An itinerary from Barcelona to Bergen on the recently launched Viking Sea provides the chance to cruise around the rim of Western Europe. Brian Johnston steps aboard.
If you want to impress with a cruise, start with a bang: two days in Barcelona, with your ship docked under the shadow of ocean-gesturing Christopher Columbus on his tall column, and pedestrian drag La Rambla only a five-minute shuffle from port.
The famous tree-lined street plunges you straight into the heart of one of Europe’s most agreeable and quirky cities. I wear out a pair of shoes taking it in: Gaudí’s still-unfinished cathedral, designer boutiques, interesting architecture, family-filled parks and art-crammed museums.
Viking Sea finally sets sail south-westwards along Spain’s rocky coast, offering a quick day at sea to soothe the sightseeing legs before breaking out two more fabulous destinations: Granada (from the port of Málaga) and, the following day, Seville (from Cadiz). Both towns have Moorish palaces with orange-scented courtyards, whitewashed alleyways where pots of geraniums pop on patios, and architecture of monumental splendour draped in America’s gold.
Viking’s “Passage through Western Europe” is essentially a 15-day repositioning cruise that takes the 930-passenger Viking Sea from the Mediterranean to the Norwegian fjords, but it goes far beyond normally indifferent repositioning itineraries, visiting five countries and 10 ports of impressive variety. The ship skirts Europe’s western edge from the hot coast of Spain to the misty meadows of Normandy and into the fjords of Norway: bacalao (salted cod) to baguettes, Portuguese navigators to Viking raiders, Gothic cathedrals to art-nouveau apartments.
On day six, the early-morning approach to Lisbon is lovely as Viking Sea sails past guardian fortresses into a long bay and up the wide Tagus River, docking under the tumbling houses of the city’s central Alfama district. The day falls into a typical Viking pattern: long port calls allow an inclusive orientation tour in the morning that provides passengers with a general overview, and there’s ample free time afterwards for individual wandering through cobbled squares where cafe conversation bubbles and gold-laden churches loom. Alternatively, passengers can select from optional tours at extra cost. There are eight choices in Lisbon alone, ranging from more in-depth looks at the city to surrounding sights such as medieval hilltop Óbidos, pilgrim destination Fátima or the rococo Palace of Queluz.
Often on this journey I think the highlights are now in our wake, only to be reinvigorated by more port pleasures. Porto, adjacent to the northern Portuguese port of Leixões, is a wonderful town that plunges down the side of a gorge to the Douro River in cascades of yellow and orange houses. Blue-tiled scenes from Portuguese history decorate church and train-station facades, and the riverfront buzzes with bars where locals and tourists mingle in the sunshine, sipping wine produced on the Douro’s banks upstream.
The next day, Santiago de Compostella is just as wonderful, though quite different: an austerely beautiful town of honeyed buildings clustering around a whopping cathedral where pilgrims shuffle.
A day at sea takes us from Spain to northern France, allowing passengers to further explore the ship, with its chic, Scandinavian minimalism and light-filled spaces. Viking Sea’s spa features a grotto where – improbably – artificial snow falls for a delightful, skin-tingling loiter before plunging into the hot tub. The ship’s stern features a cantilevered infinity pool permitting a float between sea and sky. But my favourite place to linger is the indoor-outdoor Wintergarden adjacent to the main pool, where a retractable roof lets in floods of light and waiters serve afternoon scones laden with cream.
Somewhere in the night, the Atlantic is left behind and we sail into Cherbourg on the English Channel. It’s the magic of cruising that we’ve moved from robust Spain to green, cow-chewed northern France with so little effort. Normandy is about exploring gardens and castles and the unexpectedly lovely port city of Le Havre, from which many passengers take an excursion to Paris.
Our next port of call, Southampton, has me in one of those pleasant dithers. Many passengers head on an inclusive transfer for sightseeing in London, but there are also tours to Winchester, Windsor, Salisbury and Stonehenge. Finally I opt for Portsmouth and its fabulous naval dockyards, which display the Tudor ship Mary Rose and Admiral Nelson’s famous warship HMS Victory. It’s one of the highlights of this cruise so rich in maritime history, though I’m just as entranced by the Viking history centre at Haugesund, our first port of call in Norway, where timbered houses crowd the fjord’s edge.
On our final day, Viking Star zigzags through pine-topped islands as I sit in the Explorer Lounge, whose vast windows frame Bergen’s fjord-bound setting.
Bergen is the gateway to the fjords and an elegant city in its own right. It’s both Norway’s former medieval capital and its cultural heart, as the birthplace of romantic composer Edvard Grieg, whose house is visited on an optional shore excursion.
On the inclusive tour, get a glimpse of Bergen’s trading past along Bryggen Wharf, lined by cheerfully gabled houses and lively bars. Cruise, cargo and fishing ships still keep the harbour busy.
We’re a world away from Barcelona. The northern light is long and low, sea breezes nippy and mountains appear like cardboard cut-outs on the horizon. This is another Europe, yet with cultural echoes resonating all the way back to Barcelona thanks to the unifying wonder of the sea, and the goods and ideas traded across it for centuries.
Highs: A new ship of elegant Scandinavian design, friendly service, excellent food and an ethos that focuses on destinations, with quick disembarkation times and long port stays. Lows: Although unusual in being inclusive, daily shore excursions move at a slow pace and offer only the most general overview. Best suited to: Couples aged 40 and above. There are no amenities specifically for children.