Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Last Day of the Adriatic Explorer

Thursday, 18 August 2011. The Thomson Spirit arrives into Gruz, the port for the Croatian city of Dubrovnik.

As it's our last day we'll have a last look at the ship itself! Once again we have decided not to go on an arranged excursion. This means for the first time ever we have done an entire cruise without paying for excursions! Dubrovnik is an hour's walk apparently. We'll set off and see where we get to!

The last time we were in this port, there was a lot of building work going on to extend the wharf. We are docked on a bit that didn't exist the last time and we have to walk the length of the harbour.

Halfway down we come to this excellent replica galleon, the Karaka. Well, it's not a galleon apparently, but a replica of a 16th century carrack. I suspect they weren't fitted with the same sort of luxuries in the 1500s somehow, but it certainly looked wonderful and you can find out more on the Karaka website complete with some beautiful photos of her under sail.

We walked all the way to the end of the harbour and there found that the street signs for Dubrovnik were a little open to interpretation... Our map that we had picked up didn't help as the harbour was too far away from Dubrovnik to be shown.

There was a peninsular heading back on the other side of the harbour for as far as we had walked already and more and I suspected Dubrovnik was probably on the other side of it. Taking the short cut over the peninsular instead of round it looked as though it involved one hell of a climb! Besides... it was very nice on the harbourside! We sat on a bench and watched what there was to watch for half an hour and then ambled back up to the ship. (Maybe as well - I was wrong about Dubrovnik being over the hill - it was along the road in the same direction we had been walking.)

That's twice I've been to Gruz and not been into Dubrovnik... Ah well! Third time may prove to be lucky! We sail out at 5:00pm, heading out through the channels and islands and past the suspension bridge over the river.

The large ferries were nowhere to be seen here. Just an older small steamer heading across to one of the islands. We ate once more in the Compass Rose restaurant where Thomas and Fred were watching out for us, to wave us into our chairs.

Then we headed for the Horizons Bar where the harmony group New Dimension were playing their usual ballads. "Is it rock and roll night tonight?" I asked as I walked in. I'd asked this about three nights running and it had become a standing joke. However tonight they went into a conflab for a while and then - Blue Suede Shoes!!! Who would have guessed! They all laughed as I got up and salaamed them.

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Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Rain Stops Play at Garstang

Such a shame. We had played around an hour or an hour and a half and then the heavens opened at Garstang's Music and Arts Festival yesterday.

Unlike Saturday when we covered up for a bit and then played again, Monday turned into a steady non-stop downpour and we had to move the equipment to a dry place and then try to dry it all off. Definitely not the place to be using electricity out in the open!

Thanks to the people who came to see us - especially those who had come some way especially. A couple came and he introduced himself as Hughie - they had seen us on the Internet and come all the way from Manchester. Another family had come from Blackburn after seeing us at other events and some had come down from Lancaster.

It was lovely to meet and talk with you all and we were as disappointed as anyone at not being able to carry on. We hope to see you at future events. Our dates can be found in the left hand column of the band's blog.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Split the Night!

Wednesday, 17 August 2011. Once again we are given time and opportunity to view our port of call at night.

Once again it makes a beautiful scene. We are in Split, Croatia. The last entry dealt with our day in this rapidly recognised tourist destination and we are now standing on the Promenade Deck (Deck 6) of our cruise ship, the Thomson Spirit.

To our left there is still a little colour in the sky although the sun, a while since, dipped beneath the horizon. As we stand looking over the peaceful scene, a number of ferries enter and leave the port.

This doesn't detract from the peace or the aesthetic beauty of the place - the ferries are quiet and at the first or final few metres of their journey they are gliding slowly past. They all bear their company name Jadrolinija in bold letters on their side. There are lots of islands around this area and many are tourist destinations.

We stood out on deck until the pangs of hunger assailed us - that doesn't normally take too long with me to be honest, but I stave them off tonight. This was, after all, the last port that we would be in at night on the cruise. In fact we only have one port of call left! Dubrovnik will be our port tomorrow.

Tonight in the Compass Rose restaurant it is the night for a traditional event on cruise ships - the Parade of the Baked Alaska! It is a feature of every cruise and, seeing as this will be the twelfth time we have clapped along and enjoyed the beaming faces of a line of waiters holding aloft a flaming pudding, I thought it was time to research what it was all about...

The pudding is ice cream on a cake bed and then encased in a baked meringue. A frozen middle that has to remain frozen whilst the meringue is cooked. Still a feat now, but imagine when there were no refrigerators! Apparently Baked Alaska was first created by Delmonico's restaurant in New York following the acquisition of Alaska by America from Russia on March 30, 1867. How they baked the meringue without the ice cream melting and without the aid of little gas aerosol flame throwers I don't know. They must have called in all the local plumbers with their paraffin burners...

Anyway whether you like the dessert or not makes no difference. This is an event that livens up the waiters' week. That much is obvious from their faces. And these guys and girls work some serious hours on your behalf. And it's a bit of fun and you've got to be a cynical old meanie not to enjoy it!

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Sunday, 28 August 2011

Split, Croatia

Wednesday 17 August 2011. The Thomson Spirit sails into dock in Split, Croatia.

Again, just by walking a few yards from the ship, we find ourselves standing outside the old city walls. The walk along the waterfront is beautiful and there are benches every few yards. (Blackpool are you paying attention?)

Quite a bit of the city wall and some of the older buildings have been lost here during one spell of fighting or another. This is the gate through which we entered the old part of the city.

It enters next to the Cathedral of St Duje. The old city of Split is built over a Roman Palace, built as the retirement home of Emperor Diocletian in AD 305 (actually the first Roman Emperor to retire rather than die or be overthrown).

The city is typical of medieval towns with a number of narrow streets leading to squares or piazzas.

This one was particularly beautiful, mainly for the decorated building facing us. Behind us though was an extremely early clock tower and clock.

It was a popular stop on guided tours as several were jostling for position and I even got stepped on by one woman, camera glued to her eye instead of looking where she was going. She was in her twenties and very pretty and apologised profusely in French which shocked me so much (normally the French would just glare at you for getting in the way) that I smiled at her and offered the other foot...

Once again it was somewhat warmer than it gets in Blackpool! We made our way out of the old city and down to one of the benches on the seafront before strolling back to the ship for our last afternoon.

Why does time go so much faster when you are on holiday?!?

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Dodging the Weather at Garstang

We wondered how we would get on yesterday, but apart from one very short period where we had to cover up, the rain skirted round us and the sun tried its best to make an appearance!

Even the wooden kingfisher had its warm clothing on!

Anyway, although quieter than the previous Saturday there were a number of people out and about and we had a sizeable crowd during the last hour of our set.

Creeping Bentgrass will be back in Garstang on Bank Holiday Monday for the third of our three appearances at Garstang Music and Arts Festival.

Friday, 26 August 2011

One More Time in Venice

Tuesday, 16 August 2011. We have, I must admit, been here before. So, as I don't want to repeat myself and bore my readers (Heaven forbid!) I decided we would stay away from St Mark's Basilica, the Bridge of Sighs and the Rialto Bridge and look at some things I haven't shown before.

However, just to keep everyone happy and so as not to disappoint, here is a shot from the deck of Thomson Spirit of St Mark's with the bell tower, basilica and Doges' Palace. The Bridge of Sighs is just off to the immediate right but was surrounded by screens and scaffolding.

Having been before, we decided to forsake the ship's offer of an excursion and even the special boat solely for Thomson passengers and instead saved around sixteen pounds by buying return tickets for a water bus that picked us up right next to the ship. The excursion boat would have cost us forty pounds for the two of us and we would have been stuck to the allotted return time. The water bus cost us twenty six Euros. Having said this, we knew we had to come back fairly early so as not to arrive for the final returning boat only for it to be full! Everyone who misses sailing time has gone ashore independently! It is an expensive thing to do, missing a ship...

So this time we had a walk around the arcade which surrounds three sides of St Mark's Square. Florian's Restaurant had a small combo doing their refined thing outside, seen here as I walked behind them in the arcade. Usually they play classical or opera pieces. For some reason we got there in time to hear the final bars of Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da... Just the thing to bring medieval Italy to mind!

The arcade shops include several narrow booths, part of the restaurant where customers can sip their champagne or espresso.

Of the actual shops, jewellers are the most represented traders. Miss Franny was paying close attention to these and I curried a bit of favour by purchasing a matching necklace and earring set of Murano glass.

We have walked away from St Marks here and cross a street that looks down towards the lagoon of Venice.

Now, whether I've shown gondolas before or not, you can't visit Venice without doing a spot of gondola gazing. They are everywhere, from the lagoon shore at St Marks to piazzas where canals meet, to the Rialto Bridge. And at all points in between, gliding down narrow canals and under tourist-filled bridges.

"James behave! We're being filmed!"
"Oh, not again...!"

We just gave up on direction and wandered down the side of canals and along shopping streets until we were hopelessly lost. I knew where we were roughly but we couldn't find ourselves on the map. The map had all the street names. The streets have all the names of the piazzas... It gave us a fresh perspective.

Bits of street furniture brightened up the sometimes quite dingy alleyways. Such as this wonderful apartment building collection of doorbells. Then we found ourselves back at St Marks Square and headed down the lagoon front to a pavement cafe where we could enjoy a cool drink and a spell of people watching. I've always found that knowing how to count up to five and say please and thank you will get you a long way. I know only a very little Italian beyond that, but have never had a problem. They all speak excellent English anyway, but appreciate you making the effort.

Then we made our way back to the water bus station and waited for a boat back to the Thomson Spirit. Sailing out of Venice on a cruise ship is one of the great cruising experiences. It also brings home to you how big these huge ships are. The Thomson Spirit is tiny next to some of them but even on that - we were up on the highest deck which is Deck 10 - we could look over the rooftops of Venice and pick out a few decidedly wonky-looking church towers!

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Thursday, 25 August 2011

A Day in Koper, Slovenia

Monday, 15 August 2011. After a day at sea, whilst we sailed north past Croatia and other bits of what used to be Yugoslavia, the Thomson Spirit arrives at a country that we've never been to before. We dock at Koper in Slovenia and find ourselves with an easy walk from the ship's gangplank into the heart of the medieval city.

Koper sits on the opposite corner at the top of the Adriatic Sea, across from Venice. Just a bit south of the speedboat chase in From Russia With Love!. Again we are docked just opposite the city wall with a very short walk into the main parts of the city.

The Venetians in Medieval times were the dominant naval force in the Mediterranean and many ancient cities along the coasts of the Adriatic show significant Venetian influence. You can spot the Ventian winged lion on the front of the Praetorian Palace, on the site of two earlier municipal halls. One was here from 1254 but was destroyed during a revolt in 1348. Its replacement hadn't been finished by 1380 when a raid from Genoa destroyed it and the rest of the city. The present palace was started in 1452.

Facing it across the square is the Loggia Palace parts of which date back to 1462 with an upper storey added two hundred years later.

Aside from the usual ways of getting around a town - walking, taxis, etc., there were several horse-drawn carriages waiting by the port. One of these catches up to us with a family from the ship onboard.

The old part of Koper isn't that big, but has plenty of interesting sights. Leaving the main square we pass into narrow streets paved with marble.

We came across this railed off drinking fountain with two entrances governed by turnstiles to stop children rushing in and out. It works - as the child who tried it whist we were there banged his head on the turnstile and stopped running quite abruptly!

A nicely ornate street lamp bracket.

A beautiful medieval town house, though with rather more modern windows on the ground floor!

We are getting close to the coast. A large courtyard with a fountain lies behind an arcade that could be a market or just a meeting place.

We pass through to leave the old town a different way than we had gone in and found ourselves faced by a very attractive view of the Adriatic and a marina.

We sat for a while on a bench and applied a bit more sun lotion in order to fry rather than roast... It was H-O-T! So we were tickled to find this framework blasting out jets of frosty mist! By the time you had walked through the heat dried off any moisture that you may have picked up!

Behind it was a shopping centre and this delightful fountain, ringed by more benches. We sat on one and Fran packed me off to buy ice creams from a stall on the marina. Another couple from the ship came out of the shopping centre and sat staring at the air conditioning jets. "Don't you get wet?" the woman asked suspiciously, whilst moaning about how hot it was.

We walked back to the ship and came to this resort area. It was absolutely crowded with people of all ages, sunbathing, sitting, swimming in the cordoned part of the sea whilst a massive container ship nudged its way past only a few yards away. We walked through to get to the ship. Fran pointed me the way past a couple of girls sitting on the grass with their backs to us. They had bikini bottoms on but nothing else. I sighed... Now to show my mature character by not turning round as I walked past. I strong-heartedly strode past them.

"Can we get that way?" asked Fran. Oh... damn... I had to turn to answer her... Gorgeous that woman...

We spent the afternoon lazing about the ship. Koper is so close to Venice - our destination for tomorrow - that we again had a chance to take photos as darkness fell. On one side of the ship, the large container ship had docked and already was lighter by about a third of its cargo of containers.

On the other side a lone excursion coach stood on the dockside in front of Koper's city wall.

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Playing Like High-Speed Gas!

Yesterday we played for the British Gas Pensioners following an excellent meal at the Elgin Hotel, Blackpool.

Both David and Jeannie used to work for British Gas so we were invited to dine with them and the Elgin put on a superb meal. I have to praise their staff and manager too, who were so pleasant and accomodating it was a pleasure to be there.

We played two sets and David had devised a little extra involvement for the audience. As we played our country and folk set, he had distributed a list of all the pop and rock songs we do from the late 50s upwards and audience members were able to vote for their favourites for us to play in the second set.

It worked very well and some brave souls ventured out of the 60s voting enough to include both Westlife and Take That songs that we included.

All in all we enjoyed ourselves every bit as much as the audience and the Committee were full of praise for us afterwards which was very nice too!