Conditions in the Biscay were not exactly ideal and the scheduled low speed would have only prolonged the ‘agony’, so the decision was made to arrive into Leixoes the evening before the itinerary dictated. The Monday therefore became very pleasant by midday when Finisterre was behind us and we had berthed before cocktail time. A night in the calm waters was obviously to the benefit of the evening entertainment ‘Can’t cook, won’t cook’, with celebrity chef Kevin Woodford as the host and, thanks to Mrs R, the Master and his wife as the gullible contestants. All probably did not go quite as Kevin would have liked, but it was certainly entertainment! The following morning as I saw the tours off many of the folk were still smiling and were asking whether I had ‘recovered’from the ordeal. It was not me who had to recover I believe.
Operationally we were quite busy with drills and such like while alongside in Leixoes, but passengers were soon up and about taking the shuttle bus into Oporto or one of the optional excursions available. As might be expected of our experienced Saganauts, the tour to the wine lodge at the estate of Quinta da Aveleda was suitably subscribed, as was the Oporto tour that took in a short cruise along the River Douro then a tasting of Port in a local cellar. Oporto is a lovely place and I was a little disappointed that on my last call I could not get ashore, but for our future there’s always Easy Jet. Mrs R is looking forward to a few city breaks she tells me.
We left on time, squeezing our way out of the tight basin and passing one of those newish small expedition ships that appear to be scooping up the market for trips to the more adventurous destinations like Antarctica and Greenland. It is with fond memories that I look back at taking our ‘elegant ladies’to those magical places.
La Coruna was rather busy with passenger ships, so we ended up round the corner, as it were, from the usual berth close by the town centre. That wasn’t a problem as the port had laid on a large articulated shuttle bus to get the folks to the passenger terminal. The tour buses though were brought close to the gangway and once the morning ‘business’was out of the way we joined the excursion to the walled city of Lugo, a UNESCO world heritage site.
The hour plus drive through the rural countryside was a delight, but it wasn’t until we had driven through the outskirts that we came to the magnificent walls where some 70 of the original 85 round turrets still stand. Built in Roman times the city within, called then Lucus Augusti, encloses some 85 acres, has walls up to 40 feet high and well over a mile long. Ten gates, one or two original, penetrate the walls and from the local bus station across the road outside we continued on a walking tour through one of the less ancient ones that allow something larger than a horse and cart. Inside many of the religious buildings date from medieval times including the Romanesque cathedral, the earliest parts dating back to 1129 (not quite sure how they can be so specific).
Our excellent guide took us through the narrow streets at a gentle pace, because of the economic problems over the past few years there were several buildings all shuttered up and covered by graffiti. Sad to see in this special place, but work is being done and the walls have been restored so that it is now possible to walk all the way round the top. We were told that they have now become very popular for locals who wish to keep fit. Being siesta time some of the shops were closed, but bars and restaurants were quite busy. After leaving the impressive cathedral, much added to over the years, we took a break for some tapas, sitting outside in the warm sunshine before starting our return journey.
Lugo is delightful, a very acceptable alternative if you have ‘done’Santiago de Compostela.
An overnight run around the top of Spain took us to the capital of Cantabria, Santander, a first for both the ship and myself. It’s a large port sheltered from the worst of the weather the Bay of Biscay can produce and I was surprised to see golden sandy beaches as we entered the estuary.
We berthed at the main ferry dock, just across the street from the centre of town, so handy for those just taking a stroll. Tours to the surrounding area and also to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao were on offer. We, however, went for a jaunt to the small town of Comillas and the ancient village of Santillana del Mar.
Comillas is the seat of a Marquis, the first of the line being the great benefactor of the town and there are many big houses where aristocratic families used to live. On the top of the hill overlooking the town are the imposing buildings of the university first founded by Jesuit priests in 1890.
We were taken to another little gem, El Capricho, a modernist house and the first designed by Antonio Gaudi for a wealthy client. Typical of his later work, some might say it was a folly, but in fact it has within many practical solutions to practical problems, such as a conservatory being placed in the middle of the house so warm air circulated around the other rooms. There was also some furniture of his design, unusual to say the least, but quite delightful.
Continuing our journey, we continued on to Santillana, a medieval village so ‘intactly original’that it felt almost like a Disney set with cobbled streets, stone houses and terracotta tiled roofs. Any ‘new’building has been completed in the correct style, including the coach park. Fortunately we were the only coach there when we arrived, apparently in the summer season, there are so many visitors that it is difficult to move through the main street.
Not so this day. We ambled and Mrs R managed to find a charming shop from which she has now enhanced her summer wardrobe, I took the photos. There were refreshments at the local Parador, full of character and formerly a home to the family Barreda-Bracho and built in the Baroque style in the 17th century.
Once back to Santander we opted to stay overnight alongside and sail the following morning. It was a pleasant evening and passengers were able to watch the busy activity of Spanish night life from the comfort of their own restaurant afloat.
From the entrance of the Gironde to our berth just outside Bordeaux was 67 miles and we had to go ‘up river’ with the tide, consequently the pilot boarded, by helicopter, at 11 pm on the 5th. Eventually we berthed around five, a long night for some, but we had two days alongside to recover.
There was some need to catch up on rest, however we joined a tour in the afternoon that went off to the Médoc region north of Bordeaux. Passing acres of vineyards we eventually stopped to take a look through the gates of the magnificent Château Margaux and, as if by magic they opened, but only to allow a service vehicle to leave, regrettably my influence did not run to the minor miracle of obtaining admission to this hallowed ground.
We continued to the vineyard of Château Lanessan where the process of grape to wine was explained, at some length, giving the group a sufficient appetite for the wine tasting. It was an interesting afternoon, but the tour the next day was to prove even more fascinating.
Château de La Roquetaillade is south of Bordeaux within the Sauternes region and was built in sandstone back in the 11th century as a defensive castle with a massive central keep. The Viscounts de Baritault du Carpia have been the owners for the last 600 years and the present owner is an English lady who married the Viscount many years ago.
We believe it was she who came out of the serious looking doors, holding a bunch of very large keys, in order to give us the ‘show round’. The nearby chapel was first, but then we returned to venture into this ‘National Monument’, it was like stepping back a few hundred years. This was no commercialised tourist ‘trap’, but a lived in home. Well, at least some of the rooms, the ones we did not see, which I hoped were a little warmer than the rooms we did.
The castle had been restored in the 1800s and was probably due for another dose as the cold and damp had affected many of the walls. One of the big rooms showed signs of initial renovation, financial assistance being given by the French government. We were advised to come back in eight years if we wanted to see the finished result. Other rooms had some lovely antique furniture and the belongings of other occupants long since passed. It felt very special, being taken around the family ‘home’.
Of course there was a wine tasting and it was most pleasant. Two bottles of semi dry white, castle on the label, will be making their way to Cornwall soon, a reminder for a pleasant summer evening.
A short overnight run took us to the entrance of the Loire, then a further 14 miles to Saint-Nazaire. The ship yard here builds the biggest passenger ships and two were in the process, the pilot advised the yard will build twenty over the next ten years. We berthed a few miles further on and shuttle buses took those not on a tour into Saint-Nazaire, a community very much intent on encouraging cruise visitors.
The tours headed up towards Nantes, a city heavily bombed during the Second World War, but which has some remarkable old buildings. Our walking tour first came to the Cathedral of St.Pierre, a Gothic masterpiece which unfortunately we could not enter as a service was taking place.
Close by the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany overlooked the river, the courtyard surrounded by ramparts was being restored and the main buildings are now used as museums. We continued walking through the streets, relatively empty as this was Armistice Day and a public holiday.
Our guide Bernard took the time to show us the unusual as well as the expected, a Royal fountain, the grand theatre and the early 17th century Church of Sainte Croix. One café had an amazing interior décor, we all popped in for a quick peak, then over to a glorious late 19th century glass covered shopping arcade.
Finally we crossed the river to where industry and ship building had been, until relatively recent years, the working heart of the city. As this declined a new use had to be found for the land and now it is becoming a great park for relaxing. Perhaps a little different than might have been expected as the theme seems to be based on the dreams and work of Jules Verne, a son of Nantes.
Bernard had been talking about meeting at the ‘Elephant’, a statue perhaps? In fact it was ‘Le Grand Éléphant’, a great mechanised beast that ‘walked’ through the old warehouses carrying up to 50 passengers while sending bursts of damp vapour through its undulating trunk. Great fun.
Back on board, prior to sailing, the passengers had the opportunity of listening to a small group of local players on the dockside, their unusual blend of Celtic and Brittany music being judged perhaps to be an acquired taste, somewhat ‘different’, but not unpleasant.
Regrettably the forecast for the Isles of Scilly was not the best and a decision was made to avoid any possible ‘situation’ and we carried on up to south west Ireland. Ringaskiddy (silent ‘g’ I was told) is the port for Cork and we berthed just in front of a small vessel bringing in massive blades for these new windmills that are springing up, even in beautiful places like this estuary of Cobh.
Shore excursions had been promptly arranged and well over 200 Saganauts went off for a scenic drive to Clonakilty, or around Cork and along to historic Blarney Castle. Later, at the cocktail party, I did not find a single soul who had kissed the stone. Hardly surprising considering one has to lie flat and lean backwards over the parapet, perhaps too much of an athletic pose for most.
Mrs R and I left later in the morning, taking the shuttle bus to the city hall and setting off, in semi route march style, to explore a small part of the city (the one with most shops of course). I can only blame my eagle eyed self, however, for the dent placed into the credit card, as we had been discussing for some time the type of lights that should be used in our up and coming kitchen ‘refit’. Well, at least they’ll be a talking point.
The chilly morning became pleasantly warm as we continued and I suspect that even the passenger who, while waiting for the shuttle bus told me he came from Cork, was smiling. I enjoyed hearing again the delightful lilt of the locals, and the warm welcome they gave us. The alternative port call was received well according to everyone I later quizzed during our final formal evening. Calm seas forecast for the run back to Dover.
And so it all, for me at least, draws to a close. One final voyage, a week up to Norway, before parking ships and wearing the braid will be a thing of the past.
The North Sea crossing was made in great weather, a following wind and a sunny day then an overnight before entering Bergen, unfortunately at about the same time a cold front made its slow progress over the southern coast of Norway. At least the rain had reduced to a light drizzle by the time the folks went off on tour, and when they returned the sky was just a rather drab grey. Being a Sunday many shops were closed, but the nearby fun fair was the source of bright lights and youthful screams, while down in the fish market there was whale meat, smoked salmon and king crab to try.
The following morning however, was both magical and mystical as we approached Olden, with wispy layers of low cloud skirting below the mountain tops and rays of sunshine reflecting off the mirror calm of Nordfjord. I couldn’t stop myself, I had to share this visual wonder so an announcement was made through the passengers spaces, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, if you are not up on deck witnessing what I am seeing from the bridge, you really ought to be!’Believe it or not one lady actually thanked me for waking her, then again the other 600 plus passengers didn’t.
Mrs R and I joined the morning walking tour to the Briksdal Glacier, an arm of ice coming down from the Jostedal plateau and my fourth time in 13 years I believe. It is remarkable to see how far the glacier has receded in that relatively short period. Great fun though, and the Norwegian cakes given out on our return were a guilty pleasure of the first order.
Unfortunately the forecast for Flam was for strong winds and heavy rain, so the next day became one of ‘scenic cruising’and we made an early evening arrival into Stavanger, fortunate really as the next morning the port was closed due to fog. The three other passenger ships expected were delayed for several hours until the murkiness began to clear.
For a final time we went over to see the famous gardens of ‘Flor & Fjære’, still looking wonderful even in the mists rising from the fjord. Back in Stavanger the celebrations for Norway Day were in full swing, the town was bustling with thousands of locals proudly wearing national dress and enjoying themselves. Even our passengers were joining the processions weaving their way along the quayside to the new auditorium. I have never seen the city looking so ‘jolly’.
My last ever departure was a little ahead of the schedule, giving me enough time for a quick change and down to the farewell cocktail party which was programmed to start thirty minutes earlier than normal. The reason I learned, and as you might imagine, was to present a very special ‘farewell’to me.
There was an amazing video put together by the various departments wishing a happy retirement, very poignant words from my closest colleagues and a number of generous presentations, including a special ‘something’for Mrs R. Then a great number of the off duty crew and officers came on to the stage and sang a new tongue in cheek version of Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’, which became ‘It’s my way, or the gangway’. If you have met me you will smile I hope, realising my often wicked sense of humour has now been turned into song. Apparently a few tears were shed, and it wasn’t an easy act to follow. I paid tribute not only to the amazing people I have had the pleasure of working with, the fantastic journey I have had in my 13 years with Saga, but most importantly the rock in my life, my wonderful wife Helen, who is so much better with passengers than I. ‘She is my rock’, I told them, ‘The only rock I wouldn’t avoid’.
And so, just one more arrival, Dover in the morning. Where have those 48 years gone, and seemingly just in the blink of an eye? But looking back over more than ten years of Saga Blogging, putting my photos to the words and comparing my professional diary from the time, will be a joy to dip into now and again. What will I be doing on Saturday? Well, getting the runner beans in of course! And then perusing the job list……..at leisure.
It’s farewell from Mrs H and me. We look forward as one door closes, to the other side of the next door opening. Not with fear or trepidation, but with optimism and hope for a long and happy future, ‘God willing’….as my old Mum used to say!