Thursday, June 2, 2016


After several weeks of never-ending rain with temps in the 60's, along with the relentless news onslaught about who or what Donald Trump likes or dislikes, it was time to get away from Maryland and America. Far, far away.

We booked a flight on Air Canada that conveniently left in the early afternoon on a Thursday from nearby BWI -Thurgood Marshall Airport. The price was $825 per person for a round trip ticket which was the best deal I found after tracking prices for several months.  Airfares and connections fluctuated like the stock market from day to day.  Some flights had been as high as $1,600 on United, and as low as $700 on Aeroflot, leaving from Dulles and with a twelve hour layover in Moscow. We departed at 2:30, and landed in Toronto at 4:00.  Customs and TSA were the usual endless snake lines.  Luckily, we had a three hour layover because running the security gauntlet took over two hours.  So, we just had time for a beer in the hip, high-tech International Lounge before boarding an Air Bus for Barcelona.  

We flew all night and landed eight hours later, 9 AM Barca time, at the lovely and extremely efficient Barcelona El Pratt Airport, which takes its name from the old town of El Pratt del Llobregat where it is located. The airport is only about nine miles east of the Barcelona City Center and there are many transportation options, including trains, buses, taxis and rental cars.  


Your best bet is to take the light blue AEROBUS that leaves from right below the baggage area every fifteen minutes and costs € 5.90.  It has three places to get off along the way.  If you are staying in the City Center (And why would you stay anywhere else?), you just ride the bus to the end of the line and get off at the Pla├ža de Catalyunaor Catalonia Square, the fountain-gushing and statue-adorned City Center where all the major roads converge and the old and new city meet in a riot of architectural splendor and color.  If you take a cab, it's going to cost you about € 30, and the regular city buses and trains can get a bit confusing, especially after a long flight and no sleep. We had always flown into Barcelona a few days before our cruise so we could get acclimated to Europe time and culture, but this trip we decided to fly all night, go straight from the airport to the ship and start our cruise, so the AEROBUS was not an option this time around.

We booked our cruise through Cruises Only-World Travel and snagged a great deal because we were flexible regarding our travel dates.  We were sailing on an Italian cruise ship out of Genoa called the MSC Poesia.  We had a balcony room, amidships, on the tenth deck, so we were strategically located near the dining room (sixth deck) and the cafeteria and pool (thirteenth deck).  It was a seven day cruise with stops in Marseille, France; Genoa, Italy; Naples, Italy; Messina, Sicily; Valletta, Malta; and Mallorca, in the Balearic Islands of Spain – Friday to Friday, for $905 per person.  With tips, booze and and incidentals, it probably came out to about $200 a day.  And that's cheap for a seven day cruise with a balcony.

The ship left the dock at 11 PM and we were off on our big adventure to seven world famous ports, none of which we had ever visited before. The skies were clear.  It was about 65 degrees.  A big, fat orange moon was rising below a bright red Mars.  Inna and I sat on our balcony breathing in the fresh, salty air of the Mediterranean Sea, drinking cold Estrella lager beers, and the world was our oyster.  In the space of just twelve hours, we had landed in another world.  And one quite to our liking.


The Med has an amazing climate  sunny and warm almost every day. Basically it's Ground Hog Day  sunny, no rain, low humidity, light breezes, with a high temperature of 75 and a low of 65.  After a dreary Maryland spring, it was just the ticket.

There was very little trash in the water except around the towns, and even then the water was surprisingly clean.  We spent a lot of time on our balcony staring at the sea and rarely saw any plastic or other floating debris. This is very rare indeed these days.  I covered the last four around the globe Volvo Ocean Races and the sailors' daily logs painted a very bleak picture of the world's oceans which are fast become floating garbage dumps.


The water of the Med is a deep cerulean blue, like the Caribbean, only darker.  Both get their blue color because of the low pH associated with the underlying limestone.  It is essentially a dead zone in comparison to a dark green, almost soupy estuary like the Chesapeake Bay.  And I'll take the blue waters of the Med any day, thank you.


Small, almost black, dolphins followed the ship, especially in the late afternoon, like sleek dark seals with shiny fins.

                                                               Peter Howlett

There were surprisingly few seabirds.  Usually when you are sailing out at sea, there are many different pelagic birds, like gannets, cormorants, skuas, and kittiwakes, but it was mostly common and greater black-backed gulls, and the occasional Caspian tern.  Pretty common birds.             

There is a winding, narrow road that you can take along the coast all the way from Barcelona to Croatia that passes through sleepy little seaside villages that have been frozen in time.  It would undoubtedly be an amazing adventure to spend several weeks exploring the bottom end of Europe along its stunning shoreline.  But there are places on this road that are only one lane and have sheer drop offs into the rocky sea.  So you definitely wouldn't want to drive at night.  When we retire, we plan to spend several months exploring the southern edge of Europe, just driving from village to village with no plan or destination in mind.


The Mediterranean Sea has many faces.  It's like a lake as you cruise along the southern coast of France and Italy.  Then it turns into a river as you pass through the Strait of Messina between the heel of the Italian boot and the sprawling island of Sicily.  When sailing across the larger bays between the rocky points of land, often crowned with bright red or white lighthouses, it resembles a large lagoon.  But it's not until you get away from land that the Med reveals its true nature: a blue expanse of wondrous ocean as far as the eye can see.

We spent almost every evening after dinner, sitting on our balcony, drinking beers and watching the sea and stars.  The sound of the water breaking against the ship and the wave diamonds sparkling in the moonlight had a soothing and almost dreamy effect.  I would just sit there for hours, my mind wandering like a drunken explorer.

Our thoughts were often drawn to the waves of poor immigrants fleeing the Middle East in search of salvation in Greece.  Three ships had sunk the previous day and hundreds of families, ravaged by years of savagery and war, had thrashed in helpless terror until they finally sank in submission to their watery graves.  We found ourselves crying on several occasions as we stared into the black sea and imagined what it would be like to be swimming for your life without a life jacket in such a dark wet void  no lights, no boats, no rescue – just an eternity of wind and water.  It often feels like there is an infinite meanness enveloping this world, and the Med is an unforgiving master when you are lost within its merciless grip.

One night, as I was thinking these melancholy thoughts, a small land bird, perhaps a sparrow, suddenly appeared out of the night.  It seemed desperate to land and sought a perch on the fast-moving, brightly-illuminated ship.  And like a solitary refugee from Syria in search of a safe harbor, it darted desperately, looking for an open stateroom where it might land. But everyone on board was either dancing, or dining, or gambling their happy lives away, and all of the cabin doors were locked tight.  The little speck of a bird flitted up and down, from deck to deck, along the entire length of the ship, flying toward the cabin lights until it vanished behind the ship into the darkness of the night.

Since the dawn of human history, the Mediterranean Sea has been both highway and barrier between the worlds of Islam and Christianity. It has always been a place of commerce – Greeks, Romans, Persians, Turks, French, Egyptians, Libyans, Spaniards, Africans, Syrians – they all followed the currents between the continents.   Initially, seafarers hugged the coast lines, but as ship designs improved and people learned to sail against the wind, the cultural exchange exploded – literally – for good and bad.

So here we were, sailing on a giant glimmering white cruise ship packed with over two thousand people from all around the globe, sailing luxuriously into history.

What wonders would be revealed?

1 comment :