lunes, 6 de diciembre de 2010

Cruising to Cape Town - Christmas 2010


For the next 3 weeks I am cruising, with my chum Andrew, to Cape Town. The Italian MSC Melody cruise sets off from Genoa through the Mediterranean into the Atlantic and down the coast of Africa. We leave London the day before the ship sets sail.


For the next 3 weeks I am cruising, with my chum Andrew, to Cape Town. The Italian MSC Melody cruise sets off from Genoa through the Mediterranean into the Atlantic and down the coast of Africa. We leave London the day before the ship sets sail.

30 November 2010

As I wake (or rather am woken so very early) chez Rosie and Graham there is snow flurrying around central London. It is gay snow - all flouncy and fluffy and not likely to linger or hit heavily. It's not that rugged, real lad snow that's already laid into the north east; the stuff that shivers timbers and strands motorists. But still, this being Britain, it has managed its fair share of mayhem and malaise. Only the day before, London's transport wasn't working – not because of a flake on the line or someone flaked under a train but because of a tube strike. But this morning, on the 7.47 to Gatwick and beyond the outer postcodes there is unsettling - because it's settling - snow slurring around Surrey. Streets and houses and cars and fields are deeply, crisply coated. Fortunately, the planes are taking off and, after a short delay to de-ice the flaps, we take off for Italy.

My chum, Andrew, and I are heading off on a three week cruise from Genoa to Cape Town aboard MSC (an Italian cruise company) Melody. It was advertised at a reasonable price probably because it doesn't stop at many interesting places – or, indeed, many places at all. But the lure of sunny South Africa, when Britain is already blanketed in blizzards and squealing in sleet, is an easy enticement.

The plane skirts along the Ligurian coast as it descends alongside snow-smattered mountains. It seems that Europe is in thrall to an Artic attack. Obviously, the Irish are responsible for this – another continental calamaty. We take a taxi from the Cristoforo Colombo airport to the understated, unlikely-to-be-rated Novotel and enjoy our first encounter with a rip-off Italian and pay the equivalent of an intergalactic fare on the short ride to theNovotel into town.

If I were a car connoisseur or trainspotter I would appreciate the view from our NoNotaGreatHotel as we are surrounded by a slithering of motorways and railway tracks – though we can see the sea churning away in the distance beyond the docks below. There are police gathering on one of the slip roads. They have riot shields and are clutching trucheons and I can't think who told them we were in town. A fleet of blue wagons are topped with blue blinking fright lights along a stretch of strada. Yippee, it's an Italian demonstration. At least 37 studenti (watched by more polizi) straggle into view whistling, chanting, drum-banging and brandishing banners 'Against the Reforms'. Usually, students are for progress and change but here they behave like civil servants and conservatives – and whatever it is they have, or had, they still want to keep it.

We venture out and end up walking between the No Reformi and the Uniformi and wander downtown. Italians have set, and rather rigidly fixed, times so there is a time to work (usually between 9.00-10.15); a time to demonstrate (11.00-13.00) and a time to lunch (13.00-14.30). It now being 15.00 the cucina is nearly chiusa so all we can get (in a trattoria near the Facultat di Economia which is empty due to striking studenti) is burger & chips. Fortified with fetid fat we go back out into the howling gales and head up the hill to the ornate and stately Saint Lawrence church. But the day is darkening, the chill is chastening and we are feeling daunted by the drizzle and wearied by the wind so we take the uniquely singular metro line back to the NowhereElseToGoTel and don't go out again.

Wednesday 1 December

It's not so face-scrapingly gusty today and we manage to get to a breakfast caff across the road without need of ropes or crampons. We take a stroll along a stretch of peeling palazzi which seem to say that Genova was once a Great Dame of a seafaring City whose fortune faded sometime ago. Today it is a mess of motorways and train tracks that slice up and cut along the harbour front and less appealing than an Arndale Centre on a sink estate. We walk along a street of yesteryear grandeur and worn out wealth until it's time to get back to the NoNeverAgainOtel and take ourselves off to the Stazzioni Maritimi to board Mistress Melody who's purring at the port.

Like us all, the ship has seen better days and (unlike most of us I can only hope) may not see them again. Our cabins, though, are sizeable enough for the bathroom to have a tub and to contain a made-up double bed, a three seater sofa-bed and a fold away bunk bed. I'll have to see whom I can entice back for a sleep-over or at least a pillow party. It doesn't take long to find out that MSC is a cruise line that takes every opportunity to make money. It charges for things like coffees, teas and water that I'd enjoyed free on my previous (limited) cruise experiences. There are gaming tables and slot machines and a fag alley for smokers lines the lounge.

An afternoon buffet is laid on as everyone settles in and then we cast off, glide off and sail into the sunset. Ciao Genova.

When we get to dinner we learn that this is not a ship that encourages ties at the table - so not much chance of my dickie being pulled out and admired except at the gala evenings. This evening's dress is 'casual' and is interpreted, by some of the teenage South Africans, to mean appearing at the trough in trakkies and t-shirts. It's obviously That Kind of Cruise.

Thursday 2 December

We're crossing the Mediterranean to our first stop at Barcelona. We take breakfast at the Smash & Grab. This is what my previous cruise companion, Cathy, calls the Self-Serve Buffet: where plates are piled high with usual day-break fare and it looks like chef has shopped at Aldi. Andrew has already been up (and, indeed, at it) as he was at the gym before 08.00. The gym is quite well equipped with half a dozen machines and some free weights but it is in a grim internal room and, without a view to gaze upon, is unlikely to inspire perseverance and commitment.

Our first quiz of the cruise is held by the pool and is all about Capital cities. We answer all the questions correctly and Andrew is given a tape measure as a prize. I'm sure he intends to use it daily on his waistline.

It appears that Captain Michele hasn't quite mastered his three point turn as our docking procedure at Barcelona takes as long as a till queue at Primark. There is another 30 minute-wait as we watch the port workers try and hoist a gantry to the ship's passenger door. Then they have to stick hazzard tape around it as they can't get it to meet the floor. All very EU health & safety.

As we've docked 2 kms from the port entrance, the ship has laid on a shuttle bus and is charging 8 euro for it. But outside the terminal is a Barcelona bus charging only 3 euro return for the same journey. As the rest of my fellow passengers trundle up the Ramblas, to be pickpocketed or bag-snatched, I make for the metro as I have an appointment with Nice Nick the dentist and spend 40 minutes with my mouth wide open and my eyes wide shut. Drilled and filled it's back to the ship for a shower before supper.

This evening's quiz is music from the movies but as the crew in drag enacts the answers I realise I'd rather be reading the phone book so I slip off before we find out if we've won or not. As there isn't a prize popped under the door I can only assume that we didn't.

Friday 3 December

The day dawns (at 07.55) with unencumbered sun and we are just off the sticky out bit of Spain between Denia and the Balearic Islands. It seems the right time to go to the gym and jostle with the South Africans for the machines. There are more South Africans aboard than any other nation as they are returning to their nests for a summery Christmas after a trawl around European highlights. One young man who has the schwarzwald poking out his t-shirt is splayed out on the bench press. I'm sure there's a chimp peaking out of the jungle hair growth on his chest. Alas, the breakfast buffet is busy and all tables are occupied but I sit with a couple from Pretoria and we chat about the usual cruise news and views – where you're from, where you've been, where you're going, who did you sleep with last night and is the Maitre D a philatelist or a pederast?

This morning's quiz is Actors' real names and we win an MSC branded mouse mat and wallet – more swag for Andrew's Christmas gift box.

Cathy, my previous cruise companion, would be (justly) horrified by the lowly standards on board the Melody. Beginning with breakfast. There is no omelette station here nor eggs freshy fried; no water jugs nor real fruit juices; no nice coffee machines frothing up a proper cappucino or pumping out a sizzling espresso; even the crockery is only china by manufacture – it is plastic not pottery. I imagine another previous cruising chum would regard the men on board, passenger or crew, beyond any pail that she'd want to dip her broom in. So far, it doesn't look like there's anyone she'd invite in to polish her port-hole.

The afternoon quiz was about airport names. Mr Quiz Master is beginning to get sick of us (already?) and ignoring our hands up to give others a chance. He'll be loathing Andrew by the end of the trip and I can only hope that Andrew won't start to challenge him on the answers. It'll only end in tears. Seeing our spunk (metaphorically) and determination (literally), a couple sitting next to us, Amanda and Malcolm, ask if we want to join forces for the Accumulator Quiz (whatever that is) which begins once we're at sea for seven days. We acquiesce.

This evening is the first gala event of the cruise and a chance to meet the captain at a cocktail do (watered red stuff & prosecco) before dinner. The Captain is a smart Italian gentleman resembling the late Leslie Nielson with glasses. Unenthused by such ceremony Andrew decides to slip into the Mercury Theatre (the on-board cinema) to see some dreary re-make of the A Team. I scrub up, trim my tache, use deodorant and slip into my DJ to see who's who at the frock and cock but there is such a queue to get into the Universe Lounge that I have a margarita on the pool deck instead where the evening weather has become endurable even in a tux. Commanding the entrance into the Meet the Captain party is Tyrone, the deputy cruise director. He was blessed at birth by the Camp, Vain and Tiresome fairies and spends his time aboard squeaking about seeking applause and approbation for merely being effete. I feel an Agatha Christie coming on where Tyrone's body, bound and gagged with showtime boas and deck quoits, will be found simmering in the jacuzzi stabbed with a thousand cocktail umbrellas. In fact I'm collecting the umbrellas now.

Andrew and I are the only two sitting at our table set for six. I don't know if our scheduled dining companions took one look at us on the first night and fled or if David Geffen, Bill and Melissa Gates and Joan Rivers just couldn't make the cruise. So we are left alone - though are now waved at by nodding acquaintances. Tonight's gala dinner is another cycle of unappetising fare (three prawns on a shred of iceberg as cold as it sounds; some lobster bisque; crunchy risotto and a fish that died ingloriously and for no good reason) but is even more upsetting to Andrew. He's been feeling queasy since lunchtime (avoid those sausages, I say) and the sight of a swirl of spawn with the feet- fungal flavour of parmesan sends him rushing out the dining room. Even as I rearrange the fish into different patterns around the plate and play puppets with the potatoes he doesn't return. I call his room where he tells me he has just sprayed the corridor with his lunch and that he is retiring to bed. Somehow my appetite for dessert deserts me and I abandon the chocolate parfait pud. I tell Arsaina, our waiter, that all is not well and leave the dining room for a snuggle up with Jonathan Franzen. Andrew's cabin is one next to mine and I see the cleaner and cabin boy busy with mop, bucket, vaccuum and air freshener. He's certainly made his makr on that carpet.

Saturday 4 December

As I lay dreaming charitable thoughts, the ship has slipped through the Straits of Gibraltar and is now circling the seas off Cadiz as we're too early to berth. I'm up in the dark at 06.30 and go the gym for an hour. The sun has risen and put on a smiley face as we sidle into port and I take Andrew a banana and some juice. He's feeling a little better and ready to stroll around Cadiz and, he hopes, find a dry-cleaners that will remove from his suit the remnants of his regurgitated lunch. Cadiz is charming and a grand and gracious beneficiary of European funding in that it has spent a lot of it on improving itself rather than just funding the mayor's mistress's make-overs. It being still early for Saturday shoppers we stroll through quiet scrubbed squares and washed streets, past the home of the marvellous and fabulous Manuel de Falla and through the morning market which is opening up to sell fruit n veg & meat n fish. Cadiz is decked in Christmas lights and most of the churches (and many of the shops) have delightful displays of Nativity Crib scenes - though there are some unhappy virgins. One church we pass has a rather fey ceramic Jesus carrying his cross tiled to its wall. We find a cafe by the Cathedral with nice cakes and access to the municipal wi-fi and I spend a lovely hour paying bills on line and seeing where El Corte Ingles is to be found in Santa Cruz de Tenerife – our next stop. At 1900, the ship shunts off southwesterly for a night under the stars and a day at sea.

Sunday 5 December

For an Italian vessel there is no priest on board and no mention of a Sunday worship. I conduct my own and bless everyone I see on my way to breakfast. The day begins well with both sun and temperatures up. TV pictures show mainland Spain shivering in storms and thousands of passengers stuck at airports as there is a strike by air traffic controllers. They're sending in the army. Hurrah, Franco lives. The weather looks worse further north as images of snow shovellers are efficiently at work across the USA and most of Europe - except Britain where the only two working machines are unable to get to work because of snow. I have to say it looks very Brrr.

Mandy and Malcolm join us for the morning quiz. Mr Quiz (allegedly a one-time soap star on South African TV) only gives us 6 points though we know we got 8 out of ten correct. I mean, if you ask for the names of the Marx Brothers you should accept all five of them and, as every Bogart buffs Bacalls, Rick never asked Sam to 'Play it Again' in Casablanca. Still, we won and today's star prize was an MSC branded bandana. At this rate we could set up an alternative on-board boutique and flog off the accumulated tat. Assisting Mr Quiz is a game gaggle of game-animators who prowl the decks trying to get group participation in their tiresome antics. They throw balls into buckets, darts into boards, rings onto sticks and the Welsh into the pool. They entice the geriatrics to abandon their sticks, clap their hands and engage in some sort of Lazarus Lambada. There is perpetual noise and the idea that anyone may just wish to enjoy the sea quietly is a concept as alien to Tyrone as sincerity. Obvisously, MSC policy dictates that there be barely a square foot of its ships which do not make money; so there are few places to sit, read, chat, play Scrabble or watch the waves. The gaming area is an acre of slot machines that block a line of windows; the photo desk (there to sell branded prints of us punters taken at the gala dinner and on the first day boarding is the size of a Tesco Metro) and the supersize discotheques are Borstals of Sound.

The lunchtime line at the pool deck buffet is more of a jailhouse feeding frenzy than a carefully catered cuisine canteen so Andrew and I go below to the Galaxy restaurant and have some soup.

Coffee is restricted to breakfast time option unless you pay for it upstairs. By the time we get back to the pool deck the seas are beginning to seethe, the sky is darkening and it sure looks like stormy weather ahead. Hah, that's for being so smug about avoiding the Eurofreeze. Sick bags are placed all about the ship and passengers are going green about their gills and begin to desert the decks. Of course, I have to go out on the sun deck where all the loungers have been lashed down and where the wind battles me back. The ship is bouncing up and down like a piston in a Porsche. Still there is a fine turn out for the afternoon's Accumulator Champion Quiz where correct anwers are tallied up during the days at sea quizzes – the best team winning (God help us) dinner with the Captain. Actually, they haven't said what the prize will be but I don't think Andrew will have room in his suitcase for two weeks' worth of prizes. By tea time Melody is in a strop and banging through the onslaught of waves as a bull would gorge its way around a pantry of Pamplonese. This means fewer passengers to make off with the cakes and biscuits and by supper time the Galaxy has only half its diners sitting and clinging to the table cloths. I order fish soup, pasta tortelloni with spinach, artichoke in a tampon sauce and some turbot which came specially dehydrated and definitely dead curled up against a barrage of carrots and an embankment of potatoes. How can carrots travel so far? The reception desk is offering free drugs – Andrew has had, and thoroughly recommends, the anti-sickness pill saying it made him most soporiphically whoozy and I want one. There is a showing of a film (by the usually clever, witty and entertaining Armando Ianucci) called 'Out the Loop' or is it 'In the Loop'? - or something Loopy. A crap and forgetable title for a film which lived up to it. I'm not sure if the foul mouthed character, tediously humorous script or Andrew's constant and loud sniggerings made most people leave but by the time I gave up on it there were only five others there – with a wide berth around Andrew. Time to be tossed about for a night in Melody's pounding grasp.