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We don't begin in the flamboyant Spain or Mediterranean stereotypes, though we'll track those down eventually. Parts of the northern Spanish coast look more like Ireland, with misty mountains, stonewall fields and damp sheep.
A Coruña, a port city on the country's northwest corner, is exposed to cool Atlantic winds. Pale-skinned surfers are buffeted towards the beach and tapas-eaters crouch in the lea of walls. A Coruña is a handsome town of long seafronts overlooked by many-windowed modernist houses and knobbly, medieval forts. Its defiant main plaza is named after María Pita, a bold fisherwoman who helped repulse an attack by Sir Francis Drake in 1589.
As it happens, my APT ship Hebridean Sky sailed out of Drake's home-base, Portsmouth in England, and skulked down France's coastline like a privateer. For me, A Coruña is one of those ports that epitomises small-ship cruising, more about atmosphere than glitz and glamour. The town's sights are modest (a Roman lighthouse, still in use, is the highlight) but you can feel a potent sense of history, the buzz of provincial life and casual culture.
We'll visit big cities and big sights, too, on our journey, but these interludes are lovely pauses. They slow the pace, emphasise the local, and produce unexpected pleasures from the magician's hat of cruising.The cruise creeps around western Europe's coastline between Portsmouth and Barcelona. We'll travel in every compass direction as we navigate the bulge of Spain and Portugal. The morning after A Coruña, we're docking due south at industrial Portuguese port, Leixões. Huge dismembered wind turbines like dinosaur vertebrae await transportation on the quays. Inland lies the Douro Valley, the oldest demarcated wine region in the world, first established in 1756. Castles peer over the river approaches and ancient manor farms called quintas cling to steep slopes beyond the windows of our shore-excursion coach. The valley is framed in stone terraces of vines and almond trees.
Our first stop is Amarante on the smaller Tamega River, smug and lovely by an arched stone bridge, its church and monastery reflected in the water beneath. In the days before social media, lovelorn Portuguese came here to pray for a hook-up. Our main destination, though, is Casa dos Viscondes da Varzea near Lamego. The aristocratic quinta provides the chance to sample Douro Valley wines and a local lunch of green soup, salted cod, garlicky salads and rice puddings.
Owner Maria Manuel fascinates us with her tale of the fall and rise of her family fortunes. She was only 20 when her family property was confiscated by the socialist dictatorship. She worked as a teacher, scraped together enough money to open a boutique, then five, and saved every cent. Eventually, she managed to buy back the family mansion and a small part of its surrounding land.
These passing glimpses into other lives and places are the pleasure of cruising – and sometimes its frustration. "We'll be back!" fellow passengers promise to each other over dinner as we surge onwards. We're nine days out of Portsmouth and small-ship friendliness has developed. Most passengers are Australians, inquisitive and amiable. We chinwag over drinks at the bar and over buffet meals on the back deck, sunglasses swivelled to the sun.
Next day, we sail into Lisbon just before lunch with the sun shining on the city, slipping past the fort that guards the entrance to a vast bay and the Tagus River. It's a long, grand sail to the city centre, past Belem Tower and the Monument to the Discoveries, under a looming suspension bridge, then beyond daffodil-yellow Commerce Square to the modest cruise terminal.
Lisbon – like Seville to come – is a port made rich on overseas empire. The Portuguese capital boasts grand palaces and stately streets a-flush with baroque blushes, now shabby and diminished. Hebridean Sky's proximity to the city sights encourages me to set off walking. For me, the bohemian atmosphere of working-class Bairro Alto and Alfama districts are the winners. I push past street stalls, duck under wrought-iron balconies and explore alleyways before settling into a traditional café to listen to haunting fado music, Irish-like in its lament for the oppressed and rejected.
I return to Hebridean Sky down waterfalls of cobbles between lilac and green buildings. The Mediterranean feels nearby. We aren't there yet though. Instead, the ship rounds Portugal's corner into a last pocket of the Atlantic. Portimão has a scenic sea approach between biscuit-brown hills, small ochre cliffs and forts flanking a long blue harbour. I find the town disappointing, however. A carbuncle of a church has survived the infamous 1755 Lisbon earthquake in the middle of a brief tangle of pleasant shopping streets, but the rest of Portimão is a sprawl of apartments sporadically inhabited by sunburned northern Europeans. Portuguese hotel workers suck up tiny cups of coffee at street tables and scowl at souvenir shops selling cork handbags and lemon liqueurs.
Still, the waterfront has restaurants that tempt with sardines cooked over coals. People have been fishing here since Roman times, and canneries were once big business. The local museum, housed in a former cannery, redeems the rest of town with its Roman artefacts and surprisingly interesting presentations on Portimão's now-faded sardine success.
At Cadiz next day, a coach transfer leads us inland through rugged hills. The wheat and sunflowers have been harvested, the cotton is in bloom. Stone pines line the roadside. Like nearly all my fellow passengers, I've set my sights on visiting Seville in the heart of Spanish cliché country: orange-scented plazas, bullfighting and flamenco, churches sombre with pierced saints, tapas bars hung with hams.
Loot from the newly discovered Americas made Seville wealthy in the 16th century. It bursts with monuments and a Moorish palace of magnificent decoration, with patios and courtyards and walled gardens sumptuous with roses. Across the way is a staggering cathedral, creation of Spain-uniting monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, who chased out the Arabs in the thirteenth century. It's the world's largest Gothic building, bulging with baroque gold and Catholic menace. Even our guide seems awed.
Overnight, we slip past Gibraltar into the Mediterranean to dock at Motril. It's the nearest port to Granada just an hour inland, and another spectacle of Moorish Spain. Suddenly on a hilltop, backed by the snow-dusted peaks of the Sierra Nevada, we spy the Alhambra. Granada was the last Islamic stronghold in Andalusia, surviving until 1492, and its famous Moorish palace complex is a wonder of evermore lovely courtyards and pools, latticework and sculpted stone, set in a tapestry of lavender walkways, rose trellises and splashing fountains. We're all a little overwhelmed. It's another place that intoxicates you with the spirit of human endeavour, and reignites the desire to travel ever onward.
FIVE MORE HIGHLIGHTS
Small-ship cruising generally attracts independently minded passengers keen to stray from the organised shore excursions, at least some of the time. Here are some alternative highlights of Spain and Portugal worth independent exploration.
One of Portugal's loveliest towns is just 10 kilometres from Leixoes port. The World Heritage city plunges down a gorge to the Douro River in cascades of yellow and orange houses. Centuries-old trade wealth has funded fine churches, museums and other art treasures. Blue-tiled scenes from Portuguese history decorate church and train-station facades. The riverfront buzzes with bars where locals and tourists mingle in the sunshine, sipping on the region's wine. See visitporto.travel
If you've been to Lisbon before, hop on the train 30 kilometres northwest to hillside Sintra, one of Portugal's oldest towns and certainly its most romantic. Villas ornate as wedding cakes sit amid lemon trees, mimosa and swatches of bougainvillea. The former royal palace has superlative tilework and paintings if you can tear yourself away from the views. Another must-see is Quinta da Regaleira, a kooky pastiche castle built by a mining baron. See sintraromantica.net
While most APT passengers trundle inland to Seville, you have very good reason to remain for the day in Cadiz, the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in Europe and a major port of Spain's colonial heyday. Its fortified, sea-girt old town is a walk from the cruise terminal and has great Mediterranean-gazing promenades, shady streets and squares, lively seafood and flower markets and a lovely sense of everyday Spain away from the tourist hordes. See cadizturismo.com
This is the port of access for Granada and, if you've never seen the Alhambra you shouldn't miss it. Still, a lazy day in Motril isn't unpleasant. The town has some good beaches and a typical Arab-Spanish old town with some impressive architecture built with sugar money. If you need exercise, head up to the hilltop sanctuary dedicated to the town's patron saint, which has wonderful views along the coast and inland to whitewashed villages. See motrilturismo.com
This is the final port on this APT cruise. Ignore all the hand-wringing you've heard about a war on tourists here and aim to linger a day or two. Yes, the city is swamped with visitors, but it's far from unfriendly and besides, this is one of Europe's most architecturally beautiful cities, especially thanks to its Art Nouveau buildings. It has top art museums, great food and a thrilling soccer team, too. See barcelonaturisme.com
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of APT.
The writer travelled on APT's 15-day 'Southern European Sojourn' itinerary between London and Barcelona, priced from $15,995pp including shore excursions, gratuities and beverages, and next departing on 15 May 2018 aboard Hebridean Sky's sister ship Island Sky. Phone 1300 196 420 or see aptouring.com.au