Number of Cruises: 2
Cruise Line: MSC Cruises
Ship: MSC Sinfonia
Sailing Date: May 22nd, 2005
Itinerary: Western Mediterranean
This was our first cruise, and we chose MSC for a combination of the itinerary, the price, and the newness of the ship. We weren't disappointed.
The ship is about 3 years old since first going into service with another cruise line, but was bought by MSC in September 2004 (the other line having gone out of business) and refitted during the winter. It entered service with MSC in March 2005.
The cruise was simple 7 night round-trip from Genoa, and calling at Naples, Palermo, Tunis, Palma, Barcelona, Marseilles, and returning to Genoa. We called at a different port each day, with stays in port ranging from half-a-day to a full day.
Embarkation at Genoa was easy and unhurried, although the whole day was rather long - we left home at about 6:45 am for a 9:30 flight from Manchester to Milan Malpensa, followed by a two-hour coach transfer to Genoa where we arrived by about 3:30 pm. We were in our cabin before 4 pm. The transfers all worked well.
Money: we spent about €525 on board, including €200+ for excursions and about €50 for photos. The rest was drinks, coffee, etc. We also gave €150 or so in tips. Then we spent about €200 ashore - some lunches, drinks, taxis, and other transport.
We were in a standard inside cabin, #9010, right at the bow on deck 9. On Sinfonia almost all the cabins are the same size, they are either inside or outside. If they are the latter then you get a (non-opening) window, while inside cabins just have a picture of some sort. We were perfectly happy with our inside cabin – while a window cabin would have been nice it would not have been worth the extra cost (£500). In fact we spent very little time in the cabin, apart from sleeping; we were either eating, drinking, lounging, or ashore! I think on this kind of cruise - a port every day, and on most days the ship is in port all day - the cabin is just somewhere to sleep, dress, etc, and the standard cabin is fine. It might different on a longer cruise where the ship spent some entire days at sea – in that case I can imagine that you might want to retire to your cabin and be able to see outside.
Wardrobe space in the cabin was excellent. We took two outfits for every day - daytime and evening - and had no problem fitting everything into the wardrobe. Val was able to hang her long gown without a problem, and there was plenty of room for my shirts, dinner suit, and jacket. We were able to put one of our suitcases in the wardrobe - it fitted under the shirts at my end - but we had to leave the other one out. (I’ve learned since that we could probably have put it under one of the beds.) There was also good drawer space for underwear, t-shirts, etc. Finally there was a big cupboard with a safe built into it. This was very useful, and we felt much more comfortable with having that present - we left money, passports, iPods, etc, in there most of the time.
The bathroom had a washbasin, toilet and small shower. The toilet and washbasin were fine, but the shower was very small - when you turned round you could expect intimate contact with the shower curtain! But it worked, had easy-to-use controls and there seemed to be plenty of hot water. There was also a hair dryer in the bathroom, and Val didn't find that so good - it was too fierce, and of course it was in the bathroom, which is not the best place to try to dry hair. I think she would have preferred to have brought a hair dryer of her own if she'd known.
Ship - Public Areas
There were a lot of these – two restaurants, half-a-dozen bars, several lounges, the open deck areas for sunbathing, the pools, and the reception & atrium area. From what I've read about bigger ships I think this area in Sinfonia is quite restrained - just two decks high. Reception and Excursions were the main offices, plus there was an accounts office that was open for just a couple of hours most days. They were all attractive and efficient, manned by staff who were able to switch languages with ease. There didn’t seem to be any significant queuing at any of the desks.
The bars and lounges were attractively furnished - good solid comfortable chairs and seats - mainly in shades of burgundy and green. Mostly we used the Cafe Greco and the Buddha Bar on deck 6 (one deck above Reception), and the Sinfonia Lounge (deck 7, forward). There were also the Manhattan Bar and Shelagh's Irish Pub (!), both on deck 5, but we didn't use these much. The Manhattan Bar was the largest bar area on the ship with a small stage and a dance floor, but thanks to the very 'family' nature of the cruise there was often some organised activity going on here, e.g., kids' dancing to an Italian version of 'Agadoo' (by the sound of it). Not our thing, but we were always able to find another bar so it wasn't a problem.
There is smoking on board, but there's a clear rule - smoking to Port, non-smoking to Starboard (I think that was the way round), and this was carried into the bars - one side would have ashtrays on the tables, the other would have 'no smoking' signs on them. We never saw an ashtray being moved into a no-smoking area, nor did we see smokers in the non-smoking areas, nor did we see staff smoking. The restaurants were all non-smoking, and as far as we could see that rule was observed.
For dinner, we ate at first sitting in ‘Il Galleone’, the larger of the two restaurants. The dinners were always very good, and occasionally excellent. The portions were not too large which was as well because there were lots of courses - appetizer; soup; pasta; main course; dessert. There was always a good choice - typically, a choice of four main courses and three of each of the others - plus there were the old favourites: steak, roast chicken, etc, if there was nothing else you fancied. There was always a vegetarian choice, and this seemed good. I had a veggie main course one night - a vegetarian crepe in a light cheese sauce - and it was excellent. I think the main Italian flavour in the menu came though in the choice of appetizers, soups and (of course) the pasta dish - the main courses were less 'Italianate'. So from the point of view of the food itself, the dinners were very successful, and we always got up from the table feeling both happy and not too full.
There were two formal nights, and on these evenings Val & I dressed up – DJ for me, long dress or cocktail dress for Val. The other evenings were supposed to be semi-formal – men were asked to wear a jacket and tie – but we did notice that not many did, especially on the first night, and again by the end of the cruise. However this may have been partly because we were in first sitting for dinner along with a lot of the families. I suspect that second sitting was perhaps a bit smarter.
Unfortunately our Italian waiter (Lorenzo) didn't have much English so he wasn't able to explain anything to us. For example, we might ask 'what's 'consommé marmitte'?', and he would reply 'is a soup....'. Well, yes, we already knew that because it was listed under 'soup' on the menu.... As it happens we are pretty familiar with Italian cuisine so we didn't have many questions, but if you aren't then this might be an issue. Our second waiter was Balinese and spoke excellent English, but he had to play second fiddle to Lorenzo so didn't push himself forward. And it was Lorenzo that took all the orders.
That apart, we had no complaints about the service but then again we aren't especially experienced in formal dining. But we got what we ordered, it was served with a smile, and we were at the table just long enough - typically, from 7 pm to 8:40 or so. We didn't feel rushed.
Unfortunately, lunches and breakfasts were considerably less good. These were were available in various locations: the restaurant, and in a self-service snack bar. In the restaurant they were good, but if you were on a morning excursion then you didn't have time for this. In this case the recourse was the self-service options, either in the Terrazza snackery, or out on the deck. These breakfasts were pretty stodgy - runny scrambled eggs, greasy bacon, and hash browns, potatoes and mushrooms that were cold. Not very good at all. Lunch was probably not quite so poor, but still not good unless you went into the restaurant. Again, however, if you were on a morning excursion you might find that when you returned that only the self-service choices that were open. In fact for the last two days we took lunch ashore.
This isn't something we pay a lot of attention to. There was a theatre that seemed good and comfortable. We visited it for the Captain's Cocktail Party, and we went to one show, a magician/illusionist. It was OK - exactly the sort of show that works in an multilingual setting - but he did have to repeat his patter three or four times over.
Most of the bars had resident singers or bands, and these were less good. I remember one evening in the Buddha Bar listening to a keyboard player/singer. I think he was a good musician (ie, he could play an instrument) but he couldn't sing, so there was also a female singer with him. She was doing about one number in three. For the intermediate numbers she looked totally bored - head on her hand, staring glassy-eyed into the distance. Had we been looking for scintillating entertainment we would have been disappointed.
There was also a lot of organised entertainment by the pool. There were a lot of families with kids on this cruise and there were many organised activities for them, mainly of the games and dancing variety, from late morning through to teatime. The presenters and artistes for these certainly seemed to be working very hard, and putting lots of energy into it, and these was a constant stream of activity. Certainly the kids loved it. It's not for us, but for families with young kids - say, 6 to 12 or so - I imagine it was excellent.
There was a port every day, as follows: Naples (from 1 pm or so to 7 pm); Palermo (8 am to 6 pm or so); Tunis (7 am to 2 pm or thereabouts); Palma (2 pm to 1 am the following morning); Barcelona (8 am to 6:45 or so); and Marseilles (8 am to 7 pm or so). There were multiple excursions every say, some all day, some just half-day.
We went on three excursions: first to Cefalu, a small seaside town in Sicily (from Palermo); second, History & Culture from Tunis (basically, a visit to the ruins around Carthage); and third, Cassis, another small seaside town but this time near Marseilles). We did our own thing at Naples, Palma and Barcelona, and in the afternoon at Marseilles. These are covered in more detail in the separate sections.
One thing about all the excursions - we had underestimated the travelling time. A four-hour excursion would leave a bare 2 hours (or less) at the destination.
Here are my conclusions on some of the places on our itinerary: Naples and Palermo lived up to their reputations of being chaotic and mad. The traffic in both towns was unbelievable. In Naples we went on our own to San Martino, a museum with gardens right at the top of the town with amazing views back over the harbour. This was hard work - very few signs, and no English spoken by anyone. We got there in the end, and it was worth it, but as I say it was a bit if a struggle.
Tunis: I got a strong feeling that doing your own thing was not encouraged here. Other than the excursions, the only way into town (the harbour is about 12 kilometres from town) is by hiring a taxi.
Palma: the civilized nature of the Spanish towns became evident immediately we went ashore here. We took a taxi up to Castell Belver (above the town) and we were taken there by a direct route, in a taxi with the meter running! Very friendly, very helpful.
Barcelona: again, very civilized. We visited Sagrada Familia in the morning, which is stunning.
Marseilles: after returning from the Cassis excursion we got on the shuttle bus into the Vieux Port for lunch (we couldn't face the ship lunches any more!). Again, this was easy and excellent: lunch in an street cafe/bistro near the Hotel de Ville, walk around the old harbour, walk around a couple of old streets, find another cafe, have a beer... civilized people, the French.
In general the accessibility of the town or city from the port was very good. At Naples, Palermo, and Barcelona the cruise liners moor at a dock pretty close to the main parts of the town. In Barcelona we were able to walk to the bottom of La Rambla in about 5 minutes, for example. In Palma we were out at one end of Palma Bay (but still in the city) but there were easy city buses into the town (plus taxis, of course). In Marseilles the dock was 5 or 6 kilometres away from the city centre in an industrial dock area, but MSC laid on shuttle buses. In Tunis the port is almost a separate town, about 10 kilometres from Tunis itself, and here the only options were taxi and the excursions.
There were far more families on board than I had expected. Mainly Italian families, but also German and Spanish. There were very, very few English people on board - perhaps a couple of dozen out of almost 2000. The majority were Italian followed by Germans, then Spaniards and French.
So it was much more family-based than I had expected. I would say the typical age was late-twenties to late thirties, with a couple of young kids. I don't know how typical this is: someone suggested that they had heard that southern Germany had a school holiday that week, and Munich to Genoa is drivable in not too many hours, of course.
There seemed to be very few English-speakers on this cruise - we only once or twice heard English being spoken in passing - and at first we were sat with non-English diners. On the first night we were sat with an elderly couple from Switzerland who were German-speaking. Well, we don't have any German and only the gentleman had a bit of English so that was a rather stilted affair. We requested a change of table, and for the next 4 nights were sat with four Swedish people, two of whom spoke excellent English, so we had some conversation on those nights. They disembarked at Barcelona and for the last two nights we had a big 6-seat table to ourselves.
We were in Naples for just half-a-day, from lunchtime to about 7pm. There were a number of excursions, including visits to Pompeii, Capri, and Vesuvius, but we felt that given the shortness of time it might all be a bit rushed so we decided to do our own thing. This was helped by the fact that at Naples the cruise ships dock right at the heart of the old city.
We decided to make our way to San Martino, an old monastery at the top of the city overlooking the old town and the bay. Getting ashore was easy – just get the card swiped (which recorded that we’d left the ship) then walk across the open car park to the main road. That was when we had our first experience of Neapolitan traffic. It really is as mad as they all say, with the scooters the biggest menace of all. We saw a lot of cars with all four corners crunched, and some had one side or the other scraped as well…
Eventually we found our way to the bottom of a funicular railway that took us a long hill to a point high over the city. We then had to walk further up and around a number of streets until eventually we found the entrance. Despite supposedly being one of Naples’ top attractions (it’s a leading museum), we found that San Martino was very poorly signposted, at least from the direction we approached. But eventually we found it and once we got in and found the gardens, it was every bit as beautiful and peaceful as we’d hoped.
One more comment about Naples: very little English is spoken there and very few signs, instructions, etc, were in English. Of course, you could say “why should there be?” But this contrasted greatly with Barcelona, as we found later on.
Postscript: Later in the week we learned that our Swedish table companions had some not-so-good experiences at Naples. Two of them went to Pompeii and the other two to Capri. The Pompeii excursion went exactly as described, but it was a rush. Again, it was very busy - 50 coach loads from the two ships in port (Sinfonia and Costa Fortuna) so it was very busy and they felt they were just running after the guides all the time, they didn't really get any feel for what they were seeing. The Capri trip ran over time and our table companions had no time to repair before dinner - just a quick wash and change, no time to shower. It would not have been a problem for 2nd-sitting diners, however.
at Palermo – excursion to Cefalu
Cefalu (from Palermo): a beautiful little town. Sadly our visit here was curtailed even more than expected as a result of the strangest industrial action I've ever encountered. The (horse-drawn) carriage drivers in Palermo had got into a dispute with the port authorities and the cruise lines. They wanted to come onto the dockside, the companies wouldn't allow them. We saw some serious arguments between groups of drivers and the authorities (armed policemen...), and then the action started: the drivers blocked each road lane on the busiest road junction in Palermo, by edging the carriages into the roads. It took us an hour to get past the dock gate. This meant that all we had was just over an hour in Cefalu, which was disappointing.
Cefalu itself was delightful. A small town clustered round the huge Normal cathedral. Interestingly, although the town is on the sea it has largely turned its back on it: if you look at the pictures you’ll see many houses with sheer walls onto the sea rather than, as I might have expected, making a feature of the sea vista. There is a small beach but there’s no real port.
After returning from Cefalu we decided to stay on board, and sat on the Lido Deck all afternoon and relaxed. I think I actually fell asleep for a while….
in Tunis – excursion to the ruins at Carthage, and
Sidi Bou Said
We docked at the port of La Goulette, which is about 10 or 12 kilometres from the city of Tunis. There were two excursions available from here, Carthage: History & Culture, or a visit to the Medina (the bazaar) in Tunis city. Both excursions ended with a visit to a picturesque village, Sidi Bou Said. Apart from these excursions, the only way of getting away from the harbour area was by taxi. We also had to get entry visas to enter Tunisia. This was done by a team from the relevant Tunisian ministry coming aboard unfeasibly early and issuing temporary visas, on production of a passport, in the theatre at 7am! We duly got our visas which were desultorily checked as we stepped of the gangplank for our excursion.
We did the history & culture one, which was a two-part excursion: about 2 hours being shown round the ruins of Roman & Byzantine Carthage (and a museum) followed by a visit to Sidi Bou Said. We had an English-speaking guide, Mr Habib, who was extremely knowledgeable about his country and its history, and the first part of this excursion was excellent. The visit to Sidi Bou Said was more challenging. First, it was very crowded - not only were there a number of coaches from Sinfonia (at least a dozen) but there were at least as many from Costa Fortuna, also in port that day. Second, it became obvious that the name of the game was to persuade the rich europeans to part with some of their cash - there were hundreds of traders, selling everything from carpets to trinkets. And they were insistent. I don't mind a bit of hassle, I can deal with it, but for the first time I was conscious of myself as a 'rich' person - like all the other tourists I had paid unimaginable sums of money to be there and I was festooned with the latest generation of western techno-toys. I was very struck by the difference between me and the Tunisians. But no, I didn't buy anything, they had nothing that I wanted. Should I have bought something anyway, to help them? I don't know the answer.
We knew Palma somewhat from our holiday in 2004 and therefore decided not to do the excursions (which didn’t seem very attractive anyway). We aimed for Castell Belver, a historic castle at the top of the town, with (you guessed it) great views back over the city and Palma Bay.
A quick taxi ride got us there very quickly and we spent an enjoyable couple of hours (or near) up there, walking around it and taking pictures. There’s a museum of Palma history inside, with attractive displays and informative explanatory panels, in Spanish (or Catalan – I don’t know), French and English.
Then we walked down a path and towards the old town, eventually along the harbour. This was rather further than we’d expected and we got a bit hot, but revived ourselves with a beer (Tom) and an ice-cream (Val). Then a taxi got us back to the ship in plenty of time for dinner.
We did our own thing again at Barcelona, but this was a less successful day. Nothing wrong with Barcelona, quite the opposite in fact, but we made some wrong choices.
The ship docked almost at the bottom of La Rambla, the main tourist drag, so we walked happily up it in the morning. A quick coffee was an effective reviver, then we walked around the ‘Bari Gotic’ – the old town. Then we made our mistake – following advice, we got on one of the open-top Barcelona Sight-Seeing buses. This was not very successful. First, we found that to get to the spots we wanted to go to we had to change buses – the company had two routes that intersected. There was a certain amount of hassle in waiting for a bus then just going half a mile or so, getting off, and then queuing for another one. Second, we found that once out of the immediate city centre, the route the buses took wasn’t that interesting. It wasn’t actively unpleasant, but (for example) the route over to Sagrada Familia is through ordinary suburbs – not the most fascinating places. In the afternoon we went on the bus for 90 minutes or so, and that was a serious mistake – we went upstairs in the sun, it was very hot, the bus took a long time to get anywhere (not helped by the occasional 5 or 10 minute wait at a bus stop); basically we just fried in the sun. And then when we got to our destination – Montjuic, the hill that gives a great view over the city – we found that the cable cars that take you to the top were out of action for the whole of 2005. So we just went back to Las Ramblas and had a drink in the shade.
We did see some good things in Barcelona. Mainly, we saw Sagrada Familia, which is probably the most impressive building I’ve ever seen. Crowded out, of course, but amazing nonetheless. And that was about it, really, although we did enjoy lunch & drinks. Oh, and we had a couple of trips on the metro which was quick, cheap, cool and easy – the ticket machines had instructions in English. If we go back we’ll buy a day ticket for the metro, not the open-top bus.
Marseilles was our last full day. The ship docked in the new docks, about 6 km from the city centre, and in addition to the formal excursion coaches there were regular shuttle buses to and from the city centre (there was a small charge for these). Our feeling about Marseilles was that it was more likely to be a working, industrial port so we had better do an excursion. There were a number available – we could have gone to Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, or a trip into Marseilles centre itself, but we chose to go to Cassis, a beautiful small harbour town about 30 or 40 kilometres away, which turned out to be absolutely delightful.
The coach took us through the centre of Marseillles then out along the sea road to the east. During this stage we drove past the famous Le Corbusier building, ‘Unite d’Habitation’. Then there was an interesting drive along a mountain road to Cassis. The coach wasn’t able to go into the town itself because the roads were too narrow, so we were dropped off above the town and took a little road-train – actually, a diesel vehicle pulling a load of passenger trailers – down to the harbour area.
Cassis itself gave us all the activities you could possibly want to do in a beautiful seaside town in the south of France. Admire the harbour: check. Have a coffee in a pretty harbour-side cafe: check. Walk out to the end of the pier: check. Paddle in the Med: check. Walk around some old streets admiring the shops: check. This was excellent.
Return to the ship was by coach again, by a different and quicker motorway route. We were back on board by about 12:30 but this time decided that we couldn’t face another shipboard lunch, so bought a couple of shuttle-bus tickets and went straight back into the centre of Marseilles. The coach dropped us off at the centre of the Vieux Port, the historic harbour area of old Marseilles. These days cafes and bars surround this, which was exactly what we wanted! So we had a good lunch, walked around a bit, had a drink in a bar, walked around a bit more, and eventually got the shuttle bus back to the ship. This turned out to be a better day than we had expected.
Our luggage was collected from outside our cabin late on the last night after we'd labelled it up. Then we were up fairly early for our coach back to Malpensa airport. We waited for a while in the main lounge, then our group was called and sadly we were off the ship. We found our luggage very quickly, saw it loaded onto the coach, and waited for just a few minutes before setting off. A uneventful two-hour drive saw us at Malpensa airport before 12 o'clock, in plenty of time for our flight at about 2:30.