Sunday, 9 April 2017

April 2017 - Notes from the Barn

Hyacinth Aiolos
One of the first warm weekends for quite a while; finally the hedgerows are springing into life, the daffodils (we choose varieties that have a later season as the winds can be bad) are opening up along with the Hyacinths and Tulips and the grass has been cut.

Answers on a postcard please :)
Talking of Daffodils I'm not sure what variety this is though as it seems to be a random refugee among a group of 'Pipe Major' . It looks great but whoever bred this must have lived in a perfect world of no rain and no wind as without staking its head is simply to heavy for its stalk to hold it.

Last year all the tulips 'Olympic flame' were potted along with masses of these lovely Muscari Armeniacums (Grape Hyacinth). Needless to say the desired effect didn't work because they flowered at completely different times. We transferred the whole lot to one of the beds and this year it looks like we may be in luck.

'Pipe Major'
'Cheerfulness' looks bright and cheerful against the stone and lime

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Mar 2017 - Costa Diadema - Day 7(Mars)

Day 7 Marseilles

We arrive in the early hours. Marseilles is not a place we have visited before.  Our last cruise to the Riviera stopped at the beautiful tendered port of Villefranche where we followed the ship's French Captain down a tiny backstreet to a lovely little Bistro for lunch . Here we dock at an enormous new complex to the North East of the city and have decided to do a walking tour in the morning then maybe a little shopping after lunch. The shuttle from the port takes about 15 minutes to slowly wind its way through the huge industrial port. We are the only cruise ship docked here today though it can handle up to 6 at a time which must make for a crowded city.

Cath├ędrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure
Church of Saint Laurent
Our walk takes us through the old town stopping at local bakers for a little taste of the crunchy/lemony Navettes biscuits (one of several specialities of the region - the others being that lovely olive oil soap (make sure the %  oil content is correct) and that god awful drink Pastis, which looks and tastes like a solution for cleaning paint brushes in). At a stretch you could probably add Bouillabaisse though every town on the Cote d'Azur claims its version as the authentic one.

The old Harbour with the Basilica Notre Dame overlooking it.
Once again we are warned about how Marseilles is the pick pocket capital of the world - I suspect with all these warnings some guests must think the moment they enter the city limits they will be surrounded by hordes of professional multi millionaire pick pockets. As usual just take the same precautions you would take in any town or city in the world. What they don't warn you about; as Paul Theroux describes it so eloquently in his book "The pillars of Hercules" - is that the Cote d'Azur is without doubt the dog shit capital of the world.

Having said that this is a beautiful city - a lot of money has been spent pedestrianising and cleaning the buildings and new museums have sprung up all around the harbour. We eventually end up in the picturesque old harbour of the city surrounded on every side by restaurants and bars. A local fish market is taking place - everything looks fresh and fantastic.  Unfortunately we cant buy the fish to take back but we do stock up on bars of olive oil soap.

Marseilles is an excellent hub port to have on the itinerary - the TGV from here can take you directly to Aix en Provence or Avignon within an hour. Avignon I would highly recommend. You can also enjoy  a hike up to Marseille's basilica which sits on the highest peak overlooking the harbour or take a small ferry to the outlying islands.

We return to the ship for a late lunch and drinks which we take in the quiet section in the rear of the buffet with the captain and several officers. It looks likes most have had family members join them when we docked at  Savona for a cpl of nights. The lunch speciality today is a giant multi meat tower of various meats spit roasting like a huge donner kebab.  Delicious with all the trimmings added.

Dinner tonight is excellent yet again with fresh fish being heavily featured on the menu - a fitting choice for Marseille.  Whole Bream for Jack and we give the Lobster a try tonight. Its good but as is usual on cruise lines its a warm water variant so lacks the softness and sweetness of a good New England or British beast from the icy waters - however its well cooked and seasoned with Parmesan and herbs - its not quite a thermidor but its a huge a step up from boring "drawn butter".

All in all this has been an excellent cruise - a superb,very repeatable choice of ports each with many options for traveling on somewhere different each time. We have been lucky with the weather for March in the Med - warm and sunny apart from that one day. The ship is delightful - big but spacious, plenty of  wide open decks and excellent venues inside. Food has been superb and we actually enjoyed the set dining time (not something we ever use on NCL or Celeb). The drinks package is probably the best value of any cruise line and with it including such superb coffee is an absolute must. Service charge is a reasonable 10E per day though we tipped our waiter and steward a little extra.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Mar 2017 - Costa Diadema - Day 6 (Savona)

Day 6 Savona.

The memorial to lost mariners watches over the harbour in Savona
Drizzle greets us as we arrive into Savona - a pretty port town where the Diadema seems to be almost within reaching distance of the town for a change. Fortunately we have a trip booked today or to be more precise we have a bus booked for a simple drop off and return to Genoa - which is probably a good thing looking at the darkening skies above.

We are a mixed bunch on the coach, mainly French and the rest made up of various countries who just happen to understand English. It makes for a rather interesting commentary as we travel along the coast across huge floating bridges and deep tunnels. Our bi-lingual Italian hostess speaks perfect English (and French Jack reliably tells me).

She supplies us with a handy little map and goes through everything we'll need to know (and where to go) re Genoa and handily also dishes out a Costa waterproof poncho to stop you drowning in what is now a proper English downpour. Fortunately Jack has come prepared with a rather battered parapluie so at least she doesn't have to look like a cling film wrapped tourist...

The rain has slightly eased when we arrive but looking at the sky I don't think it is over yet so I don the emergency Costa poncho. Every trader in Genoa of course immediately surrounds the bus on arrival to sell you an umbrella. Genoa itself is a very walkable and stunning medieval town. The main sites are all in easy walking distance of each other and luckily most of them can be reached by staying under the loggias of the buildings.

Our first stop is the Cathedral of Santa Lorenzo. It reminds me from the outside of the cathedrals of Florence or Sienna with its imposing striped granite facings both inside and out. The cathedral had a fortunate escape during the second world war when the city's port and warships were being shelled as part of a British Operation. Due to a slight miscalculation, a British battleship fired an armour-piercing shell at an Italian Cruiser and missed (by quite a margin) - the shell landed  in the south-eastern corner of the cathedrals nave. The soft material of the walls (compared to armour) failed to detonate the  fuse and the shell therefore did not explode. It is still here displayed in a corner - I presume they defused it!

Next we continue across the square to visit the Church of Jesus and the Saints Ambrogio and Andrea. A stunning building on the inside despite its rather more modest exterior in comparison to the main cathedral. The altarpiece is the thing to see here, a 1608 masterpiece by Rubens "The Circumcision" (ouch).

Coffee and some respite from the rain being needed we nip into a little bar - everyone seems to be wandering in for a quick coffee and a piece of focaccia for a morning snack.

From here we wander through towards the old gate of the city, the Porta Soprana with its two majestic towers, where tucked away in a corner behind the city walls is the house of Christopher Columbus.

Other than the churches the big attraction in Genoa is the UNESCO area of bankers palaces so we make our way  through the Maddalena: a network of narrow medieval alleys that lead to the city's unmissable Via Garibaldi, dubbed "the street of kings".

We start in the Palazzo Doria Spinola which  is one of over 40 Rolli Palaces in Genoa that was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2006. Rolli Palaces were built and owned by the Noble republican families of Genoa and were the first example of exclusive public lodging in Europe, providing sumptious accommodations to visiting cardinals, princes etc. Here today we seem to be the only guests and the building is now used as an administration building for the town hall. A serious looking police officer shows us how to get to the first floor balcony to see the large frescoed maps decorating all the walls of what were the important trade points. The rulers of Genoa wanted to step out and look at the wealth. The windows have been blown open and it's raining on these majestic works of art so we run around closing the windows. Every wall is covered in a city map painted in the 16C ; a few maps are missing/destroyed because at some point (I bet it was the 60's) some lunatic architect added doorways to office rooms straight through the middle of the frescoes!

Then we wander down the drenched Via Garibaldi before diving into the bar in a museum for wine - focaccia and coffee. A young Japanese lady who also looks a little drowned  asks where I got my wonderful Costa poncho from and is overjoyed when I produce a spare from my ruck sack and give it to her. My good deed for the day done the sky clears and the sun pops out.

By the time we arrive back in Savona for a late lunch on the ship the sun is out and you would never have known it was raining this morning. Please don't tell me the sun came out and the rain stopped   as soon as we actually left this morning.

Savona is actually one of the few places on this cruise where it's actually been possible to get a decent picture of the ship. You are normally either too close or there's a huge building alongside her. She's quite a graceful looking vessel for her size with nice classical form - as opposed to looking like a  tower block at sea.

Dinner tonight is excellent - the main being a lovely cut of melt in the mouth veal for myself and red mullet for Jack. Tomorrow we head for France - but tonight its rocking away to TNT and mellowing out to more Pink Floyd whilst sipping an espresso - ahh life is good. 

Click here for day 7 

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Mar 2017 - Costa Diadema - Day 5 (La Spezia)

Day 5 La Spezia

It's a little misty and cloudy as we edge carefully into La Spezia passing the oyster farms and getting our first glimpse of the Cinque Terre landscape. La Spezia is a large port - much larger than I was expecting. If you suffer from insomnia and want an alternative to counting sheep then there's enough containers here to put you into a coma. Quick breakfast in the cabin(we never seem to get the same attendant twice, so not only is it a mystery who will deliver the breakfast and at what time; there's the added fun to see how they interpret the order - what random bit of bread have they included for that tick box that says muffin).

You have to take a bus shuttle to the port entrance from the ship - watching this procedure early in the morning from the balcony there seemed to be some lack of communication between the ship and the drivers resulting in long lines forming; it soon sorted itself out though and when we went down the line had completely gone.

For some reason I had neglected to upload a port guide here as we knew we wanted to get to the railway station and head up to the villages of the Cinque Terre by train. (In the Spring and Summer you can do this by ferry which dock on the public waterfront - but they are not running at the moment and TBF the train is much quicker and only costs a couple of Euros). So after studying maps near the taxis we were just about to set off when an English couple (where have they been hiding all week) asked if we wanted to share a taxi. On reflection if the weathers good (which it is today the grey cloud having now lifted) I would walk - its not as far as the map seems to indicate and is a pleasant walk along the waterfront - just follow the fat palm tree boulevard along the waterside then turn right. It will take about 20mins if you stroll and as there's only one train an hour north you could use this to pass the time. 

As it was we ended up at the station way too early - so we  wandered back into a little square in the town and sat in the sun. Very peaceful and La Spezia itself has some lovely architecture that reminds me a little of the South of France.

A short train ride took us Michael Portillo style to the village of Riomaggiore. The villages are scenic but the train ride is mainly through tunnels. Its a remarkable work of engineering. Just remember that when the train stops in a tunnel it's probably because the station can only fit a couple of carriages on so get out and walk along the tunnel towards daylight. Until the arrival of the railway in 1874, the five villages of the Cinque Terre were little fishing hamlets, accessible only by sea.

Harbour - Riomagiorre
Our great plan was to buy a ticket for the coastal walk path and hike to the next village but unfortunately most of the paths have been closed this year as they have become too dangerous for the public to use & were being maintained. So after climbing down to the tiny little village harbour (you reach this through another tunnel) we climb out of the steep valley and around the village - all the time looking for a little gem for lunch.

That little gem happens to be tucked away on a balcony at the foot of the main village. Its a lovely little family run trattoria 'La Lampara' excellent with everything prepared freshly by hand. I often have doubts about handmade claims especially when the village is so isolated but a quick look up the main village street shows a fantastically stocked butchers and a fish shop full of this mornings catch. I have the seafood ravioli in a red mullet sauce -Individually made soft raviolis, packed with clams, crab, parmesan and more with a thick red mullet sauce containing full pieces of fish fillet. Jack has a traditional veal bolognese which is also beautifully seasoned with a hint of nutmeg running through it. We wash it all down with a bottle of cinque terre sangiovese, which is gorgeous.

Another walk and climb around before we head back to the station (for some reason the trains are more frequent going back as the intercity service from Savona stops at this village on its way to Genoa and Pisa) and head back to La Spezia where we stroll through the town and along the waterfront (the route we should have used this morning). 
Dinner tonight in the MDR was interesting as I shocked Jamie by ordering the rabbit - he seemed to want me to change my mind and order the other meat choice (I think he was worried about the bones) and in the end I think we both lost track of what we had ordered. Rabbit however turned up and he offered to change it but I stuck with it and it was delicious. A nice thick sauce accompanied it - though to quote that old saying "It tasted like chicken" - though a good strong chicken with taste.

Tonight we catch TNT band- a French/Sicilian 4 piece rock group who do wonderful covers ranging from Pink Floyd to the Beatles in the Country Rock Bar. Now these sound good; nice and loud but in a strong and exciting way. When they take their break and the usual two piece come on it confirms my theory that the two piece are adding so much reverb to make themselves sound a bit fuller its distorting the sound and booming out the room.

Later we catch a bit of a Spanish guitar style duo who are playing classical numbers that the dancers are going nuts for, filling the dance floor with superbly executed sambas and flamenco moves. My head says I can do this but unfortunately my body doesn't seem to comprehend what's required.

Click here for Day 6

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Mar 2017 - Costa Diadema - Day 4 (Rome)

Day 4 Rome

Picking the pilot up early we docked in  Civitavecchia with a slightly overcast sky that should clear later. One benefit of this itinerary is the ship spends quite long days in each dock. The slight disadvantage though is you don't get to see that many actual sail ins/aways as its either too early or too dark. We take breakfast in the cabin. This suits us much better, especially with these early starts on such a port intensive itinerary.

We are going to Rome this time and had already researched that the Costa bus from the ship, just a simple transfer with no tour would be best.

We have been to Rome several times before however last year when we docked here we got together with some folks from the CC roll call and did a "Not going to Rome" tour which was excellent - details can be found by clicking here. This time, we decided  it would be nice to have a relaxing walk around, find somewhere nice for  lunch (we ended up in a little trattoria full of locals in a little square behind the town hall (piazza Capranica) which was nice and simple but probably served the best spaghetti carbonara I have ever tasted) and then took in all the major sites.

The bus dropped us at the Coliseum, then we headed to the  Altar of the Fatherland (or the big white typewriter as some locals call it)  via the Imperial Forum before heading to our favourite building the 2000 year old Pantheon where we stopped for expensive coffee. Slowly the clouds began to break up to let the sun through. 
From here we went through to the Trevi Fountain (as busy as ever) which has certainly been cleaned since the last time we saw it. Next we headed west to the Bridge of Angels to cross the Tiber stopping for lunch on the way. The Bridge is of course well known for its Dan Brown connection but we remember it more from a relatives wedding in the summer where it was so hot we all spent the time  finding an Angel to hide under for shade, dressed in our finery.

After crossing we made our way from Castle Sant' Angelo and walked directly to St Peters alongside the Popes connecting wall that leads from the Castle to the Vatican and was used as an escape route if the sitting Pope needed protection. Once at St Peters we paid the 15E front of line fee to miss the 2 hour queue out.  Worth it in the end because otherwise you would have spent most of the  day in Rome in a queue just to see one building.

From St Peters we got onto the bank of the Tiber (the one Daniel Craig drives down) and walked all the way back to the Circo Massimo before turning back towards the Colosseum to meet the bus (almost 3 miles). Make sure if you take this trip you have a good idea of direction and distance - Rome is wonderfully walkable (we covered 6 miles today and that doesnt include the wandering around in Churches and Squares plus getting lost!) but the distances can be misleading through the mazes of streets (plus you always find yourself stopping and staring or taking photos). The bus took us back to the ship with two guests missing, yikes, E200 for a taxi. Take note people.

Our walking route
We arrived back onboard about 6:00pm. It had been a long day and we went back to the MDR for dinner to the delight of our waiter (who must have missed us last night). It was Italian night tonight - an odd name for the night seeing as every meal is Italian in style . The reason for this title is midway through the sitting an opera starts and all the Italians start waving napkins (I have no idea why but hey - when in Rome) this is then followed by ballroom dancing in the aisles with the waiters (much to Jackie's delight as she now has someone she can dance with who doesn't stand on her toes) and a rather hilarious Italian version of a conga. I say hilarious because one table nearby decided to join the conga one by one and then all disappeared out of sight somewhere in the depths of the MDR leaving a poor toddler sized daughter sat at the table in a high chair crying! oops. 

Jack stands alongside the Cathedral length marker for St Pauls London
Dinner was once again excellent - highlights being tonight a lovely gnocchi in a sage sauce that was light and fluffy, not at all like the dumplings we seem to get at home. The suckling pig was tender, melt in the mouth perfection. Coffee and an early night for us. It's been a long day.

Click here for next day

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Mar 2017 - Costa Diadema - Day 3 (Sea Day)

Day 3 Sea Day.

A slight swell during the night rocked us to sleep - Breakfast came to the room as ordered (though a little early) then we walked around the promenade deck for a little exercise. Its cloudless today; slight breeze but nice and warm. The promenade deck on the Diadema is an example of how a mid level promenade deck should be - they sadly seem to be disappearing in the quest for more and more rooms and balconies. It wraps totally around the ship like they did in the 'good old days'; it's extra wide reaching beyond the width of the ships body like a pier so that the tables for cafes, sunbeds and even extra hot tubs all have adequate space . It  also has the benefit of not having a dual role for the boarding of  the lifeboats so nothing blocks the view out to sea. The lifeboats have their own boarding level one deck below.

Sitting here on the prom drinking real coffee is a delight (every bar has a proper 'Illy' coffee station - the advantage of being on a ship aimed at the Italian/Spanish/French market who would throw a fit if they were presented with some of the filtered swill other cruise lines call coffee. We have lunch in the MDR today - not too rushed and an excellent menu to choose from. And the afternoon is slowly passed in the sun sipping Campari on the decks.

Its formal night for Dinner tonight and we had  pre booked into one of the upgrade offerings  called the Samsara where we're happy to discover the price we booked it at was wrong and we will get it for half price because we have the Brindiamo drinks package. Just an extra 15E each. The dinner is superb, lovely Italian/Asian Fusion very fresh tasting. The restaurant is a good size, nice and intimate - though as is often the case on this ship the lighting could just do with being a touch more subdued.

Jack starts with the ceviche of scallops with a pomegranate reduction and I opt for the oyster bar choice served with pickled cucumber/birds eye chilies and a soy reduction.

Next we have a coconut milk infused risotto with shiitake mushrooms. The Asian Italian fusion cooking  works deliciously.

For the main course Jack had monkfish wrapped around thick crispy fried chorizo on a bed of spinach and creamed potatoes with a dusting of powdered pancetta. A gorgeous combination of flavours and textures. I had the shrimp which was grilled and served with a seafood bisque, tempura vegetables and Parmesan crisps. These were lovely big juicy prawns. 

Dessert is a twist on the classic French tarte tatin with mango. I settle for a classic gooey inside chocolate cake.

I would say most men have donned a tux or smart suit (TBF its good to see that most of the Italian/Spanish/French dress well every night - you don't see that many T Shirts or Shorts during the day  never mind at night, but then again they think its the middle of the winter.)

We didn't bother with the main theatre tonight as it was described as a circus show. Not really our thing. So another great evening in the Piano Bar and the ballroom area watching the guests dancing whilst sipping coffee and campari and trying to keep a straight face whilst eating wasabi nuts Jack is now addicted to them.

Click for day 4