The Four Seasons restaurant is beautiful, and being a northern European I can never resist taking dinner on the flowered terrace, as well as breakfast the following morning. Arriving early gave us the time to explore the newly invigorated River Tagus waterside before going on to the Belem Tower, the Monument to the Discoveries, Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Jerónimos Monastery) and to marvel yet again, at the glories of the Manueline and Gothic carving and the tomb of Vasco da Gama.
I admit to being obsessed with churches, cathedrals and chapels. They tell you almost everything about a country’s rulers, where their wealth came from, the local craftsmanship and the subsequent history. A guide helps too, although I don’t love clustering around a single person, struggling to hear what is said.
But what memories I have from those trips, and there were more glories when our Silversea cruise ship reached Porto – or Oporto, as it is to us – nearly 200 miles up the Portuguese coast. This is a city of multicoloured buildings high in the hills that appear to be tumbling down to the river. There we visited the city’s cathedral with its stunning workmanship, before heading to the Igreja de São Francisco, where the interior carvings are overlaid with some 300-400 kilos of gold leaf, like some lavish, gleaming jewel box. Later, at a port tasting, my husband renewed his acquaintance with white port as a summer drink, particularly with tonic water, lemon and mint.
Another evening sailing and we were in Spain, and Coruna, the city of crystal, so called for its small, windowed galleries, a form of early double glazing, which makes the city shine, and where our excellent guide gave us the Spanish version of the Battle of Coruna and some tapas tastings.
On to Bilbao, and the Guggenheim museum with its huge modern art installations – we just missed the giant spider – and a heavily policed street demonstration by Basque separatists. Still in Spain, we arrived at San Sebastián via the French port of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, a place of half-timbered buildings, wide beaches, and a history of corsairs, or piracy.
There were more pirates in San Sebastián, set in a perfect bay, with even wider beaches. During a tour of the cobbled streets of the old town, we enjoyed generous tapas tastings, and were enchanted by musicians in an old bandstand in a square playing Celtic music, as hundreds of people, tourists included, arms in the air, engaged in what looked to us like Irish dancing.
Further north, back in France, the port of Le Verdon was our gateway to Bordeaux, that most elegant of cities, with its vast mirror splash fountain, for children aged from two to 82. We also visited La Rochelle, a harbour city with a wonderfully laid-back feel, and Belle Île, a tiny island with a tiny market – just six stalls – and an ancient military citadel.
Saint-Malo, was, of course, bigger and grander; a hugely impressive walled city where we walked the ramparts, peering down into narrow streets and large squares. Then, with the shock of the familiar at St Peter Port, Guernsey, we might almost have been home. Floral displays everywhere, more cobbled streets, offshore banks with familiar names, and Boots and Marks & Spencer.
Out final stop was Rouen, and we visited Notre Dame de Rouen cathedral, a huge Gothic, elaborately carved edifice built on foundations dating from 396, and a facade painted many times by Claude Monet. Not to forget Joan of Arc – and the spot where she was burned at the stake.
From every trip, whatever we had found, we enjoyed coming back “home” to the ship. Our fellow passengers were most entertaining and amiable. The art we had seen in the museums we visited was for me outclassed by the art on the walls of the public areas on board. Most cruise ships’ art for sale is cheerful rubbish, but this changing collection included works by Rembrandt, Picasso, Chagall, Monet, Dali and others. It was out-of-reach expensive, even the middle grade etchings (some the price of a small apartment) but lovely to see.
We ate too much, of course. The many dining options were too tempting, for as well as the main restaurant, there was Seishin, an Asian fusion restaurant, Le Champagne, the ultimate in fine French cuisine, La Terrazza for Italian, Stars Supper Club for small plates accompanied by jazz in a re-creation of the Embassy Club in New York, and The Grill for superb steaks cooked on volcanic hot rocks.
We drank well; there was a Pommery champagne promotion on board, and a spa and fitness centre to undo the damage; and in a real plus, all 540 passengers had a butler for their suite, and we were lucky enough to have Rodolfo and his assistant, Nino. Always smiling, endlessly helpful – Rodolfo showed us how to fold and pack a suit jacket – they went to my husband’s head. He needed a couple of shirts laundered, and when he said, “I’ll ask my man to do it,” I knew that he had been reading far too much Jeeves and Wooster.
However, reality beckoned for both of us with a transfer to the grisly Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, a dreadful meal in the bistro there, and the knowledge that we would be stocking up in the supermarket the next day. But a wonderful trip while it lasted.