Sunday, May 19, 2013

Four Ports in Three Days

In our first 7 nights on the Celebrity Infinity we had 4 advances of the clock as we cruised to the Azores.  It went reasonably well, but after leaving the Azores we had 2  more, and the belief that taking a boat to Europe would avoid jet lag lost many adherents.  Our vessel is feeling more like a "Ship of Fools" with each sleep-shortened night.  But then after two more sea days and the end of the movable clock, things picked up.  In three quick days the Infinity stopped at three ports.  At the third one we switched boats to a Stena Line ferry and landed at a fourth.  We were on land at last!

We had planned to skip the Infinity's second "formal night" on our last sea day by again having dinner in the cafeteria, until we heard about the lobster tails.  The maitre d' had a stash of men's jackets to lend out and Jeff found one that was within 3 or 4 sizes of correct, and we blended in with more properly dressed guests, like the charming Florida couple we dined with that night and two earlier evenings.  And the lobster tail was good.

The stop in Cherbourg was mainly, we think, for the ship to sell bus excursions to see the site of the D-Day invasion, an hour or two from town.  We chose instead to wander through the downtown area, which has seen better days.  We stopped at an Internet cafe in hopes of posting a blog entry, without success.  The keyboard was the first challenge -- the French do not use a 'qwerty' layout.  Then the French Google site didn't want to let us into the Google-owned Blogspot site, but we eventually found an English-language pathway in.  The third and fatal blow was that the system was so slow we failed to load even one photo.  So we are now over a week behind in getting our blog posts up.  We hope Vienna will be the place we get to catch up.

Our next stop was magical.  The boat docked in Zeebrugge, or "Bruges By the Sea," and we paid for a bus service that brought us into the heart of Bruges itself, 25 minutes away.  On the way there and back we got a good look at the bicycling infrastructure that Belgium and Holland are so famous for.

 The "tour" was billed as "Bruges on Your Own" but we did have a guide who told us quite a bit about Belgium and Bruges on the rides in and back, and led us on a ten-minute walk at each end of the visit, from a bus drop-off point to a landmark for reassembly 4 hours later.  Along that walk was Lovers' Pond, with a romantic restaurant across the water on the right.

Bruges calls itself the "Venice of the North" and we did pass a number of canals.  But the streets were sometimes just as interesting, as they twisted and turned and showed you something interesting every few meters.

The highlight of our visit, literally as we'll as figuratively, was the Belfort, a/k/a the Belfry of Bruges.  We had a 40- minute wait as there is a limit of 70 people in the tower at any time, but it was well worth it.  And as we waited, a paper artist cut this silhouette of Jeff with his "Seattle Sombrero" rain hat.

The 135-step climb we did 2 or 3 times a day on the ship, from deck 2 to deck 10, had prepared us well for the 366-step climb up the Belfort.  Partway up was a treasure chamber, where the city's charter was once secured with 9 different locks, each with a lone key held by one of the 9 ranking officials of the city.  The chest could only be opened when all nine were assembled, as a way of ensuring this rarely or never happened.

As we climbed further, we came to a second even larger room.  We crossed it and started up yet another section of steps that took us far above its ceiling and into the realm of the bells.  A sign explained that when the first part of the tower went up between 1240 and 1280, time was a relative thing.  Bells signaled morning, mid-day and evening, but the concept of measuring time was alien to the age.  Then some clever mechanics started doing just that, and by the late Middle Ages the tower was famous for its bells striking the hour 24 times a day at actual 60-minute intervals.  Today the bells are run like a giant music box by this brass drum that a nearby sign said was the largest in the world of its type.  As it is about 6' in diameter and maybe 10' wide, that's entirely possible.

And then -- the top!  WOW!  We'll let the photos show you the fairy tale view.

Alas, all too soon we were descending those 366 steps, rather faster than we had climbed them.


We finished up our too-brief visit by wandering past more fanciful buildings, both public and private, and by admiring the wares in Bruges' many chocolate shops.  One even appeared to cater to chocoholics with a foot fetish.



The ship reached port number 3, Harwich England, about 4 am the next morning.  We had breakfast at 6 and stepped out onto the back deck for a view of our Stena Line ferry, next door as it were.  We had gone through British customs three days earlier on board the Infinity, and all the heavy luggage had been put outside our stateroom the night before and was now waiting on the pier for us.  Disembarking was a breeze.  We were on the Stena ferry by 8, and floating out to sea on our new vessel at 9 am sharp.

The ferry Brittanica is almost as long and tall as the cruise ship, and the English Channel was calm, so the crossing was easy.  We said goodbye to the Infinity and took a look at downtown Harwich as we pulled out of the Stour Estuary and at a windmill farm one hour out of town in the middle of the Channel.  6 1/2 hours from Harwich we were docked at the Hook of Holland, looking westward at the mouth of the mighty Rhine.

We will be back to the Hook of Holland two more times, in late July and then early August, when we descend the Rhine to take the same ferry over and back for an 18-day tour of East Anglia.  But right now it's off to Amsterdam for the real start of our European adventure.  We'll take you with us by train to Amsterdam and then Berlin in our next blog, and to Vienna for the start of our bicycle adventure in the following one.

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