Going Home, Newcastle

I’m going home, Newcastle
You can keep your London wine,
I’d walk the street, all day all neet
For a bottle of the River Tyne.



Got up at around 9.00am and looked out of our window.  We could tell we were back in the open sea as the water was a little choppier, and we could see one or two white horses.  At first I thought it was foggy until I realised our window was covered in a fine mist of sea spray.  The sun was bravely trying to penetrate the clouds.

At 10 o’clock we went along to the packed Morning Light pub to do the quiz.  The only seats available were the stools at the bar, so we each perched on one and attempted the 20 questions.  We only got 15/20 – not enough to win.  As we’ve only amassed two prize tokens this cruise, we decided we’d keep them until our next FOCL voyage, which will be next March and will be on the Balmoral again.

We the returned to cabin 6009 and reluctantly dragged one of the cases out from under to bed to start our packing, figuring the more we do now, the less we’ll have to do later on.  Then we just pottered around the ship for a while and decided to take a stroll around the deck.  On the lee side it wasn’t too bad at all, but on the windward side it was uncomfortably blustery in the North Sea, so we went back inside again.

Today they were advertising the Grand Gala Seafood Lunch Buffet in the Ballindalloch restaurant, starting at 12.00 noon, so we went along in good time as I had to be ready for my pedicure in three quarters of an hour.  The doors were opening just as we got there, so in we went, and I piled my plate high with lobster, crab claws, king prawns, shell-on prawns, fresh mussels and the large green-lipped mussels.  My mouth was watering at the sight of the gleaming fresh seafood on its bed of crushed ice.  Yum yum!  😊

We washed it down with a crisp, cold glass of cava each, then I wandered around the food works of art, looking at the amazing ice sculptures and melon and fruit sculptures and the way the food had been laid out so artistically.  It really must have taken some time, just for the sculptures to be demolished by hoards of hungry Brits!  😊

I took lots of photos for my web site; one of them was an iced cake in the shape of the Balmoral sailing on a blue sea from which the tail and head of a spouting whale appeared.  It was wonderful.

Afterwards I went up to the Atlantis Spa with its floor to ceiling windows affording fantastic views of the passing seascape, with its occasional distant oil rigs and other ships passing by.  I really enjoyed my pedicure; it included a foot and leg scrub and massage, as well as deep moisturising mask in which my feet were wrapped in cling-film then placed into some warm bootees for 15 minutes.  During that time, I received a complimentary neck and shoulder massage which was bliss.

I was in the spa for about an hour, and was surprised to find it was only £35.00, way cheaper than I pay for a luxury pedicure at home.  I tipped the lady a fiver because she’d done such a good job.

Back in our cabin we did a little more packing, then I decided to have a power-nap to make up for our late night once again.

We then went up to the Lido Lounge and watched the “Singing for Fun” group practising their scales before we went out into the conservatory part of the Lido Lounge, the one that overlooks the swimming pool on the rear decks.  We spotted Gill and Carl by the window and went over to join them for a short while, before joining John and Linda for the afternoon trivia.  A win eluded us once again!

We then had to go and get ourselves ready for the Captain’s Farewell Cocktail Party at half-past five.  It wasn’t a formal evening, but I still dressed smartly in a blue floral maxi dress with a pair of Irregular Choice shoes that matched very well.  One lady sitting at a nearby table came over and asked me where I got my shoes from, and I explained all about IC and gave her the URL for the web site.  Hardly anyone seems to have heard of Irregular Choice, which I find quite surprising when they’ve been around for 20 years.

This time the captain appeared at the captain’s cocktail party; in fact it was the first time we’d seen Captain Victor Stoica all this cruise. He introduced a selection of crew members while we enjoyed some glasses of fizz and hot and cold pre-dinner canapés (more eating and drinking!!)

Afterwards Trevor hotfooted it along to our cabin to pick up the bottle of cava we’d won previously, so we could all enjoy it tonight in the restaurant, as it was our “Last Supper”.  ☹

In the Ballindalloch we enjoyed the usual scrumptious four course meal: appetiser, salad or soup course, entrée, and dessert or cheese.  We washed it down with the bottle of fizz and clinked glasses with each other, then followed it with coffee and in Trevor’s and my case, a liqueur; Trevor had a Benedictine and I had a ruby port.  It was sad to be leaving the restaurant for the last time.  ☹

As the cabaret this evening wasn’t due to start until 9.00pm because of the second-sitting captain’s party, we went back to our cabin and did most of our packing, only leaving out whatever we’d need for the remainder of this evening and tomorrow morning.

We then bagged out seats in the Neptune Lounge for the Farewell Variety Show, with Gill and Carl sitting well back because the magician and the comedian were performing again, as well as the fantastic Balmoral Show Company and the talented musicians of the orchestra.

Trevor and I sat in our usual front-row seats but it meant that both Trevor and I were picked to help Rick Green, the magician, with a trick.  😊

We enjoyed the show very much and went, as usual, to the Observatory for the quiz, but it was fairly empty due to most people, I would imagine, doing their packing.  There was no sign of John or Linda or any of our other team-mates, so we just did the quiz on our own, and didn’t win once again.

There was nothing on in the Lido Lounge tonight, so we just stayed where we were in the Observatory.  Shortly afterwards Gill and Carl joined us, and we sat discussing various points of this very good cruise, with some excellent ports of call and interesting cultural and historical experiences.

As we had to be up at 7.00am, we determined we weren’t going to be burning the candle at both ends tonight, and in fact we were back in cabin 6009 by midnight.  We then finalised our packing and put the cases outside our door for collection.   Then we settled down for our last sleep on board the Balmoral.  As we were back in British waters now, we had to put our clocks back to BST, so we gained an extra hour in bed, which was no bad thing.

By the time the alarm went off the next morning, we found ourselves right back where we started from, in the Port of Tyne.  Needless to say, the skies were grey and the rain gusted down.

As Geordie folk group “Busker” sang, it was “Home Newcastle” and the end of another fabulous cruise.  Can’t wait for the next one!  😊

Handbags and Gladrags

Wednesday.  The holiday was certainly looking a bit sick now – had we really been on the Balmoral a week already?  Despite us only having two days left I could not get out of my pit this morning which was hardly surprising after our very late night last night.  It was after half-ten before I dragged my backside out of bed and sluggishly got washed and dressed.

It was nearly 11 o’clock before I went up to the Palms Café to get a cup of coffee, thinking that breakfast would have been long over.  However, they were still serving food and there were still quite a lot of other people having a late breakfast, so I wasn’t the only one.  As tonight was formal night again, the inevitable bottles of cava were present, so I decided to have a hair of the dog along with my plate of cold meats, smoked salmon and fresh melon and pineapple.  😊

Trevor had already had his breakfast a couple of hours ago, but he had a cup of coffee to keep me company.  Afterwards we had a wander around on deck before deciding to go ashore once more, as Rouen was, unfortunately, our last port of call.  ☹

Once again we proceeded down the gangplank, which was quite steep today because the tide must have been higher.  We made our way to the waiting shuttle buses for the short ride into town, this time making a note of where we were dropped off.  Then we just wandered through the streets again, looking in the shop windows and at the architecture and just stretching our legs, trying to work off some of the vastly excessive calories we’d consumed (a tiny drop in the ocean, so to speak).

As I was really tired and was walking around like one o’clock half-struck, we only spent about an hour or so looking around, before taking a slow stroll back to the shuttle bus and returning to the ship in time for lunch.  Even though I’d only eaten breakfast a couple of hours before, the food is so delicious and tempting it was far too easy to make a pig of myself, and I washed it down with a cold beer.

As we discovered we still had some free on-board credit to spend, I went along to the Atlantis Spa to see if they could fit me in for a luxury pedicure tomorrow, when we had a day at sea.  I was booked in for 12.45pm, so that was something to look forward to.  The salon and spa prices are very reasonable on board; in some cases they’re cheaper than what I pay back home!

Back in our cabin I spent some time doing this blog, catching up on emails and reading.  Then tiredness overcame me and I decided to have a kip to try to catch up on the lost sleep last night.  Trevor went to the quiz with John and Linda at 3.45pm, but I was too tired to get out of bed.

By this time the Balmoral had cast off and was starting to make her way back along the Seine towards the English Channel and, eventually, the North Sea.

When Trevor came back from the quiz he said that they only narrowly lost; a couple of the questions they answered incorrectly I knew the answers to, so if I’d been there we might have won the quiz!

As the ship was now sailing again, it meant the shop was open, and they were having a special “£10.00” event where bags, purses, hats, pashminas, watches and costume jewellery were all ten pounds each.  If you bought four items you could choose a fifth for free.  We went along and I had a good browse through the goodies, choosing a couple of handbags. One was a neat little pink one (I wear a lot of pink) and the other was a grey satin clutch bag decorated with diamanté.  As I had forgotten to bring an evening bag with me, the clutch bag would be ideal to carry with my formal dress tonight.  😊

Afterwards we returned to cabin 6009 where I had a bath (our cabin has a bathtub) and took my time getting ready for the formal evening.  My hair was back to its usual messy state so I put on one of my wigs and did my makeup.  Then I donned a black off-the-shoulder dress with silver polka dots, and a pair of Irregular Choice shoes in silver glitter, with a big bow on the top and high heels.  The shoes were interesting as they were pressure sensitive, and when you walked or danced on hard floors the bows came alive with flashing lights.  😊

I teamed my new bag with my outfit and Trevor put on his DJ and bow-tie, and off we went to the Ballindalloch Restaurant once more.  By this time any tiredness had left me and I looked forward to what the evening had in store.

After dinner we went along to bag a good seat for the inimitable Balmoral Crew Show, and we got our usual front row seats with Gill and Carl sitting in the row behind.  I showed Gill the new bag I’d got for a tenner, and she decided to go and get one too, in a beige colour that would match a dress she had.  She returned a few minutes later carrying a white paper bag.  😊

While Gill was away getting her bag, we heard a kerfuffle behind us and turned to see that a lady had knocked her drink over, and her Tequila Sunrise had gone all over Carl’s jacket.  Waiters were summoned to clean the table and provide some paper towels for Carl to blot his jacket with, and meanwhile the lady offered to pay for the dry-cleaning.  However, a member of staff kindly came over with a voucher for Carl to get his jacket cleaned for free.  😊

The colourful Crew Show began, and we were treated to traditional folkloric songs and dances from the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand.  Then the deck hands came out in their sailor suits and danced and postured to the Village People’s In The Navy and YMCA.

Then cruise director Allan Tait introduced the boys from the engine room.  We’d seen this before so we knew the audience were in for a real treat.  When they came out onto the stage to the strains of the Crazy Frog, there was a huge laugh from the audience.  The guys wore their overalls tied around their waists and had their arms, shoulders and heads covered in black material to look like hair.  Their bare torsos had faces drawn on them, and the overall effect was that of a very short man with a very big head.  They danced around and goofed about, bumping into each other and falling over as the manic music played and it was very entertaining.  If the laughs and giggles from the audience were anything to go by, the Engine Room lads were a huge hit. 😊

At the end of the show, the whole cast came back onto the stage and sang “We Are The World” to rapturous applause.  It certainly was a very good show, and the talented crew had made all their costumes themselves.

Afterwards it was the usual; the quiz in the Observatory, where Trevor and I and John and Linda were joined by the pleasant couple we’d met the other night.  John said that the rules were that we were not to change our minds about any answers.  We got a decent score between us; in fact we were one of three teams who had the highest score, so it had to go to the tie-breaker.  The question was “How many baked beans are there in a standard size tin?”  Who on earth would know that?!  We estimated about 300 but the actual answer was 465.  Another team had over 400 as their answer, so we missed out once again.  John said the first thing he was going to do when he got home was open a tin of beans and count them!  😊

We then had to get to the Lido Lounge with all speed as there was a special show tonight.  Howard Johnson, the guitarist and singer in the Morning Light pub, was doing his tribute to Freddie Mercury and Queen.  When we arrived there, some people were just coming out from the previous show, and we spotted Gill and Carl there.  Eventually we were able to get a table near the front, and Gill and Carl joined us to see the show again.  As we were all in our gladrags, Gill asked someone passing by if they’d take a photo of us, which they did.

John and Linda then arrived, but the Lido Lounge was packed out and there was nowhere for them to sit near us.  Not to worry though; the Queen tribute was very entertaining and the guy put all his heart and soul into it, even putting on a fake tache and slicking back his hair so he looked more like Freddie Mercury.

After his encore, in which all the audience joined in with We Will Rock You and We Are the Champions, the lounge emptied out a bit and John and Linda came over to join us as Gill and Carl went off for their late-night buffet.

We all marvelled at the fact that we didn’t get to bed until three o’clock this morning, and we vowed that we weren’t going to have such a late night tonight.  Every time the bar staff came over and said “Would you like another drink?” we said “Oh, OK, just one more then…”  But one more became two more, then three more etc. but we were enjoying the conversation and the banter and the laughs so much we didn’t notice the time, and whilst it wasn’t 3.00am when we left the Lido Lounge it was still after half-past two!  Oh well, you only live once!  😊

Back in cabin 6009 we got washed and into our PJs and I was feeling quite sad that tomorrow would be the last day of this excellent cruise in which we had seen and learned so much.  Despite the late hour I was determined I wasn’t going to waste the last day languishing in my pit, so I set the alarm for 8.30am and we settled down to sleep in our comfortable bed in our comfortable cabin.

Roaming in Rouen

Didn’t get up until 9.00 this morning as all the late nights were starting to catch up with me.  Instead, I just took advantage of the tea- and coffee-making facilities in our cabin, and just got washed and dressed while perusing today’s daily programme.  As the Balmoral had already docked on the Seine in Rouen in the early hours of the morning, everything we wanted to see was within walking distance, and we therefore hadn’t booked any excursions.

In the programme I noticed the hair salon had a special offer on today; choose three Hair Services, including a blow-dry, for £40.00.  As I am so sick of my messy hair I decided to go up to the Atlantis Spa on Deck 10 and book myself in, making the appointment for 5.30pm.

The weather didn’t look to bad today (at least it was dry!) but Trevor still packed our cagoules into his rucksack, and we disembarked the Balmoral about 9.35 and went to get the shuttle bus into the town centre.  When we alighted from the bus, the driver told us that the shuttle buses would go from this point every 10 minutes.

Rouen is an incredibly picturesque, incredibly historic city, full of ancient old timbered buildings and churches and narrow little cobbled alleyways which reminded me a little of The Shambles in York.  The spire of a massive ornate cathedral, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen, dominated the skyline, and we decided to head towards it.

As we arrived in the square, we spotted a little street train (Le Petit Train de Rouen) which was doing 45-minute tours around the city, accompanied by a headphone commentary in the language of your choice.  We decided to have a go, handed over the 8.00 Euro fare each, and took our places inside the open sided vehicle.

As the train set off, we adjusted our headsets and selected English as our language.  It was a bit pointless, however, because the commentary blasted out of speakers in French, and practically drowned out the English.  We had to press the earpieces against our heads and listen hard, but I noticed some people had just given up.  We complained to the train driver who fiddled with the speakers, but it didn’t really make much difference.  We still managed to learn enough, however, to know what we were looking at as the train wended its way through the winding streets and eventually returned to the square.

We then took the time to visit the magnificent cathedral with its amazing architecture, statuary and fabulous stained-glass windows.  I found myself doing what I always do when visiting any cathedral; comparing it to our own famous 11th century edifice in Durham.  Needless to say, ours is always the best.  😊

Walking through the streets I took loads of photographs of the ancient buildings, some of which looked crooked and leaning. Old buildings rubbed shoulders with more modern ones and Rouen was obviously built long before town-planning came into force; nonetheless the effect was utterly charming.

What comes to mind whenever you think of Rouen?  Of course it has to be Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc), the 15th century French heroine who was convicted of heresy and burnt at the stake in 1431, and later canonised by the Catholic church.  We decided to have a walk around and see what we could learn about this historic figure.

We had already briefly glimpsed, from the little train, the monument marking the spot where Joan of Arc was executed, so we decided to walk back to it and also have a look around the nearby boat-shaped Church of St. Joan of Arc.

Joan of Arc was an important figure in the Hundred Years’ War and is said to have been inspired by the voice of God to rid her native France of the English. From freeing fortresses to entire cities such as Paris and Reims, Joan of Arc played a vital role in the war. However, in 1430, Joan was captured and sold to the English.  A lot of the persecution against her stemmed from the fact that she had cut her hair and dressed in men’s clothing, so there were accusations of cross-dressing as well as all the other (largely concocted) accusations against her.

She was tried and convicted of heresy and sentenced to die by burning, and she was tied to the stake and the flames lit beneath her.  As the smoke rose, she screamed out to be allowed a crucifix to hold, and she died of smoke inhalation, mercifully before her body was consumed by the flames.  The English ordered that Joan of Arc be burnt three times to ensure she couldn’t escape, and they raked back the embers to expose her ashes, which were then cast into the Seine.  She was only 19 years old when she died.

In 1456, a court led by Pope Calixtus III posthumously reversed the conviction. Joan of Arc was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920, and is one of France’s best-known heroines.

After visiting and photographing the monument we decided to visit the nearby church, which was a modern structure.  It was completed in 1979 in the centre of the ancient market square known as the Place du Vieux-Marché.  Inside, there were the most amazing, intricate and colourful stained-glass windows.  Despite the building only being 40 years old, it was intriguing and quite unique.  We bumped into Ron and Kath who were enjoying their visit to Rouen immensely.  They had been to the nearby fish and fresh produce market and that was where we decided to go to next.

The fish market was fantastic; stalls contained rows and rows of gleaming fresh fish, langoustines, lobsters, oysters, crabs and squid.  I love seafood and the appetising smell coming from the fresh fish was heavenly.  The British are such reticent eaters of fish; everywhere else in Europe the fish markets are huge and contain such a large variety of seafood, but the Brits don’t seem to enjoy fish as much as our continental neighbours.

After the fish market we bought some postcards and stamps to send home, so we decided to go and have a sit-down and a beer and write them out, so we went to find a nice little pavement bar-tabac.  We bought a nice big 500ml glass of cold beer each, wrote out the postcards and sat people-watching as we enjoyed our beer.  Afterwards we strolled through the streets, looking in the shop windows and stopping for an ice-cream on the way.  Of course, it would have to start raining again, and we met up with John and Linda and ran for cover in the shelter of a cathedral doorway.

When the rain eased off, we came out again and a French lady came up to us and asked “Est-ce qu’ily a quelqu’un ici qui parle Anglais?”  (Is there anyone here who speaks English?).  I answered her in French that we were indeed English, and she pointed out an old lady across the road who was lost and was soaked because she didn’t have a coat or umbrella.  “Elle est venue du navire croisière?” (Has she come from the cruise ship?) I asked the lady.  We crossed over the road to speak to the old lady and it transpired that she couldn’t find her way back to the shuttle bus stop.  Trevor directed her to where she would find the stop and, after telling John and Linda we would see them later, we decided to go to see the Joan of Arc Exhibition, which brought history to life by projecting scenes played by actors onto the walls of the building.  It sounded a good way to spend an hour and a half, so off we went, and paid 11,50 Euros each to go inside.

We were each given headsets and a recording which translated the scenes unfolding in 3D before us, and guided us from room to room throughout the medieval building.  Images and moving maps were projected onto the walls, vaults and pillars, and actors played the part of the main characters.  It brought the story to life, and you realised how Joan, known as “The Maid of Orléans” didn’t stand a chance in the male-dominated world.

When we came out of the museum it was nearly four o’clock, so we decided to go back for the shuttle bus as I needed to be back on board the Balmoral for 5.30pm for my hair appointment.  We walked around the streets in the general direction of where we thought the bus had dropped us off, but we soon realised we must have gone too far, because there was nothing we recognised.  As Bonnie Tyler once sang, we were “Lost in France”.  😊

By chance we met a couple of ladies from the ship who were also lost.  They had, however, made a note of the name of the square where the bus had dropped us off, so I made use of the Google Maps app on my phone to guide us back to the correct location.  Phew!  We spotted a group of people from the ship waiting for the bus, and shortly afterwards a shuttle bus arrived and disgorged its load of passengers.  As our group started to board the bus, however, the driver stopped them and told them he was going off duty, so we would have to wait for the next bus!

By now it was 4.40pm and I was starting worry that we wouldn’t be back on time for my hair appointment.  About 10 minutes later, however, another bus pulled up, and we all piled on.  We arrived back at the Balmoral just before five o’clock, giving me enough time to get washed and put some makeup on before going along to the salon.  As the French say, Tout est bien qui finit bien (All’s well that ends well).  😊

The guy in the salon washed my hair and put a deep conditioning mask on it, giving me a nice, relaxing scalp massage in the process.  Then he rinsed the mask off and blow-dried my hair, giving it lots of volume.  I certainly wouldn’t need to put a wig on tonight!

When I returned to our cabin Trevor had already gone to dinner, but it was only 6.20pm so I got changed in record time and hurried along to the restaurant only slightly late. Gill and Carl had only just arrived themselves and no-one had ordered their meal yet, so the timing was perfect.  What an interesting day we had had!

Once again we enjoyed a delicious four-course meal, washed down with rosé wine and finished off with Amaretto.  Gill and Carl agreed that the food was very good on the Balmoral, and each night Carl said he would only have a hot drink at the late-night buffet and nothing to eat, but he said that once he got there it was all so delicious that it was impossible to resist.  😊

We finished in good time tonight (the restaurant had a lot of empty tables as many people were still ashore) so we were able to get into the Neptune Lounge in good time to participate in the ballroom dancing.  As the magician Rick Green would be featuring again later on, Gill and Carl chose a seat a good few rows back, while Trevor and I took our usual front-row seat.

The dancing started and we got up and did a barn dance; Gill and Carl knew this one so they joined in.  Then Trevor and I did the cha cha cha and also the social foxtrot.  Then the deputy cruise director Chris said they would hold an elimination waltz and some spot prizes.  Everyone started to waltz around the room and the music stopped.  Chris then asked a question which was “What is the cocktail of the day?” and the first person to tap him on the shoulder and answer correctly could put their hand into a large Fred Olsen shopping bag and pull out a prize.  A lady got a Fred Olsen branded sun visor.  The dancing then recommenced and when it stopped the next question was “Who is the captain on the Balmoral?”  I was the first to answer correctly “Victor Stoica” so my prize in the lucky dip was an A5 Fred Olsen branded notebook.  And so it continued in a similar fashion until the last prize, which I also answered correctly.  Chris then said that the shopping bag was my prize, and handed it over!  😊

The elimination part of the dance now started.  Every time the music stopped Chris spun a bottle of cava on the dance floor and whichever couple it pointed to were eliminated.  Trevor and I were the second couple to go. Thus it continued until only one couple were left, and they won the bottle of cava.

Once the dancing finished it was then time for the main performance, and this time magician Rick Green did a great display of close-up magic, with incredible sleight of hand and entertaining patter.  It was a good show.

Then it was the usual – the quiz in the Observatory (nope, we didn’t win!) and then down to the Lido Lounge to listen to the resident band and enjoy a few drinks and bit crack.  By now we’d been joined by Ron and Kath as well as John and Linda and Gill and Carl.  Because the first karaoke had attracted a lot of singers they were holding another one at 11.15pm, and we spotted some of the previous singers arriving, including the boy wonder Alex.

I put my name down to do Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U and Carl, at my suggestion, opted for Elvis’s Love Me Tender.  The other singers were called to the microphone and then it was my turn.  Kath videoed me on her phone the whole time, and then sent it to me by WhatsApp, it was quite interesting to see how I looked and sounded as other people see me.

Once again the overall standard of the singers was quite high, and Carl did very well with Love Me Tender, particularly as he hadn’t done it before.  But it was the boy, Alex, who brought the house down with his rendition of Don’t Stop Me Now, by Queen, even lifting the microphone stand the way Freddie Mercury used to do!

Just before the karaoke ended Gill and Carl disappeared for the late-night buffet, so they missed me singing Amy Winehouse’s You Know I’m No Good.

Afterwards John, Linda, Ron, Kath and Trevor and I stayed talking, laughing and drinking in the Lido Lounge as the hours winged by and the Lido Lounge slowly emptied out. Eventually there was only one other couple left apart from us, and one of the bar staff said they were closing the bar and would we like one more drink.  We all did so, and once we’d finished we said our goodnights and made our way back through the silent empty corridors of the Balmoral to cabin 6009.  When we arrived, I looked at my phone and was astonished to see it said 02:50am.  I was sure the time zone must have inadvertently reset itself; surely it couldn’t be nearly three o’clock in the morning!  But indeed it was, and by the time we got undressed, washed and into our PJs it was after 3.00am.  How the time flies when you’re having fun in great company!  😊

We had another day in Rouen to look forward to tomorrow, and we were (unsurprisingly!) asleep as soon as our heads touched the pillow.

The D-Day Beaches at Normandy

“They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate.” — President Franklin D. Roosevelt

“And what a plan! This vast operation is undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult that has ever occurred.” — Winston Churchill

We got up about 8.20 this morning and went to have our breakfast in the Palms Café.  Judging by the fact that the pool deck was wet, it had obviously been raining again, and we hoped it would fair up for our excursion later on.  The Balmoral was due to dock on the Seine in Honfleur at 12.15pm.

We went along to have a look in the shop and see what special offers were on today. People (mainly ladies) were milling around at the tables laden with various wares such as bags, scarves, jewellery etc, but we didn’t see anything we wanted to buy today.

At 10 o’clock we went along to the Morning Light to do the quiz.  There was only Trevor and me in the team but we did quite well between the two of us, getting 16/20.  The winners got 18 however, so no prize for us once again.

As we had to be in the Neptune Lounge for 12.30pm for our excursion, we had an early lunch today, going up to the Avon Restaurant at half-eleven, as soon as it opened.  I enjoyed some braised pork loin with broccoli, carrots and small potatoes, followed by a fruit jelly.

After lunch we returned to cabin 6009 and gathered together cagoules, money, credit cards etc and made our way to the Neptune Lounge.  John and Linda had said they were also going on this trip, so we thought we might see them.  We were allocated bus #1, and we made our way down the gangplank and crossed to the waiting coaches nearby.  Our guide was called Michelle and our driver was called Michel.  😊

We set off for a fairly longish ride (56km) to our first stop today which was at the War Graves cemetery at Ranville.  On the way, Michelle told us the fascinating story of the 6th June 1944 D-Day landings, and the events that led up to them.  As going into detail about the Invasion of Normandy would fill a book two inches thick, I’ll try to explain it in a nutshell.

Germany had invaded France and was trying to take over all of Europe including Britain. However, Britain and the United States had managed to slow down the expanding German forces. They were now able to turn on the offensive.

To prepare for the invasion, the Allies amassed troops and equipment in Britain. They also increased the number of air strikes and bombings in German territory. Right before the invasion, over 1000 bombers a day were hitting German targets. They bombed railroads, bridges, airfields, and other strategic places in order to slow down and hinder the German army.

The Germans knew that an invasion was coming. They could tell by all the forces that were gathering in Britain as well as by the additional air strikes. What they didn’t know was where the Allies would strike. In order to confuse the Germans, the Allies tried to make it look like they were going to attack north of Normandy at Pas de Calais.

Although the D-Day invasion had been planned for months, it was almost cancelled due to bad weather. General Eisenhower finally agreed to attack despite the overcast skies. Although the weather did have some affect and on the Allies ability to attack, it also caused the Germans to think that no attack was coming. They were less prepared as a result.

The first wave of the attack began with the glider pilots and paratroopers. They jumped at night in the pitch dark and landed behind enemy lines. Their job was to destroy key targets and capture bridges in order for the main invasion force to land on the beach. The most famous of the bridges that was captured was the Bénouville Bridge, which was later renamed Pegasus Bridge in honour of the emblem of the British Parachute Regiment which featured Pegasus, the Winged Horse. Thousands of dummies were also dropped in order to draw fire and confuse the enemy.

In the next stage of the battle thousands of planes dropped bombs on German defenses. Soon after, warships began to bomb the beaches from the water. While the bombing was going on, underground members of the French Resistance sabotaged the Germans by cutting telephone lines and destroying railroads.

Soon the main invasion force of over 6,000 ships carrying troops, weapons, tanks, and equipment approached the beaches of Normandy.  As there was no port of harbour in which to land, the British and other Allies decided to construct their own artificial harbour to aid getting the equipment ashore.  A lot of old ships were scuttled to create a breakwater, and the artificial harbours, codenamed Mulberry A and Mulberry B, were constructed in Britain and then towed across to France.  It was a daring plan right under the enemies’ noses.

Our coach arrived at Ranville War Cemetery, which contains, by nationality, the following casualties:

Britain: 2,151

Canada: 76

Australia: 1

New Zealand: 1

Belgium: 1

France: 5

Poland: 1

Unknown Allied: 1

German: 322

Unknown: 1

The cemetery had been funded and is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and contained serried rows of clean white headstones, set out in peaceful, beautifully-kept grounds.  Most of the British fallen were from the 6th Airborne Division.

In the middle of the grounds was a large Cross of Sacrifice, at the foot of which was laid several wreathes of poppies in this year of the 75th Anniversary.  As we walked around reading the inscriptions on the headstones, it was very moving.  The ages of the fallen were pitifully young: aged 19 years, aged 22 years, aged 27 years.  Some were married with babies that would grow up never to know their fathers.  There were English, Scottish, Welsh; some from the Ulster Regiment.  All of them had mothers who had lost their sons.  The rows of thousands of graves reminded us of the huge losses and the tragedy of war.  As I walked around, I couldn’t stop a huge lump from forming in my throat.

As we walked around in the peaceful atmosphere, we came to a large church, the Eglise de Ranville.  The churchyard contained more graves and family plots.  As we looked on, a hearse and several mourners arrived carrying floral tributes; there was obviously a funeral going on.  To add a little humour to what was otherwise a sombre occasion, one of our tour group, and old man with a walking stick, just walked into the church, oblivious to the fact that he’d just gate-crashed a funeral!  😊

Afterwards, Michelle rounded us all up and we boarded the coach once again to our next destination, that of Bénouville, which contains a replica, built in 1994, of Pegasus Bridge.  The original Pegasus Bridge was contained in an open-air memorial museum around the corner, along with one of the gliders that had landed.

As we walked around towards the bridge and the landing sight of two of the gliders, the heavens absolutely opened and we hurriedly donned our cagoules.  A group of us hurried up a grassy bank verge to seek refuge under some trees.  As we looked at the rain pelting down, there was suddenly an almighty crash of thunder, and we decided that sheltering under trees during a thunder storm was probably not the best idea so, braving the elements, we went back down to the road again.  Another rumble of thunder rent the air, and I pulled my hood tighter into my head.  It was uncanny really; I can remember learning about the Pathetic Fallacy in English at school, a literary technique where the weather seems to match the mood of the occasion.  It seemed strange that we should be hearing the thunder now, when the skies were filled with the rumble of aeroplane engines and gunfire and conflict in this spot 75 years ago.

The rain eventually eased off a little and we made our way to the monuments that marked the exact spots, near Pegasus Bridge, where the gliders had silently landed in the early hours of 6th June 1944.  One of them contained a bust of Major John Howard, who had led the glider-borne assault, codenamed Operation Deadstick.  Another had many poppy wreaths and other tokens of respect and remembrance.  It was all incredibly interesting and fascinating, and we realised how amazingly clever and daring the whole Normandy Invasion had been.

We then boarded the bus again for the short ride to the charming beach-front town of Arromanches-les-Bains.  During Operation Neptune, as the actual landing was codenamed, the beaches had been divided into five and codenamed Utah and Omaha, which was where the Americans landed; Juno, which was where the Canadians landed, and Gold and Sword which was taken by the British.  The seafront at Arromanches, where we were heading, contained Gold beach.

The bus dropped us off and our guide, Michelle, said we would first of all go into the nearby D-Day museum to watch a 20-minute film all about the construction and deployment of Mulberry B, the artificial harbour at Arromaches-les-Bains (Gold Beach).

Inside the museum we looked at the uniforms and other relics of the war, and we came across John and Linda who had been on bus #2.  As we’d stood waiting to get in to see the film, we looked at a glass case containing a sailor’s uniform with the cap tally proclaiming “HMS MAGPIE”.  This again added some humour to the situation, as The Magpies is the nickname of Newcastle United, of whom John is a staunch supporter.  Trevor and I, of course, are Sunderland supporters.  😊

We went into the darkened room to watch the film.  It was incredible how the Allied Forces  only had a matter of days to construct a harbour out of iron and concrete and get it into place without being caught.  Muberry A was constructed at Omaha Beach and Mulberry B – which was later named Port Winston in honour of Winston Churchill – was constructed here at Gold Beach.  At one stage there had been a storm and part of the harbour had been damaged, and needed to be repaired in a hurry, as the operation risked being cancelled.

After we came out of the museum we had some free time to do as we pleased.  We therefore went down the slipway onto the actual beach itself.  There we saw the remains of Mulberry B, still there after 75 years.  We could also see the breakwaters a short distance out to sea.  I stood on the sand, breathing in the sea air, looking at the famous relics and imagining thousands of soldiers storming the beaches in this very spot, the sky dark with aeroplanes and parachute canopies.  It was certainly something and, for me, was the absolute highlight of this cruise so far.

Walking back up the slipway again, we walked along the seafront looking at the souvenir shops and little cafés, and I went in and bought a D-Day 75th Anniversary fridge magnet for my aunt.  Then we went into a pleasant little snackbar and ordered a beer each, and shared a bag of crisps as we’d missed our dinner tonight.

It was the time to board the bus once again for the return journey to Honfleur.  It had been an absolutely incredible, and very emotional, experience and we were so pleased we’d done it.  We were also happy to see several children in our tour party, as I think it is something every child should learn about.

We arrived back at the Balmoral around 7.45pm, far too late for our first-sitting dinner, but we were advised we could either dine in the Palms Café or wait until second-sitting at 8.30. We were far too hungry to wait, so we returned to cabin 6009, dumped our bags, got a quick wash and brush-up (what is known in nautical terms as a submariner’s dhoby) and went up to the Palms.  We shared our table with a pleasant couple, where we enjoyed our meal sharing stories of what we’d seen and done today.  This couple had been along to Bayeux, to see its famous tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

We managed to finish our meal and leave the Palms at 8.40pm, just in time to make it to the first show in the Neptune Lounge at 8.45.  We sat with Gill and Carl, who asked us how our trip had been and said they spotted us coming back while they were in the restaurant.

Tonight’s show was shared between the Balmoral Show Company and the comedian Gerry Graham.  We enjoyed his patter more this time; he was really quite hilarious.  While we were in the Neptune Lounge the increased vibrations coming up through the deck told us that the Balmoral was on the move once again, next stop the historic city of Rouen.

Up in the Observatory there was no sign of John and Linda, so we formed a quiz team with another very pleasant couple who were in their 70s.  The lounge was pretty packed.  Just minutes before the quiz was due to start, John and Linda appeared and had to search for a couple of spare chairs so they could join us.  Again, we made the mistake of changing our minds about some of the answers, which effectively cost us the quiz.  ☹

Afterwards we sat around talking and enjoying a few more of the (free!) drinks and discussing the D-Day Beaches.  John in particular is fascinated by anything to do with World War 2 so for him it had been a very special visit.  It was about 1.45am before we left and went to bed.

What a day it had been!

Exploring Belgium’s Capital

We were up at 7.30 this morning as we had to assemble in the Neptune Lounge at 8.45am to be allocated a bus number for today’s excursion, which was a half-day visit to Brussels.  I had never been to Brussels before, although Trevor had been many years ago.

We enjoyed our breakfast up in the Avon Restaurant, then made our way in good time to the Neptune Lounge.  On the way, we encountered a very special guest on board the Balmoral; Fred, the Assistance Dog.  Fred is a lovely Chocolate Labrador and is the constant companion to a wheelchair-bound gentleman who is an ex-armed forces veteran.

A message in the “Daily Times” respectfully advised all passengers not to stroke or pat Fred and distract him from his designated duties.  He was a handsome chap in his green jacket proclaiming ASSISTANCE DOG in large white letters.  😊

We hadn’t been in the Neptune Lounge very long before our coach number was called and we proceeded once again down the steep gangplank to the coaches parked nearby.  Our guide was a tall, fair-haired bloke called Marc and he advised us it would take about 50 minutes to reach our first landmark, the impressive and unusual Atomium.

On the way, we looked out of the windows at the attractive Belgian countryside and passed through gorgeous little towns with their picturesque architecture and little chocolate-box houses.

After pulling up in a pleasant tree-lined avenue, we could see the Atomium in the near distance, with the blue sky, fluffy cumulus clouds, and glinting sunlight reflecting off its distinctive spheres.

The Atomium was originally constructed for the 1958 Brussels World Expo (Expo 58). It is located on the Heysel Plateau, where the exhibition took place. It is now a museum.

Designed by the engineer André Waterkeyn and architects André and Jean Polak, it stands 102m (335 ft) tall. Its nine 18m (60 ft) diameter stainless steel clad spheres are connected, so that the whole forms the shape of a unit cell of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. Tubes of 3m (10 ft) diameter connect the spheres along the 12 edges of the cube and all eight vertices to the centre. They enclose stairs, escalators and a lift (in the central, vertical tube) to allow access to the five habitable spheres, which contain exhibit halls and other public spaces. The top sphere includes a restaurant which has a panoramic view of Brussels and the Belgian flag flies high from the centre of the top sphere.

It was quite an amazing sight, and we would have loved to have had the chance to go up inside it, but we didn’t have the time.  In any case, the museum was not quite open yet, although some queues were starting to form for its opening at 10 o’clock.  I took loads of photos from various angles, and it is one more famous landmark I can cross off my “been there, seen that” list.  😊

After we’d had about 20 minutes looking around, we were all rounded up back on the coach to continue into Brussels main town centre.  The coach dropped us off and we followed Marc into the impressive Grand-Place de Bruxelles, with its large cobbled square and its opulent old buildings, dominated by the incredible 15th century Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall).

The Grand-Place is considered one of the most beautiful town squares in Europe, and it was granted UNESCO World Heritage site status in 1998.

The buildings were all very intricately built, some of them with gilded facades.  Among the historic buildings were tucked away charming little canopy-covered pavement cafés and brasseries, and of course the ubiquitous artisan chocolate and lace shops.

Our next visit was to the historic Galéries Royales Saint-Hubert, which were built in 1846-47.  The galleries consist of two major sections, each more than 100 metres in length (respectively called Galerie du Roi/Koningsgalerij, meaning “King’s Gallery”, and Galerie de la Reine/Koninginnegalerij, meaning “Queen’s Gallery”), and a smaller side gallery (Galerie des Princes/Prinsengalerij, meaning “Princes’ Gallery”). The main sections (King and Queen’s Gallery) are separated by a colonnade at the point where Rue des Bouchers/Beenhouwersstraat crosses the gallery complex.

At this point, there is a discontinuity in the straight perspective of the galleries. This “bend” was introduced purposefully in order to make the long perspective of the galleries, with its repetition of arches, pilasters and windows, less tedious.

Inside the Galérie we stopped outside the Neuhaus chocolate shop, which was billed as the birthplace of the Belgian praline.  It was Jean Neuhaus who first put Belgian chocolate on the map. In 1857, he moved into a pharmacy-cum-sweet shop in the Galérie de la Reines, where he sold plaques of dark chocolate. Gradually, the apothecary transformed into a real sweet shop, and the first praline was created there in 1912. The hollow chocolate shell with a sweet filling was invented by Jean’s grandson (also named Jean) who also invented the Ballotin, the box in which pralines are wrapped.  It was all most interesting.

We followed Marc through the gorgeous streets and eventually came to another one of Belgium’s famous (probably the most famous) sites, the statue of the little naked boy urinating, known as the Manneken Pis, or the “little pissing man”.  It was quite a bit smaller than I had expected and was surrounded by camera-wielding Japanese tourists.

There are several legends associated with the Manneken Pis and the one Marc told us stated that, in the 14th century, Brussels was under siege by a foreign power. The city had held its ground for some time, so the attackers conceived of a plan to place explosive charges at the city walls. A little boy named Julianske happened to be spying on them, as they were preparing. He urinated on the burning fuse and thus saved the city.  😊

Afterwards Marc said we had some free time to spend as we pleased, and we were all to meet under the Town Hall clock at 12.15pm to return to the coach.  It was half-eleven now, so we had about 45 minutes.

As Trevor and I walked along, we spotted a shop from which an appetising smell was emanating, and in the window was displayed the most mouth-watering array of Belgian waffles and their various toppings.  We decided to go in and buy a couple, and we chose a freshly made warm waffle topped with sliced strawberries and smothered in fresh piped cream over which was drizzled a vanilla sauce.  We went outside to eat them (yum yum!) while looking in the windows of the nearby shops.  One of them was selling boxes of chocolates, buy-four-get-one-free for 20 Euros, so after we’d finished our waffles we went in buy some, thereby resolving the problem of what to bring back home for presents.  😊

Looking at our watches we saw that we had about 20 minutes before we had to be back so that gave us just enough time to have a freezing cold Belgian beer at one of the pavement cafés.  We therefore ordered a Stella Artois each, and enjoyed them while sitting people-watching.  The weather was much improved and, although still a little cloudy, when the sun did appear it was warm on our backs.

Finally we met up with the rest of our coach party and followed Marc through the square and along the streets, back to the coach.  On the way we saw several horse-drawn carriages with their horses wearing the distinctive leather chutes under their tails leading into a sort of sling, ensuring that the streets of Brussels remain horse-muck free.  😊

It took us about 90 minutes to get back to Antwerp, and we boarded the Balmoral around two o’clock.  We weren’t too hungry because of the massive waffle we’d eaten, so we just enjoyed some salad sitting in the poolside part of the Palms Café and enjoying another cold beer.  Around three o’clock the Balmoral weighed anchor and set off along the river en route to the English Channel and the mouth of the Seine.

At 3.45pm we continued the daily ritual of going along to the Morning Light pub for the afternoon trivia.  There was no sign of any of our regular team-mates and we did appallingly, only scoring 9/20.

Then we just enjoyed a power-nap and pottered about in our cabin until it was time to start getting ready for dinner.

Tonight was Red, White and Blue – or British – night and because my costume on the Boudicca in January had had such a positive reaction, I’d brought it with me again this time.  So while Trevor dressed in his John Bull outfit of Union Jack waistcoat, crisp white shirt and Union Jack bow-tie, I took my time getting ready in a long white dress, Union Jack cape and long dark wig, complete with Roman helmet, Union Jack shield and trident.  Rule Britannia!  😊

As we swept regally along the corridors on our way to the Ballindalloch, our costumes predictably attracted a lot of attention, and one or two people stopped me for a photograph.  We arrived in the restaurant and I placed my shield and trident on the windowsill out of the way, and we perused the British-themed menu.  It was full of dishes such as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, chicken tikka masala, bangers and mash, and other such delights of the British culinary palate.

As ever, the wine and the conversation and the laughs flowed, and afterwards we ensured we were along to the Neptune Lounge in good time for tonight’s Great British Sing-along, which preceded the show company’s performance of British Invasion.

Even though we’ve seen the show and the sing-along many times before, we still enjoyed it immensely; the entertainment team performed with exuberance and the passengers all joined in with gusto.  It was, as ever, a really great show.

Afterwards we went up to the Observatory to do the quiz; there was no sign of John and Linda so Trevor and I just did it on our own.  Needless to say, we didn’t win.  However, all was not lost – after the quiz there was a music challenge in the Lido Lounge called “What’s the next line” where they played excerpts from 10 well-known songs and you had to say what the next line of lyrics was.  We were joined by Gill and Carl and Barry and Bev from our table in the restaurant, and this time we scored 10/10 and were the outright winners.  Yay!  We received a bottle of cava which we decided we’d keep until the last night of the cruise.  😊

After Barry and Bev left, and Gill and Carl had gone to get their late supper, we were joined by Ron and Kath, and we sat and had a few more drinks and enjoyed the conversation and the background music until our usual late time of about 1.00am.  We didn’t have to be up early in the morning as the Balmoral was not due to arrive at Honfleur, France, until lunchtime tomorrow, so we could have a lie-in in the morning.  After another really enjoyable and interesting day, we slept very well.

Beer and Chocs and Men in Frocks

We woke up this morning around 8.30am and looked out of our window to see what the weather was like.  There was a lot of cloud but at least it wasn’t raining!  The Balmoral was making her way along the scenic Western Scheldt River towards Antwerp, and we were due to arrive around lunchtime.

In the meantime, we spent the morning pottering around the ship, looking to see what bargains they had today in the ship’s boutique, and spending the time reading and relaxing.  After our visit to Anne Frank’s house yesterday I’ve downloaded a copy of her famous diary onto my Kindle and I’ve been reading it in between playing games of the very addictive Plants vs Zombies 2.

At around 11 o’clock we returned to our cabin and got dressed a little more smartly to attend the Oceans Club Cocktail Party at 11.15am.  The Oceans Club is the FOCL loyalty programme; passengers get one point for every night spent on a Fred Olsen ship and are graded Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum or Diamond Elite.  Trevor and I are in the Gold category and after this cruise will have 166 nights.  We need 251 to go up to the next level, so it’ll be quite a few years yet!

Once again we enjoyed some canapés and a couple of glasses of fizz, and watched while the entertainment hosts presented the most-travelled passenger on board with a trophy and a bottle of fizz; this couple had over 500 nights on a Fred ship and were in the Diamond Elite category.

This took us nicely up to lunchtime, and we enjoyed a light meal as we watched the Balmoral slowly making her way into port.  As with Amsterdam, everything was walking distance away from the ship, down a fairly steep skywalk.  It was great because we were going to be in port overnight, so there was no need to hurry, no clock-watching or having to be at a particular place at a particular time.

After our lunch we returned to the cabin for a power-nap after our late night last night.  We then decided we’d go ashore for a good look around.  We’d been advised that Antwerp would be very busy today because it was holding the Gay Pride parade, so some of the main roads were closed and there would be lots of visitors.  We timed our trip ashore to coincide with after the parade, because we didn’t want to be caught up in massive crowds.

Nonetheless, it was very busy when we proceeded ashore, but in a nice way, not in a jostling, over-crowded way.  It was hard not to stare at some of the spectacles we came across (although I think the people concerned wanted to be stared at).  There were lots of gay people who were obviously into the “scene” and were dressed in rubber or black leather, or bondage gear; one guy had on a dog collar and lead.  We also saw many cross-dressers in frocks and high heels, with perfect makeup and hair and nails.  A lot of the tourists were politely asking them if they would pose for photographs and selfies, and they were happy to do so with a winsome smile!  😊

We strolled slowly through the charming cobbled streets of this lovely old medieval city, looking at the quaint little shops and the magnificent square with its amazing architecture.  What do you think of when you hear “Antwerp”?  I immediately think of diamonds, and indeed 84% of the world’s mined diamonds pass through Antwerp’s famous diamond district, which is the largest in the world.

In 1998 Trevor and I went to the Belgian F1 Grand Prix at Spa, and our hotel was situated in the Jewish quarter of Antwerp; I certainly remember one street that seemed to contain nothing but diamond shops.

Of course, Belgium is world-famous for three others things; beer, chocolate and lace.  Every other shop seemed to be selling the famous Belgian chocolates and we decided, later on, we’d take some home as presents for people.

We ambled along, taking in the atmosphere and looking agog at the icons of gay culture in their outrageous outfits.  Part of the square was given over to a large makeshift stage from which colourful flashing lights and disco music blared, and many people were enjoying their beer at standing tables and it was a happy party atmosphere.  😊

We only spent about 45 minutes walking around before making our way back to the ship to get washed and changed in time for dinner.  Tonight was just smart-casual attire, so I wore a striking yellow floral dress with matching Poetic Licence shoes.

After dinner we went along to the Neptune Lounge to bag a seat for tonight’s show, which featured magician Rick Green.  We realised we’d seen him before, in January on the Boudicca; he is very, very good and had appeared on Britain’s Got Talent.  Gill and Carl didn’t want to sit at the front in case the magician picked them out, so they sat a few rows back!

Before the show they had the music for dancing, so Trevor and I got up and did a Square Tango again (badly!).  We then followed it with a decent cha cha cha.  They were the only dances we felt confident enough to get up and attempt, because all the other dancers were so perfect and knew every step to every dance.

Rick Green did the performed the same show that he did in January, but even though we’d seen it before we enjoyed watching it a second time.

As usual, we went up to the Observatory to do the quiz, and we were joined by our usual team-mates John and Linda.  Gill and Carl also put in an appearance.  We put up a valiant effort but didn’t win; the worst thing you can do in a quiz is go against your gut instinct regarding an answer, then change your mind, only to find your original answer was correct.  Either that, or 100% know the answer to a question but allow yourself to be overruled by your team-mates.  😊

After the quiz we adjourned to the Lido Lounge where we sat up drinking, talking and laughing until late.  Gill and Carl disappeared off to the late buffet to get a hot drink before bedtime, or in Carl’s case something to eat – he must have hollow legs!  😊

It was after 1.00am when we finally left the Lido and returned to cabin 6009.  We had to be up at 7.30 in the morning to go on a half-day excursion, and we slept very well.

Happy Birthday in Holland


We were up at 7.00am and looked out of a rain-spattered window at a dull and dreary sky.  We hoped the weather would improve, but taking our umbrellas and cagoules with us today was a must.

I gave Trevor his birthday card and he opened his other cards and presents he’d brought with him.  What a nice treat to be spending it in Amsterdam, instead of just going to work as usual.  😊

We then got washed and dressed and made our way to the Avon restaurant which was open early.  We knew from past experience, because tonight is Formal Night, that there would be bottles of Cava on ice to mix with your orange juice and enjoy a complimentary Buck’s Fizz for breakfast.  When we got there, however, there was no sign of any cava and I thought it was a way of cutting back (which we’ve noticed on many cruise lines over the years) but soon a waiter appeared with an ice bucket and, sure enough, the chilled bottles of cava were soon in place.  😊

I enjoyed some smoked salmon and cold meats and fresh fruits, washed down with coffee and a couple of glasses of the free fizz.  Then we returned to our cabin and got our passport, cruise cards and Euros, donned our cagoules and proceeded ashore to meet Gill and Carl at 8.15am.

The four of us set off, and the skies opened in a sudden heavy shower.  Part of the route we were walking was under a bridge, and several people had sought refuge there from the deluge.  Luckily it didn’t last too long, and subsided to a trickle.

We arrived at the Anne Frank museum and went inside.  This was the actual building in which Anne Frank and her sister and parents, along with four other people, stayed in hiding from the Nazis for two years, and where Anne kept her famous diary.  There had been a secret annexe built at the back of the building, the access to which was hidden behind a bookcase, and the eight people had had to live together, not even daring to leave the water running or flush the toilet in case in betrayed their whereabouts.  Walking through the building we had audio-commentary units where we could listen to the tragic story while looking at the actual artefacts and books and furniture belonging to the Frank family and their compatriots.  It was all extremely interesting, but very sad, especially as they were all eventually captured in 1944 and Anne and her sister Margot were sent to the notorious Bergen-Belsen where Anne was put to death at only age 15. Her father, Otto Frank, was the only survivor from Belsen, and he died in 1980.

At the end of the tour of the house we were able to see the actual red and white checked diary, and look at Anne’s writing and pictures of herself and her father that she’d pasted in.  Amazing.  The diary has been published in 70 languages and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t ever read it – I will certainly have to do so now.

It was about 10.30am when we came out of the museum, and the weather had faired up slightly.  We decided we’d go and partake of a coffee in a pavement café, and we enjoyed a good Americano under the canopy of a pleasant little bar-café.

Afterwards we just strolled around, looking in the shops and meandering along the streets.  We could still occasionally catch the odd whiff of marijuana wafting out of some of the buildings.  We started to make our way back towards the ship, and C & G went into C & A to have a look about; Trevor and I decided we’d return to the ship and we‘d see them later.

We arrived back at the Balmoral around 12.30pm and, dumping our bags and cagoules in our cabin, went up to the Palms Café for some lunch, which we washed down with a freezing cold beer each.  We’d arrived back just in time, because there was another torrential shower of rain, sending everyone sitting by the poolside running for cover.

We then returned to our cabin for a half-hour post-luncheon power nap, then I did some of this blog and pottered around for a while, just pleasantly passing the time doing not much in particular.

At four o’clock the Balmoral gave a blast of her foghorn and slowly started to move away from the dockside and back along the North Sea Canal towards our next exciting destination.

Tonight it was the first formal night, and we had the Captain’s Cocktail Party to look forward to at half-five.  So I got showered and primped and preened ready for the evening.  I always love the formal nights and the chance to wear an elegant long dress, so I wore a black velvet off-the-shoulder evening gown with long black gloves and sky-high heels.  The only thing I couldn’t do anything with was my hair;  luckily I brought a couple of wigs with me, so I donned one of them which is how my hair should look when it’s styled properly.  No-one would ever guess it was a wig, and it saves a lot of time when getting ready.  😊

Off we went to the Neptune Lounge and joined the queue of people filing in.  There was no sign of the Captain at the captain’s cocktail party, although some of his officers were there.  Apparently, as the Balmoral had to negotiate the intricacies of the various locks in the canal, the captain was needed on the bridge at this particular time, so they changed it to the Welcome Aboard Cocktail Party.  😊

We enjoyed some tasty hot and cold canapés washed down with some free glasses of prosecco, although when you’re on the all-inclusive drinks package it’s all ‘free’ anyway.  One of the dance hosts came over and told me he liked my dress.  In fact, this particular dress always gets a lot of compliments, especially since some of the passengers had made little effort to dress up at all.  Here we are: left to right Trevor, Debbie, Gill and Carl.


We listened to the ship’s orchestra playing tasteful music, then Alan Tait, the cruise director, appeared and welcomed everyone.  Then we just passed the time pleasantly with our fellow passengers before making our way along to the Ballindalloch Restaurant for 6.15pm.

Dinner was a grand affair as usual, with excellent food and good conversation from Gill and Carl, Barry and Bev.  After the main meal they didn’t bring a dessert menu, but this was because the waiters appeared with their guitar and tambourine and a cake with a candle on for Trevor.  They all sang “Happy Birthday” and encouraged Trevor to blow out his candle and make a wish.  Carl videoed it all on his phone and sent me a copy on WhatsApp.  😊

Then we all tucked into our cake and washed it down with a glass of amaretto and some coffee.

The show in the Neptune Lounge this evening was called “Musical Maestros” and featured the work of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and George Gershwin.  As ever, it was an excellent performance by the talented singers and dancers.

We then went up to the Observatory to do the quiz; there was no sign of John and Linda but, as they are on the 8.30pm dinner sitting, they are sometimes not out of the restaurant on time, so we just joined in with another couple.  Not that it did any good, as we didn’t win.

Tonight they were holding a karaoke in the Lido Lounge, so we went down there and bagged a table near the front, where we were joined by Gill and Carl and, later on, by Ron and Kath.  Quite a lot of people got up and put their names down to sing, including me and Carl.  I did a rendition of Any Whitehouse’s Back to Black, and Carl sang Elvis Presley’s Love Letters.  The standard of singing from all the participants was very high.  Quite a few of the children got up to sing as well; one little boy in particular certainly didn’t lack confidence and stood singing and dancing in his little dinner suit and bow-tie.  All the singers only had one turn each apart from this kid, whose name was Alex, and he finished the evening off with a fast-paced rap which he recited word-perfectly.  I think we have a star in the making here!  😊

The karaoke finished at midnight but we stayed chatting and drinking until around 1.00am when we returned to our cabin and settled down, after a very full, very interesting day.

Ashore in Amsterdam

After an extremely good night’s sleep, I woke up very late this morning, partly due to the fact we had to put our watches forward an hour to European time.  So it was 10.25am before I crawled out of my pit.  Trevor had been to breakfast two hours earlier!

We weren’t the only ones however; we spotted Gill and Carl at breakfast in the Palms Café, along with other people who had forgotten about the hour time difference!  I enjoyed some melon and pineapple and smoked salmon along with a cup of coffee and some fresh orange juice.

We then went out on deck to see what the weather was like.  It was quite warm but still cloudy, but at least it was dry.  Afterwards we went to listen to a lecture about the famous Dutch painters such as Rembrandt, Ver Meers and Van Gogh; it could have been quite fascinating but for the droning quality of the speaker’s voice, who managed to turn an interesting subject into a boring one.

Afterwards we went back out on deck and walked around for a while, before having a look around the shops, where I bought some sparkly slider sandals for the bargain price of 12 quid!  😊

We spent some time just pottering pleasantly around the ship, before going to the Palms once again for a light lunch.  Quite a lot of people were out on the pool deck, and we could smell the tantalising aroma of barbecued meat; a burger stand had been set up nearby.  I just enjoyed some cold meats and salad and we spent the time people-watching.  There were quite a few kids on the ship this time with their parents and grandparents, but it is the middle of the school summer holidays, after all; at least the kids were well-behaved.

After lunch we returned to cabin 6009 and just relaxed and read for a while, looking at the Fred Olsen river cruise brochure.  When the Future Cruises desk opened at two o’clock, we went along and booked another cruise for June 2020!  This time we are going on the Brabant and spending a week cruising the upper Danube river, taking in such delights as Budapest, Bratislava and Vienna to name but a few.  We got a good deal because there are five excursions/guided tours included in the cost of the cruise, and we also received our Oceans Club discount.  That is now three holidays we have booked for 2020 already!!

By this time the Balmoral was slowly making her way along the North Sea Canal towards Amsterdam.  One of the great things about the smaller ships is that they can get right into the heart of the destinations, and we would spend the night and most of tomorrow in Amsterdam, within walking distance of all the sights (and there are certainly some sights to see in Amsterdam!!)

The sun was out now and it was pleasantly warm on deck.  We spent some time watching the Balmoral make her way through some lock gates, and we looked at the other boats and craft as we glided through this mainly-industrial landscape.  We were to due dock around 6.00pm tonight.

At 3.45pm we went along to the Lido Lounge and joined John and Linda for the quiz and a couple of drinks and a bit of banter and some good conversation.  We got 17/20 in the quiz and were the winners.  Yay!  We each received some prize tokens that you save up, then redeem at the end of the cruise for goodies such as keyrings, bottle openers, coasters, mugs, pens etc.

It was around half-five when we left the Lido lounge as we had to be ready for dinner at 6.15pm.  Trevor and I and Gill and Carl had all decided we’d go ashore after dinner and explore this fascinating city.

We enjoyed the usual scrumptious meal in the Ballindalloch Restaurant, then hotfooted it back to our cabin to change into shoes more suitable for walking in than my 5” stiletto heels.  Then we disembarked the Balmoral and met up with Gill and Carl in the cruise terminal, as we took a pleasant stroll through the streets of Amsterdam, marvelling at the many bicycles and watching the small cruisers making their way placidly along the picturesque canals.  Amsterdam is such an amazing old city with its chocolate-box tree-lined streets with their three- and four-storey gabled buildings, many charming pavement cafés and boutiques and, of course, its famous Red Light District.  This is where we decided we’d head for.  😊

For anyone who’s never visited Amsterdam, the Red Light District is certainly an eye-opener.  As evening was beginning to fall, the ‘working girls’ took their places in the windows of the brothels, most of which were lit with red or pink strip lighting.  The girls were stunning to look at, with gorgeous figures and perfect hair and make-up.  Well, in their profession I suppose their looks were all-important in what I imagine was a competitive business.  😊

We saw one girl negotiating a price with a would-be client and a little way down the street one gaudily-lit den of iniquity flashily advertised its “Live Sex Show” with the accompanying photos to tempt customers in.  Every other building seemed to be a sex shop or a porno show, and we could smell the distinctive aroma of pot emanating from the open doors and windows of many of the places, particularly the “Coffeeshops”.

For amusement we went into one of the sex shops to look at the range of “toys” and scanty clothes such as crotchless panties and peep-hole bras.  Everyone was completely blasé about it all; the Dutch just take it all in their stride and have a much more liberal attitude to the sex business than we do in Britain.

Some shops were selling cannabis seeds to “grow your own” (completely illegal in the UK) along with cannabis sweets, cannabis chocolate and cannabis cake, all in different strengths from mild to extra strong.  Curiosity got the better of me, and I bought some of the “strong” cake, which was a complete rip-off because it had absolutely no effect on me whatsoever!  Likewise with a fruity lollipop I bought.  I’m sure there’s not really any cannabis in these items, and they are just normal sweets that they rip off the tourists with over-inflated prices.  Oh well.

We continued on our way and decided to try to find Anne Frank’s house, as we were booked to visit there in the morning at 9.00am.  Carl used the Google Maps app on his phone to help us find the place, then we decided to take a slow stroll back to the ship in time for the 10.30pm show in the Neptune Lounge.  We arrived back at 10.25, just in time.

Tonight’s entertainment came in the shape of comedian Gerry Graham, who was really quite funny.  We thought he’d be performing to a half-empty lounge because a lot of people would be ashore, but there was a decent crowd in, and there were laughs a-plenty.  We enjoyed the show a lot.

As it was already quite late when the show finished, we just had a nightcap and returned to cabin 6009, as we had to be up at seven o’clock in the morning to walk to Anne Frank’s house.  As the Balmoral was docked in Amsterdam overnight, the ship was nice and quiet, and we settled down and slept very well once again.

Back to the Balmoral

At 1.00pm exactly we left the house and set off through the light lunchtime traffic for the Port of Tyne, Newcastle, as once again we are setting off on a cruise, this time on the Balmoral, a lovely ship of the Fred Olsen fleet on which we’ve had three previous fantastic cruises.  Despite the weather having experienced record-breaking temperatures in the last couple of weeks (when we’ve been stuck at work!), the skies were cloudy today and we hoped the rain would keep away.

We left the car at Howdon Sewage Treatment Works (!!).  Trevor works at Northumbrian Water and was therefore able to leave the car in the staff car park for the nine-day duration of the cruise, instead of paying the 12 quid a day to park at the Port of Tyne.   Our pre-booked Blue Line taxi arrived on the dot of 1.30pm, and it was only a five-minute ride to the cruise terminal.  As we alighted from the taxi, our cases were whisked away to be loaded on to the ship separately, and we made our way inside the terminal.  We are doing this cruise with some friends of ours, Gill and Carl Richardson, and we spotted them straightaway in the queue.

We were directed to the queue for Deck 6 passengers, and it didn’t take long to check in and receive our cruise cards.  Then it was onto the shuttle bus for the short ride along the dockside to the gangplank of the Balmoral.  We were on the ship less than an hour after leaving home.  😊

As this is our fourth time on Balmoral, everything was very familiar and we had no problem finding cabin 6009. It’s an amazing coincidence because on our last cruise on the Azamara Quest in May, we were also in cabin 6009.  This time we had a very pleasant outside cabin with a large picture window, decorated in muted shades of pale grey and blue.  There was a double bed under the window, two bedside cabinets, a chair, a large dressing table and chair and plenty of drawer and wardrobe space.  Our bathroom contained a bathtub with a shower over it.  We knew we’d have a very comfortable nine nights on board, and we were so excited to be back! 😊

Dumping our bags in the cabin, we hotfooted it up to the Marquee Deck for a cold beer.  Although it was intermittently cloudy it was still quite warm, so we enjoyed our beers outside then wandered down to the Palms Café, where we spotted Gill and Carl who were enjoying a light lunch.

In addition to Gill and Carl, there were another two couples on the ship who we know; Ron and Kath Wright who are in the same walking club as us (Crook and Weardale Ramblers) and John and Linda Thornton, who we met on a cruise on the Black Watch in 2013 and with whom we’ve stayed in touch since.  It was great to see them again.

After enjoying some cold meats and salad for lunch and partaking of another drink, we decided to go back to our cabin and see if our cases had arrived.  Indeed they had, so we spent some time unpacking and hanging up our clothes neatly.  We also spotted our Oceans Club gift; a nice insulated cool bag with a shoulder strap and plenty of pockets inside and out.  It was navy blue with the word “OCEANS” on it in white.  Passengers who are in the Gold grade or above (Platinum and Diamond) always receive an Oceans Club gift when we board.  Trevor and I are in Gold and so far, we’ve had a pair of insulated mugs, goody bags with gourmet snacks, crisps, nuts, chocolate etc, a 2019 diary and pen, and now a cool bag which I’m sure will come in useful.  😊

We were sailing fairly early this time – 4.30pm.  We therefore went up to the pool deck to join the live band and the sailaway party, where they were selling rum punch and other cocktails.  By now the sun had decided to make an appearance, so we enjoyed our cold drinks and listened to the lively music as the Balmoral made her way sedately down the Tyne towards the North Sea.  Our voyage had begun.  😊

Around half-past five we returned to cabin 6009 to get washed and changed for dinner.  We have been allocated table #78 in the Ballindalloch Restaurant and, looking at the floor plan of the restaurant we were pleased to see we were by a window.

Tonight the dress code was smart-casual, so I just wore a red and black dress with nude-coloured crystal studded sling-back shoes, and for once my hair was behaving itself and didn’t look too bad.  I’ve recently had my hair cut short, in what they call a “choppy” style, after wearing it in a chin-length bob for 20 years, and I’m totally regretting it.  I can’t wait for it to grow again!

In the restaurant we met up with Gill and Carl and another very pleasant couple, Barry and Bev, who are on the table next to us.  The meal was as delicious as ever, and Gill and Carl said that their first impressions of the Balmoral and Fred Olsen were pretty favourable.  We were pleased, because we were the ones who recommended this cruise to them!  😊

After dinner we made our way along to the Neptune Lounge to get a good seat for tonight’s performance by the Balmoral Show Company, called “Musical Jukebox”.  But before the show they had 30 minutes or so of ballroom dancing to the excellent ship’s orchestra.  Trevor and I got up to do the square tango (badly!) but it was the only dance we (sort of!) knew before it was time for the show, which featured a lot of chart hits that had made their way to the West End.  It was high-energy, all singing all dancing show, and we enjoyed it a lot.

We finished the evening by going to the Observatory to take part in the quiz at 10 o’clock.  We were looking out for John and Linda, who were part of our quiz team on the Black Watch six years ago, but there was no sign of them.  We therefore formed a team with Gill and Carl, but only got 9/15.  The winners scored 14/15.

Afterwards we were joined by Ron and Kath, and we stayed for a few cocktails and enjoyed the conversation until well after midnight.  Then we returned to 6009 and settled down for the evening.  I was asleep almost immediately as the Balmoral glided across the North Sea, en route to the North Sea Canal and our first port of call, the inimitable Amsterdam.