Venice to Barcelona by Sea Day One – Getting Started.

Going on a cruise might not seem like the obvious holiday choice for someone who is disabled with impaired mobility: well, it is a boat, it rocks about a bit and there are those stairs to consider, and what about getting on and off? To be honest, this is not that much different to my daily life! I use buses frequently and they tend to rock about a bit, especially going over pot-holes, which are legion where I live. They also have stairs that I have occasionally had to use when all the seats downstairs were taken. Nope, none of those reasons listed are sufficient to put me off going to sea!

Of course, I benefit from the fact that modern-day cruise liners are built to modern-day expectations; yes, they have stairs but they also have elevators. They also have gangways located on various decks so embarkation and disembarkation are not the problems that they might have been for people like me in years gone by. Like modern-day aircraft these vehicles are becoming more and more friendly towards the disabled and I cannot help thinking that if we, the disabled, do not make use of them then perhaps that progression will cease or even disappear. All right, I am not making a moral case for going on a cruise; I’m just pointing out that all the preconceived objections for considering it really do not have much foundation in reality.

I cannot say that I began this holiday without a little anxiety; I mean, I get anxious when faced with a flight of stairs or the thought of getting up out of a chair. My muscles do not work like other people’s as I have Myotonia Congenita, a rare disease that inhibits the relaxation process that normally occurs after a muscle has been tensed. This makes movement initially difficult but it does ease with repetition. For example, when I start to climb those stairs I am initially very stiff in my movements, even suffering from temporary paralysis to begin with, but eventually the muscles do begin to relax and warm up, and movement becomes a lot easier. Sudden or unplanned movements are what I fear the most because they are very difficult to recover from and I am always in danger of losing my balance and falling. If a fall does occur it usually results in embarrassment on my part but in the past I have actually fractured my skull.

So, as we waited for the taxi to arrive and take us to Manchester airport I was a little anxious to say the least. Of course, in nine out of ten cases there is no need. I got into the taxi, a minivan, without any real problems but then I really do not know what I can do until I am forced into trying – another good reason for going on the cruise.

For this trip we bought new luggage and I insisted on suitcases that have four sets of wheels, which meant that I could actually take charge of my own case for a change. People often suggest that I should not worry about this, that others (usually my wife) will manage, but perhaps what these people do not realise is that they are actually defining what it is to be disabled: to be reliant upon others. Even in small things like taking the suitcases to the check-in desk I value my independence. I am lucky. I could affect a change here just by my choice of luggage; others are not so fortunate. Nevertheless, I feel that the majority of disabled people prefer to be able whenever they can.

We flew out with Jet2, who operate a general check-in desk policy; that is, you can go to any desk to check in rather than waiting for your flight to appear over a particular one. This is a much faster system and as I do not like standing still for too long I fully appreciated it.

Next was security. Now this always gets my anxiety levels rising and it has nothing to do with feeling guilty. No one likes going through security. The staff know this and the other passengers behind you know it too. As a result, everyone tries to get through it quickly, like most other disagreeable tasks. My problem, obviously, is that I cannot move too fast to begin with. I try, I really do. I stand in line flexing the muscles in my hands and arms, trying to warm them up so that they won’t be too stiff and unresponsive. The problem is that anxiety releases adrenalin into my system and this makes relaxing my muscles harder again – something of a vicious circle, really. I have developed coping strategies that nearly always work in this situation, like not wearing a belt and making sure that I have nothing metallic in my pockets. All the same, it still takes me longer to fill that tub up with my belongings and the person behind me is not always patient. It did not help that I was told to collapse my walking stick this time as well.

One thing that was different was the metal detector, however. Normally I set these things off; in fact, it has become a matter of course for me to do so, but not this time. When I sauntered through the gate

it turned a benevolent green and I was told to go and collect my belongings. This happened on the return journey as well. Now I have a certain amount of metal surgically implanted in my body, not on the level of Wolverine, more’s the pity, but enough to set off metal detectors in the past. Perhaps, they have become more refined now and simply do not see the alloy in my feet as a problem anymore? Oh well, at least I do not have to be patted down in front of everyone else now.

Eventually we made it to the VIP lounge, breakfast and a little peace and quiet. My parents, who were accompanying us on this cruise, had never used the VIP lounge before so we saved it for a surprise, a sort of ‘this is how we roll on holiday’ sort of thing. The VIP lounge is usually quiet, not too full, and has breakfast available, along with a glass of red wine, of course. Young children are not allowed and as ours have now grown up we quite like not having to endure other people’s.

The time came for us to board the aero-plane and everything went smoothly: no stairs involved, you see, just an embarkation tunnel. The flight was on time and taxied out to the runway. The engines built in noise, the pilot released the breaks and we thundered on our way to Italy, but then the woman sitting in front of me suddenly fainted! Her husband shouted for the stewardess, who quickly alerted the pilot to a possible medical emergency, who in his turn slammed on the brakes and abandoned the take-off. I reckon that we were already doing 100mph when this decision was taken, quite something really.

Two hours later we were back on the runway and ready to try it again. To be honest, I cannot complain as it was somewhat reassuring to see how effective the medical emergency procedures used today on commercial aircraft are. The female passenger had been quickly attended to by a paramedic from the airport who carried an amazing amount of diagnostic equipment on his back. Their luggage was removed from the main hold when it was decided that she should go to hospital. Armed police oversaw an interior luggage check. How sad that so much suspicion is now part of our lives, but understandable in light of recent terrorist action. Second time lucky, however, as we climbed into the sky over Manchester and headed for Italy, the rest of the flight proving to be far more mundane than the beginning.

One of the highlights of the journey for me, however, was flying low over Venice on the approach and being able to see our ship, the MV Norwegian Spirit, already in its berth and waiting for us. She is certainly a very good-looking ship!

Thanks to Dr Jones and his Last Crusade I had a rather romantic expectation of landing at Marco Polo airport but that was quickly dispelled. All airports seem to be the same wherever you go, functional at best, poor at worst. Marco Polo was non-descript like the majority. A pity that, as there was once a time when Art Deco threatened to turn even utilitarian buildings into palaces of delight but what we have now is called progress and it lacks soul.

This fact was repeated at the cruise terminal; it was just a shed! A very big shed, I have to state, but a shed all the same. The one good aspect was that when we boarded the coach from the airport we said goodbye to our heavy luggage. Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) personnel tried to make checking in a more fun experience but to be honest we were tired, still some two hours behind schedule, hot and bothered. All we wanted to do was get on board and go to our respective cabins. Eventually this was achieved when our number was called and we made our way up the gangplank to be met by ship’s personnel, who smiled and welcomed us profusely.

There are moments when tiredness can be dispelled simply by arriving in a place and, I am glad to say, the Norwegian Spirit was one of those places. We entered into the atrium on deck 7, one down from where our cabin, or stateroom as NCL insisted on calling it, was located. The atrium seemed too big for a ship. It was vast with three glass elevators at mid-ships. There was a fountain, a piano and two sweeping staircases. It really was very impressive.


The Norwegian Spirit’s Atrium

After finally completing the whole check-in process we were issued with key-cards for our cabin – sorry, stateroom – and we made our way up to deck 8, forward. You might be one of those lucky people who can instantly know exactly where they are at any time but quite frankly most of us cannot and a ship, especially a big ship, can be very disorientating. Well, not too disorientating, we only got lost once!

Suddenly it hit me: we were on holiday. Our luggage arrived very quickly and we stowed it away with a modicum of excitement. Then, we went to explore the ship. We found Raffles, the buffet restaurant the doorkeepers of which are known as the ‘happy washy’ girls because they spray your hands before you can enter and sing a little mantra along the lines of:

“Washy, washy,

Happy, happy,

Smilely, smiley.”

They do this for a practical reason, obviously, but so what? Their smiling faces made meal times fun.

Like most other liners today the Norwegian Spirit has a large theatre and the first night’s show was very entertaining. In fact, we never missed a show throughout the whole cruise. My wife loves live entertainment and as each show ran to approximately one hour it really did not take too much out of our evening.

The highlight of our first day on board came just before midnight. We went up onto the sundeck armed with our cameras and a ‘Bushwhacker’ cocktail. I felt by now well orientated to the vessel and decided to stand on the port side; it was a good choice. As the minutes ticked down, the Norwegian Spirit left her berth and turned her prow south and then southeast. Very slowly she inched away from Direzione Porto Marittimo and sailed through Venice at midnight. My instincts were correct; we sailed with Dorsoduro and San Marco on the port side and Giudecca on the starboard. I have visited Venice several times previously but I had never expected to actually sail through such a famous city on such a beautiful ship.


Venice at Midnight

As Venice slipped behind us we headed down to our stateroom feeling both very tired and yet excited to have begun this adventure.

Next: Dubrovnik and Kotor.

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