Sojourning Along Spain's Southern Coast
Posted August 30, 2007 10:57 a.m. EDT
MALAGA, Spain — The massive bull charges. A flick of the red cape, and the matador pirouettes, gracefully sidestepping the horns. The crowd sits, tensely, at the edge of their seats, waiting. Then the handsome young master of the art of bullfighting turns and thrusts the sword between the animal’s shoulder blades for the kill.
“Alejandro is 23 and has been bullfighting all his life. He comes from a family of bullfighters,” says our guide, Eva.
The scene in my mind’s eye dissolves as Eva's words pull me back to reality. We’re visiting the 14,000-seat bullring in Malaga, now empty, on a shore excursion from Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ Seven Seas Voyager. The real matador, Alejandro, is showing our group moves from the three carefully choreographed acts of bullfighting.
When Alejandro finishes, I examine the exhibits in the bullring’s museum, including the grisly old black-and-white photos of gored matadors in the hospital. The 25 bullfighting students who train three times a week at the bullring’s school hope to avoid the fate of those displayed. I’m not sure I’m keen to see an actual bullfight, but by the time we leave, I do have a deeper respect for the centuries-old tradition of bull fighting that’s an ingrained part of the Spanish culture.
Touring Malaga’s bullfighting ring and museum is just one of the sights included on a cruise sailing along the southern Spanish coast. Several ships, including the Voyager, feature Malaga and other Spanish ports in late fall and early spring before and after crossing the Atlantic (as repositioning cruises to and from the Caribbean).
Spacious suites at least 345 square feet in size – each with a private balcony, sitting area and full bathroom with a separate tub and marble-and-glass shower – are the hallmark of the mid-size, 700-passenger Voyager. The suites have just undergone a multi-million dollar refurbishment.
Special touches typical of a deluxe cruise ship are evident everywhere – exemplary service, free bottled water at the gangplank when you go ashore, complimentary quality wines at dinner, meals served at a single seating whenever you choose and in perfectly sized portions – so you still look forward to dessert of vanilla crème brulee with strawberries after your napoleon of crabmeat and avocado with a black sesame crisp to start and main course of herb-encrusted roast rack of lamb with green beans wrapped in bacon.
Yet, as classy as the Voyager is, its ambiance remains warm and relaxed. Regent Seven Seas Cruises is for those who prefer to leave their jewels and tuxes at home. Dress for dinner is designated as casual, except for the two “informal” occasions on our eight-night cruise, and even then men aren’t asked to wear ties with their jackets.
The first Spanish port on the Voyager’s western sailing is Barcelona. If you’ve never seen the fantastically intricate La Sagrada Familia (Church of the Holy Family) and other whimsical modernist buildings of architect Antoni Gaudi – Barcelona’s key attractions – you’re in for a treat. Curved wavy walls, spirals, religious symbols and motifs of leaves and flowers all embellish his many creations.
Also save time to meander the three-quarter mile stretch of Las Ramblas, a wide tree-lined boulevard teeming with flower shops, outdoor cafés, street performers posing as human statues and even stalls selling birds and chickens. The bakeries showcasing almond cakes and custard tarts are positively sinful. I couldn’t help but indulge in an orgy of sweets that erased all my good work in the ship’s gym.
The Seven Seas Voyager overnights in Barcelona, which allows a local troupe of singers and dancers to come aboard. The show we watched was passionate and earthy – an example of the fine performances found onboard the Voyager. The ship’s entertainment is pitched to the mature tastes of its guests, and along with folkloric shows, includes jazz quartets and classical piano renditions.
Valencia follows Barcelona, then Malaga. One of the oldest cities in Western Europe – founded by the Phoenicians 3,000 years ago – Malaga’s streets are lined with jacaranda trees blossoming with beautiful blue flowers. I loved the city’s Moorish influence, especially the blue and green mosaic tiles around the arched doorways and windows of the houses and buildings.
A city tour usually begins with the Alcazaba, an 11th-century palace-fortress high atop a hillside, affording splendid views of Malaga and the sea beyond. Along with the bullring, expect your tour to also take in the four-story corner house where Pablo Picasso was born in 1881. Picasso started his career painting pigeons’ feet, and in the square opposite his birthplace, pigeons continue to flutter about.
The cruise ends in Portuguese Madeira (population 260,000). Located off the coast of Africa, Madeira is a wondrous emerald island rising straight up out of the Atlantic Ocean. Think Lisbon meets Kaua’i. Red-roofed houses cling to lush mountainsides, and bougainvillea and hibiscus bloom everywhere you look. Unless you continue on the Atlantic crossing (which many passengers do), Funchal, the island’s capital, is the disembarkation port – and well worth exploring for a few days.
A must-do activity is to take the cable car from Funchal up the mountain, then an exhilarating wicker basket sled ride, hand-guided by two men, back down cobblestone streets. We also enjoyed a guided hike along one of the island’s 200 main levadas, or scenic water channels, to see thunderous waterfalls, rugged peaks, expansive ocean and valley vistas, and thick forests. Tasting different Madeira wines (a cross between sherry and port) at The Old Blandy Wine Lodge or other wine lodge around the island is also popular among visitors.