May 26-29. The southern coasts of Spain and France are popular vacation destinations. Fashionable seaside towns, sidewalk cafes and moderate Mediterranean weather attract millions of vacationers, despite the gravelly beaches and poor water quality of the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a popular vacation spot for people in northern Europe, as well as many other places around the world. Saudi billionaires build compounds here, and ordinary millionaires own condos and yachts. Shops, restaurants and beaches are crowded. There is no shortage of travelers, though for those holding weak currencies it’s an expensive place.
We visit Marseille, considered the oldest city in France, founded by the Greeks in 600 B.C. Population 850,000. For thousands of years, various empire builders from Europe, Africa and the Middle East came to this area, behaved badly, and eventually relinquished control to newer empires. From these waves of conquest, the people of Marseille share some common cultural heritage with parts of Spain that they do not share with northern France. For our brief stop here, we drive through the city, unfortunately during their rush hour. We drive past a large harbor, packed with private sailboats and yachts. The streets are lined with sidewalk cafes, mostly empty during the late morning hours. Eventually we get past the traffic, drive up and over some hills, and get a nice view of this seaside metropolis. It’s an attractive low-rise city set in a wide shallow valley. There are major construction projects underway including seaside hotels, shopping malls, large entertainment facilities. Will be nice in two more years, but for now it causes traffic problems.
We drive to the small town of Cassis, another fashionable location for the yacht & cafe set. Other travelers say it’s similar to St. Tropez, though less crowded. Again, an expensive town. Bathroom stop is .6 Euro, or about one dollar. Gasoline is around $9/gallon, compared to U.S. price of $3.80/gallon. Some might recognize ‘cassis’ by the product Creme de Cassis, a sweet liquer made from black currant. The town has a population of around 8,000 people. The entire harbor is lined with sidewalk cafes, from which one can admire hundreds of attractive yachts. There are charming old narrow streets filled with interesting shops, all expensive of course. Sadly we are allotted just 1 hour here. This is one of the disadvantages of bus tours for cruise passengers – sometimes there is just not enough time.
We leave France and sail to Spain. It is a warm, sunny day, no rain. If there were rain, it would fall mainly in the plain. We stop in Barcelona, population 1.6 million. Archaeologists have found cave paintings here dating back 15,000 years, indicating a long tradition of art. The first known empire here was founded by the Carthaginian general and brilliant military strategist, Hannibal. He invaded Spain, found it too expensive, and left.
I take a shuttle bus into town, walk down one of the main streets, tree-lined with most of the space for pedestrians, only limited narrow lanes for traffic. The place is packed with people of all ages, both tourists and locals. Street vendors, artists, performers add to the color. Some people are staging a protest – sitting in the street blocking traffic in the main square, singing songs. Even more people line the sidewalks to watch the people sitting in the street, waiting for something to happen. Nothing happens, so people go to get something to eat. Lots of places to eat, lots of energy. Then back to the ship. In the evening a local dance group performs traditional flamenco dancing for the passengers. Very colorful, fast-paced entertainment.
The following day, the Barcelona football team (soccer) defeats Manchester United to win a big important match, making them the new official champion of Europe. Yea.
Third stop on this stretch of the Mediterranean is Malaga, Spain – birthplace of Pablo Picasso. From this large touristy town we drive to the smaller though even more touristy town of Marbella, which is Spanish for ‘beautiful sea.’ We walk around for a while, see the beach, shops, restaurants. All very nice, very familiar. Then to the more upscale Puerto Banus, which is Spanish for ‘place of expensive yachts’. Many huge yachts and very expensive cars everywhere. Rolls Royces, Lamborghinis, Bentleys, etc. Nice architecture, obviously some wealthy people hang out here. I consider buying a yacht, but decide to buy a gelato instead.
Back on the bus then back to the ship. We sail west through the strategic Strait of Gibralter, a sixty mile wide gap between Africa and Europe, separating the Mediterranean from the Atlantic. This ‘rock’ and a small area around it is actually owned by the U.K. Being close to Africa, it’s a popular place for unemployed people from Morocco and nearby countries to travel to Europe, illegally or otherwise, seeking employment. Around 9:30 pm we pass about 3 miles offshore from the famous Rock of Gibralter. To the south I can see the mountains of Morocco, Africa. Near the rock I see a small town and harbor. There are many ships there, and I know that one of them is the sailboat my son is traveling on as he heads east into the Mediterranean. Our ships pass in the night. Too far away to wave, so I send an email.
(photo at top of page is street in Marseille)
Yachts in harbor of Marseille
Harbor of Cassis
View from hills over Cassis
Street in Marseille
Protesters block street in Barcelona
Lots of pedestrians in Barcelona
Phil’s sailing vessel for his Atlantic crossing
Small plaza in Marbella
Yachts in Puerto Banus
Rolls Royce in Puerto Banus
Yacht berths in Puerto Banus