Cruising Oslofjord

Oslofjord From the City

Oslofjord from the City

The Oslofjord is about 100 kilometres long and connects the city of Oslo with the North Sea.  As we had traveled the northward passage at night, we had the opportunity to take in the scenery and history of the bay on our southward exit.

The “fjord” in its northern section (Drøbak to Oslo) is lined with tree-lined hills, and  small settlements, and it is dotted with islands of various sizes.

 

The October voyage was cool and crisp, but allowed for much of the changing colours of autumn to be taken in. While much of the coastline was rocky, there remained a sense of tranquility, with calm seas, and natural beauty.

 

As we traveled further south the clouds came down to meet the hilltops and made for some really spectacular views.  The islands, some no more than large rocks, and others tree-topped with small settlements of their own gave a variety and diversity to the scenery.

 

On one of the larger islands, we came across the Oscarsborg Fortress, which played a vital role in Norway’s defense on the 9th of April 1940.  In what has come to be known as the Battle Drøbak Sound, the island’s batteries, and the torpedo batteries on the main land came into action to repel the Nazi invasion.  The valiant defense led intentionally to a Norwegian victory with the sinking of the German cruiser Blücher, and the damaging of the Lützow.  The success was short-lived as the Germans continued their assault on Oslo via a different route, it remained important as it allowed time for the Norwegian Royal Family, the parliament, and the national gold reserves to escape before the Nazi arrival.

After Oscarsborg we continued into the ever widening bay as it extends southwards towards the North Sea.  We soon were into the shipping lanes, and the coastline and islands blurred into the distance.

 

This was a wonderful passage, and while Oslofjord is not a true fjord in geographical terms, it has made me want to make a “fjords cruise” in the future.

Padre

Whirlwind Visit to Oslo

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Marco Polo in Oslo

A while back, my wife and I made a whirlwind visit to Oslo in Norway.  We had arrived on the MS Marco Polo before dawn, and were able to make our way into the city as the sun rose.  I spent a half and hour or so taking in the port and Akershus Fortress before heading into town.

Akershus Fortress at Dawn

Fortress on a Misty Dawn

The fortress is impressive, and as we were moored in its shadow it allowed some great external views before it opened to the public for the day. At the foot of the fortress is a memorial to Norway’s Holocaust victims. I have posted on these in the past.

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Holocaust Memorial

 

A monument to the Norwegian Navy is also in the area.

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Naval Memorial

I passed by the Kongens Gate and headed as is our family practice to hard Rock Cafe.  This is very close to the National Theatre (which a a beautiful building in its own right), and is very convenient to the central government buildings.

We arrived on the day of a state visit by the prime minister/president(?)  of India to Norway.  The entire city centre was decked with Norwegian and Indian flags.  There were some security cordons in place, and it did briefly limit our (my wife and myself) access to the main thoroughfare.  To kill a few moments after Hard Rock and while waiting for the road to clear, we stepped into the tourist information centre.  We looked around and then departed out a side door rather than the main entrance, just in time to come within metres of the royal car with the smiling queen and Indian officials.  We couldn’t have planned that one.

Hard Rock View of State Visit Route

State Visit

After our visit to the centre, I headed to the last monument of this excursion, The Scandinavian Star Memorial.

Scandinavian Star Memorial

Scandinavian Star Memorial

On the 7th of April 1990, a fire broke out on the Scandinavian Star.  As it spread the stairwells became chimneys and the fire became even more intense.  Attempts to cut off the fire only served to spread it, and in the end 159 people died.  The memorial remembers the victims of this tragedy.  Another memorial is the fact that the disaster led to the reworking of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea.

As we only had a morning to take in Oslo, we were very limited in our sites.  It is definitely a place to return to.

Padre

Biscay Cruise (Part 6): French Ports

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Cruise Terminal La Rochelle

Our voyage next took us to the port of La Rochelle midway up the French coast.  We had accomplished a lot on our Spanish leg, so when we found out that our berth was some 30 minutes outside the city, we decided to make it an additional “sea day” rather than facing a long shuttle journey.  Fair enough we missed out on what several fellow passengers said was a picturesque town, but we had some quality time of our own.

We took to the upper decks initially and look in the nearby Ile de Re.  It is beautiful, and the bridge connecting it to La Rochelle is truly impressive. This is a wonderful piece of engineering, and is nearly 3 kilometres long.  It is also a great backdrop to the water-bourne traffic below it. It is well worth seeing.  We sat and watched the sailboats, and noted the butterflies passing over the ship to and from the island and the mainland.

 

We then had some mocktails in an outer deck bar, and headed down to our little sanctuary of peace in the Andersons Lounge.  Soon enough, everyone was returning to Aurora, and the “Great British Sail-away” was held.  Music on the deck, and the outer portions of the ship bedecked with union jacks.  I thought the theme was a bit cheeky when leaving a French port, but good-natured rivalries have their place I guess.
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Ready for Sail-away

 


We sailed away and headed north.  Our next stop, Cherbourg.  While technically no longer on the Bay of Biscay, it was nevertheless our final stop before returning to Southampton.

A shuttle service was put on for us and it dropped us near the Office de Tourisme Cherbourg. This is a useful little tourist centre. It has the usual assortment of local brochures, some multilingual staff to help with inquiries, and a small but basic souvenir bit with postcards, etc. There are two computer terminals as well, and a limited amount of seating, but this more intended for computer use, or as a wait to see staff. It is located in a good place near the square and makes a good starting point.

 

It was a very short walk to the Place du General-de-Gaulle and we found it a lively place which offered a great local atmosphere. There is a fountain, seating, cafes, and a great view of the old theatre. The square is the starting point for both a road train tour, and several horse drawn carriage tours came through here as well. This was a family friendly place, with a carousel as well as the tours, and local fish and cheese vendors had their stalls open as well. We bought some really wonderful Camembert which was sold as the cheese monger’s (le specialiste fromage) own brand, and a huge wedge of Port Salut, which we later ate with baguettes.
The square is a place to get a cup of coffee, and just soak up the local culture and atmosphere.

 

The theatre is an impressive building with a wonderful facade. But the Cafe du Theatre was rather underwhelming. It did seem popular (or at least busy), and offered some indoor and outdoor seating. The outdoor seating gave good views of the fountain, carousel, and life in the Place du General De Gaulle, but the service seemed hit and miss, and the drinks rather dear for the quality. The latte was a bit bitter, and the tea rather average.

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Theatre (cafe to left)

After leaving the square we returned to the ship. But not before seeing the Cite de la mar. This is a museum and aquarium which is housed in the old cruise terminal. This huge space is directly along side the Quai de la France, where cruise ships still dock. It is therefore super convenient for cruise passengers, in fact the entrance to the museum was literally metres from our gangway when we came off the ship. The complex also has a French nuclear submarine which can be explored.

Back on board we made our preparations for our return to Blighty.  It was an super cruise, and one which made me feel warmer to P and O.

Padre

Biscay Cruise (Part Five): The Basque Region

Our next port of call, Bilbao, brought us to the Basque country.  Bilbao is an attractive city, and a gateway to the Basque region. It is home to the Guggenheim Museum (in the shape of a ship, but also with titanium tiles like fish scales), and of some outstanding engineering in both its White Bridge and the Transporter Bridge. The city is fairly clean, and has less graffiti than I saw in some other regions of Spain. With the ferry, and cruise ports it is an excellent place to start any visit to the Basques. We, however, deferred checking out the city and headed inland.

Our first stop was Guernica (Gernika).  This was a powerful and moving place to explore.
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Picasso’s Guernica

The horrors of war were brought home to Guernica on a Monday morning in April 1937. This small market town was purposely and symbolically attacked from the air by Franco’s Nazi/Fascist allies. This was a direct attack on democracy, and on a civilian population. It is not surprising then, that Guernica should be along with Hiroshima a living reminder for the need for peace.

The attack on Guernica so appalled the artist Pablo Picasso that he began a monumental mural to call the world’s attention to the atrocity.  A tile reproduction of that famous work now stands near the Magistrates Court in the town.

The town also is the site of the Gernika Peace Museum. This museum and its fronting square serve as a reminder. Here the horror of war, and need for peace are focused on. There are several international photo displays on the outside as well, showing a kindred theme.

As I have noted, Guernica was purposely chosen as an example.  This is because the town was the home of the Basque Parliament.  One of, if not the oldest continuous democracies in the world.

This ancient democracy originally met in the shade of an oak tree.  The stump of the old oak is preserved under pillars, and its offspring now officiates in front of an additional pillared structure.

This said, there is now a “modern” assembly house for the Basque Parliament, the Casa de Juntas.  This serves as a debating and law making chamber. The assembly room is full of paintings and the red chairs for the members of the assembly, but an outer room with a huge stained glass ceiling is used for informal discussions, and has loads of symbolism most notably of the oak.

Under the chamber there is a small cinema area in which a very informative presentation on the Basque democracy is presented and explained, and again the oak is featured.

The Basques are a proud people with a huge legacy.  Our guide noted that their language is unique in that part of Europe, and that the people were notable for having never  been conquered by the Romans or the Moors, as was the rest of Spain.

Casa de Juntas is a great place to learn about the Basque people, their democracy, and history more generally. It is highly recommended.

After Guernica we went to the fishing village/town of Bermeo.  There is a vistors’ centre, a really lovely park with a sculpture trail and a carousel, and several nice tapas bars.  We went to the one called Akatz.  We had some really nice coffee and tea from an iron teapot.  We also had some really high quality tapas, in the regional style of everything served with toothpicks or skewers.  The prawns were is a wonderfully spiced seafood sauce, and served with a soft baguette.

 

Ballenero Aita Guria is an old whaling vessel and is along the port area of Bermeo near the tourist information and the waterfront park. It is an interesting dark wood ship, and while it has no masts, still gives the feel of the bygone era.

After a brief stay we were once again on our way.  This time to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. This is in a fascinating bit of the Basque coastline with the surfer bays, rugged islands, and outstanding scenery.  It is now famous as well for being one of the filming locations for Game of Thrones. There is some lay-by parking available to look down on the area from above for those for whom the walled walks and rugged paths are beyond their abilities.

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Basque Coastline

After taking in the scenery, we made our way back to Bilbao, and to the Vizcaya Bridge,
the world’s oldest transporter bridge, This is an incredible feat of engineering. Built in the late 19th Century by one of the students/colleagues of Eiffel, this bridge bears all the hallmarks of that relationship. The bridge ironwork looks much like Eiffel’s tower, and the mechanism of moving the platform across the river in ingenious. While it only carries a few vehicles at a time, the crossing only takes 8 minutes, and foot passengers are carried across on the sides as well. The high beam allows river traffic to move, and the platform is quickly cleared away as well. This too is a “must see.”
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Transporter Bridge

Our day coming to an end, we returned to Aurora to begin our journey towards France.

Padre

Biscay Cruise (Part 4a): The Cathedral of Santiago

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Santiago de Compostela

This wonderful cathedral is the focal point of the entire pilgrims’ trail. It is said to house the remains of Saint James the Apostle, and has been a site of veneration for centuries. The golden altar, and silver casket, the coming and going of pilgrims and the sense of the faith of those who have journeyed there, and built it as a token of faith is evident everywhere. Some features are well worn by the faithful’s touch over the years.

This is a grand Catholic cathedral, and the symbolism is strong throughout. There is a set of special doors opened only in certain years which pilgrims can enter for the forgiveness of sin, and these are regulated directly from the Vatican as to when they can be opened. Again truly powerful in the spiritual feel and significance of the place.

We arrived just as mass was about to begin. The cathedral was packed, and the pilgrims and tourists were beginning to settle. The altar area and censer were beautifully crafted, and added to the sense of spiritual praise and elevation of the cathedral.

Again, as I stated in my post on preparing for the spiritual aspect of pilgrimage,  I get much from the faith and devotion of those around me.  The true communion of the saints.  I also marvel at the works of art and architecture which are marks of the faith of those of previous generations.  This cathedral is moving in all of these.  Only at the Holy Sepulchre, have I felt it more.

That said, when mass is not taking place there are many areas to explore, and huge number of confessionals.  There is a museum and a shop, as well, which sells guidebooks and religious artifacts such as rosaries and pilgrims’ badges (more marks of faith).

When we finished in the cathedral we made our way to the Plaza de la Quintana behind the cathedral. We stopped in the plaza to take in the atmosphere, and to admire the architecture. It had some beggars, but it was quieter than the main square. There were cafes, and plaza offered great views of the cathedral and the surrounding buildings. We watched the arrival of pilgrims, and had a quiet time for reflection.

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Cafe

We then stopped for a cup of tea and coffee at Cre-Cotte a cafe/creperie in the square. The atmosphere was great, and we continued to watch the pilgrims and tourists coming and going in the plaza. And just soaked in the feel. The tea was good, but the coffee was a bit tart even when sweetened. The service was quick. It was also a great place to take in the architecture of the cathedral (this section not under scaffolding) and the surrounding buildings.

With our pilgrimage achieved, we decided to go back to Praza do Obradoiro to try the “road train” tour of the city. We have used “road train” facilities before in other cities and most have been interesting, even if limited. This one however, is interesting for all the wrong reasons.  Plus points first, you do get to see the city. Sorry, that’s it.

On the negative front, the tour is over very rugged cobbles, and there is a lot of jarring about. It is so rough in areas that any photography is impossible. On smoother sections it travels at too great a speed to take focused pictures. Only on the occasional stop for traffic signals are there any photo ops. The commentary is okay, but is difficult to listen to, accent is only a minor issue, but that it is over a intercom is more difficult to hear. It also has a limited scope of the sites available and spends more time in the university campuses than in the traditional old sectors.  In short the tour was a diabolical bone shaking experience with little merit.

Once back to the plaza, we went for a recuperation, and some pampering at Cafeteria Hostal dos Reis Catolicos. This was a true parador experience. Firstly, this is a beautiful building with excellent service, and really tasty food. We had a good quality tea, and a latte. Then shared an octopus dish with olive oils, spices and very good bread wedges. This was followed by St James Cake, which was also rich and satisfying. This was a luxury experience and one well worth making if in Santiago.

It was all to soon that we had to depart the city.  But it will remain one of the outstanding experiences of my life.

Padre

 

 

Biscay Cruise (Part 4): Santiago De Compostela

While it was my intention to do a single posting for Santiago, it seems that the experience merits more (so apologies for rambling in my ramblings).

The Camino de Santiago or Way of Saint James is the series of paths leading to the pilgrimage site in Santiago. Owing to mobility issues, I was limited to traveling only 7 km of The Way. It was nonetheless a beautiful and moving experience. The various paths across Spain and beyond come together at Santiago. They do in a sense as the fan out from the cathedral form a scallop pattern. It is this symbol that marks the way. I found them along the short distance outside of Santiago, but also in Guernica. As I got closer to the cathedral it is with some irony that this is where pilgrims’ staves are sold. But, even this can make a souvenir of the spiritual journey one has made.

 

As the cathedral was approached we first came upon the Convent of Saint Francis (Convento de San Francisco).  This is a beautifully designed convent, and the monument to St Francis is also wonderfully constructed. Both serve as inspirational landmarks on the way to the cathedral, and mark the spiritual heritage of the order, and of the city.

 

We soon arrived at Plaza del Obradoiro.  This is a grand plaza at the end of the pilgrims’ trail. It features the main entrance to the cathedral, and the Palacio de Raxoi. There are buskers, beggars, vendors, and pilgrims galore, and the views are great. It is a shame that the cathedral on this side is undergoing restoration, as it does slightly diminish the visual impact, though the spiritual and cultural feel is still powerful here.

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Palacio de Raxoi

The Palacio de Raxoi is a truly grand building with its massive facades and pillars. With the Cathedral under scaffolding at present, this building maintains the grandeur of the plaza. I believe it is a former seminary, and if so it would have been a inspiring place to study. As far as architectural landmarks go, this is a must see.

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Igreja de San Fructuoso

To the side of the Plaza is the Igreja de San Fructuoso.  This is a small round church, which sits below the main square.  Because of its recessed position, its top is essentially at eye level to those in the square. This is a beautiful little church on the approaches to the cathedral. It has a wonderful exterior, and works as a useful landmark as well when finding one’s way back from the plazas.

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Fuente de Los Caballos

As the main entrance of the cathedral is under renovation, we had to make our way to a smaller square at the side of the building.  This square is the home of Fuente de Los Caballos.  There was no real seating here, though one could rest on the steps of adjoining buildings. The queues were long to enter the cathedral, but square did offer great views of this lovely horse-motif fountain.

As mass was about to begin the lines were especially long.  My wife sought some assistance for me as the steps at this entrance were rather severe, and I was allowed to enter from an alternative entrance.

Next up, the cathedral experience and beyond.

Padre

 

Biscay Cruise (Part 3): La Coruna, Spain

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Crystal City

La Coruna is a port city in the Galicia region of Spain.  It has a well deserved nickname of “The Crystal City,” owing to its 19th Century glassed-in balconies. These are especially prevalent along the Avenida de la Marina in the Centro Historico. This is a really beautiful area, and the glassed balconies do give the impression of a crystal city. The effect from a distance is amazing, but even up close the architecture and long lines of glass-work are really something to see. Unfortunately, when viewing the area up close, there is a lot of graffiti at ground level.

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The Wedding Cake

Another architectural “must see” is A Terraza, near the marina.  This beautiful structure  lives up to its local nickname “the Wedding Cake.” It is a marvelous building, and the more one looks at it, the more amazing features can be discovered.

Before making this journey, I was aware of the strong regional identity of the Catalans.  I was unaware, however, that other Spanish regions held themselves as similarly distinctive.  The Galegos are indeed proud of their Celtic heritage.  This Celtic link is shown in many regional characteristics, from unique drinks to the self-identity with “white witchcraft.”  Many market stalls and souvenir shops sell witch puppets as a reminder of this.

These witch puppets are interesting as they are used regionally on St John’s Eve, as part of a bonfire, not far off from the English Fifth of November celebrations.  Large fires are lit on mid-summer’s eve (much like the ancient Celts).  There is a twist, however, as these witch puppets are thrown into the flames to remember the “white witches” burned by the Inquisition.

Bonfires aside, fire has become an issue in this area.  With the economic collapse of Spain in the 1980s, the remaining industries needed to be maximised. This led to the large scale plantation of eucalyptus to support the areas paper mills.  These trees mature at a much greater speed than the native oaks, but they are far less fire resistant.  This has led to wildfires in the region.

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Tower of Hercules

La Corunas’ greatest feature is its Roman Lighthouse.  The Tower of Hercules is a UNESCO heritage site, and is the world’s oldest operating maritime beacon.  I wish I had made this journey before writing my recent blog on lighthouses, as it would have been sure to have featured.  This wonderful tower was built in the 2nd Century, and is 57 metres tall and is a fascinating feature overlooking the approach to the city. While it has been modernised, it still had its original Roman feel. It is a must see, though those with mobility issues may prefer to see it from the car park below, or from the sea.

Next stop Santiago de Compostela.

Padre

 

Biscay Cruise (Part Two): Sea Days

The two sea days crossing Bay of Biscay were wet and blustery.  The pools were wave machines in their own right, and most passengers stayed in the enclosed areas of the ship and made the most of the dining and lounge spaces, as well as the entertainment venues.

One of these oases of calm is the Anderson’s Lounge.  This is a beautiful space with upholstered couches, a marble mock fireplace, and hardwood paneling. My wife and I had some high quality chill time in these luxurious surroundings.

Another quality space is the Curzon Theatre. This was one of the main entertainment venues, and we attended a really wonderful presentation of the life and work of Nat King Cole.  This was a well researched bio talk interspersed with clips of his music and television performances.

Other entertainment spaces included the casino (which I passed through on a couple of occasions-not really my kind of pass-time) and the Playhouse Cinema which featured several recent release films.

Food is a big part of any cruise holiday, and while we took most of our meals in the Alexandria Restaurant (Greek theme),  there was also the Medina Restaurant (Arabesque decor) with an open seating arrangement as opposed to Alexandria’s first and second seating style), and the Horizons Buffet which had something on offer for over 16 hours each day.

We soon had the rough bit of the Bay of Biscay behind us, and the weather warmed as we approached our port of call of La Coruna in Galicia, Spain.  Here comes the sun!

Padre

 

 

Biscay Cruise (Part One): The Run Up and Embarkation

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Aurora

I have just returned from a seven day cruise on the P & O ship Aurora.  Our journey took us through the Bay of Biscay to Northern Spain and the west coast of France.  While the crossing of the bay itself was damp, blowy, and at times rough, each port proved sunny and very pleasant.

As we were departing from Southampton on the Sunday, my wife and I set out Saturday so we could be rested on the embarkation day.  We had booked a room in the Days Inn at Winchester services, so checked in, and went to our budget room.  We had never previously stayed in a Day Inn, so there were some things we had not expected. First, there is no decor, and not even drawers or a closet. Plain white walls, a couple of hooks with hangers on the walls, a desk, a TV and a bed. The bed was overly firm, and made for fairly uncomfortable night’s sleep.  Breakfast was from the Costa Coffee at the adjoining services.  All in all cheap, basic, and not to be repeated.

 

We arrived at Southampton Docks about noon, and were met by the porters and parking team, who took our luggage and car respectively, and we were shown into the terminal.  The mobility assistance team were great and checked us in quickly and assisted us onto the ship after a brief security check.

When we boarded the cabin wasn’t ready quite yet, so we were taken to the Alexandria Restaurant where a welcome aboard buffet and a drink had been put on for Peninsular Club members.  We had a light snack and our cabin was soon ready.  We were on Deck 11 midships and while the cabin was a small inside one, it had a comfortable bed, a small settee, and loads of wardrobe and drawer space.

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Cabin A227

There is always the muster/lifeboat drill to deal with, and this was done well with the minimum of disruption.  We went to our muster station and were briefed, and then the captain spoke over the intercom giving us our welcome, and some general ship’s policies.  All in all, one of the better drills I have experienced.

We then settled in, unpacked, and went for a small exploration of the ship before our first night’s dinner (casual).  We had a nice 4 course meal (starter, soup, mains, and dessert) and then were off to bed to make up for the poor night’s sleep on Saturday.  The following day would prove to be a blustery one on the Bay of Biscay, but that’s a different story.

 

Padre

Exploring the City of Explorers: Lisbon, Portugal

 

I have been to Lisbon on two occasions.  Once as a via air visit to meet up with my wife and daughter who were stopping there on a cruise; and the second time as a port of call on the return leg of my recent Canaries cruise.

Lisbon is a fabulous city, and one steeped in history and linked to exploration. The exploration ties are seen in the prominent place of Vasco da Gama’s crypt in Jeronimos Monastery and his cenotaph at the National Pantheon.

The Monument to the Discoveries (Padrão dos Descobrimentos) adds to this celebration of exploration and honours Henry the Navigator and his successors.  There is also a memorial to Gago Coutinho and his biplane Santa Cruz.  he was the first pilot to fly across the South Atlantic, a journey of 8,400 kilometres in 1922.

 

Lisbon’s history is not all outreach and expansion, however. The city was famously destroyed by a great earthquake in 1755.  The church, Igreja de São Domingos still shows damage from this quake and from another catastrophic fire.

Lisbon has some wonderful fountains and squares and the cobblestone pavements are beautifully laid out.  There is a Hop on Hop off service which takes visitors to all of the mentioned sites, as well as past the April 25th Bridge, and the Christ the King Statue.  There is also a very good Hard Rock Cafe, which has earlier opening hours than found in many other cities.

 

The city’s churches, cathedral, and the monastery offer not only beautiful architecture to explore but a visible reminder of the Christian heritage.

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Lisbon is a great city to explore, and one which I hope to visit again.

Padre