TRANS-ATLANTIC CRUISE – PART 4
From Lanzerote Island, we sailed west to Agadir, a major city in southern Morocco. Our first impression of the country, gained from a one-day visit to the Mediterranean port of Tangier in 2015 years ago, had been rather negative. We hoped for better.
We learned that Agadir was rebuilt following a major earthquake in 1960 that killed one third of its residents. It is now the largest seaside resort in Morocco. We strolled along the broad seaside promenade and the beautiful white sand beach. The contrast between locals dressed in traditional Muslim garb and scantily-clad tourists and beachgoers was interesting to see. Men wearing Berber blue and sporting colourful turbans trotted up and down the beach offering camel rides.
Elva and I had decided it was time to start getting back in shape, so we walked up the steep, winding road to the Casbah (castle), originally built in 1572 to guard the harbour. Buses and taxis bearing fellow passengers rumbled past us on the way up and down. They must have thought we were nuts! From the top, we enjoyed the same views of the city and the Atlas Mountains as they did and were the better for the hike.
An overnight sail landed us in the port city of Casablanca, famous for the 1942 Humphrey Bogart movie of the same name. As well as being the largest city in Morocco, Casablanca is one of the most important cities in Africa, both economically and demographically. From the ship, the port looked as big as any we’d ever seen.
We’d decided to do something a little different; find our way to the train station and travel to the capital city of Rabat on our own. Rather than wait for the ship’s shuttle to take us there, we set out on foot. Twenty minutes later, we were on our way, enjoying views of the verdant countryside between the two cities on the ninety-minute trip. I love train travel; there’s just something about it…
A major shortcoming of every city we’ve visited in Africa is the absence of reliable tourist information services. There was no city map to be found at the Rabat train station, so we headed in the direction of the nearest mosque and just followed our noses. Elva stopped to take a photo of an orange tree and was warned by a gun-toting soldier to cease and desist. Apparently, his job was to guard some government building from dangerous camera-wielding Canadian tourists.
We walked past the Palais Royal and up toward a gate that circles the old part of the city. Jackpot! Just across the intersection stood the Chellah, a UNESCO World Heritage Site dating back to the time of the Phoenicians, occupied later by the Romans and, finally, chosen by Muslim rulers in the thirteenth century as their sacred necropolis (burying place). Next challenge: get across the frantic intersection without ending up on the hood of a car or the front wheel of a motorcycle. After a couple of close calls, we crossed the threshold of the fortress and entered a peaceful refuge featuring beautiful gardens, interesting archaeological digs and, best of all, nesting storks. Dozens of them!
We spent barely two hours in Rabat before taking the train back to Casablanca, but it was worth the journey. While Moroccan trains are not on par with their European counterparts when it comes to cleanliness, they do run on time and are cheap. The return trip cost less than $25 CDN for the two of us.
Good thing we ventured outside Casablanca, as it turned out. The city has some interesting attractions, including the magnificent Hassan II Mosque, second-largest in the world after Mecca’s, but isn’t our kind of place. It’s frantic, dirty and loud. Many people are downright obnoxious, especially those trying to sell you something (which includes most of them). The contrast between the conspicuous wealth of the religious site and the filth of nearby garbage-strewn lots really turned us off. As has become our habit in a city that doesn’t suit us, we located the best hotel — the Hyatt Regency — marched in like we owned the place and had a beverage, relishing the atmosphere and taking our sweet time. Accomplishment of the day: 28,000 steps!Early next afternoon, the Rotterdam docked in Gibraltar. It was nice to be back on European soil again and to encounter that most essential of visitor services: the tourist information bureau! There’s no such thing in Africa. Result: you’re at the mercy of guides, hustlers and crooked taxi drivers. Why their dim-witted tourism agencies don’t understand this basic need of the independent traveller remains beyond us.
Armed with a good map and all the tips required for a productive visit, we set out on foot. Our objective, as it had been on our first visit to Gibraltar three years ago, was to climb to the top of the Rock, 1,400 feet above sea level. It took us an hour to get there, following the switchback road and navigating the steps that take you through the domain of resident Barbary apes. It was a clear day and the view from the top was amazing. Again, we waved to curious Prinsendam passengers as they drove by. Back down in the main town, we hopped on a bus and went out to Europa Point, the southernmost extension of the peninsula. From there, we had a clear view across the strait to Africa. Another great day!
Our next stop, Valencia, Spain’s third-largest city, is a mix of classic and modern Europe. The Ciutat Vella, old city, contains the fifteenth-century Lonja de la Seda (silk Market), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Mercado Central, several expansive plazas, and a variety of interesting churches and towers. We strolled on marble sidewalks on spotless streets in the old city, enjoying the sights and exploring historic buildings. Then we hopped on a bus and explored the impressive Ciudad de las Artes y Ciensias, the City of Arts and Sciences, a post-modern assemblage of incredible buildings including opera house, science centre, and aquarium. One day in Valencia was just enough to whet the appetite; definitely a city worth revisiting.
Too soon, the Rotterdam docked in Barcelona, last stop for us and the halfway point for those staying for the Mediterranean loop before heading back across the Atlantic to end the voyage in Fort Lauderdale. It was our third visit to Spain’s second-largest city and the center of the Catalan independence movement. Fortunately, there was no sign of unrest as we strolled with the Sunday crowds on Las Ramblas; all was quiet.
After getting kicked off the ship, we made our way to the Hotel Guell for a two-night stay. Having seen most of the city sights on previous visits, we didn’t feel pressured to hustle. Elva did some shopping and I took it easy. The one attraction on our list was the magnificent Sagrada Familia. We’d bought tickets well in advance and enjoyed a guided tour of this unique world-class building. There’s nothing like it anywhere. Of all the magnificent structures we've seen in our travels, it's one of my favourites. The first image is taken from the centre of the church, looking straight up. The second shows the exterior, still under construction. It will be completed in 2026, the hundredth anniversary of architect Antoni Gaudi's death. The central tower will rise to 172.5 metres, making it the tallest church in the world!
We enjoyed our 28-day cruise aboard the MS Prinsendam. The voyage enabled us to see new places and experience new adventures. Elva and I travel best together when there’s just the two of us; no pressure, just the unbridled (and unguided) joy of discovery. For the first time in five cruises, we didn’t take one Holland America excursion. With rare exceptions, they just don’t suit us. And we enjoyed renting a car to explore a couple of islands in the Canaries.
As for fellow passengers, we learned that the Prinsendam enjoys a sort of ‘cult’ following — guests who love the ship and sail on her and her only. Some have been sailing together as a group for many years. Many love the ship so much they don’t even bother getting off when she reaches a new port! As for the age of this particular crop, we estimate it to be in the very high 70s, if not 80. Many were over 90. One man was a World War II veteran. A couple celebrated their seventy-second wedding anniversary during the voyage!
We’ll sail with Holland America again, for sure. Their itineraries, level of service, and value for money all suit us. We’ve learned how to make the most of the ports of call by travelling independently, sometimes with another couple when the situation calls for it. As for the age of passengers, not to sound ageist, but a little younger would be just fine.
In the short time we were away, two members of our immediate family suffered serious health setbacks. All the more reason to begin planning the next cruise, maybe in the fall of 2019. There are so many places we still want to see… And we have much to be thankful for. Time to go home, reconnect with family and friends, sweep the snow off the car, grease the bike chain, and dust off the ole fishin’ pole.