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Cunard Queen Victoria 2014
Wonders of the Mediterranean Cruise - Part 3
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Venice - Italy - Saturday 18 October

Venice is located at the head of the Adriatic Sea, where an intricate web of tiny islands and canals form this enchanting city. In this intimate setting where gondoliers serenade, delicate bridges lead to winding cobblestone streets, and glorious renaissance architecture form a fairy-tale backdrop, it is no wonder that many people feel it is the world's most romantic destination.

We started our entry into Venice before 0700 and we were treated to a description on the main decks of the main sights as dawn broke but it was not until reaching the Canale di San Marco that there was enough light for pictures on the cameras but Pete took some video earlier of the new tidal protection barriers. The QE and QV are not very large compared with modern cruise ships and will just be within the size limit planned for limiting access along the waterfront from next year. In the early morning it seemed very quiet but there were already several other ships in the distance at the cruise terminal which must have arrived the previous evening. Usually Cunard ships also stay overnight.

The views from the water, from the height of Deck 9 where we had a grandstand view from in front of the gym, were excellent – on the port side of the island of San Giorgio Maggiore with its marina and then Guidecca which has the famous Cipriani Hotel, the church of Il Redentore built in thanksgiving for the end of the 1576 plague and finally the Molino Stucky Hotel. The views on the starboard side of the palaces, bridges and expensive hotels along the waterfront lead to the famous view of the Doge's Palace and the Campanile immortalised in landscapes by Canaletto. There was a glimpse into the Grand Canal, still quiet in the early morning, and of the church of Santa Maria de la Salute as we continued along the Canale della Guidecca.

The ship was cleared by 0815 and we were quickly ashore. Cunard offered a private shuttle boat to San Vaccaria near St Marks Square costing 13 euros each way; we preferred to walk through the city after catching the PeopleMover. This overhead unmanned shuttle runs from the dock gates every 10 minutes to the Piazalle Roma and cost 1.30 euros. It is much easier than walking on main roads. There are then several options; we had decided to walk everywhere but the waterbuses, costing 7 euros per journey or 20 euros for a day ticket, are another good option. The walking routes which link the main areas of Rialto, Accademia, San Marco, Piazalle Roma and Ferrovia (railway station) are very well signposted, we were surprised to find. We started at the Tre Ponti, five interlocking bridges which span the Rio Nuovo canal near Piazzale Roma. In every direction there were canals, watertaxis and more bridges. It is much more fun to wander around the narrow streets and small canals than to rush down the Grand Canal in a large waterbus.

The first significant group of buildings is in the Campo San Rocco - the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, the church of San Rocco and the back of the Chiesa San Mario Gloriosa dei Frari. St Roch was a French saint of plague victims and the mission of the Scuola was the relief of the sick. The building was not open when we passed but our guide book described the Tintoretto paintings on the walls and the ceiling. A bric-a-brac market was setting up in the Campo dei Frari and the church door was open so we just walked inside. The “dei Frari” refers to the Franciscans who built the beautiful Gothic church, founded in the 13th century. It is empty inside and dominated by the altar in the distance, with Titian's “The Assumption”, and the choir screen and choir stalls. As we left, shortly after 0900, the ticket office was just opening and the first tourists were arriving.

Following the signs towards the Rialto led to the Campo San Polo, which we crossed and then continued until we glimpsed the Grand Canal on our right and could stroll along the waterside on the Riva del Vin to the Rialto Bridge. This is the oldest part of Venice and the name comes from rivo alto – high bank. The Rialto Bridge is one of four bridges which cross the Grand Canal and is probably the most well known, with its single span of marble and its shops. The other bridges are at Piazalle Roma, Ferrovia and Accademia. From the bridge there were excellent views along the Grand Canal, with good views from the Riva dei Ferro and the Riva dei Carbon before the path ended and we turned south through more narrow alleys towards Piazza San Marco.

Emerging at the Museo Correr in the corner gave a perfect view of this famous and large square, with the Campanile, Basilica San Marco and the Doge's Palace facing us. There were already lots of tour groups in the distance and our priority was to visit the Basilica, which was free, and then plan the rest of our time. Unfortunately there was a sign at the entrance explaining that it was closed until 1230, but that gave plenty of time to take the lift to the top of the Campanile. It was 8 euros, so quite expensive for a short visit, but the views from the top were excellent and allowed us to fit all the places together. The Torre del'Orologio clock-tower, built in 1496 and restored in 2006, glowed in the sunshine with its large blue and gold face displaying the signs of the zodiac.

 

Then we joined a queue to go into the Doge's Palace, the seat of government from the 9th century until 1797. There were two lines, and we had to wait to buy our tickets (16 euros full price and 10 euros for seniors, no discount for students over 25) while pre-booked tour groups, including those from the QV which had arrived by private launch, had priority. Everywhere in Venice we saw signs requesting “No Foto” or “No Flash” but they seemed to be ignored by everyone here, including the tour groups and we understand they only refer to flash pictures (the flash was always highlighted in the symbols). However the contrasting light conditions made it difficult to take useful pictures inside. The golden winged Lion of St Mark is the symbol of Venice. The seated lion represents the majesty of the State and the walking lion symbolises sovereignty. The highlights of the external visit were the courtyard with the Scala dei Giganti staircase and the Scala d'Oro gilded staircase leading to the State rooms. The sumptuous State rooms all have glorious ceilings, mosly decorated by Titian, Tintoretto and Bellini. The main rooms are the Sala del Collegio, the Sala del Senato with Tintoretto's “The Triumph of Venus” dating from 1580-84 on the ceiling and two clocks on the walls, the Sala del Consiglio dei Deici (the Council of 10) and the Sala del Maggior Consiglio where Council met presided over by the Doge, an enormous room with one entire wall covered by Tintorettos “Paradise”, said to be the world's largest oil painting and dating from 1588-90. Intrigue and power struggles were part of Venetian life and there are several examples of Bocca di Leone – letter boxes into which anonymous denunciations could be posted.

The Armoury has a large, comprehensive and interesting collection of weapons and armour, and from there the tour continues to the Prisons which occupy both sides of the canal, linked by the famous Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs). Emerging through the souvenir shop and cafe, there remained the views of the Piazza and the special outdoor exhibition of photos from WW1 of Italian mountain defences, before leaving at the exit through the old main entrance at the Porta della Carta.

It was just after 12.30 so the Basilica San Marco was open and we joined a short queue to go in. Bags were not allowed so we took turns to stay with the rucksack instead of putting it into left luggage. The Byzantine building with its ornate domes dates from 1071 and unfortunately the exterior view was spoiled by scaffolding. The outside 13th century mosaics were in good condition, including those showing the arrival of the remains of St Mark in Venice, having been stolen from Alexandria in AD828. His remains are said to be buried underneath the altar. Inside the building was dark and the mosaics which are supposed to be spectacular and golden were dark and tarnished. Overall it was a slight disappointment after some of the other churches and the Doge's Palace.

Continuing towards the Molo (waterfront) there are two columns, one with the Lion of San Marco and the other with S. Teodoro, the previous saint of Venice. The square is one of the first areas to flood and Venice is slowly sinking on its wooden piles by about 7 cm a year, hence all the new barriers and protection works. Bentonite, a form of china clay which is also used for wine finnings has been injected under the square. Strolling along the waterfront the first bridge gave a good view of the Bridge of Sighs and the area was a mixture of souvenir stalls and waterbus and gondola stations, including the Cunard shuttle boat service. The first hotel, the Danielli, was soon followed by the Londra Palace. It belongs to the Relais and Chateaux Group so is not cheap; just pasta and a glass of regional wine with a basket of bread was 30euros each. However, the pasta with rabbit ragout, was excellent, as was the local Sauvignon Blanc, and it was pleasant to sit outside and watch people strolling by.

Dragging ourselves away as they closed the gates at 15.00 we stopped to look at the chaos in the lagoon. A regatta with 7 large yachts had just started, much to the surprise of the gondolas. Passing the Doge's Palace with its balcony we crossed St Mark's Square, passing all the cafes with their live music. Florians, the most famous, was full but as we arrived the music stopped so we continued walking, passing the Chiesa di San Moise and following signs to Accademia. The plan was to cross the Accademia bridge, but instead we found the traghetto gondola ferry which for only 2euros crossed the Grand Canal from Santa Maria del Giglio towards Santa Maria della Salute.


La Salute is a fine octagonal building with a huge dome and was built as a thanksgiving for delivery from the plague in 1630. Entrance to the sacristy enabled us to sit and view more paintings. Across the Grand Canal opposite was a view of the Gritti Palace, one of the luxury hotels. Our path led along the side of the sturdy church of San Gregorio, then past the entrance to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection of modern art in the Palazzo Vernier dei Leonie. We walked over the Accademia bridge to the yellow Gothic Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti, then back, following signs to Piazzale Roma. This led us to the Campo Santa Margherita, a large square where we sat with a gelato before ending our walk back at the Tre Ponti, the Piazzale Roma and our PeopleMover.

Overall our day had cost 120 euros including lunch, and lasted from 0815 until 1730. It was a long day but we covered many of the important sights in Venice itself, although sadly many were only viewed from the outside due to lack of time. It is a place we have visited previously on our anniversaries and a place to return to – autumn is a perfect time when the heat is lower and the plagues of tourists are reduced. We went back on deck to watch the sights again as we left, some of the central area is still lit by gas.

Messina, Sicily - Monday 20 October

Our route from Venice to Gibraltar had been originally planned to go to the south of Sicily, but the Commodore announced that a shorter route would be taken, through the Messina Straits and between Sicily and Italy. This is a narrow gap and would give nice views of both sides as we passed through at breakfast time. However there was a further change of plan and we went into Messina so that two seriously injured people on board could be taken to the local hospital. This gave the opportunity to take photos of the city from the advantage of Deck 9.

 

Gibraltar - Wednesday 22 October with some highlights from previous visits.

Having spent time disembarking two people and luggage in Messina, the original arrival time in the next port changed and instead of arriving in the morning it would now be 4 hours later. The Rock of Gibraltar is one of the two Pillars of Hercules; the other is in Morocco, just opposite. Peaking at 425 metres, Gibraltar measures less than 3 square miles and is home to about 30,000 people.The strategic strait it controls links the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and is only 8 miles wide at its narrowest point. The territory has always been disputed. The British seized it from the Spanish in 1704 and there was a famous siege by a French-Spanish expedition from 1779 to 1783. During this time an extensive network of defensive galleries were hewn by hand, and these are open for visits.

This was our third visit to Gibraltar and again we only had a short visit. However there is not a lot to see in Gibraltar - the main attraction is normally the trip up the 'Rock' by cablecar or minibus. We did the trip by minibus the first time we came because the cablecar had long lines from the ship tours. It was very interesting and we visited the Upper Rock Nature Reserve, took photos across the straits and continued to St Michael's Cave which is 300 metres above sea level with an excellent display of stalagmites and stalactites as well as an enormous natural auditorium which is used for concerts. The highlight is meeting the famous monkeys, there are two colonies of this tail-less Barbary Macaques on Gibraltar. One group lives on the rock face - the other group live at the Apes Den near the top of the cable car. We also walked through the Great Siege Tunnels which were excavated during the Great Siege of 1779-1783 and form a most impressive defensive system. Leaving the tunnels there are spectacular views. We have added some pictures from that visit for completeness.

This visit was in October and the weather was hotter than we had expected, the sun was shining from a largely blue sky and there was scarcely a breath of wind - we saw a display outside a pharmacy which showed 37 degrees, even with badly placed sensor on a wall into sun it does give an idea of how it felt. It is also quite a long walk in from the ships mooring to the edge of town, there are shuttle buses available at a price but the lines were very long even if had wanted to use them. We walked towards town, passing a useful supermarket we had looked into on the previous visit. There is also a Morrison's, which has replaced the old Safeway. The Food Market was quiet and there were only a few craft stalls in Casemates Square which is just inside the walls.. We looked into the Gibraltar Crystal Glass factory, then strolled down the main shopping street, passing lots of shops selling duty free cigarettes, drinks, and souvenirs. There were camera and electronics shops, and some clothes shops including BhS and M&S. We did find a cover for the new phone we had bought in Southampton on the way out, the updated version of the Samsung S3 Mini.

Main Street has the important public and religious buildings – John Mackintosh Hall, the Cathedral of St Mary the Crowned, the Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, the King's Chapel, the Supreme Court, and the Convent which is the official residence of the Governor. More of the churches were open than on previous visits and they were also nice and cool inside so we visited most of them one way or the other down the main street.

We finally reached the Trafalgar Cemetery, named after the casualties of the Battle of Trafalgar who were buried there; it is just outside the Southport Gates. Last time a family of the famous Barbary Macaques had escaped from the Rock and were running over the Gates, pursued by two local environmental police with what appeared to be firecrackers who were trying to move them away from the city - this time all was peaceful. It is only a short distance to the Cable Car station and we tossed up whether to go up but the time constraints meant we would not be able to walk round the top from the cable car or have the time for a minibus trip so we retraced our steps visiting the remaining churches we had missed and taking a few diversions into the squares.

Last time we had been fortunate enough to be able to watch a rare re-enactment of the ceremony of the keys, which only takes place twice each year. We watched the bagpipe band of the Sea Scouts joining up with a small group dressed as old-fashioned soldiers with red jackets and carrying muskets, and with an enormous union flag. This procession marched down to Casemates Square where the leader of the soldiers went to the gate and returned shaking a large bunch of keys. The following pictures showing the ceremony were taken in December 2013.

Gastronomic Experiences

The final days were notable for gastronomy and we ate in Verandah for dinner, in the Lido for the Asado Alternate dinning and went to the Executive Chefs Chocalate and Ice Fantasia afternoon tea, not to speak of the final Formal Dinner where all the specialities such as Escargot, Lobster, Duck and Beef Wellington are followed by the chefs parade. Just to complete the picture there was a galley tour on the final morning at sea. Pete has worked up to an hour and a half in the gym every morning to alleviate the effects - it will be interesting to see if he can still get get into his wedding suit that he wore, just before leaving, to our anniversary party!

We will say very little more and let the pictures speak for themselves.

Dinner in the Verandah

Asado Alternative Dinning

The Executive Chef's Chocolate and Ice Afternoon Tea Extravaganza

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