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Cruising Queen Mary II 4 -11 August : Mediterranean leg

Another beautiful Ligurian day, still hot as blazes, the Rome train for Pisa dropped a goodly crowd off in Civitavecchia. Jostling luggage around, I made my way to the front of the station and encountered several groups of English-speaking tourists questioning how to get to their ships. Like the Pied Piper, I led a family from Delaware (heading to the NCL Breakaway) and a pair of British men (to the Cunard dock) north towards town. When we reached the zigzag left-right turns to continue past the cathedral to the Cruise meet-up point, I sent them off, while I headed across to enter the port, as I saw the Queen Mary II on the pier.

Through the gate, I passed the docked Costa Smeralda and then the large cruise terminal with lengthy queues. When I reached the gangway onto the QM2 about 2km from the train station, I was told I needed to be checked in back at the cruise terminal. So I had to return the half kilometer or so, where I discovered a smaller building was established for Cunard. (The signage was not between the buildings, so I never saw it.)

There I dropped my bag, I was given a group number, and I joined about 400 new passengers in a warm, crowded space. We were waiting on the Italian police, as our passports needed to be checked. After 75 minutes, two uniforms arrived, but took another 20 minutes to begin “passport control.” My group was called after another 20 minutes, and, after surrendering my passport, I was soon moving to the bus at 2:45.

The gangway entered on Deck 1, and my cabin was on 4, so I grabbed my small roller and walked the stairs. My inside cabin (4129) was nice with an enclosed bath to the left in the door, opposite 3 closet doors, with a cabinet for the safe and a set of 4 drawers alongside. A decent size desk with a chair had a ship’s phone along that right wall. In the left corner with a TV above and, behind a door, a minifridge. In the space backing the wall of the WC, was a small side table and a single chair. The bed, mated twins, had small end tables in the cramped corners along the side of the mattresses, and shelves above were good for stashing the decorative pillows and luggage protective sheet.

Next task was to visit the muster station (H) on Deck 7, and then off to the Queen’s Room aft on 2 where I joined Angie and Maria for tea a bit after 3. Both from East London, they were charming, helping me learn the ropes of savories (sandwiches), sweets (pastries) and scones (with cream). A female harpist was seated on the dance floor, providing music barely heard over the multitude of conversations.

I returned to the cabin at 4:30, where my luggage still hadn’t arrived. With my journal and camera, I headed to the Champagne Bar (Deck 3) where I found a quiet spot to sit and write in my journal. The two British men from the train station came through, and I met Andrew and Philip who now live in Cardiff. A bit after, Matt and Steve from Stratford joined

Out a portal, Civitavecchia port tug guiding QM2
Civitavecchia port tug guiding QM2

our conversation. The hostess, Natasha, a Mauritanian, hovered, and we all noted that the view out the porthole had changed following an announcement from the captain. It seems that a strong (60 knot) gust of wind had struck the bow, causing the lines to break, and the front of the ship was swinging out into the harbor. Three tugboats quickly appeared, and we were moved to the middle of the channel to anchor. Apparently, the gangways were attached and hanging from the ship, so they couldn’t return to the pier. Once the MSC Divina, which was across the harbor at a different pier, left, the tugs moved us so the port side was landside. Fortunately, no one was on the gangways. Returning passengers were unable to board for 2 hours until the QM2 was repositioned about 7. (All aboard time was 6:30pm.) We all had lots to speculate and talk about that evening.

An English woman came and gathered the 4 men, so I was left with Marie, an Australian who had been traveling since March, as she was also looking for the solo/single travelers’ group. We had a glass of Laurent Perrier Brut Cuvée Rosé champagne, chatting until she left at 6 for early dining. I headed up a flight to the cabin, where my luggage had arrived, so I unpacked as best I could (I had more stuff than places for them). Unlike the small bag, the large roller was too big to fit under the bed, so I put it into one of the closets, with the abundance of life jackets. (The cabin capacity is 4, so there were 4, plus 2 infant vests.) I cleaned up for dinner, and at 8:30 headed down to the main dining room.

Seated at the table were two English couples, Graham and Allison, and John and Arlene, and Paul, a single Englishman, all of whom were continuing back to Southampton, and Susan, a single American who would be continuing with me to Brooklyn.

Always curious about appetizers, I requested three: grilled asparagus, pea soup, and spinach and pear salad. The asparagus presentation was clever, stacked in a lattice pile with arugula and hazelnuts as garnishes. I stuck with vegetarian, getting the Harissa roasted cauliflower (with chimichurri, tahini and crispy onions), also well presented. Dark chocolate mousse called my name for dessert, and I also requested the cheese plate, an assortment of three cheeses, grapes, apricot, walnuts and conserve.

After dinner, I climbed to the cabin and settled in, perusing the Daily Programme. After selecting several activities I thought I might attend, I went horizontal after doing a bit of reading.

Day 2 – at sea: Up at 8:15, I headed down to the dining room for breakfast, getting plain oatmeal with a banana, and the mixed orange-cranberry juice. I was seated with two English couples (Midlands, Sussex) and a woman from Fresno. Tea for the Old World, coffee for the New. The main topic of discussion was the incident in port.

Climbing from 2 to 7, I walked into the Carinthia Lounge hoping to join the Singles/Solo Coffee. It appeared most passengers there were waiting on daily trivia. Crowded and cliques, I passed through saying hello to those I knew, but headed to the stairs to return to Deck 3 and Illuminations, the planetarium for the Insights talk. Dr Dan Brown spoke on “The Glories of the Alhambra”, the Córdoba site - the fortified structures, grounds and gardens of the last Moorish ruler in Spain. His 30-minute talk, second in the series he’d done on the back-to-back earlier leg, had been on El Cid, contained lots of old stock photos of the fortress grounds, and good maps of the structure and of Spain.

For me, Córdoba will always be where The Great Mosque was repurposed with the insertion of the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción at the mosque’s heart. [The Spanish King, on inspecting the mosque, instructed the bishops that they could not tear down the magnificent building to build their cathedral; they built it inside, and the Moorish decorations remain.

When the talk concluded, I headed back to my cabin for my sun hat, and applied sun block. Then up to the Carinthia, where I hoped to join the walking group. I was early, and by the start time no one seemed to be “grouping”, so I headed out and did 4 laps in blustering winds, sunshine and rocking seas. The Mistral was reportedly at force 9-10 with the seas at 5 meters. The spray kept it delightfully cool.

After my exercise, I returned to the cabin by walking through the buffet, finding that it was very lightly occupied. My cabin attendant, Wisnu, had heeded my request and swapped out the heavy duvet on the bed for a light blanket. I needed to get him a souvenir magnet at our stop in Valencia. Then I was down to the dining room for lunch of leek and blue cheese quiche, tom yum soup, and grilled fish and shellfish brochette.

The table included couples from Ripon and the Orkneys, and the conversation was delightful. I experimented for dessert with banoffee pie. After lunch a second Insight talk with Sir Christopher Coville on “The Spanish Armada: A Close call for England” which he presented with an interesting alternative viewpoint.

When the talk was over, I was passing the Royal Theatre and the Harmony String Trio were performing, so I stood in back for a 7-minute arrangement of Ravel’s Bolero, followed by an encore of the Pizzicato Polka. Then to the stern for tea in the Queens Room. I was solo, most likely because many were feeling the effects of the Mistral-triggering rough seas. We all made it to dinner, where I had a creamy soup, a Greek salad, and sliced Chateaubriand. I started a bottle of Chateauneuf de Pape (CdP) from the ship’s cellars, which I continued to drink for several nights. Dessert was lemon sorbet, and then I was introduced to my latest food addiction – pieces of candied ginger, skipping the chocolates.

Day 3 – Valencia: (I did not journal at all this day, but wrote a few notes the following morning.) While I had breakfast in the dining room, we had been docked in the port of Valencia, so my phone started populating email accounts. I exited the ship into the port and rode the shuttle into town. The bus dropped us off outside the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, and with Ginnie (Regina) rode the #95 bus around the green beltway to the Portal dels Serrans. The bridge brought us into the city and we soon stood in front of the Real Basílica de Nostra Senora de los Desamparados, and then walked the passage way to the entry to La Seu de València, the Iglesia Catedral-Basílica Metropolitana de la Asunción de Nuestra Señora de Valencia. Mass was underway, so we both quietly said a prayer and slipped back outside.

Ginnie, from Long Island, was pleased to have me as an escort, particularly as I’d been in València as recently as 2018. We were both impressed with the tourist-heavy downtown area, how clean and quiet the area was. We stopped in a shop to get a few trinkets, and then continued wandering in the general direction of the bus stop for the shuttle back to the ship. Amazing good fortune, as I didn’t know the name of where we were going, we wound up back at the City of Arts and Sciences and checked out the hemisphere before boarding the bus and returning to the ship.

[My initial thoughts on how to use my port call in València was to taxi to the train station, head to Segorbe and the cathedral there, get my photos (as the church would be closed Sunday afternoon) and then chase back to catch the train back. Time windows were tight, and I wasn’t about to blow my relaxed mood. I will get there another day, another trip.]

On the pier to reboard the ship, it seemed that there was no plan or organization. Gangways were for one person, with departing folk getting the priority (and generally having only one on each 12-foor long ramp at a time); the those boarding who were handicapped skipped the queue to be pushed (wheelchairs) or waddle (walkers) onto the ship. Meanwhile, there was little shade, and no cups of water or cool wet towels as I’d come to expect from other cruises. In any case, we eventually got back on board and I headed directly to the dining room, snapping a picture of the menu as I entered. I started with the cold meats, with the crispy snapper for my entrée. Another experiment, affogato, for dessert.

Skipping tea, I collected the Chromebook and journal and headed to my favorite seat in the Champagne Bar and spent the afternoon writing my trip report. Graham and Allison, dinner table mates, came in and sat to my back, as they’d met another Lancashire couple. They invited me in for a bit, and I got to talk about my visit to Preston the prior year, and the Syro-Malabar cathedral there. The solo meet-up didn’t happen, so I then returned to the cabin to change for dinner. My dinner started with shredded duck (light in the flavor department), and a cup of chicken and corn soup. [John tried the French onion soup, which just didn’t look like what I expected – no melted cheese covering the top.] Gloucester Old Spot pork Wellington for the main, was tasty and a sizeable portion. Dessert promised to be prime: peanut butter chocolate fallen cake with raspberry sauce. That hit on three key flavors for me, but there was little chocolate flavor, the raspberry slight. Even vanilla ice cream didn’t help.

After dinner we all split up, but most of us wound up at the Royal Theater. The singers and dancers had a program called Apassionata, where four couples danced (and sang chorus a bit) while three singers filled in the music. Fast tempo, lots of costume changes, a pleasant hour.

Returning to my cabin, I discovered I’d misplaced my American Express credit card. I check with the purser to see if it had been turned in, and no. Back to the cabin, I tore through everything, still unable to locate it. The purser’s desk, in particular Felex, was patient and got me connected to Amex to cancel the card, reporting no new charges. However, it was my card on file, so I also needed to provide an alternate. At least it hadn’t been stolen.

Day 4 – at sea: Breakfast of “dressed” oatmeal in the dining room on deck 2, with couples from Oxfordshire and the northwest near Carlisle. Dr Jones gave the 10am Insight talk on “Lisbon,- City of Light”. Focused on the conflicts between the Moors and Christians to start, the recoveries from the earthquakes of 1531 and 1755. I found it quite interesting. Heading to the Britannia for lunch, I went the simple route, with the soup and sandwich offering: panzanella salad and pastrami and cheddar cheese on rye bread.

The post-lunch Insight talk by Coville entitled “Is there anybody out there?” was on the role Lisbon had played as spy capitol during the Second World War. Quite entertaining.

My plans for the afternoon were to walk another mile, but about 2pm we began approaching the Straits of Gibraltar, passing the Crown Colony first. Taking the Nikon up to the Observation Deck (11), the zoom allowed me to get a couple dozen hazy shots of clouds over the Rock, and the very distant Tangier and Tarifa.

Tea was “Tea Dance”, where several men were rolling through partners as the band played. I sat with Graham and Allison, enjoying the relaxed ambiance, nibbling away and drinking too much tea. My last brief note for the journal that day was that I’d head to the cabin for a nap, and then join the solo gathering in the Champagne Bar. Looking at the photo of the menu and the food I had, I started with Indonesian chicken salad, followed by duck a l’orange. As it turned out, with the two English couples heading to specialty restaurants, we three solos (Paul, Susan and I) were moved to fill other tables. I showed up last, so while I was first seated with them, I was soon bounced to a different table with three other solos: Peter, Jeanette and Deanna. The waiters retrieved my bottle of CdP, and the four of us had a pleasant talk while dining.

Oatmeal with nuts, banana, fruit and milk

Day 5 – Lisbon: After gaining an hour overnight, I slept in, still getting my juice, coffee and oatmeal before heading off the ship armed with my camera and hat into the city of Lisbon. Relying on Maps, I crossed the street outside the port and rode the bus 45 minutes to Belém. The driver missed my stop, so along with three others, we walked down Rio dos Jerónimos a few blocks before I turned east. Three long blocks put me overlooking the square and the Ordinariato Castrense de Portugal: Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Livramento e de São José.

Facade, Ordinariato Castrense de Portugal: Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Livramento e de São José, Lisbon
Ordinariato Castrense de Portugal: Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Livramento e de São José, Lisboa

The small domed church stood on a flat stretch of ground, a park with mature trees and a children’s area. I walked around the building, looking for entry points, trying without success to enter. A doorbell beside the side door didn’t seem to work either. So after getting more exterior shots, I tried the bell again, and this time the housekeeper opened, and, with sign language, bits of Italian, Spanish and French, I managed to gain entry. I learned that the church is used infrequently, as it is the Military Ordinariate for Portugal, with mostly only funeral services. Natural light is abundant, from windows in the nave’s clerestory, the lantern of the dome, but it doesn’t reach the rear of the nave, under a loft. A shrine to the Virgin and Child, and to the Sacred Heart sits raised above and behind the gold tabernacle.

My guess, the pews in the nave might sit 60 comfortably. I roamed behind the sanctuary, finding the simple leather armchair that is the cathedra. A sarcophagus-like coffin sits on a pedestal in a walkway, the remains of the first Marquez de Pombal. The sacristy was similar to many a church robing room I’ve visited, with a deep dresser of narrow drawers containing vestments, with an ironing board handy. The caretaker woman came to fetch me, and, after soliciting a donation, directed me to a stairwell at the rear of the building which took me to the roof past small shrines in the windowsills. The door, below the bells in the tower, opened to a flat surface which is over the side aisles and rear nave. I had a great view of the dome, and of the city leading out to the Tagus River and Banatica on the far shore. Coming downstairs, I thanked her and slipped out the door.

Taking an alternate route down the hill towards the river, I had the Ponte 25 de Abril suspension bridge in view. Some of the buildings had the classic blue-and-white times decorating their exteriors.

I had my eyes set to find a wine shop, to get two bottles to bring back on board. When I reached the Jerónimos Monastery and its Maritime museum, I walked back up another street and found a shop. The retailer was doing a small tasting, but took time to show me some of his selections, and suggested that I get two of the same varietal blends, but aged differently. [One had traditional cave storage, while the other had been kept for a year at 30-meters below the surface of a lake. Both were from Conde D’Ervideira.]

Hungry, I stopped at La Fóllia, a pizza place, where I sat inside with a beer and the Portuguese version of a diavolo combo. At a table for 4, I spotted a pair waiting, and invited them to sit with me. She travels for business, while her son in in university, imminently departing for a half year’s study of economics in Columbia. We had a delightful lunch. The two women running the front of the restaurant only took cash, which wasn’t an issue, but they were rather charming. A market was nearby, so I got (more) chocolate. Into a pharmacy, I picked up a tube of arthritis balm, which I didn’t actually use.

Back down to the tourist district, I decided to head back to the ship, and jumped onto a #728 bus. I got a seat, although the bus filled at the next stop. Once back at the port, past Duty Free, I pulled out my tax forms and went to the officials and got all the stamps I needed. I was able to submit some of the paperwork (the merchants use different agencies to process refunds), and took the others back aboard. When I got back on board, I headed to the purser’s desk and “returned” my passport. As it turned out, I needed it (as I anticipated, thus retrieving it, much to their consternation) for the detaxe. After dropping off my purchases and camera, I headed down for tea, which I enjoyed, albeit solo. It gave me a chance to write in my journal, and to handle a voice mail (from the AC folks who wanted payment for their housecall to get my system working again.)

After an hour’s nap, I went to the solo gathering, but no one appeared. I snagged my camera on my way up to deck 7, where I spent about an hour in the open taking photos as we sailed down the Tagus to the Atlantic. Lisbon’s answer to the Cristo Re of Rio stands over the south hills, and passing under the bridge was reminiscent of leaving New York harbor at the start of this trip. The memorial to the sixteenth century explorers jutted into the embankment, with my last cathedral of the trip behind it on the hill.

After dropping my camera and upgrading my attire, I returned to the regular table (313) with the seven of us. Our sommelier had to scurry a bit to retrieve my wine, but it eventually arrived. I started with three appetizers: venison and blue cheese pasty, asparagus and piquillo pepper marmalade and sweet potato soup. For the main, lamp rump and crispy lamb shoulder, as I’d learned that red meat tended to be the more flavored mains. Besides the cheese plate, I asked for the amaretto crème brùlée.

Day 6 – at sea: For a change, I ordered poached eggs and bacon with a banana, coffee and juice for breakfast. From there forward to Illuminations for the Insights talk on International Drug Smuggling by Malcolm Nelson “It must have been something I ate”. Informative and entertaining, we heard about how contraband detection has grown and evolved. Sit down lunch of pork rillettes, tomato and basil soup, “angry shrimp” linguini with a Bambar amber beer. After lunch another lecture, this by Alastair Greene in his series on Cunard Maritime History: “The Lizzie – Cunard’s Forgotten Queen”. For me, this harkened back to the Bill Miller talks on the HAL Rotterdam at the start of my trip, with old photos and stories about the earlier Queen Elizabeth liner.

While I wasn’t writing much in my journal, I did take a picture at tea, as well as the dinner menu: escargot a la Bourguignonne, green asparagus salad, and surf & turf – grilled fillet mignon. For “dessert”, just the stilton cheese, and the candied ginger – I wasn’t too impressed with the other cheese choices. It had been formal night, so we had all dressed up, with me in the Rome suit and one of my new ties. I headed to the Royal Theater for the late performance of Broadway Rocks.

Day 7 – at sea: for breakfast I added an order of mixed fruits to the banana and hot milk I put in my oatmeal (they didn’t have real brown sugar for the entire crossing, just packets of beige sugar.) Over coffee, I talked with the Oxfordshire couple again, as our schedules seemed to mesh and we got seated together. Then I was off for the first Insights talk in Sir Christopher Coville’s World Affairs Enrichment series, his talk “Formation Aerobatics – How do they do it?” The focus was on the RAF Red Arrows and had great photos to accompany the entertaining talk. After I headed to the track on deck 7 where I managed 7 laps, the latter half with Paul, a solo Serb. I couldn’t get into lunch early (opened at noon, and there was a 12:15 talk) so I put that off until after the Illuminations talk by Malcom Nelson in the International Drug Smuggling series on “Ships, Boats and Planes: A look at different ways and types of smuggling”. Again, an interesting talk of the clever ways criminals make illegal attempts to bring goods into countries.

Late lunch in Britannia with a near full table – “tall” Paul (from dinner), Paul from DC/Florida, Jo & Jim from the Lake district. My choices were duck rillettes and cream of chicken soup to start, green chili chicken quesadilla as a main, with mango sorbet to finish. Natasha at the Champagne Bar had wrangled me to join her for champagne tea, so I wandered the shops for a bit before it started at 3. I found out when I showed up that it had been canceled as it had been undersubscribed.

So I headed to the Queen’s Room for regular afternoon tea. As I waited for the servers to parade in at half past, I updated my journal with my observations on my cabin – that information was included in the first day report. Tea was crowded, so I was joined by 3 men from Sri Lanka, two being mid-teens preparing for A-level exams. The younger, more precocious one was a musician, paying much attention to the harpist’s performance. His quandary was to choose music or follow his parents into medicine, firmly eyeing the financial consequences of his choice. All were vegetarian, and passed on dairy as well, so ate very little.

A quick stop in the cabin to collect the Chromebook, I headed downstairs to the bar where I wrote until the notebook squawked that it needed juice. I wound up talking with a couple and their young daughter, the latter revealing her favorite part of the entire 2-week cruise had been swimming in the ship’s pool. When they moved on, I headed up for a nap, plugging in the computer.

The dinner would be the last we’d be together with the 5 Englishmen – they were departing the next morning, so conversation was merry. I had brought down the younger of the two Portuguese wines, from which I enjoyed a glass with dinner.

Paul had the haggis croquette, while most of us settled for just the greens and rocket salad, and I had the cream of asparagus soup. The roast sirloin of beef and the plaice fillet were favored, but I went for the chicken tikka masala which I thought was excellent. Stilton for dessert and then we all left to catch the final performance in the Royal Theater. “Swing & Jack Pack” opened with the singers and dancers we’d seen in the Broadway show, and then three singers sang for the remainder of the 45-minute show.

Day 8 – Southampton: The Queen Mary 2 was docked when I got to the Britannia dining room at 7:45 for my breakfast. Seated solo, I jotted in the journal; the early start was because the dining room would close at 8. On my way down the stairs, the queue at Immigration Control (for those staying on board) was longer than I expected. I heard from the servers that the crossing would not be at capacity.

Book: Cathedrals to the Glory of God
Cathedrals to the Glory of God

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