This review includes information on our July 27, 2019, Mediterranean Explorer cruise on the Sapphire Princess. We chose this cruise because it included several less-visited ports that were of special interest to us.
CRUISE ITINERARY: MEDITERRANEAN EXPLORER (14 DAYS)
Southampton, England; Portimão, Portugal; Cádiz, Spain; Málaga, Spain; Ajaccio, Corsica, France; Ceuta, Spain; Lisbon, Portugal; Southampton, England
John and I (Carolyn) are retired Mississippi State University professors in our late sixties, who currently reside in central North Carolina. Both of us are natives of New Orleans and, as such, are interested in good food (and wine!) and good times. Our preferred souvenir is a small regional or national flag. On this itinerary, I hoped to acquire a flag from Morocco, as well as local flags from Corsica and Ceuta.
We enjoy both cruises and land tours; often our trips combine the two. We have cruised to or toured all seven continents, primarily in the Americas and Europe. On our trips, we prefer nature and wildlife tours that involve snorkeling, SCUBA diving or hiking. In particular, we will hike for miles to see waterfalls, volcanoes, caves or other interesting geologic features. We also enjoy lighthouses, towers, forts, castles and anything else we can legally climb up for a good view.
We are Elite members of Princess' Captain's Circle loyalty program, with 675 days cruising on Princess. We have also sailed with Celebrity, Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Costa, Viking River and Commodore.
ABOUT THE REVIEW
Other reviews give extensive information on the ship, cabins, food etc. Our reviews are not like that; they are primarily a journal of what we did in the various ports, including web links to tourist information sites and maps. In general, we prefer DIY port tours, private tours with other Cruise Critic roll call members or shared public tours. However, we will take a Princess tour when the logistics or cost make that a better option. Tour operator contact information is included in each port review.
REVIEW OF THE CRUISE
Precruise Days 1-7: Sat, 07/20/19 – Fri, 07/26/19 En Route to Portsmouth, UK
Through Princess’ EZAir program, John and I had booked a mid-morning flight on United Airlines from RDU to IAD. That flight only takes about an hour, so we had a seven-hour layover at Dulles before the flight to London. We are Priority Pass Select members, so we spent most of that time in the Turkish Airlines Lounge.
Over the two weeks prior to the trip, we had made a concerted effort to pre-adjust to British Summer Time, which is 5 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time (EDT), by gradually moving our wake-up, dinner and bedtime three hours earlier. We also planned to sleep for most of the 7.5 hour nonstop flight from IAD to LHR. As usual, the flight was almost completely full.
After arriving at LHR Sunday morning, we planned to spend five nights in London. We had visited there twice before but there was still a lot for us to see. Then we planned to take a National Express coach to Portsmouth and visit several attractions there. Finally, we would take National Express on Saturday morning to Southampton and taxi to the ship.
London was a smashing success and it was especially easy to get to Victoria Coach Station for our morning bus ride to Portsmouth. The coach was comfortable, the ride smooth, relatively short, and the price really low! We planned our stay in Portsmouth in order to visit the Sherlock Holmes exhibits in the town museum and to visit the spectacular Mary Rose Museum. It is also a short coach ride to Southampton.
Day 1 Saturday, July 27: Portsmouth to Southampton, UK
We had stayed previously at The George Hotel (thegeorgehotel.org.uk), a small hotel and pub with small, quaint comfortable rooms. The George is convenient to the train and coach stations as well as to attractions like the Historic Naval Dockyard and the Mary Rose Museum. Our room was a little noisy since we were in front and had street noise. This morning we awoke to light drizzle after a relatively peaceful night. The street noise didn't bother me much and John said that the earplugs really helped him, except for some motorcycles that sounded like jets taking off.
After a full English breakfast (included in room rate) of two poached eggs, grilled tomato, mushrooms, bacon, banger (sausage), baked beans (I skipped those), toast and orange juice, we relaxed in our room until it was time for the short walk to the bus depot. By then the rain had turned to a light mist.
The 90-minute coach ride (5 GBP pp) to Southampton was uneventful. The taxi driver at the coach station was not enthusiastic about our asking to pay by credit card for the 6 GBP fare to the Mayflower Cruise Terminal. However, he finally agreed; after he dropped us off, he was able to pick up a group of Sapphire Princess crew members who were looking for a ride into town. Also in port today were the Independence of the Seas and the P&O Britannia.
Check in was different from the usual procedure: we got our cruise cards, waited a short time for the Elite/Suite passengers to be called, went through security screening and boarded the ship. We were in our stateroom by noon, although not all of the cabins were ready for about another hour. We had originally booked a BF Balcony Guarantee and were assigned a BD Balcony on the Caribe deck, port side aft, a few weeks before sailing. Our cabin steward, Sonia from the Philippines, stopped by to greet us and dropped off a bag of upgraded toiletries (now in a blue bag and with slightly different contents).
John called the Dine Line to make dinner reservations for tonight and tomorrow, as well as to inquire about the Chef's Table and any special wine events. There is no Winemaker Dinner on this ship but a Tuscan Wine Pairing would be offered if there was enough interest (there wasn’t). After that, I called Room Service to request some substitutes for our complimentary minibar items, two wine glasses and a lime. Those items were brought later in the afternoon, except for the lime because those were still in storage. I also called the other couples with whom we would be touring later in the cruise.
After taking care of those issues, we unpacked our suitcases and put everything away. I had tried a new packing technique (Ranger Roll). As promised, the resulting bundles were a bit more compact than my usual rolling method but everything seemed more wrinkled. Maybe I just need more practice. I eventually visited the laundromat to press a few items.
Sonia seemed concerned that we must be near death from starvation and was pushing the various luncheon venues. However, we were still too full from breakfast to have lunch at our favorite spot—Alfredo's Pizzeria. Not to worry; we would be putting the BOGO embarkation night coupon (from the coupon book gifted by our TA) to good use at the steakhouse later this evening.
While exploring the ship we were happy to see that the Wine Bottle Package was being actively promoted; usually the existence of the package (when available) is treated like a state secret. Only Gold 7-, 10- and 12-bottle packages were offered for $217, $290 and $336 (plus 18% gratuity), respectively. Each punch is good for a bottle of wine priced up to $45. If you want a bottle costing me than $45, you are charged the full price (without additional gratuity) and a $45 credit is issued to your stateroom account John bought the 12-bottle package.
The passenger safety drill ran late for some reason but we were back on our balcony in time to watch the 4 p.m. sail away. That was also delayed when the Captain announced that a guest was being disembarked from the ship. We went down to the Promenade Deck in hopes of seeing the police leading some international criminal mastermind away in handcuffs. Sadly, it was a medical emergency. The guy was sitting up on the gurney, so perhaps it was just an abundance of caution to send him to the hospital. Still it was better for him to get thoroughly evaluated before the ship departed for two days at sea, where a medical evacuation would be more difficult and dangerous.
Although we chose Anytime Dining for this cruise, we generally avoid the first-night commotion in the main dining rooms by eating at one of the extra-charge specialty restaurants (plus we had the BOGO coupon). Tonight we chose the Sterling Steakhouse ($29 pp cover charge). On this ship, there is not a dedicated area for the steakhouse; in the evening a section on the aft port side of the Horizon Court is used (the corresponding section on the starboard side is used for the Crab Shack on certain nights). For starters, we both had the beef carpaccio followed by the black-and-blue onion soup for John and the shrimp bisque for me. As mains John had the rib-eye steak and I had the NY strip. With that, we enjoyed 2015 Silverado Cabernet Sauvignon. We ended the meal with raspberry crème brûlée for John and a chocolate peanut butter bar (one of Norman Love's Chocolate Journeys) for me.
We finished dinner early enough to attend the Welcome Aboard Showtime, featuring a Celine Dion tribute act, Tracey Shield. The show was geared to a UK audience and we had only heard a couple of the songs before. Before the show started, the Cruise Director, Paul Chandler-Burns, announced that the 2900+ guests aboard represented 35 countries. The vast majority (>75%) were from the UK followed by the USA (<10%); Canada, Australia and New Zealand rounded out the top five.
Back at the cabin, we were amazed to find a message from Michelle Loubser, the Captain's Circle Host, that we were the third-most traveled passengers on this cruise. We have never ranked so high before! She wanted us to stop by her desk tomorrow to discuss the benefits we would receive for spending so much money on Princess cruises all these years.
Day 2 Sunday, July 29: At Sea
Our usual sea day pattern is this: wake up, shower and get dressed, find a nice spot to read while Sonia makes up our stateroom, eat lunch (Alfredo's), read and enjoy a drink on our balcony, eat dinner, go to a show, read in the cabin/balcony, go to sleep. Occasionally we will add a walk, lecture, movie or some other activity to our busy day. Unfortunately, the weather on the two sea days leaving and returning to Southampton was not the best, so we were not able to enjoy the large balcony as much as we had hoped.
This morning we camped out at Michelle's desk so that we could get those formalities over as soon as she arrived. It turned out that we would be recognized at all of the three Platinum/Elite Captain's Circle parties later in the cruise. We could attend the party of our choice, where we would have a designated table and drink server; we also could pre-order our desired drinks. The gifts were a bottle of Sonterini Prosecco, a plastic (!) souvenir box and a photo with the Captain. Unfortunately the actual Most-Traveled event would only be a cocktail party—not the sumptuous luncheon we prefer.
With that taken care of, we headed to the Princess Theater for the port lecture on Portimão, Portugal. Destination Expert Debbie Shields had lots of details on the sights and good information for independent travelers. Because there were so many ports without intervening sea days, some of her lectures would be live and others recorded; all of her lectures would be available on the stateroom TV. The recorded talks were delivered in a monotone so they were not nearly as good as the live ones.
After the lecture, we enjoyed our first lunch at Alfredo's; John had the Capricciosa pizza and I had the vegetarian. On this ship, the menu only consists of pizza, with no antipasti, salads or other dishes. However, some of those items could be brought in from the nearby International Cafe. While we were eating, we saw a large fish (tuna?) jump and later John saw dolphins.
When we returned to the cabin for a glass of wine, we had a phone message from Philip (P&T), who had organized a taxi tour to Carcassonne for eight members of our Cruise Critic roll call and a private transfer to LHR for six of us. He suggested that all of us meet this afternoon in the International Cafe so we could start putting names to faces.
Tonight was the first of three formal nights in this cruise. Perhaps because of the large number of Brits, a higher proportion of men than usual (maybe 1/4 to 1/3) were wearing actual tuxedos or white dinner jackets (like John). The Captain's Champagne Waterfall was held between the two traditional dinner sittings. We skipped that in favor of dinner at Sabatini's ($29 pp cover charge). We both started with the artichoke soufflé, which is one of our favorite dishes here. For the pasta course, John chose the penne with short ribs and I had the spinach manicotti. For our main course, we both chose the daily special, veal Milanese. As we entered the restaurant, we were tempted by the cheese cart and decided to have a cheese plate for dessert (Pecorino, goat cheese and a lovely, runny Gorgonzola). The wine tonight was 2015 Prunotto Barolo.
Even with taking time for a leisurely dinner, we were able to attend the first of four production shows, "Bravo." Although this show had been offered on several of our previous cruises, this was the first time we were able to catch it. It is a bit hard to describe this show—the musical numbers ranged from movie theme songs to opera. Of the four featured performers, the three sopranos were much better than the tenor, who got drowned out by orchestra. The soprano, Shelly Rivers, who sang the operatic pieces, was superb.
Day 3 Monday, July 30: At Sea
This morning the port lecture was about Cádiz, Spain. We had to leave before it was over in order to meet with the Maitre d', Neville Saldanha, about the Chef's Table. Unlike other Princess ships, there seemed to be no interest in accommodating people with dietary restrictions. Only two Chef's Tables would be offered on this cruise and there was a waiting list of 20 people. We would be notified of the date of our dinner 48 hours ahead.
Pizza at Alfredo's was the Sapphire Princess for John and Romano for me. In the afternoon, Shelley Rivers gave a matinee performance that we attended.
Tonight was the cocktail party in Skywalkers nightclub for the 40 most-traveled passengers with Princess. Even though this is not an actual meal, the heavy hors d'oeuvres served easily take the place of dinner for us. The assortment included bacon-wrapped sea scallops, lollipop lamb chops, potatoes filled with caviar and other tasty treats. Drinks made to order were also freely supplied. This was all very nice, but a luncheon is much more special. Maybe next time!! At least we got a nice photo with Captain Paul Slight.
We were not excited about the ventriloquist act in the Princess Theater tonight. Instead we shivered out on the open deck watching the magic act, Amethyst, perform various escapes.
Day 4 Tuesday, July 30: Portimão, Portugal (Tender) 7 AM-5:30 PM
This was the only tender port; the Sapphire Princess anchored off Portimão in the estuary of the Arade River. The ship's tenders (called water shuttles on this cruise for some reason) berthed at the ferry terminal. There was a complimentary shuttle bus from the ferry terminal to the city center.
Portimão (www.planetware.com/portugal/portimao-p-faro-port.htm), on the Algarve Coast, is noted for its dramatic limestone cliffs and many sea caves and grottos. The ship did not offer any boat tours to the sea caves, so John booked one independently. Even though our tour was not until 9:30 a.m., we took the first tender ashore. That gave us enough time to walk to Praia da Rocha, a beautiful beach studded with huge rocks, in an area dense with high-rise resorts. (Portimão is an extremely popular vacation destination and there are resorts everywhere.) We did not think that we had enough time to walk to the miradouro (overlook) above the beach at the Fortaleza de Santa Catarina de Ribamar, so we walked back into town.
The Clube Naval de Portimão, the departure point for our tour, is only a sort distance from the tender dock by water but about a mile away by land. There are a number of companies offering similar boat tours from the same pier, so there was a lot of confusion. We had hoped to take the boat tour early in the morning when the sea is calmest. However the jeep portion of our four-hour combo land/sea tour with Algarve Discovery (www.algarvediscovery.com) came first. Seven of us piled into an open top jeep with our driver, Bruno. Portimão once was home to many fish processing plants and their chimneys are now topped by stork nests; we saw many during our drive through the city center.
Bruno drove us across the Arade River to Ferragudo, a quaint fishing village on the other side. We stopped at the Igreja Matriz de Ferragudo (Main Church of Ferragudo) and admired the view of the river and Portimão from its terrace above the sea. We could also see the Fortaleza de São João do Arade, which is now privately owned, and the Santa Catarina Fortress across the river. The crossfire from these two forts protected the Arade River from pirates.
We continued east to the resort town of Carvoeiro, stopping briefly above the town for a view of its popular beach. There is a short (570 m) clifftop boardwalk that runs east along the coast from above Carvoeiro to the Algar Seco cliffs. From the parking lot at Algar Seco, there are steps down to some fascinating rock formations. The stairs on the right lead to a small cave with two large holes, like eyes, looking out to the gorgeous blue ocean. The cave is called “A Boneca” (the doll) because, from the sea, it resembles a doll’s face. The stairs on the left lead down to an exposed sinkhole where seawater has entered to form a swimming grotto. Continuing from there on a rough trail to the ocean, we came to a spot that is popular for jumping into the water and also encountered a fisherman, who had already caught three fish. We had about 30 minutes to enjoy scrambling around on the rocks. We spent our last few minutes there climbing up to the boardwalk for an elevated view of the area. Then it was time for the drive back to Portimão by a faster, inland route.
Back at the pier, Bruno turned us over to Mauro, the boat driver, and Luis, who would provide commentary on the tour of the sea caves. This company uses a motor launch, which is larger but faster than the zodiacs used by some other companies. It is also possible to kayak to the caves and some can even be reached by swimming from a nearby beach.
The boat tour follows the coast in the same direction as the jeep tour but goes farther east. The tour description promised that we would enter a minimum of four sea caves but we entered at least three times that many. In several caves, we could enter through one opening and exit through another. Some of the openings and passages between the rocks seemed too small for the boat to go through, but Mauro knows the area in detail and could provide us with some thrills. Luis provided another sort of thrill: teasing us about snakes that might fall from the ceilings of the caves. Of course, he eventually tossed a rubber snake into the group.
When the boat reached Algar Seco, we could see the Boneca cave that we had explored earlier and watch a couple of people brave the jump into the cold water. The final cave, Benagil, is the highlight of the tour. It is quite large and has a huge opening in the ceiling. The popular beach inside can only be reached by boat, kayak or swimming from another nearby beach. On the ride back to the pier, we had more opportunities to take in the gorgeous scenery. We enjoyed this tour immensely and recommend it highly.
We considered walking around the center of Portimão after the boat tour but decided that we had seen enough during the jeep tour. We walked back to the ferry terminal to find a gigantic queue of passengers waiting to return to the ship. Even though the Sapphire Princess was running tenders continuously, there was only one berth; each tender had to offload its passengers and board a new group before another tender could dock. It took us an hour to get back on the ship.
Dinner tonight was in the Pacific Moon dining room. We were happy to discover that it was Italian Night, featuring some of our favorite appetizers: seafood antipasto, eggplant parmigiana and garlicky Penne all’Arrabbiata. For the main course, we had scallops and shrimp. John had zabaglione ice cream for dessert and I had tiramisu. The wine was a 2018 Pouilly-Fumé.
Tonight Amethyst gave their main performance. I usually enjoy magic acts a lot but didn't find this one to my taste. Amethyst didn't seem to have the same sort of flair and stage presence as other magicians (e.g., Gaetano Garofalo) we have seen on Princess.
During the night the clocks would be set forward one hour to be correct for the ports in Spain and France.
Day 5 Thursday, July 31: Cádiz, Spain 7 AM-6:30 PM
Also in port today was the Explorer of the Seas.
On a previous cruise that was scheduled to call at Cádiz, we had hoped to take a shared public excursion to Seville. Unfortunately, bad weather in the Bay of Biscay caused that stop to be canceled. In Seville, we especially wanted to visit the Alcazar and the Cathedral de Seville. Because of the anticipated holiday crowds, we were concerned that neither an independent tour nor the ship's "Seville on Your Own" tour would allow us sufficient time to visit both. Consequently, we booked the ship's expensive "Small Group" excursion that promised to deliver both sights.
Our "small group" of 16 headed off on the 90-minute drive to Seville (www.visitasevilla.es/en/official-webguide-seville) with our driver, Carmen, and guide, Silvio. Along the way, Silvio told us more that most probably wanted to know about Andalusia. Things got more interesting as we entered the city. We drove down Av. de Maria Luisa, a wide boulevard lined with a number of interesting buildings that were once the country pavilions at the 1929 Exposicion Ibero-Americano. Silvio also pointed out the Royal Tobacco Factory, the setting of Bizet's famous opera “Carmen.”
Carmen dropped us off across the street from the Jardines de Murillo, where we were issued Whisper sets so that we could hear Silvio at a distance. Although it took a while to get everyone properly connected, the sets ultimately proved beneficial when we could wander off to see other parts of a site (while Silvio droned on) and then find the group later. We crossed into the gardens, where there is a monument to Christopher Columbus. Interestingly, the only names on the monument are Isabella and Fernando—the sovereigns who sponsored his voyage. We walked through the shady park, with lots of trees, including a 100-year-old rubber tree. Silvio then guided us through the narrow streets and pretty squares of Barrio de Santa Cruz, the former Jewish quarter.
We finally arrived at the Royal Alcazar (realalcazarsevilla.sacatuentrada.es/en). The original palace was built for Pedro I in the 14th century and modeled on the Alhambra in Granada. Over the centuries, other monarchs added wings to the palace in the architecture of the times: Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque.
We first visited the Chapel of Our Lady of the Navigators, where sailors (likely including Christopher Columbus) prayed before undertaking a voyage. The altarpiece depicts Mary floating between Europe and the New World, blessing the people of those continents and an assortment of sailing vessels from the Age of Discoveries. There is a model of the Santa Maria and the coats of arms of prominent trading families, including the Columbus family, hang on the walls.
We next visited the main part of the complex (the part built for Pedro I), which is laid out like a typical Moorish palace: entry hall, welcoming fountain court, hall for dignitaries to wait and audience chamber. Those rooms are surrounded by many smaller rooms for the king and his family. The rooms are not furnished: the attractions are the fantastic mosaic tile work, intricate plaster decorations and ornate wooden ceilings. It was here that the Whisper sets really proved their worth: John and I were able to explore multiple rooms, courtyards and gardens while Silvio pontificated in another room.
Next the group toured the gardens, with fountains and pavilions. It was almost noon, so Silvio hustled us over to the unusual 17th-century Hydraulic Organ; which plays a tune every hour. There are only three other such water-powered organs left in the world. After visiting a few more rooms in the palace, we headed to the nearby cathedral.
The main attraction of the Gothic 15th-century Cathedral de Seville is the elaborate tomb of Christopher Columbus. That features statues of four kings bearing Columbus' coffin. Silvio said that the remains in the coffin had been confirmed to be those of Columbus by DNA comparison to his son, who is buried elsewhere in the cathedral. Although filled with art, this cathedral was not as impressive as others we have visited, primarily because of the poor lighting. The immense altarpiece above the main altar, for example, is only lit intermittently. Although most of the group took up Silvio's offer of a guided tour, John and I looked around on our own. Unfortunately, our free time here was not long enough to climb the famous Giralda tower.
After a walk back through the old Jewish quarter, we returned to the park and surrendered our Whisper sets. Following a short bus ride, we reached our lunch venue at the Restaurante San Marco (restaurantesevillasanmarco.com). Lunch was a green salad, chicken breast in mushroom-cream sauce with patatas bravas (potatoes in tomato sauce), and profiteroles for dessert. There were a liter of water and a bottle of house red wine on the table for every four people. It was all decent but nothing remarkable.
After lunch we drove a few blocks to the final attraction, the Moorish-themed Plaza de España, Andalusia’s pavilion for the Exposicion Ibero-Americano. This stop, for a photo op and limited free time, turned out to be an unexpected delight. The semicircular pavilion has two levels of galleries and towers at each end; it played the British headquarters in Cairo in the film "Lawrence of Arabia." A lagoon for boating follows the curve of the façade. Several bridges cross the lagoon to the plaza, which is quite large and scenic and has an attractive fountain in the center.
In retrospect we probably could have been happy with the “Seville on Your Own Tour”, but we could not know in advance that the crowds were not going to be that bad and the ticket lines relatively short. We went with the guarantee of seeing the essentials.
Because of the large lunch, we decided to dine tonight at Alfredo's. The Supervisor there, Pedro, made Caesar salads for us to go with our pizzas. He also obtained a wine list from one of the dining rooms so that we could enjoy a bottle of 2015 Numanthia Termes, a delicious tempranillo from Spain.
We skipped the Comedy Showtime tonight; it featured a British performer and we feared that his jokes would be so geared to a UK audience that we would not enjoy them. Apparently the audience at the first show did not enjoy them either (we read on Facebook that many walked out). Later that evening there was an announcement that the second show was canceled and a movie would be shown instead.
Day 6 Friday, August 1: Málaga, Spain 8 AM-5:30 PM
On a previous cruise, our ship called at Málaga and we took a shared public tour to the Alhambra in Granada. This time we planned to tour Málaga (www.malagaturismo.com/en) on our own and also take a market tour with a company that we had used twice before for food tours in Barcelona.
It was an easy walk from the cruise terminal, along the marina and through a pretty park to the entrance of the Alcazaba fortress. We arrived before it opened at 9 a.m. and had time to view the adjacent 1st-century Roman Theater (opens at 10 a.m.) from the street. We planned to return later to tour the theater and go to the viewpoints at either end.
Buying tickets for the Alcazaba (www.andalucia.com/cities/malaga/alcazaba.htm) was an odd experience: there is a ticket agent who helps you put cash (euro coins or 5, 10, 20 euro bills) into a ticket machine. The senior entry fee is 3€ pp or 4€ pp for a combo ticket with the Castillo Gibralfaro (1.5€ pp, senior rate), a companion fortress. We did not think (then) that we would have time to visit the Castillo, so we only bought tickets for the Alcazaba.
Málaga is one of Spain's oldest cities; the Alcazaba (11th century) is older than the Alhambra (13th century) and is the best-preserved Moorish fortress in Spain. It is not as large or richly decorated as the Alhambra; however, it has been nicely (but not completely) restored and there are great views from the walls. Because we were the first persons to enter, we took lots of great photos while the fortress was empty. The gardens and water features are also very nice.
We spent about an hour at the Alcazaba, then headed to the Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación (malagacatedral.com/cultural-visit/). There are various ticket combinations; we chose the basic tour for 5.5€ pp (senior rate), which includes a very well-done audioguide. The basic ticket also includes the Episcopal Palace, but that was closed while we were there. We enjoyed this cathedral even more than the one in Seville, primarily because it was much better lit and the audioguide was so good. We had plenty of time to tour the cathedral before we had to meet the market tour.
We had booked this market tour (foodlovertour.com/malaga/market-lover-tour/) several months in advance and had been concerned that the minimum number of participants might not be reached. However, we got an email reminder a few days before the tour, so we thought all was well. As requested, we were at the meeting point (entrance of the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga) 15 minutes ahead of the 11:30 a.m. start time. Then we waited and waited and waited. When no guide had shown up by noon, a staff member at a nearby sushi restaurant was kind enough to let me use his phone to call the contact number on our reservation. Imagine my surprise when the person who answered said that he had not worked for Food Lover for over two months! He said he would try to contact someone at the company’s office in Barcelona. After waiting another 15 minutes for a return call, we decided to leave and continue our sightseeing, having wasted 1.5 hours of our limited time in port. To add insult to injury, a few days later we received an email thanking us for taking the tour and asking us to review it on TripAdvisor! After we returned home, John contacted the Barcelona office and learned that the Málaga tours had been temporarily suspended and our reservation had somehow slipped through the cracks. Of course, our deposit was refunded and we were offered a complimentary tour in the future. Nevertheless, this was a great disappointment by a company that had provided such excellent service twice before in Barcelona.
After giving up on the market tour, we returned to the Theatro Romano (www.andalucia.com/cities/malaga/teatro-romano.htm). There is a panoramic overlook of the theater near the Alcazaba’s entrance and a higher one at the other end of the theater, behind the Visitor Center. The entrance to the theater (free) is through the Visitor Center and there are some displays of Roman artifacts. This is a small site and we had already viewed it from the street, so we did not need to spend a lot more time here.
We had considered taking a tour to the roof of the cathedral for views of Málaga. However, we realized that we would get much better views from the Castillo Gibralfaro (www.andalucia.com/cities/malaga/gibralfaro.htm), which is higher up Monte Girbralfaro than the Alcazaba. The two fortresses are connected by a fortified double wall along the Coracha ridge; unfortunately, that route is not open to the public.
From the Roman Theater’s exit we walked up Paseo de Don Juan Temboury, which follows the Alcazaba’s outer wall. That street joins a cobbled path that follows the outside of the Coracha wall up to the Castillo. Along the way, there are great views of the city, the port and the bullring. Despite the heat, we were able to manage the 40-minute climb in 17 minutes. Buying a ticket to the Castillo (1.5€ pp, senior rate) involved the same ticket agent/ticket machine procedure as at the Alcazaba. Once inside, we took a little rest in the shade to cool down and then spent about an hour exploring the monument. To return to the ship, we walked back down the path to the zigzag steps which lead down through a series of pretty gardens back to the waterfront.
To console ourselves for missing the market tour, we dined tonight at Sabatini's. This time, John started with the calamari, while I had the veal tonnato; that was followed by the penne with short ribs for both of us. For mains, John had the veal rack and I had the special, saltimbocca; those were accompanied by Gaia Promis Tuscan 2016. John thought the wine was kind of young and maybe overpriced but he wanted to try it. We again ended the meal with a cheese platter.
After that delicious dinner, we were able to find seats for the production show, “Born to Be Wild.”
Day 7 Friday, August 2: At Sea
Today gave us a chance to recuperate from three straight days in port. Lunch was Capricciosa pizza for John and a Sapphire Princess pizza for me.
Tonight was the second of three formal nights and we again enjoyed dinner at the Sterling Steakhouse. We both started with the seared shrimp, followed by the shrimp bisque for John and the black-and-blue onion soup for me. John’s carnivorous instincts were satisfied by the filet mignon and mine by the double lamb chops. Those were enjoyed with 2017 Donnafuggata Nero d'Avalo—excellent but young. Dessert was the chocolate peanut butter bar for John and a lemon tart for me. During dinner we were treated to a great sunset and the ship was buzzed several times by a low-flying private jet.
The performer tonight was Phillip Browne, a singer who has starred as Mufasa in “The Lion King” and in many other productions. He was outstanding, with real stage presence, and delivered a pleasant evening of rock and show tunes.
Day 8 Saturday, August 3: Ajaccio, Corsica, France 8 AM-4:30 PM
Corsica (ee.france.fr/en/discover/corsica-5) is a department of France and the capital, Ajaccio, is the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte (2019 marks 250 years since his birth). Of course, there are numerous statues of Napoleon and the house where he lived and the cathedral where he was baptized are now tourist attractions. We would walk by some of these sites later in the afternoon.
First, however, we would drive, with three other couples from our Cruise Critic roll call, to several of the island's major sights. We gathered everyone in the Art Gallery to divide up the 450€ (112.50€/couple) cost of the tour. It was a relief for me that everyone had brought either the correct change or small bills. We were outside the cruise terminal early but we didn’t have to wait too long for Xavier of Authentic Tour (www.authentictour.net) to show up.
Xavier drove us along the western coast of the island, stopping several times for stunning vistas of the gorgeous beaches along the Gulfs of Liscia and Sagone. We were really glad that he was doing the driving on the twisty, narrow mountain, coastal and village roads! We stopped for refreshments (a croissant and a glass of the local rosé for us) in Piana at A Casa Corsa (www.acasacorsa-piana.com), a small cafe perched on the cliffs above the Gulf of Porto. We continued along above the Calanches de Piana: precipitous red granite cliffs nearly a thousand feet high. Erosion has carved dramatic rock formations reminiscent of Bryce Canyon NP in Colorado. There was not enough time today to drive the entire road to Porto but Xavier dropped us off at the top of his favorite section so we could walk down for about a kilometer, enjoying the fantastic views. The Calanches are part of the Gulf of Porto UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On the return trip, we stopped in Cargèse, a picturesque village we had bypassed earlier. Cargèse is also known as "the Greek Village" because a large Greek community settled here in 1676. The two noteworthy monuments are the Latin (Roman Catholic) and Greek Byzantine churches. The churches are about 300 feet apart, on opposite sides of a shallow depression in the hillside. Thus each is best viewed from the terrace in front of the other. Xavier dropped us at the Greek church so we could admire its beautiful murals and the icons that were brought here with the original Greek settlers. The highlight of the Catholic church is its interior featuring “trompe l'oeil” paintings. Both churches date to the 19th century.
Xavier was waiting for us at the Catholic church for the ride back to Ajaccio (www.ajaccio-tourisme.com). After this great tour with good, enthusiastic commentary along way, we had the choice of being dropped off at the cruise terminal or at Place Foch in town. We all chose to go downtown and walk back to the ship on our own. Xavier gave us advice about what to see in this small pretty town. John and I walked to Place DeGaulle, with an equestrian statue of Napoleon, then along the promenade above a crowded beach. We tried to visit the cathedral but it was still closed for the midday break and would not reopen for another hour. We returned to Place Foch, where there is a statue of Napoleon dressed as a Roman emperor. I also found a Corsican regional flag, which features a black Moorish head with a white bandanna above the eyes; this symbolizes the liberation of Corsica from Genoa. We then walked along some of the major streets, passing Casa Napoleon, before heading back to the ship.
Dinner was in the Savoy dining room. John started with gravlax and Fettuccine Alfredo and I had Caesar salad and spinach-ricotta ravioli. We both followed that with veal scallopini and chocolate caramel nougatine tart. Tonight’s wine was Frescobaldi Nippuzano Chianti Rufina 2015. We skipped the show, an Adele tribute act.
Day 9 Sunday, August 4: Sète, France 7 AM-4:30 PM
In her lecture on Sète, our Destination Expert had given a good synopsis of the history of the Cité de Carcassonne, the double-walled fortress that occupies a hilltop above the Aude River. The hilltop was first fortified by the Romans around 100 BC and later by the Visigoths, Saracens and Franks. In the 11th century, the Trencavel family became the rulers of Carcassonne and built the Château Comtal and the Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus. During this period the Cathar religious movement was spreading in the Languedoc region.
The Cathars were a Christian sect that espoused two gods: a good god who ruled the spiritual realm and an evil god who ruled the material world. In the early 13th century, Pope Innocent III tried to stamp out this heresy by sending missionaries to convert the Cathars and pressuring the local authorities, who were considered much too tolerant of the movement, with excommunication. Eventually Innocent launched a 20-year crusade to wipe out the Cathars once and for all. Carcassonne, then ruled by Viscount Raymond-Roger de Trencavel, was besieged; the siege ended within a week when the Crusaders cut off the fortress’ water supply. While negotiating his city's surrender during a truce, Raymond-Roger was taken prisoner and died not long after under suspicious circumstances. The people of Carcassonne were not killed but stripped of their possessions and expelled from the city.
By the mid 19th century, the fortress had fallen into such disrepair that the French government planned to demolish it. However, this announcement caused a public uproar and the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was put in charge of restoring the fortress to its medieval state. In the 1960s, the conical slate roofs of the D-shaped Gallo-Roman towers were replaced with shallow-pitch terracotta tile roofs to restore their original appearance. Carcassonne is Europe's largest and best-preserved medieval fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of France’s top tourist destinations. It has also been the filming location for several movies, such as Kevin Costner’s “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.”
Philip (P&T) had organized a taxi van tour from Sète to Carcassonne for himself and his three traveling companions plus John and me and another couple from our Cruise Critic roll call. Booking was a frustrating experience because Nancy at Absolutely Southern France (absolutelysouthernfrance.com) had requested the full 480€ payment from Philip in advance. Also, she insisted that port calls are never canceled at the last minute due to bad weather and required 24 hours notice to cancel with a full refund. She refused to budge on the cancellation policy but finally agreed to take separate 120€ payments from each couple. It had been so hard to find an independent tour option at a reasonable price that we all finally agreed to take the chance that the ship would call in Sète and to rely on our travel insurance or a credit card charge back if it did not.
All of us met in Crooners bar an hour before the tour’s 8 a.m. start time. We needed to allow so much extra time because the Sapphire Princess was docked in an industrial area with no pedestrian access allowed. The required complimentary shuttle bus ran more frequently than expected, so this was not a problem and we arrived at the port gates well ahead of time. Fortunately, Philip had the driver’s (Arnaud) phone number, so we were able to get on the road much earlier than we had anticipated. [Note: Arnaud has his own business, Sète Grand Tour, and can be booked through the Tourist Office (www.tourisme-sete.com/sete-grand-tour-sete.html).]
It is a 1.5-hour drive from the port to Carcassonne. We arrived at the Porte Narbonnaise (the main entrance) a little after 9 a.m., well ahead of the hordes of tourists. John and I were a little disappointed at first when Arnaud told us to be back at the van by 12:30 p.m. to allow for possible heavy traffic on the drive back to the port. Ultimately, however, 3.5 hours was plenty of time to see all the sights.
Entrance to the medieval town within the walls is free but there is a charge to tour the Château Comtal and the ramparts (www.remparts-carcassonne.fr/en/). All eight of us had bought skip-the-line tickets ($10.20 pp) online from Viator. The Château did not open until 10 a.m., so John and I took advantage of our early arrival to explore while the fortress was relatively empty.
After walking counter-clockwise between the outer wall (14 towers) and the inner wall (24 towers) and briefly seeing the medieval town, we exited by the Porte d’Aude and walked down the cobbled ramps to the lower town (www.tourism-carcassonne.co.uk/maps-and-guides). Parts of the barbican (semicircular gate fortification) here were destroyed in 1816 to build the Église St-Gimer. We continued along the Rue de la Barbacane to the Place de la Barbacane, where we could access the Pont Vieux (Old Bridge) that crosses the Aude River. This structure was built in the early 14th century. There are fantastic views of the fortress from the bridge. At its far end is the tiny Chapelle Notre Dame de la Santé, which is the only surviving trace of the city’s oldest hospital. We walked towards the Pont Neuf (New Bridge) and found a spot on the riverfront where we could get a great view of the Pont Vieux with the fortress behind it.
We retracted our path up to the Port d’Aude and from there to Basilique des Saints Nazaire et Celse. The Basilica is a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. Among other beautiful stained glass windows, the central window in the choir dates to 1280 and is one of the oldest in the south of France. There is also a gorgeous rose window and a 17th-century organ.
By now the Château Comtal was open, so we got into the line, which moved quickly. Visitors first enter through the castle’s barbican; the ticket office and reception area are in a simple wooden structure that lines the barbican. Once inside, we could go directly to the entrance with our voucher. Rick Steves had dissed the audioguide (3€), so we skipped that; there was sufficient signage in English.
We crossed a bridge across a dry moat to the main courtyard (Cour d’Honneur). The self-guided tour starts in the keep with a movie about the history of the castle and its restoration. We decided to skip the movie to get ahead of the crowd. We next walked the outer walls of the castle for great views. Particularly interesting were the reconstructed hoardings. These temporary wooden sheds were built on the ramparts of a castle during a siege; they allowed the defenders to shoot along and down to the base of the walls of the castle. There is also a well-preserved section of stone and brick fortifications from the Gallo-Roman period. The ground floor of the castle has a museum with statuary, effigies, sarcophagi and wall paintings; one of the wall paintings depicts a battle between Christian and Saracen knights. Another treasure is a large 12th-century marble ablution fountain.
After returning to the main courtyard, we climbed up to the Gallo-Roman north ramparts, which extend to the Porte Narbonnaise. The stairs up to the ramparts are not exactly obvious, which may explain why we saw so few people up there. We enjoyed the ramparts so much that, instead of exiting at the Porte Narbonnaise, we followed them back to the main courtyard. We also wanted to walk the medieval west ramparts but we found them closed. We decided to walk the north ramparts again, this time exiting at the Porte Narbonnaise.
We still had plenty of time to wander, so we walked clockwise through the gap between the two city walls. For those who prefer to ride, there are horse-drawn wagons; the horses wear cute white crocheted caps. We were eventually blocked by a construction zone; perhaps that was why the west ramparts were closed. We re-entered the medieval town by the St-Nazaire Gate and continued our ramblings until it was time to meet the group back at the van. Although the town was practically deserted this morning, by noon it seemed that everyone in the south of France was here.
There was not as much traffic on the drive back as Arnaud had feared. Since we had extra time and he is a Sétois (someone from Séte), Arnaud took this opportunity to give us a brief tour of his city. Locals call Séte the "Venice of Languedoc" because of its many canals. On one of them, we saw two of the special boats used in the local sport of water jousting. Next we drove to the observation platform atop Mont St. Clair for panoramic views of the town and port. We could even see the oyster farms in the Étang de Thau. There is also a small chapel there dedicated to Notre-Dame-de-la-Salette. Next to the chapel is a building belonging to the Missionaries of La Salette with another viewpoint on top. Despite the issues dealing with Nancy, Carcassonne was amazing and Arnaud was an excellent driver.
Dinner tonight in the Vivaldi dining room included bacon-wrapped pork terrine, crab-artichoke dip, oxtails with wagon wheel pasta and roasted pork belly; the wine was 2016 Bel Glos Pinot Noir—rich and good. Desserts were rhubarb Napoleon and apple-walnut spring rolls. After dinner we listened to Chris Watkins, AKA “Fireworks on Four Strings,” whom we have enjoyed on other cruises.
Day 10 Monday, August 5: At Sea
This was another good day to recover from two port days. We went to a port talk on Lisbon and enjoyed more pizza.
Before dinner, we went to the Captain's Circle Cocktail Party in Club Fusion; this was one of three parties just for Platinum (849) and Elite (627) members. The most traveled passenger had 743 days; second place was 672 days and third place (us!) was 661 days. We were the only ones from the top three to attend this party. During the party, we had a dedicated drinks server; they should have had someone making sure we got some food to soak up the alcohol. We both started with a double cognac. John followed that with two extra dirty gin martinis; I had an extra dirty vodka martini and a spicy Bloody Mary.
Everything was fine until we had a bottle of 2016 Navarro Gewurztraminer with dinner at the Pacific Moon. We were too buzzed to make it to the production show (“Let Me Entertain You”) after that! I can’t remember what we ate for dinner (it was probably duck breast but could have been bread and butter) and John can't remember brushing his teeth. We need to show more restraint in the future but at least we weren’t driving!
Day 11 Tuesday, August 6: Ceuta 9 AM-5:30 PM
Ceuta (www.ceuta.si/home) and Melilla are part of Spain; these two port cities are all that remain of Spanish Morocco. Ceuta lies across the Strait of Gibraltar from mainland Europe and the mountain above the town, Mount Hacho, is thought by some to be the legendary African "Pillar of Hercules" (with the Rock of Gibraltar being the European pillar). Many passengers took this port as an opportunity to cross the border into Morocco and visit one of the picturesque villages there.
Because of the distances to the sites and likely long delays at the border, we did not even consider arranging a private tour here. Instead, we chose the ship's "Best of Chefchaouen" tour. Two buses were assigned to this tour; we were in bus #2 and our guide was Mohamed. While driving to the border, we each needed to fill out entrance and exit forms for Morocco; we would have to leave those two forms and our passport with the Moroccan authorities until we were cleared to cross back into Spain. Mohamed collected all the passports and negotiated the crossing formalities for us. The border was heavily fortified with guards, fencing and concertina wire to prevent illegal immigration into Spain. Traffic in both directions was a chaotic mix of motorcycles, cars, trucks and buses, going every which way; occasionally someone would get out of his/her car to wander around among the vehicles. Despite the number of officials standing around, there was not much of an effort to impose order on this mess. The border crossing took our bus 40 minutes and the drive to Chefchaouen took another two hours, with no scheduled toilet break. Several people became desperate and Mohamed had to improvise a pee stop or risk a mutiny or embarrassing accidents.
We arrived in Chefchaouen (visittanger.com/fr/villes/chefchaouen) and were dropped off in the new city near Plaza Mohamed V. An old guy dressed in blue approached the bus and started yelling at it; he looked a lot like Yoda. We thought he was a local “character” but it turned out that he was our local guide, Ahmed. The tour description promised Whisper sets, but those were not provided. Instead, we had a busload of people following Ahmed (who spoke English with a heavy and barely intelligible accent) through the narrow streets of the town. Naturally the group (this was full bus load!) became strung out for a long way and we blocked streets; people at the rear of the group couldn’t hear anything! Mohamed tagged along at the end, trying to keep people from getting lost.
The visit was supposed to start with a walking tour but some people in our group couldn’t wait for another toilet break, so our group went to lunch first. From Plaza Mohamed V we walked down Boulevard Hassan II to the Bab El Ain, the gate into the medina (old town). Chefchaouen is known as the “Blue City” and the buildings were indeed painted in a myriad of blue hues. We trailed through the narrow alleys and stairways of the medina, which is lined with colorful shops and tables offering various food items and souvenirs like rugs and slippers.
After walking about half a mile, we arrived at Restaurant Tissemlal (www.casahassan.com/en/tissemlal-restaurant/); by this time several in our group looked ready to collapse from the exertion and the heat. John and I joined three other couples at a table in the pretty courtyard, while others were seated inside the restaurant. Lunch included a soft drink or bottled water and started with a salad. Next came Chicken Bastilla, shreds of chicken cooked with onions and spices, then wrapped in a flaky pasty crust and baked. This was followed by Kefta Mkaouara (Meatball Tagine), meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce with poached eggs on top. These dishes were accompanied by Khobz dyal Zraa' (Moroccan wheat bread, similar to pita). These dishes were all delicious! For dessert, there was a mixed fruit compote. Entertainment was supposed to be a local music folkloric performance: that consisted of four musicians playing in another room of the restaurant.
While we were waiting for the group to gather after finishing lunch, John walked up the street alone to get some uncrowded photos. One of the shopkeepers offered him “Hash? Weed? Pills?” Uh, no thanks: alcohol, caffeine and theobromine for us!
Once everyone had said goodbye to the toilets, we headed off for the actual walking tour. The medina is really quite pretty, with many horseshoe-arched gates and windows, intricate window grilles, colored tiles and terracotta tile roofs. Even though we were near the front of the line, we missed most of Ahmed’s comments. He did point out the Hammam El Harras (Turkish bath) in one square and called our attention to the lovely courtyard in the Maison de la Culture. Then we stopped at Dar Moulay Idriss, a place selling various types of rugs and handicrafts, for a sales pitch. I guess we were lucky; the other bus also went to a shop selling lotions. I’m sure there was a lot more to see (there certainly was more listed in the tour description) but we were only in Chefchaouen for about 2.5 hours.
Then it was back on the bus for the two-hour drive to the border, punctuated by another improvised pee break. Especially given Princess’ older clientele, it is unconscionable to design an all-day tour with only one opportunity (at the restaurant) for people to use a toilet. This time the border crossing only took our bus 20 minutes. Those on the other bus told us it took them an hour each way. Our bus driver dropped Mohamed off to retrieve our passports. He then wended his way through lines of cars and barriers and was all the way to the final checkpoint before Mohamed returned. No one checked us individually but they did look in bus’ baggage compartment for stowaways; on the other bus, some men had tried to break into that and set off an alarm. We made it back to the ship right at all aboard time. We would probably rate this tour in the bottom ten percent of all tours we have taken over the years.
As we were getting cleaned up for dinner, the Captain announced that there was bad weather moving in from the west. The ship would make top speed to Lisbon, where we would arrive and leave earlier than scheduled, which would allow us to avoid the worst.
Tonight’s dinner was a real highlight of the cruise: the Chef’s Table ($95 pp cover charge), prepared by the Executive Chef. We have attended this event on a number of other ships and it is always something special! Tonight's group of 12 gathered at the International Cafe. We were led to the entrance of the Santa Fe dining room, where we were greeted by the Maitre d', Neville Saldanha, and helped into white jackets or lab coats. Then we were escorted into the Galley, where we scrubbed our hands thoroughly. We were introduced to the Executive Chef, Alessandro Carrer; he and Neville pointed out all the food preparation areas and explained how everything was organized to work smoothly. After that, we were moved to a table in an out-of-the-way corner, which was decorated with a large ice sculpture of a chef and carved vegetables. There we were served Nicholas Feuillatte Brut Reserve Champagne and four special appetizers prepared by the Executive Chef.
After enjoying the appetizers, we were escorted to a special table in the Savoy dining room. At one end of the table was a gorgeous display of fresh vegetables and at the other, a large bouquet of lemons. In the middle was a model of the Sapphire Princess, floating on a blue sugar ocean off an island with a mountain made of spices, complete with a breakwater and lighthouse. In front of each couple was a marble slab with chunks of mortadella, salami, prosciutto and cheese; there were bowls of artichoke hearts and olives to share. Black and white napkins had been folded into the shape of tuxedos for the men and flowers for the ladies. All very impressive! Before being seated, a group photo and a photo of each couple were taken with the Maitre d' and Executive Chef.
The antipasti were followed by a wild porcini mushroom risotto spiked with truffle oil and topped with a grilled Tiger Prawn; that was served with 2016 Crio Torrontés from the Uco Valley, Argentina. Next was a strawberry and black pepper sorbet palate-cleanser splashed with Grey Goose Vodka. The main course was surf and turf: lamb chop Provençale, beef tenderloin, sea scallops and a poached lobster tail. This course was served with 2015 Vall Llach Embruix from the Priorat region of Spain. The cheese course was a Bartlett pear poached in Port wine with Stilton, walnuts and a balsamic reduction. Finally, desert was a Norman Love Bittersweet Chocolate Dome with Salted Caramel Cream and Crunchy Milk Chocolate; that was served with Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs from California and house-made Limoncello. Those with any appetite left were presented with a tray of the Chef’s homemade gourmandises (chocolate-covered strawberries, chocolate truffles, marzipan, macarons and other cookies) accompanied by coffee/tea.
Needless to say, this five-course meal and accompanying wines were outstanding and served with appropriate pomp and ceremony. After the meal, we received copies of the 50th Anniversary Edition of Princess' cookbook (Courses, a Culinary Journey), the photos and a souvenir menu; each lady was presented with a long-stemmed red rose. Wow! What a great meal!
Although the Chef's Table ended early enough to catch the late performance of the show (featuring Chris Watkins and Phillip Browne), we were too satiated to do anything else but retire for the evening.
Tonight the clocks were set back an hour to be correct for the remainder of the cruise.
Day 12 Wednesday, August 7: Lisbon, Portugal 10 AM-7 PM
The fog horn sounded throughout night and this morning as we cruised up the Tagus Estuary to Lisbon. When the weather is clear, the sail-in provides excellent views of a number of Lisbon’s famous monuments—the Tower of Belem, the Monument to the Discoveries, the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, the Ponte 25 de Abril, the Cristo Rei statue—but not today. The fog was lifting as we docked at the at Jardim do Tabaco pier and the rest of the day was beautiful. Also in port today was Hapag-Lloyd’s Europa 2.
This was the fifth time we have called in Lisbon (visitlisboa.com/?locale=en). That is more often than any other city in Europe; we are starting to know our way around without maps! One thing that was different is that the new cruise terminal is now open and there are some tours available there. Also, the area around the terminal has been developed so it is not just an ugly empty lot anymore.
For today, John had arranged a tasting of Portuguese wines and food and I had planned a walking tour of the Chiado and Bairro Alto neighborhoods. Because of the ship’s earlier arrival, I was not sure whether I had included enough sights to fill the time until the tasting. We had briefly visited the Bairro Alto on a previous cruise and had taken the historic Elevador de Santa Justa (1902) up from the Baixa, the flat downtown area. This time, we planned to climb the hills, seeing various sights along the way.
We started by walking downriver along the waterfront, past the Praça do Comércio. Some sand artists were making sculptures on the narrow beach. When we reached the Cais do Sodré train station, we turned away from the river; the Mercado da Ribeira is behind the station. One side of the market is classic: wooden stalls of flowers, vegetables, seafood, meats and every other type of foodstuff. A fishmonger’s stall was decorated with painted tiles featuring fish. The other side is the gentrified “Time Out Market” and is home to more upscale shops and eateries. There was a stall selling Lisbon’s famous pasteis de nata (custard pies) but we thought we would be able to get one later. After touring the market, we visited the small park next door, Jardim Dom Luis, with a monument to a 19th-century Portuguese politician in the middle.
Now we started climbing up the steep streets and stairs of the Chiado, a scenic upscale residential zone, to the Miradouro de Santa Catarina. There are views from here of the river, the Cristo Rei and the 25 de Abril Bridge. The miradouro is being renovated, so we could only view the back of the statue of Adamastor, a mythical sea monster from the epic poem "The Lusiads."
We continued climbing to Calçada do Combro, a main thoroughfare in the Chiado. An advantage of the ship’s early arrival was that some of the churches that normally would be closed from 1-3 p.m. were open to visit. One of these was the 17th-century Igreja de Santa Catarina, built in the Baroque style with an ornate rococo stucco ceiling. The main altar and those in the side chapels are heavily gilded as is the wooden organ. No photos are allowed in this church.
Calçada do Combro becomes Largo Calhariz and then Rua do Loreto. As we walked along, we were enjoying the busy street scene, the colorful tiles (azulejos), wrought iron balconies and blooming trees and flowers. At Rua da Atalaia, we took a brief detour to check out the location of the wine bar for our tasting. We returned to Rua do Loreto and followed it to Manteigaria Fábrica de Pastéis de Nata, which Rick Steves says is the best place in town for custard pies. It is certainly popular—the long line stretched out the door. We again postponed getting one of these treats.
We had now reached busy Praça Luís de Camões, the transition zone between Chiado and Bairro Alto. It faces Largo do Chiado, where there are two Baroque churches. The blue Igreja do Loreto was built on the site where the city walls once stood in the 14th century. It is also known as the Italian Church (Chiesa Italiana della Madonna di Loreto) because it was constructed for the many Italians who came from Genoa and Venice to Lisbon during the Age of Discoveries to establish trade. The main altar and side chapels here are much plainer than at Santa Catarina. However, the rococo ceiling features a lovely painting of the Virgin of Loreto. The exterior has a statue of the Madonna and Child that is attributed to Borromini. Across the street is the yellow Igreja da Nossa Senhora da Encarnação, which was closed. From here we walked along Rua da Misericórdia, passing Lisbon's oldest restaurant, the opulently gilded Tavares Restaurant (1784).
Now we came to one of the main attractions of the Bairro Alto: the Church and Museum of São Roque. A small shrine was originally built on this site to house a relic of St. Roch brought from Venice during a plague in 1505. The shrine was demolished by the Jesuits later in the 16th century in order to erect the present church. Its plain Renaissance façade conceals a sumptuous interior—richly embellished with marble, azulejos and gilded woodwork. The church (free) is renowned for its elaborate side chapels, each a masterpiece of Baroque art. The Capela de São Roque is particularly noted for its gorgeous azulejos, the oldest in the church. However, the most famous chapel is the Capela de São João Baptista, known as the "world's most expensive chapel." It was designed and built in Rome from the most costly materials available (ivory, agate, porphyry, lapis lazuli, gold and silver), blessed by the Pope, disassembled and shipped to Lisbon. The chapel's three altarpieces are not paintings but micromosaics—made up of incredibly tiny pieces of glass. John and I could not believe these were actually mosaics and not paintings; I guess you have to see them close up to tell. Many items formerly found in this chapel are now on display in the adjacent church museum. In addition to the chapels, the church’s majestic ceiling is the only painted ceiling from the Mannerist period (about 1520-1600) in Lisbon.
The Museum of São Roque (free for 65+) houses sacred art and other treasures from the church. Although we visited the church first, it would have been better to go to the museum first to obtain the nice English guides to both. The route through the museum follows the history of the church. The ground floor contains four panels from the shrine of St. Roch and the original relic of St. Roch. The remainder of this floor and part of the upper floor contains statues, reliquaries and art from the period of the Jesuits, including some oriental art and furniture. A separate section is devoted to the Capela de São João Baptista, including a model of the chapel, enormous bronze-and-silver torch holders and its former altar, decorated with lapis lazuli scenes of the Apocalypse. The final section includes art donated to the Santa Casa da Misericórdia, the religious society that took over the church after the Jesuits were expelled from Portugal in 1759.
We spent a lot of time at the really interesting São Roque before heading up Rua de São Pedro de Alcântara to the garden and miradouro of the same name. This viewpoint was also under renovation but we still got some nice views of the Castelo de São Jorge on the other side of the Baixa. Across the street from here is the Convento de São Pedro de Alcântara (free). Only the funeral chapel of Cardinal Verissimo de Lencastre (1690s) and the church (1681) can be visited without a guided tour; these two Baroque rooms survived the 1755 earthquake that devastated Lisbon. The chapel is just inside the entrance; it has intricate Italian-inspired marble floors, a painted ceiling and walls covered with inlaid marble. The lower walls of the church are covered with 18th-century blue-and-white tile panels, depicting scenes from the life of St. Peter of Alcantara; even the confessionals are made of these tiles. This is a small site that is worth visiting if one is in the area.
From the convent, we made our way to the picturesque Largo do Carmo. The square is shaded by ancient jacarandas trees and at its center is the ornate Chafariz do Carmo fountain, once the main source of water for the district.
On November 1, 1755, a violent earthquake, followed by a tsunami and fires, destroyed two-thirds of Lisbon. The Church of Santa Maria do Carmo was one of the most beautiful Gothic churches in Lisbon before the earthquake. Now the roofless nave and transept are a permanent monument to the disaster. The choir of the church is home to the Museu Arqueológico do Carmo (www.museuarqueologicodocarmo.pt/info_en.html; 4€ pp, senior rate). The nice museum contains a number of tombs, including a Roman tomb carved with reliefs depicting the Muses. The tomb of King Ferdinand I has scenes from the life and miracles of St. Francis on one side; the other side has a number of figures, including that of an alchemist in his laboratory. There are many other artifacts here, such as part of a Visigothic pillar, ancient tombstones and South American mummies. At the end of the tour, there is a nice movie about the history of the ruins. However, the most interesting aspects of this site are the evocative ruins themselves.
As we walked back towards Praça Luís de Camões, we happened upon the Basilica of Our Lady of the Martyrs. This church was dedicated to the English Crusaders who fell in the Siege of Lisbon during the Reconquista; it houses a statue of Mary carried by the Crusaders. After the 1755 earthquake, the church was rebuilt in the Baroque style. The most stunning features are the frescoes in the ceiling that depict the victorious battle against the Moors in 1147 and the use of green as the dominant color in the decoration.
Finally it was time for the highlight of our day in Lisbon: wine tasting and snacks at the Lisbon Winery (www.lisbonwinery.com). Our “passionate wine experts,” Alex and Adriana, were knowledgeable and enthusiastic. We started with a tasting of three distinctive olive oils, paired with a 2016 Regueiro Alvarinho. That was followed by a large platter of artisanal cheeses, paired with a Verdelho. Next came a large platter of Iberian pork charcuterie, paired with Cabrita Negra Mole. Finally, we were served silky Pata Negra ham with a fantastic red, 2011 Colinas Bairrada. To top it all off we had an amazing Blackett 20 year Tawny Port. Adriana was superb in her information, provided large clean glasses for each wine and gave generous pours! We were served wonderful unusual Portuguese wines (wine from Algarve!!) that broadened our experience. We thought we knew wines from this area but that's why we do tastings. And the food was a great accompaniment. A fantastic way to spend 2.5 hours!
On the way back to the ship, we passed the pie shop again and the line was still out the door. Oh well, maybe next time. From Praça Luís de Camões, it is a straight shot down Rua do Alecrim to the riverfront.
Dinner in the Pacific Moon was light after all the food we had at the tasting: pork terrine, goat cheese soufflé and scallops. The wine tonight was Domaine de la Perrière Sancerre, 2017.
Day 13 Thursday, August 8: At Sea
This morning we went to a talk on "Tall Ships" by the Enrichment Expert, Terry Corner. This was the only lecture by him that we attended. We should have taken it as a bad sign when the audience numbered only about a dozen people besides us. Then he announced that he didn't know anything much about tall ships but he had Googled the topic. The result was a rambling, disorganized mess that contained a number of factual errors (e.g., he said the USS Constitution is berthed in Baltimore, not Boston). He did have some nice photos of sailing ships.
Lunch was Sapphire Princess pizza for John and vegetarian pizza for me.
The Princess Grapevine ($9.50 pp) wine tasting was held later in the afternoon. As Elite Captain's Circle members, John and I received complimentary invitations; this is the first time we were asked to call and confirm that we would attend. Today we started with Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs sparkling wine from California. That was followed by two white wines: 2016 Martin Codax Albarino from Spain and 2016 Crio Torrontés from Argentina. The last two wines were reds: 2013 Sokol Blosser Dundee Hills Pinot Noir from Oregon and 2015 Spellbound Petite Sirah from California.
Tonight was the third and final formal night; we dined in the Savoy dining room. We both chose the Escargots Bourguignon and broiled lobster tail with arugula risotto. John had an appetizer serving of the Fettuccine Alfredo and I had ricotta ravioli in a carrot cream sauce. For dessert, John finally succumbed to the NY Cheesecake and I had the chocolate-pistachio dome (a Chocolate Journey). To drink, we enjoyed a bottle of the Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs that was served earlier at the Grapevine wine tasting.
Tonight was also the final production show, "Do You Wanna Dance? ". This is an energetic medley of dance styles from around the world. We have seen this show before and enjoyed seeing it again.
Day 14 Friday, August 9: At Sea
As we were getting ready this morning, we had some excitement when there was an announcement calling the fast response team to the Engine Room. That was followed by series of announcements from the Captain: smoke was detected in the Engine Room; there was a small fire in the insulation; the fire was put out and the area was being checked further; the response team could stand down. All's well that ends well! [Note: On one of the first days on the ship we had a similar assessment announcement. In that case, we had a smoldering kettle (yes, we have cabin kettles) in a cabin.]
Events that looked interesting today were the Culinary Demonstration and the Backstage Tour of the Princess Theater. We decided to skip those in favor of lunch at Alfredo's (Margarita pizza for John and vegetarian pizza for me) and an early start on packing.
Tonight we dined in the Santa Fe restaurant, which is split between Anytime Dining and Club Class Dining. We enjoyed a favorite meal: mussels in a white wine sauce with frites. Wine was a nice white 2016 Bordeaux from Château de Cruzeau.
We skipped the show tonight, a Take That Tribute act. We had never heard of Take That, a British pop group, but they were undoubtedly familiar to the Brits onboard.
Day 15 Saturday, August 10: LHR to IAD to RDU
Philip (P&T) had arranged a private transfer to LHR with Exec-Merc (www.exec-merc.co.uk). The cost for six, including tip, worked out to 30 GBP pp, which was about half the cost of a Princess transfer to the airport.
We had received an email from United Airlines that new TSA regulations prohibit carrying more than 12 ounces of powders (including coffee and tea) in carry-on luggage and any electronic device larger than a cell phone must be removed from its case for screening. I had planned to get some tea for the nice lady who is taking care of our plants and was able to get some at Harrods after security.
We spent the time before our flight in the Plaza Premium Lounge in Terminal 2. We were able to score a love seat in a little alcove with a table. There was plenty of good food (especially the Madras Chicken) and drink, so the time passed pleasantly. During the flight to IAD, we were served dinner and a hot sandwich. Global Entry again proved its worth as we skipped the long immigration lines. The only real problem came at RDU, where the luggage from five flights was sent to the same baggage carousel. It took longer for our luggage to come out than the flight from IAD to RDU had taken.
We arrived home at about 1 a.m. on Sunday morning, glad to be back sleeping in our own bed but already looking forward to our next adventure. Read Less