I could tell the Editor wasn’t in the best of moods. Stooped over some new copy with his sleeves rolled up, I knew not to disturb him. The old fox sensed my presence and took his glasses off and looked me straight in the eye. I’m for the chop I thought, but then he surprised me. “What do you think you know about Spain?” I looked on blankly. “Whatever it is think again, I want you to head off to Andalusia, give me the low down on those coastal towns”. I didn’t need to be asked twice, I scurried off as he resumed his interest in the latest front page.
With an eye on trying to try to reduce one’s carbon footprint it seems sensible to look at alternatives to flying. But here’s the dilemma, I enjoy covering a lot of ground on holiday; museums, beaches, good food and scenery as well as some history of the places I’m visiting. That’s why sometimes cruising is the answer for me, it ticks all the boxes and you only have to unpack your bags once.
I fancied exploring that beautiful region of southern Spain, Andalusia. It’s a heady and beguiling mix of Moorish and Christian architecture, the birthplace of Picasso, Velázquez and Murillo and others as superb food and wine and dramatic vistas, what’s not to like?
The more I looked into this region and the best way to cover all the bases I was interested the more Fred. Olsen’s offerings stood out as the best option. A 13-night return voyage from Southampton and not an airport in sight. The first couple of days were at sea and crossing the infamous Bay of Biscay. While it can be OK in the warmer months expect a little ‘movement’ during this phase of the cruise, I travelled in February, so the seas were lively. This is nothing the ship or the crew can’t handle and there’s a kind of badge of honour awarded to all as we sped closer to our first port of call, Cadiz. The seas dramatically calmed as we turned the corner of north west Spain and sauntered down past Portugal.
The ship’s arrival in Cadiz coincided with the beginning of a 10-day festival. The ancient streets were full of families and groups of friends dressed in themed costumes, anything from medieval, Game of Thrones to Star Wars and Shrek and much in between! The mood was joyous and friendly, everyone takes part from the youngest to the oldest. I saw a group of grandmas singing and dancing about their woes all dressed in Superman costumes. The attention to detail is amazing, they really go for it and it’s hard not to get carried along with the enthusiasm.
There is of course a quiet side, a warren of streets and alleys concealing sleepy tucked away squares, historic churches, a cathedral, museums and a wonderful carless environment to wander around as well as a couple of superb beaches. Cadiz is a natural stronghold; it survived a two-year siege in 1810 and so has in many ways stayed unaltered over the centuries. The buildings are close together to provide shade, but most have an inner courtyard. This is officially Europe’s sunniest city.
I took some time out from the hustle and bustle of the festival and had an excellent lunch at Café Royalty in Plaza Candelaria. It’s one of those beautiful grand romantic restaurants the like of which you don’t see very often. Great service, super food and wine and the ceilings are painted by well-known artists such as Filipe Abarzuza. A place to dream an afternoon away over a Pedro Ximenez sherry.
Through the Straights of Gibraltar (you’ll have to breath in as there’s only nine miles separating Africa and Europe at its narrowest point) and on to Malaga. One of its claims to fame are the 51 championship 18-hole golf courses in the area, the highest concentration in Europe. Pablo Picasso was born there and where he spent most of his childhood, a good museum holds many of his important works. I decided to take one the excursions organised by Fred Olsen to Granada to see the world-famous Alhambra Palace. It started out as a small fortress built on Roman ruins in AD 889 over the next 500 years it became an important stronghold and in the 13th century became a royal residence. It was expanded to accommodate the 5000 people needed to look after the royal household. The gardens are part of the beauty of this place, stretching over 50 acres.The Christian knights conquered this part of Spain in 1492. Instead of destroying its Muslim designs and origins it was kept and added to. Parts of it were consecrated and became a chapel. This is worth a few hours at least for a visit. There is so much to see and a guided tour is the best way of getting the most from it.
I was lucky enough to be invited to spend an evening at the Captain’s Table in Black Watch – The Grill. You pay a small premium for dining there, but the menu is full of succulent 35-day aged steaks and lobster. The service is very attentive and as the seating only allows 46 it’s quite intimate. Rommel Pineda, the captain has been with Fred Olsen man and boy, he started as a deck hand 20 years ago learning the ropes and is now one of the eight captains in charge of the fleet of four ships. A calmer and more measured man you’d be hard put to find. Just the sort of person you want in charge of the Black Watch.
Almeria was the next stop after a night sailing. There’s something quite magical about looking through a round porthole window and seeing a new destination in the morning. Another Moorish stronghold in its day the Alcazaba fortress is worth looking around as are the old streets with plenty of restaurants and cafés to try out the local tapas, it was named gastronomic capital of Spain in 2019. It’s on the edge of Europe’s biggest desert making it a prime movie location past and present.
Sailing away from Spain (but I knew I’d be back soon) I began thinking of the next spot, Lisbon the capital of Portugal. So different from Spain but with so much in history in common. It was a day’s sail so time to read and partake in a little indulgence, a Thai massage in the ship’s Atlantis Spa. It’s some time since I’ve had one of these and I was slightly taken by surprise, Suwanna was tiny but incredibly strong! She bent, twisted, rolled and pushed seemingly every muscle in my body. At one stage she was climbing on my back to apply even more pressure. At the time it seemed almost painful but afterwards I felt so relaxed and chilled. Really worth it.
Lisbon is a buzzy, almost hectic place with tuk tuks everywhere offering you tours and rides. It’s a really interesting city that deserves a closer look. I took a Yellow Bus tour on one of their fabulous wooden trams around the city. It’s very hilly (there are 11) so I’d recommend it. In just over an hour I’d seen from the top down to the bottom with an excellent English-speaking guide and a lady in traditional dress handed out pastéis de nata, those brilliant little egg tarts made with puff pastry (impossible to eat just one) and a glass of port. How civilised! There are plenty of museums, sights and eateries to keep one busy for a few days in this charming, sprawling city.
Time was flying by, but I wasn’t done with Spain just yet. Last stop Vigo on the north coast just above the Portuguese border. An important harbour town with a pair of large figures of eight bays that splay inland and provide calmer waters. Francis Drake came here in 1588 and 1589 which prompted a retaliation for of an Armada in the summer of 1588, thankfully all that is well behind us and the locals couldn’t be more welcoming. I visited the small town of Bayona which is just outside Vigo. Offering fantastic family friendly beaches and medieval streets it was no surprise to find a festival in full swing! Again, everyone had gone to town with their costumes. There were re-enactments, many succulent BBQ’s on the go and much drinking and merriment. I’d never heard of this place, but I know I want to return someday, it was such fun.
And talking of returning it was nearly time to say goodbye to my cabin and home for the last two weeks. What better way to acclimatise myself to life at home again than a slap-up afternoon tea at the very top of the ship in the Observatory. Think pianist tinkling on the ivories, white gloved service, commanding view of the ocean, never ending supply of first-rate fresh sandwiches and you’re some way to what I was experiencing. A delightful and calming place to spend an afternoon.
I arrived bright and early in Southampton (it was colder than Spain that’s for sure) and all I had to do was hand over my receipt and I received my car keys. They had parked and looked after it while I was away, reassuring and also it made life much easier, a good way to describe the cruise really. It made life much easier.
12-night ‘Authentic Andalusia with Lisbon’ (M2106) cruise, on board Braemar, departing from Southampton on 20th March 2021.
Ports of call include: Southampton, UK – La Coruña, Spain – Cádiz, Spain – Malaga, Spain – cruising Guadalquivir River – Seville, Spain (overnight stay) – Lisbon, Portugal (overnight stay) – returning to Southampton on 1stApril 2021.
Prices currently start from £1,499 per person, based on an interior twin-bedded cabin (subject to availability), and includes all food and entertainment on board, and port taxes.
For further details, please visit: www.fredolsencruises.com
13-night ‘Authentic Andalusia’ (M2127) cruise, on board Braemar, departing from Southampton on 5th November 2021.
Ports of call include: Southampton, UK – Lisbon, Portugal – Malaga, Spain – Cádiz, Spain – Seville, Spain (overnight stay) – Avilés, Spain – returning to Southampton on 18th November 2021.
Prices currently start from £1,599 per person, based on an interior twin-bedded cabin (subject to availability), and includes all food and entertainment on board, and port taxes.
For further details, please visit: www.fredolsencruises.com
For further information on Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, please visit www.fredolsencruises.com, or call Reservations on 0800 0355 242 (Monday to Friday from 8am to 8pm; Saturday, 9am to 5pm and Sunday from 10am to 4pm).
Neil Hennessy-Vass is Contributing Editor for Our Man On The Ground as well as a widely-published globetrotting food and award-winning travel writer and photographer.
Photographs by Neil Hennessy-Vass