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A warm Variety Cruises welcome aboard, a cool drink and it was off to our cabin to unpack. Tastefully decorated in woods and muted colours, as was the whole craft, our cabin was compact but with ample room for the little time we would spend in there. Cleverly designed use of space included AirCon, fridge, TV, safe, a comfortable double bed and a marble finished en suite.
Next up dinner, always a treat on Variety's cruises. The beautiful warm weather in Spain meant that we took full advantage of the al fresco dining area on the upper deck, large enough to comfortably accommodate all 49 (max) guests in a single sitting. Delicious food and attentive service was delivered as normal, with each course beautifully prepared and presented. As we got to know our fellow passengers, very easy with such a small number onboard, even the self confessed "foodie" sat next to me was delighted with the fare.
Next morning some took the optional excursion to Grenada including a visit to the magnificent Alhambra (one of the finest Islamic structures in Europe). We decided, having previously explored that area, to seek out the delights of Malaga. Our focus was the charming old town, starting with La Manquinita (the one armed lady). The Cathedral's nickname is given because it's problematic 200 year construction was halted with one of the two bell towers incomplete, but that takes little away from a magnificent exterior and interior. The 8th century Castillo de Gibralfaro serves as a reminder of Malaga's Islamic past. There's a good exhibition and scale model of the castle, plus panoramic views of the city, port and coastline from the ramparts. Picasso's birth city, unsurprisingly, has a Museum dedicated to him as well as his actual birthplace. The 11th century Moorish Alcazaba and the adjacent Roman amphitheater are two of the many other places to visit in Malaga, but we also enjoyed wandering around some of the narrow streets and admiring the balconied buildings.
The magic of going to sleep in one place and waking in another never gets old. Our new location was Puerto Banus, the launchpad for our excursion to wander in the Ronda (that rhymes). Ronda means surrounded by mountains, so (you’ve guessed it) it is surrounded by the Serrania de Ronda. Couple this with the dramatic El Tajo gorge, with Rio Guadalevin (deep river) running 100m below, and we were treated to some spectacular vistas from the 18th century Puente Nuevo ("new" bridge). The town is also regarded as the birthplace of bullfighting and the 200 year old Plaza de Toros is a must visit for bullfighting fans. The on-site museum interestingly charts the history of bullfighting from its aristocratic equestrian school days back in 1572.
Another sumptuous dinner was followed by an impromptu party for a fellow passenger's birthday.
What better way to greet Gibraltar than to have breakfast al fresco on Panorama II and watch a magnificent sunrise. Moored adjacent to Ventura, our 50m motorsailer looked toy-like in comparison to P&O’s massive ship. Nonetheless Panorama II’s was getting plenty of admiring looks for its sleek lines and tall masts, as thousands of passengers poured off the big ship.
Our comprehensive tour took in most of the main sights, including the impressive St Michael's cave. Thought to be bottomless by the Romans it actually winds down about 700 feet and nature has worked its magic over thousands of years for a truly impressive display of stalagmites and stalactites. The caves have music and are lit for dramatic effect. The famous Barbary Apes came to greet us as we exited the cave and loitered serenely as we admired the spectacular views of Gibraltar, mainland Spain, the African coast and the waters of the Mediterranean.
The Rock is said to be honeycombed with 35 miles of tunnels and we visited the WWII tunnels that were excavated during 1939 and 1944 as an extension of the great siege tunnels. An impressive feat of engineering by the Royal Engineers and their Canadian counterparts, the tunnels were never used in anger against a real attack on The Rock. After lunch back onboard, it was time to grab a lounger on the Sun Deck and recharge our batteries for tomorrow's excursion.
Think of Seville and you probably think of oranges or marmalade, but we quickly learned that it is a treasure trove of things to see and admire. The Cathedral architects said they would build it so big and magnificent that future generations would think them mad. Well these crazies certainly took on one of the most ambitious medieval projects and succeeded in constructing the largest gothic cathedral in the world. The nave and Christopher Columbus' tomb are two of the many highlights we were able to feast our eyes on, whilst our guide whispered a string of interesting facts into our personal earpieces. The Alcázar has been remodelled many times over the centuries but we could still see the heavy moorish theme to the architecture, which is still a royal palace.
Our refreshment break in the Jewish quarter gave the ladies a shock when their sangria arrived in pints rather than the expected modest glass (none got left though). The Plaza de España is hard to describe in a few words. Built for the 1929 Expo to showcase Spain’s industry and technology exhibits, its a mixture of columns, arches, mosaics, towers, bridges and horse drawn carriages that clip clop over cobblestones around the central fountain. You really just have to see this for yourself. Seville proved to be one of those places where a day trip is merely a taster and we will be back for a more extensive visit.
Back onboard the Sun Deck is a fantastic place to take the cocktail of the day, be served caviar canapés and watch the sun set as the white sails billow in a gentle breeze. Our BBQ dinner that evening turned into another impromptu party on the main deck. What a privilege it was for our small group of many nationalities to dance the night away on an intimate dance floor, as we sailed to our next port with a cooling breeze in our hair, in the middle of the ocean.
Jerez means sherry and the city is obsessed with it, even removing the humble cockerel from a weathervane and replacing it with a bottle of sherry. We visited one of the largest producers, Bodegas Gonzales Byass but more famously known for its Tio Pepe brand. Our tour started with a short film outlining the history and process that led to the products of today. A guided tour of the Bodega’s racks of oak barrels included an explanation of the blending process that ensures the consistency of the product each year. Barrels were on display, signed by celebrity visitors over the years, including football royalty Bobby Charlton in 1966. A tasting opportunity was the hard part of the visit (not really) and a fitting finale.
Our base in Cadiz was largely as a launchpad for our excursions to Seville and Jerez but fortunately Panorama's dock gave us easy access for a brief exploration. Said to be the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in Europe its layout and fortifications provided the inspiration for many of Spain's excursions in the Americas. The producers of the James Bond movies thought so too, as the shots of Halle Berry wearing a bikini in Cuba in Die Another Day were actually shot in Cadiz.
As calm seas rocked us gently to sleep, Panorama II took us out of Spain and into Portugal and in the morning we awoke in Portimao. Our excursion took us to Silves, home to one of the best preserved moorish castles in the Algarve. As well as walking the fortress walls with great views of the surrounding countryside, we saw the deep well and 5m water cistern built in the 12th century, claimed to be able to supply the castle with water for a whole year when full. Perhaps most notable are the large (government protected) stork nests that are everywhere in the town. So whenever there is a wall, post or a chimney, (even if its all that remains of a derelict house) there is normally a stork and nest on top of it which cannot be moved or destroyed.
I also loved the way the council jazzed up their street utility boxes, with each displaying a unique piece of street art.
From Silves we moved on to Monchique, a small town on the Monchique mountainside. The town is known for its fiery medronho (a liquor made from the fruits of the Arbutus tree), cork products and impressive life-size bronze sculptures.
Variety delivered another great cruise with impeccable service by the Captain and his crew. This was combined with the interesting and enjoyable company of our fellow passengers, in an intimate environment.
What a great way to explore this stretch of coastline and in 2018 the itinerary will get even better when it will cruise up the river to Seville to include Tangiers in Morocco
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