Portugal with a Prince ... a cruise from port to Port
CRUISING still has something of a glamorous image, conjuring visions for many of exotic ports of call and remote, far flung destinations.
But a cruising adventure can begin far closer to home – in Liverpool, for example.
I made the two-hour hop to the city’s sprawling docklands to board the Black Prince, a Fred Olsen ship making an eight-night voyage to Portugal and back.
The plan was to take in some early spring sunshine and see some sights – although, with the weather gods largely refusing to co-operate, it was some time before the former wish was granted.
Black Prince is a relatively small cruise ship – you’ll find your way round in half an hour – and so it doesn’t have some of the facilities you may find in the bigger vessels around.
But it does make for a special friendly atmosphere that means many of the passengers seek it out for return visits.
Leaving on a Thursday evening, our first stop was not due until Saturday morning so that allowed a full day of relaxation and acclimatisation.
As on all cruise ships, the crew had planned an extensive programme of activities from quizzes and keep-fit to lectures and sessions in the health and beauty centre - although understandably things did seem geared to Black Prince’s core customer base, the over 60s.
In any event it was good to get ashore for our first port of call, La Rochelle in France’s Bay of Biscay - a place I’d only heard about due to its major U-boat base in World War II.
But what a charming city it is - its harbour framed by two tall medieval watchtowers and surrounded by walls. Imagine perhaps Chester in a maritime setting.
Ascending another of the towers which was once a prison provided some fantastic views over the whole port - though the tiny balconies at the top were not ideal for those without a head for heights. (That would be me, by the way.)
Atmospheric bars and stylish harbourside bistros made for a most pleasant day.
Sunday morning saw the Black Prince drop anchor at Bilbao on the northern coast of Spain, with a variety of excursions available.
While some went to visit the Rioja wine country, I toured a rugged city set deep in a valley which plainly is in a process of reinvention - once an industrial powerhouse, now en route to becoming a major European centre of culture.
At the heart of this strategy is the city’s ‘new’ Guggenheim Museum - new, as in almost ten years old, anyway - the Old World offshoot of its famous parent in New York.
Now, I’d seen this remarkable building before at least a couple of times on TV - after all, it’s rated by many as the most important piece of architecture produced in the last 25 years anywhere in the world - but nothing can prepare you for the ‘real thing’.
It’s an extraordinary construction, built from limestone, glass and titanium, and its sheer scale and sense of daring almost takes the breath away.
Ultimately the structure is the star, overshadowing the changing galleries of modern art within.
But this was an unmissable experience, and in many ways the highlight of the holiday - after all, I can buy a bottle of Rioja from down the ‘offy’ any old time.
As a footy fan, I knew well the name of our next destination - La Coruna, whose Deportivo team have graced many a Champions League stage.
But our time was not to be spent in the city itself, but on an excursion to one of Spain’s most important heritage sites, Santiago de Compostela.
The magnificent cathedral is the burial place of St James and the subsequent shrine became seen as one of the three most important places in Christendom - along with Rome and Jerusalem.
Today the town attracts around 100,000 pilgrims every year, plus countless more tourists.
Porto in northern Portugal was by common consent of our shore party the most attractive city on our journey, built high on the banks of a spectacular gorge close to the mouth of the River Duoro.
A boat ride was a good way to get to know the geography of the area, followed by a chance to learn more about the export which has made the city famous - and which has forged close links with the UK.
A look around Graham’s port wine cellar was followed by an opportunity to sample the drink itself - though three different varieties before lunch on an empty stomach perhaps wasn’t the best way to appreciate the subtleties of the product.
Porto is a refreshingly unspoiled place, not overstuffed with English speakers and offering some of the tastiest seafood you’ll find anywhere.
It’s also the spiritual home of Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, of whom the locals seem particularly proud.
This is a city where I could certainly spend a lot more time.
But it was time to weigh anchor - with two more days of smoother sailing on the voyage home to reflect on everything we’d seen and experienced.