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Freighter Trip to the Mediterranean -- Part II

Author: DocJohnB (More Trip Reviews by DocJohnB)
Date of Trip: May 2006

Ports of Call (Europe)

As I have written before, flexibility is the key to enjoying a freighter and the port visits would test my flexibility, but I did roll with the curves thrown and enjoyed them when I could.

Marsaxlokk, Malta (8 May 2006)

In the early afternoon of 8 May, the island of Malta appeared off the port bow. A very slow approach brought us to the mouth of Marsaxlokk harbor. Marsaxlokk is a port city that is located (if my sense of direction is correct) almost directly south of Valletta at about 10 miles. Malta Freeport Terminal is the name of the port itself and my understanding from the Captain is that CMA CGM was a major player in its development. I stayed up on the bridge from the time Malta came into view until just prior to the actual docking as it was time for the evening meal. After the ship was held outside the port for about an hour, the pilot boat came out a couple of miles and dropped off the pilot, who would guide us safely to the dock. Just prior to leaving the bridge for supper, the Captain invited me to join him and a few of the officers in town for a beer. After dinner, the Captain, Chief Mate, Chief Engineer (both named Gheorgi) and I headed off for the approximately 3 mile walk into town. In town I cashed some US dollars into Maltese Lira (all other ports would use Euro). The four of us sat outside at a harbor side bar and had a couple of cool beers. The Captain told me that we could depart the ship anytime we wanted, but prior to leaving the ship in the morning to check and ascertain the time of departure. Both the Ch. Mate and Ch. Engineer are quiet fellows, but I did find out that the Engineer was married with adult children and would leave in Lisbon. The Mate was in his early 30's was married and had a 3 month old daughter back in Romania with his wife. He was a bit wistful...missed them I believe. On our way back to the ship we passed a group of about 15 of the crew hanging out having a beer. Claudio jokingly offered me one. Found out the next day that they stayed out in town drinking until about 4 a.m. Geeez to be that young again.

The next morning it was a quick breakfast as Claudio had arranged for a taxi to take us into town at 8 am. We took a port bus from the ship to the exit of the port. The Captain told us we were leaving at 1:00 p.m., so we had to be back onboard at noon. We met the taxi and the driver took us to Valletta where we would do some sightseeing and shopping. I would look for a internet café and drop my wife a quick note. By the time we got to town we only had about 3 hours to look around as we had to meet the cab for the ride back at 11:30. With that short time, there was little to see, so we stayed as a group. We stopped at a travel office and obtained some maps and walked about, bought some souvenirs and headed back to the ship via our friendly cabby. In the short time available, I was unable to locate an internet café. Cost of the cab round trip was about $12 each. We sailed for Italy at 1:15...almost on time. I was on the bridge for sail-a-way and the Captain informed us that the ship would be skipping its port visit in Savannah, Ga.

Livorno (Leghorn), Italy (10-11 May 2006)

A day and a half steaming brought us to the port of Livorno. We arrived about 8 p.m. and as we were not allowed to leave until after customs and immigration had cleared us and the port agent arrived, we decided to leave the ship in the morning. Patty had found a card with the name and number of a taxi driver in Livorno and after an early breakfast, Claudio gave him a ring. The driver, Valerio, agreed to to pick us up dockside, drop Louis off at the train station in Livorno, then take Patty, Karen and I on a 3 hour tour that would include Pisa, Livorno and the hills overlooking Livorno. He would then drop us off in town for shopping, pick us up at an agreed upon time and deposit us back to the ship. This pretty much is how the day worked out. Valerio was college educated, spoke good but accented English and was a charming host. His vehicle was a late model VW 7 passenger Van and was quite comfortable. The cost for the day, including tip was about $50 per person. He dropped us off in town a little after noon and we agreed to meet him there at 4 p.m. Prior to dropping us off, we stopped at a ATM for me to get some cash, while the ladies went across the street to a money change shop to exchange dollars for Euros. Unfortunately, my ATM would not work as I did not have a European PIN (I think 6 digit). Fortunately, I had the foresight to bring plenty of cash to last me the trip, just in case. We ran into the bane of travelers...siesta. Actually, we first visited an open air market and made some purchases for the lounge and ourselves. Then it was on to a delightful restaurant for lunch. The ladies had shrimp scampi and French fries, while I had a seafood pasta in a spicy red sauce and a beer. The total bill came to 51 Euros which I put on my credit card and the ladies gave me Euros for their share. After, we walked around downtown Livorno looking at some of the shops, did a bit of sightseeing and stopped for a delicious gelato. We arrived to our pickup point a little early and at exactly 4pm Valerio pulls up to take us back to the ship. On the way back he told us we were lucky to have made the hire of him that day as there was only one, small cruise ship in port. He told us in all of Livorno there are only 75 or so regulated taxi's and when the cruise ships are in port he is always, always busy. He also told us that the next day, 4 cruise ships were expected in port and we probably would not have contracted a driver.

While in Pisa, Valerio showed us the University of Pisa, or at least that part that incorporates the Piazza dei Cavalieri with its student housing, chapel and classroom building. The University of Pisa is, of course, quite famous throughout the world and has produced such notable alumni and faculty as Galileo Galilei, Pope Clement XII and the singer Andrea Bocelli, along with three Nobel prize winners, Giosue Carducci (Poet), and Enrico Fermi and Carlo Rubbia (Physicists). The town of Pisa has a population of 90,000 which is supplemented by a student population of 70,000. After the University, Valerio took us to the Leaning Tower. Although interesting, I wasn't as overawed by this structure as I thought I would be, but was more fascinated by the Duomo and Baptistry located in the same square. May is apparently a good time to visit the area as there were only moderate crowds...Valerio told us at times the square is packed with visitors. Amongst the visitors this day were several groups of school children whom I would guess were in primary school. Little tykes who, for the most part, seemed generally interested in what they were seeing and learning. We took some photographs and walked around for about one-half hour. After leaving Pisa we headed back to Livorno and a drive thru of that city. It is a quite congested city at least in the town center. We drove thru the town, then along the Oceanside then headed up into the hills overlooking Livorno and the area surrounding it. From the heights of the hillside, Livorno painted a very pretty picture.

All in all, I considered it a well presented tour and well worth the price we paid for it. The Captain told us that we had to be back on board by 6 p.m. as the ship would sail at 7 p.m. We actually got back to the ship at 4:30 and had time for a nap before dinner. We actually set sail closer to 7:30, so after dinner I made my way up to the bridge to enjoy the transit out to sea. I believe this was the last time that the ship remained on schedule. We would be arrive in Genoa in the early morning.

Genoa (Genova), Italy (12 May 2006)

Originally we were scheduled to be in Genoa until about 4 p.m., which meant we would have a good 7-8 hours to explore the town. Prior to leaving the ship at 8:30, we were informed that we had to be back by noon as we were due to depart now at 1 p.m. So, my only desire was to find an internet café near the port or better yet a telephone exchange in the port. Well the phone exchange was closed for repairs and I never located anything that resembled an internet café. First off, I had a little problem navigating the port area and got lost trying to walk into town. Once I turned myself around I headed out of the port and crossed a major thoroughfare into the heart of the port area. Lots of walking, all kinds of shops and stores, but nary an internet café. After this fruitless search, I found a bar and had a nice cold beer at 10:30 in the morning -- frustration was working its way in. After the beer I headed back to the port and found a restaurant at the entrance of the port. I was trying to ask the guy at the counter about a telephone, he understood telephone, but said no. We were having a serious language problem (my fault as I left a phrase book in the cabin). A customer interrupted and in almost perfect English, told me that there was indeed a phone exchange, but that it was undergoing renovations and was closed for 2-3 days. Back to the ship.

At lunch, the ladies said that they had caught a bus right outside the gate and spent a couple of enjoyable hours in old Genoa. After lunch, I mentioned to Claudio my frustration about the internet café and/or phone exchange. He told me not to worry, because at our next port (Fos sur Mer) there was a seaman's club with both facilities -- great. I headed up to the bridge for the departure and learned that we would not be departing at 1 p.m., but perhaps at 2 or 3 p.m. We actually did not get underway until 6 p.m. They loaded containers until 5 p.m. Here is where flexibility came into play. Had I had a cell phone, I could have contacted the ship and stayed out 4 more hours except for the fact that the sail-a-way time was changed hour to hour that day.

Fos sur Mer, France (13 May 06)

Fos sur Mer as a port call for passengers is a big zero. But Claudio and the Captain had both informed me of that fact well before our arrival, so there was little disappointment. We were to pick up 6 new passengers here and the interpersonal dynamics proved to be quite interesting (more on that later).

I awoke that morning at 3:30 a.m. and was unable to get back to sleep, so I dressed and headed up to the bridge to watch our approach to Fos sur Mer (Fos). The Captain was already on the bridge and he welcomed me and offered me a cup of coffee. I spent the next 3 hours enjoying the approach and talking with this very interesting man. The approach was interesting. We were not headed in a southerly direction, so the coast was off the starboard side. Originally, some lights could be seen in the hillside. As the morning fast approached, more lights became apparent as the citizenry awakened to a new dawn. Fos is located 40 kilometers south of Marseilles. As the morning light increased the town of Marseilles could be seen in the distance under a cloud of smog. This was not an unusual phenomena as I noticed it on our approach to all the port cities in the Med and in the U.S. A filthy haze of smog could be seen over them all. Hopefully, someday in the future, we inhabitants of earth will learn how to burn cleaner fuels. I have little to no problems with allergies, but by 6 a.m. or so my eyes were burning.

The approach to Fos was slow but steady. The pilot came aboard for the last hour of the transit and we arrived dockside at approximately 7 a.m. Once the pilot was on the bridge, I made myself scarce and stayed out of the way. After breakfast, we passengers just lazed around deciding that we would not go off ship until after lunch. The distance into Marseille and the cost to get there had made us decide to just use the facilities of the Seaman's club and stretch our legs on land. The new passengers arrived throughout the morning. Pierre, a French born American citizen was first to board, followed by Peer and Chantal, Belgian born Frenchmen, then Pierre (2) a young French executive traveling on his own to the U.S. where he would meet up with his wife for a long 4/5 day weekend in New York City. Last to board was a delightful French couple Alain and Nicole. He was a retired French Army General. (Please note that 3 of the 4 men had derivations of the name Pierre which made it really easy to remember their names). After lunch, 4 of us passengers headed off to the Seaman's club for a beer and in my case to try to make some contact (email or phone) with my wife. After a couple of wrong turns and buildings we made our way to the club only to see a sign stating that the hours were 16:30 to 23:00. This would not do as we were to be back on board by 16:00 (4 p.m.) for a 5 p.m. departure. So once again, my plans to contact my wife were thwarted by bad timing. With nothing else to do, we headed back to the ship. I spoke of my frustration with the Captain (not complaining, but just in conversation). He told me I could send an email from the ship and to see him the next morning when we were at sea. The next morning after breakfast, he took me to his office and let me use his computer and account to send a message to the wife telling her all was well. The only problem was the European keyboard, but I figured that out.

The day in Fos was spent loading, unloading and re-arranging containers and other cargo. In Miami, the ship had taken on as cargo a rather large pleasure/fishing boat. It was carried on the fantail (rear) of the ship and pretty much stretched from side to side. This boat was off-loaded in Fos and was an interesting evolution in itself. The gantry operator positioned it over the boat and two heavy-duty canvas straps were placed fore and after under the keel of the boat and with a series of maneuvers, it was gently placed in the water directly behind the Arno. This whole evolution took close to an hour and through binoculars we watched the owners as their "baby" was transferred off the ship. Nervous does not describe it.

Our 5 p.m. departure was once again delayed and we would leave after supper around 8:30, but again it was an hour by hour delay so no chance to get off and run to the Seaman's club. It would really not have made a difference as we continuously checked the building with binoculars and it appears if they never opened the facility that day. We would spend the next day and a half at sea on our way to Valencia.

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