Mediterranean Wonders in France and Spain

by Bill Strubbe

My previous cruise experiences were limited to river boats with 50-60 cabins, so initially I had qualms about larger ships, but the 500-passenger Azamara Quest proved the perfect way to test the waters.

Back aboard the cruise, in the evenings the Quest offered numerous diversions: movies, history lectures by Stephen Wessley, poolside dance parties, trivia games, Suite Upgrade Bingo, Lotto, profession- al musical revues, and excellent shows in the Cabaret Lounge: DJ Alex Mac’s singing tribute to Michael Buble; the cheeky antics, card and-rope tricks of Mel Mellers; the chanteuse Sinead Blanchfield; and guitarist Victor Cruz.

Though my family perennially played Seven Card Stud and Texas Hold ’em while on vacation, I had never before laid out cards in a bona fide casino. After several evenings in Casino Luxe (with roulette, slot machines, and three-card poker games) observing the Blackjack action, I pulled up a chair and put down $50. The others at the table were patient with the novice among them (later, less so at my unbridled glee at my lucky winning streak). My fortunes waxed and waned and by the time I closed down the house at 1 A.M. I had lost $80. But I enjoyed myself and vowed that I’d bone up on blackjack basics to up the odds the next time I played. Later, I learned that Azamara offers free gaming strategy lessons.

La Pedrera Roof

La Pedrera Roof

Of course I had heard of the Rock of Gibraltar (www.gibraltar.com), but I’d never really imagined what it looked like; utterly huge and looming 1,400 feet above the labyrinthine town sprawling below where the Azamara Quest berthed for the day. The nature preserve composing the upper reaches of the shale and limestone monolith harbors unique species of flora, fauna, and Barbary macaques (some 250 live on the rock) who lounged on the walls and leapt onto the van. One jumped on Jeff’s shoulder and began grooming his head, apparently hunting for lice. Nearby a woman shrieked as a bold one snatched her Magnum ice cream, and scurried away.

Further up the steep rock, burrowed the Great Siege Tunnels excavated from 1779 to 1783 to defend against Spanish attack. Because of its strategic location at the Mediterranean’s mouth, the Pillar of Hercules (so dubbed by the Romans) has been fought over numerous times and still remains a bone of bitter contention between the British and the Spanish, whose territory begins just over the airport runway seen far below.

As we sailed west, some passengers woke at dawn to watch the Quest wedge into a tight lock while traveling upriver to Seville (www.visitseville.es), and later saw it pass the last drawbridge into the city’s center with less than a yard to spare on either side. The average cruise ship would never navigate through these tight passages. In the morning, breakfast on Window’s Café veranda afforded the extra delight of gazing out upon the cathedral spire rising above the chestnut trees.

The Muslims wrestled control of Seville in 711 C.E and reigned dur- ing the Golden Age until Ferdinand III conquered the city in 1248. With the expulsion of the Moors and Jews, the economy went into a tailspin, recovering only with the discovery of the New World when Seville became the launching pad of a myriad of ships and galleons, and soon became Spain’s wealthiest city.

We set out on a tour of the city, through the grounds of the Iberio-American Exhibition of 1929 boasting fine examples of Deco Architecture and the impressive Plaza de Espana studded with bridges and the finest of ceramic tiles. The non to the less inspiring (except for another Calatrava Bridge) contemporary buildings of the 1992 World Expo. Off the bus we visited the world’s largest Gothic cathedral, Catedral de Santa Maria, built atop a mosque, taking a century to create. Studded with gold, silver, and lavish dec- oration, the altar piece took one man a whole lifetime to carve. Christopher Columbus’ body, after being exhumed from Havana in 1902, is buried here.

That weekend in Seville was the final throes of La Feria de Abril (www.exploreseville.com), the fairgrounds within sight of the Quest. The festivities commence by lighting up the main gate at midnight on Monday and end Sunday with fireworks. Each day at noon a procession of women flaunt their finest Flamenco outfits as wandering minstrels play Sevillana guitar music. By night, after the evening bullfight in the Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza, the crowds return, many by horse- drawn carriages and on horseback, to party until dawn. As Rob and I neared, we paused while cabelleros, with their gals riding sidesaddle, rode by on horseback, passing bottles of sherry back and forth.

Bridge and Music Hall in Seville

Bridge and Music Hall in Seville

The fairground is lined with hundreds of colorfully decorated casetas (tented pavilions) sponsored by trade groups, businesses, and families. We enjoyed watching the Flamenco dancing; the women were lovely, the men darkly delicious, getting drunker by the minute, hanging onto each other in that endearing way only inebriated men do. Come the wee hours one could imagine it was not a pretty scene. Indeed, at breakfast the following morning we spotted stragglers in heels staggering home, men pissing in the bushes on the opposite bank.

One takeaway for Azamara travelers is that if money is no obstacle on land excursions, then avail yourself of the generally excellent ship-offered trips, but otherwise make judicious choices for some ports, and strike out on your own in others. An excellent alternative in almost every city are the hop-on, hop-off double deck sightseeing buses which cost $20-$30. As the trip progressed we realized that we could save a bundle by joining with others to hire a taxi for four-five hours. For example, the Azamara land excursion offered in Gibraltar costs $72 per person. Instead, six of us boarded a shuttle bus wait- ing near the ship and covered the same itinerary for a third of the cost. I met several cruise veterans traveling with friends who had planned ahead and hired a local tour service with a van, thus saving hundreds, even thousands, of dollars between them.

On the last night at the farewell cabaret show, I won a door prize: the bridge’s map plotting the ship’s course during the cruise. It was the perfect souvenir to remember this region, unique in the world. Yes, it’s easy to love the Mediterranean with its rugged cliffs, deep blue seascapes, flowers spilling from balconies, winding alleys of medieval towns, museums brimming with art gathered over the centuries, and the myriad cultural treasures waiting to be explored. The Azamara Quest proved a sterling way to cover so much territory in ease, comfort and style… And with only the need to unpack and repack once.

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