The itinerary of our Mediterranean cargo ship voyage was: Southampton, Salerno (Italy), Piraeas (Greece), Izmir (Turkey), Limassol (Cyprus), Alexandria (Egypt), Ashdod (Israel), Salerno again, Savona (Italy), Setubal (Portugal) and Bristol. Gran Bretagna, (tonnage 51,700), on which we sailed was vast compared to Horncap, (tonnage 17,439), the vessel we had travelled on to the Caribbean. Gran Bretagna was a roll on roll off car carrier with eleven decks and the capacity to carry 4,650 cars. For some idea of her size notice the vehicles on the quay at her bow.
She was of the Italian line Grimaldi and as it transpired Hilary and I were the only passengers on board. We had the owner’s cabin; en suite double bedroom with sitting-room attached. It is always more spacious and comfortable than the other cabins available to passengers.
We joined the ship at Southampton and late that night as we left the quay we went onto the bridge. As we stood inconspicuously at one end while we moved slowly down the Solent a voice behind us in a strong English accent asked if we were English. It was the pilot. We told him we were Irish.
‘My name is Seán O’Toole, I’m Irish too. My father came from Galway.’
He was on for a chat and told us among other things that despite modern electronic technology and up-to-date satellite aids to navigation: ‘ships are still bumping into each other all over the place.’ When we were into open water Seán O’Toole said a warm goodbye and left the bridge to board his launch which was hovering alongside to take him ashore.
In no time another voice spoke to us from the darkness: ‘Coffee?’ We accepted, and Mark the able seaman on duty returned in a few minutes with two espresso sized paper cups of what I can only describe as coffee flavoured syrup into which he had poured half a bag of sugar, each! To be polite we finished them. This became a feature of our four weeks on board, and very soon we looked forward to our fix every time we went onto the bridge and by the time we left the ship we were hooked!
We sailed south, through the Strait of Gibraltar bound for Salerno on the west coast of Italy just south of the Bay of Naples. On a warm sunny afternoon we sailed into the Gulf of Salerno, past the Isle of Capri and the Amalfi coast and docked at the quay with a view of Vesuvius in the distance.
I knew of Salerno as the site of the main Allied landings on the mainland of Italy after the North Africa campaign and the capture of Sicily during the Second World War. An uncle of mine had been taken prisoner of war at the Volturno River crossing north of there. It was also, during World War II, the site of the largest mutiny in British military history.
We were able to go up town for a few hours, had a meal and were back to the ship in good time to sail for Pireas, the port of Athens, later that night. When we docked the following day we took a taxi from the port into Athens and had time to go to the Acropolis to see the Parthenon.
The Bridge Deck after Discharge of Cars at Pireas
Next port of call was Izmir, Turkey, where we spent some time in the town and where Hilary tripped over the kerb of a flower bed, fell heavily and some solicitous locals called an ambulance. She was checked in the ultra efficient out patients’ department of the hospital. She was seen immediately on arrival by a delightful team of a doctor and two nurses. All was well but for some bruising.
We sailed that evening for Limassol Cyprus. Again we had plenty of time to go ashore and explore the town. Our shopping included some cereals to add variety to our breakfast on board, and something I hadn’t seen since I was a child – a proper natural sponge from the seabed. I think it is Illegal to sell these sponges in Europe, but we were glad to buy one for Tegan, our one-year-old granddaughter for bath time. We had a meal on the seafront, returned to the ship and sailed in the evening for Alexandria.
Street Scene, Limassol
The shipping company was concerned for passenger security at Alexandria so it was the only port of call on the voyage at which we were not able to go ashore. Furthermore if passengers were able to go up town they would be held up by officials at every turn who would expect significant baksheesh before allowing them through. This would cost passengers both financially and in time, which would make a visit not worthwhile. We admired the shoreline and quays of the port from the harbour and ironically as it transpired, Albino, one of the ABs, pointed out to us one of President Mubarak’s palaces!
Alexandria from Harbour with Mubarak Palace with Dome to the Right
The last port of call on our outward journey was Ashdod, Israel. When we docked there a security officer came on board and in the small hours of the morning she photographed, fingerprinted and inspected the passports of all crew and both passengers on board. In the morning were free to go ashore and we had time to travel by taxi to Jerusalem, one hour away. Our taxi driver cum tour guide was Eyal, a most affable secular Jew in his mid forties.
Eyal Our Driver and Guide
He brought us to the sites in Jerusalem: the Garden of Gethsemane,
Olive Trees, Garden of Gethsemane
the Tomb of Mary, the Wailing Wall with the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock behind it, Via Doloroso, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which contains the site of the crucifixion and the tomb of Christ’s burial.
The Wailing Wall
He would have brought us further but we were both exhausted, so after a fascinating day during which I was entirely incredulous that any of the putative sites might have been authentic, we left Jerusalem for Ashdod and Gran Bretagna. We were glad to have seen Jerusalem, but it had no religious significance for either of us.
Pointed out to us as a Hand-Print of Jesus, Via Doloroso
The return voyage, Ashdod to Bristol, will be posted by the third week of September.