Saturday, 5 November 2011

The Cruise - final word

Of course a cruise can only give a superficial impression of the ports of call. There is no time to get to know local people, to eat in local restaurants or fully experience local culture.

But it does score on the ease with which one can travel to a wide range of destinations, the ability to simply chill-out and recover from the stress of working life, new friends met and quality time with my partner and on value for money .

I was determined to enjoy the cruise and I did so.

Will I do another cruise? Yes, probably. Indeed there is a Celebrity cruise next June out of Southampton to the Baltic capitals and St Petersburg that is already pencilled into the diary. So watch this space.

The Cruise - Naples

After another day at sea, our final port of call was Naples. We decided to take the tour to the rim of Vesuvius and I am glad we did. It was an amazing place and a monument to the strange power of nature. The rim is huge, smoke and steam was coming out of a number of fissures and the view around is magnificent. The evidence of previous eruptions is all around.

And of course we then went to Pompeii to see the aftermath of the most famous of Vesuvius's eruptions in 78AD. It is amazing just how well preserved the buildings and mosaics are in Pompeii.

The Cruise - Mykonos

I had always thought of Mykonos as being 'not quite Greece'. I don't know why. In fact is is a lovely town and is absolutely the typical Greek island port -white buildings, clear blue sea.

After some time browsing the shops, we took a taxi to Super Paradise Beach. Being out of season, it was almost deserted but the day was warm and sunny and the sea was beautiful so I enjoyed out time there. I swam in the sea amongst a number of fish - mostly elusive on camera but I did get a picture of this one.

Back in port we bought a couple of carpets for the flat in Spain before heading back on board the ship.

The Cruise - Tel Aviv and Jerusalem

The ship moved overnight down the coast to Asdod. Not much of a place to be honest, but a place from which we did a day in Tel Aviv and a day in Jerusalem.

Tel Aviv is an interesting city. Because we were on a gay tour, we were able to have lunch in the lesbian and gay centre and end up on the gay beach. We also visited the studio of Raphael Perez, a gay artist whom Andrew and I had met in London a few weeks previously. An interesting day though not one that will remain burned in the memory.

Jerusalem is something different of course. A place that I had heard so much about, from biblical times, from history and of course from recent news. It did not disappoint. I may not quite believe in the biblical story, but it was still amazing to be in the very place where Jesus is reputed to have been crucified. Walking through the very streets where the biblical story took place, and then entering the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and seeing the tomb of Joesph of Arimathea was quite something.

Then we went to the wailing wall which was built by Herod the Great as the surrounding wall to the Jewish courtyard and is now a drawing point for thousands of pilgrims each day.

And finally we headed for the Dead Sea, 400 metres below sea level, to cover ourselves in mud and just float in the salty water - a weird experience.

It was fascinating to be in Israel. It is a place of so much history yet one with an uncertain future. Now is not the time to give my political views. I am simply glad that I have seen this part of the world for myself.

The Cruise - Haifa

I enjoyed just chilling out on our two sea days. Got a bit sunburned - didn't realise how strong the sun was.

Then we arrived in Haifa for 2 days. Andrew had used his contacts in Israel to put together four special tours just for our gay group. Max 15 people and with a gay guide. I had decided not to go on the first one, so I strolled into Haifa on my own. I walked further than I had intended - rather exhausting in the heat. But anyway I arrived at the top of the Bah'ai Gardens just in time for the English language tour. The gardens are fantastic - quite beautiful. And the tour taught me a lot about the Bah'ai faith which has a very positive and simple core belief - that we are all equal; male/female, straight/gay, black/white and that the world belongs to us all. I was glad I went to the gardens. I walked back via the German quarter. This had been a run down area. When the mayor of Haifa offered to contribute funds to the building of the Bah'ai gardens, the leaders of the Bah'ai community said that they did not accept contributions from outside the faith but that the mayor could contribute indirectly by sprucing up the German quarter just below the gardens. This he did. So the gardens flow down to the shops and restaurants which have now emerged in the German Quarter. All very lovely.

On day two, I did go on the tour which was to Nazareth and Galilee. Nazareth was busy and had severe traffic problems but the sea of Galilee was beautiful. We ended up at Ben She'An, a fantastic place. It is a city founded in the fifth millennium BC, a seat of Egyptian rule around 1000BC and then conquered by the Romans in 63BC. Excavations only began in 1986 and the building which have been uncovered are amazingly-well preserved. A truly stunning place.

The Cruise - Sicily

On the first evening, as we sailed southwards, we had a reception for the Pied Piper group followed by dinner together. This helped us to get to know each other - nearly all were American but generally a good bunch who helped my enjoyment of the cruise.

Next morning we arrived in Palermo. Andrew and I had booked a tour of Palermo. It wasn't great. Too much time in the coach and too many people, including fat Americans who could not manage the walking and who were always late back.

But in the afternoon we went to Mondello which is effectively Palermo's beach resort and it was lovely. We had arranged to meet Mimmo there which we did. He is spending some time in Sicily. That was cool.

A bit of a rush back to the boat before departure and two sea days.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Cruise - Rome

It all started in Rome. The cruise I mean. Though come to think of it, much of our way of life today also started in Rome - some 2000 years ago.

And it was fascinating to walk in the footsteps of the citizens of ancient Rome, visiting the Coliseum, the Forum and, one of my favourite buildings, the Pantheon.

The last time I was in Rome, I dutifully threw three coins into the Trevi Fountain which is supposed to guarantee a return. That was 34 years ago on my way to Iran. Perhaps if I had thrown more than 30 lire into the fountain, I would have returned sooner!

We flew into Rome on the Saturday evening, stayed 2 nights at the WRH rooms near the Termini station, (just about acceptable) and spent most of the Sunday just walking around. Part of that time was on an organised walking tour and part was on just exploring on our own. We did the usual sights which were hugely impressive but the emotional pull was rather spoilt by the huge crowds. I particulalry enjoyed our night-time walk firstly to the British Embassy, the building of which Andrew knew, then to the Coliseum, an excellent meal at 'Coming Out' Cafe, and a gentle stroll back to the hotel via the forum and the Piazza Esedra.

It was good to be able to relax before the cruise without worrying about flights. Monday morning saw us taking the train to Civitiveccia where we boarded the boat. And at 5pm we moved off and headed south to Palermo.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The Cruise - overview

Firstly I guess I need to admit that I was unsure. About going on a cruise I mean. There were five reasons why I agreed to go -

  • We went with Pied Piper Travel which books a group of gay men onto selected cruises. So I knew that we would have a ready-made group and not have to make conversation over dinner with people with whom we had little in common. In fact there were 32 in our group and we met each evening for drinks before dinner and then had dinner together.

  • I had not been to most of our ports of call.

  • It was heavily discounted - so the price for a balcony cabin was excellent.

  • Andrew wanted to go - and he likes cruises.

  • I needed a holiday and some time to just chill out after a busy year.
Once I had decided to go, I also decided that I would do my best to enjoy the experience. And I did. I downloaded loads of books onto my Kindle, I took time to laze around the pool on board, I wanted enjoyed the shore trips, I interacted with the gay group, I tried to engage other cruise passengers in conversation, I enjoyed an early-evening swim and sauna most days, I loved the food, I enjoyed the wine and above all I was able to spend quality time with Andrew, something that is not always possible when we are working as we juggle our busy commitments.

I have not been converted to cruising as a regular holiday habit. Inevitably the port visits were somewhat superficial and I missed the ability to experience a foreign place in the morning as it wakes up or in the evening as it winds down.

But I can see the attractions of taking a cruise. From the practical ones such as not having to regularly pack and unpack and of being able to visit a range of destinations to the spiritual ones, if you like, of just relaxing without any pressure to do things or be places.

I came back relaxed and refreshed. I visited Rome, Sicily, Israel, Mykonos and Naples. And I felt closer to Andrew as a result of the holiday. That made it all worthwhile.