2016 Discoveries of Coastal Europe Field Report

Roger Crowley|July 20, 2016|Field Report

Thursday & Friday, May 12 & 13, 2016 - Lisbon, Portugal / Embark Sea Adventurer

We checked into the Intercontinental Lisbon after our various journeys and met for a wine reception in the evening, followed by a welcome dinner. We caught up with old friends from previous Zegrahm trips, and met new acquaintances. Expedition Leader Mike Messick and Cruise Director Kelsey Simmons, welcomed us to Portugal, before we headed to bed for some well-deserved rest.

After breakfast we set out by bus in three groups for our morning exploration of the city. Our guides led us through the background of Portugal’s history as we drove out to the iconic suburb of Belem—Portuguese for Bethlehem—to see some of its most impressive monuments. The setting on the banks of the broad River Tagus was the point of departure for Portugal’s great voyages to India. We admired the outside of the impressive Jeronimos Monastery, with its intricately decorated façade, and drove past the fortress of the Belem Tower, looking out over the river. We stopped to inspect the Monument of the Discoveries, adorned with figures of great Portuguese heroes, and had the chance to stand on a giant world map of the places to which the Portuguese sailed from Belem.

We drove into the heart of the old town, through streets of tiled houses to view the Church of Sao Roque. One group went on by coach to St. George’s Castle, climbing through narrow cobbled streets to reach the citadel that had once been Roman, then Arab, and finally captured by the Christian kings of Portugal. From its ramparts we had a magnificent panorama of the city. Others took a walking tour, some using the funicular railway to descend the steep slopes of the city center. We met up for a typical Portuguese lunch below the castle, and were entertained as we ate by a group of fado musicians playing traditional Portuguese guitars and singing dramatic and nostalgic songs of love, loss, and Lisbon life.

It was then just a short drive to the dock and a welcome aboard the Sea Adventurer. We sailed down the Tagus in the afternoon sunshine with sweeping views of Lisbon, as we made our way into the Atlantic Ocean.

Saturday, May 14 - Porto

We set off by bus along the seafront and towards the heart of Porto, passing the banks of the Douro, Portugal’s largest river, to reach this city of sturdy granite, a contrast to the lightness of Lisbon. We toured the city center with our guides on foot, going past the impressive Torre dos Clérigos, once the tallest building in the country, and the Casa Oriental, a shop hung outside with dried cod, the traditional national food, then into the amazing São Bento station. Its entrance hall was decorated with enormous tile pictures of heroic moments from the country’s history and scenes from local life. Free time in the square gave some of us the chance to visit McDonald’s, not for the food, but more for the iconic 1930s stained glass and decor. From there, the bus took us past the Majestic Café where JK Rowling started to write Harry Potter, to a convivial lunch in the iron market hall.

The afternoon saw us crossing the river on a bridge designed by a student of Eiffel, into the Gaia district, home of the port warehouses for which the city is famous. Some of the picturesque old wooden port boats lay at anchor and we had fine views of the houses and monuments of Porto stacked up on the hills opposite. Our first stop was a visit to the home of Sandeman port, for a guided tour of its cavernous cellars, with a guide dressed in the striking outfit of the company’s logo—a black hat and cape. We were led through the mysterious, sweet-smelling depths of the vaults, past oak barrels varying in size up to the gigantic, and racks of ancient bottles of highly valuable vintages labeled with dates stretching back a century. The lengthy process of production and aging was explained to us, before we had the chance to try for ourselves and even purchase! Our tour ended with a river boat trip along the Douro, which gave us the chance to get another view of this most original of cities.

Sunday, May 15 - Vilagarcia, Spain / Santiago de Compostela / La Coruña

We docked at Vilagarcia and drove through the green rolling hills of Galicia, the land of the Celts, on our way to Santiago. We arrived on a quiet Sunday morning in the impressive cathedral square to begin our tour of this extraordinary pilgrim town. Our guides led us into the great cathedral, entering its ancient Romanesque part. 

We found ourselves in a world of darkness and glittering gold. We got to touch the statue of St. James, the desire of every pilgrim, and to file past the magnificent gold tomb of the saint. We toured the rest of the building and its museum, a repository of medieval statues, all placed here when the cathedral was modernized. After a short tour of the surrounding streets some of us squeezed back into the cathedral, along with hundreds of pilgrims in their distinctive scarves from all over Europe, for the mass. It began with the swinging of a giant censor, hurling back and forth almost to the roof high above our heads and billowing great puffs of incense. The service proceeded with magnificent singing. Out in the cathedral square the sun was shining, the sky was blue, and we were entertained by a magnificent show of Galician dancing in the courtyard of the old pilgrim hostel, the Hostal dos Reis Catolicos, while drinking wine and eating tapas. That was just the hors d’oeuvre to a Galician lunch, rounded off with a fiery cauldron of local spirit, introduced by an equally dramatic incantation delivered by Jack Grove. The sun was out and we enjoyed strolling in the afternoon streets with the pilgrims now thronging the squares. A change of ship position meant we had longer in Santiago, before a bus tour of the impressive town of La Coruña, a walk up to the tower of Hercules, the oldest working lighthouse in the world, and an excellent dinner laid on at short notice by a waterfront hotel.

Monday & Tuesday, May 16 & 17 - At Sea / Bordeaux, France

Our day began with calm seas and schools of dolphins swimming alongside. T.H. Baughman’s highly entertaining account of The Life of Henry IV, King of Navarre started off our lecture program of the day, and Jim Wilson followed with an illustrated talk on the shore birds of Europe. Recap brought out the acting skills of Little John Yersin and Mike Murphy as Admiral Nelson and Hardy, trying to run a ship and fight the enemy according to modern politically correct guidelines.

The next morning we pulled into Bordeaux; some headed over to the vast wine-growing lands of Medoc, past marshes, vineyards, and woods. From there, one group headed for Bordeaux itself for a tour of this magnificent city straddling the river Garonne. They saw the historic downtown, visited the ancient Gothic cathedral, and learned how the city was adapting to the modern world, creating a center without cars and a tram system with no overhead wires. After lunch they visited two wineries sampling both red and white wines.

A second group drove through rolling countryside to the famous little hilltop town of Saint-Emilion, its picturesque limestone houses, churches, and old monasteries provided a great place for strolling. We were taken on a tour of mysterious subterranean chapels and catacombs, painted with religious symbols and carvings, and ended in an extraordinary and enormous underground church, the largest in Europe! We enjoyed an excellent lunch in town, followed by a drive out to the lovely Château de Pressac, where we toured an impressively high-tech winery, tasted the vintage red wine and met the chateau’s dog. This was followed by a drive-through tour of Bordeaux, before returning to the ship.

Meanwhile, after a wonderful impromptu lunch of oysters, Bordeaux wine, and cheese, the naturalists set off for La Teich Bird Reserve. They walked many trails and visited observatory hides, and were treated to a spectacular array of wet- and woodland birds such as white storks, black-winged stints, shelducks, nightingales, and Cetti’s warblers, as well as a chorus of green frogs.

Wednesday, May 18 - La Rochelle

We docked in the port of La Rochelle opposite the somber German submarine pens, a reminder of the Atlantic’s role in World War II, and drove in along the seafront while our guide told us about La Rochelle’s past as a Protestant Huguenot city subject to terrible wars, and its present reputation for sailing, tourism, and higher education. We took a walk with our guides around this pleasant white town. The arcaded streets were quiet; traffic is banned until 11:00am in the city center, which made for a relaxed atmosphere. We saw the twin towers that dominate its inner harbor and had time to stroll on our own and investigate the colorful food market where fruit, vegetables, fish, and meat were displayed in abundance. Then we boarded our bus for a short trip to the cognac producing chateau of Normandin Mercier, a family-owned business. Its ancient barrel-filled warehouse gave a rich sense of the label’s deep traditions—and we proceeded to taste three different offerings with the chance to purchase our preferences.

The second group went to Le Courton and the Poitevin marshes, where we set out in flat-bottomed punts to glide through the labyrinth of man-made channels—a very peaceful journey during which we were treated to rich birdsong and caught sight of kingfishers, song thrushes, and many more.

After lunch back on the ship we were entertained and informed by Jim’s discussion of Backyard Birds of Western Europe, and T.H.’s riveting account of World War II—and a reminder of one of the themes of our journey.

Thursday, May 19 - Brest

Some of us rose to Stretch and Groan with Little John, before two distinct lectures; Ron Wixman spoke on the relation of religion and cultures to the languages of Western Europe, then Jack discussed ocean currents. We disembarked under gray skies for an exploration of Brest. Two groups drove along the seafront of the city past its aquarium and yacht marinas, learning about the city’s strong links with the sea, before coming to the magnificent botanical gardens. We enjoyed wandering the paths among lush vegetation, lakes, birds, and waterfalls; many of the plants are endangered species. In gentle rain (or ‘mizzle’ as someone described it), we retreated to the garden’s creperie, where we were served traditional Breton pancakes, apple juice, and sparkling cider. We drove on through Brest to the imposing castle, with its twin turrets that now house the maritime museum. Here we gained a deep sense of the city’s maritime tradition as the home of the French navy. We toured the castle, climbing towers and crossing parapets to see the various exhibits before returning to the ship.

Another group enjoyed a wonderful cliff walk, observing a breathtaking display of spring flowers. We finished at a ruined monastery used as a lighthouse and sampled delicious cider and biscuits.

Friday, May 20 - Guernsey, Channel Islands

We stepped ashore in the picturesque harbor of St. Peter Port after a lively ride in Zodiacs. Two groups made their way through the town with our local guides, stopping at the church with its beautiful stained glass windows and learning about Guernsey’s colorful past—a history of fishing, privateering, and battling with the French. We wound our way up to the Candie Gardens, warm in the spring sunshine, with magnificent views over the town and surrounding islands, and strolled in its lush tropical gardens. Some of us had time for an excellent exhibition of Victor Hugo’s life on the island.

From here, two groups took a short bus trip back to the harbor and along the causeway to tour the impressive Castle Cornet, which has stood guard over the island since the 13th century. We enjoyed a traditional cream tea of clotted cream and scones under the gaze of giant portraits of Queen Victoria and other royalty connected to the island, then explored the castle with our well-informed local guides.

Another group drove across the island past several WWII German bunkers and toured the German Occupation Museum with commentaries from our excellent guides.

Some of us stayed in town to shop and explore by ourselves; others walked along lovely coastal paths through scented bluebell woods, with views over the sea far below, to picturesque Fermain Bay. We returned to the ship by Zodiac at the end of an exhilarating day.

Saturday, May 21 - Jersey / Sark Island

The weather was gray and rainy as we Zodiacked into St. Helier harbor. Two groups headed to town and toured the city center, past the yacht marina, into Constitution Square with its glittering statue of George II, and on to the museum of Jersey that unfolded the panoramic history of the island. A high point was the restored merchant’s house that recreated, room by room, the history of a wealthy local family in Victorian times. After that we went on to the Maritime Museum containing a fascinating display on the island’s nautical heritage and saw the moving Resistance Tapestry that vividly recalled the island’s suffering in WWII.

A second group went to the Jersey Wetlands Center’s state-of-the-art bird hide, a converted German bunker, and spotted a large variety of wetland birds, hunting marsh harriers, flocks of swallows, sand martins, and house martins.

A third group traveled on to the island’s War Tunnels, nearly 1,000 feet of subterranean chambers dug by slave labor, showcasing an excellent series of exhibition rooms that fascinated us all with its vivid presentation of life in Jersey under Nazi occupation.

After lunch we had a lively Zodiac ride to Sark, coming ashore in its tiny harbor where we met our friendly guides. The toaster tractor took us up the hill to begin our exploration of this magical place. Some of us set out by horse and cart, others by bike or on foot. Through quiet green lanes we made our way past the church and the one shop to the community hall, while our guides told us about daily life on the island. While the local children played outside we enjoyed a traditional Sark cream tea of scones and cucumber sandwiches in the hall, then proceeded on to the fabulous walled garden of La Seigneurie. We wandered its enchanting paths, admired the lovely floral borders and tried out the hedge maze. Some of us returned the way we’d come, others completed a circular walk looking out over fields and views of the sea, and rode our tractor back to the harbor.

Sunday, May 22 - Normandy, France / Mont Saint-Michel

We docked at Cherbourg for a day in historic Normandy. One group set out on a World War II excursion; their first stop was the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise. From there we drove to the American cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach. The 9,000 white marble crosses in neat rows made a deep impression on all of us. We drove on to the sandy beach of Arromanches, site of the Mulberry harbor operation, and visited the Landing Museum, enjoying a picnic on the nearby seawall. On our way back we saw the famous Bayeux Tapestry, brought to life by interpretation on our audio guides. We stopped at the British cemetery before returning to the ship.

A second group left early to visit Mont Saint-Michel, one of the great monuments of France. We drove through the bocage, the green, wooded landscape of Normandy. As we neared our destination, we saw the Mont, illuminated by the sun, appearing in the distance like a mirage over the flat salt marshes. We took a shuttlebus over the new causeway, the island now rising above us in tiers of ancient towers and ramparts to the great church at the summit. Our guides led us through its imposing gateway and by narrow steps and alleys upwards to the monastery that towered above us. We entered the serene Gothic church, then into its exquisite and tranquil cloister. From up here we had wonderful views over the bay and the marshes far below. We toured the medieval dining hall, kitchens, and chapels. Some of us stayed for sung mass in the church. Others walked along the ramparts and the lower monastery gardens, back into the busy streets below, with time to shop, eat, and dream. On the way back to Cherbourg we also stopped briefly at Sainte-Mère-Église.

Monday, May 23 - Brugge, Belgium / Ypres

A pleasantly mild morning saw us sailing towards the cranes and resort beaches of Ostend. We had just gathered for our group photograph on the forward deck when our preparations were disturbed by a shattering roar—we looked up to see a Belgian Air Force helicopter hovering just above us. The side door opened and three helmeted figures descended by ropes onto the deck. Despite the fact that Mike Messick denied laying on this practice boarding maneuver for our benefit, we didn’t quite believe him. A highly accomplished jazz band on the dock greeted our arrival in Belgium.

After lunch, two groups set out for the day. One went to the historic city of Brugge, the Venice of Belgium. We started with a walking tour, passing through green gardens into the heart of the city, and crossing narrow canals on small bridges to get a sense of this most exquisite medieval place. First stop was to eat deliciously light waffles, served with jam and cream, in a Brugge tea room. From there we stepped aboard tour boats to see the city from the water. We cruised down the canals, ducking under low bridges, looking up at brick houses, ancient monasteries, church spires, and squares. On return we continued on foot to the Grote Markt, the impressive central square with its merchant’s cloth hall and dominating bell tower, typical of towns across Flanders. We had time for chocolate shopping and wandering on our own before settling down to dinner in a cozy restaurant.

A second small, but hardy band of us set off in near perfect weather for the battlefields of Ypres. Our first stop was at the Canadian memorial with its haunting obelisk topped by the figure of a brooding soldier, and then on to Tyne Cot, the British cemetery, where we saw the graves of 9,000 men—and the names of 35,000 more who have no known resting place. We went on to Ypres itself to the World War I museum, which we all enjoyed. We had time to wander in the town, so badly shattered by the fighting that Churchill wanted it to be left a ruin as a permanent memorial, but subsequently rebuilt. We retired to a small and pleasant restaurant before returning to the ship.

Tuesday, May 24 - Ghent

A change to the itinerary saw us heading off on a second Belgian excursion, this time to Ghent, the sister city of Brugge—a well-chosen alteration to our original plan. Ghent turned out to be a spacious town with an extraordinary collection of buildings. We walked past the brewers’ church, down broad streets, and across wide canals, then past the lavishly sculpted gateway of the fish market, and the dominating presence of the castle of the dukes of Burgundy. From there we continued through the old meat market with hams hanging from its rafters, into a chocolate shop where we could observe chocolate making in progress, and on to the magnificent cathedral of St. Bravo. Here we admired the glowing colors of Van Eyck’s masterpiece, the tryptic of the Mystic Lamb. Along the way we learned about Charles V, who stamped his mark on the city; it was fitting to enjoy a good lunch among the period interior of the Charles V Restaurant, whilst also sampling a choice of Belgian beers.

As we sailed away from the Belgian coast in the afternoon, Jack gave a thought-provoking presentation on Climate Change, Deep Ocean Currents, and Marine Protected Areas.

Wednesday, May 25 - Amsterdam, Netherlands

This morning, some of us went on a full-day tour of The Hague and Delft; their first stop was The Hague, the country’s capital and home to the European Court of Justice. After touring the city by bus they visited the small but wonderful Mauritshuis Museum, with its rich collection of Dutch Golden Age paintings. From there it was on to the Delft pottery factory and museum, famous for its distinctive blue ceramics. After lunch in a pleasant restaurant by a lake, they toured Delft, taking in its two best churches, the big market square and its charming canals and cafes.

Another full-day excursion left to explore rural Holland. First stop was the mind-boggling Aalsmeer Flower Auction, the Wall Street of the whole-sale flower business and the largest in the world. Our bus then took us through typical Dutch countryside of pastures, dotted with farms, to the village of Zaanse Schans, where we sampled a marvelous variety of cheeses at a local factory. This was followed by a savory lunch in the village of De Koog and a three-mile bike ride through a landscape of canals, windmills, and lush vegetation—a vivid glimpse of traditional rural Holland.

Meanwhile, those of us who stayed in Amsterdam spent our morning in the Rijksmuseum, the jewel of Dutch artistic heritage. Our highly knowledgeable guides led us round the amazing hall dedicated to the cream of Golden Age painting—a century when Dutch artists produced some five million paintings—where we saw works by Rembrandt, Frans Hals, and Vermeer amongst others. The highlight at the far end of the gallery was Rembrandt’s masterpiece, ‘The Night Watch.’ After returning to the ship for lunch, we were off again for a boat tour, gliding through the city canals past tree-lined streets and rich merchants’ houses, gaining a kaleidoscopic sense of this amazing city. Some of us finished with a guided walk to a canal-side flower and bulb market.

Our day finished with an indoor barbecue, Jim’s slideshow reminding us of all we had done and seen on our Atlantic coastal journey, and the joys of packing.

Thursday, May 26 - Amsterdam / Disembark

We departed from the ship, to catch our flights home or to continue our travels elsewhere, carrying with us memories of our voyage around Europe’s stunning Atlantic coast. 

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