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Sunday, October 01, 2006

London to Nice--September 2006





London to Nice—9/9—9/21/06 Compilation of my emails to Ken...

I flew to London/Dover to board the Crystal Serenity. We had 3 days at sea and ports-of-call at Honfleur (France), Lisbon (Portugal), Cádiz (Spain), Gibraltar, Barcelona (Spain), St-Tropez and Monte Carlo on the French Riviera, and I flew home from Nice on Lufthansa with a connecting flight from Frankfurt.

September is a wonderful month to visit the Mediterranean area. The weather was perfect: warm but comfortable with a light breeze. And the hordes of tourists have left.


Getting to the airport, check in, passing through security and my non-stop flight on American Airlines were all uneventful. Alas, however, Heathrow was a nightmare! There must have been thousands of people! It took me almost 2 hours going through the lines, lugging my carry-on and purse, just to go through passport control and hand in my landing card. Never again will I fly into or out of London! My friend Georgia and her companion, whom I met a few years ago, flew non-stop from Dallas into Gatwick, and she said that was equally as terrible. Georgia arranged that we have the same dinner table. There are 8 of us…3 couples, another single lady and myself…a very congenial group. Last night I forgot to set my alarm clock and I slept for 11 hours! Can you believe it? Fortuitously, I had not booked an excursion. Indeed, as yet I have not booked any excursions at all.

Honfleur

We are docked in Honfleur, which has a unique character and atmosphere, a charming, quaint fishing village nestled at the mouth of the Seine River, not far from Le Havre. A number of historic explorations of the New World began in this tiny port of Honfleur. Such legendary explorers as Champlain and La Salle sailed from this tiny town. Champlain discovered Canadian territory all the way up-river to Quebec City, which he founded in 1608. On the other hand, La Salle charted a more southerly course, cruising up the Mississippi River to claim Louisiana for the French. Nearby are the famous Normandy battle beaches where our brave troops scrambled ashore suffering heavy losses before wrestling control away from the fortified Nazi forces. I wandered through the streets, meeting people, conversing with shop keepers. Very few speak English. The local people are delightful, as yet unspoiled by the Americans. There were lots of tourists, but they were Europeans. This is an artist’s haven even today with artists displaying their works along the waterfront; additionally, there were many, many galleries along with innumerable restaurants. The French do love to eat! In the past artists such as Boudin, Courbet, Sisley, Pissarro, Renoir and Cézanne came here to paint. I had forgotten my camera; however, after meandering for hours, I returned to the ship, picked up my camera and sallied forth again. The cruise line provides a complimentary shuttle into the center. The bus driver, a native, kindly took me, his only passenger, back to the center and descended with me to take my photo in front of the beautiful fountain in the center, and then we returned to the ship. I had a half hour to take a shower and get dressed for dinner, arriving only 2 minutes late. I am reluctant to keep my dinner companions or the wait staff waiting. After dinner I skipped the show and went dancing for an hour, and now I am here in the computer room emailing you.

I adored Honfleur. Many of us agreed that we would have preferred an overnight at this port. It would be a delightful area to spend a vacation, perhaps renting a car and driving to nearby towns. One could easily explore the Normandy battle beaches, or you could go to the popular (with the French) resort town of Deauville or to historic Rouen or even to Paris on a day trip!. I must have been a European in my previous life! And now I will return to go dancing for another hour.


 Honfleur--100 plus year-old carousel





Honfleur--Town Center


Today is a day at sea, and there is a Grand Buffet in the Crystal foyer. Seeing that much food and the concomitant waste causes me to lose my appetite, so I am using this opportunity to utilize the deserted computer room while a majority of passengers gorge themselves. On board I had a very interesting conversation with a couple from Kuwait. The Kuwaitis are very appreciative of the US intervention when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Similarly, they are very grateful that George W. toppled Saddam Hussein because the Kuwaitis have been living under his threat ever since he came into power, and they feel that Hussein was preparing to invade their country again. Conversely, they feel that the people of the whole Middle East are very angry with the West, including the US, because we have not been fair, according to them, with our unconditional support of Israel and anything the Israelis do. Indeed, Hezbollah precipitated the most recent conflict by kidnapping 2 soldiers in Israeli territory, but instead of negotiating for their return, Israel with its arrogance launched a massive strike. And to their surprise and consternation, Hezbollah could hold them off, the only reason the Israelis agreed to a cease fire. According to this Kuwaiti couple, there will be terrorist attacks until and only if the West becomes fairer in their dealing with the Israeli vis-à-vis Muslim populations.

Gibraltar

In a population of only 30,000, British, Spanish, Muslims from Africa and Jews inhabit Gibraltar, the gateway to the Mediterranean. Gibraltar’s strategic importance was magnified during WWII as The Rock was fortified with miles of tunnels that enabled a full-service military command center for General Eisenhower. Gibraltar made possible the invasion of northwest Africa, where Germany’s Rommel, called the Desert Fox, became famous. Gibraltar is a shopper’s haven; Main Street is lined on both sides by duty free shops selling everything from electronics to jewelry to cosmetics and perfumes; there are also well-known British and European chain stores. I started out with another couple but soon became weary of wandering in and out of shops, so I set off alone on a 3-mile fast-paced walk to the cable cars to go to the top of the Rock. On my way I encountered a Gibraltarian couple with whom I had a delightful and informative conversation. Although they were Brits, I felt a sense of resentment towards the Jews rather than towards the Spaniards or the Muslims. At the Top of The Rock magnificent views of the Mediterranean, of the north coast of African Morocco, of the Andalusian coast of Spain and of Gibraltar lay before me. Of course, the most unique inhabitants of the Top of the Rock are hundreds of Barbary Apes brought there by African Moors. These tailless apes, actually macaque monkeys, not apes at all, are wild animals, and we were warned not to interact with them. Legend has it that as long as the apes remain on The Rock so will the Brits. After taking a few pictures, I descended via cable car and began my trek back to the ship. Yes, of course, I got lost, but I had until 5:00 to find the pier, and if necessary, I could always take a taxi. Along the way I encountered a wedding party, definitely Spanish, and I waited until the beautiful bride in all her finery arrived with her father (I assume) in a Mercedes, and I snapped a few photos as they walked up the aisle. I stopped into a picturesque hotel called the Queen’s Hotel to use les toilettes (no public restrooms for me!), and the receptionist graciously directed me to the immaculate ladies’ room. Although they accepted euros for the cable car ride, they gave change only in sterling, so on my way out of the hotel I gave the receptionist my sterling, explaining that I was on my way back to the ship and had no further use for it. 



Gibraltar--Top of the Rock--Spain in the background


 We have lively conversations at dinner; one couple is from New York City, another couple from San Francisco, Georgia and Trevor from Dallas, a lady from New Orleans and me from Boston. One of the men at our dinner table asked me how I developed my sensitivity. Not really understanding the question, I let the subject drop. We have had interesting speakers. This morning Dr. Andrew Pierre, a world affairs expert we were told, spoke on “The Hot Spots of North Korea, Iran and Iraq.” He feels that we have the most to fear from North Korea. A lady just stopped to talk to me. She is flying home from Nice via British Airways with a connecting flight at Heathrow to Boston. Thank goodness I don’t have to go through Heathrow on my return! And I eschew British Airways entirely ever since my horrific experience flying home from Rome in September 1999, when I had to leave the ship by 5:30 AM for a flight to London, then a connecting flight to Boston on a packed, stuffy, uncomfortable plane with an insensitive, callous crew. And I had been on a Crystal Cruise!



On other occasions I have written about my visits to Lisbon, Cádiz/Seville and Barcelona, which is located on the east coast of Spain, La Costa Brava. It is the 2nd largest city in the country and the economic and administrative capital of Catalonia. It is intensely Catalan and yet open to the world. When one thinks of Barcelona, Gaudí with his startling architecture and his famous La Sagrada Familia, a striking and surreal still unfinished church, comes to mind. Additionally, Pablo Picasso spent his formative years in Barcelona. The Picasso Museum is one of the city’s most treasured museums and houses about 2,500 of his paintings, engravings and drawings, donated by Picasso in 1970. We strolled the famous 1-mile pedestrian promenade of Las Ramblas with its street entertainers, flower and news vendors, rare bird vendors, café patrons, innumerable, creative, innovative mimes, and, happily this time, very few gypsy girls working in teams.


Barcelona--Mime on the popular Las Ramblas


I have also written before of ports along the Côte Azure, the French Riviera. St-Tropez and Monte Carlo both had the usual congestion even in September. Monte Carlo especially had unbelievable numbers of people and cars, mostly Bentleys (In the evening I counted 18 parked outside of the luxurious Hôtel de Paris.), probably because of the annual Yacht Show. I took a tour to the medieval mountain village of Éze, perched atop a rocky peak high above the Mediterranean. Of course, the tour guide pointed out the curve on the Grand Corniche (upper highway) that Grace Kelly accompanied by her daughter Stephanie failed to negotiate on her return from their private family home in La Turbie to their official home at the Grimaldi palace in Monaco. The guide also pointed out the villa where Grace and Cary Grant filmed the Alfred Hitchcock To Catch a Thief. This was when Grace met Prince Ranier, and they were married a year later.


Monte Carlo--Hôtel de Paris


I far more enjoyed my excursion to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and our visit to the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, also called Villa Ile de France, the rose-colored mansion with its priceless art collection and its nine gardens each featuring a different theme, created by the eccentric Baroness Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild. There are magnificent fountains, fish, sculptures, patios, ornamental ponds, rare trees, including a Florentine garden, a Japanese garden, Spanish garden, French garden, exotic garden, a rose garden, a stone garden, Provençal and a garden de Sèvres porcelain.
She planned the gardens to simulate the French cruise ship Ile de France. 

The Marie Antoinette dress she wore to receive guests when she entertained was on display. Fortunately, the Baroness bequeathed the property and 5000 works of art to France, Académie des Beaux Arts. It is a museum with an intimate feel much like the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris.


Everything about this cruise has been fantastic: the officers, the reception, concierge and shore excursion personnel, the entertainers, the lecturers, my stewardess, the waiters, the ambiance, the dynamics of the passengers. I was invited to a cocktail party in the Captain’s penthouse suite as well as the usual Captain’s Welcome and Farewell parties and to the Crystal Society party. To quote Crystal, “The difference is crystal clear!”


PS Pauline, the white sunhat that you sent me was wonderful protection from the Mediterranean sunshine, and, I might add, it elicited many compliments, especially when I wore it with my white pants and white blouse. Thank you again.

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