Cruising the Atlantic coast with Voyages to Antiquity
Matilda Hickson takes her first cruise from Seville to Bordeaux and enjoys seeing the historical sites the easy way
I had been invited to join the MV Aegean Odyssey, and I can’t deny it, I was excited. This was my very first cruise, and one of the reasons I was so keen to join the ship was its itinerary. We were visiting a number of cities I’d always wanted to explore, including Seville, Lisbon, Porto, Santiago and Bordeaux. And what a brilliant way to do it – no packing up every couple of days and moving to a new hotel: just the luxury of unpacking once and then enjoying the next week.
Arriving in Seville the afternoon before the cruise started, I wandered out of the hotel to explore what was nearby. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon and the streets were deserted. I had seen on a map that the hotel was close to something called the Plaza de Espana, built for an expo in 1929. I saw a curved brick building and headed towards it. Not sure if I had found the right entrance, I went through an archway and up some stairs - and it was as though I'd entered another world.
I was suddenly confronted with masses of people, colour and noise. So this was where everyone was on this sunny afternoon! I had entered an open space which was bordered on one side by a curved brick building and on the other by gorgeous gardens. I head for a closer look at the building, and find niches filled with colourful tiles, with the names of Spanish cities and provinces. There is also a water feature on which you can go boating. But my best discovery was a group of talented flamenco dancers accompanied by a soulful singer and two guitarists. I sat and watched them perform for nearly an hour. The girls took it in turns to be the main performer and at the end of their dance, the hat would be passed around. By the end of my hour I had nothing left in my purse. The performers - singers, dancers and guitarists - were all superb. The guitarists even moved me to tears, their playing was so exquisite.
After watching the dancers I went off to explore the beautiful gardens nearby. Filled with colourful displays, including beds of iris (my favourite), there were pavilions dotted around, bridges, water features and more beautiful tiling. It must have been a Confirmation or Holy Communion day too as there are little girls in white dresses having special photographs taken.
The next day we visited Seville’s main sites of the Alcazar, old town and the Cathedral, which are close together, so easy to explore. Entering first through an old city gate, and weaving through the back streets to the Alcazar, it is easy to see why so many people fall in love with Seville. It has such a lovely atmosphere, and the Alcazar, built mainly by Peter I, is a wonderful blend of Moorish and Christian architecture, as Peter was a fan of the former. It makes for a stunning building. Don’t miss the Cathedral nearby – both Cathedral and the Alcazar are UNESCO World Heritage sites and inside the Cathedral is the magnificent tomb of Christopher Columbus and his son Diego.
Our Lisbon tour started bright and early as there was a lot to see before lunchtime. Although the city has much to discover, my favourite sites were out at Belem, on the southwestern limit of the city. Here you will find the magnificent Cathedral, Torre de Belem, Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, Monument to the Discoveries and one of my favourite things, a large map and timeline of Portuguese history set in marble on the ground. If you have time here, do visit the Antiga Confeitaria de Belem, one of the oldest bakeries in Lisbon. They were the first bakery to produce the well-known Portuguese custard tart, or pasteis de nata. Located just two minutes from the Cathedral, it is well worth visiting as their recipe was given to them by the monks at the nearby monastery.
I was keen to visit Porto as I had read much about it and seen the pictures of those brightly coloured houses next to the harbour. The ship ran shuttle buses into town, so if you are keen to explore you can go on your own. I knew that there was a very famous bookshop here – it was used by J.K. Rowling as the inspiration for the library in the Harry Potter books. I also stumbled on a lunchtime organ recital in one of the churches which was a real treat. After lunch I met up with the tour group from the ship and visited the Romanesque Cathedral, the gorgeous 19th-century Stock Exchange Place complete with its stunning Arab Room, and then a trip across the river for a bit of port tasting. Another perfect day!
Another favourite day was the visit to Santiago de Compostela. We drove through lush green countryside from the port of Vigo to the city and then spent the morning exploring the Cathedral and its backstreets. I’m afraid that the Cathedral was too ‘Baroque-ified’ for my tastes – but it was wonderful watching all the pilgrims cheer each other as they arrived in Praza do Obradoiro after completing their Camino Way walks. Lunch on this day was in a glorious hotel called The Parador de Santiago (also known as the Hostal dos Reis Católicos), also situated on the Praza do Obradoiro. The hotel was built as a hospital in 1499 to accommodate the pilgrims travelling to Santiago. It has four cloisters and we ate in one of its beautiful high-ceilinged rooms that used to be a chapel.
Our visit to Bordeaux coincided with its tall ship festival, which just added to the excitement of visiting a town with such splendid architecture. Eleanor of Aquitaine married Louis VII in the beautiful St Andrew’s Cathedral here, and our itinerary included the Palais Rohan and Grand Theatre de Bordeaux. Bordeaux also has a fine art gallery to visit in your spare time, as well as the stunning Musee d’Aquitaine which covers Bordeaux’s history from the Stone Age to the modern day, so do try to squeeze in a visit if you are a history buff.
I absolutely loved my first cruise because it so easy to visit all these cities – and that is the joy of being on such a small ship – they can get closer to the city centres than the larger ones. And the other thing I enjoyed was returning ‘home’ each day, putting my shopping bags in my cabin and then sitting out on deck with a well-earned cocktail to share my experiences with my new friends.