Sunday, April 29, 2018 Lisbon, Portugal
We all converged on the city of Lisbon, at the mouth of the Tagus River, to explore one of the most historically and culturally rich regions on the planet: the coast of western Europe. We all arrived and checked into the Tivoli Lisboa Hotel after our various journeys, and met for a cocktail party in the evening, followed by a welcome dinner. We caught up with old friends from previous trips, and met many new acquaintances as well. Expedition Leader Mike Messick and Cruise Director Kelsey Simmons welcomed us, before we headed to bed for some well-deserved rest.
Monday, April 30
Lisbon Embark Ocean Adventurer
After breakfast we set out 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 Belém— Portuguese for Bethlehem—to see some of its most impressive monuments. The setting on the banks of the broad River Tagus was the point from which Vasco da Gama departed for India in 1497, and Pedro Álvares Cabral departed for Brazil in 1499.
We admired the outside of the impressive Jerónimos Monastery, with its intricately decorated façade, as well as the Torre de Belém, which was a fortified lighthouse constructed to guard the entrance to the port. 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 Belém.
We then drove into Alfama, the oldest district of Lisbon. Its name is derived from the Arabic Al- hamma, which means fountains or baths. While the 1755 Lisbon earthquake caused considerable damage throughout much of the capital city, Alfama survived with little damage, thanks to its compact labyrinth of narrow streets and small squares. We walked through streets of beautifully tiled houses to a quaint restaurant where we feasted on cod cakes and sipped local wine. A group of Fado musicians played traditional Portuguese guitars and sang dramatic and nostalgic songs of love, loss, and Lisbon life.
From there, it was just a short drive to the dock, where we were welcomed aboard the Ocean Adventurer, our home for the next two weeks. We sailed down the Tagus in the afternoon sunshine with sweeping views of Lisbon, and made our way into the Atlantic Ocean.
Tuesday, May 1 Porto
Situated along the Douro river estuary in northern Portugal, Porto is one of the oldest European centers, and its historic core was proclaimed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996. 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.
We toured the city center on foot with our guides, going past the impressive Torre dos Clérigos, once the tallest building in the country, and past the bookstore where author JK Rowling once worked, and whose staircase inspired her writing. We then visited the magnificent São Benito Train Station to admire the white and blue tile work inside. Following some free time wandering the streets or stopping in a café for “pastel de nata” (Portugal’s signature pastry), we shared stories over a delicious lunch served in an iron market hall.
After lunch we visited Cockburn Cellar, for a guided tour of its cavernous cellars and an introduction to port wine. 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 yet another view of this most original of cities.
Wednesday, May 2
Vilagarica, Spain / Santiago de Compostela / A Coruña
We docked at Vilagarcia and drove through the green rolling hills of Galicia, the land of the Celts, on our way to Santiago de Compostela. The light rain had stopped by the time we arrived, and we started our exploration of the area in the impressive cathedral square of this extraordinary pilgrim town.
The city has its origin in the shrine of Saint James the Great, now the city's cathedral, as destination of the Way of St. James, a Catholic pilgrimage route originated in the 9th century, and still followed by thousands of pilgrims each year. As we visited the main sights of the city, a constant stream of backpackers, mostly concealed beneath their colorful rain parkas, made their way into the square, the final stop on their journey on foot, which for some of them may have been hundreds of miles in length!
Our guides led us into the ancient Romanesque part of the great cathedral. 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 discarded when the cathedral was later modernized. Many of us joined the crowds, including hundreds of pilgrims, for the mass at noon. The sound of the organ was spectacular, as was the swinging of the giant censor, hurtling back and forth almost to the roof high above our heads and billowing great puffs of incense.
Following the service, we gathered in the courtyard of Hostal dos Reis Católicos, founded in 1492 by the Catholic Monarchs as lodging for the pilgrims. There we sipped wine and snacked on tapas
while watching a magnificent show of Galician dancing in the courtyard. That was just the hors d’oeuvre to a Galician lunch, after which Olga Stone played some Spanish classical pieces on the piano.
We then drove on to a town on the north coast called A Coruña, where we walked up to the Tower of Hercules, the oldest working lighthouse in the world, and enjoyed an excellent dinner overlooking the water before reboarding the ship.
Thursday, May 3 At Sea
We awoke to beautiful blue skies and calm seas, and sipping a cup of coffee along the railing was the perfect start to what would prove to be a very educational day. Those of us up early joined John Yersin in the library for Stretch and Groan, a bit of exercise to start the day.
Madalena Patacho gave the first lecture of the day entitled, The Lungs of the Mediterranean, during which she highlighted the beautiful cork oak forests of Portugal. Rich Pagen followed with his very entertaining trip through the various ways fish and invertebrates pass on their genes, in a talk entitled, Sex on and off the Beach: Reproduction and Raising Young in the Aquatic Realm.
After lunch we spent some time out in the glorious sun on deck, while some chose a little catnap before the afternoon lectures. Jim Wilson introduced us to the Backyard Birds of Coastal Europe, and then Olga spoke about explorers of discovery from the Iberian Peninsula in her talk, Rivers of Gold and Spices: Iberian Expansion Overseas.
Following a very entertaining recap which John wrapped up with some hilarious joke telling, we gathered in the dining room for yet another delicious meal.
Friday, May 4
Bordeaux, France / Saint Émilion
We awoke as the pilot boat came alongside the Ocean Adventurer, and many of us spent the morning watching our transit through the estuary all the way up to the city of Bordeaux. The scenery was stunning, as was the architecture as the captain effortlessly tied the ship alongside the dock right in the middle of the city.
Those of us interested in a day of nature exploration headed out to the Le Teich Bird Reserve, situated along the coast of the Bay of Archachon. The scenery at this wetland reserve was beautiful, and highlights of our visit included singing nightingales, great views of white storks on nests, and green frogs in the marsh. Following our visit, we visited an oyster farm, for which the area is famous.
Some of us drove out through rolling countryside to the famous little hilltop town of Saint-Émilion. The town’s 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 culminating in an extraordinary and enormous underground church, the largest in Europe, worthy of a discovery by Indiana Jones! We also visited a winery in the countryside, learning about the wine-making techniques and sampling some of the local wine.
Others of us opted to explore the city of Bordeaux itself. We saw the historical downtown area with its fine streets and sumptuous merchants’ houses on the river bank, visited its ancient Gothic cathedral, and learned how the city was adapting to the modern world, creating a center without automobiles and an advanced tram system with no overhead wires. Bordeaux proved to be a vibrant city, with countless people out riding bikes, skateboarding, or strolling the promenade along the river.
Many of us took the opportunity to go out for dinner or drinks in town, which looked beautiful all lit up at night!
Saturday, May 5
La Rochelle / Poitevin Marsh
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 charming white city. 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.
Some of us then went 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. Others visited a WWII museum located in a former German underground bunker, right in the heart of the city center. This bunker was used as a refuge by the German Kreigsmarine officers, and the museum represents what life was like in La Rochelle during the Second World War.
Those who were interested in exploring the wetlands and waterways of the region visited the Poitevin Marsh, often described as “the green Venice.” There 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 wrens, blue tits, and many other bird species.
Back on the ship, we watched Ocean Adventurer’s passage back out of the harbor through the lock system, before sailing through the night to the city of Brest.
Sunday, May 6 Brest
We awoke to calm seas and the occasional Manx shearwaters darting in front of the ship. After breakfast, we joined Olga for her presentation, The Split France: Catholics and Huguenots of La Rochelle. This was followed by a dose of British history presented by Steve Fisher, entitled, Britain’s Moat. After lunch, we went out on deck as the west coast of France came into view, including its westernmost point, Point Mathieu.
We disembarked under glorious blue skies for an exploration of Brest. Some of us explored the city of Brest itself, stopping first at an imposing castle with twin turrets that now houses 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.
Then we visited the city’s beautiful botanical garden. We enjoyed wandering the paths among lush vegetation, lakes, and waterfalls, all the while in the company of bird song. Many of the plants here were endangered species. We then retreated to the garden’s creperie, where we were served traditional Breton pancakes, apple juice, and sparkling cider.
Others of us enjoyed a wonderful cliff walk along the seaside, observing a breathtaking display of spring flowers. A pair of peregrine falcons nested in one steep rocky ravine, while a colony of choughs nested in another. These distinct relatives of crows have long down-curved red beaks. Following our hike, we sampled delicious cider and biscuits.
Monday, May 7
Saint Malo / Mont Saint-Michel
The sea was like glass as the pilot boat appeared out of the diffuse fog to come alongside the Ocean Adventurer. We met Mike in the lounge for a briefing about the day’s exploration of Mont Saint-Michel and Saint Malo, as well as our plans for the following day in Jersey. We then relaxed over a most delicious brunch prepared by our executive chef and the hotel department.
We watched as the ship went through the lock, and into the inner harbor at Saint Malo. Due to the huge tides in this part of the world (46 feet!), this lock has come in very handy for the establishment of Saint Malo as a very important shipping port. The inhabitants of Saint Malo are called Malouins in French. From this came the Spanish name for the Islas Malvinas, the south Atlantic archipelago known in English as the Falkland Islands.
We set off for Mont Saint-Michel, one of the great monuments of France. We drove through the bocage, the green, wooded landscape of Britany and 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. We walked along the ramparts and the lower monastery gardens, back into the busy streets below, with time to shop, eat, and take in this magnificent place.
After returning to Saint Malo, many of use set out to explore the beautiful walled city on foot. Once the realm of privateers who patrolled the English Channel, Saint Malo is also known as the port from which Jacques Cartier sailed on his way to become the first European to sail up the Saint Lawrence River in what is now Canada. Some of us stayed in town to enjoy the sunset and dinner.
Tuesday, May 8
Jersey, Channel Islands
We arrived off the harbor of St. Helier, the largest town on the largest of the Channel Islands: Jersey. We sped ashore by Zodiac and set off to explore the island.
Some of us toured the city center, including the central square with its glittering statue of George II, as well as the Victorian Vegetable Market. We visited the excellent museum of Jersey, which went through the panoramic history of the island. A high point was the restored merchant’s house, authentically presented with no artificial lighting, that recreated, room by room, the history of a wealthy local family in Victorian times. After that we went on to the Maritime Museum, which contained a fascinating display on the island’s nautical heritage. We also saw the moving Resistance Tapestry, which vividly recalled the island’s suffering in WWII.
Others of us 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 including hunting marsh harriers, and flocks of swallows plucking insects from just above the water. We also roamed the huge sandflats at low tide and warmed up inside a café overlooking the sea.
After lunch, we visited Noirmont Point with its bunkers and gun installations. We then went on to one of the island’s war tunnels, nearly 1,000 feet of subterranean chambers dug by the Germans using slave labor. Inside was an incredible museum that showcased a series of exhibition rooms that fascinated us all with its vivid presentation of life in Jersey under Nazi occupation.
Wednesday, May 9 Sark / Guernsey
Under glorious and sunny conditions, we arrived by Zodiac to Sark, coming ashore in its tiny harbor tucked behind a small seawall. Sark is one of the few remaining places in the world where
cars are banned from roads and only tractors and horse-drawn vehicles are allowed. In 2011, Sark was designated as a Dark Sky Community, and the first Dark Sky Island in the world! The “toaster” tractors took us up the hill to the central plateau 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 through the beautiful countryside, past a church, some small restaurants and shops, and finally out to the fabulous walled garden of La Seigneurie. We made numerous stops on top of the sea cliffs, and the views of the rugged coastline were nothing short of spectacular! We then gathered out in the late morning sun for cream tea, and luckily we had learned from John what to put on the scone first, the jam or clotted cream.
The Ocean Adventurer repositioned over lunch, and soon we were out on the Zodiacs and zipping ashore to St. Peter Port on the island of Guernsey. Festivities for Liberation Day were well underway, with live music and food vendors everywhere! Some of us began a walking tour up at Candie Gardens, where the view out over the town and surrounding islands was magnificent. After wandering the lush gardens, we visited an art gallery and the Guernsey Museum. From there, we walked through the city, learning about Guernsey’s colorful past—a history of fishing, privateering, and battling with the French.
Others set out along a lovely coastal path through scented bluebell woods, with views over the sea far below; or roamed around town on our own, to shop or sample a local ale. We returned to the ship by Zodiac at the end of the day, just in time to watch an incredible fireworks display over the harbor.
Thursday, May 10 Normandy, France
We arrived back in France this morning, and docked at Cherbourg for a day in historic Normandy. Our first stop was the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, liberated by the US 82nd Airborne Division. A parachute and a model parachutist still dangled from the church spire as a memorial to a famous incident there.
From there we drove to Omaha Beach, part of the largest seaborne invasion in history. It was on this beach, and several others along the coast of Normandy, that Allied forces landed on June 6, 1944 to invade German-occupied France and begin the liberation of northwestern Europe from Nazi control. We then visited the American cemetery, where the 9,000 white marble crosses and stars of David in neat rows made a deep impression on all of us.
We then visited the seaside town of Arromanches, site of the two Mulberry Harbor operations, where temporary portable harbors were developed to facilitate the rapid offloading of cargo onto beaches during the Allied invasion. We ate lunch at a seaside restaurant with massive windows looking out at the remains of the five-mile-long arc of breakwater.
Following lunch, we saw the famous Bayeux Tapestry, brought to life by first rate interpretation on our audio guides. We then enjoyed some free time in the town of Bayeux, listening to organ music in the beautiful cathedral, or snacking on crepes in a local café.
Friday, May 11
Portsmouth, UK / Disembark
During the early morning hours, the Ocean Adventurer pulled into Portsmouth Harbor. We had reached the end of our exploration of coastal western Europe. The final days of this expedition were dominated by reflection on all we had seen and experienced, and celebration of the friends, both new and old, we shared this journey with.