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Saturday 21 December 2013

Ten years in Spain - Going south-1

On 18 December this year, Jen and I celebrated ten years living in Spain. Where did those ten years go?

The following is a shorter version of an article I supplied to the Portsmouth Post, published in #11.


Far too fast the time approached for Jen and me to leave the country.  Like many plans, the final part always seems some time in the future.  But our future had finally arrived.  We’d sold our house, handed over the keys and crammed the trusty Hyundai Accent car with four suitcases, photograph albums, important papers, many and various other items and of course the European legal driving paraphernalia (car-lamp kit, two warning triangles, fire-extinguisher, headlamp converters and GB disc). 

Having said adios to our daughter, on the early evening of 16th December we drove round from Gosport and arrived at the P&O Bilbao booth at the Continental Ferry Port in plenty of time – 5:50pm for the 8pm sailing.  Not that we were anxious to get abroad; we just wanted to settle into our cabin. We’d booked a single ticket on the Pride of Bilbao. 

It was straight forward.  All we had to do was hand over our booking reference number and passports at the booth; in return we got complimentary breakfast vouchers and a boarding pass.  We were directed down one of several embarkation waiting lanes and switched off the car lights and engine.

Some drivers appeared impatient to go and started their engines – or perhaps they were cold and needed warming up.  Even when movement at the front of the queue was perceived, there was still a reasonable wait before you could get moving.  One thing you need to learn if you’re going to live in Spain, is patience. 

We had hoped to video the event, driving into the maw of the ship’s bow, but a security man stopped us before we got the camera going.  There didn’t appear to be any warning notices, but we didn’t particularly want our camera confiscated by over-zealous security-conscious people.  (What a short video picture would tell any potential terrorist is open to question and also opens up a big can of worms about infringement of freedoms using the anti-terrorist excuse…  But that’s another article, I suppose!). 

Because some shipping was in the way, our sailing was postponed by thirty minutes, which of course would have no bearing on our arrival time in Bilbao.  The southern journey takes thirty-six hours and the return north only takes twenty-nine hours; it has nothing to do with the curvature of the earth or going uphill or downhill – it’s just easier on the passengers to be awoken at a sensible time for disembarkation – 5:45am wake-up call instead of potentially 1:0am.

After managing to extricate our overnight bags out of the car without dislodging all the other luggage, we wended our way through the alleys between the parked cars on the car deck and went up to Deck 5 where we were given a key-card each for our cabin.

Landlubbers should be wary of door-sills separating compartments and at the entrances to cabins; of course they’re not designed to trip you up but to ensure water-tight integrity in the highly unlikely event that the ship takes in water.

Our cabin was on the Port side, near the sharp end and we found there was a distinct knack to using the key-card – insert the card and yank the handle and push at the same time.  The cabin was well-appointed, with two windows – no port-holes for us! – an en suite bathroom with shower, shower- and shampoo-gel, washbasin, WC and hair-dryer.  The double bed was approaching King-size and was fitted with a radio.  The TV on the dressing-table received a few British channels; there was a bowl of fruit and coffee- and tea-making facilities; coat-hanging space and two Terry-towel housecoats; two chairs. 

Having unpacked clothes for two days, we reconnoitred.  It was chilly – no, it was cold – on the upper deck.  Some distance away were a number of Royal Navy ships alongside another jetty. 

It’s advisable to check out the Guest Services counter on Deck 6 – which is situated in an area that more resembles the lobby of a glitzy hotel than a ferry, complete with upholstered seats, glass ceiling, café tables, a smokers’ corner and an information desk.  Here you can find out about the entertainment scheduled for the two days. 
Ship's lobby

Nearby on the same deck can be found the Exchange Bureau, the Beauty Salon and the Travel Traders shop where you can purchase legally required driving items such as fire-extinguishers etc.  One oddity was the lack of maps for Spain – plenty for France.  Maybe they’d sold out…  Bargains were definitely available.

Besides the Felix, Tapas and POSH bars, other attractions available were two cinemas, the Casino, the Megadrome video arcade, the children’s play area and children’s club room.  While those inclined could try the fitness machines, saunas and swimming pool down on Deck 2.

Possibly because of the time of year, but nowhere seemed crowded.  Wherever we encountered ship’s staff, they were cheerful and helpful.

By now we were getting peckish so decided on Langan’s Bar Grill.

The enormous ship reversed out from the quay, Captain Phil Hill in charge.  This manoeuvre sent the cutlery and tables rattling in Langan’s, a roomy place whose walls (or bulkheads) were adorned with photographs of the famous frequenting the London restaurant.

While we passed the lights of Gosport to our right, viewed through the restaurant windows, we listened to the attractive slim pianist playing ‘Les Miserables’, ‘She’ and Saint Saens’ ‘Softly awakes my heart’ and other delightful tunes.  Our waiter, Josean was a charming Basque.  Jen enjoyed her excellent Chicken Caesar and I had a medium rare rib-eye steak which tasted just right; both accompanied saute potatoes and two adequate dishes of vegetables.  Dessert was pannacotta with mango salsa, which Jen enjoyed while I succumbed to the apple and blackberry crumble with custard – irresistible!  The service was prompt and worthy of four stars, I reckon.

Echoing the safety procedure prior to taking off in a commercial airliner, the tannoy announced the essentials about klaxons sounding seven times and muster points, ending with the reassurance that there are enough lifeboats for everybody on the ship.

Many of The Pride of Bilbao passengers join the ship for the journey both ways, spending a few hours ashore in the famous Spanish city before re-embarking.  There are reasons for this – not least being the entertainment on offer, the choice of restaurants and the wildlife studies.

There are five restaurants: Langan’s Brasserie, Langan’s Bar Grill, Four Seasons Carvery, Café Olivos and the International Food Court.  Silverstones lounge boasts a stage and live performers, the Soundwaves resident band, disco dancing and bingo.  There’s even a ship’s radio – Pride FM – where listeners can win prizes.

Ironically, we’d attempted to catch Calendar Girls at the Portsmouth UCI cinema twice but it was fully booked on both occasions so we gave up.  As luck would have it, one of Tuesday night’s two films was Calendar Girls, so we finally got to see this great British movie.  The occasional explosion from next door’s cinema showing of The Pirates of the Caribbean didn’t detract from our enjoyment – both Mirren and Walters holding their own against a superb collection of actors.

Next morning we used our complimentary vouchers in the International Food Court.  The cafeteria’s choice of food was broad – I settled for a good substantial cooked breakfast while Jen just had cereals and tea.  At 10:0am we attended the presentation on the Biscay Dolphin Research group given by Clive Martin.  It was well supported and the ninety minutes flew by because it was so interesting.

One small but fascinating aspect of the ship’s fixtures was that every wall clock had not one but two hour-hand pointers; one marked with the Union flag, the other with the Spanish flag, to denote the respective times in each country.

We’d obviously not given enough thought to the fact that there aren’t any mobile phone masts in the middle of the Atlantic or in the Bay of Biscay, so we were incommunicado for most of the sea-time – briefly picking up a signal off Brittany and again when within striking distance of Spain.  So for those who curse the ubiquitous mobile phone, maybe a cruise can give you the respite you feel you warrant!  (If you need to contact someone urgently back in the UK – or anywhere else – there were satellite phone booths opposite the Guest Services desk).

The skies were grey and the sea had a slight swell, the winds Force 4 or 5, temperature about 11 degrees.  Plenty of white horses as we travelled about seventeen knots.  We went outside and climbed up to the helicopter deck - Deck 11 - and encountered winds so bracing we could barely stand!  That was enough fresh air for a while, we thought. 

As we’re both keen moviegoers rather than disco-dancers, on Day Two we decided to watch two films – Seabiscuit seemed appropriate since we were at sea … (This film was well received by critics but wasn’t big at the box office, which was a shame as it was a moving and inspiring true story, well acted throughout); and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  Other current movies available were Kill Bill, Finding Nemo, Down with love, the Singing Detective, the Italian Job, Bad Boys, American Pie 3 and Once upon a time in Mexico.

During the day we enjoyed a couple of slight snacks at Olivos café – with good coffee though they were somewhat perplexed at having to serve a cortado (small black with a dash of milk).  The second evening meal was as good as the first.  Langan’s swordfish was the best Jen had ever tasted and my Seabass was moist and tasty.

Through the cabin window we could see thousands of stars. 

The wake up call was 5:45am UK time for our final visit to the International Food Court for breakfast and the walk down to the car deck.  Happily, we’d made note where we left our car – the section and the white-painted number on the bulkhead – because of course there were a lot more cars there than when we embarked.  We moved our watches on an hour for Spanish time.

Disembarking was very efficient.  Even when a couple of drivers hadn’t got down to their cars, the ship’s crew took charge and got the vehicles out from behind the empty stationary cars.  We docked at 8am Spanish time and were on the road within thirty minutes.  A cursory passport check and then, with Jen navigating, we followed the blue motorway signs for the A8.  We were heading south to our new life in Spain.
Going South part 2 - to follow...


Charliann Roberts said...

VERY interesting, Nik. Can't wait to read Part 2! :)

Nik Morton said...

Thanks, Charliann! It'll be here later today (Sunday)!