Guest lecturer John Hughes joined Aegean Odyssey on her ‘European Connoisseur’ sailing from Seville to London in 2018. This popular itinerary includes calls to some of the most iconic ports in Spain, Portugal and France. We asked John to pick several of his favourite destinations from the cruise and he opted for Honfleur, Porto, Dartmouth and Vigo. This resulted in highlights from four very interesting but uniquely different experiences.
My talk on ‘Monet, Painter and Gardener’ had led me into reading many works about his long and varied life. Most of his life was spent in various locations close to the River Seine and Honfleur was referenced in several of his earlier paintings. Armed with a map provided on the ship, I set off with several objects in my relatively short stay, necessitated by the ship having to do a 180 degree turn in the Seine before the tide dropped too low.
My first call was the attractive harbour side shops and restaurants which overlooked the old basin and thence to the Public Park which was well kept, even to the point of slabs being power washed. It had a romantic feel with rustic arches covered with climbing roses, but with some unusual bedding combinations which interested me. I wandered through the old streets, which seemed to have changed so little over the centuries. I was interested to see real old-fashioned techniques being employed by craftsmen in the repair of ancient properties. Even newer properties were being constructed to match the existing styles (I think Prince Charles would have approved).
Heartened by this, I then set out to find the Rue de la Bavole which was marked on the map. I had used an image of Monet’s painting of the street dated about 1864, when he was a mere 24 years old, to accompany comments on his connection with the area and to show how his style of painting was much less impressionistic at this stage in his career. Could I find it, and would I be surprised by its present-day appearance? Finding the road was relatively straightforward and as I walked down it from the direction of the sea, I found it little changed in character, apart from modern road surfaces and occasional road traffic signs, but it was not until I turned around and retraced my steps did I see a plaque referring to Monet’s painting. I took a picture and felt I had been in the presence of the master himself. If I am ever lucky enough to go back to Honfleur, I will return with a copy of the painting and see if I can capture another picture to even more closely represent the original.
It was about 4 years ago that I first visited this beautiful city. I thought I’d seen it all during my hop-on hop-off bus tour, but our visit with Voyages to Antiquity included the Stock Exchange Palace (Palacio da Bolsa), which I’d discounted on my previous visit. The 1850 building was built and is still used by the members of the cities Commercial Association. For me, the Neopalladian style of exterior was quite severe and rather uninviting but our guide pointed out the detail in the stone carving both externally and internally which was a triumph in granite, a hard stone to work with.
The interior was both interesting and beautiful, and it was easy to see why this took a further 60 years to complete. The central courtyard, known as the Courtyard of the Nations – Pátio das Nações is covered by a large metallic octagonal dome with glass panels, but it was the lower part of the dome decorated with the painted coats-of-arms of Portugal and the countries with which it had trade in the 19th century, each set in a gold coloured panel, which interested me. An impressive staircase behind with beautifully painted ceiling panels lead to an upper storey where we viewed several rooms still used by the elders of city. I was totally unprepared for the final room, the Arab Room, built between 1862 and 1880 by Gonçalves e Sousa. The room is decorated in the exotic Moorish Revival style, fashionable in the 19th century, and was lavishly decorated. Our guide explained that the inscriptions were not all accurate, some had been done for design effect rather that their significance. Apparently, it is used as a reception hall for personalities and heads of state visiting Porto; I certainly felt honoured to have been allowed to see it.
I had elected to visit Santiago de Compostela during our call to Vigo and the early start of 8am ensured that we got to the main square well before the main influx of tourists. We travelled through the Galician countryside, a part of Spain that is totally different to the image of the sun-soaked Costas; someone described it more akin to Ireland both in its climate and Celtic heritage. With Santiago de Compostela receiving a whacking 75 inches of rain a year, we were lucky to be there on a dry, although overcast day. Having audio headsets and a clearly spoken English speaking guide certainly added to the experience. We looked at the façade which was extensively covered in sheeting as restauration work was being carried out to remedy the corrosion caused by the weather. We made our way to the museum where we were able to see many beautiful relics, some of which had been removed and retained, replaced by modern replicas due to restauration. We were also privileged to go into the church, see the tomb of Santiago and observe the pilgrims gathering for the midday service.
The square in front of the cathedral was now filled with many pilgrims who had made the pilgrimage known as the Camino (way). There are several routes to get to Santiago, but to earn the Compostela certificate one needs to walk a minimum of 100 km or cycle at least 200 km. Pilgrims carry a document called the Credencial, purchased for a few euros from a Spanish tourist agency or a church or parish house on the route, which gives access to inexpensive, sometimes free, overnight accommodation in ‘refugios’ along the trail. These places will stamp their Credencial at the end of their visit. On arriving at Santiago de Compostela, they head for the Pilgrim’s Office where the Credencial is examined for stamps and dates and a certificate is given. What was so moving was to see the joy on faces of the pilgrims as they stood gazing at the stone in the centre of the square, this marking the end of their journey. People of all nations were embracing.
Dartmouth still was as charming as I remember it being almost 50 years ago, with the main town being maintained and new building kept in keeping. There were major difficulties on the direct route to Slapton sands which had been one of the sites of the included excursions. As a last minute addition a new tour was put on, which was well supported. Leaving the ship, we were warmly greeted by the Town crier; do they have such customs in Australia and the USA? We then boarded a boat for a leisurely cruise down the river Dart to Totnes. There was a running commentary on board for the hour and a quarter meander through the English countryside. The various hamlets were pointed out and given their history, and we were shown where Agatha Christie lived. Arriving refreshed in Totnes, we had a few moments to see the town and thence took a coach on the next stage, the journey to Paignton, an English seaside resort with the emphasis being on entertainment for people with young children. A detour was made to show the seafront, where the beach was largely hidden by the presence of that very English construction, beach huts. These small wooden ‘sheds’ exchange hands for surprisingly high sums of money. The lucky owners can use them as a base for the similarly British tea making when visiting the coast. They aren’t really big enough to sleep in, although it has been known, but ideal to hold a couple of deck chairs.
The highlight of the day was Dart Valley Light Railway to Kingswear. The line ran freight trains from 2 April 1866 originally using the 7 ft broad gauge, but on 21 May 1892 was closed for the weekend to be converted by a mere 28 men to 4 ft 8 1⁄2 inch present day standard gauge. There were passenger services run on the line, but in the 1960s it faced closure, however it was saved in 1972 and is now run as a heritage line. The journey of some 7 miles took about 30 minutes including shorts stops at charming little stations on the way. Everyone seemed charmed by the authentic rolling stock and for most it brought back nostalgic memories. The train was pulled by the Manor class locomotive Lyndham Manor, built in 1952, one of four operational engines, out of a total of six, owned by the trust, two of which I saw pulling (or pushing) trains that day.
Aegean Odyssey’s 2019 ‘European Connoisseur‘ sailing departs in early June. This 15-day sailing includes 7 shore excursions in 4 countries and is also our highlighted Odyssey Club Reunion Cruise. A 2-night pre-cruise hotel stay is also included in Seville. Guest lecturers on this sailing are John Ducker and Dr Barry Walsh. This cruise also currently features in our SailAway selection as a 13-night itinerary with big savings.