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|Cunard Queen Victoria 2012
Black Sea and Turkish Splendours - Part 4
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The Queen Victoria was supposed to then visit Piraeus, the port of Athens, and we had booked a tour to see Corinth and the Corinth Canal. However there are political problems in Greece and 26 September had been chosen for a strike in the public sector which made it impossible to get into the port. So the Queen Victoria continued at sea, aiming for Catania in Sicily. It was an unexpected Maiden visit to Catania, and Cunard had to deal with the logistics of getting the supplies which were to be devlivered in Athens across to Sicily. We had visited Sicily many years before, on the QE2, but not Catania. Paulline's father spent some time there with the 8th Army in 1943, and spoke about meeting General Montgomery.
Catania is a large city of 380,000 inhabitants but the interesting and historic places are within easy walking of the port. A shuttle bus was provided to take independent travellers from the ship to the dock gates, and there was a HopOn HopOff bus as well as a little tourist 'train'. First impressions are of a nice clean town with a small marina, overlooked by the monstrous cone which is Mt Etna. At some 10,902 feet it is the highest active volcano in Europe. The most recent eruption was in 2001-2, with previous eruptions in 1991-93, 1981 and 1928. Our leaflet also mentioned the 10 year long eruption in 1614. Catania was destroyed by lava flows in 1169 and again 500 years later. Nevertheless Mt Etna is a very special place to visit and those who took the organised tour enjoyed their exploration.
We were pre-warned about the long mid-day siesta when everything is closed, so as soon as the gangway was ready we headed into town. It was also going to be much hotter in the middle of the day and the temperature was already high 20s and rising. The eruption of 1669 and the earthquake of 1693 almost destroyed Catania and new Baroque-style town was built. The shuttle bus dropped us at the arch of the Customs Building which we walked through and onwards under the railway line towards the pretty Cutelli square. We turned left along the Via Vittorio Emanuele II towards the Piazza Duomo. As we passed, the church of San Placido was being prepared for a wedding and a white carpet was being laid on the front steps. We did not intrude, and when we passed the church later it was closed for siesta.
The Cathedral Duomo, dedicated to Saint Agatha, dates from the late 11th century although the facade and the campanile were built in the 18th century. It contains the relics of the Saint Agatha Martyr, the patron saint. There is also a monument to Bellini the Catanian composer and musician who was born in 1801 and died in 1835, and a monument to the Blessed Giuseppe Benedetto Dusmet, Abbot of San Nicolo l'Arena and Cardinal Archbishop of Catania who was beatified in 1988. The centre of Catania is the Piazza del Duomo, with the famous Fontana dell 'Elefante (Elephant Fountain) dating from 1736. The Roman elephant is made of a black volcanic rock and supports an Egyptian obelisk. According to local legend the elephant was identified with the magician Diodorus who lived in the 8th century, and used the elephant to travel between Catania and Constantinople. The elephant also had magical powers and could calm Mt Etna. The square contains the Town Hall and the 18th century Palazzo dei Chierici with the Fontana dell'Amenano.
We were following a suggested walking tour, but made a detour to purchase postcards and then explore the fascinating large open air fish market. Here were stalls of local fresh vegetables, cheeses, cheap local wines and lots of live shellfish and fresh fish. The most interesting were the spada, swordfish, although there were large tuna too. We bought some local pecorino cheeses and continued onwards along the Via Etnea, the main shopping street and University area.
We looked into the Chiesa Minoriti on our way to the Bellini statue in the centre of the Piazza Stesicoro, and the remains of the Roman Amphitheatre. Entry down to the remains of the huge amphitheatre were free. It is overshadowed by the Chiesa of Sant'Agata al Carcere, where a posh wedding was taking place and most of the young men were wearing full naval uniforms. The church stands on the site where Agatha was imprisoned and then tortured and killed in 252 AD.
Continuing along the Via Etnea we reached the large Villa Bellini public gardens, and the chance to sit for a few moments in the shade, before climbing to the lookout with a view towards Mt Etna. Exiting at the other side of the gardens we continued along the Via Santa Maddalena to see the Chiesa Sant'Agata la Vetere. It finally became clear that there were many churches named after Saint Agatha, and that her relics are carried in procession from church to church on 4-5 February each year. The route map on the outside of the church showed that the procession starts at the Diocesan Museum, then to the Cattedrale, the churches of San Placido, Santa Maria dell'Elemosina, San Gaetano alle Grotte, San Biagio in Sant'Agata all Fornace, Sant'Agata la Vetere, Sant'Agata al Carcere before ending at Sant'Agata al Borgo. Postcards show that the streets are filled to overflowing when the procession passes through. All the churches have huge high doors so the litter with the relics can be taken into each church. The church of Sant'Agata le Vetere is on the site where the first cathedral was built in 1094 and is named because 'vetere' means old to distinguish it from the new cathedral. There is a white marble sarcophagus dating from the 2nd century where, according to tradition, the body of Saint Agatha was laid to rest for a period of time.
We then turned to the Piazza Dante. There are two important buildings here. The first is the Chiesa San Nicolo l'Arena which is the largest church in Sicily. It was begun in 1693 but never completed. The interior is empty and painted in a bright white. We stopped to look at the line cut into the floor; it is a magnificent sundial mde by Christiano Peters and Volfango Sartorius in 1841. We explored further and found the shrine of the Mighty Fallen during WWI and the crypt for the Fallen of WWII with a superb stained window at the end. The old Benedictine convent next door has a beautiful baroque facade, magnificent cloisters and gardens. It now houses the university's Faculty of Arts and Philosophy. Entry is freely available and we went through the fine baroque portal and into the courtyard. It was easy to wander around everywhere, only the library was closed to visitors, which was in such contrast to our monumental universities at Oxford and Cambridge.
Another important Roman feature is the Roman Greek Theatre, and we followed the Via Theatro Greco in the hope of finding the entrance. Entry was not free, and the entrance was at exactly the opposite side of the site so we decided it was just too much to do in the midday heat - it had reached 30 deg C by 1000 - and we have a good reason to return! We decided after nearly 5 hours on our feet and as it was well into the locals siesta time it was a good time to head back towards the port. We did made a short detour to see the Via Crociferi and admire the fine baroque buildings and spectacular churches, mainly closed for siesta now except for the Church of San Francesco Borgia which was a museum of jesuit books and papers. We descended to the Piazza San Francesco d'Assisi passing under the Arco di San Benedetto, said to have been built in 1704 furtively overnight to connect the abbey of the Benedictine monastery on one side with the convent church on the other. The highlight of the Piazza San Francesco d'Assisi is the church if San Franceso d'Assisi on one side, facing the facade of the Palazzo Gravina-Cruyllas which houses the Vincenzo Bellini Civic Museum and the Emilio Greco Art Museum. This building was under serious restoration and obviously closed. At the centre of the square is the monument to Cardinal Giuseppe Benedetto Dusmet.
This completed our circular walk and we were in sight of the Piazza Duomo, from whence we strolled back to the port and a late lunch. We talked to several staff on the bus who had been very impressed with the meals they had ashore, especially the fish. Overall the prices seemed very reasonable and everyone was friendly and helpful - a place we would be very happy to return to.
After one day at sea we reached Vigo, a major Spanish seaport and shipbuilding centre with a strong fishing fleet and mussel farms. We have visited Vigo three times before – once by accident when there were strikes at the docks in Lisbon and the QE2 went to Vigo unexpectedly instead, and in 2010 on the Ocean Countess. 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, and the bus tours left early. Fortunately we berthed at the cruise terminal, which was very convenient. Maps were pushed into our hands, and there was an offer of a coastal train journey to the nearby town of Pontevedra. The first train departs Vigo 0849 and then 0940 and 1033. We were interested but had disembarked too late; we will try and be better organised next time we visit Vigo.
We decided to wander around the town and set off to climb up to the El Castro Fortress, passing the Santa Maria cathedral which was open. We just had time go inside before the service started at 1030. The shop opposite was still selling almond shortbread of Santiago - a delicacy which was on our shopping list. The buildings had pretty iron balconies and we looked around for the shop which sold cane garden furniture but could not find it. We climbed and our first viewpoint was at the little park adjacent to the hospital from which we descended to the Paseo de Granada and then ascended to the Parque do Castro. 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 red funnel of the Queen Victoria. We remembered a large building within the fortress walls, but it was now derelict with broken windows and graffiti. 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. Unfortunately it is only open on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
Continuing downhill in search of the Indoor Fish Market we reached the Ribera de Berbes with the monument to the fishermen, and the Cruceiro cross. It was an open space and we expected to see the Fish Market here, but there was no building and no Mercado sign. Trusting to memory we walked along the Canovas del Castillo and came upon the entrance. On Monday it is very quiet, and there was only the flower seller, one fish seller one meat seller and the delicatessen open. We intended to only look, but could not resist the two local cheeses. We are not sure exactly what they are, but they are local, unusual, and 10 euros per kilo.
We also bought four boxes of the local shortbread of Santiago, and this meant we had too much heavy shopping. We were tempted by the fresh fish local oysters; the restaurants which were full of staff we recognised, but we decided to take everything back to the ship to keep the cheese cold in our fridge. As we passed the Shopping Centre we were serenaded by a group of local musicians with bagpipes.
After a quick lunch in the Lido we were out again, exploring along the waterfront beyond the cruise terminal for boats to the islands, and then to the gardens Jardines de Elduayen. Jose Elduayen e Gorriti (1823-1898) was an engineer and politician. He was Minister of State, Government, Foreign Affairs and Treasury and the monument has four female figures which symbolise these four Ministerial positions. The monument was cast in Barcelona and the anchors and chains in Vigo. One building on the edge of the park caught our eye - it had a colourful and unusual domed roof.
We walked across towards cafes and more trees and were suddenly in a much bigger and more interesting park with fountains and formal gardens. Our map marked it as Praza de Compostela. Our next highlight was El Sireno, the statue on top of two tall granite blocks. The road, Policarpo Sanz Street, was broad with many solid significant and beautiful buildings - including the Theatre, the Arts and Crafts house, and lots of local, national and international banks.
The final day was full of opportunities many of which overlapped for us. The day started in the Gym as usual after which it was time to start packing. There was a demonstration of ice carving at 1100 - always great fun to watch the exhibits emerge from a huge block of ice. We had cocktails with the senior officers at 1130 and then it was on at 1300 to meet up with friends from the Queens grill in the Todd English Restaurant that they had not had time to try before. It was a good meal and I have included a couple of pictures of sweets which are one of the highlights. We spent a long time talking and left just as the singing started in the Grand Lobby - about a hundred of the passengers had spend 8 hours practicing as a choir and put on an impecible performance. This sort of performance used to only take place with carols near to Christmas and this was the first time we had seen it during a normal cruise. Unfortunately it overlapped with the exhibition of watercolour painting which Pauline wanted to go to as a friend had several on display.
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