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Cunard Queen Victoria 2014
Wonders of the Mediterranean Cruise - Part 1
This is our ninth voyage on the Queen Victoria and was nearly a year after our return from our last cruise on her to Spain in the Autumn of 2013. The Wonders of the Mediterranean cruise was 17 days and booked well in advance to celebrate our 40th Wedding Anniversary which took place during the cruise. In particular we wanted to go to Venice which we had visited on previous anniversaries.
Having travelled by train and stayed in Southampton the previous night we departed from the old QE2 Terminal which is the oldest of those at Southampton and not as smooth and efficient as the newer terminals. There were unacceptably long queues of cars and taxis waiting to drop off, even 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 ocean view cabin on 4 deck was the same as on our last cruise and has a good view between two small lifeboats. Most of the cabins on deck four have 'obstructed views', that is a window with a perfect view of the side of a lifeboat but no view of the ocean! We liked the cabin and would deliberately choose it next time. 4 deck is a good place to be as it is only one floor down to the restaurants and Grand theatre and a reasonable climb of 5 flights to the Lido, Gym and Coffee making facilities. 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. Our table for dinner was in a slightly different place to the last cruise and was beside a window at the very back - 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 are good for listening to the music but they can no longer be reserved as priority is given to those with wheelchairs as they are close to the entry. 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.
The first thing we did when we got on board (after lunch that is!) was to go down to the Pursers office and book a Box for one of the shows - 'Victoriana'. We then went to the new Verandah Restaurant 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. The meals in the Verandah currently have a fixed price supplement for three courses, $15 for lunch on sea days and $24 for dinner, and are well worth the extra once or twice during a voyage. There are only 9 days at sea on this cruise, of these sea days 5 were formal, so that restricts the number of days that are suitable. A serious long lunch does not fit well with a cocktail party and evening celebration menu. This time we were fortunate and our ruby anniversary was a sea day and an obvious for lunch and a theatre box in the evening. Cunard Line has a strong Cunard World Club of repeat passengers, this cruise had over 200 Diamond members so one needs to get in early to book lunches especially on short cruises! We will let the pictures of food speak for themselves below and at various points during the cruise!
After the rough weather along the Channel and into the Bay of Biscay our arrival in Cadiz was expected to be later than scheduled. We would arrive at 10.30 instead of 09.00. However it was emphasised that this would not affect the tours as we would be departing later. We had previously visited the town of Cadiz and now planned to take a trip to Seville. It is about 120 kms away, with a fast motorway link, and driving was a better option than the trains (which took the same 2 hours but the service seemed to be only every 2 hours, leaving no time in Seville). Our bus departed the pier at 11.00 and the expectation was that we would reach Seville at 12.45 and then return at 15.45 so that we were safely back before departure at 18.00.
Traffic was quiet on a Saturday morning and our journey began with a drive past the Cadiz railway station then along the south coast passing empty beaches of golden sand. The Victoria beach was memorable; next to the expensive Victoria Hotel. It gave a different view to the La Caleta beach sheltered between the twin castles of Santa Catalina and San Sebastian which we walked along previously.
The A4 motorway passes close to Seville and the route into the city was along the Paseo de la Palmera, passing the pavilions built for the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition. We glimpsed “Mexico”, on the edge of the Maria Luisa Park. The park is named after Princess Maria Louisa of Orleans who donated part of the grounds from the Palacio of San Thelmo. We had seen pictures of the park and of the Plaza de Espana, which together with the Plaza de America was the centrepiece of the 1929 exposition. We passed more pavilions, including "Brasil" and “Uruguay” before coming to a halt next to “Chile”, just off the main Paseo de las Delicias, the wide main road which goes along the bank of the River Guadalquivir. Parking should have been near the Palacio de San Telmo and then would have been much closer to our meeting point for our return journey, outside the hotel Alphonso XII.
With only 3 hours in Seville we had to prioritise our visit and choose to start by going back to the Plaza de Espana in the Maria Luisa Park. Walking along the Calle San Fernando we stopped to admire the Old Royal Tobacco Factory, now part of the University. Typical 18th century painted and glazed ceramic tiles are used for the sign. The new tram follows this road and continues to the Railway Station of San Bernardo but we turned away to the right towards the park. Unfortunately we found the gate was blocked and people already in the park were being let out but no-one was allowed to enter. It was a disappointment and although we walked around the perimeter along the Avenida Maria Luisa to the Glorieta de los Marineros Voluntarios and then to the Glorieta Buenos Aires we were not able to find a way in, or find good views.
We walked back. There was a tourist information office inside the “Queen's sewing box” and we found that the park was closed because there had been weather warnings of high winds and concerns about falling trees. It was pleasant to walk along the bank of the River Guadalquivir and we soon reached the Torre del Oro which contains a small naval museum and has good views from the balcony towards the Alcazar and along the river. It was built in 1220 as part of the defences and there used to be another tower on the other side of the river. There was a fine model of the steamer Giralda and several models of ships from the time of Columbus.
The second area which is important to visit in Seville is the Cathedral, Alcazar and Old Jewish Quarter of the Barrio de Santa Cruz. It was easy to find because all the horse and carriage taxis go there. Unfortunately both the Cathedral and the Alcazar are very popular, and both had long queues for tickets. Even if we had decided to spend all our time there, in only 3 hours we would have needed to choose which to do. The cathedral occupies the site of a great mosque but only its bell tower, the Giralda, and the Patio de los Naranjos where worshippers would wash their feet, remain. The present gothic cathedral, said to be the largest in Europe, was built in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. It contains the important tomb of Columbus, dating from the 1890s.
Opposite, the Real ('Royal') Alcazar is a large complex of rooms and courtyards, with extensive gardens. At its heart is the palace built by Pedro I, whose construction began in 1364, extending previous 10th century buildings. The upper floor is used by the Spanish Royal family and is said to be the oldest of Europe's royal palaces which is still in use.
Although we were unable to visit inside we could still admire the exterior of the buildings, as well as the Archbishop's Palace and the General Archive of the Indies. There was still plenty of time to explore the maze of narrow streets in the Old Jewish Quarter to the east of the cathedral and the guide book suggested a route. However it was more fun to wander along the narrow street and past the cafes and souvenirs shops, with glimpses of the sun to guide our direction. By now the streets were full of people eating and drinking, and plates of tapas were emerging from the kitchens. We were now short of time and only managed to buy some Anniversary label coffee beans from one of three Starbucks in the area, and then rest with an excellent icecream within sight of our meeting point.
The journey back was faster than expected and we reached the ship with plenty of time to spare. It was such a pity that the trip had not been longer; we needed at least 5 hours in Seville even if that meant an early start and a long day.
This was only our second visit to Catania, the first being an unscheduled visit on the Queen Victoria in September 2012. We were pleased to return a second time as there was plenty left to see or revisit rather than take a tour. Pauline's father spent some time there with the 8th Army in 1943, and spoke about meeting General Montgomery here.
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. We walked through the port to 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, passing the church della Badia di S Agata. It was open so we went inside.
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 started off following a suggested walking tour, but quickly 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 tried some local pecorino cheeses (and returned later to purchase some for onboard and to take home) before continued onwards along the Via Vittorio Emanuele.
On our previous visit we had missed the Roman Theatre and Odeon, so that was our priority. First we stopped to visit the church of San Francesco D'Assisi all'Immacolata. On our visit there were two large golden "candelore" on display. In total there are 11 candelore, and 6 of these are kept in the church. They parade through the streets during St Agatha's feast. There are many churches named after Saint Agatha in Catania, and her relics are carried in procession from church to church on 4-5 February each year. 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.
The church is on one side of the Piazza San Francesco d'Assisi, facing the facade of the Palazzo Gravina-Cruyllas which houses the Vincenzo Bellini Civic Museum and the Emilio Greco Art Museum. At the centre of the square is the monument to Cardinal Giuseppe Benedetto Dusmet, and behind it 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 Teatro Romano was only a short distance further along the street. It could hold up to 7000 spectators and dates back to the time of the Romans although recent excavations show that it existed in the Greek period. There is a lot of active excavation work, and having removed the modern houses which had been built over the structure, the outline of the original theatre is emerging. Much of the seating and stage is closed to visitors. One house, the 19th century Casa Liberti, has been restored as a small museum. The Odeon, a smaller theatre adjacent, was not able to be visited because of construction work, although it could be glimpsed through fencing.
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.
The Piazza Dante was full of students taking their lunch but we were soon into quieter streets as we reached the Via Santa Maddalena to see the Chiesa Sant'Agata la Vetere. 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.
Continuing north 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 Etnea 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 we have previously seen posh weddings taking place with 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. We had therefore covered much of the area we had visited in 2012, but in a different order.
We decided after nearly 5 hours on our feet and as it was well into siesta time it was a good time to look for a cafe. The Cafe Charmant sold local beer, the typical cakes of Saint Agatha, and icecreams. It was on the edge of the University Square and a perfect place to sit and watch people strolling by. This completed our circular walk and we were in sight of the Piazza Duomo.
The cathedral itself was closed, the little tourist train rolled by, full of passengers, and we reached the market before they closed at 1500 so we could buy our cheeses and some local wine to take home. The church of San Placido looked pretty in the sunshine and we had just enough energy to walk to the Piazza dei Martiri before strolling back to the port and a very late buffet lunch.