BEYOND THE PROMENADE – LAS PALMAS, GRAN CANARIA

Just after lunchtime today, we arrived in Las Palmas, on the island of Gran Canaria.

The morning had been spent blog-writing and dealing with general correspondence in Scott’s Bar, and attending a talk on composition by our resident photography lecturer, Ian Butterfield.

After lunch, we headed out for a wander. Since both of us were suffering with stiff limbs from yesterdays jaunt in Funchal, we planned on it being nothing more than a gentle meander into town and a relaxed wander along the seafront. However, as we reached the end of the main touristy promenade, we just had to keep on going…

As we were meandering, we were joined by Ian the photographer, who announced that he was heading in our direction, so the three of us walked beyond the beach and the tourist shops, enjoying the change in our surroundings. The seafront became rockier and the buildings became a little more ‘lived in’. The faces we saw were more the weathered faces of locals and less the smooth, well-fed faces of cruise-ship passengers – I should say at this point that the Marco Polo was just one of three cruise ships in port today, with ours being the smallest, parked as it was alongside a large Thompson ship, which in turn seemed quite diminutive when compared to the enormous monstrosity that was the Aida Nova. Looking like several ugly blocks of flats stacked ruthlessly on top of each other in the manner of a giant game of Jenga (described rather appropriately as ‘the classic block-stacking, stack-crashing game of JENGA! How will you stack up against the law of gravity?’ – I rest my case), the Aida Nova carries a staggering 6,600 passengers to the Marco Polo’s modest 800! I know which I’d rather be sailing in… alongside both of these ugly contraptions, the Marco Polo stood out as being a truly beautiful ship.

Our unexpected, long walk concluded at an open, rocky, barren headland, far away from the hustle and bustle of Las Palmas. From this point, we could look back across the bay to where we’d come from. Here, the waves were bigger and more spectacular, and clearly favoured by small groups of surfers, who rode them in style. We spent some time clambouring over the rocks, photographing the crashing waves, and generally enjoying the sense of freedom and the fresh air.

Amazed that we’d walked so far after yesterday’s hike, and realising that the paths went further, and probably round the entire end of the wild peninsular on which Las Palmas is situated, we decided that such a marathon would have to wait for another time. Although all-aboard time wasn’t until 10:30pm, the sun was already starting to dip down towards the distant hazy mountains, and we knew that we had to get back to the ship for dinner (stopping for an ice cream along the way, from one of our favourite ice cream parlours).

Tomorrow, we will be back at sea again. There are two sea days, in fact, until we reach our next destination, Mindelo, in the Cape Verde islands on Tuesday. And it will be back to work for me; my second painting class is scheduled for tomorrow morning, when I will be having them paint a tonal study (in a single colour).

From now until we reach Brazil, internet access is also going to become unpredictable at best, occasionally non-existent, and generally flaky and frustrating, so my blog posts are likely to become a little erratic for a while.

A LITTLE FUNCHAL ADVENTURE, MADEIRA

Today, we arrived at Funchal, on the Portugese island of Madeira.

Like Lisbon, we’ve been here many times before, so our objective for the day, in light of the fact that we hadn’t been given any tour escorting duties, was to do something different, discover somewhere new.

Funchal is surrounded by mountains on three sides (on the fourth side, it looks out to sea, of course). Getting beyond them is near impossible given the time we generally have on our visits here, but today was a relatively long day (7am – 4pm all-aboard time). In preparation of our visit the night before, Tracey consulted our favourite navigation app, which we’re constantly recommending to everyone we meet; MAPS.ME. It’s a totaly free Android app for which you can download maps anywhere you happen to be in the world. Not only does it show roads, but it also highlights places of interest, and more importantly for us, it shows footpaths. It’s got us around many unfamiliar locations and out of several navigational scrapes over the years.

Madeira is well known for its ‘Lavaders’, which are ancient irrigation channels built into the hillsides. Many of them are unfortunately inaccessible, but after some serious ‘maps.me’ consultation, we decided we would take the cable car up to Monte, and then try to find our way down one or more of the footpaths that we could see on the map (backed-up, by the way, by a glance at Google Earth, on which the footpaths were clearly visible).

After taking the free shuttle bus from the terminal to the town centre, we decided to pop into the Tourist Information Centre to check that our proposed route was doable. I have to say, however, that the woman in there was not only unhelpful, but bordering on aggressive. We showed her where we were proposing to go and asked her about the footpaths, to which here constant, canned response was ‘No footpaths – no way through’. We tried to say that we’d seen the footpaths on our maps, but she grabbed the printed, tourist map in front of her and jabbed aggressively at the area we were talking about ‘no paths!’ she insisted. Blunt, then, and could do with some tips on manners, and as we exited the Information Centre, neither of us believed a word of it.

So, we walked across town and bought two round-trip tickets for the cable-car anyway (we bought return ones because there was still a vague seed of doubt that had been planted by the rude Tourist Information woman), and flew up to the top of the hill, to Monte.

The trip to the top of the hill in the cable car is always a relaxing, and enjoyable experience, and takes about twenty minutes. At the top, instead of following the general throng to look at the church and see the toboggans whisking tourists off down the hill, we turned right, towards the second cable-car that takes folks across the ravine to the Botanical Gardens.

By that cable car terminal, we were pleased to discover a clearly-signposted, well-maintained footpath, confirming not only that the footpaths exist, but that visitors are actively encouraged to walk along them (we took photos of the signs, which I threatened to take to show to the rude Information Centre Operative).

In the Rude Tourist Information Centre Operative’s defence (although, as far as I’m concerned, there is no defence for out and out rudeness), the signs we saw looked very new. Some old paths were blocked off, and one of the paths we had hoped to take had striped tape across it, despite the fact that it looked new. Our concluson was that the upgrade of the paths would seem to be a work-in-progress. We’ll be coming back this way again in October, on the Columbus, so there’s a good chance the work may be finished by then. From what we’ve seen, it would make a great area for hikers, with lots of paths criss-crossing and taking in waterfalls and other points of interest.

So, we followed the only path that seemed open, and found ourselves winding our way down into the ravine and up the other side. It became steep in places, but the views across Funchal below, towards the sea, were spectacular.

Eventually, we ran out of footpath, and found ourselves on a road on the opposite side of the ravine, and faced with a choice. From our online map, we could see that the road wound its way through a couple of small semi-rural connurbations, and eventually down, past the Botanical Gardens, back into Funchal. Our dilemma was; do we go back the way we had come and take the cable car back down, or do we march on, in the hope that it didn’t take us too long (we’d already been out a couple of hours at that point, and only had about 3 hours before all-aboard time).

Naturally, the adventurers in us drove us onwards, and despite the roads being steep on the way down, and our legs complaining in no uncertain terms, we made it back to Funchal in good time. With time to spare, in fact, for a beer and ice cream outside one of the small cafes on the main street, before taking the shuttle bus back to the ship.

We were tired and aching, but very satisfied with our little Funchal Adventure.

AT SEA AGAIN

Today, we were at sea again, on our way towards our next destination.

Because I had a class on the last sea-day, it meant today was a non-class day for me. I’m still not used to this ‘one sea-day on / one sea-day off’ routine, but it does enable me to have a bit of extra breathing space, the occasional lie-in, and lots of time to work on other stuff.

Today, for example, we arose quite late, but just in time for breakfast (that finishes at 10am in the bistro). After breakfast, we spent some time out on deck, after which Tracey took some stuff up to Scott’s Bar to do, while I stayed downstairs in the cabin to catch up with online student work. It was while I was in the cabin that there came a knock on the door…

… it was the man to open the deadlights… Yeeeey! Finally, we have natural light!

All of which took us up to lunchtime. After lunch, we sat in on a talk by resident wildlife lecturer, Sue Walsh, and then I spent about 45 minutes or so on the wi-fi, checking for mail and dealing with other important correspondence. I then joined Tracey up on deck in the hope of seeing some dolphin or other wildlife activity. Unfortunately, the birders were all quite despondent at the lack of action, so we eventually headed back inside, where it was a bit warmer.

The seas have remained calm throughout, so far, and although it can still be quite nippy out on deck, the temperature is definitely starting to rise a little, and we haven’t seen any rain.

FIRST STOP – LISBON, PORTUGAL

Today, we arrived at our first port-of-call; the capital city of Portugal.

Lisbon is an interesting city, with an interesting history, old buildings and distinctive trams that whisk visitors through the old, steep streets. We’ve been here before – loads of times, which is the reason why we agreed to almost any escort duty the Shore Excursion Team wanted to give us.

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve stood at the top of Edward VII park and photographed the expansive view down, across the city, glanced at the weird memorial fountain located there and murmured the same tired old phrase ‘it’ll be nice when it’s finished’.

Usually, I get put on the Estoril trip, but today, my tour took me to Cascais, which is literally next door to Estoril, only slightly more interesting. It has a fort and a harbour full of fishing boats, and the one hour free time we were given there wasn’t too painful at all.

The guide on my coach, Sofia, also helped to make the trip entertaining. As we drove under the massive old aqueduct that spans a broad valley near the West of the city, she told us that folks used to walk along it in its 16th Century heyday. That was until women started mysteriously plummeting from the turrets to their deaths, at the hands of Lisbon’s first serial killer; a man whose only reason for doing it was apparently to steal the money in their purses.

The story became more interesting, and slightly macabre, when she explained that when the man was finally caught, he was the last person in Portugal to receive the death penalty. To try and find a reason for his behaviour, they took out his brain to study it. To complete the image, she confirmed that the head is still available to view in a museum somewhere in the country, suspended in a vat of clear liquid. ‘He was blond’ she said ‘and quite good-looking’.

The return drive to Lisbon, along the coast road, took us through several villages, pausing for one final photo stop at the Momument to the Navigators.

And to end the day – what better than a glorious sunset?…

AT SEA – FIRST CLASSES

Today, we were at still at sea, and I ran my first classes.

Tracy and Steve were doing crafts in the morning, and I was down in the programme for the afternoon, scheduled for 2pm. We figured this would easily give us time to run two classes; the first one at 2pm and a second at 3:30pm, to finish at 4:30 – meaning we should be cleared up and out of the Conference Room by 5pm.

As things turned out, the morning session was finished by 12 noon, which gave Tracey and myself plenty of time to get into the room, decide how to arrange the tables to maximise on seat capacity, and set things up ready for the class, and still have time to grab a quick bite of lunch.

We were in the middle of laying out the materials when the Cruise Director gave a rundown of the afternoon’s activities on the Public Address System. All was well (and the art class was mentioned), until he finished by saying that the informal, passenger ukelele group, who were down in the programme for meeting in Scott’s Bar would now be meeting in the Conference Room at 4:30pm. I looked at Tracey and she looked at me, and during the moment of incredulous silence that followed, I’m absolutely sure my jaw dropped in a cartoon-like fashion. Cursing under my breath, I stomped off to the Entertainments Room to confront Mitch, and ask him what on earth he thought he was doing… did he not know that we were going to be running two classes, and that I wouldn’t be out of the Conference Room until at least 5pm? Aparently… no, and no… and in his defence, he explained that another function had been booked into Scott’s Bar without his knowledge, meaning that the only place they could move the ukelele players to was the Conference Room.

In the end, we compromised… but I wasn’t a happy bunny…

Folks had started gathering for the class (that was only down in the programme as a single 2 o’clock class) from about 1:15pm. Fortunately, we were already set up, so we let everyone in early, and as soon as all the seats were full, I began (which turned out to be about 10 minutes to 2. I compressed the session down as much as I could, finishing at just before 3, enabling us to do one of the quickest turnarounds I think we’ve ever done. Tracey had posted a notice on the door announcing the time of the second class to be 3pm, so by the time we’d got the room ready again, there was a hefty crowd of fresh passengers waiting outside to come in.

I’m not sure how we managed it, but we managed to squeeze 55 people in, over the two classes. I wrapped at about 4:15, just as the ukelele players were starting to gather outside (although I’d told Mitch in no uncertain terms that they’d simply have to wait until we’d finished clearing up, and that was that).

A very tiring day, then, but it’s always nice to get the first class under my belt.

Sunset in the Bay of Biscay

After the class was finished, we spent some time out on deck, watching the sunset, before heading indoors to prepare for dinner. In the evening, we watched comedian and impressionist Chris Gee do his stuff in the show lounge before settling down to read in the Captains Club.

Tomorrow, we are due to arrive at our first port-of call, Lisbon, in Portugal, where we will be on tour escort duty.

And just for the record; the portholes remain resolutely closed (harumph!).

Follow watercolour artist Peter Woolley's adventures as he runs art workshops on the high seas…