There is a whole section of the British population that lives to float. They are dedicated cruisers and remain faithful to their chosen line. P&O seems to have attracted many of those who have adopted cruising as part of their lifestyle.
The Americans have a term for those who fly south in winter to follow the sun. They are called ‘Snowbirds’. Perhaps the British equivalent term for those travellers who have time to voyage would be ‘Snowduck’.
I am a novice cruiser but I can understand the appeal it has, especially for older folks who would otherwise be at home in a cold house watching news about more impending fuel price hikes. P&O’s Christmas and New Year cruise offers a gentle departure from the inevitable tensions of Christmas catering and tree-trimming.
This particular package offered glimpses of some of the most celebrated port cities on the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts.
La Coruña is the closest European port to New York, and is the most northern destination on this list of ports of call. It displays some of its charm even before the expectant tripper negotiates the land-ward gangplank (there is probably a more correct nautical term for the bit of wood that joins boat to land …and is it a boat or is it a ship?) One has the advantage of the best view in town of, well, the town.
The architecture is striking. La Coruña is also known as the Crystal City and that monika is well deserved: on summer evenings the glass-covered balconies reflect dazzling light. Even on dull grey days those buildings are imposing with thousands of uniform windows looking out across the marina and harbour. A less appealing fact about those balconies is that they once housed the toilets for the homes behind the glassy facades. A loo was considered a status symbol and was to be flaunted.
La Coruña is a mixture of old and new town with a couple of miles of beaches. The colonnaded Maria Pita Square marks the centre of the old town and boasts many shops, bars and restaurants. Another attraction of La Coruña is its proximity to one of the world’s great pilgrimage destinations: Santiago de Compostela. Even in these fast-paced modern times there are still folks who walk long distances just to visit this holy site. They carry the scallop shell which is a centuries-old symbol of St James, the patron saint of the cathedral.
This is the city that every cruiser will want to visit. One might be jaded through globe-trotting and have the air of ‘been there – done that’ but Venice draws the traveller like a cultural magnet. We have all seen pictures of St Marks Square and the Grand Canal but now it’s accessible to the P&O passenger and it’s a sure bet that the vessel will empty, with everyone wanting to enjoy the romance of timeless Venice.
Cars are banned from the narrow cobbled streets and 500 historic bridges of the city centre, so there are just two modes of transport available to both visitor and local alike: the vaporetto (water-bus) network, and feet. The best way to see the Grand Canal is from the water. Catch a vaporetto, sit out the front and take in the sights. Vaporetto lines 1, 3, 4, 82, and N go along the Canal. A gondola ride is usually reserved for marriage proposals, ice-cream advertising, or for those with more money than sense.
Places to visit: Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale), St Mark’s Basilica (Basilica di San Marco), Rialto Bridge (Ponte di Rialto), Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri). At the end of the year there are Christmas markets in different parts of Venice, but the main one is in the Campo San Stefano. It runs from early December through to Christmas Eve, and you can enjoy music performances, shopping for Italian crafts, and seasonal foods. There’s mulled wine and sweets, souvenirs and ornaments for your tree next year.
It’s a city with a long history. Unfortunately it is now most remembered for bloodshed during the Serbo-Croatian war. We all witnessed the appalling sight of Serbian snipers targeting civilians as they searched for food and water.
Dubrovnik is a beautiful 12th century walled city with an Old Town, harbour, and towering stone walls. There is a 14th century Franciscan Monastery, the 18th century Baroque Church of St Blaise, Dubrovnik’s patron saint, and the world’s oldest pharmacy, dating back to 1391.
This isn’t a living museum, though. There is plenty to tempt those who want to just relax and enjoy some local cuisine and a bit of retail therapy. The side streets offer restaurants for a shore-side lunch, and cafés to haunt when coffee and a sit-down are in order. There is plenty of opportunity to spend some cash in small local shops – but all transactions must be in Croatian currency, and not every shop will accept a credit card.
Dominated by its iconic Gothic cathedral, Palma is the capital of the autonomous region of the Balearic Islands. It is now a sophisticated destination in the Mediterranean and has shaken off the cheap and cheerful package tour image that has so blighted the rest of the islands. The classy boutiques and fine restaurants attest to the fact that Palma is open for business with the polished visitor.
Fanning out around the cathedral are side streets and alleys which hark back to Majorca’s Moorish past. The Arabic Baths situated in the narrow streets of the medieval quarter of the city is one of the few remaining Moorish-built structures in Palma.
Other places of interest include the circular Castell de Bellver, overlooking the bay to the west, and the Almudaina Palace opposite the cathedral. The main shopping areas for high-end boutiques and designer merchandise are Avinguda Jaume III and the Passeig des Born. The pedestrian streets around Plaça Major are filled with small specialist shops and stalls selling handicrafts on Monday, Friday and Saturday mornings. There’s also a small shopping centre for any additional souvenir needs.
Valencia is Spain’s third-largest city and is known for its people-watching cafés, and paella, which is considered the most delicious and authentic in Spain. But there is more here than convivial coffee and rice. La Lonja de la Seda, a silk market in Gothic style built between 1482 and 1548, is located at Plaza del Mercado. Iglesia Major, the main cathedral of Valencia, dates from the 12th century.
Any food lover will want to linger in the food market, with its striking façade of Modernist architecture. Best buys are herbs and spices, and pre-packed ham; also rice and saffron, to replicate an authentic paella at home. Take time to have some tapas with the locals and enjoy some of that delicious ham.
Cartagena was founded more than 2,200 years ago by the Carthaginians and is now one of Spain’s busiest commercial centres. The Caridad church is one of the most significant churches in the city, and dedicated to the patron saint of Cartagena. Food here, as in the rest of Spain, is important. The calderos (casseroles) with grey mullet, monkfish, and grouper are made of rice cooked in fish stock and accompanied by a garlic mayonnaise. There is plenty of choice for gifts to take home from a host of boutiques as well as the usual high-street names, including the El Corte Ingles chain of department stores, which is a celebrated high-end emporium.
Cartagena has more than 12 museums to explore and some of them are free! The Roman Theatre which was only discovered in 1987 is always popular in this city that boasts so much of historic interest.
It’s a little bit of Britain transplanted in the Med. There are pubs and shops on Main Street that will be familiar to everyone from the UK. Gibraltar was handed over to the British by Spain in the 18th century, and it has remained a bastion of Britishness ever since. Spain has periodically flexed intimidating muscles to encourage the population to accept Spain’s sovereignty but so far those efforts seem only to have entrenched the Gibraltarians still further in the belief that maintaining the status quo might be best.
Gibraltar is celebrated not just for convenient shopping but for its Rock which is a mammoth boulder of limestone, home to the Barbary macaques. It is said to be one of the ancient Pillars of Hercules, with the other being found opposite in Morocco.
Other places of interest include Alameda Botanical Gardens, The Casino, City Gates and Fortifications, The Convent, official residence of the Governor of Gibraltar since 1728, and the Gibraltar Museum.
Some of the best views of this city, the Portuguese capital, come from the Tagus River. On your journey upstream you pass the Belem Tower and the impressive Monument to the Discoveries with its statue of Henry the Navigator.
Lisbon is small for a capital city by European standards but what it lacks in size it makes up for in character. Much of the area along the river has been transformed over the past decades from rather edgy neighbourhoods to areas of shops, restaurants and social activity.
It’s a city of narrow streets lined with boutiques, shops offering leather handbags and shoes, and cafes that tempt with fresh coffee and traditional Portuguese pastries. These are as much a local obsession as pasta might be in Italy. You have an excuse to sample some custard tarts, as it’s cultural research – and it would be rude not to!
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018