An Egypt/Israel Cruise onboard Celebrity Equinox

Monday, 1 November 2010

Brooks Blog

A personal account of the 37th ‘Music at Sea’.

An Egypt/Israel cruise onboard ‘Celebrity Equinox’

October 18 - 31, 2010

Rome (Civitavecchia) Italy - Naples/Capri, Italy - Sicily (Messina) Italy

Corfu, Greece - Alexandria, Egypt - Jerusalem (Ashdod) Israel - Haifa, Israel 

Rome (Civitavecchia) Italy.

This cruise, the final Music At Sea of our tenth anniversary year, had a sensational itinerary with visits to Italy, Greece, Egypt and Israel. A cornucopia of history, fantasy and memories to treasure for the rest of one’s life. For me this would be the ‘bucket list’ cruise or that special gift for children or grandchildren. Money can be taxed, treasures can be stolen but memories last for ever. 

I arrived in Civitavecchia the previous day which allowed time to visit a favourite restaurant; La Bomboniera, run by husband and wife Guilio and Giovanna – with occasional help from their two children.  Named after a bomboniera (a gift confection containing almonds and shaped like a cream puff) it is typical of so many small family-run Italian restaurants in that it never disappoints. 

Over an open fire, with a Bomboniera surround, Guilio and Giovanna dispense culinary magic featuring several Sardinian specialities one of which is Carta di Musica (a very, very thin crisp bread not unlike an Indian papadum). 

The Bomboniera open fire oven at La Bomboniera, Civitavecchia. Italy

If you ever eat there, leave a little room, because at the end of the meal they will offer you a glass of their home made Myrte (a Sardinian liqueur made from myrtle berries) and a plate of homemade cakes! 

I have been going for so long that I knew the bambini before they could walk. Now Michaela is at university studying oeniculture (wine) and Eleanora, a star player in the Italian under 19 ladies soccer team. Once I called her La Piccola Beckham – meant as a compliment – but David ain’t Italian and it didn’t go down too well!

Equinox is one of the new breed of  Celebrity ‘Solstice’ class vessels, far more glitzy than her predecessors and with a two tier dining room seemingly straight out of Star Trek! The social centre is the atrium which buzzes with life every evening, imbuing the rest of the vessel with the feeling that ‘something is happening.’ Ascending in the glass elevators from the Guest Relations area, one glides past areas humming with activity: the internet café, the library, the card room, the coffee bar, an ice bar even a Bistro.  This innovative design gives the lie to the old misconception that ‘there is nothing to do on board a cruise ship’. For years ships hid the multitude of onboard activites behind closed doors so possibly some could be unaware of them, but onboard Equinox no-one could fail to notice the plethora of pursuits, opportunities and facilites being provided. It is an awesome task to satisfy the differing expectations of twenty-eight hundred people, bearing in mind the rich assortment of nationalities, age groups and aspirations, but Equinox rises to the challenge effortlessly.

Unusually for Music at Sea we held our special shore excursion in the first port of call instead of the end of the cruise. A side benefit of this was the group ‘bonding’ on the first day but the main benefit was that we were able to visit ‘La Mortella’ the beautiful villa and gardens (amongst the loveliest in Europe) created on the peaceful island of Ischia, in the Bay of Naples, by Susana Walton, widow of the great British composer Sir William Walton. Those of you who check the web site: will see that the name derives from the Neopolitan slang for the Myrtle plant but there was no connection between my consumption of Guilio’s delectable Myrte in La Bomboniera and our decision to make this tour! 

Spring Sunshine at La Mortella, Ischia, Italy

Sir William was a revered composer, always underplaying his abilities and with a decidedly quirky sense of humour! When informed that the Queen would award him with one of the country’s highest honours he reputedly reflected: "I was very lucky, I was so damned stupid, all I could do was write music." And even today a few eyebrows might be raised by his speech to members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, following their performance of his work ‘Belshazzar's Feast’ in Tel Aviv in 1963, when he thanked them, saying: "I have something here that no one else has - a foreskin.”

The Walton’s original plan was that after Susana’s death a small recital hall might be built adjoining Sir William’s studio, but when Sir William died, Susana thought ‘Why wait?’ and applied for planning permission. At first the authorities refused, thinking this might be the first step in building an hotel! Then after  much Italian ‘politiking’ the plans were approved and the intimate recital hall was built which, following a tour of the gardens, we used for our private concert. Dr. Alessandra Vinciguerra, who heads the Walton Trust, took time out to personally welcome us and the time we spent in the Walton’s Villa surounded by their treasured possessions and memorabilia will be go down as a very special MAS moment. 

An unexpected member of our concert audience was Felix, Lady Walton’s treasured cat and inseparable companion. When Susana passed away early in 2010, Felix followed her funeral cortege and now, as part of his regular daily routine, visits her grave within the grounds of La Mortella. The poor little fellow is still pining for her. 

Felix – Lady Walton’s constant companion

We had planned our events for the morning in order to allow the MAS guests time to enjoy other ‘must sees’ in the Naples area i.e. Herculaneum, Pompeii or Sorrento. My choice was Sorrento, perched high on the cliffs overlooking the Bay of Naples, and the final home of Caruso. Following a bad review in Naples he vowed never to sing there again and only returned to eat pasta alle vongole with his mother. He lived the last few months of his short life at the Excelsior Vittoria Hotel – over the years the ‘watering hole of choice’ for many celebrities including  Richard Wagner, Otto von Bismark, George V of England, Empress Sisi of Austria, The Grand Duchess Catherine of Russia, Queen Victoria of Sweden, Luciano Pavarotti Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren! 

Plaque in memory of Caruso at the Hotel Vittoria, Sorrento, Italy

Having a snack in a pizzeria, I was surprised to see a ceramic of a religious figure set in the tiles above the pizza oven! What did it mean? Was this icon metaphorically guarding the flames to Hell? Were the pizzas heavenly? (Yes, they were) The figure was that of the local Saint, Saint Anthony, whose protection over the town naturally extends to its most famous produce – lemons – and, of course, pizzas! 

St. Anthony guarding the pizza oven! Sorrento, Italy

Leaving Naples that evening we sailed on to Sicily and Corfu before arriving in Alexandria, Egypt. This historic city has definitely smartened up its image over the last 25 years. King Farouk’s yacht, having lain deserted and rotting in the harbour for many years has been refurbished as a luxury Nile cruiser and the new passenger terminal resembles the lobby of a five-star hotel! 

The new Passenger Terminal, Alexandria, Egypt

Whilst many of the MAS guests went to Cairo and the pyramids (camel rides: $1 to get on - $5 to get off) I ventured out in search of a typewriter (see previous blogs) but first I needed to find a taxi-driver who could speak English. I struck lucky with the first one – or so I thought. 

“Do you speak English” 

“Yes Sir”. 

Only when imprisoned in his cab did I realise that ‘Yes Sir’ accompanied by a gold-toothed smile comprised the total sum of his linguistic skills. Not to worry. The driver had a son – what a surprise! - who ‘just happened’ to be in the vicinity - another surprise! - and who, of course, did speak a little English for an extra charge – and the three of us embarked on a typewriter hunt. Not rocket science, as in Alexandria they are still in everyday use! Within the hour I was the proud new owner of  one very old, dirty typewriter, minus a significant amount of US greenbacks, and resisting the pleas of my new ‘best friends’ to take a tour and/or visit their family. The son enquired whether I would like a newspaper. 

“You have English newspapers in Alexandria?” I responded curiously. 

“Oh Yes – we have everthing in Alexandria”

Things were lookng up.

“Will it be it a recent newpaper?” 

“Of course Sir – this month.”

Which reminds me of a story, told by one of our Irish guests, of an Englishman visiting a Dublin newsagent and enquiring whether there were any newspapers from London. 

“To be sure Sir. Yes Sir. We have the English newspapers from London.” (Pause for thought) “Now, let me think.  Would you be wanting Today’s or Yesterday’s?” 

“Oh, I’d like Today’s please”

“Aaaaaah” replied the shopkeeper ruminatively, “Then you’ll be needing to come back tomorrow.”

Two days in Egypt were followed by three days in Israel. Here was the opportunity to visit not only so many places of historic and religious significance, but also to see, experience and learn about the many problems facing the political leaders of this troubled land. Problems which have defied solution for most of my lifetime but, if not solved, could threaten the existence of us all. We were warmly welcomed here and pray that a peaceful and just resolution will be found – and quickly. 

One of the secrets of a successful cruise is having a good balance between ports and seadays. In a ‘holiday’ destination like the Caribbean, a port a day is fine but in the Mediterannean where land excursions can be physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting,  a fulfilling vacation experience benefits from rest days (i.e. seadays) interspersed between ports. It says a lot for Celebrity’s scheduling that, after five continuous days in Egypt and Israel, they programmed two glorious seadays to recharge our batteries en route to Civitavecchia. 

And what do the MAS guests do on seadays? Relax by taking part in the myriad activities provided on board, plus enjoying the MAS private programme which might include a concert or social gathering. Someone’s always got a good tale to tell and Yes, there’s frequently an animal story! I had recounted that a guest  - not in the group – had told me that her husband had rescued a budgerigar in the garden and it had become a pet. Nine months later he surprised her by informing her he had been offered a dream job in Barbados, and the reaction from his wife “I’m not going without Budgie” was probably not the congratulatory response he had been expecting! So it was, a few months later, they found themselves on a boat, bound for Barbados with beloved Budgie. Needless to write, Budgie became an onboard celebrity along with his proud owner who became known as ‘the woman with the budgerigar!’ One of our guests confessed that his pet dog had chewed up his set of false teeth – but the prize went to another MAS guest recounting the habits of her adored Vietnamese pig! Said pig could only be persuaded to bathe by being tempted into the tub by fresh grapes! 

At our Farewell reception I listened as the group voiced their au revoirs and made plans for future cruises realising, once more, how fortunate I am to be a pianist, able to do something I love surrounded by such dear friends. Thank you John and Rosemary, Celebrity and Azamara Club Cruises, and, above all, Music At Sea Alumnii. Every one of you. What a team. We have bonded together to create something unique and special: Music At Sea, at first a tenuous dream, now a healthy ten-year-old and looking forward to an exciting future. 

Dear readers, whether Music At Sea guests or simply interested browsers, the time has come for me to sign off – and I do so with an observation.

On deck one day I noticed guests snoozing in deck chairs, others sitting reading, some were taking a leisurely stroll and a few running in circles round the jogging track. I watched them for a while and the thought crossed my mind that irrespective of sleeping, sitting, walking or running, we’d all arrive at exactly the same place, on exactly the same day, at exactly the same time. All exactly and absolutely together. That’s a thought to ponder over!

I wish you good health, prosperity, happiness and a wonderful ‘Music At Sea’ 2011. 

With warmest thoughts from snowy London