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Despite its pummelling by the Luftwaffe and some disastrous postwar urban sprawl, the thousand-year-old city of Southampton has retained some of its medieval charm in parts and reinvented itself as a twenty-first century shopping centre in others, with the giant glass-and-steel West Quay as its focus.
Core of the modern town is the Civic Centre, a short walk east of the train station and home to the excellent Southampton City Art Gallery that’s particularly strong on contemporary British artists. The Western Esplanade runs alongside the best remaining bits of the old city walls.
Rebuilt after a French attack in 1338, they incorporate God’s House Tower, at the southern end of the old town in Winkle Street, which currently houses the Museum of Archaeology. Best preserved of the city’s seven gates is Bargate, at the opposite end of the old town, at the head of the High Street; it’s an elaborate structure, cluttered with lions, classical figures and defensive apertures. A shore excursion on your MSC Northern Europe cruise from Southampton can be the opportunity to discover the capital of England, London.
For the visitor, London is a thrilling place. Monuments from the capital’s glorious past are everywhere, from medieval banqueting halls and the great churches of Christopher Wren to the eclectic Victorian architecture of the triumphalist British Empire. You can relax in the city’s quiet Georgian squares, explore the narrow alleyways of the City of London, wander along the riverside walks, and uncover the quirks of what is still identifiably a collection of villages.
The capital’s great historical landmarks – Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London and so on – draw in millions of tourists every year.
As you sail on your MSC cruise to France, you’ll come to Le Havre, the country’s second-largest port, which takes up half the Seine estuary. However, the town itself, home to almost 200,000 people, is a place of pilgrimage for fans of contemporary architecture.
Le Havre – “The Harbour” – is the principal trading post of northern France and a port of call of our MSC Northern Europe cruises. Following its near-destruction during World War II, Le Havre was rebuilt by a single architect, Auguste Perret, between 1946 and 1964.
The sheer sense of space can be exhilarating: the showpiece monuments have a winning self-confidence, and the few surviving relics of the old city have been sensitively integrated into the whole. While the endless mundane residential blocks can be dispiriting, even those visitors who fail to agree with Perret’s famous dictum that “concrete is beautiful” may enjoy a stroll around his city. A shore excursion on your MSC Northern Europe cruise can also be the opportunity to discover Rouen, the capital of Upper Normandy, one of France’s most ancient cities.
Standing on the site of Rotomagus, built by the Romans at the lowest point where they could bridge the Seine, it was laid out by Rollo, the first duke of Normandy, in 911. Captured by the English in 1419, it became the stage in 1431 for the trial and execution of Joan of Arc, before returning to French control in 1449.
Rouen today can be very seductive, its lively and bustling centre well equipped with impressive churches and museums. North of the Seine at any rate, it’s a real pleasure to explore. As well as some great sights – Cathédrale de Notre-Dame, all the delightful twisting streets of timbered houses – there’s history aplenty too, most notably the links with Joan of Arc.
Bilbao is one of Spain’s hidden gems. This wonderful Basque city will surprise you with its cultural heritage, fine food and go-ahead attitude.
The fine port of La Coruña centres on a narrow peninsula that juts from Spain’s northern coast, 64km north of Santiago.
A broad headland curves in both directions from the end of that peninsula to create two large bays: one facing across to Ferrol, and sheltering a large harbour, the other lying open to the Atlantic, lined by a long sandy beach.
In the dynamic city in between, a five-minute walk by way of old stone alleyways, with tantalizing restaurants, tapas bars and nightspots jostling for attention, takes you from bustling modern port – where your MSC cruise ship awaits your return – to relaxed resort. The heart of La Coruña, poised between the old city and its modern sprawl just inland from the port, is the colonnaded Praza de María Pita. The narrow and atmospheric streets of the old town wind around the Romanesque churches of Santiago and Santa María del Campo, and are shielded from the sea by a high wall.
The distinctive glass-fronted galleries of the sea-facing buildings, rising six storeys high along the Avenida da Marina in front of the port, form a magnificent ensemble
. They were originally designed so local residents, whose lives were intertwined with the ocean, could watch the activity of the harbour in shelter.
When sailing the Nothern Europe with MSC Cruises, the most obvious excursion from La Coruña is Santiago de Compostela, which ranks among the most beautiful cities in all Spain. A superb mix of twisting stone lanes, majestic squares and ancient churches, interspersed with countless hidden nooks and crannies, Santiago’s medieval core remains a remarkably integrated whole, all the better for being very largely pedestrianized.
Cádiz is among the oldest settlements in Spain and one of the country’s principal ports.
On an MSC Mediterranean cruise excursion, you can visit its old town, built on a peninsula-island, and remaining much as it must have looked in those days, with grand, open squares, sailors’ alleyways and high, turreted houses.
Literally crumbling from the effect of the sea air on its soft limestone, it has a tremendous atmosphere – while slightly seedy, definitely in decline, it is nevertheless full of mystique.
The Museo de Cádiz, the province’s most important, overlooks the leafy Plaza de Mina and incorporates the archaeological museum on the ground floor with many important finds and artefacts from the city’s lengthy history. Almost irresistible, even if you don’t normally go for High Baroque, is the attraction of the huge and seriously crumbling eighteenth-century Catedral Nueva.
Cádiz is one of Spain’s top holiday cruise destinations for its cathedral, too, decorated entirely in stone, with no gold in sight, and in absolutely perfect proportions. On the edge of the Barrio del Populo, the city’s oldest quarter dating from the Middle Ages, lies the “old” or original cathedral, Santa Cruz.
This was one of the buildings severely knocked during the English assault on Cádiz in 1596, causing the thirteenth-century church to be substantially rebuilt. A fine Gothic entry portal survived, and inside there’s a magnificent seventeenth-century retablo with sculptures by Martínez Montañés. A first-century-BC Roman theatre has been excavated behind.
Much closer to us in time, instead, is the eighteenth-century mansion, Torre Tavira, with the tallest tower in the city, from where there are great views over the rooftops to the sea beyond. In addition, one of the most impressive Baroque buildings in the city, the chapel of the Hospital de las Mujeres, houses a brilliant El Greco painting.
One of the busiest cruise ports in the Mediterranean, the seaside city of Barcelona is known for its iconic architecture, colourful culture, and world-class drinking and dining.
Explore Antoni Gaudí’s surreal Sagrada Família, the famous boulevard of the Ramblas, the medieval Barri Gótic, and the Museu Picasso. But there’s even more to discover in this sprawling Spanish city, an MSC Mediterranean Cruises destination: from hidden tapas bars and fabulous food markets to Europe’s biggest football stadium.
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