No. of Recommendations: 11
Well, this is being sent from Malta, but that writeup will have to wait a bit. This one covers Southampton, Malaga and Tunis.

0 10 Jan 2013 Southampton (London), England

This was a bit “interesting” because, even with a “late checkout” we were forced to leave the Queen Mary at 9:30AM and take a short cab ride to the QEII pier less than a mile away to see if we can board the Holland America Line’s MS Rotterdam. This is the sister ship to the MS Amsterdam that we were on a bit over a year ago for a Pacific cruise and that we will be taking this coming fall.

As chaotic as the boarding was at the Brooklyn docks getting aboard the Queen Mary II, the Southampton boarding of the MS Rotterdam was worse (in fact, it was probably the worst embarkation that we have ever experienced). While we were pleased when we sailed on the MS Amsterdam, the ship’s sister, the MS Rotterdam (or at least our stateroom) is not up to par. We entered a room filled with dust, with flickering fluorescents, dirty tub, etc. While all this got addressed, the dust apparently affected my wife and she has already made a trip to the doctor and is now taking anti-histamines and Tylenol (and resenting when I’m having too good a time – ce la vie). The food is as good as expected (though shrimp cocktails are no longer on the “everyday” menu). Once the shoddy housekeeping was taken care of, the ship seems OK (but we have another three months to make up our minds). They keep checking both with phone calls and cabin visits to make sure we are satisfied. Apparently the previous long term guests did not allow housekeeping into the room for an extended period of time.

This cruise has been heavily marketed in Holland and a large percentage of the passengers come from that country. There is an effort to be bilingual in most things where feasible. As most Dutch speak English better than I speak Dutch, English tends to be the linguae franci of our trip.

These guys ran a real lifeboat drill, complete with taking attendance (but not including carrying of life vests as they have been sued by passengers who tripped on the straps in the past).

More boring ship statistic comparisons:
The Queen Mary is 151,400 gross tons and 1132 feet long (and has a draft of 32 feet, due to its ocean liner style keel), cruises at 27.5 knots and carries 2,620 passengers. As a comparison, the Queen Victoria (a conventional cruise ship, has a cruising speed of 23.7 knots, 90,000 gross tons displacement, is 965 foot long, has a draft of 26 feet and carries about 2,000 passengers.

The MS. Rotterdam is 59,600 tons, 780 foot long, has a draft of 26 foot, has a design speed of about 23 knots and carries 1,316 passengers. While there are many smaller ships, this one is petit compared to most modern cruise ships. We currently have about 2-3 meter waves in the Bay of Biscay and we’re bouncing around a bit. As most people daft enough to take a cruise of this length have been on a number of ships before, there is little mass hysteria about sea-sickness pills, patches or whatever like I’ve seen on shorter cruises (actually “Sea-Bands”, the elastic wrist bands with buttons pressing on an acupuncture point work without the drug thing for most people).

1 11 Jan 2013 At Sea
2 12 Jan 2013 At Sea
3 13 Jan 2013 Lisbon, Portugal

As the ship cruised in, went under the25th of April Bridge (a clone of the Golden gate Bridge, but has a full sized copy of Rio’s “Christ the Redeemer” statue on a tall tower on the shore facing Lisbon), passed close to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Tower of Belem (The World Heritage Belem Tower is to Lisbon what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris or Big Ben is to London. It is probably the city's most photographed landmark),then past the Monument of the Discoveries, an impressive monumental ship statue that looks like a bunch of cross-dressing dudes climbing a flight of stairs to walk the plant (just trying to be funny here, but you’ve got to look up a picture of this thing to appreciate the comment).

We have docked very close to the bridge. Last time we were in Lisbon, our ship docked all the way up near the Alfama (which is a very interesting place). I suspect that this local was OK due to the small size of the Prinsendam (on our previous trip).

Unfortunately, my wife has come down with what I think is the flu (based on symptoms, though she got her flu shot this year). This means that I am not allowed to have any unlicensed fun while she is kvetching :-). Since we will be returning to Lisbon towards the end of the trip in April, we’ll be able to take another whack at the place. I spent a couple of hours ashore in an Irish pub drinking a cup of coffee and using their free wi-fi (though they did try to short-change me a Euro when I paid for my coffee). Coffee shops, pubs, McD’s and Starbucks are generally places I go to get free wi-fi in exchange for a modest purchase. That said, I was amused by the number of Dutchmen who were drinking ale at 11AM Sunday morning (I guess it’s cheaper in Portugal?). The pub was created out of one of a row of renovated old warehouses running alongside the river under the bridge.

While Portugal has, according to what I’ve read, slid backwards economically and joined the famous PIIGS, to those who remember how things were in the 1970’s, things are still far better than they were back then. Everything is relative, I guess.

Purists may want to move on to the next port (Malaga, Spain) as the following was what I hoped to accomplish. Others who might visit Lisbon some day (something OI strongly recommend as the city does not have the “touristy” venier – except maybe in the aggressively marketed group of Fado oriented restaurants) of many other European cities) might simply also read the next few paragraphs as well.

With apologies, some of the following was blatantly plagiarized from last year’s stop here (but last year’s description is far more detailed ):

Lisbon is built upon the relics of one of the world’s major trading empires. Portugal still basks in the glory of such forward looking monarchs as Prince Henry the Navigator and explorers such as Vasco de Gama and Magellan and the riches that were shipped back from Asia and South America. Unfortunately, the cash flow dried up long ago, the heroes long dead and buried, and parts of the town are pretty seedy, but there has apparently been a constant attempt, since the 1990’s to rejuvenate Lisbon. The delightful, picturesque medieval section of Alfama skirts the city's Sao Jorge castle, and historic wooden trams run noisily up and down steep hills past art deco cafes and mosaic-decorated pavements. While Portuguese is based on the same roots as Spanish, it sounds about as intelligible as Polish to me (though I can read it pretty well). This is the third time we have been to Lisbon, but the visits have been decades apart. What I first learned as the Salazar Bridge, became the 25th of April Bridge (political story here), and has now been joined by the longest bridge in Europe, the Vasco de Gama Bridge.
Lisbon is known (at least by me) for its huge portions of delicious, rustic food, with an emphasis on seafood. This country has a love of spices, especially cinnamon and vanilla, (can be seen in their love of pastries - especially of the custard variety, such as the pastel de nata – also known as the pastel de Belem, a small custard tart sprinkled with cinnamon which has to be tasted to be believed).

Piri piri, small fiery peppers, black pepper and saffron are also popular spices that are commonly used in Portuguese cooking. We’re going to try to find a place that serves caldo verde with potato, shredded cabbage and chunks of spicy chorizo sausage, and Portuguese sardines, grilled as sardinhas assadas. All that and the bread – yes the crispy rustic Portuguese bread.

More wishful thinking with description based on previous visits – not deleted as the information is still valid: While many of the shops are closed because it’s Sunday, at least we get a chance to visit the flea market (only open on Sundays and Tuesdays).

Lisbon's flea market is called locally the Feira da Ladra, often thought to mean "Thieves’ Market" (in Portuguese "ladra" is a woman thief) but it actually derives from "ladro," a bug found in antiques. A market of this type is thought to have been in place in Lisbon since the 12th Century and the name Feira da Ladra was first mentioned in the 17th Century.

Today, the traders here are perfectly legal, many of them gypsies showing their wares in the Campo de Santa Clara Street, in the district of Alfama. The market starts at the Arco de São Vicente, an arch near where the famous Tram 28 stops.

From the market, the impressive Santa Engracia Church, or the National Pantheon, can be seen standing proudly just a short walk away.

The market is held every Tuesday and Saturday, from dawn to dusk. A myriad of small stalls sell all sorts of second-hand and new products, and other traders simply display their store on a stretched-out blanket.

Arco de Sao Vicente and the Feira da Ladra Hand-made artisan goods, CD's, books, clothes, stamps, coins, military objects, antiques and furniture is all on display here, so the occasional bargain is still possible although many of the stores now seem to cater exclusively to the tourists.

Based on the announcements urgently requesting the inhabitants of room numbers to contact the front desk, we’ve apparently abandoned a couple of late-comer’s in Lisbon. I keep hoping we don’t face something similar when we leave the ship for one of my hare-brained excursions.

We take the same route down the Tagus River past the must-see landmarks of Lisbon again and finally the fort at its mouth on our way South to the Mediterranean Sea. It’s getting dark around 6PM here. It will be interesting to keep an eye on that.

4 14 Jan 2013 At Sea
5 15 Jan 2013 Malaga, Spain

It has been a couple of decades since we have vacationed in and around Malaga, so it will be interesting to see what has changed.

Our ship docked right in the commercial harbor adjacent to downtown Malaga. Everything is within about ½ hour walking distance from the port entrance. We decided to share a cab with another couple when we found that the fare to the center of town was 8 euros according to the cab dispatcher. Well the cab driver kept my 10 euro note and told me that that was the fare. I told him to call a cop and he told me to call for myself. After practicing my somewhat limited, but also somewhat colorful Spanish vocabulary on him (limiting myself to his family and suggestions about how to make use of his body), I exited his cab.

Malaga is a spotlessly clean town. There was almost no evidence of any downturn in the Spanish economy. I saw exactly one beggar/panhandler and no groups of listless, out of work people.

Towering over Malaga is the Gibralfaro Castle, which is well worth the hike to get to it. There is a small museum inside its walls and the views are spectacular from the castle's height. From the Gibralfaro Castle just walking down the ridge towards the city of Malaga gets you to the Alcazaba. This ancient (over 1,000 years old) palace is now an archeological museum and botanical garden.

We started wandering through the Alcazaba fortress. Originally built by the Moors and then occupied by the Spaniards after the fall of Granada in the early 1490’s, the castle is in beautiful condition and is well worth a visit. The gardens are designed to have water flowing from fountains to flow through channels spread over the gardens to call the air. In addition, the Arabic idea of planting orange trees to add a fragrance to the garden air is wide spread. The oranges look delicious, but taste as tart as lemons, so no one tries more than one :- ). There is a partially excavated Roman amphitheater near its entrance, but the archeological museum (housing Carthagian, Roman and Moorish items) is probably the most interesting aspect of the place.

From the castle we walked over to the Pablo Picasso museum. Picasso is a local son (born in Malaga) and the museum has a large collection of his work through his life as well as a guest exhibit on the “grotesque” in art. Again, we were not disappointed.

The Malaga Cathedral (right amid the downtown shopping area) is also well worth a visit. The intricacy of the interior carvings and statutes is stunning.

We then chose a place to get a bite to eat and I had a very nice mixed seafood/vegitable fried platter and a beer (overcharged as .5 liter when I only got .33 liter – I’m getting a bit tired of petty attempts to rip me off). My favorite street drink around here is horchata, which is a milky drink which tastes like almonds.

We decided to walk back to the ship through Malaga's shopping areas. Broad tiled streets intersected by narrower pedestrian streets are lined with department stores, shops, boutiques and vendors. We take the time to restock with Spanish wine in a supermarket as there will be no more European ports for some time to come. Wine and European liqueurs are surprisingly inexpensive here (and far less than in a duty free shop). I was tempted to buy some Cuban rum, but didn’t (maybe next time – just to taste the forbidden).

Spain’s economy is in the dumps, but since the goods are priced in Euro’s and Spain is trying to raise revenue by imposing pretty stiff VAT tax, the prices (other than food) are not great. Men's and women's fashions and accessories, leather goods of all types jewelry and other old and silver items, ceramic items, local wines and antiques are all widely available but the question is whether they are worth the prices. Siesta is widely observed here and most of the shops close from 2 pm until 5 pm or so.

There is an excellent beach (Playa de la Malagueta) within walking distance of the ship, turning right and walking along the edge of the port and then past the high rise buildings. As is typical in Europe, if this were summer, one would see many women topless enjoying the environment.

Suggestion for others visiting here: A great half day trip from Malaga is the quaint village of Mijas. Mijas is located high above the ocean in Costa Del Sol's foothills and is alive with whitewashed buildings with their red tile roofs and wrought iron grillwork and balconies. Mijas offers one twisting cobble stoned narrow pedestrian street after another filled with shops selling all kinds of tourist trash. Ceramics, leather goods, linens, blankets, jewelry, and numerous collectible items among its offerings. You can try one of the donkeys to make your way up the steep inclines and be sure to make time for an enjoyable lunch during siesta time when most of the shops will close for the afternoon. We have been there in the past and, frankly, have decided it’s not worth the effort to see it a second time (but once is OK).

Every ship that ports in Malaga will offer a full day's tour out to Granada’s Alhambra, the ancient Moorish palace that has been fully refurbished. The trip to Granada will take at least two hours each way and requires a good amount of walking to boot. Many that do the tour are interested in seeing the Alhambra, but feel the all day ordeal is very trying. We’ve stayed in Granada a couple of times in the past and feel the trek is not worth seeing the same spot yet again (but would highly recommend this side trip if you’ve never been there and are unlikely to return).

6 16 Jan 2013 At Sea (Mediterranean Sea)
7 17 Jan 2013 La Goulette (Tunis), Tunisia

We’ve never been to North Africa before, with the exception of a few weeks traipsing around in Egypt a number of years ago. I am going to be trying to find out how things have changed due to the “Arab Spring” of a couple of years ago.

Following the final destruction of Carthage, it was not until the 7th century that Tunis achieved its own importance, under the control of Arab Muslims. The medina of Tunis, the oldest section of the city, dates from this period, during which the region was conquered by Arab troops.

Tunis is the capital of Tunisia, the northernmost country in Africa, but the city feels neither Arab nor African. It's a place where old and new mix without any seeming conflict, in both the architecture (with Moorish and French influences) and way of life.

On one corner in the capital city of 2.5 million, you might see a group of girls in tight jeans and tops with dangling earrings possibly heading to one of the modern shopping malls. On another, an old lady with a traditional head covering stands with her camel. (Women have not had to cover their heads there since the mid-1980's.) Meanwhile, a street sweeper wields an old-fashioned thatched broom while he chatters away on his mobile phone.

Outside the very Arab souk (main market) in the well-preserved Medina (Old City) is a square with a fountain where we spied men sitting and talking dressed in garb that would look at home in Rome (one wore a light tan suit - his blue shirt crisply starched - and tasseled loafers without socks). Passing them were men in traditional red skull caps.

Tunisia's history dates back over some 3,000 years. The country has been occupied by the Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Turks, Spanish and French. During the 12th to 16th centuries, Tunis was considered one of the most important and wealthiest cities in the Arab world. It finally gained independence from France in 1956. Tunisian presidents are elected, although the same leader ruled from 1957 to 1987. His successor, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, ruled from 1987 to 2010, when nationwide demonstrations over unemployment, corruption and poor living conditions forced him to resign from office. Thus began the “Arab Spring”.

We hear d a few complaints about the “Islamist” government interfering into people’s lives, but these comments were not accompanied by anger. Almost everyone seems fluent in both French and Arabic (though English seems to be only slightly understood by most). Shop vendors seem to speak every language represented in the UN. The Place de l’Independence commemorating the overthrow of the government in Spring 2011 is draped in Tunisian flags (white crescent and star on a field of red) and ends with a couple of armored personnel carriers, topped with heavy machine guns, backed by a couple of camo’ed troop trucks at the approach to the Medina through the Porte de France. The Ministry of Police seems similarly protected. While the Tunisian dinar is the coin of the realm, US dollars and Euros seem widely accepted.

This is a poor country, with a 15-percent unemployment rate. As we drove through Carthage, however, we passed a neighborhood of “million dollar” homes (doesn’t sound like much until you realize that we are talking about North Africa) with heavy police protection and check-points. It is one of the world's largest producers of olive oil. Other products include citrus, wine and dates. Tourism is an important business here (more than five million tourists visit each year, mostly French and German), though cruise calls are still pretty exotic and limited largely to European ships (like those from Costa and MSC Cruises) and U.S. lines that offer more exotic Mediterranean itineraries (such as Oceania and I guess us). And though it may be considered a third world country, we saw few genuinely poor folks. The streets and towns were extremely clean, and crime (though we heard of the occasionally run-in with pickpockets) is low.

The country is bi-lingual with Arabic and French alternating in everyone’s conversation (as well as on all signage, etc.). Supposidly all school children are also taught English, but this didn’t seem as successful.

Petrol (san-Plomb) at the Libyaoil station (Total and Agip are also represented here) was 1.75 Tunisian Dinars per liter (at about 1.5 Dinars per US dollar, it seems they pay slightly more than we do in the States, but a larger proportion of their lower income.

To be sure, if you get off the ship on your own rather than a shore excursion, you will immediately throw yourself into a foreign atmosphere including cab drivers at the pier haggling to give you a tour. And the souk is very much a place where Arab traditions rule -- so are many coffee houses, which are for men only.

But all in all, you'll find a laid-back city, very liberal by Islamic standards, and much more Western than you'd expect.

The taxis in the ports are expensive, but those just outside its gates are cheaper. I negotiated within a taxi driver for the day (including five stops of ancient monuments and museums in Carthage, followed by a visit to the town of Sidi Bou Said – known for its sky blue painted doors and windows inset into whitewashed walls like Santorini Greece and crafts – and then a run across the Causeway to Tunis for a trip to the Medina, we ended at $60 for the four of us and about a five hour tour).

The historical study of Carthage is problematic. Because its culture and records were destroyed by the Romans at the end of the Third Punic War, very few Carthaginian primary historical sources survive. While there are a few ancient translations of Punic texts into Greek and Latin, as well as inscriptions on monuments and buildings discovered in North Africa, the main sources are Greek and Roman historians.

Eventual victory by Rome over Carthage in the Punic Wars was a turning point which meant that the civilization of the ancient Mediterranean would pass to the modern world via Southern Europe instead of North Africa.

While we took a cab in order to save time (and at a cost of $15 a person), for rugged individualists, the most economical way to reach Carthage if you are staying in Tunis is to take the TGM (suburb train line). The 30-minute ride from Tunis Marine station to Carthage costs approximately 1 dinar (currently about $.66). There are 6 stops in Carthage, but the one closest to the most attractions is Carthage Hannibal (the 4th one). It is also good to know that Byrsa Hill is nearest to the Carthage Hannibal station, NOT Carthage Byrsa. There are train services from approximately 5 a.m. to midnight. Try to avoid the rush hour, since the trains can get pretty full at this time. The frequency of departures varies according to the time of day. (A detailed description of how to do this by train will follow for those who are interested).

On a side note, Carthage's attractions are located just far enough from each other to make walking impractical (that is, if you intend on seeing them all in one day) and the taxi made a great deal of sense considering our time constraints.

From Carthage, we drove to Sidi Bou Said, a lovely town close by. This has a great view from its top of the harbor and beach. It is also highly picturesque with its light blue painted doors and windows. It is also full of metal workers and other craftsmen making a wide variety of items. As a guide, in this area, you might want to start the bargaining at 10% of the vendor’s first offer and settle at about 25-30% of that amount.

The Medina is the sort of market that you would expect to find in old cities from Casa Blanca, Morocco to Jerusalem, Israel. It’s loud and in your face. It is claustrophobic and colorful. Strange odors waft past and streams of people move up and down the sloped streets. They bring out the best and worst in us, but they are a lot of fun.

The cab driver tried to increase his fair by a number of different methods, but we tipped him $5 above the agreed price and called it a day.

For those who may have more time (and want to save a small amount of money), the following is a description of how to see Carthage by train, but the sights are those we saw by cab:

Anyway, assuming you can get past the taxis, here’s how you get to the TGM train for Carthage from the La Goulette port: go out the port gate. Turn left and walk along the wide port street for a couple of short blocks, until you get to a roundabout and can see a bridge just ahead. Turn right onto the street that has a wall running along its right side. (The right turn is just after a big gas station.) Train tracks are on the left and the city wall on the right as you walk along. You will see the train station in a couple of blocks.

To get Tunisian dinars for the train fare, turn right at the train station and go one block into town; there is a prominent ATM at the end of the street. The train fare is less than 2 dinars per person each ride, and you might only need it twice, since the Carthage sites are all walkable from each other (though sometimes a bit long). This method costs about 15 dinars ($10) a person all told, and you should be able to discreetly change the excess back to euros at the shopping building in the port, before boarding the ship.

Get off the train at the Salambo stop and walked east towards the coast along Avenue Farhat Hached until you see the signs for Carthage Tophet and/or “Sanctuaire Punique”. You turn left onto Rue Hannibal, go just past the hotel Residence Carthage, and the Tophet entrance is on the right. Here you purchase combo tickets to all the sites for 9 Tunisian dinars each, plus 1 TD for photography rights. The ticket comes with a helpful map on the back showing how to get to all the sites.

We explored the Tophet necropolis, which includes a fascinating Roman underground vault, Punic stelae, and possible remains of human sacrifices. We left just as the first tour buses were arriving, went back out on Rue Hannibal, and walked north a few blocks through charming bougainvillea-lined suburban streets to the circular military harbor of ancient Carthage. The tour buses didn’t stop at this site. It was thrilling to walk along the shore and imagine Carthage’s naval might in the days when hundreds of ships lined the harbor.

We walked back west to the main drag, Avenue Habib Bourguiba. Turn right on this thoroughfare, and in a few blocks you see the Musée Paleochretienne on the left. There are significant Carthaginian and Byzantine ruins, plus a free, clean restroom (but take your own tissues) and a wonderful museum.
To get to the next site, the Magon Quarter, go north along Avenue Habib Bourguiba. Turn right when you get to Avenue de la République, which is a beautiful parkway lined with stately palm trees on both sides. At its end, you can see the ocean. We detoured briefly to the lovely seaside promenade, to admire one of the prettiest pieces of Mediterranean shoreline we have ever seen. Then we entered the Magon Quartier and toured its little museum, showcasing the Roman seawall and excavated Carthaginian artisans’ houses. This was another site the buses didn’t visit.

We went back along Avenue de la République, turned right on Rue Septime Sévère, and followed the signs to the Parc des Thermes or Antonine Baths, one of the main attractions, and well populated with tourist buses. Saw the still-impressive remains of the huge baths (4th largest in the whole Roman empire), as well as Roman houses and mosaics, a Punic burial site, and an underground chapel. This site boasts plenty of restrooms and a snack bar. The Tunisian president’s villa overlooks it—look for the white walls, flag, and armed guards.

The next site is the Villas Romaines or Roman Villas. We went west on Avenue des Thermes d’Antonin past Avenue Habib Bourguiba, then under the railway bridge. This was the only point where the walk was briefly less than comfortable, because there was a short section (10 yards) under the bridge, overgrown with shrubbery, where there wasn’t really a sidewalk and we had to walk with traffic. Take the first right turn after the bridge and follow the signs to the Villas Romaines. This site was great! Almost as impressive as the baths, but we didn’t see one single tour bus here. It was worth touring independently just to get to see this wonderful site. There were well preserved villas and stunning mosaics. Just after you enter, look for a long wall on the left with tunnel-like entrances. It is filled with beautiful mosaics salvaged from the site. Be sure to climb to the top of the hill to see the palatial villa restored to near completion, and the remains of the Odeon. The view from the restored villa’s terrace is breathtaking, and it has one of the best Roman mosaics in existence.

Our guidebook said to go back to the main street to enter the Roman Theater. But from the Odeon hill, we spotted an open gate, which turned out to lead to the Theater. It has been restored to performance readiness, so it was easy to imagine how it looked in Roman times. There are still several rows of the original seating left undisturbed. Winston Churchill spoke here to the Allied troops.

The final Carthaginian site was the Byrsa Hill, where the Punic and Roman governments were located. It’s easy to find by looking for the majestic Cathedral St. Louis at the top of the hill, just south of the Theater. We found that the most direct route was via some concrete steps set into the side of the hill, which you can readily see from the street across from the Theater. The guidebook called it “a stiff walk”, but it was really only about three flights of steps. Go around the Cathedral, admiring its mix of Gothic and Moorish elements, to the terrace and museum entrance. From the terrace, there is a stunning view all the way to the port. There are excavated Carthaginian insulae, and a good museum with a large mosaic floor and several fascinating inscriptions. Also restrooms, snack vendors, taxis, etc.

Finally, you can walk back down the steps, and down the street to the bottom of the hill, where the Hannibal train station is easy to spot. You could easily take the train a few stops north to Sidi Bou Said from here. Then take the train back south to La Goulette. From Goulette Vieille stop, walk the couple of blocks back to the port, shop a little while in the terminal building, change your remaining dinars for euros with a vendor, and board the ship.

We had such a great day exploring ancient Carthage at our leisure. It was very easy and cheap and safe; I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in ancient history and able to walk about 4-5 miles over the course of several hours. Tunisia was so much prettier and more charming than I expected.

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