Saturday, 13 August 2011

I have been to … Norway … and then to Spain, France, Italy, and Gibraltar

This Summer my wife and I took two consecutive cruises on the same ship – P&O’s MV AURORA – to Norway and then on to the Western Mediterranean. Taking what are termed ‘back-to-back’ cruises is not that unusual … and gives you the opportunity to see what happens onboard a cruise liner in the four hours between one set of travellers leaving and the next arriving … but more of that later.

24th July – Southampton
We left home just after 9.30am to drive to Southampton. Despite it being the first Sunday of the school holidays, the roads were not too crowded, and by 11.15am we were able to stop at Winchester Services for a late breakfast/early lunch. After a thirty minute break we continued on our way, and by 12.15pm the luggage had been unloaded from the car by the porter and the car itself had been consigned to the care of the valet parking services.

Thanks to our being ‘Gold Tier’ members of the Portunus Club (P&O Cruises’ loyalty scheme for regular cruisers), we did not have to wait to book in; instead we were processed in a matter of minutes and joined the queue to pass through security screening. The latter was thorough and took some time, but once through it we went aboard and were directed to one of the public areas to wait for our cabin to be prepared. Our wait was made all the more pleasant by the free champagne and food that was provided!

Our cabin was ready for us to occupy at 2.00pm, and we spent the next couple of hours unpacking the six (!) large bags we had brought with us. At 4.00pm we attended the regulation safety drill, where we were instructed what to do in event of an emergency and shown how to put on our lifejackets.

Almost immediately after the end of the drill it time for the ship to ‘sail away’ from the dockside, so we dumped our lifejackets back in our cabin and went up to the Promenade Deck to take part in the traditional farewell. Usually this is accompanied by live music, and this was no exception. The ‘Rose and Thistle’ Pipe Band played a programme of traditional Scottish music as the ship’s lines were cast off and she moved slowly away from the quay.

We stayed on deck as the AURORA moved downriver towards the Isle of Wight and the Solent. During the passage we passed the No Man's Land Fort (one of the famous Palmerston ‘follies’) …

… and the Nab Tower.

The latter is the point at which pilots are picked up by ships sailing into Southampton Water.

We then prepared for our first dinner of the cruise, which we ate in the Medina Restaurant. After dinner we had a drink in Anderson’s Bar before retiring to bed for what we hoped would be the first of many a good night’s sleep.

25th July – At sea
The weather remained reasonably calm overnight, and although it became more overcast as the day went on, the sea conditions remained moderate.

As this was our first full day aboard ship, we took things very easy. At 11.00am we attended an illustrated talk about the history of P&O Cruises given by the Cruise Director, and after that we sat in the Crow’s Nest, which is a large lounge situated forward on the top deck of the ship. It has a panoramic view of the ocean, and sitting there is always extremely relaxing.

After lunch we retired to our cabin to read, doze, and – in my case – begin jotting down design notes for the next draft of my PORTABLE WARGAME rules. These felt as if they were going to end up being very much more ‘stripped down’ than the previous draft, with all the unnecessary ‘chrome’ being removed.

The evening was taken up with the first formal black tie event of the cruise. This was the Captain’s ‘Welcome Aboard Party’, which was an opportunity for the passengers to meet each other and some of the ship’s officers. As demanded by tradition, the ship’s captain – Captain David Pembridge – made a short speech of welcome, gave a brief outline the cruise, and introduced the ship’s senior officers. The cocktail party was then followed by a formal dinner.

After dinner, and a short walk on the Promenade Deck, we had a drink in one of the bars and went to bed, where I began reading GENTLY IN THE SUN, one of the ‘Inspector George Gently Case Files’ series of crime novels written by the late Alan Hunter. These are set in the mythical county of Northshire (in reality, Norfolk) during the 1950s.

26th July – Stavanger
We visited Stavanger last year, and had enjoyed a visit to the small maritime museum and a long walk around the older part of the town. This year we intended to do something similar, and to explore more of the town.

The overnight trip to Stavanger was calm, and the ship was already moored alongside the ‘Old Town’ when we woke and went to breakfast. The ‘Old Town’ is mostly made up of wooden frame buildings, some of which date back well into the nineteenth century and earlier.

The grey-coloured building on the left of the photograph is the old fish smoking and canning factory, and it shows that not all nineteenth century industrial architecture monolithic to look at.

MV AURORA was not the only cruise ship in Stavanger, as the Holland America Line’s MV RYNDAM was occupying a nearby berth.

The weather was overcast but not too cold, and we decided that our original plan for a walk around the town was still a good idea. We made our way to St Swithun’s Cathedral, where we joined the numerous people who had gathered there to remember those killed during the recent attacks near Oslo.

Behind the Cathedral is a park and lake, and it was here that further floral tributes had been laid in the water as well as numerous candles that were placed along the water’s edge.

We then continued our perambulations around the town, and one of the first shops we came across was a model shop that had a small stock of ROCO Minitanks on sale at a discount. I bought four:
  • A Russian KV1 tank
  • A Russian KV2 tank
  • Two German JägdPanzer IV self-propelled anti-tank guns
I have not seen any ROCO models on sale in the UK for a long time, and I think that they are an ideal scale for wargaming … which is my excuse for buying them!

This was the first of several shops that we looked around, but it was the only one where we bought anything. At this point we could not quite decide what to do next. It was slightly too late for morning coffee and slightly too early for lunch, so after some deliberation we decided to return to the ship, have a drink (and possibly a light lunch) and then resume our walk around Stavanger.

During our break for lunch, the sky had turned darker, and it was obvious that the likelihood of rain had increased. We therefore decided to walk round the harbour to have a look at two sailing ships that were moored there. As the annual Tall Ships Race is due to start in two day’s time, we thought that they might be the first of the competitors to arrive.

By the time we reached the two ships, the rain had started … and it was so intense that both of us got quite wet. Nevertheless we persevered, and when we reached them they turned out to be the Russian sailing ship SHTANDART …

and the Dutch OOSTERSCHELDE.

The former is actually a reconstruction of an eighteenth century Russian frigate, and the name it has been given has traditionally been that given to the Tsar’s yacht.

At this point we decided that we were too wet to continue our walk, and we returned to the ship to change out of our wet clothes and to have a warm drink. We then took a leisurely walk around the Promenade Deck, and then returned to our cabin in time to sit on the balcony whilst the ship sailed out of Stavanger towards Olden.

27th July – Olden
It was yet another smooth passage during the night, and after a lie-in and a very leisurely breakfast – eaten in the open air at the stern of the ship with the view shown in the following photograph – we went ashore.

Olden is situated towards the end of one of the arms of Nordfjord. It is near the Briksdal Glacier, which is itself part of the Jostedals Icefield. The glacial valley is divided laterally by several natural embankments (or moraines) formed by debris left behind by the melting glacier.

The weather was a little overcast first thing in the morning, but brightened up as the day went on. A local company runs a number of small road-trains that take sightseers around the Olden area, and we bought two tickets for the seventy minute trip. It took us along the side of Lake Floen that forms part of the fjord valley floor …

… and eventually back to the small village of Olden, where we chose to get off and have a look round. We spent some time looking at the old church in the centre of the village …

… before taking a gentle stroll back to the ship.

After lunch we sat on deck watching the world go by, and then returned to our cabin for an afternoon ‘rest’ (all this travelling can be very exhausting!). I read a couple more chapters of GENTLY IN THE SUN, did a small amount of work on the latest draft of my PORTABLE WARGAME rules, and made some notes about the imagi-world and imagi-nations that I might wish to create for my future wargames.

We cast off at 5.45pm and then sailed seawards down Nordfjord. The scenery was magnificent, and unlike last year – when it rained pretty well all the time we were in Olden – the sun was shining and it was possible to see the fjord in all its glory.

We ate dinner in Marco Pierre White’s restaurant aboard AURORA – Café Bordeaux – and the food was as good as that we had eaten in his restaurant on MV VENTURA. After a drink in one of the bars, we retired to bed so that we would be well rested before going to Flåm tomorrow.

28th July – Flåm
Just like last year, the weather in Flåm when we awoke was overcast and wet. We therefore did not rush to eat our breakfast or to go ashore; we took things at a slow pace and were rewarded by better weather as the morning progressed.

Flåm is at the head of the most extensive and deepest fjord in Norway, Sognefjord.

It is a popular destination for both Norwegian and overseas holidaymakers, and the MV AURORA was not the only cruise ship in Flåm; our companion from Stavanger, the MV RYNDAM, was moored alongside the quay when we arrived. As a result, we had to travel to the quay by tender.

Flåm is the terminus of a railway line – the Flåmbana (Flåm Railway) – which runs to Myrdal, where it connects with the main rail line from Bergen to Oslo. What makes the Flåmbana unique is the fact that it is a standard-gauge railway that is capable of climbing a 1 in 18 gradient, something that is usually only within the capabilities of specially-equipped narrow-gauge railways.

We were not able to travel on the railway as all the seats had been booked well in advance of our arrival in Flåm; instead we travelled around the area on a sightseeing road-train similar to that we used in Olden.

After our tour, we had a short look in the numerous souvenir shops – which seemed to be full of everything to do with Vikings, trolls, and reindeer – bought some postcards, and returned aboard by tender in time for a late lunch. The afternoon was taken up with watching the rain (the weather had taken a turn for the worse after we got back to the ship), snoozing, writing my blog, reading the last chapters of GENTLY IN THE SUN, and a bit of work on an imagi-nations/imagi-world sketch map.

By the time the ship up-anchored and turned seaward to return down Sognefjord on the next leg of our cruise, the weather had improved and the sun had come out … then disappeared … and then reappeared again! As we set sail, the fjord had a rather brooding appearance, and the low cloud did nothing to dispel this.

After dinner we went to the Curzon Theatre and watched one of the shows put on by the ship’s on-board theatre company, followed by a drink in the Crow’s Nest Bar, and then went to bed.

29th July – Bergen
Bergen is reputed to be one of the wettest places in Europe, and we fully expected that it would live up to its reputation. On waking up we found that the weather was overcast, and it did not look like it would improve much as the day went on … an assumption that proved to be incorrect!

Our ship – MV AURORA – was moored close to another cruise liner, Celebrity Cruises’ MV CELEBRITY CONSTELLATION.

After breakfast we went ashore for a walk round. The shuttle bus dropped us off in the centre of Bergen, and from there we made our way towards the older part of town, Bryggen. Bryggen contains lots of souvenir shops, and I managed to buy some models of typical wooden buildings found in the area. Our walk through Bryggen took us towards Rosenkrantz’s Tower, which we had seen from the other side of the river last year but which we had not visited. As it was so close we decided to pay the Tower a visit … and then discovered that it was part of the entrance to Bergenhus Festning (Bergenhus Castle).

On entering the castle, we discovered that its extensive grounds contained lots of things to see, and as our time was limited we decided to concentrate on visiting one of the old gun battery positions and the Fortress Museum, the Bergenhus Festningsmuseum. The gun battery contained seven smooth-bore cannons that were cast in 1824.

These cannons were used as saluting guns when the Norwegian flag was raised for the first time over the castle in 1905, after Norway separated from its union with Sweden.

The Bergenhus Festningsmuseum is a small museum (it was set up in 2006), but its size belies the excellence of its exhibits. There is no charge to enter the museum, which is situated over three floors in one for the former buildings occupied by the Norwegian Army within the castle. Each floor currently holds several separate exhibitions, including:
  • Women’s contribution to the Norwegian Armed Forces
  • The resistance movement in and around Bergen 1940-45
  • Newspapers in Bergen during wartime
  • The underground press 1940-45
  • The UN veterans’ exhibition
  • Norwegian Independent Brigade Group (which was part of the British Army of the Rhine from 1947-53)
  • The History of Bergenhus Fortress
One exhibit I did find underneath the stairs was a 75mm mountain gun.

The member of staff who was on duty at the Bergenhus Festningsmuseum when we visited was extremely helpful, and gave us a verbal description of the various exhibits before we entered the first room on the ground floor of the museum.

I would thoroughly recommend a visit to the Bergenhus Festningsmuseum if you are in Bergen. I understand that it is currently open from 11.00am to 4.00pm on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from the middle of January until the middle of December, and that it is open until 5.00pm and on Saturdays from the middle of May until the middle of September.

After we had visited the museum, we made our way back to the ship and had a late lunch in Café Bordeaux. We then went up to the Pennant Bar to take part in the ‘Great British Sail Away’, after which we returned to our cabin to prepare for the second – and last – formal dinner of this cruise.

After dinner we decided to have a drink in the Crow’s Nest Bar before going to bed. As I had already finished reading GENTLY IN THE SUN, I started on the next book in the series, GENTLY THROUGH THE MILL, which is set in Lynton (in reality, King’s Lynn).

30th July – At sea
The North Sea always seems to be cold, regardless of the time of year, and today was no exception. Even when the sun managed to make an appearance, the wind ensured that it was too cold to sit on deck for more than a few minutes at a time.

After breakfast in the main restaurant, we spent a few minutes on the Promenade Deck before I went to an informal get-together of members of the international fraternal organisation to which I belong. This was the first such meeting of this particular cruise, and it was well attended. We all introduced ourselves to the rest of the group, and then had a series of discussions about various topics. This took us through until lunchtime, when we dispersed.

My wife and I again had lunch in Café Bordeaux as it was the least crowded dining venue to choose from. After lunch we returned to our cabin, and I did a bit of work on the latest draft of my PORTABLE WARGAME rules as well as reading several more chapters from GENTLY THROUGH THE MILL. The rest of the day was spent relaxing and generally doing very little.

31st July – Southampton
The end of one cruise … and the start of the next!

The AURORA was moored alongside when we awoke this morning, and work to turn the ship around had already begun. Passengers were being disembarked when we went to breakfast, and by the time we had finished, the ship was almost deserted. We strolled up to the Pennant Bar at the rear of the ship, and at was then that I realised that HMS ILLUSTRIOUS was moored nearby at the Queen Elizabeth II Cruise Terminal.

ILLUSTRIOUS (or ‘The Lusty’ as she is known) was in Southampton to act as an escort for the yachts that were taking part in the ‘Round the World Yacht Race’. During the afternoon she sailed up river to meet the yachts just off the Mayflower Park …

… and then back towards Cowes on the Isle of Wight, which was the starting line for the race.

She was followed by the yachts that were taking part in the race.

The ‘sail away’ from Southampton was accompanied by music from the ‘City of Southampton Albion Band’.

Whilst MV AURORA was sailing between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight, she came alongside HMS ILLUSTRIOUS just before the latter turned towards Portsmouth Harbour entrance.

Almost immediately after HMS ILLUSTRIOUS turned, AUROA passed Horse Sand Fort, another of the Palmerston ‘follies’ that guard the Solent and the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour.

After dinner I finished GENTLY THROUGH THE MILL and began reading LANDED GENTLY, which is somewhat different from the first two the ‘Inspector George Gently Case Files’ series of crime novels that I have read so far.

1st August – At sea
After a late breakfast I went to a lecture in the Curzon Theatre. The lecture was entitled ‘A Brief History of Aviation’ and the lecturer was Geoff Dobson. He had served in the RAF for over twenty years before working in Saudi Arabia prior to becoming involved in the training of commercial airline pilots.

We spent the rest of the morning sitting in the Crow’s Nest Bar, and after a snack lunch I spent some time working on the latest draft of my PORTABLE WARGAME rules. These are now taking on a more definite form, and seem to be somewhat simpler than the original rules. I have also tried to ‘design’ them in such a way that the basic rules and procedures fit onto no more the two-sides of an A4 sheet of paper, with the detailed rules in a separate section. I am not sure if this is going to work … but it makes sense to me to design them like this as it will make it easier to tailor the basic design to different historical periods.

After dinner (and our usual post-dinner drink) we retired to bed. As we are sailing into Spanish waters the ship’s clocks went forward an hour overnight, and we had the prospect of losing an hours sleep to look forward to … in exchange for which we should hopefully get even better weather.

2nd August – At sea
The passage through the Bay of Biscay was very smooth … for once … and although the weather was not undiluted sunshine when we got up and went for breakfast, it was warmer than it has been for some time. As the day progressed, the weather continued to improve, and by late afternoon it was possible to sit on the cabin balcony and bask in the warmth of the sun as it moved towards the western horizon.

During the morning I attended an informal get-together of the international fraternal organisation to which I belong. We decided to arrange an informal tea/coffee morning for a date later in the voyage, with the intention that it will raise money that we can donate to a charity of the Captain’s choosing. As I have taken part in these types of event on earlier cruises, I was appointed Secretary and was given the task of writing the Minutes and working with the President and Treasurer to organise the event. Needless to say this consumed more time than I expected during the afternoon and I had little time left to read more of LANDED GENTLY or to work on the latest draft of my PORTABLE WARGAME rules.

Dinner was the first formal meal of this cruise, and was proceeded by the Captain’s ‘Welcome Aboard Party’. After some deliberation we decided neither to go to the show in the theatre nor to see the film that was being shown in the cinema (it was ‘The King’s Speech’); instead we went to the Pennant Bar at the stern of the ship and sat watching the last of the sun’s glow disappear on the horizon whilst we had a long, slow, cold drink. We then went to bed, and I read a chapter of LANDED GENTLY before going to sleep.

3rd August – At sea
We awoke earlier than normal, but missed the ship’s passage through the Straits of Gibraltar by several hours. After a light breakfast we sat on deck taking in the warm breeze, and at 11.00am I went to a short meeting of the international fraternal organisation to which I belong. The meeting finalised most of the details of the tea/coffee morning we are organising for later in the cruise, and this gave me time to return to our cabin to get changed for the Portunus Club ‘Gold Tier’ Lunch.

The lunch is a special event organised by P&O to thank its regular cruisers for their loyalty. The menu is always a bit special, and each table has an officer who acts as host. In our case we were the guests of the Loyalty and Future Cruise Coordinator, and she proved to be an excellent hostess.

After lunch I felt rather over-full (the food was exceptionally good!), and spent most of the afternoon sleeping it off. It was then time to get ready for dinner (more food!), and I resolved not to eat too much as I wanted to have a good night’s sleep before our first landfall since leaving Southampton … Barcelona!

4th August – Barcelona
We have visited Barcelona many times, and as we knew that most shops and cafés do not open before 10.00am, we did not rush ashore. This gave us plenty of time for a light breakfast and to watch the MV CELEBRITY SILHOUETTE moor behind MV AURORA.

AURORA was moored just below the Castillo de Montjuic (Montjuic Castle), the ancient fortress that protected Barcelona from attack from the sea.

It is situated atop a rocky promontory – Montjuic – that commands the sea approaches to the city … and large parts of the city as well! The area is now a park as well as the site of numerous museums and the Olympic stadium.

In close-up, the Castillo looked like this when viewed from the sea:

This was the first day we had set foot ashore since Bergen, and the weather was warm if a little humid. We took the shuttle bus from the ship to the World Trade Centre in Barcelona, which is situated near to the Plaza España and the Columbus Monument. After some discussion, we decided to visit the Castillo de Montjuic as we had not been there for some years and we had heard that it was being redeveloped.

We took a taxi from the centre of Barcelona to the top of Mounjuic, and it dropped us just outside the entrance.

After a cold drink in the café situated next to the entrance, my wife and I walked around the outside part of the fortress. This is home to four examples of early twentieth century quick-firing coastal defence artillery. They are 5.5-Inch guns, and are of a similar pattern to those fitted to HMS HOOD. They were mounted en barbette at Castillo de Montjuic as part of Barcelona’s defences during the late 1920s/early 1930s.

The present Castillo de Montjuic was designed by Juan Martin Cermeño. Work began on rebuilding the existing castle – which dated back to the 1640s – in 1753, and it was finished in 1799. It was captured by the French in 1808 and recaptured by Spanish forces on 27th May 1814 towards the end of the War of Independence (better known to English military historians as the Peninsular Campaign). This is celebrated by a statue of a typical Spanish irregular soldier in the Bastion de la Lengua de Sierpe.

The castle featured in several of the wars that were fought in Spain during the nineteenth century, and was the scene of a massacre of supporters of the military uprising at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. The castle finally fell to Franco’s Nationalists on 26th January 1939. Until 2009 the castle was a Military Museum, but that has now closed and it is being renovated to become ‘una fortaleza civica, cuidadana y cultural’ (a civic, citizen, and cultural fortress).

We entered the fortress via a narrow passageway …

… and passed into the old parade ground.

When we last visited Castillo de Montjuic, this contained numerous artillery pieces, and a number of rooms that opened off from the parade ground contained displays of uniforms and weapons. These have now all gone, as have the large number of displays that filled the lower galleries of the fortress. The latter included a model – in 54mm-scale – of a complete Spanish Infantry Division (over 14,000 figures!) that filled glass cabinets in one entire room.

We then passed out of the main part of the fortress and down to the lower ramparts, around which are sited four nineteenth century coastal defence howitzers.

We then walked down from the top of Montjuic though the numerous gardens that fill the slopes of the hill. On our way down we stopped off for lunch at a restaurant called the La Font de la Gat (The Cat Fountain).

We both ate an excellent lunch – in my case a bowl of gazpacho, chicken cooked in herbs and served with fried potatoes, and a crème brûlée, all washed down with a glass of local beer – which cost us less that 14 Euros each (which is cheap in comparison with London prices for such an excellent freshly-cooked meal).

When we reached the bottom of the hill, we walked towards the old bullring, where we took another taxis back to the ship. We had time to have a cold drink and a rest before the ship set sail just before 6.00pm.

We did not have dinner in the main restaurant as we had booked a table in Café Bordeaux, Marco Pierre White’s restaurant aboard AURORA. We ate there during our last cruise, and we knew that the food would be excellent … which it was!

I finished reading LANDED GENTLY before going to sleep, and I am looking forward to starting another of the books in this series tomorrow.

5th August – Villefranche
Before I arrived in Villefranche, all that I knew about it was that it was the home of the White Russian Fleet during the 1920s and 1930s. The ships were moored there after the end of the Russian Civil War, and for many years the French and Soviet Governments conducted protracted discussions about what to do with them. In the end they were scrapped as being no longer on any military value.

Villefranche is a small town situated within a large deepwater bay, and large ships have to moor in the bay.

It is protected by a coastal Citadel …

… which was built between 1554 and 1157 to defend the town from raids, and a smaller fortress that is situated above the town.

MV AURORA dropped anchor about half a mile from the town’s very small harbour, and the ship’s own tenders were used to ferry passengers to and from the ship to the shore. A smaller cruise ship – GOLDEN IRIS – was moored closer inland, and unlike AURORA she used local tenders to move her passengers.

We went ashore after breakfast and after a short walk into the ‘Old Town’ we came upon the Rue Obscure.

This was built in the fourteenth century, and formed part of the town’s original fortifications. We emerged from its tiny exit passage into a square – the Place du Consiel – that was the original meeting place for the town’s decision makers.

After a short stop for a refreshing drink, we walked back to the centre of town along the waterfront. We then made our way up into the Citadel, which we entered via its main gate.

One of the museums inside the Citadel was dedicated to the 24 Chasseurs Battalion.

It is a very small museum …

… that houses a variety of exhibits including uniforms, flags, and weapons …

… as well a toy soldiers painted to represent the Battalion at various stages of its history.

We returned to AURORA just before GLODEN IRIS set sail.

AURORA set sail for Civitavecchia at 6.15pm, which the Captain predicted that the ship would reach in about twelve hours. We had a pleasant dinner in the Medina Restaurant, and after a drink in the open-air Pennant Bar at the stern of the ship, we went to bed where I began reading GENTLY BY THE SHORE.

6th August – Civitavecchia
We have visited Civitavecchia several times in the past as it is the cruise port that serves Rome. On this occasion there were quite a few other cruise ships in port, including P&O’s MV VENTURA, Sea Dream Yacht Club’s SEADREAM II, Holland America’s MV NORDAM, another large cruise ship that was too far away to identify (it turned out to be Celebrity Cruises’ CELEBITY ECLIPSE), and two sail/motor cruise ships, the ROYAL CLIPPER and the WIND SURF.

We decided not to visit Rome as we went there just before Easter and the city can be very hot during August. Instead we opted to stay in Civitavecchia. The entrance and exit to the port area is dominated by a fortress designed by Michelangelo and built from locally-quarried marble!

A walk along the seafront took us through a small market where I bought a reproduction Russian Civil War hat (it is amazing what you can find on market stalls!) and a flexible keyboard for my computer. In the middle of the market was a statue of Garibaldi …

… and a memorial to the elite Granatieri Infantry Regiment.

The memorial appears to have been remounted on a new plinth recently.

After our walk we ate a very good meal in a local pizzeria before walking back to AURORA. During the afternoon and early evening we watched NORDAM, SEADREAM II, WIND SURF, and VENTURA set sail.

7th August – Livorno
AURORA was already alongside the quay in Livorno when we awoke this morning, and just across the dock was Carnival Cruises’ CARNIVAL MAGIC. This is one of the larger cruise liners that operate in European waters, and has all sorts of onboard facilities, including water chutes for the main swimming pool, a large outdoor cinema, and a games court that is equipped for basketball and six-a-side soccer.

Livorno is Italy’s third largest port, and is the entry port for Pisa and Florence. We had visited Livorno before and had been to Pisa, so on this occasion we chose to take an organised tour to Florence. Just before we left to go on our tour, Cunard’s QUEEN ELIZABETH moored just ahead of AURORA.

The coach trip to Florence took less than ninety minutes, and we were dropped off reasonably close to the famous Ponte Vecchio that crosses the River Arno. Before visiting the other main historic sites, we walked across the Ponte Vecchio just to enjoy the novelty of crossing a bridge that is lined with shops!

Having crossed back to the north side of the River Arno, we made our way to Piazza Della Senoria where the Palazzo Vecchio is situated. We had lunch in a small restaurant on one side of the Piazza and then walked northwards to the Piazza Della Republica. After doing some shopping, we made our way back to the coach pickup point. The journey back to Livorno was uneventful, and we were sitting having a cold drink in the Crow’s Nest Bar onboard AURORA by just after 3.00pm.

As it was a special occasion (our wedding anniversary, to be precise), my wife and I dined at the Pennant Grill. The Grill is situated at the rear of the ship next to the Pennant Bar, and during good weather – as on this occasion – it is possible to eat in the open air. The food and service was excellent, and that – and the excellent weather and warm temperature – made the whole evening very special.

8th August – At sea
The most important event of the morning was the Tea/Coffee morning that I helped to organise on behalf of the international fraternal organisation to which I belong. The purpose of the event was to raise money for a charity of the Captain’s choice, and it was very successful. Almost £300 was raised, and Captain Pembridge – who managed to attend the meeting – was very appreciative.

Before having a late lunch in Café Bordeaux, we visited the Future Cruise desk to enquire about booking a cruise to the Central Mediterranean next year. It was not possible to make the booking as the satellite Internet connection to P&O’s computer system was ‘down’; however we were told that our booking would be processed as soon as the link was re-established.

I spent the afternoon dozing, reading, and working on a map of an imagi-world that I hope to use in a future wargame campaign (or campaigns). The map is based on one of Hyboria that I found on the Internet, but significant changes have been made in order fit my existing imagi-nations on to it.

The rest of the day was spent relaxing, and as the weather was warm and the breeze was not too strong, most of it was spent on deck or on the cabin’s balcony.

9th August – Gibraltar
We awoke to find that the weather had closed in. It was still warm, but a sea mist meant that visibility was limited. The early part of the morning was spent reading or talking to various people we had met during the cruise, but the hour before lunch saw us on our cabin balcony watching Gibraltar gradually get bigger and bigger as AURORA sailed towards it.

The top of the ‘Rock’ was covered by a large cloud. This is a phenomenon that we have seen before, and it can either mean that it will rain at some point during a visit or that the climate will be hot and humid for most of the day.

The approach into Gibraltar harbour is not an easy one, and as usual a Pilot Cutter came alongside and a local Pilot joined the officers of the ship’s bridge to guide her into her berth.

AURORA was allocated the berth on the inner side of the quay where cruise ships dock in Gibraltar as the Royal Caribbean International’s INDEPENDENCE OF THE SEAS was moored on the outer side.

We were booked on an organised afternoon tour to visit Europa Point, and so we had to disembark soon after AURORA was tied up and secured alongside. We joined the queue for the tour at 12.50pm … and waited for the coach to arrive. We waited … and waited … and waited … but no coach arrived. Some thirty minutes after we had joined the queue – which was on the dockside and in the sun with no shade and only enough seats for just a few of those queuing to sit down – a representative from P&O’s excursions team informed us that there was a problem(!), and that the coaches were held up by congestion on the top of ‘The Rock’. She estimated that the first coach would arrive in fifteen minutes, and that this should not affect the length of time we would spend on the tour.

By this time my wife and I had had enough of standing in the midday sun with no shade and no water, and at this point we cancelled our tour and set off to walk into the centre of Gibraltar town. This walk took us about fifteen minutes … and during that time no coaches passed us going to the dockside or from the dockside.

The first thing we did when we reached Casemate Square was to have a much-needed drink. Suitably refreshed, we walked up Main Street to the Governor’s Residence, doing some shopping along the way. Besides the normal Duty Free purchases almost every visitor to Gibraltar makes, I bought a new case for my iPad that has an integral keyboard. This connects to the iPad via a Bluetooth connection and should make it easier to type text when using the iPad.

We returned to Casemate Square in time for a late lunch. In the Square there is a monument that commemorates the invention of the Depressing Carriage for cannon.

The plaque on the base of the monument bears the following text: ‘Much difficulty was experienced during the Great Siege in firing down onto Spanish works on the isthmus. Lieut Koehler invented this Depressing Carriage which was mounted at Princess Royal Battery in February 1782 after experiments in the presences of General Eliott.’

After lunch we took a taxi back to MV AURORA, and we were just in time to see INDEPENDENCE OF THE SEAS set sail.

As soon as we had taken our purchases back to our cabin it was time to go on deck to have a drink in the Pennant Bar and to take part in the ‘Great British Sail Away’ from Gibraltar. Flags were waved, popular and patriotic songs were sung, and a great time was had by all!

The rest of the evening was spent eating, drinking, and generally relaxing. I managed to read several more chapters of GENTLY BY THE SHORE but did no more work on either my PORTABLE WARGAME rules or my wargames campaign map.

10th August – At sea
Despite the sea in the Atlantic being considerable more ‘frolicsome’ (a P&O expression for slightly rough) than it had been in the Mediterranean, we both had a reasonable night’s sleep. We had little planned for the day except relaxing and generally doing as little as possible, and so we took our time getting ready for breakfast.

During the morning we went to an event entitled ‘The A Factor’. This took place in the ship’s atrium area, and each of the ship’s main departments had a stand where they demonstrated an aspect of their work (e.g. the Food and Beverage Department showed how they decorated cakes and plates; the Housekeeping Department ran a ‘make the bed fastest’ contest).

After lunch we spent the afternoon relaxing on deck and in our cabin. I spent some time working on my imagi-world map, re-reading the current draft of my PORTABLE WARGAME rules, and finishing the final chapters of GENTLY BY THE SHORE. We then prepared for the final formal dinner of the cruise.

Once dinner was over we went to the Pennant Bar, fully expecting that it would be closed as the ship was fast approaching the Bay of Biscay and there was a significant breeze. In fact the bar was open, and the design of the ship’s stern galleries ensured that we were protected from the worst of the wind. As a result we were able to have an after-dinner drink in the open air, under bright moonlight.

11th August – At sea
Just after midnight the ship passed Cap Finisterre in northern Spain and turned into the Bay of Biscay. Almost immediately the ship’s movement became livelier, and this remained the sea state for the first hour or so after the turn. The movement then settled down to a regular roll as we moved into deeper water.

We spent the morning relaxing, but after lunch packing our luggage for disembarkation took precedence over everything else. This took just under two hours (why does packing always take so long?) and after that I spent some time working on my imagi-world map before getting ready for our last dinner of the cruise.

After dinner – and our farewells to the people we had shared a table with and the staff who had served us – my wife and I went up to the Pennant Bar for a final drink. Whilst we were there we got into conversation with the ship’s Environmental Officer, who turned out to be ex-Royal Navy and a Falklands veteran (he served in HMS YARMOUTH). As a result we spent much longer in the bar that we had expected to, and did not get to bed until after midnight.

12th August – Southampton
AURORA docked alongside just after 7.00am, and the ship began the process of unloading passengers’ luggage and replenishing its supplies for the next cruise within minutes. We disembarked just before 9.45am, and had loaded our car and driven out of the car park by 10.00am. The drive home from Southampton took just over two hours, and we then began the process of getting back to normal … or whatever passes for normal!


  1. Hi Bob

    Very nice, what a good read, thank you.

    Happy anniversary too!


  2. Looks like your post retirement holiday plans have followed a completely different line from mine so far.

    I am not long back from a 4000 mile driving tour of the USA. Have been to the middle of nowhere and back again.

    I think myself and my wife have just about got back to normal and I can't wait to attack the lead and plastic mountain which has accumulated since.

    Glad you and your wife had a good break!


  3. Arthur,

    Glad that you enjoyed reading it!

    All the best,


    PS. Thanks as well for the congratulations.

  4. Jim Duncan,

    Very different holidays indeed! I hope that you and your wife enjoyed yours as much as we enjoyed ours.

    All the best,


  5. Bob,

    Good to hear about your vacation--I was beginning to worry that the mindless violence around the UK had somehow visited your neighborhood!

    Just call me a worrier,


  6. Thank you for an interesting post Bob- I enjoyed my armchair travels this morning...
    I look forward to see where the hobby will lead you next and to what becomes of the map...
    best wishes

  7. Chris,

    It is great to be back.

    Looting (rioting implies that there was a political element to what happened ... which is certainly untrue where I live) did take place less than a mile from where I live. The centre of Woolwich did suffer targeted looting (jewellery shops, phone shops, clothes shops, banks) and arson (at least one pub and a clothes shop) and the police did what they could to try to deal with the situation but the videos I have seen on YouTube show that there were just too few of them to stop the looting.

    On the following night in Eltham, members of a right-wing political party seem to have ‘organised’ a defence of the local shops and ended up in a confrontation with the police.

    I taught in the centre of Woolwich for nearly ten years and in Eltham for eighteen years, and these areas ‘sandwich’ where I live. It makes me very sad to see what has happened … but I am not surprised that it has. I have felt that British society has been ‘broken’ for a long time … and that people like me have tried to do our best to make it work, but have failed.

    What has happened worries me as well ... and it will continue to do so until the problem is either fixed or contained.

    All the best,


  8. Tradgardmastare,

    I thought that my blog entry might interest you, especially the one about the Bergenhus fortress, which seems to be right up your street in style, location and time period. I hope to write a longer blog entry about it sometime soon.

    The map is stalled at the moment due to me having to concentrate of family-related matters ... but I hope to get work on it restarted very soon. Once that is done, I hope that my future wargaming will begin to take shape.

    All the best,


  9. Thanks for your travelogue, Bob. I enjoyed reading it.

    A belated "Happy Anniversary" to you and your bride.

    Now you need to recover from your holiday . . . so enjoy being home again, sir.

    -- Jeff

  10. Jeff,

    Thanks for the congratulations.

    I am pleased that you enjoyed reading my ramdom jottings about my recent holiday. I hope to follow up some of the things I covered in slightly more detail over the next week or so ... as things return to 'normal'!

    All the best,