The old pilot I remembered from over ten years ago, when I visited Rhodes every two weeks had, according to the ‘new’chap, retired. He had been a character, in many ways, but one whose ‘limitations’we had become used to over the years.
I do enjoy going for a stroll into Rhodes town, through the arch in the medieval walls and stepping back in time. Much has been restored no doubt, but in such a way that it looks as though very little has been touched. There is still, if one looks into alleys that disappear around cobbled corners, a touch of shabbiness that verges on the dilapidated. It has an atmosphere such that, if you close your eyes, you might just imagine some turbaned local with bad teeth, dressed in flowing robes and bearing a hooked dagger, stepping out menacingly from a battered, falling apart door set back in the shadows.
The shop keepers are, fortunately, dressed more appropriately these days, and they don’t look quite so threatening. In fact the ones we spoke with were charming and very pleased to see us. So much so that the final last year’s stock ‘offers’were quite forthcoming and I actually feel like I’ve saved money. My unique leather purchase is one, I am assured, that can be bought nowhere else and will be an heirloom that will be passed on long after I’m gone.
We walked up towards the highest part of town and decided to take a look inside the Palace of the Grand Master, the most important monument from the time of the Knights of St. John and built in the 14th century. Needless to say, the building has had many not so careful owners over the years and much damage was done when there was an ammunition explosion in 1856 during the Ottoman period. Between 1937 and 1940, when the Italians were in residence, the Palace was totally restored to what we see today. There are some amazing complete mosaics on the floor, period furniture, glazed pottery and restored statues. It is superb and feels like the Knights walked out just last year, well worth a visit.
Our weather has continued to be fine and warm, the seas have remained calm and, with very few other cruise ships in port, the last week or so has been somewhat idyllic.
There were a number of tours on offer after our arrival at Heraklion including a relaxed ‘Crete Panoramic’, ‘Knossos Palace and Arolithos Village’and ‘Traditional Cretan Villages’. Mrs R and I however, were invited to join around thirty guests for a ‘Magic Moment’.
With Andrea, the Food and Beverage Manager, in charge we set off in a small coach and headed for the south of the island. Within twenty minutes or so the scenery became distinctly rural, in fact any sort of semi suburbia was left behind and we were being driven through acres of vine and olive grove plantations. Narrow roads in tiny villages had to be negotiated along with farmers on tractors who seemed to come out of nowhere. We crossed a fertile plain in the middle of the island and then reached mountains on the other side. The road wound its way ever upwards as the driver negotiated the tight bends. Buzzards, or were they vultures, flew lazily overhead.
Eventually the highest pass was reached, the coach started to descend, the sea came into view and within a few minutes our destination was revealed. We had arrived at a tiny hillside village comprising traditional stone houses perched on the side of the mountain with views right down rugged slopes to the sea many hundreds of feet below. This was Thalori.
After a warm welcome accompanied by locally produced refreshment, we were given a short walking tour around this idyllic setting where, these days, only around sixty locals live. Over recent years old properties have become vacant as people passed on or moved away, so the owners of this small rustic hotel have bought them. These small homes have been sympathetically refurbished and converted into individual guest suites, all different to one another. We were even shown a tiny but original Byzantine church where a service is still held once a week.
Walking back past spring flowers growing out of old ceramic pots, we returned to the main building where the smell of lamb being slowly roasted on an open wood fire was particularly inviting. The meal of typical Cretan cuisine, brought to the tables as soon as it had been cooked, was accompanied by very pleasant red and white table wine. To finish, a goat’s cheese wrapped in a batter, deep fried and served soaked in honey. Very, very good.
There was no rush to finish and gradually everyone drifted outside to take in the views and finally return to the coach. Perhaps it was the wine for some, but I noticed a more relaxed mood as we commenced our downward spiral journey. There was even much humorous reference to Michael Caine and the final scene of that great old English classic ‘The Italian Job’, until we were back on the Plain that is, when the coach became eerily quiet.
The canons roared for our arrival, well almost. In a pre-planned arrangement, the ceremonial canons just below Barrakka Gardens viewing point, high above Grand Harbour, were fired one by one as we backed into our berth.
We took the relatively short tour which took some of our folk to the Palazzo Parisio in the village of Naxxar. Built in the 18th century by the Portuguese Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena, it was transformed in the late 19th century to what it is today by the banker Marquis Guiseppe Scicluna. These days his great granddaughter and her daughter are the custodians of this large old family home. Inside it is quite magnificent, with an impressive marbled staircase that leads up to rooms filled with lavishly decorated ceilings, murals, frescoes, antique furniture and rare paintings. The master bedroom has its own richly decorated family chapel, there is a superb billiard room, but the gilded, mirrored ballroom is perhaps the highlight. Outside the gardens, designed in the classic baroque style, were where we had time to amble.
After the visit our coach passed by the impressive Church of the Assumption in Mosta whose Dome, we were told, is the third largest unsupported dome in the world. During the Second World War a bomb pass straight through without exploding.
We took the opportunity of being dropped off in Valletta so that we could take a walk down Republic Street, which was popular as usual. There seems to be even more pavement cafes these days, even so we had a struggle to find a table in the sun, but it was lunchtime and there were many local business folk who must have had the same idea. Finally I left Mrs R to complete her mission, and strolled back down towards the harbour, stopping from time to time to take in the magnificent views.
It is always a delight to sail in to Valletta and departing this day was just as good as we had a second round of cannon fire as a send-off. Somewhere up there maybe a Saga photographer will have captured the moment, next year’s brochure perhaps?
For the past few days we have been graced with the presence of ‘Strictly’Royalty, Kevin and Karen Clifton have been the second couple from the show to be with us during our long cruise to the eastern Med. Mrs R, of course, has been in her element and even I was easily persuaded (not to dance) by these very gifted professionals. They have been quite charming, and very willing to chat away with all our guests.
Our last port before Southampton has come round all too quickly, and fortunately the weather remained spring like for our arrival into Malaga. A cool start developed into a warm sunny day and five tours went off in various directions. Rhonda, Marbella and Puerto Banus, ‘Paella and Countryside’for those feeling a little peckish (!?) plus a ‘Leisurely Malaga and ‘Flamenco’. Those of us in ‘employ’had fun with a crew emergency drill, ‘Sports Day’as it used to be called in my youth.
After, I felt it my duty to step ashore for a couple hours in order to see how Mrs R was coping with the stresses of window shopping. We met up where the shuttle bus was delivering our independent passengers and took a stroll to the nearby cathedral, a stunning building with a baroque façade inaugurated in 1588. Sitting at a caféjust opposite it was easy to see where work on the second tower eventually stopped. Money apparently ran out in 1793 and the locals called it ‘La Manquita’, the ‘handless lady’. Inside the decoration is, as one may imagine, extravagant and the five Euro entrance fee was well spent.
It would have been easy to get lost, but views of the cathedral often became visible at the junction of streets, which were busy with tourists and locals all mooching around or taking lunch at the numerous outside cafes. There were few cars as the old part of the city is mainly pedestrianised, even so there were the odd few with their tyres squealing as they turned on the marble pavements. Then there were the motorcycle police, always in pairs, slowly weaving between the unexpecting foot traffic.
We departed just before six pm, passing through the Gibraltar Straits around midnight. Three days to run before Southampton on Monday when, after just over four weeks, our guests will depart and the ship will head off for Hamburg. We have a long period of scheduled maintenance to complete before Saga Sapphire will return to ‘active service’, on June 14th.
Mrs R, and every other passenger, departed on Monday and by 2 p.m. we were on our way again, completely without any fare paying passengers. A great number of crew have also gone on vacation as we are taking the ship to Hamburg where it will remain at the ship yard of Blohm + Voss for two months.
The run up the North Sea was in clear cruising weather and speed was adjusted to arrive at the Elbe River pilot station for 11 pm on Tuesday, the yard not wanting us off their designated pier until 6 a.m. on Wednesday. In fact that was put back an hour due to the delay on another vessel, so it was a long night for the operational teams. Pilots changed at Cuxhaven and Brunsbuttel during the early hours, then a docking pilot boarded just before 6. With a tug on the stern ‘applying the brakes’in a strong flood tide, we held back until the very large bulk carrier came clear of our spot, then slotted in. All secure by 7:30 a.m., the ship was soon boarded by various B+V personnel so that we could all sit down together and discuss the various requirements and plans for the coming weeks.
The main scope of work lies in the engine room, and this is to ensure Saga Sapphire will go on for a good number of years yet. MAN, the original engine builders, will be on board 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, until completion.
With a gracious lady such as ours love and attention is required, not only to keep her to the standard that our Saga passengers expect, but also to remedy the ravages of time, wear and a salt laden atmosphere. Consequently Staff Captain Alex has designated the deck officers and deck crew with various responsibilities. All the lifeboats are ashore next to the ship and a team of guys is busy refurbishing them in relative comfort. Around the decks other teams seem determined to find any sign of rust, and are using tools that make all others realise the seriousness of their intentions.
In crew areas we have a team who are refurbishing cabin shower rooms, and contractors have started to drill holes in order to pass cables for the complete ship coverage of Wi-Fi. The funnel is now completely clad in scaffolding and, once stripped back to bear metal, will be repainted.
Ship yard preparations are just about complete and as from tomorrow, Monday, there will be many more workers on board. While all this will be taking place, our food and beverage teams will keep on top of the requirements of over 200 crew living on board. It is a tough call, but one which they have done many times before over the years. Very different from being in cruising service, but just as important.
I’m off back to ‘school’for some ‘updating’and then shortly after, vacation. Alex and another colleague arriving next month will be ‘Master and Commander’.
As April draws to a close life continues without a break on board Saga Sapphire. All initial preparations have taken place, now we are down to the ‘nitty gritty' and this means that the ship, on the outside decks at least, seems to be looking worse day by day. Soon, and when the rain eventually stops, these areas will be gradually coated first in primer and then several coats of finish paint.
The weather, despite being cold, overcast and wet, has not really held up the early stages of the work, but much like the farmers, we need some sunshine to do the ‘reaping’. The funnel, still clad in scaffolding has had some repairs, and the transfer Saga logo has been removed. It is now almost bare steel, with traces of previous ownership still evident, but they will soon disappear under the first primer which may just go on today. In keeping with the present company ‘branding’it will have a slightly different look, at least to the trained eye.
Inside the ship there are seemingly miles of thin blue cable threaded within the deck heads, with ends protruding from various apertures. Once connected up, everyone will be able to go ‘on line’from just about anywhere within the ship. With that in mind, bandwidth is going to significantly increase, which is excellent news as I have noticed more and more of our ‘tech savy’passengers are coming on board with their iPads and smart phones. I need to catch up.
The main galley is recovering from what seemed to be a minor altercation with a JCB. As old equipment was removed so various works had to be carried out. On the after deck there is thousands of pounds worth of new equipment ready to be brought in and installed. One small problem is that some of the larger stuff is too big for the door. This will not be a problem to our chaps who will, if necessary, just cut the ‘hole’bigger, and then put it back to the right size once the transfer is complete.
Down below in the engine spaces work is on schedule with MAN. I had a look at progress the other day with Chief Engineer Len and I can assure you that there are some very big, heavy, bits and pieces inside each main engine. Further forward one main generator has been overhauled and is now under test load. One large fuel tank is being cleaned out ready for survey (a rather sticky job) and Staff Captain Alex has another tank being scaled of its cement wash coating in order to replace it with a special paint coating. That one job on its own has taken over two weeks so far, with six men and scaling equipment competing with each other for a noisy race to the finish. This is definitely not a job that could have been done with passengers on board.
So, all in all, we are getting towards the end of the destruction side of the refit and I look forward to when I return in June, as by then everything will look more yacht like.