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|Cunard Queen Victoria 2013
Black Sea and Turkish Splendours - Part 1
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This is our seventh voyage on the Queen Victoria and was in many ways a repeat of the best parts of our two cruises last year on the Queen Victoria which were also to the Eastern end of the Mediterranean and Black Sea. In particular we wanted to go Istanbul and Ephesus again and the cruise was a good length (24 days) and Southampton to Southampton and at less popular time of year to many people so the prices were good by the time we booked - although they could have got even better if we had waited. It got us into good weather almost immediately after a poor summer in the UK. The routing took us first to Lisbon which we had not visited for many years then a long passage to a favourite of ours, Malta. It was then on to Ephesus which had been an unexpected highlight of the Ancient Wonders Cruise in 2012 followed by Istanbul, the highlight of the Black Sea and Turkish Splendours cruise in 2012. Yalta and Odessa followed and certainly Yalta merited a second visit before we went to Piraeus, the port of Athens, where we wanted to visit the nearby Corinth Canal. The return routed us through very familiar places, Palma in Mallorca and thenVigo in Spain which is good for stocking up on Cheese and Wine being EU. We have visited Vigo four times in the last year which is really a few times too many - Gibraltar or Oporto would have been our preferred choices prior to the Bay of Biscay and home.
We departed on Monday from the Ocean Terminal which is the best of those at Southampton and everything went very smoothly so we were onboard not long after 1200. Once aboard we rapidly found familiar faces and were greeted by name by many of the staff who remembered us from previous cruises. Our dinner table was in different place - we prefer one of the tables above the double-down circular stairs from the upper to the lower level which has excellent views into the restaurant and was good for listening to the music but the Waiter was so good we did not try to move. Our cabin was a slight upgrade on what we had booked and was down on 1 deck but with a large unobscured porthole window with a gigantic shelf which was ideal for Pauline to paint. The catch was that it was 8 flights of 16 steps each to reach the Restaurant and Gym on 9 deck - it meant Pete was warmed up before he even got into the gym in the mornings but Pauline was less enthusiastic about 8 flights to make a good cup of coffee. Regular readers will know we like our coffee and bring our own ground coffee and filter mugs rather than use room service or the machines on 9 deck. We will not say a lot more about the Queen Victoria as we have written at length already about previous cruises and in the page which is specifically an Introduction to Queen Victoria
The main problem on Cunard ships is putting on weight, the food is generally very good both in the main Britannia restaurant and in the self service Lido where we usually have breakfast and often lunch as well. The answer to this is the gym and Pete always goes to the Gym when it opens at 0600 for an hour or so and tries to average a 500 calorie burn on the cross trainers or other machines along with stretches and a few weights. On the last trip he exceeded that by quite a margin as there was very little competition for machine time unlike on world cruises when people queue at 0600 and you are rationed to 30 minutes on a machine and he actually found he had lost a couple of pounds by the time he was home. He was not quite so enthusiastic this time but only missed a few mornings completely when we had a cold.
The first thing we did when we got on board (after lunch that is!) was to go down to the Pursers office and book Boxes for one of the shows - 'Victoriana'. We then went to the new Verandah Restaurant which has replaced 'Todd English' to book for our free lunch there - a benefit of being regulars with Diamond status (over 150 days), in our case by quite a margin. D'Sousa who we have known for a long time is now the Maitre d' of the Verandah. The meals in the Verandah currently have a fixed price supplement for three courses, $15 for lunch and $24 for dinner, and are worth the extra. We ended up booking several lunches and an evening meal. Cunard Line has a strong Cunard World Club of repeat passengers, this cruise had 266 Diamond as well as 400 Platinum and all the Gold members so one needs to get in early to book lunches! We will let the pictures speak for themselves and only note we immediately booked more lunches and a dinner!
Wednesday is the first formal night since Southampton and is the two Captains cocktail party for the Britannia restaurant. By tradition there is a Black and White Ball tonight in the Queens Room, and Pauline has a black and white ball gown, size 10, which she wears at the start of cruises. By the end of the cruise she has usually moved on to another, size 12 !
Lisbon is the largest city and chief port of Portugal. The city lies on the northern shore of the Tagus River, about 8 miles from the Atlantic. We got up to see the last of the journey up the Tagus river. We passed the well known sights of the Tower of Belem, the Discoveries Monument and the Jeronimos Monastery and Abbey of Santa Maria as well as various museums before reaching the Bridge of 25 April which was built in 1966 and is named to commemorate the revolution of 25 April 1574 - where we berthed as usual in its shadow. The bridge is two-storied, with a railway bridge below, and a road bridge above. On the southern side is the huge Christo Rei statue modelled on the statue in Rio de Janeiro.
Manuel I had a major influence in Lisbon, and the architecture is described as Manueline in style. He commissioned the building of the ornate Tower of Belem, which was built as a fortress in the middle of the river in 1515 to 1521. Land was reclaimed in the 18th century, making the river narrower and giving direct land access to the tower. The Discoveries Monument was built in 1960 to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator. He stands in the prow holding a caravel ship in his hand. Behind the Discoveries Monument is the Jeronimos Monastery and the Abbey of Santa Maria. Commisssioned by Manuel I in around 1501 after Vasco da Gama's return from his famous voyage, the beautiful cloisters were completed in 1544. The building was constructed in stages with the adjacent matching National Archaeological Museum built in 1850. The following pictures were taken on previous visits or in the evening as we left - the light poor in the morning!
We have been to Lisbon several times before so we decided to take the train along the banks of the Tagus and into the area often referred to as the Portuguese Riviera. It was our first attempt at travelling by train and the station nearby, Alcantara-Mar, had been converted to automatic machines for ticketing. No problem, but we needed to purchase the local version of an Oyster card (0.50 euro), and then add the correct money to it (another 4.60 euros). This involved having the correct euros, in coin, because the machines were broken and refused to take notes or UK credit cards. We waited until 0930 when the ticket office was supposed to open but noone arrived, so we caught the next train and pleaded with the ticket collector who sold us a single ticket. The train line to Cascais hugs the coast, first going to Belem then stopping frequently. Not all trains go as far as Cascais so it is important to check the destination on the front of the train. Coming back, we accidently caught a semi-fast, which did not stop at Belem.
We passed through Estoril, which we had seen on our previous visit in 2005, a small Spa that became a prime location for European royal exiles forced to leave their own countries during the world wars. It has been the residence of King Umberto II of Italy, Juan de Bourbon of Spain, Karl Hapsburg of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and King Carol of Romania. It was also a well known nest of spies during WWII - all spent their evenings gambling in the town's casino. Many modest yet architecturally interesting mansions still remain to indicate their royal owners.
We got off the train at Cascais, the end of the line. It is situated on a coastline with small picturesque beaches and peaceful fishing-boat-bobbing waters. It was once a small village that has grown in size and popularity in recent years to become one of the more attractive resorts and places to reside on the capital's coastline. It transition to tourism started in 1870, when the royal court first came here for the summer, bringing a train of nobility in its wake. It's now the liveliest beach resort on the Estoril Coast, attracting a young and international crowd.
We strolled through the old streets with many original houses that used to be inhabited by the fishermen mixed with modern shopping areas, down to the Praiha da Rainha beach and Cascais harbour. The main town square, with the statue of Dom Pedro, has the typical wavy patterns in its tiles surface. The nearby Museu do Mar depicts the story of Cascais and its fishing history and has a vast range of exhibits including old maps, articles of fishermen's clothing, model boats and pieces of treasure salvaged from ships wrecked in the surrounding waters. The 16th-century Fort of Cascais known as the Cidadela was built to protect the Bay of Cascais. It is part of a whole line of fortresses along the Tagus estuary which were built to protect Lisbon from being invaded. Within its walls is the Pousada Hotel and the Palacio da Cidadela. Beyond the Fort, continuing west along the promenade is a marina and another museum, then more seaview hotels and substantial houses.
Further down the coast is the famous Boca do Inferno and it was a pleasant stroll from Cascais, only 2 miles further along the promenade. Entrance is free but there are cafes and souvenir and craft stalls competing for euros. The sea on rougher days hammers through an arch into the rock and creates a booming noise and a spectacular spray thus creating its name which in English means "mouth of hell". We stopped for an icecream before making our way back to look at two interesting buildings we had seen earlier - the Lighthouse of Santa Maria and the Museum of Conde Castro Guimaraes which we found more interesting than we expected and we must have spent nearly an hour looking round.
Trains are about every 20 minutes and the original intention was to get off the train at Belem, look at the monuments, then walk back along the coast to the ship. But when the train did not stop it seemed a better idea to go directly back t the ship; we had visited Belem several times on previous trips.
Our cruise down the Tagus was spectacular, we turned just upstream of the bridge and we slid under with, what always looks so little to spare. The noise of the traffic on the open mesh of the bridge is deafening.
As we slipped under the bridge the statue stood out on the opposite hillside and the Discoveries Monument and the Tower of Belem gleamed in the sunshine right on the waterfront. Conceived as a lighthouse and defensive fortress, it originally stood on an island. It was commissioned in 1515, partly destroyed in the early 1800s, and then restored in 1845. The tower is an unusual mixture of Manueline (after Manuel I) and Arab styles.
Friday was the first of three pleasant days at sea. The weather was good and each morning was spent lying in the sunsine on Deck 9 reading. Malta is one hour ahead of London and Lisbon so we knew the clocks were going to change by one hour; it happened Friday night so when we woke up to go to the gym at 0700 it was actually 0800 ship time. This is a real disadvantage for the journey to NZ round the world the ‘wrong’ way. Gaining a day later is not the same as suffering 12 or 13 one hour time changes. It is much better to gain extra hours, travelling via the Panama canal.
We passed the Rock of Gibraltar in bright sunshine. It is a very busy area and we were too far away, in the eastbound shipping channel to get a good view. Previously the Captain had sought permission to cross the lanes to get closer, but not on this cruise. In the afternoon we went to one of the many concerts in the Queen's room, some are by the ship's string quartet and others by celebraties on board for a short time - we had 5 concerts by the Duo Diez (Ten Strings) comprising the guitarist Dimitris Dekavallas and Violinist Violetta Barrena and the Soprano Annette Wardell sand with the String Quartet on a couple of occasions
We have been to Malta by ship four times before as well as a couple of land based holidays - it is one of our favourite holiday locations in Europe. The first visit was in 1996 on QE2 on her maiden visit into the harbour at Valletta and she docked; previously she had only anchored. That had been one of our most memorable arrivals on the QE2, not only because entry is difficult with minimal clearance between the breakwaters and a rocky shore but mainly because the ramparts were lined with thousands of Maltese residents to welcome us, many waving Union Jacks. We then returned for a weeks Holiday in Malta in 2006. as well as extra visits by sea. The following write up has some 'reference' information and pictures from previous years added so we did not achieve quite so much in a single day as a superficial read might indicate!
The island has a long history and the prehistoric temples of Malta are unique in all the world. Hagar Qim and neighbouring Mnajdri are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They are the oldest free-standing stone structures ever discovered, dating back to 3600 BC. The older parts of the Hagar Qim Temple are said to date from this period, although later additions are more recent, between 3000 BC and 2500 BC. They are therefore older than both Stonehenge and the Pyramids. Excellently preserved, they were covered with soil from early times and only rediscovered in 1839 and restored by European and native Maltese archaeologists in the 19th century.
The capital Valletta where we were docked also has a long and interesting history. The first stone of the city of Valletta was ceremonially laid by Grand Master Jean Valette on 29 March 1566. It was intended as a fortress town able to withstand any future Ottoman assault. Streets were laid out on a strict grid-plan and the town was "embellished" with palaces, auberges, churches and other fine buildings. During our entry Pete was up in the Gym which afforded an excellent view of our approach and Pauline came up at dawn to watch the entry into the harbour and try to take some pictures from the deck in front of the gym. The entry seemed easy on a modern ship with powerful bow thrusters and azipods and the tug seemed superfluous even in the moderate winds and when we came to spin round in the narrow channel to moor at the new Cruise Terminal. It was a complete contrast to the our arrival on the QE2 cocooned in tugs. We admired the new waterfront cafes and shops in the old restored warehouses in the mellow light of dawn. Ruby Princess arrived behind us.
Valletta is a very historic city with a number of Museums, many under the Heritage Malta umbrella, and Pauline had previously donated a photo album to the main museum. Pauline's father had joined the Royal Artillery in 1931, and in 1934 he had been posted to Malta where he served for 13 months. During his visit he took a number of small black and white photographs, which he kept in an album. After his death and subsequent to our visit in 2006 we realised that these pictures would be of interest to historians in Malta, with particular relevance to the War Museum, the Maritime Museum and the Aviation Museum. As well as a few tourist pictures which we recognised to be of the towns of Valletta, Mosta, Mdina, Sliema and Mellieha, there were pictures of the celebrations for the Silver Jubilee of King George and Queen Mary in May 1935, of the processions of crucifixes on Good Friday, of his mates in the Army, and pictures of ships and aircraft. We knew that some of the pictures were unusual and interesting and wanted to donate the album to a good home. Contact was made by email with a consultant at Heritage Malta, Antonio Espinosa Rodriguez, and we donated the album while visiting on the QE2 in 2007, then on the QV in 2012 added pictures in his army uniform.
We had no special plans and entered Valletta through the Victoria Gate, looking for the the Franciscan church of St Mary of Jesus which we recalled was above. We had found it on a previous visit and had discovered it contained a chapel with the Miraculous Crucifix, sculpted in 1630 by Friar Umile Pintomo (1600-39) from Palermo in Sicily. We had realised then that the cross looked familiar and checking against Pauline's Father's photo album it was the crucifix which was shown being paraded through Valletta, lying on a bed of flowers. The procession was led by members of the Confraternity of the Crucifix which had been created in 1646 to propagate devotion towards it. The church, originally built between 1595 and 1601, was very richly decorated with red hanging drapes, crystal chandeliers and silver. Pete said at the time it was the most beautiful church he had seen and Pauline had agreed. Pauline could not begin to imagine her father's reaction to the churches and rituals in Malta compared with those back home. Having taken 5 pictures of the Miraculous Crucifix in procession shows the impact it must have had on him.
The Maltese were converted to Christianity by St Paul after his shipwreck on Malta in AD60. The next church, the Church of St Paul's shipwreck, is one of Vallettas oldest churches, built in 1580 by Gerolamo Cassar and remodelled in 1680. Its simple facade hides a richly ornamented interior, which we could just glimpse. It was too early to visit, and when we returned in the afternoon it was closing, and too late. The gilded statue of St Paul was carved in 1657 and is paraded through the street on the festival on 10 February. Triq il Merkanti contains the fresh produce market, and also a market of clothes and leather items outside. There was local cheese and wines, and we bought water and planned our shopping for later in the day, then continued towards the National War Museum which is one of several museums owned by Heritage Malta and is next to Fort St. Elmo at the end of the Trio Ir Repubblika. We knew there were plans for its refurbishment, and work was being carried out in the area. The permanent exhibition at the National War Museum contains an ever-increasing collection of war relics which range from one of the three historic Gladiator aircraft, named "Faith", the George Cross awarded to the island for bravery by King George VI in World War II, to various weapons, uniforms and service vehicles. There are displays of ships and aircraft, including the Aircraft carriers HMS Eagle and HMS Glorious. HMS Eagle was the first casualty, sunk just after she got her load of Spitfires into the air to fly into Malta, of the convoy which eventually got through in 1942 with supplies. This including aircraft fuel on the USS Ohio which enabled Malta to keep fighting. The old film "Malta Story" we had bought last visit to Malta at the Aviation Museum included a lot about that convoy.
We did not have time to travel to the Malta Aviation Museum, which is at Ta' Qali and separate from the other museums and privately run. It aims to record all historical aspects associated with aviation in Malta from the very first biplane flight over the island, throughout its colourful and valiant aviation history, to the modern age. Ta' Qali was Malta's first civilian aerodrome. The museum has many old aircraft rescued or donated and waiting for refurbishment, and some which have been restored to display or taxiing condition but a major interest is the air battles during WWII. The Air Battle of Malta lasted for almost 2 and a half years, and on 28 September 2005 a new Air Battle of Malta Memorial Hangar was opened, partly financed by the European Union, to cover Malta's role during WWII. When we visited in 2006 it housed the Hawker Hurricane Z3055 and the Spitfire EN199. Both are local. The Hurricane crashed into the sea off Malta and was discovered by a diver off the Blue Grotto after 54 years underwater. It was being restored to taxiing condition, which means it can move under its own power but not fly. The Spitfire Mk IX (EN199) also fought in Malta. After WWII it sustained slight damage in a storm and in 1947 was struck off charge, then later scrapped. It was the first aircraft to be restored and signaled the birth of the museum. It made its first appearance, at the celebration for the 50th anniversary of the George Cross award to Malta. It is an excellent museum, with lots to see, and Pauline has also given them copies of all the aviation related pictures from her father's albums.
Walking back along the St Lazarus Bastion and Curtain, passing The Malta Experience, we reached the Lower Barakka Gardens and the Siege Bell. The Lower Barakka Gardens are much smaller than the Upper Barakka Gardens, and contain a little Doric temple commemorating Sir Alexander Ball, the naval captain who took Malta from the french in 1800. The seige bell commemporates those who lost their lives in the convoys of 1940 to 1943, and there is a warning not to stand underneath the bell at 1200 when it is rung. There is also a war memorial in the form of a sleeping lady looking out over the harbour from one of the old gun emplacements.
Climbing back up to the Piazza San Gorg along the Triq Ir Repubblika it was hard to resist more photos of the Italian Cultural Institute on the right and on the left the Parliament and official residence of the President of Malta in the Grand Masters Palace. The Palace of the Grand Masters is an imposing castle, built around two central courtyards. The Palace is small, with only a few rooms on the first floor which can be visited. We saw just two sides of the four. The State Apartments are decorated with scenes that recall the Knights' history. One room with subdued lighting contained the Gobelin tapestries which were also in Pauline's father's photo album. Malta's Parliament and President have offices inside the Palace, and on our previous visit we had to stand aside while some famous local politician passed through the corridors, exhorting us to have an enjoyable holiday. There were doors hiding offices for the Opposition Party, and for Whips. The Royal Armoury is next door, and comprises two large display rooms, one full of weapons and the other of armour.
The historic square was spoilt for us by M&S, but we welcomed the famous Cafe Cordina on the corner. It reminded us of Betty's in Harrogate. They were selling all sorts of tempting cakes, and we found the last table inside and ordered coffees and 2 local cakes. We recommend pudina - a version of a sticky spicey bread pudding, which we preferred to the small honey ring. It is a very popular cafe and their tables outside, in front of the old Library, were full of people.
On all our previous trips the queues to visit St John's Co-Cathedral had been too long, but today there was no problem. It is not free, but Pauline got a cheaper ticket with her Student ID. The official seat of the Archbishop of Malta is at St Paul's Cathedral in Mdina, but this co-Cathedral, formerly the church of the Knights of St John, was raised to the same status in 1816. It was built between 1573 and 1577. After the plain facade, the interior is breathtakingly sumptuous with painted and gilded ceilings, and carvings, pillars and arches glowing with gold leaf. The vast nave has 6 bays on either side, eight of which contain chapels allocated to langues of the Order of St John (Germany, Castille & Portugal, Aragon, Auvergne, Provence, Anglo-Bavarian, France and Italy). The ceiling was painted by Mattia Preti between 1661 and 1667, with scenes from the life of St John the Baptist. He also painted altar paintings and lunette paintings for some of the chapels. The altar is dominated by a hugh marble sculpture of the baptism of Christ. The inlaid marble floor is a collection of 400 tombstones of important Knights, recognising their acts of chivalry, religious ardour and their desire to be remembered. The Oratory is dominated by the Beheading of St John the Baptist by Caravaggio which was painted when he was in Malta in 1607. It is the largest painting which he ever executed and also the only signed work. The Oratory also contains the painting of St Jerome Writing by Caravaggio. The Cathedral Museum contains collections of vestments, choral books and 29 Flemish tapestries. The latter date from 1701 and are a priceless collection which is the largest in the world and are undergoing restoration over 10 years. The exit deposited us close to the Market, and we hurried to buy our cheese and some red Medina wine before it closed.
Once outside the market we searched for some Meridiana Wines to take back, in particular the Isis. We visited Meridiana on our last long visit and we were fortunate that Josette Miceli-Farrugia herself was able to explain the history of the vineyard and do a tutored tasting of some of their wines. Meridiana set up their first experimental vineyard in the late 1980s and then in 1989 purchased the land in the middle of the old Ta' Qali airfield for the present vineyard of 19 hectares (47 acres). It was planted with chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah and petit verdot in 1994 and 1995. The vineyard is drained by a herring-bone system laid by the RAF during WWII and so this collects rainwater which is stored in a large underground cistern. The 91,000 vines each have their own individual drip-feed irrigators. Meridiana's mission is "To produce world class wines of Maltese character". The grapes are all grown within a Maltese climate and soil and state-of-the-art technology is used with rigorous temperature control and some barrel fermentation and we have tasted three wines their the Isis, Nexus and Melqart and were very impressed with the Isis, a chardonnay with tropical fruit flavours. A small corner shop had some wine in its window, and inside we found a display including the Isis we were seeking. Maltese wines are hand crafted and so are comparatively expensive. We paid 13 euros for the Isis. We also spotted they had a bottle of the Bel Syrah at 16 euros - we had first drunk and enjoyed the Bel at the Palazzo Santa Rosa restaurant in Mistra Bay. Meridiana wines are each named after an ancient god and the Syrah is named after Bel, the Phoenician god of fertility
It was too early to leave Valletta and we continued past the Manoel theatre, which was built in 1713 and is one of the oldest theatres in Europe. It has a fine baroque auditorium with gilt boxes and a hugh chandelier. Next time we must schedule a visit to see it. St Paul's cathedral was closed, so we sat on the wall outside with a view of Sliema opposite, before retracing our steps into the centre. We walked back towards the ship and the City Gate but there was a lot of new building work and the shop we sought had disappeared. It was easier to turn towards the Upper Barrakka Gardens, passing the old Stock Exchange, and the Auberge of Castille which houses the offices of the Prime Minister. From the gardens is a spectacular view of the Grand Harbour, one of the finest harbours in Europe, and from its terrace we could enjoy the unique view of Fort Ricasoli, Fort St Angelo, Senglea, Vittoriosa, Kalkara and the Marsa Creek. We looked down on the old Saluting Battery which stands on the lower part of the St Peter and St Paul Bastion. It was originally built in the 16th century and remained in continuous use up to 1960. The battery functioned as a master time keeper. The gun shots at sunrise and sunset marked the beginning and end of the working day, and the opening or closing of the town gates.
The noon gun was fired to signal to mariners in the harbour the exact hour of mid-day which was necessary for the the regulation of watches on board ships for accurate navigation. In May 2005 it was decided to restore the Saluting Battery, complete with eleven original British 24-pounder cannon from the mid-late 19th century, and with volunteers dressed in uniforms of that time representing the Royal Malta Artillery. Last visit we had arrived by chance, just in time to see the firing and we have included a picture we took at that time. The Saluting Battery, Fort Rinella and the 100 ton gun and the Malta at War Museum in Vittoriosa all belong to the Malta Heritage Trust, which is distinct from Heritage Malta and the Aviation Museum. Our view was spoiled only by the regular flow of cruise tour groups and we heard that it was the maiden visit of the Ruby Princess, so there would be a special salute when she departed.
Instead of the long walk downhill to the cruise terminal we caught the newly refurbished elevator back to the waterfront. It is 2 euros to go up, but free to go down. There was wine for tasting and on sale in the Duty Free Shop, but as usual it was more expensive than in the shops in town. As we passed the front of the ship we passed Queen Victoria Point, a memorial to when Captain Paul Wright nudged the quay whilst turning the ship in 2008, fortunately with little damage to anything other than the Pilots reputation. We have noticed the crew repaint it every visit we have made!