Saturday, December 17, 2011

Four more ports of call

This post is a continuation of The High Seas of the Mediterranean, which covered the first three days of our transatlantic cruise on Holland America Lines' ms Rotterdam.

As mentioned in my previous post, our 15 night cruise included six ports of call in the first seven days. Part of the reason we chose this particular itinerary was for the diversity of destinations, which, with the exception of Barcelona, were places we had never visited before. It was also attractive because all were ports where you could walk off the ship to see the sights without needing to book a tour or transfers.
our ship docked in Cartagena
Our third port of call was Cartagena, Spain. The city is an important naval seaport dating to the 16th century but has been inhabited for over three thousand years. While there are not many highly rated tourist attractions in Cartagena, Greg & I enjoyed exploring the city on foot for about three hours. Most of Cartagena's oldest monuments date to the Roman Empire and there are several archaeological sites of interest. We did not pay to visit any of them but were able to see pretty much everything by climbing up to vantage points in the free public parks. It was also free to enter the Art Nouveau City Hall and the Caridad church. I particularly enjoyed strolling the Calle Mayor, the pedestrian-only street in the heart of the city lined with boutiques and bars.
Roman Theater ruins, Cartagena
Day 5 of our cruise brought us to Malaga, in southern Spain. It was a beautiful day and after a 30 minute walk from the ship to the city center, we picked up a map from the tourist information office, then started our explorations at bustling Atarazanas Market. Paying little heed to the cruise tourists who were converging on the market, the locals continued their shopping for fresh fish, meats, fruits & vegetables and other items. We got to sample some tasty salted almonds and would have loved to spend much longer browsing the tempting stalls. But the market was busy, so we continued our walk with the intention of seeing as many of the old churches as we could.
Atarazanas Market, Malaga
The narrow pedestrian-only lanes in the historic center were a joy to discover and we happily meandered from one church to another for over an hour. Upon reaching the massive Cathedral, we ultimately decided not to pay the 5EUR per person entry fee but just took photos of the awe-inspiring exterior.
a bell tower of Malaga's Cathedral framed by an orange tree
After being offline for a couple of days, I was anxious to check email and see if there was any news from my family. We grabbed an outdoor table at a cafe that had free wifi and ordered a pitcher of sangria. Unfortunately, as soon as I connected, I saw a message from my mom indicating that my grandmother's health had further declined and that she did not expect her to live much longer. Then, there was a one-line message from my step-dad, "Your grandmother passed away at 11:30am today." That message had been sent the previous day, so it had already been almost 24 hours since she died.
the jug of sangria we ordered before we checked our email
Of course, I was very upset to receive this news, despite knowing that there was a good chance when we left on our honeymoon in early September that I would never see my grandmother again. I was especially sad for my mother, who had taken care of her for the past six years. I was also sad that I could not be with my family to mourn our loss together. Thankfully, I was able to talk to my mom on Google Talk shortly after I read the messages. It was difficult because I was outside, didn't have my VOIP headset, and there was lots of background noise. But I was still comforted to hear my mom's voice and to know that my grandmother did not die alone.
a Bird of Paradise I saw as we were walking back to our ship; one of my grandmother's favorite flowers
Not in the mood to do any more sightseeing, we made our way back to the cruise ship along the Avenida de Cervantes. With beautiful weather year-round, Malaga's trees & flowers are almost always in bloom. We detoured through a small park with fruit-laden orange trees and wonderful-smelling roses, then walked along the Malagueta (beach) to reach the ship.
our shadows on the Malagueta
The following morning we arrived in Tangier, Morocco. This port call was one of the primary reasons we chose this cruise; I have always wanted to go to Morocco and this was the only transatlantic itinerary fitting our schedule that included a stop in North Africa.
We had to laugh when we got off the ship and were greeted by vendors hawking all sorts of exotic souvenirs plus individuals offering their services as tour guides. The relentless pestering continued as we made our way into the Medina (old town) which is enclosed by 15th century ramparts and dominated by the Kasbah, a palace and administrative quarter since Roman times. The map that was provided by our cruise ship was not very detailed and we had much difficulty identifying any streets. After walking uphill with the primary intent of entering the Medina, we eventually found ourselves at the entrance to St Andrews Church.
vendors lined up by our ship in Tangier
The history & architecture of the church is very interesting. Open to all denominations, the church was consecrated in 1905. The interior is a fusion of many architectural styles, most notably Moorish. The cemetery outside is filled with war heroes, well-known bankers and historically famous generals.

St. Andrew's Anglican Church
Having asked the church's caretaker for directions to the main tourist sights, we made our way to the Grand Socco, the city's main square. However we still were at a loss as to how to get to other specific locations, like the American Legation Museum and Jewish Cemetery. One local gentleman even offered to help point us in the right direction but he couldn't make any sense of our map nor could he instruct us with a simple "turn right, turn left."
Sidi Bouabib Mosque in the Grand Socco, Tangier
Getting frustrated that we would not be able to see everything I had identified as places of interest, I gave up on using the map and decided to step through a passageway into the Medina. It wasn't long before two young boys, about age 12, offered to lead us around and show us all the sights. Speaking to them in French, I conveyed that we had no money to give them (we really didn't -- the only cash we had left was a 5 euro note and a few small coins). Still, they stuck with us so I decided to let them be our unofficial tour guides, with a little apprehension that we would be unwillingly led into many shops but also knowing we could say no at any time or else just walk the other way.
following our "guides" through the Kasbah
Our impromptu guides turned out to be fairly knowledgable for their young age and not only gave us plenty of space, letting us follow along a comfortable 10 or more paces behind them, but also rebuffed other wanna-be guides and trinket sellers. With their help, we thoroughly explored the Kasbah and the Medina and even got a glimpse into a local bakery. We were only led to one shop where we first climbed up four flights of stairs to a beautiful rooftop terrace overlooking the entire Medina and beyond. In appreciation for the view, we patiently let the salesman roll out a few carpets but then nicely turned down his offer of tea and merely browsed in the downstairs shop for a few minutes before thanking him again and continuing on our way.
When we reached the lower Medina, next to the Grande Mosquee, the boys said our tour was over as we were now within sight of the harbor and our cruise ship. The primary guide said "You give us each 15 euros." To which I replied, "No, I already told you we don't have any money." Then he tried "10 euros." Again, I said "I'm sorry, we really don't have any money." But I had already indicated to Greg that it was okay to give them what we had left, so as a demonstration of good faith, I asked Greg to (carefully) open his wallet to reveal the remaining 5 euro note. I gave that to the boys who replied "What about the change?" so we gave them all of it, too (a total of about 80 euro cents). They were already starting to bicker about who would get what so I had to admonish them with "Partagez, partagez" which means to share in French. They didn't seem too disappointed with their haul and I thought it was well worth the equivalent of about $8 to have seen all the main sights in Tangier with much less hassle than we would have encountered on our own. Also note that we were in Tangier on a Friday when children are not in school. If I had thought that the boys were skipping school to make money off tourists, I probably wouldn't have "allowed" them to be our guides, much less given them money.
locals hang out by the Grande Mosquee after a funeral
After a two nights and a full day at sea, our final port of call was Funchal, the capital city of the Portuguese Madeira Islands. It was overcast and rainy on the day of our arrival. Since our ship was docked a good 30 minute walk from the old town, the cruise line provided free bus transfers into town. We started our exploration with a walk along the Avenida do Mar and within minutes were caught in a downpour. After taking shelter and putting on our rain jackets, it quit raining and didn't rain again the entire time we were off the ship.
walking toward the Fortaleza de Sao Tiago in Funchal
As it was Sunday, many shops and attractions were closed. Since our only intention was to explore the town on foot as well as get online for a few minutes, this didn't pose any problems for us. After walking as far as the 17th century fort of Sao Tiago we made our way back to the area near the Central Market. There we bought a bottle of Madeira wine from the grocery store which is in a large shopping complex where we also picked up a free wifi connection in the food court.
a pedestrian-only alley in Funchal
After checking our email one last time (we would be offline for a full week during our transatlantic crossing), we continued exploring around the town hall and cathedral, including a brief walk through the Sao Francisco municipal gardens. Already tired and hungry, we then caught the next bus back to the ship where we ate lunch and spent the remainder of the afternoon reading until the ship sailed at 5pm.
view of Funchal from our ship
At first I watched the two tugs and pilot boat from a table on the pool deck (8) but eventually made my way to the rear of the ship on Deck 9 where I stood at the railing, enjoying the fresh air and last sight of land for the next seven days.

The link to all of my cruise photos is embedded in this post's title.

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