columbus took on water here, with his ships Santa Maria, Nina and Pinta. Now ferries travel to Tenerife and La Palma and the port area and ferry terminal are good. The marina nearby was full, with many visiting yachts, and patrolled by a number of enormous well-fed and protected fish. Looking towads the north we were surprised, and pleased, to see Mt Teide on Tenerife.
From the port it is a pleasant stroll to the town and its main square, with the old Casa del Pozo and the actual Well of Columbus from where water was drawn. Further along the harbourfront we walked through the Parque de la Torre which contains the Torre del Conde. Built in 1447 it is the oldest surviving military building in the Canary Islands and now houses a museum. The town has two main streets and our priority was to find the Post Office, and explore the 15th century Church of the Ascension in which Columbus is supposed to have prayed, and the Casa de Colon nearby which is a museum and art gallery. They are all in the Calle del Medio and its extension the Calle Real. Finally we saw there was a Market Hall marked on our map, just beyond the Parque de la Torre. We found it was actually brand new and underneath the bus station. It was selling the usual mixture of fruits, vegetables and the area included a small supermarket. We had already found a few souvenir shops and local handicrafts but the town was the central shopping place for the island and had lots of nice ordinary shops too.
We have been to Madeira many times before so we saw no point in taking an organised excursion - the town is within walking distance. There are also local buses which we have used on previous visits - they provide an interesting ride on the narrow roads and steep hillsides. We swear 'never again' but still use them. This time we were surprised to find there was a brand new Cruise Terminal which had been opened in May, built largely with EU money. You could see your face in the polished black granite floors but it did not appear to offer any services yet and it looks as if there will eventually be a long overhead walkway towards town. The only 'shops' were basic stalls outside. The port area also includes tourist trip boats, and we were approached to try a morning sail on one of the large catamarans. More appealing was a trip on the Santa Maria de Colombo which was a round friendly wooden boat, resembling the old ships of Christopher Columbus, but built in 1998 in nearby Camera de Lobos. It was moored just inside the port area.
We walked into town along the waterfront stopping to look across at the Countess and walked past the yacht which the Beatles used to own, now a stranded restaurant. It was then on to the Indoor Market, a favourite place of ours with its bright displays of flowers and vegetables, the smell of herbs and spices and stands of local embroidery and basketwork. It is the one place which one must visit in Funchal. It covers two floors round a courtyard plus a large lower level fish market. The exotic fruit and vegetables are heaped high on the first floor whilst the ground level has the flowers and other stalls but it is the fish market we find most fascinating with everything from whole Tuna to the extremely unusual Espada fish which is only found in a very small local area and in another area near Japan.
The name translates as scabbard and one can see why with the long jaw and slim black scale covered body nearly two meters from head to tail. They seem to have areas covered in black and white veining which are sought after and are left when the rough black scales are removed prior to sale. The picture shows the huge eyes - they live at 600 feet - and the veining. They are caught by lowering lights and then reeling them up - the fish follow and die as they reach the surface. They taste very good and the QE2 often had them on the menu in the evening, but the Countess did not. If we had a fridge in our cabin we might have purchased a piece of fish.
Our next stop was to catch the Cable Car. The views back over Funchal from the top of the cable car are spectacular.
There isn't very much to see at Monte itself although the Church of Nossa Senhora do Monte is special; it also contains the tomb of the last Austro-Hungarian Emperor and there is his statue outside. At the bottom of the church steps is the start of the famous sled run. When we arrived it seemed to be mid-morning coffee break time. Shortly afterwards a tour group arrived and business resumed.
This time we did not have time to go around the nearby Monte Palace Tropical Gardens, which is an enormous park in the grounds of an old hotel which you pass on the way from the cable car to the church. The grounds are criss-crossed with paths and the Japanese gardens are pretty and include Koi fish ponds. And there are lots of large old ceramic tiled pictures, mostly dating from the 1840s.
Few people were catching the cable car back down, although the cabins were now full with tour groups going up. On the way back we stopped at the market and bought some Strelitzia flowers for ourselves and for friends back home. Quite how we will carry them off the ship we are not sure was not easy to carry them back on board although they were packed in a special cardboard box - they are currently in cut down water bottles in the waste bin and stood in the shower. We also bought some of the local honey Madeira cakes - these are very different to the "English" Madeira cakes being dark brown, very solid and rich. We also indulged in a bunch of the small sweet bananas which were only €1.00/kg.
We continued through the town to Blandys Wine Lodge. They have a guided tour that we took a few years ago. We did not buy any bottles as we still have several others, mostly ten year olds, from earlier visits and we have found we can purchase many of the ones we tried in the UK. We also noted a couple of years ago that they were using a new method for their 3 year wines using the Tinta Negra grape and a "Estufagem" process involving heating and holding wine at 45 degrees using pipes through the containers. All older wines are made by the conventional process in oak and 85% of named grape (100% for reserve wines) where the wines are stored in the hot eves of the building and periodically turned. The new process gave a very different taste and we were not impressed. This time we saw that their Winemaker has won some of the most prestigeous awards over the last few years including Fortified Winemaker of the Year from the IWC as well as awards for individual wines, presumably for the old style of manufacture.
We tried one of the very old Madeiras from the Vintage Room namely an 'anniversary' 1974 Sercial which was very good. We understand it was put into the bottles from the barrel in 2004. The previous visit we had a 1948 for Pete's birthday which was the oldest wine we have ever tried; until then the oldest was a 1953 Moet and Chandon for Pauline's 21st birthday - that had been laid down for her by her aunt.
The evening had its excitements - whilst we were having an 'al fresco' Mexican dinner outside The Boathouse we noticed the deck above, which has the helicopter winching area, (that hideous yellow circle outside Hampton's) was being shut off and shortly afterwards a large military helicopter arrived to winch off a lady who, we were told, had suffered a heart attack. Medical staff were winched down and up and finally a stretcher. The Helicopter was holding station as the ship steamed into wind for about 30 minutes, an impressive piece of flying.
We knew we had arrived at Leixoes by the squirming as we pushed through the turbulent waters on the entry to the harbour - maybe the combination of wind and tide. It was also raining. We were the only cruise ship and berthed just outside the Passenger Terminal. Inside there is a train, built in 1884 and number 231, with the royal carriage which brought King Carlos I to formally open the port on 26 November 1891. The city of Matosinhos, on the other side of the River Leca, has a large Market Hall with the usual mixture of fish, meat, fruit and vegetables. However we were planning to see Porto, famous for the business of exporting port wines, which was only 11 kms away. Although in theory there is a bus from outside the port gates to Oporto, everyone advised us that we should cross the river and catch the Metro from Matosinhos Mercado to Trinidade in Oporto. This involved crossing the large Drawbridge, and climbing down to the Metro station. There are good instructions, in English, and the price of a return ticket (2 trips covering a distance of Z3) was 3 euros per person. Our station had a list of stations and their zones so Trinidade was a Z3 trip; we could have changed train and gone three stops further to Jardim do Morro near the Port Wine Cellars for the same price. We had to have one ticket each, whereas in Tenerife, and in Guernsey, we could use one ticket for two people. We remembered to validate our tickets, which was fortunate because our train had ticket inspectors on board.
The journey time from looking down on the Metro Mercado from the bridge until we walked out of the Metro station in Oporto was 45 minutes. Metro trains seemed to run every 9 minutes and it is a much more reliable service than catching a bus. It was still raining. Even if the weather had been good we would have only been able to spend a short time in Oporto because 'All Aboard' was at 1400 and to leave plenty of time we planned to leave Oporto before 1200. This meant we only had 2 hours to walk around. Unfortunately it rained, and then rained harder, then there was thunder and lightning, then it continued raining, and 2 hours was more than long enough to be outside.
Our plan was to walk down to the Ribeira district along the banks of the Duoro River, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We could then choose between walking back to Trinidade or catching the Metro. Heading south we quickly reached the Igrejada da Trinidade church and then admired the classic view of the Pacos do Concelho (City Hall) before strolling down the middle of the wide Avenida dos Aliados to the statue of Dom Pedro IV in the Praca da Liberdade. Here we could see the Igreja (church) e Torre dos Clerigos to the right, but we did not have enough time to visit. There are 225 steps to the top of the tower, some 76 metres high, and in good weather there are worthwhile views; today we would have been lucky to see to the bottom through the rain.
Continuing south the Igreja dos Congregados was on our left, and then the Railway Station and Metro of Sao Bento. There was a short delay while we sheltered from the rain under shop canopies in the R de Mouzinho da Silveira. Around the corner the Mercado Ferreira Borges looked like a Market Hall but had been converted into other uses; it still provided some shelter. As the rain eased there was chance to admire the Instituto dos Vinhos do Duoro e Porto, and the Palacio da Bolso (Stock Exchange), both visible from within the Market Hall. The statue of Infante Dom Henrique in the middle of the park pointed hopefully towards the ocean and the Americas. Prince Henry 'the Navigator' has a monument to his achievements in Lisbon, but he is said to have been born in 1394 in Oporto. He masterminded the voyages of discovery that made Portugal a major maritime nation, and when he died in 1460 he had seen his captains reach as far south as Gambia.
The Igreja de Sao Nicolau was ahead of us, and then we saw the river. But first there was a little vintage tram, which advertised the Tram Museum. It escaped before we could decide whether we had time to leap aboard. There was a well paved footpath along the river and we had an excellent view of all the Port Wine Cellars on the opposite bank.
There were pavement cafes in the Praca da Ribeira, but no customers to admire the views or the Cubo da Ribeira. The other highlight on this side of the river is the Wall of the Ribeira Shelters. There was also just one of the original 18 doors and hatches in the 14th century wall remaining. The most familiar image of Oporto is the three bridges which span the river from the city to Vila Nova de Gaia. The oldest of these is the Donna Maria Pia, buillt in 1877 and the work of the famous Parisian engineer Eiffel, and it is just visible in the distance. The closer bridge, the two tier Dom Luis I bridge, was built in 1886 and was also based on an Eiffel design. The Metro crosses this. The newest bridge, made of concrete, was built in 1963.
We were now very wet and quite cold so although there was still some time before we needed to travel back we decided to return. Climbing the steps up from the river we eventually reached the Casa Museu Guerra Junqueiro and the Cathedral. We were tempted by an offer to catch a little tourist train instead of walking, but there was no timetable and it was empty. We passed the unusual Market of San Sebastiao with its green grass roof on our way back to the Metro Sao Bento, and then retraced our steps along the Avenida dos Aliados to Trinidade.
It was still raining when we got back to the Countess for lunch one hour later. We will certainly come again to Oporto, hopefully with better weather.
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