Sunday, 14 September: The drive from Wandsworth to Southampton is dogged by minor but irritating mishaps. Our short cut to Chalker’s Corner for the M3 through Richmond Park is denied to us by some kind of running event in the park, and we get round to the South Circular by a (probably unnecessarily) roundabout route, wasting almost half an hour in the process. At the start of the M3 there are roadworks (but no sign of road workers or road working) that bring the speed limit down to 30mph for the first 10 miles or so. Then half-way to Basingstoke what looks like an appalling accident has forced the copious traffic into one lane travelling at speeds varying from 10mph to zero for five miles (we crawl past ambulance men trying to extricate a human from a red car upside-down half-way up the steep bank at our side of the motorway). Luckily we have left ourselves plenty of time and there’s no risk of failing to get to the P&O Mayflower Terminal in the Western Docks by 4.30, after which the ship will sail without you.
As we drive along the access road to the docks, an enormous structure like an old-fashioned skyscraper office block rears up into the sky on our right. It’s our ship.
* * * * *
For the first time on any major UK cruise ship passengers have the option of “freedom dining” – meaning that in theory, although not in practice, at dinner you can eat when you like at whatever table has spare seats, as distinct from the more usual routine on UK cruise ships of sharing a table with the same dining companions every evening (now labelled ‘club dining’). Like nearly half the passengers we have adventurously chosen freedom dining, partly for the flexibility of dinner-times, partly to avoid the risk of finding ourselves condemned to share a table with other couples with whom we have little or nothing in common and little or nothing to talk to each other about for a single evening’s dinner, never mind every evening for two weeks. (We have almost always been lucky on previous cruises with our permanent table companions, although once or twice it’s been a close-run thing.) This evening we check with the Freedom Dining restaurant that we can drift in at any old time that takes our fancy, only to be told, with appropriate sternness, that all tables are fully booked apart from a pair of seats available at 6pm (far too early) and another pair at 9.30pm (far too late). So we take one of the dozens of lifts to Deck 15 where the White Room is situated, a speciality restaurant conceived and supervised by the world famous chef Marco Polo Pierrot White (or words to that effect) to see if we can eat there at a civilised hour. Amazingly, we can, and do. What’s more, this evening and tomorrow evening the normal ‘cover charge’ per head of £20 is reduced to £12.50 – still fairly steep considering that we have already pre-paid for all meals of the two-week cruise without extra charge (except for drinks); but we have an excellent dinner, drink half a bottle of wine each, and retire with satisfaction and relief to our cabin – deck 11, “Barcelona”, B708, port side aft.
Monday 15 September: First of two days at sea on our way across the Bay of Biscay to our first port of call, Gibraltar, on Wednesday afternoon. So there’s time to explore the enormous ship and get our bearings. There’s no hope of memorising the names or whereabouts of the dozens of bars and cafés scattered over the 19 decks, but it’s important to remember where the Freedom Dining restaurant is situated, plus the other restaurants for breakfasts and lunches, plus the big and well laid out cafeteria up on the sun deck between two of the five swimming-pools, plus the pathetically small library, plus the launderette on our deck (deck 11), plus the gym and its neighbouring pool and jacuzzis, plus reception, plus the communications centre (embarrassingly called “cyb@centre”) which dispenses information about how to log in to the ship’s internet access system and how much it costs to do so. On the latter subject it emerges that there are wi-fi hotspots in all the ship’s public areas – bars, open spaces, etc. – and (this a real novelty for UK cruise ships) you can borrow, free of charge, an ethernet cable to connect your laptop to a non-wireless router hidden behind the television set in the cabin, and thus go online without leaving your own smallish floating home. Having taken the trouble to e-mail P&O two months earlier to find out the internet access rates, I’m surprised to discover that the affable young Brazilian in charge of cyb@centre is charging £5 more for 100 minutes online than the figure sent to me by P&O. After some amiable argument, it’s agreed that I shall get an allowance of 30 extra minutes to bring the rate per minute down to that offered by P&O. A sort of success: fortunately I had saved the relevant exchange of e-mails on the laptop and was able to show it to Bernardo.
Tuesday 16 September: Another sea day. Calm sea, weather getting milder.
I am amused by some of the notices in our cabin’s en-suite shower-room and toilet: I wonder what a foreigner with little command of English would make of the injunction not to “place foreign objects in the toilet” (Gitanes? Gaulloises? Half-eaten Danish pastries?). The warning not to flush while seated, clearly not referring to red-faced embarrassment on the loo, conjures up an alarming picture of the possible consequences of disobedience. The complicated instructions about where to put the towels if you don’t want them replaced by clean ones are, as always in our experience, ignored by our cabin steward, who replaces our towels twice a day wherever we leave them.
The well-equipped gym is high up on deck 18 and right in the bows of the ship, giving a very good view of the ocean ahead, although most of the time there’s nothing much to look at except a lot of water as you pound the treadmill or the exercise bike. Using the treadmill however makes you aware for the first time, being in the bows, of the very slight up-and-down pitching movement of the ship: one moment you are striding along on the level, then for a few seconds you’re walking uphill, then another tilt and you’re walking downhill. Apart from this however one is very rarely conscious of being at sea at all. Despite her strongly top-heavy appearance, Ventura is so huge and so well stabilised that it would take really heavy seas to cause any noticeable pitching, tossing or rolling. She’s an extraordinarily ugly ship, like an office block perched surrreally on the sea. She has long sloping bows that resemble the snout of a shark with its mouth slightly open, but without the teeth.
Our Goan cabin steward is (surprisingly) called ‘Miniver’. His English is not perfect (although better than my Portuguese) and his solutions to minor problems sometimes radical. When the last of our suitcases had still not appeared outside our cabin some time after we had sailed from Southampton on Sunday and I asked him if luggage was still being brought up from below, he suggested that the label showing our cabin number might have been torn off and that if the case – containing most of my clothes for the cruise – hadn’t turned up by the next morning, I should “tell the Captain”. (Fortunately the suitcase does eventually turn up later in the evening, so I don’t need to spoil the captain’s day with my problem.) Miniver is the least communicative of the cabin stewards we have had on cruises, so I haven’t been able to discover whether there’s a “Mrs Miniver“. But he’s perfectly efficient and keeps the cabin clean and tidy so we have no complaint about him, although his name does stretch credibility. Perhaps there are lots of Minivers in Goa. Or perhaps his great-grandfather was a devoted fan of Greer Garson (or Walter Pidgeon).
Wednesday 17 September: Our first port of call. Shortly after midday we dock at Gibraltar. It’s a half-day visit only and a high proportion of the passengers, including us, have been here before, so few have opted for the sight-seeing excursions available – everyone wants to disembark as early as possible after we have docked to maximise time available for shopping in the Rock’s many cut-price, duty-free shops. This process turns out to be spectacularly disorganised. Most of the 3,574 passengers are queuing up at a gangway to the quayside forward on deck 5 (rumour having spread in the absence of official information that this will be the place from which to leave the ship) and indeed security staff are busy setting up the gangway, the card-readers to keep track of who is leaving the ship, the luggage X-ray machines for returning passengers, a complicated network of portable steel railings to channel the outward and inward flows, and so forth. We wait patiently for all this to finish, wondering why it hasn’t all been got ready before we docked half an hour earlier. There is no sign of a ship’s officer anywhere apart from a couple of them lounging somewhere far below on the quay.
Suddenly those at the front of the by now gigantic queue begin to rush back into the corridors and down the stairs to deck 4, starting a stampede. It seems that disembarkation from deck 5 won’t start for another half an hour and we are to leave from deck 4 instead. The source of this new information is not known. People swirl uncertainly to and fro, streams of people descending the stairways crashing into other streams of people coming up, clusters of wheel-chairs blocking the entrances to the numerous lifts. All semblance of order is lost: those who have been waiting the longest at the front of what was once a queue are absorbed into a shapeless mass of passenger flesh surging helplessly to and fro. Suddenly the red cord holding back the passengers from moving through security to the deck 5 gangplank is removed and the nearest passengers are beckoned through. On the quayside it becomes clear that some passengers have been disembarking from deck 4 for a considerable time, thus bagging pride of place in the queues for the minibuses shuttling between the docks and the town centre. Luckily we are among the few who spot a small hut selling minibus shuttle tickets without which increasingly desperate passengers are being turned away. Armed with our tickets we only have to wait for a couple of minibuses before being ushered into one of them. Before leaving the quay I come across a ship’s officer of some description, smart in his whites – probably not the Captain, although you never know – and inform him in what I hope is a pleasant conversational tone that this has been the most chaotic and ill-organised disembarkation from any ship that I have ever experienced. The officer looks gratifyingly shocked: “I’m – well, I’m sorry that you feel that way, sir…,” he is saying as I hurry away.
In Gibraltar we buy extremely cheap Gordon’s gin and Famous Grouse Scotch, both in light plastic bottles (so probably distilled in Taiwan or the Maldives), plus some cooking brandy and a plug adaptor to enable me to plug the laptop into the ship’s mains electricity in the public rooms, where the mains sockets are irritatingly different from those in the cabins. This evening I christen the Famous Grouse which tastes perfectly authentic despite the plastic bottle and the dubious provenance.
Thursday 18 September: Cartagena. We have been here before, too, so we go ashore in our own time and as we’re in port all day, there’s no mad rush to get off. The town is pleasant and seemingly affluent in the usual continental western European way, but not remarkable. We do some more minor shopping, decide to return to the ship by a different route from the way we have gone inland, and soon get hopelessly lost. We have a good street-map but we can’t find any street-name signs on any of the streets and have no idea where we are. Various friendly and would-be helpful Spaniards offer us directions to a variety of local beauty-spots and other sites of architectural or other interest, but none speaks a word of English and none seems able to respond to our appeal to show us where we are on our map. Eventually a pleasant young English-speaking woman tells us where we are and which way we’re facing: we’re apparently on the edge of town and almost off the map. We return to the ship with aching legs, exhausted but relieved.
Friday 19 September: Another nice restful sea-day. I have developed a seriously bad, streaming cold. Buy generous supplies of aspirin, Lemsip, cough sweets, etc. at one of the ship’s many shops. These surround the ‘Atrium’ , three decks high, with vast granite arches – granite! –and a lighting scheme that changes colours during the day and the evening to match the supposed mood of the time of day or night, like an old-fashioned theatre organ in an Odeon cinema before the war. In general the interior décor of the ship varies from vulgar to kitsch: we love it. We’re also entertained by the sheer scale of everything. To walk along the seemingly endless cabin corridor from bows to stern takes about ten minutes: you can barely see the far end. Three circuits of the ship on the promenade deck are one mile. The ship is 115,000 tons, 40 per cent larger than the Cunard QE2, and carries just over three-and-a-half thousand passengers. The main theatre seats 785 people at a time on two levels. There are countless bars, restaurants, snack bars, casinos and night-clubs, pool-side bars by the five swimming-pools, a resident ship’s company for evening shows, various assorted comedians, conjurors, pop singers of a certain age, a complete circus (no animals) and a beautiful and accomplished Ethiopian woman classical pianist who plays Chopin, Elgar, Haydn and Frank Bridge on a Steinway grand to an audience of perhaps a dozen passengers scattered throughout a big lounge and bar. This evening the ship’s company and the ship’s orchestra are putting on a show comprising the selected music of Andrew Lloyd Webber. There will be three performances of this extravaganza to suit the convenience of everyone regardless of their dinner times. My heavy cold will be my excuse.
Saturday 20 September: Civitavecchia. We decided long ago not to opt for the long coach-rides to, and back from, Rome to the south-east, all in one day, and instead take a shorter coach trip through the pleasant, unexciting scenery north-west to Tuscania, in Lazio, with equally unexciting Etruscan, Roman and medieval remains and, according to our enthusiastic guide, one of the two oldest Christian churches in Italy, San Pietro, an 8th-century AD building whose crypt was used by Zeffirelli for the final scenes of his Romeo and Juliet. Outside the church a priest in a long white dress enhanced by a good deal of lace and embroidery is beaming benevolently at a group of Italians waiting for a wedding ceremony to begin, all in their Sunday best dark suits and modest dresses, all looking decidedly uncomfortable in such unfamiliar costume. No-one seems to talk to the priest.
On our way back we stop for a tour and refreshments at a so-called Agriturismo ‘farm’, actually a small and somewhat run-down menagerie, a few bits of old wooden wine-making machinery and generous samples of bruschetta, local wines (including a rather good merlot) and other products – olive oil, tapenade, other vegetable patés, jams, and so forth. Many of our fellow-travellers come away laden with purchases. It’s sunny but there is an icy gale wind blowing. Well, it makes a change from the ship. Fortunately my cold seems to be receding despite the chill.
Sunday 21 September: Santa Margherita for Portofino. The day starts cool but bright and the ship’s somewhat sparse weather forecast says simply ‘sunny’, so we leave our raincoats and the umbrella in the cabin. Ventura is too big to tie up alongside in Santa Margherita’s diminutive harbour, so we anchor a little way out and are taken ashore in the ship’s tenders (the coy term for lifeboats), an efficiently executed operation considering the vast numbers involved. At the jetty we transfer almost immediately to a smallish vessel for the short trip round the coast to the next bay, the absurdly pretty little resort of Portofino, probably the principal target of our cruise for us who have never been here before. During these two mini-voyages the sky has clouded over and as we disembark in Portofino the first few large drops of rain begin to fall. Soon it’s a heavy rain-storm, then a tropical downpour, the water beating down on the sagging canopies of the cafés and shops that line the harbour. Our tour group takes shelter as best it can among the tables and chairs of one of these restaurants, huddled together in enforced intimacy. I am too late to get right under the canopy and am trapped on the edge of the group, the water, running down the side of the canopy, blown in on me together with the fresh rain, until I am very literally indeed “soaked to the skin”. This continues for some 20 to 30 minutes, accompanied by increasingly hysterical laughter, the group adopting a very British collective stiff upper lip in adversity. When the rain begins to slacken off I strip off my sodden shirt, preparing to spend the rest of the morning bare-chested; but J, who has been sheltering in the relatively dry centre of the restaurant, gallantly volunteers the voluminous man’s shirt which she has been wearing as a kind of light jacket over her thickish blouse so I am spared the need to go topless. The age of reverse chivalry is not dead.
The sun does reappear later, long enough for some picture post-card photographs of this picture post-card-pretty little town. It’s easy to understand how Portofino inspired Clough Williams-Ellis in the creation of his Welsh jewel, Portmeirion (as he both admitted and denied it had done). Here in the Italian original it stays dry until we are back aboard Ventura in time for lunch in the Cinnamon restaurant, but soon afterwards the rain returns, this time with thunder and lightning and heavy mist, more Welsh than Italian. The art of forecasting weather has evidently not yet reached Italy’s long west coast. At tea-time the forecast on our cabin television set still says defiantly: sunny.
Monday 22 September La Spezia Today we should have been going ashore at Livorno from which passengers were to go on organised excursions to Florence and Pisa; having seen Pisa before and having spent a week in Florence a few years ago, we had booked a short excursion in Livorno itself, sightseeing from a boat on its canals. But last night a harassed Captain went on the Tannoy to say that the berth allocated to us at Livorno would not have been safe for Ventura to tie up to in the fairly high winds forecast, and the Livorno Ports Authority has refused to find us a safer one. So we shall be going to La Spezia instead, a short way up the coast from Livorno, where we shall anchor off and go ashore again in the ship’s tenders (life-boats). The excursions to Florence and Pisa will go ahead but our scheduled tour of Livorno is of course cancelled, which suits us well: Livorno had never looked very exciting and we get a £44 refund. We go ashore into La Spezia under our own (free) steam and have an agreeable stroll round the shops and the market, enjoy coffees and croissants in an unpretentious restaurant, and stroll back along La Spezia’s palm-fringed arcaded sea-front promenade, a miniature but elegant Promenade des Anglais, to the tenders’ departure point, to return to the ship in good time for lunch on board. Later at dinner some sceptical passengers are querying the published rationale for the switch from Livorno: more likely, they are saying, that Livorno Port Authority was demanding an increase in the port fees payable by P&O and P&O (or more likely its American owners) refused to pay it.
The morning has been warm and sunny. After lunch we sit on our cabin balcony and watch the clouds gather and the rain begin, temperature dropping like a bomb. A wind blows up and we watch the ship’s tenders tossed about on their way to and fro between the ship and the shore, delivering and retrieving passengers. Later we hear that a male passenger has fallen over inside one of the tenders and broken his leg. The same man has earlier been treated in the medical centre on board for sunstroke. Not a holiday he’s likely to remember with much pleasure.
The many efficient elevators on the ship are manufactured by a firm called Schindler. I wonder how they have resisted the temptation to describe each one as ‘Schindler’s Lift”.
Tuesday 23 September Villefranche Some of the passengers get buses or take excursions into nearby Nice or Monaco. We’re content to explore Villefranche, which we haven’t previously visited. It’s very pretty, often reminding us of a kind of more tourist-oriented version of Cadenet further north in Provence where we have spent so many happy holidays by courtesy of old friends the Ockendens. Here we visit a small church half-way up the hill which is photogenic from outside, less so inside. The wall behind the altar is made yet more sinister by the hugely enlarged and elongated shadow of a crucifix hanging over the altar itself, the eerily realistic figure hanging by its hands from the cross twisted into an agonised despairing shape, head lolling sideways. Worrying (but presumably intended to be) and distinctly pornographic (presumably not intended).
After half an inexpensive hour in an internet café to conserve the more expensive online minutes still remaining to us on board the ship, we select a restaurant, La Frégate, from the many lining the waterfront and, as it’s still early, sit at a table outside protected from the hot sun by umbrellas, order a bottle of Provencal white and enjoy a preliminary glass or two while conducting a leisurely study of the menu. Before we have a chance to order food, a large French tour group arrives and pours into the restaurant chattering excitedly like a flock of parrots. Luckily we’re in no hurry and some time later, when the French group has been served with its roast beef and house red, we enjoy delectable scallops followed by a whole grilled sea bass each. The frites are excellent, too. It’s good to be back in France, however enjoyable the Spanish and Italian (and Gibraltar) visits have been.
Wednesday 24 September Barcelona We’ve visited Barcelona several times over the years, once from an earlier cruise ship, more often from family holidays in the nearby seaside resort of Sitges, gay capital of the Mediterranean. So we have done the basic sight-seeing already. We decide to make for Gaudi’s celebrated and still unfinished Sagrada Familia cathedral which we have often seen from outside but never hitherto got inside, thwarted by huge waiting queues. This time we emerge from the futuristic Metro and walk straight in, pausing on the way only to pay our 10€ each at the turnstile. We knew that building was spasmodically continuing on this huge demented structure but hadn’t expected to find the interior of the church more like a builder’s yard than a place of worship for devotees of either God or Gaudi, or both. A service is in progress, audible but invisible behind vast screens. There is a 90-minute wait for the lift to the upper storeys of the building (another 2.50€ each); pass. I take a few photographs of the brilliant luminous stained-glass windows and we exit into the sunshine to take another Metro to an area of more Gaudi buildings which we have seen casually before but not scrutinised properly with the aid of our Barcelona guide-book.
More Metro, this time on packed trains where in accordance apparently with established Spanish practice, most of the seats are occupied by smallish but able-bodied children with their stolid parents, while the more frail and elderly adults are left standing in some discomfort. At each stop a few seats are vacated but before the elderly frail can reach them, more children race on from the platform and seize them.
At Barceloneta in the far south of the city we walk along and across the promontory to the inviting-looking beaches and locate the restaurant where we are meeting PH and JH for lunch. They are long-time English residents of Barcelona, PH teaching English to Spanish candidates for their diplomatic service and doing translations, JH working at the hospital just behind the restaurant they have chosen for our lunch. PH is an old sparring partner from years of argument, sometimes fierce, sometimes concordant, on various internet forums, message boards and websites, some political, some linguistic. He gives us a copy of his latest book, a collection of (hilarious) common errors made by Spanish speakers in their use of English, a useful reminder of the extreme difficulty of learning to speak accurate idiomatic English. An excellent lunch with the Hs, at a table right on the beach by the tideless Mediterranean sea, glamorous Spanish holidaymakers draped over or frolicking on the sand and in the water (it’s a public holiday, which helps to explain the resolutely seated children on the Metro). Up on the main road after lunch we get a taxi back to where the huge ship is berthed.
At 6pm as Ventura belatedly casts off and slowly moves out from her Barcelona berth much of the passenger complement is assembled on the sun decks, issued with smallish plastic water-proof Union Jacks on white plastic sticks to wave, and exhorted to sing along with a series of British patriotic and other songs broadcast over the loudspeaker system from a recording that seems to have been made by some bellowing drunken football crowd after a sensational victory for their team. This demonstration of loyal Britishness is to mark our final sailaway. The ship’s entertainers are deployed to cheer-lead us and the cruise director (responsible for all entertainment on board), a youngish bully with black slicked-back hair and swarthy saturnine face, rants at us Mussolini-like from an upper balcony, striding to and fro with his microphone half-way down his throat and punching high fives with his free hand. Almost everyone obediently wags his or her Union Jack to and fro, and some of the older women move their lips in time with the words of the songs broadcast (mostly unknown to us), but few of the passengers seem to respond to the menacing demands by the cruise director and his acolytes to belt it out louder yet and louder. Still, the amplified recorded singing and the bellowing entertainers make a loud enough noise and the sea of wagging flags seem to demonstrate something or other, possibly a kind of last-night-of-the-proms patriotism. I wonder whether some future demagogue (on dry land) might not find a way to harness this kind of collective sheep-like obedience allied to whipped-up superficial patriotism in some nefarious political cause, racist or otherwise reactionary, that could be hard to resist, especially at a time of economic crisis. Fortunately Ventura has been berthed far out to sea at the end of a long jetty, so there are no bemused foreigners to witness the embarrassing spectacle as we head out into the open sea, and the repertoire on the recording doesn’t include the more provocative war-time chauvinism that we have heard belted out in the sailaway on some other cruises.
Next stop: Southampton on Sunday morning. No more port visits!
Friday 26 September At sea We’re enjoying the leisurely pace of three sea days in a row, although the third, tomorrow, will be partly occupied by final packing, tipping of the various categories of ship’s crew, sensations of nostalgia, etc. After passing back through the Straits of Gibraltar yesterday afternoon we have turned north again and the weather in the Atlantic is already distinctly cooler, the swimming pools slightly less inviting, the sensation of having eaten and drunk just a bit too much for the last 13 days a definite deterrent to revisiting the ship’s gym.
The last two evenings in the Cinnamon dining-room we have found ourselves sharing a table with some of the most tiresome and least congenial fellow-passengers encountered on this or earlier cruises (no doubt they felt the same about us). How fortunate that we hadn’t opted for the same dinner companions at the same table for every evening of the cruise and found ourselves lumbered with these particular fellow-travellers! On every other occasion, at all three meals in all the restaurants every day, we have been seated with friendly, agreeable and interesting companions, most of whom we would never have met in any other circumstances. It’s one of the pleasures of cruising, despite the occasional minor disasters.
Sunday 28 September Southampton The ship docks at the P&O Mayflower terminal early in the morning in thick fog. The group to which we have been allocated, ‘Purple’, is scheduled to disembark among the last, at 10:45am, not unreasonably as others have long-distance coaches to catch for homes in the north of England and Scotland, or longer car drives than ours to London. Cabins have to be vacated by 8am so after breakfast in the Waterside buffet restaurant on deck 15 we take our cabin bags down to deck 7, buy the Observer and the Sunday Times from the enterprising Southampton newsagent who has brought stacks of the Sunday papers on board, and read them, first in the cavernous Arena Theatre (the only place where there are still seats available) and later in one of the bar lounges. Everything seems to be going more or less according to plan until there’s a slightly surprising announcement over the loudspeakers apologising that disembarkation has had to be suspended “because of the large numbers of Customs officers in the baggage hall”. We’re assured that the suspension is “only temporary”, which is a relief: the alternative would be slightly worrying.
We pass the extra time reflecting on the past fortnight afloat and ashore. There have been just a few too many niggles about this ship: its vast size, necessitating long tedious tramps along miles of corridor to get from A to B; a weirdly uninformative daily ship’s newspaper (also largely illiterate), made worse by the fact that the information channel on the cabin television sets hasn’t worked since the second day of the cruise and announcements are not broadcast in the cabins; occasionally indifferent food; mostly dire entertainment, including the worst, most embarrassingly flat-footed and incompetent comedian we have ever heard, so awful and so self-pitying as almost to be funny; the presence of large swarms of children (many of whom clearly ought to be at school) who infest the swimming pools and decks, run screaming loudly around and among the tables in the dining-rooms and the buffet restaurant, cram copious amounts of junk food into their tiny mouths, are kept up in the evenings long after they should have gone to bed and are consequently permanently fractious and exhausted, periodically returning to their often gigantic parents to demand (and be pacified by) yet more packets of crisps. The fathers, heads shaven, and their male children, hair greased into spikes, are mostly dressed up as footballers, sometimes as individual named stars of the beautiful game: several of the male passengers of all ages spent the day ashore in Barcelona on an excursion to visit the Barcelona Football Club ground – just the ground, no football being played, no access even to see the dressing-rooms. They were allowed a few moments to walk on the sacred grass of the football pitch itself, and were thereby gratified and satisfied. Lourdes could hardly have provided greater spiritual solace. Many of these pilgrims returned dressed in the full elaborate costumes of Barcelona FC players and fans, bought presumably in reckless disregard of cost.
Perhaps a river cruise next year to Prague and Vienna, to include a few opera and concert tickets, might prove more congenial. We’ve enjoyed our fortnight on this huge floating gin-palace and casino, shopping mall and recreation centre, restaurant-land and theatre complex; but maybe now it’s time for a change. No regrets, though: it’s been another lovely relaxing holiday.
You can see most of the photographs I took in the course of the cruise by clicking http://bit.ly/9912w. Use the slider above the right-hand top thumbnail to make the thumbnails bigger or smaller; click the first thumbnail to see the picture in medium size, and then the magnifying glass symbol to see it full size (you may need to drag it). Click the right-facing arrow to see the next picture. Or click ‘slideshow’ to see them one after the other.
 Later in the cruise it turned out that we could always get places in the “Freedom Dining” restaurant if we turned up at any time without a previous booking, provided that we didn’t mind what size table we were to be seated at. This provided the welcome flexibility we had been hoping for.
 Having described the chaos of the first passenger disembarkation at Gibraltar, I should add that subsequent experience was much better: even the task of disembarking hundreds of passengers into small tenders, to be ferried ashore in ports where Ventura was too big to be berthed alongside, was performed with exemplary efficiency and despatch.
London, 29 September 2008