I hqve picked up a bug on the ship, feeling a bit groggy today. Here is what I wrote over the last two days.
Sunday evening, 24th January. We are back on board after a day in Antwerp, with Frans van Dyck (descendant of the painter) and local born and bred. What a lovely city.
We did not find an internet cafe and so nothing posted covering Saturday, but I am writing this to add to the other posts and will try to get it up on Monday. These cafes which were once everywhere are now v thin on the ground, in poor or immigrant districts, or where students congregate. My method is to write things up on the little laptop and transfer it all to a flashstick then download it when I can get online. This is usually only a matter of a few minutes and a few pence. But the problem comes when we are in a place with no cafes, such as lovely, central Antwerp. I might carry this all around tomorrow to see if I can pick up a wifi patch.
Anyway, here's today's roundup, starting with our arrival in Antwerp. The ship edged its way up the R Scheldte into the sunlight, through the most amazing industrial landscape of refineries and other toxic-looking plant for miles and miles. Docking required us to turn round in the river which was accomplished almost like clockwork by a pair of tugs. Low-lying oil barges were pushing up past us. Frans was waiting for us at the quay, and eventually we were let go ashore. The preliminaries were quite amusing as the quay officials tried to get the fancy gangplank lined up and meanwhille our own crew members were tying some ropes across the gaps on either side of the walkway, and then set-dressing with some very attractive and convincing plastic white-edged fig plants.
We'd had breakfast earlier in the smart linen and glass restaurant (Ballindaloch), where the food is either buffet style or brought to you. You can order your eggs freshly fried, but the toast comes via a separate route ('Hey, Mr Toastman, you got that certain something....').
It is amazing to see the amount of food people put away...piles and piles of it. And later, when they may have been ashore to a place like Antwerp, or Cherbourg, or Bilbao or la Coruna where there are restaurants of great beauty and interest, they walk or bus into the town centre for an hour or so and then scuttle back to the ship for their free/paid-for lunch. People like us, who eat the local food as we go, are very much in the minority. There is food of some sort available almost every single moment of the day.
Frans took us for mussels and local beer. We tried to get the cathedral tour but not available today, we can go tomorrow. We walked to the raiilway station – what a fabulous job they've done restoring it, with four levels of trains all stacked inside the magnificent 1900s building. The Diamond Museum is closed for January. But we walked round the diamond district where there are millions of rather boring rings on display in the shops, and lots of diamond-cutting gear for sale in the supply shops nearby. A tram (underground) took us back to the old city where we ate waffles and drank hot chocolate. Yummy.
Tomorrow we can do a bit more looking round, and get the cathedral tour. Tonight we could be going to the Captain's final cocktail party but that would mean dressing up and somehow we just don't feel like doing that. We're all a bit tired after the cold day. At the moment there's some old Dr Who stuff on the telly. Last night as we went to sleep our neighbours knocked on our cabin wall as our tv was too loud....oh dear. We had fallen asleep watching David Attenborough talking about damsel flies and dragonflies.... such amazing closeup photography.
Cherbourg. Just back on the boat having sent off the last dispatch. A very pleasant city with lots of restoration and renewal. Street market with v expensive chickens (20 quid) and other home produce. A really surprising number of opticians shops. We had a cup of Moroccan mint tea from a charity stall, raising money for a project back in North Africa. That's the nearest we've got to Tangiers.
I am back up on the tea-deck where I wrote yesterday's bulletin, and some people are saying they paid two thousand to come on this, the captain told them to write and complain, they are sure the company knew about the bad weather before setting off, and that the papers back in England have us down as 'The Cruise to Nowhere'.
It's hard to know what stance to take...it's partly shocking and partly hilarious, partly makes you want to shrug your shoulders and partly makes you want to pick up cudgels and have a fight with someone about it. This was billed as a four-star cruise, and that's a very optimistic description. The food is really dull and repetitive. Christopher points out it's just not possible to provide food at high levels of quality for more than about 60 or 70 people. Here they are serving 1400 and it really does come out canteen style. Not four star.
In the cabin washrooms, you get liquid soap but no shower cap or handcream – though they bring it if you ask for it. Not four star.
Our friends here are saying 50 people left the ship at Bilbao, two people have been airlifted off to hospital with suspected broken vertebrae. Six ambulances at one port and seven at the other. It's not possible to verify all this, and rumours can spread, but we have heard some of this before. One guy they spoke to had bruises on his face from falling. Another man's wife had a twisted back and has had to have two steroid injections. They say the company has cleaned up with cabin service, with so many people confined to their rooms. Two people in wheelchairs toppled over. He says, unlike the RN where a captain is able to make all his own decisions, this captain is under company orders. I am sure that is right. The successful voyages of the Balmoral's sister ship Black Prince which actually crossed our path and made it to Lisbon also raises questions – why couldn't we? More seaworthy?
Now we're off – Andrew is going out to supervise. The day turned out very nice and clear, with sunshine. Also the pavements do not move around like mad under your feet...I have just had one or two ghostly unsteadinesses. Out on the deck here, the jacuzzis are in full flow with happy old people sitting in them. The pool on deck 7 is also full, with swimmers.
Tonight it's apparently a curry night. Last night's supper was billed as Red White and Blue British night, but the main food was Bratwurst and for pudding Apfelstrudel. The music was Mozart, Bach and Beethoven – all very British. The punters had put on a good show, with lots of r, w and b clothing.
Chris has just come in from supervising the departure from the dock - the pilot launch was full of photographers, so possibly the press are onto it. Time now 5.25.