The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!


Thursday, October 31, 2013

All Sorts of Ports

We left the tidy English port of Harwich on Thursday, entered the North Sea, and spent Friday steaming south toward the coast of France. I actually prefer these days at sea -- likely a legacy of all those years in the Navy -- when I can simply relax, read, and watch the ocean slide slowly past our little balcony high up here on deck 9. The seas were actually a bit higher than usual that first day and night, and the rather large swell resulted in a nice heavy roll that seemed to take most of the passengers by surprise. I was proud of Dear Diane who dealt with the rockin' and rollin' like an old salt. 

That first afternoon, looking for a quiet spot to read, I decided the ship's library was probably the best choice. I couldn't have been more wrong. The library is tiny, perhaps twice the size of our rather compact stateroom, and can seat maybe a dozen people...if they're especially friendly. That, in itself, would be no problem since there were only a few of us trying to read. I say "trying to read" because this tiny library also hosts two desks, the ship's concierge and the Captains Club, and both attract a steady stream of passengers seeking information, not to mention constant phone calls. Consequently it's probably one of noisiest rooms on the ship. As it turned out, the quietest spot I found was a deck 10 poolside area reserved for smokers. The smokers were far quieter than the folks in the library and the smoke just swirled harmlessly upward into the ocean air. I sat there happily reading Ian Ker's biography of G. K. Chesterton for two wonderful hours.

We have met many interesting people in just our first few days aboard the ship. Most of these new acquaintances form during meal times when we spend an hour or two sitting alongside another couple and invariably discover common interests and unexpected coincidences. On Friday evening, for example, we broke bread with a couple who share a close friendship with a woman from the Cape Cod town in which we lived for 25 years, a woman whom Diane and I both knew. On Saturday we joined another couple, also new acquaintances, for dinner. New Yorkers who moved to Florida 30 years ago, they have a married daughter who lives in London. They were intrigued by our stays at the Chawton cottage and the London flat and wanted to hear the details. We dined again with this couple on Wednesday evening.

On Saturday morning we awoke to find the ship already tied up at the pier in La Rochelle, France. The working port facilities at La Rochelle are a few miles from the old city and its far more ancient port, and like most port facilities are functional and not particularly scenic. But pure functionality is usually on the ugly side, so that was no big surprise. After breakfast, Diane and I hopped on the shuttle bus provided by the cruise line and soon found ourselves at the historic center of the city where we admired the old compact port guarded by it's three medieval towers. After a quick stroll through an outdoor antique market set up in a nearby square, we walked without real purpose through the center of the old town. Our first stop was the nearby church of Saint Sauveur, a church that apparently serves the maritime community of seamen and fishermen and their families. We then window-shopped along a pedestrian-only street and made our way to the Cathedral of St. Louis and it's large square, the Place de Verdun. 

It was a lovely, warm day so we joined the locals and spent some time in an outdoor marketplace filled with displays of pumpkins and gourds and other produce. Eventually we came upon a large inner-city park and after strolling along its winding paths for some time, Diane and I pulled out our tiny tourist map and concluded that we were most assuredly lost. We must have looked lost because a lovely lady approached us and asked if we needed directions. Who says the French are a bunch of grumpy xenophobes? Anyhow, thanks to her kindness we made it back to the port, stopped for an espresso (me) and cappichino (Diane), and after snapping a few dozen more photos, boarded the shuttle bus that returned us to the ship. Some scenes from our wanderings around La Rochelle...






As you can tell from the above description of our visit to La Rochelle, if one wants to get to know a city or country, a cruise ship is probably the worst vehicle for doing so. On a good day one might have six or seven hours to breeze through a port city, see a few of the more obvious or important sights, buy a couple of souvenirs, grab a bite to eat, and return to the ship. If you're fortunate you might chat with one or two locals for a few moments, but at best you will gain no more than the slightest appreciation of the city and it's people. 

Of course, instead of wandering around aimlessly as we did, one can purchase a seat on a cruise-line sponsored "excursion." These are really just basic tours run by local companies. Some are quite good, some are horrible, but all are over-priced because too many folks have their fingers in the till. One morning at breakfast I overheard a man describing an excursion from La Rochelle to the Cognac region: "We spent an hour and forty minutes on a bus, arrived at Cognac, our destination, were given a tiny shot glass half-filled with brandy, had a mediocre lunch, and were then put on the bus for the return trip." For this he paid $199 per person. 

Although Diane and I chose not to take any of the excursions at La Rochelle, we did select one of the less expensive tours in each of the next three ports: Gijon, Spain; Vigo, Spain; and Lisbon, Portugal. Each of these excursions was better than most of the tours we've taken in the past, but Monday's excursion at Vigo was the best by far. The tour involved an hour-long bus trip to the famous pilgrimage site, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. How wonderful it was to visit this remarkable cathedral, to pray before the tomb of the Apostle James, and to see the joy on the faces of the exhausted pilgrims who have made the long journey on foot across northern Spain. Our guide, a young woman named Helena, was knowledgable, pleasant and obviously enjoyed her work. We were able to spend several hours visiting the cathedral and the city before returning to Vigo on the bus. It was a lovely day. I've included some photos below...









The previous day, after our arrival in Gijon, in the province of Asturias, we climbed aboard a bus and joined the tour to Oviedo. This tour was a bit of a disappointment because we were unable to enter several of the Romanesque and gothic churches we visited. We did, however, enjoy our long ramble through an extensive marketplace that filled a number of local streets and in which one could buy virtually everything from antiques to underwear. Some scenes from our visit...





Yesterday, Tuesday, the ship arrived at Lisbon. The city's magnificent harbor, one of God's great gifts to this small yet strategically located nation, does much to explain the influence of the sea on the history of Portugal. Possessed of a harbor like Lisbon, located just "around the corner" from the Mediterranean, the Portuguese had no choice to be anything but a seagoing people. One glance at the map of Portugal shows how Lisbon's harbor dominates the nation's Atlantic coastline, a coastline that forms a maritime highway for shipping moving in and out of the Mediterranean Sea, to and from the ports of Northern Europe. It's no wonder that, despite the cultural chasm created by religious differences, England formed an effective and long-lasting alliance with Portugal that gave it access to Lisbon's perfectly formed harbor in the estuary of the Tagus. Here's our ship docked at Lisbon...


Diane and I decided to take the "Walking Tour of Lisbon" which was led by Katerina, a delightful young woman who shared her knowledge and enthusiasm for all things Portuguese with us. One senses that the Portuguese are a more devout people than the people of Spain, although this observation of mine is based on a rather small and not so random sample: about a week in Barcelona a few years ago and three brief port visits this week. The Spaniards we encountered seem to be no more than "cultural" Catholics while the Portuguese seem to live their faith more deeply. I could of course be very wrong. It's happened before.

Here's a photo taken inside the beautiful church of St. Roque, followed by a few of other Lisbon scenes...





I was particularly impressed with the unique architecture of Lisbon, an architecture that seems to reflect its close association with the sea, a kind of sinuous, rope-like architecture present in some of its structures. The exterior walls of many buildings are covered with colorful tiles, another unique aspect of Lisbon's architecture. Viewing them from a distance I was captivated by the whole, by the intricate and colorful look of these buildings. And yet, I felt drawn to them. I wanted to approach them and examine the individual tiles up close. The following are a few photos of buildings and their tiles...



Diane and I stopped by a shop that specialized in the crafts of Portugal. Half of the shop was devoted to products made in the north of the country and half to products from the south. We bought a colorful wine pitcher (from the south) to complement those we had purchased on previous trips to Italy and Spain. I also bought a bottle of 10-year-old Port since it would be sacrilegious not to buy Port when in Portugal. As a result of this first, very brief visit, I believe I'd like to return and spend more time in this fascinating country.

Leaving Lisbon we entered the Atlantic and began our seven-day voyage across the ocean to Nassau in the Bahamas, and then on to Miami. Oddly enough, this is the part of the cruise I will enjoy the most. For me it is a time of relaxation and restoration. I will enjoy every minute as I work my way through the stack of books piled up on our coffee table. And I simply enjoy being at sea. Although we are now hundreds of miles west of Lisbon, the open sea here in the mid-Atlantic is almost glassy, with only a hint of a low swell. We can only hope that the weather remains pleasant as we make our way home. 

Here's a photo I just took with my trusty iPad -- from my chair in a deck 11 lounge overlooking the ship's bow. Note the calmness of the sea today.


I just heard that the Red Sox won the World Series. Several of my children, avid Sox fans, will be happy. And so I, too, am happy.

Blessings...


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