Monday, August 21, 2017

The Adriatic Cruise Diaries: Day 8, Friday 19 May 2017 - Basically just a rant about Corfu Airport

After a very hectic week, sailing the Adriatic Sea on the Thomson Dream, our holiday finally came to an end.

We arrived in Corfu at about 6.30am local time and the captain announced that we had travelled 1250 nautical miles over the past week.  The next destination for the Dream, on its alternate-week itinerary, would be a Greek islands cruise departing tonight from Kalamata.

The main problem this morning was finding a space in any of the restaurants, as a whole ship seemed to be going for breakfast at the same time because all cabins needed to be vacated by 8.00am. Eventually after a short wait we got a table and had our final buffet breakfast.  We needed to kill some time after breakfast so went for a walk and found a seat in an empty Waters Edge bar - a place where it was just impossible to get a seat since arriving.  It was nice and quiet, and I suddenly realise that's what had been missing from this holiday; peaceful, quiet spaces, and time to think.

As I said in the previous post, your luggage needs to be put outside your cabin door on the final night of your holiday, for collection at the quayside for onward travel to the airport. Again I couldn't fault Thomson with this one.  They were very organised with a colour-coded system of luggage labels for different flights so it was easy to find our cases after final disembarkation. We boarded our coach to Corfu Airport and arrived there at 11.20 am.

I had been dreading this moment given this airport's reputation for having to queue outside in direct heat.  Today was a very hot day (high 20s) but luckily those on the Glasgow flight were told to queue inside for the Glasgow flight, unlike the poor passengers for Aberdeen and Manchester who had to stand outside in the baking heat for hours. At least it wasn't too roasting inside. The toilets were dirty and disgusting though, and looked as if they hadn't been cleaned for years and the toilet paper bin was overflowing.

Back in the queue, we waited….and we waited. Corfu Airport was everything they said it would be and worse.  It is to be avoided and we will never come back here.  Even the clock was slow.  Avoid, avoid, avoid!!  Our flight was allegedly departing at 1.15 pm, but at that time we were still standing in a very long queue.  Everything about this airport is not fit for purpose.  You basically had to queue for hours to get into the check-in hall.  Luckily I had my iPod for company and I reckon I had worked my way through the complete track listing during the time we'd been queuing.  Faithful travelling companion was showing definite signs of having lost the will to live.  In the immortal words of Paul McCartney and Wings...."if we ever get out of here....."

Eventually we made it through to the check-in hall.  But the nightmare didn't end there.  After the check-in desk you then had to go into another queue where your hold baggage was scanned.  Then we had to make your way to another queue for passport control and then, oh lucky travellers, you had the chaotic, grumpy security experience awaiting you.  Although to be fair, I think anyone with the misfortune to work at Corfu Airport probably has the right to be grumpy!

Finally, we were through to the "other side" and yep you guessed it, another queue and virtually no facilities to speak of.  Eventually, what felt like 17 hours later, we boarded our flight to Glasgow. For a couple of different reasons I had quite an unpleasant flight home and faithful travelling companion didn't do too well either.  By the way, what is it with cruise flights that they feel the need to split couples up on the way home??

(I do have another rant in me about airline seating but that will be reserved for a future post about another holiday adventure....!)

We eventually made it home.  So, was it worth it?  For me, the Adriatic Explorer cruise had been built up over the years into my "holiday of a lifetime" and it was a fabulous itinerary with the backdrop of one of the most beautiful parts of our continent.  A collection of stunning destinations over the course of the week almost made us forget about the hell of Corfu Airport (well not quite) but we concluded:

  • We'd like to go back to Venice at some point in the future.
  • We'd like to go back to Slovenia.  Come on you airlines, bring on the flights from Scotland to Ljubljana!
  • It was nice to see Split again, although we probably wouldn't prioritise it as a holiday destination having visited twice now.
  • We wouldn't go back to Dubrovnik (major shock!)
  • We wouldn't mind returning to Montenegro.  Right deal, right place, right time, why not?
  • Corfu Airport - never again!
  • Cruise holidays are probably not our preferred holiday choice.  For us, cruises are a means to an end rather than an end in itself.  We wouldn't write them off or say never again, but I think it takes a certain type of person to really enjoy a cruise holiday to the full and I'm not sure if we are those people. There are many great itineraries and brilliant ships out there and who knows what's in the future, but we've probably got cruising out of our system for now.
What happened next?  A surprise city break in June which delivered and then some!

The Adriatic Cruise Diaries: Day 7, Thursday 18 May 2017 - Kotor, Montenegro

After yesterday's "Full Monty" on Lokrum, today it's time for the "Full Monte".

Another day and another new country for us.  That's still the best thing about a cruise - it enables you to discover so many different places over the course of a week.

We had docked early in Kotor, Montenegro, and I was up on deck to explore.  So we'd had the company of the MS Westerdam in Dubrovnik and it was with us again in Kotor.  However, the Thomson Dream got the best option - a port berth, whereas the Westerdam was anchored out at sea with only tender boats for transport.

I had done some research before the holiday to see which ships were in port on various days with the Dream.  As it turned out, the Westerdam was on a specialist music cruise, "Dave Koz and Friends". One of his friends happened to be one of my all-time musical heroes, the brilliant Sheila E. Unfortunately I never saw Sheila on my travels in Kotor, but even if I did I would probably have been far too starstruck and nervous to approach her anyway.  Long may you live "the glamorous life" Sheila!

On arrival in Crna Gora I was really excited at adding another new country to our travel CV. However upon disembarking we were immediately reminded of another country which we had visited a few times in the past.  The hard-sell recalled Turkey, as taxi drivers and bus tour operators thronged round the disembarking cruise shippers, and we had to run the gauntlet on towards the gate and into the old town.

I can't mention Montenegro at this point without referencing my undying love for its Eurovision entrant from 2017, Slavko Kalezic, complete with swinging plait and single entendres-a-plenty. (Slavko has entered the UK X Factor so let's all get ready for his role as the "funny foreigner"/new Wagner - I swore I'd never watch X Factor again but Slavko might just be a deal-breaker).

Anyway what I'm trying to say here is that on a completely shallow note, in the interests of research, I wanted to check out the local male population and I am happy to conclude that they were rather easy on the eye (honourable mention for the dark-haired guy in full business suit, standing at the old town gate).  In the interests of equality it would be fair to say that faithful travelling companion was equally impressed with the female population of the town, many of whom worked in souvenir shops and who were either called Dragana or Ivana :)

Kotor is basically an old town, dripping with history, and has a lot of authenticity.  Although the town's businesses definitely set out to benefit from the cruise ship traffic (the hard sell in the shops and the rather unnerving experience of being followed around a souvenir shop by said staff member), it's done in a different way from Dubrovnik.  They even put on a music and dance folklore display for the tourists in the town square.

Kotor was deceptive.   After our mid-morning coffee on the square, we did some sightseeing and quickly found ourselves back at the town wall. However on re-entry Kotor turneed out to be a much bigger small-town than first thought, to the point that we inevitably got lost at one point.  Happily our direction finding is rediscovered and we certainly covered every corner of this fascinating old town during our visit.

Kotor also has a selling point for everyone who is a fan of one particular type of domestic pet.  The town's former name was Cattaro - can you guess what it is yet??

Every shop seems to have some kind of cat-themed souvenir so is an ideal place if you are a cat lover.  They are definitely the symbol of this fascinating little town although dominate to the extent that you often can't get a seat in an outdoor cafe for a little feline specimen or two, sprawling across the only available seats left.  Basically cats rule in Kotor, and everyone else can just go home.

We have lunch accompanied by Montenegrin beer.

I don't look for much, but all I wanted was a photo of a sign in old Cyrillic.  *Check*.

After some more post-lunch exploring, it was eventually time to head back to the Dream.  For a holiday with so many wow moments, appropriately our final day and final sail-out would probably provide the perfect conclusion.

But first, a moment of sympathy for the passengers on the Westerdam, having to queue in a long long queue for a long long time to board the small tender boats taking them out to their ship.

Then the sail-out began through the stunning Montenegrin fjords.

We stayed on deck for almost two hours - yes, two hours of those views! - but it was time to go back to the cabin and do our packing before our final evening meal of the holiday.  On cruise holidays there is a rule that you have to leave your case outside your cabin on the last night before disembarkation.  There is a simple but successful system of colour-coded luggage labels depending on your flight destination which ensures that your luggage will be in the right place when you disembark.

One last meal in the Orion...

For old times' sake we end our evening in the Coffee Port (which turns into a piano bar/lounge at night) with our old favourites, Singapore Slings (below), to the soundtrack of probably the cheeriest version of "I Dreamed A Dream" which I've ever heard.  The singer obviously didn't get the memo about just how depressing that song is....!

It's an early night for us though as it's a very early rise tomorrow in Corfu :(

The Adriatic Cruise Diaries: Day 6, Wednesday 17 May 2017 - Dubrovnik, Croatia

It would be fair to say that Dubrovnik is definitely having its moment in the spotlight right now.  An ofter oversubscribed cruise ship destination, combined with being one of the locations used for filming the insanely popular Game of Thrones (which I have still never seen, yes I know, backlog). Dubrovnik has also become a rather overpriced holiday option so probably the only way we were ever going to see it was on this cruise.

At 8.00am I went up on deck to watch the sail in with some more beautiful views of Dubrovnik's surrounding coast and islands.  We eventually docked in Gruz port, from where you had to get a bus into town.  The bus was already packed on arrival at the port.  Between there and the town centre, more and more people got on the bus.  My panic was already starting to kick-in.

We eventually arrived at the bus terminus at Pile Gate, from where there were some stunning views. I had originally planned to do the cable car, but with below-par health combined with humid weather and lots of stairs - I quickly decided to give it a miss!  So we made our way down into the town's main street instead.  The main street is called Stradun and it's a massive tourist trap with souvenir shops and photo-opportunities with parrots :)

Of course I had to buy yet another T-shirt in Aqua, my favourite Croatian store.

Coffee time! Options were very expensive - with coffee twice as expensive as in Split, on the main street and anywhere in the vicinity of the main street and the square, Dubrovnik probably had a more blatant sense of "rip-off" about it in a way that none of our other destinations have had.  However we found a place further back from the more touristy areas, which was a bit more affordable.

The sun had eventually come out, and it felt very hot.  It was soon time for lunch, down one of the side streets off Stradun.  The owner tried to rip up off when it came to the bill, charging us for something we didn't order, but we caught this in time.  Again, further evidence of the rip-off nature of this picture-perfect town.

After lunch we explored further and ended up at the old port, where we quickly discovered that there were short panoramic sightseeing boat trips around the city walls and out to Lokrum island.  The idea of seeing Dubrovnik from the sea was too good to miss.  But even that wasn't all it seemed - they promised an ancient galleon-type ship but the reality was a small glass bottomed boat.  Whatever kind of vessel it was though, the views were spectacular.

The trip didn't disappoint, with some stunning and spectacular views and my camera working overtime.  The trip took around 45 minutes including the circuit of Lokrum, which had rock formations and .....a naturist section with one particular "rock formation", an exhibitionist who waved at our boat and was very happy to "let it all hang out".  Sorry folks, but I'm not sharing that one here :)))

Eventually we arrived back at the old port where it was baking hot and the walking tours were out in full force, complete with random Game of Thrones-type characters along the way.   Suddenly the hot sun gave way to a torrential shower and high winds.  What a day not to bring a brolly!  We sheltered in gift shops, archways and side street canopies.  The rain eventually went off and the heat returned.

As time was getting on, we decided to make our way back to the ship, although the bus stop layout at Pile Gate was a bit confusing.  Eventually we were on yet another packed bus for yet another stressful journey - and after getting off at an earlier stop for some soft drinks, we walked back to the ship in the baking heat.  The Dream was today sharing dock space with the MS Westerdam, the Holland America ship (above), which we would sort-of reunite with tomorrow in Montenegro.

We both quickly came to a very surprising and shocking conclusion - that we wouldn't return to Dubrovnik for a holiday.  Don't get me wrong, it's one of the most beautiful tourist destinations you will probably ever set eyes on, and it's a place I've tried to plan a holiday in for years, but it's also an oversubscribed, over-touristed destination with a very strong sense of rip-off about it. Every part of it, from the buses to the streets, was packed with crowds and I felt panic attacks coming on from all directions. Croatia is a beautiful country with many breathtaking destinations.  But our favourite is undoubtedly Trogir.  And anywhere we will go in Croatia, we will always ask the question,"is it better than Trogir"?  Trogir, the small island/town just outside Split, remains a special and magical destination and still holds the crown for our favourite place in Croatia, Sorry Dubrovnik, you may be bigger and famous and all, but you're not Trogir. 

After another dinner in the Orion, there was a parade of chefs and staff and we had to join in and wave our napkins in the air.  It was good fun, but it was also a little bit shambolic and left us wanting more. Tonight's show in the Broadway Show Lounge was described as the highlight of the cruise productions.  "Africa" did what it said on the tin - a number of African-themed songs and dance numbers including Toto's "Africa" and Shakira's "Waka Waka", a bright and very colourful show definitely influenced by The Lion King - and the finale was none other than "Circle of Life".  Awww! Photography of the shows was banned throughout the cruise but at the curtain call tonight the audience had the opportunity to photograph the cast in their gold costumes (accompanied by the cruise director, below)

All the shows we have seen have been excellent, although we had decided to give tomorrow night's Andrew Lloyd Webber spectacular a miss due to time restrictions, as we needed an early night as it was an early rise for our journey home on Friday.

Cruise holidays are a great way to visit a number of different destinations in one holiday, but as I said after our first cruise, they are a very exhausting holiday if you choose to explore all the destination ports as we did.  There are people who go on these cruises and never get off the ship; each to their own I guess, although I know I wouldn't be bothered going on a cruise if you just stayed on the ship all day and lay on a sunbed.  Something which you could do on a much cheaper alternative.  But hey, like I say, each to their own!

Tomorrow: our final port of call - Montenegro!  (*rocket to the stars* - ok that's enough Slavko for now)

The Adriatic Cruise Diaries: Day 5, Tuesday 16 May 2017 - Split, Croatia

It was a longer day today in Split so there was less of a rush to disembark today, which meant a more relaxing breakfast in Sirens restaurant.  Sirens is a self-service buffet restaurant at the opposite end of the ship from the Lido.  Both serve very similar selections of food although Sirens isn't open in the evening.

Split has a vast terminal with space for cruise ships and the many Jadrolinija ferries which serve this nation of over a thousand islands.  The Thomson Dream was docked a bit further back than we hoped/expected so it was quite a long walk to the city's photogenic promenade, the Riva.

It wasn't our first time in Split of course - on our holiday in Trogir, 3 years ago, we took a day trip to Split so were already familiar with the city.  It's nice to see new places, but it's nice ro revisit old ones too. Coffee time on the Riva!  And we certainly needed some refreshment. The weather was much hotter here today than it had been so far.  Definitely around 28 degrees rather than the 25 of yesterday. After our coffee stop, we head along the Riva in search of some parts of town which we missed last time, such as Trg Republike (Republic Square) pictured below.

It wasn't too far from Narodni Trg, home of the Croatia Records shop.  My wish list this time included the latest CMC Vodice festival compilation and the Regina greatest hits CD. The woman working in the shop was quite impressed that I had heard of this band from Sarajevo, but I explained that they came to my attention through the Eurovision Song Contest.  It's only all these years later that I got round to buying their greatest hits CD!

We ended up almost at the same place for lunch as we did 3 years ago - I guess the hot young meet-and-greet guy with the designer stubble swung it for me :)

After lunch, we explored in and out of the maze of streets in the old town.  On our last trip we hadn't visited the basement of the Diocletian's Palace so that was on the to-do list.  It's packed with stalls selling art, souvenirs and jewellery. Back upstairs in the main section of the Diocletian's Palace and we were quickly reminded that Split is a top tourist destination.  Selfie stick army on the march!! We stopped to watch some klapa singing - well, you can't be in Croatia without a bit of klapa?  It just sums up the country so much for me.

After a bit more exploring, it was time for what was becoming a tradition on this holiday - the late afternoon drink stop.  Back to the Riva for an Ozujsko beer for faithful travelling companion and a Plavac wine for me. And of course some free wi-fi too, therefore an opportunity to get some more post-Eurovision gossip on my tablet. Then it was time for some more sightseeing, including our first trip to Split's open-air market which is just outside the walls of the Diocletian's Palace.  No matter where you go in this city, you are surrounded by spectacular reminders of history.

Eventually we ran out of steam.  The heat got the better of us (mostly me) and we decided to slowly make our way back to the ship.

Towel animals are a great tradition on cruise ships.  We only had one special guest in our cabin on this holiday - say hello to our little turtle friend!

Due to our long day this meant a late dinner so we just grabbed a quick buffet in the Lido before heading to the Broadway Show Lounge for tonight's "Concerto Goes Pop" show, which gave the show team the opportunity to dress up in their finest suits and gowns. A bit like formal night on the ship!! Once again a top quality performance from the show team, well done all of you.

Tomorrow: Dubrovnik!

The Adriatic Cruise Diaries: Day 4, Monday 15 May 2017 - Koper, Slovenia

Today we were docked in Koper, Slovenia.  We had already booked a sightseeing bus trip to Piran which was leaving at 9.30am.   Like most ports, it wasn't particularly scenic as we were the only cruise ship among freight and ferries, but the port is also very close to Koper town you just cross the road and go up in a lift and you are in the town centre.  If only Venice had been like that!

After a speedy breakfast we disembarked and headed straight onto the coach for our excursion.  Our tour guide was a very talkative young woman from Izola, who was very proud of this region and country, she was like a walking ad for the Slovenia Tourist Board.

We arrived in Piran at 1015.  It's a very scenic little town and very clean - I always had this impression of Slovenia as being a very clean and unspoilt country and nothing I'd seen so far had disproved this theory.  

It was another very warm and beautiful day.  Of course we needed our coffee ritual so we had coffee on the colourful Tartini Square (above)  and watched the world go by on this peaceful Monday morning, people out walking their dogs and enjoying the morning sunshine.

After coffee we walked into the small town centre and found a Mercator supermarket (my knowledge of Slovenian supermarkets is entirely derived from watching EMA and all the ad breaks!) and we just had to buy Slovenia's most famous soft drink - Cockta.  Aah, how I have missed the taste of what I can only describe as "sherbet flavoured cola", which we first tried in Croatia 3 years ago. Piran is not really a tourist town and there aren't too many souvenir shops around.  But I'm always partial to an unusual sign and this caught my eye - a remnant of Slovenia's Communist past....  

Piran also has a pretty little harbour.

Above: the beautiful blue waters of the Slovenian section of the Adriatic.

One of Piran's most appealing sights is the little seafront peninsula (above) which is lined with lots of restaurants and surrounded by that rocky coastline.  Unfortunately we were only on a flying visit so lunch would have to wait until we were back in Koper.

Piran just looked lovely from every angle and was a very pretty little town. But it was soon time to make our way back on the bus to Koper via the glitzy resort of Portoroz - the "port of roses" where there were roses growing in the gardens and along the middle of the street. Roses growing in May, imagine that!  And some very top class hotels here too, like this one.

There was lots of spectacular scenery to enjoy between Piran and Koper - Slovenia does have such lovely landscapes and I'd love to visit the country again for longer some day.  Ljubljana is one of my outstanding destinations on the bucket list.

We arrived back at the port and went in search of lunch.  Faithful travelling companion was on a mission to be reunited with ćevapčiči, so it is my duty to post a picture.....

Meanwhile I had gnocchi, accompanied by a lovely large glass of Slovenian white wine :)) Monday lunchtime and life is good.  Oh, and food and drink is a lot cheaper here than in Venice!  After lunch we explored the old town.

The town's main square is called Titov Trg - Tito Square.  Another reflection of Slovenia's past, when it was part of Yugoslavia.

After a little rest on Titov Trg, where I was able to take advantage of the town's free wi-fi and get some more information about the Eurovision aftermath.  This was followed by some further exploring and sightseeing and it was finally time for a late-afternoon Slovenian beer stop before embarkation.

Koper is an excellent port (above) due to its very close proximity to the town which is a nice enough destination but I would definitely recommend the bus excursion to Piran, it only took 3 hours all in and there was still enough time to explore Koper in the afternoon. Orion restaurant again for dinner tonight, although if I had only one criticism it would be that the dinner portions are rather smallI guess that shouldn't be too surprising as they probably expect that people have been eating their way across the ship all day. Tonight's show in the Broadway Show Lounge was called "Styled By Rock" - 50 minutes of classic rock songs and definitely influenced by "Rock of Ages" and the mash-ups from "Pitch Perfect" and "Glee". The 5 guys and 5 girls from the show team really deserve a special mention as yet again they put so much work and energy into this show.  The shows are a definite highlight of an evening on board, although we also caught part of a quiz in the Medusa Lounge tonight as well.

Tomorrow:  Split!