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Green and Greek Goddesses and more!

 

Good morning everyone! It’s not often that I find myself writing the blog in the morning, but I’ve just been called by the supermarket and asked to come in later this afternoon and evening. Not wanting to let them down, my plan for the day has just launched itself out of the window and here I am in front of the computer on yet another overcast day here on the Kent coast. As I write this it is 1st September, and I remembered to say “Rabbits!” when I woke up this morning. I’ve never been particularly sure of why my mother and I have always said that to each other on the first day of every month, and whether sending a text message containing just the solitary word “Rabbits” really counts, but it’s a tradition I’m very happy to maintain. Since I last wrote I have been continuing to juggle working on the railway with the supermarket deliveries and also compiling the Travel Quiz. Someone asked me if I intended to take some form of holiday this year. Well, before I join the ship I have to have a strict period of self-isolation at home for five days. I never thought this would be the case, but I am quite looking forward to that! Working every day has meant that I have rather neglected some of the jobs around the house, so my holiday this summer will be the opportunity to spend a few days at home. I also think that it might be useful to have a gap between finishing my current work and heading back to sea. I hope it will provide a chance to re-focus and prepare all the necessary bits and pieces. Until the car arrives to transfer me to Portsmouth Harbour, I still won’t quite believe that this is happening.

 

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 On the footplate of “Green Goddess” on 4th August 2021. Photo: Derek Pritchard.

 

I was sent the above photo by a friend of mine, from the day I spent on the footplate. The photographer, Derek, and I worked together 25 years ago at Dymchurch station. I was the booking clerk whilst Derek manned the shop. One of the former engine drivers, Phil, was the station master and he must have felt rather old with us two youngsters running around. I was back at Dymchurch yesterday, this time as station master, and it was good to see many people making the most of the last day of August. Such a shame that the proper summer weather appears to have ended in mid-July. In my last blog I covered the first half of the “Passage South” cruise on ‘Island Sky’ that departs from Portsmouth on 23rd October and finishes in Cyprus on 28th November. I gather from Noble Caledonia HQ that the cruise is selling well, and I thank all of you who have decided to join us. I am sat here smiling just reading through the itinerary and thinking of all the places we shall be visiting.

 

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 The ‘Hebridean Sky’ can be seen in the harbour of Cartagena. 9th October 2016.

 

After leaving Málaga, our next port of call will be further along the Spanish mainland in Cartagena, Murcia. As you can see above, we dock within a short walking distance of the centre of the town. The harbour and surrounding hills form a natural bowl and it can became very hot in the afternoon – hence the wise choice to make this a morning call. I remember being very impressed with the ornate 19th and early 20th century architecture in the city centre, and then being equally impressed with how they have recently gone to great lengths to protect, preserve and present the Roman archaeological finds. We visit what remains of Ancient Carthago Nova, which is the Roman district in the immediate surroundings of the colony’s forum, dating from the 1st century BC. We can see the thermal bath complex, including a colonnaded courtyard and the atrium building. I remember being surprised that the walls are still standing, up to around 13ft high, and many original murals could still be seen. It was also good to see that the site is sheltered from the elements.

 

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The vintage electric train between Palma and Soller, Majorca. 26th August 2007.

 

We leave the Spanish mainland and head across to the Balearic Islands. I do fear that there is now a generation in the UK who purely think of the Balearic Islands as partying in Ibiza. However, all the islands have so much more to offer than that. You won’t be surprised to learn that I am particularly looking forward to our visit to Majorca. Judging by the date of my photograph, it is now 14 years since I was last in Soller, but it made a lasting impression. The vintage electric train wends its way through the Serra de Tramuntana, passing through tunnels and by precisely laid-out orange groves. We then arrive in Soller and I am pleased to read that we will have some time to explore this charming seaside town. From the railway terminus, a tram runs through the streets to the waterfront. I will be back in train and tram heaven. Our next day will see us in the stunning natural harbour of Mahon on the neighbouring island of Menorca. Whilst the two islands are neighbours, there are considerable differences. One major difference is the British influence on Menorca. Not too many realise that the UK was granted possession on Menorca at the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, and held on to the island until the Treaty of Versailles in 1783. The island even houses a cricket club, about which BBC Test Match Special commentator, and Noble Caledonia guest speaker, Henry Blofeld OBE commented, “I moved to Menorca because it has the best small Cricket Club I have ever seen”.

 

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Docked in the heart of Mahon, Menorca, where we will have free time to explore in the afternoon. 19th August 2013.

 

After our couple of days on Spanish islands, we spend the next three days hopping between French and Italian islands. On Sardinia we will be visiting Alghero and Cagliari, whilst in Corsica our destination is Bonifacio. I have been fortunate enough to visit all three numerous times, and all three have different aspects that appeal. Bonifacio is another of the Mediterranean’s most outstanding natural harbours. Until I joined Noble Caledonia, I had only ever reached Bonifacio by being at anchor in the strait that separates Corsica from Sardinia and using wobbly tenders to head ashore. However, with the Skys and ‘Serenissima’ we are able to venture inside this steep-sided narrow harbour and dock in the heavily fortified town. On the opposite side of the strait, Alghero is also heavily fortified, but is almost entirely on the level, making independent exploration a little more leisurely. I can remember walking around the outside of the city walls and coming across recreations of medieval defence mechanisms, including a full-size trebuchet. However, my main recollection of Alghero was that I had never seen a cathedral dome that was so colourfully decorated. Whilst those in St Petersburg are similarly colourful, the one in Alghero seemed to combine colour with a mosaic style. I will include the photo below so you can see for yourselves.

 

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  The colourful Alghero Cathedral Dome. 28th May 2014.

 

After our three days hopping between Sardinia and Corsica, we spend three more days on arguably the most gloriously diverse of all Mediterranean islands – Sicily. When you consider that here in the UK, the last successful invasion was in 1066, it is incredible to think how many times before and since that date Sicily has changed hands. Our three Sicilian ports are Palermo, Catania and Syracuse. Palermo is, of course, the capital of Sicily, and serves as an excellent introduction to the island. During our day in Palermo there will be opportunities to view Arab, Norman, Byzantine, Baroque and various other influences in what we see. After Palermo we will head through the Strait of Messina to reach Catania. I feel grateful to have visited Catania before, because the two options are both worth doing – Taormina or Catania itself. I really enjoyed the walking tour of Catania on a recent visit. When we had finished, the guide allowed a free hour and it was joyous to sit with a fresh cannoli and latte macchiato and watch the city dwellers going about their business. Many more details can be found in my “Springtime in Sicily” blog from early April. Taormina is one of those places that I would recommend everybody to visit if they haven’t been there. On a clear day, the view from the ancient theatre is worth the cruise alone.

 

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 A view you can never grow tired of… looking out to Mount Etna from Taormina. 10th October 2019.

 

After our day in Catania, we are scheduled to sail the short distance to Syracuse and dock there overnight. I know for sure that I will be encouraging everyone to take a stroll into the cathedral square in Syracuse after dinner on board. There is something about meandering around the streets of Mediterranean places on a mild evening that makes you smile and forget about life for a while. The following morning we will travel the short distance to the vast Neapolis Archaeological Park before visiting the heart of Syracuse and the afore-mentioned cathedral. We are scheduled to be in Greece the following day, so we will need an afternoon and evening at sea as we head across the foot of Italy to reach Olympia. We access Olympia from the small charming fishing village of Katakolon. These days, the harbour has expanded to accommodate more cruise ships, but when I first visited nearly twenty years ago the port was still quite small. I can remember the local Greek pilot coming on board. He owned not only the pilot boat, but also a fishing boat, and the local taxi firm, and a seafood restaurant. He really was something of a one-man show and insisted that the Captain had lunch at his eatery. To be fair, the Captain reported back that the food was delicious and the pilot had waved the bill. Sadly, Cruise Directors do not receive quite the same treatment – although I’ve been working on it for the past twenty years! As well as visiting the site of Olympia, we also call in to the neighbouring museum, which is where I photographed this rather spectacular dolphin on a previous visit.

 

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“Terracotta Dolphin bounding over the waves”. End of 5th century BC. 8th July 2018.

 

The majority of cruise ships tend to visit OIympia and then head around the Peloponnese peninsula towards Piraeus/Athens. However, as you will know, when you are on ships of Noble Caledonia dimensions there is another, far more dramatic, route you can take. Heading into the Gulf of Corinth, you pass under the engineering marvel that is the Rio-Antirio Bridge. The clever part is under the water, as the bridge had to be built in such a way that the four pylons could react to having insecure materials for foundations, seismic activity and the expansion of the Gulf of Corinth due to plate tectonics. Somehow all this was achieved, and I will be letting the passengers know at what time we will be passing under the illuminated bridge that guards the entrance to the gulf. Once inside the gulf we proceed to Delphi – most famous for the sacred oracle. I confess that we never had the option of studying Classics when I was at school. If you had asked me what “the oracle” was when I started my cruising career, I would have said that it was ITV’s version of the BBC’s “Ceefax”. Whilst it is surely impossible to absorb all of the information delivered by our guides, I hope that with my repeated visits to some of the venues, that enough seeds have been planted in my brain that I can sound vaguely knowledgeable on subjects I previously knew nothing about. After our morning in Delphi, one of the major highlights of the whole cruise occurs as we enjoy an afternoon transit of the Corinth Canal.

 

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The passengers on “Island Sky” admire the Corinth Canal. 1st June 2017.

 

I have previously written much about the Corinth Canal, but it really is one of those places that any seasoned cruise ship traveller must aim to include in their experiences. When the pandemic struck and the cruise industry closed down, the Corinth Canal was one of those places where I found myself feeling sad that I might never experience that transit again. Many thoughts along the lines of, “if I’d known it would be last time…” came into my head about a variety of places. I have a few stories I can tell you about previous transits of the Corinth Canal, but I think I will save them until we have passed through on this cruise! After navigating through the canal we dock overnight in Piraeus and spend the next three days in Piraeus and Nafplio, visiting legendary Greek sites including the temples of Poseidon and Athena, Epidaurus, Nemea and Mycenae. Nafplio itself is a charming Greek seaside town, and I might offer to lead any passengers who wish to join me to the ‘Railway Park’ in the centre of the town. I am sure we will both have an interesting time! Our Greek odyssey will continue as we then head over to the island of Crete, docking in the main city, Heraklion. From here we will be able to reach the Palace of Knossos and view the world’s largest collection of Minoan artefacts.

 

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The “Lion Gate”. The main entrance to the citadel of Mycenae. It is dated to c1240 BC. 10th July 2018.

 

After a welcome day at sea, our epic voyage will come to an end in Cyprus. We have a full day in Limassol before our charter flight departs from Larnaca. Whilst in Limassol, we head west to the impressive ruins of Kourion. On our last visit, I remember being surprised to see the Union Flag flying proudly from a flagpole as we drove along the main road. Our guide pointed out that we were passing through Akrotiri, a British Overseas Territory. I think one of the passengers on the coach then asked a question about the Brexit implications for the British Overseas Territories of Akrotiri and Dhekelia, and our guide decided it was better to talk about the Temple of Apollo instead. A wise move. With that, I have come to the end of this blog. It is now 12.45am on Thursday morning. It was not a case of me typing slowly, but half-way through writing the blog I ended up driving a hundred miles around Kent and East Sussex with 13 supermarket deliveries. To finish off, back on the Sunday of the Bank Holiday that has just passed, it was decided by the engine drivers on the railway that they would all wear Hawaiian style shirts for the day. Being the signalman at New Romney that day, I thought I would join in the occasion. I think the last time I wore this shirt was whilst being the DJ at a party on the fo’c’sle of “Serenissima” in the Caribbean. Next Christmas (2022) I am scheduled to be back in the Caribbean at Christmas with “Serenissima” and already can’t wait!

 

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Not your usual attire for oiling the points! 29th August 2021. Photo: Alan Botting.

 

View details for ‘Passage South’ aboard the MS Island Sky including some video footage of the ship transiting the Corinth Canal in 2017