This was our first ever cruise so we wanted to make the most of our trip around west coast of France, northern Spain and Portugal, and the Marco Polo cruise offered a wide range of onshore excursions to pre-book. The Marco Polo cruise ship is ideal for this journey as it is small enough to dock at many ports the larger ships cannot access without having to transfer you via a smaller vessel. You are not obliged to do any of the trips ashore, of course, and there are other activities on board if you want to stay behind. We chose to visit Isle de Re in France, Obidos near Lisbon and Oporto city tour with wine tasting in Portugal with just the transfer to the city centre of Bilbao. Lisbon and La Coruna were both within easy walking of the port so you do not need to book if you want to explore on your own.
La Rochelle and Isle de Re, France
This was a half-day trip to the very pretty, picturesque harbor town at Isle de Re, a popular weekend spot for tourists, with fascinating history over the centuries. It is extremely popular with cyclists of all ages (and abilities from what we could see), so as a national holiday weekend, it was basically bicycles jammed together covering every square metre of land.
Lots of little cobbled streets to explore and beautiful houses which they are only allowed to paint in shades of blue or green. Always an exception to the rule, the old red-painted merchant’s house has a path made up of odd stones from around the globe, originally ship’s ballast when exporting light-weight bulky cargoes. We love the excursions where the guide tells you all these tiny details that you would so easily miss.
This is cognac country so lots of different brandies to sample. Oh, the pleasure of cruising where indulging in the purchase of local produce does not include worries about allowances and potential confiscation with a flight home! Alternative excursions include the town of La Rochelle itself, so there is plenty of choice to make the most of a stopover.
Gexto, port for Bilbao, Spain
We have been here before so just took advantage of the coach transfer to the city centre. We had plenty of time to explore before pick-up, and the river makes it easier to keep a sense of direction. Guggenheim Museum as monumental as ever, especially the large bronze spider sculpture outside – known as La Maman, a study of motherhood apparently and no, I’m not sure why either. Although a Saturday, nothing seemed to open until 11.00am but a couple of department stores were open with cafe (and toilets), so a good starting point. Everyone was at pick-up point as planned so back in time for lunch on board.
Obidos village, near Lisbon, Portugal
Out in the hills near to Lisbon, Obidos is a beautiful old village with fortified palace said to be a gift to a princess from her husband because she said how it sparkled in the distance. Hmmm! There is one main street, with little narrow streets leading off, tiny cobbles so difficult to walk and steep in places. It is geared mainly towards tourists with lots of tiny shops and cafes, street musicians and a fierce-looking character in plague protective gear who kindly agreed to pose with the Silver Travel Advisor bag! The main things sold are small chocolate cups filled with cherry liqueur or traditional custard pastries baked on-site.
There are a couple of small guest houses in the village, plus a larger hotel (very expensive), and they were setting up replica market stalls and huts inside the palace walls ready for a series of traditional events later in the year.
Exploring Lisbon, Portugal
We had a day free to explore Lisbon on our own (rather than join another excursion) and it was very easy to get there with a steady walk from the docks, or jump into one of the tuk-tuks waiting along the road for tourists from the ships.
You must take the old credit-card or dosh as this is a great shopping centre, especially for shoes! Lots of wide paved areas with tables and umbrellas, and we found an excellent one where they made the famous little soft squishy custard tarts. Even better, their offer of a glass of port plus tart at €2.40 was unmissable, even at 11am. OK, we had a latter coffee as well, so a very satisfying break in exploring at €8 for both of us.
Another great guide who gave a potted history of the city, largely industrial with a huge container port, she explained about Henry the Navigator 1394, a sardine festival later in June, and the fact that they hate Lisbon! We should be grateful we do not have to pay the new tax imposed here – a tax on ‘sunshine’ which has baffled everyone.
Many snippets of fascinating facts – you can take a tram tour of city in one of the oldest trams, they host the “most beautiful book store in the world”, and the cape worn by university students here was what inspired Harry Potter’s cape. Lots of public sculptures, and you have to smile at the laughing bronze men in the park.
The most spectacular building is the rail station built in 1901. Wow! is the only word that comes close to what you see. There was originally a convent here, the church people were all driven out but they did let the nuns stay in residence until the last one died before they started to develop the site. She actually lasted to age 103 which delayed them a bit. Over 20,000 blue and coloured tiles decorate the entrance hall in exquisite illustrations of historical moments.
As part of this day’s excursion, we had a guided tour and tasting at one of the port wine distilleries, including a white port and a tawny port. Delicious, as you would expect, although we could have done with a cracker or biscuit while knocking back two glasses of fortified wine. With a cable car nearby, a vernacular railway and a view across the river to the tall, colourful houses, we decided we love Portugal!
La Coruna, Spain
The final port of call was La Coruna at the tip of northern Spain, the easiest port to get into and out of from the ship for a walk into the town. Very pretty, lots more (shoe) shops, and our last chance to sit outside a café on the wide waterfront before our journey back to Cardiff. Surprisingly cheap at €1.20 for cafe con leche plus small freshly-squeezed orange juice and an iced biscuit to dunk.
As with all excursions and visits ashore, you are back on board in plenty of time to catch the end of the buffet lunch. These visits are the highlight of the cruise for us, and we really enjoyed visiting Portugal where we intend to return at some point for a city break or two.
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