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Summer of Ships, Saints & Swallows 2010 Part 2

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Part 2 – Tunisian Travels

Monday 28th June 2010
More adventures start today, here in Marseille. A harbour side pavement café provided breakfast whilst Bruce and I watched the world go by, and then two more chums arrived - Richard and Matt – so our quartet was complete.

Whilst my friends made their way to the Fortress, I had the unusual experience of queuing in the local post office to send some clothes home to England, which would not be needed during the coming weeks. I joined an orderly queue, paid for a strong paper bag in the size of my choice, stuffed the excess clothing in it, and the man behind the counter saw it safely on its way. I consider this an excellent service offered by the French postal system, and can thank one of my friends for telling me about it. After this I happily wandered up to the Jardin du Pharo above the city to join my ferry friends for photographs of the ships going in and out of the port, and the Mediterranean Sea. Our next journey would be on the good ship CARTHAGE of Tunisian Ferries, sailing from Marseille overnight to Tunis, so we had the day to enjoy first.

Back at the Tunisian Ferries terminal we were amazed at the collection of vehicles and their luggage – both inside and on the roof – waiting in line. We were informed that the ship would be late arriving, and therefore we were prepared, but we joined in the general excitement as this seemingly huge ship came into the harbour and manoeuvred alongside the quay.

In the late afternoon light hundreds of excited families lined the fences to watch, and we all admired the speed with which the ship was unloaded. Then it was the turn of the ‘footies’ to board, and we were hurried along the walkways to collect cabin keys, which turned out to be a code number to use on a keypad beside the door. That was an easy and efficient novelty.

This is a big ship of 32,298 tons built in 1999 especially for the Tunisian State-owned Shipping Company (COTUNAV) for the run from Marseille or Genoa to Tunis, and return, at 23 knots, with the Tunisia Ferries name on her hull. She can carry over 2,200 passengers and I think most of them were travelling home to Tunis with their worldly possessions. On the quayside we could see some vehicles with roof luggage that looked the same height as the cars, and one of the Terminal staff said that many families would have to put even more possessions inside the cars or they would not be allowed to drive onto the ferry because of the loading height on the car decks. One family even had a big upright freezer with them, which we later saw in one of the corridors of the ship – they were obviously determined to take it with them.

Leaving Marseille at 7 p.m. our journey on the CARTHAGE would take 24 hours, so on board we bought a 3 meal package (dinner, breakfast and lunch) for Euros 28, which turned out to be an excellent idea.

In the Restaurant we were allocated a particular table (‘you sit there, you will not be bothered by the other horrible people…’) and in due course were served a 5 course set meal. We had a Tunisian soup, fish pie, and turkey in a delicious sauce with vegetables, then cheese, and finally 1 chocolate éclair. It all looked good and tasted wonderful, and was efficiently served on china carrying the ship’s own logo. We could buy wine and water if we chose.

Later that evening the French-speaking Restaurant Manager invited us to look at the private dining room and admire the Tunisian styling,

and then joined us in the big Lounge for a drink and chat about the CARTHAGE, and HABIB, on which we would return. My diary includes a page of drawings (done by the Restaurant Manager) of the location of the crew quarters on CARTHAGE, which are above the water line, and those on HABIB which are well below the car deck and water line. Of course the crews were content to work on both ships, but that is one of the reasons that HABIB is to be replaced, as well as because of her age and condition – she is in constant service.

Cabins and bathrooms were adequate, and I thought the layout and flow of the public rooms was good, with lovely furnishings and artwork. I particularly liked the elephant in the Hannibal Lounge.

The atrium on two decks leading up to the Lounge was mirrored and light, and provided unusual photographic opportunities! All around were lots of comfortable seating areas and bars for tea or coffee, and we met lots of bar staff who were happy to practise their English, whilst we wanted to use our French. World Cup football was on most of the televisions, and everywhere appeared extremely busy and noisy, with some children running around cabin areas, and all of us excited about going south to Tunis.

Ships seen: Djazair II, Pascal Paoli, Girolata, Scondola, Monte Cinto, El Djazair II, Monte D’Oro, Catherine, Al Sabini, Tassili II, Atlantic Star, Antares, Carthage

Tuesday 29th June 2010
Life goes on, and our lazy day at sea started with early breakfast served at our table in the Restaurant. I went in search of the kennels and up on their top deck I was amused to see one large dog with his owners, standing with his paws on the middle of a central deck rail, looking down on the deck below.

Lunch was a cucumber salad to start with, then a large tagine dish of meat, vegetables and couscous, followed by HUGE chunks of water melon. The waiter service was efficient and friendly, and the food very enjoyable. We had to rest on deck until it was time to keep our invitation to meet the Restaurant Manager again – he greeted me (but not the men) by kissing my hand, saying in English ‘beautiful lady’ and continued welcoming us all in French. I have to say I could get used to this…

CARTHAGE arrived in La Goulette, Tunisia, on schedule at 7 p.m. to a noisy welcome. On the quayside was a band, flags being waved, stilt walkers, officials and a great air of excitement on the ship and ashore. We got ashore quickly and once out of the terminal building were surrounded by taxi drivers anxious to take us somewhere. I stood with my back to the men as they tried to identify a licensed driver, so I could watch our backs and bags, and counted 8 noisy drivers, with arms waving and one portly stomach far too near my face for comfort. A quieter-speaking licensed taxi driver was chosen and our luggage loaded into his boot and locked, so we could leave the turmoil of the port and head inland to the hotel complex where we were to stay overnight.

After checking in and leaving the luggage, at Reception Richard had the delightful experience of asking if it was possible to swim, and receiving the unforgettable answer of “Yes, sir, which pool?” We chose to use an absolutely vast outside swimming pool, and we could hardly see the other side of it in the gathering dusk. The water was warm and glorious, and I could feel my body temperature dropping comfortably, after the extreme heat of the port, and what fun it was to swim and see the underwater lighting around the edge of the pool. A shower, buffet dinner and a land-based bed completed a fascinating day.

Ships seen: Sorrento, Danielle Casanova, MSC Splendida

Wednesday 30th June 2010
A 5.50 a.m. alarm call started the day, with time for a quick swim before breakfast; a taxi took us back to the port for our 10.00 a.m. departure on Tunisian Ferries’ other ship HABIB, sailing to Genoa.

She was built for them in 1975 in Germany at 16,168 gross tons. The air-conditioned terminal building was cool and welcoming, and we had time to photograph our ship in port with COSTA CONCORDIA.

Then we could board, find cabins, locate the yellow steamer chairs on aft deck 7 beside the Lido, acquire toilet rolls, discover the swimming pool empty of water, and admire the style and character of the 1978-built ship.

The signage throughout the ship was original and delightful to see, and we loved the original decorated glass panels on the aft Lido deck.

We were also requested to have a ‘chat’ with the Purser, so he could see for himself that we were holidaymakers who liked to take photographs of the ships we sailed on, as well as enjoying the food and facilities of the vessels. All was eventually well but we decided that British passengers were probably unknown on the vessels of Tunisia Ferries, and the rule book might not say how to cope with them. We invited the Purser to join us later for some tea or juice and he did actually come along and chat, and insisted on buying us a soft drink or tea, which was very kind.

Once again we bought a full board package which cost us each 28 Euros and, as before, it was wonderful value, for lunch, dinner and breakfast. We met a couple of English-speaking passengers on board and enjoyed talking with them, but mostly it was fascinating to look at all the original art work and furnishings on the ship.

She was built in 1978, originally with a tonnage of 11,179, and has always kept her original name; her red funnel with its distinctive black flat top certainly reminds me of MAXIM GORKIY.

Ships seen: MSC Orchestra, Costa Splendida, Carthage, El Venizelos, Costa Concordia

Thursday 1st July 2010
The faithful alarm clock woke me early enough to enjoy breakfast and prepare for our arrival at 10.15 a.m. in Genoa on HABIB. Just inside the harbour entrance we were interested to see the notorious/famous vessel F DIAMOND, with her black-painted hull.

The 1971-built SEA VENTURE, now PACIFIC of Quail Cruises, was also still laid up in dock and lots of other ferries could be seen.

From the port it was an extremely hot walk to our overnight accommodation in an hotel that was once part of Renaissance palace property. The painted ceilings of the rooms were incredible 17th century originals, although slightly water-damaged around the edges, and I shall never forget lying on my bed and looking up at the wonderful features of the paintings above.

Reluctantly I left the hotel and we all walked in the shade down to the harbour for some Italian pizza and to watch HABIB and BERKANE leave.

After that excitement it was time to return to the hotel to prepare to celebrate a male birthday evening and then to watch MOBY DREA arrive – aaaaah, she was the very first MOBY ship that I sailed on (in 2007) and I loved it.

The birthday was celebrated in style in Genoa, and my last waking sight was of the Renaissance painted ceiling above my head.

Ships seen: F Diamond, Berkane of Comarit Line, Excelsior, Pacific (ex Sea Venture) of Quail Cruises, Taurus, Forza and Coraggio, Moby Wonder, Moby Drea, La Suprema, La Superba, Athara, Tirrenia, Bonita dredging in Genoa Harbour