RETURN TO THE QUEEN- THE MARY ENCOUNTERED

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Triple stacked welcome from a Queen

The familiar sight of those three great funnels welcomed me back to the port of Long Beach. Proud, perfectly spaced and gleaming in the fresh spring sunshine, the towering trio of red and black smokestacks that still crown the Queen Mary provided the perfect welcome aperitif to a fun, seven day cruise down to the hot spots of Mexico and back.

Sadly, of course, it would not be aboard her.

Looming across the pier, and looking equally as resplendent in her own way, the Carnival Miracle was waiting for me. Even larger than the venerable, petrified Cunarder that she was docked adjacent to, the 2004 built Carnival Miracle would prove to be a fun fuelled travelling companion for the week.

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Seldom seen starboard side of the Queen Mary, shot from the Carnival Miracle

But, in those first minutes, my eyes were drawn inevitably back to her. Queen Mary, a legend the world over. A Blue Riband holder, war heroine, and a genuine, larger than life celebrity that still exists today as a hotel and convention centre, her wooden decks bleached by decades of static exposure to the year round California sun. Still, it is impossible to remain unmoved by that still majestic presence.

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Queen Mary, seen from Deck Three on the Carnival Miracle

I gazed at the raised wedding gazebo tacked on to her stern, and could not help but smile as I imagined the shade of Commodore Edgar Britten scowling with disapproval at the thing; a necessary concession to keeping this great institution afloat financially these days. The good commodore, more interested in prudent seamanship than pretty settings, would probably have had it thrown overboard at once.

Seeing the great lady had special poignancy for me this year. It is eighty years since her famous maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, when the hopes and expectations of an entire empire trailed along in her wake as she thundered to the west.

The Queen Mary had first set sail on a sunny May day in 1936, almost four hundred years to the day after another famous English queen- Anne Boleyn- lost her head on Tower Green.

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Queen Mary’s original port of registry- Liverpool- still adorns her stern

I couldn’t help but wonder what the feisty, free spirited Anne would have made of this doughty new British monarch of the seas. With her continental upbringing and lifelong taste for all things French, perhaps she would have been more naturally drawn to the Normandie.

Of course, the Normandie lived fast and died young. Much like Anne herself. And- like Anne- that same brief, spectacular reign guaranteed her a kind of immortality. A kind of exquisite coincidence.

But the Queen Mary, even at the age of eighty, is still very real indeed. And very much alive. Her stance is every bit as majestic and commanding as it was back in 1936. Her sheer stage presence and charisma pulled me in as if to some incredible black hole. Stage struck was no understatement for how I felt. My adrenaline was flowing like tap water right then..

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The changing shapes of ships. The 1936 built Queen Mary, seen from the Carnival Miracle of 2004

Even once aboard the Carnival Miracle, I found my eyes drawn almost helplessly back to her. The hull is in desperate need of painting, and a glimpse of her starboard (seaward) side indicated that it is in even worse shape, if anything.

Eighty years on, I wonder what Queen Mary feels as she sits shackled to her berth, while a conga line of vast, sassy cruise ships come and go, loaded with passengers looking for a sunny, fun vacation. Does she instinctively, almost imperceptibly heel at her ropes, as if impatient to follow them, back out into her natural element? The thought simply would not leave me alone.

I kind of hope not, in a sense. For, if any ship has done more than her duty, both in peace and war, it is surely the Queen Mary. Today, people still thrill at the sight of that massive, majestic presence, just as they did back in 1936.

She shortened the course of the most destructive conflict in human history by at least six months. And, with the Queen Elizabeth, she formed the most successful two ship transatlantic service in ocean liner history.

Ordinarily, even the grandest liners wither and die. But this is no ordinary liner. She is a piece of world history, an emotional lightning rod every bit as potent as the Pyramids, the Parthenon, or the Great Wall of China. She connects us instantly to a past that, for most, is vicarious at best.

But step back aboard those decks- the same ones trodden by Churchill, Noel Coward, Walt Disney and a whole, gilded cast of glittering extras- and you arrive in actual, living history. Tethered as she is, the Queen Mary still takes passengers back on a voyage in time and space. She is a portal to another era, and a damned fine, grand one at that.

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The Dome and the Dame

It was nice to see you, old girl. And, come the end of May, as I set foot aboard another glittering new cruise ship, I will happily lift a glass to toast your memory.

I am pretty sure that I won’t be on my own in doing this. Thank you for everything.

CARNIVAL MIRACLE- AN OVERVIEW

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Carnival Miracle at sea, looking along the starboard side from Deck Nine

I recently returned from a week long cruise out of Long Beach down to the Mexican Riviera aboard the Carnival Miracle. Quite apart from the fact that it was a fun fuelled, seven day fiesta to a trio of feisty Mexican highlights, more importantly it gave me the chance to get an up close and personal look at a class of ship I’ve been interested in for quite some time.

Carnival Miracle is one of four so called Spirit class ships. Built in Finland, the 88,500 ton ship entered service in April of 2004.

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Horatio’s buffet, Carnival Miracle

Size wise, she falls neatly into the middle between the 70,000 ton Fantasy class vessels and their huge, 100,000 ton Destiny class siblings. The result is a ship that encapsulates a kind of ‘big ship’ feel with a slew of smaller, more intimate areas on board.

Like the earlier Carnival ships, the Carnival Miracle has interiors designed by the legendary Joe Farcus, very much the Andy Warhol of cruise ship interior design. Like all of his ships, she has a specific ‘theme’; in this case that of legendary fictional characters. This is carried through most of the ship’s interior decor.

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Metropolis lobby, looking upward from Deck Two

Here, enshrined amid acres of glass, brass, mirrors and neon lighting, you will find a disco featuring a twelve foot high replica of Frankenstein’s monster, complete with flashing overhead ‘electric bolts’. Further forward, a quartet of glass lifts swoop silently up and down the ten story high Metropolis atrium.

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Bacchus restaurant

The main dining room is called Bacchus, and represents a two story high decorative tribute to the mythical god of wine. Here, lighting is concealed behind chains of grapevines the adorn the walls and ceiling, and fanciful, Da Vinci-esque frescoes line the walls at random intervals.

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Whimsical Farcus artistry in the Mad Hatter’s lounge

It goes on and on and, like all of the Farcus designs, it represents a wonderful, fanciful brew of the intricate and the bizarre. Mad Hatter’s tea party is a forward facing show lounge that features full size wall depictions of various characters from the Lewis Carroll story, including the Rabbit, the Queen of Hearts and, of course, Alice herself. Somehow, it would all still only work on a Carnival ship.

And yet… for all that, there are traces of a newer, far more modern look in some of the Fun Ship 2.0 enhancements that were added during a recent dry docking. Many of these come as something of a complete contrast to all that mesmerising Farcus fun stuff.

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Alchemy Bar

At the end of the main run of public rooms on Deck Two, the new Alchemy Bar is cool, spare, and almost totally bereft of real gimmickry. In some ways, it seems like a kind of stark, almost spartan contrast to all the glitz and glitter of the lobby that precedes it. Ditto the Red Frog pub, with it’s faux Caribbean palms trees, beer barrels and signature real ale.

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Red Frog pub

These facilities are, of course, familiar standouts on the more recent Dream class trio, and will be further showcased aboard the imminent new Carnival Vista. But this combination of the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ aboard the Carnival Miracle makes her something of a floating anachronism; a warm,whimsical look at a colourful, fondly remembered past and yet, at the same time, a window into a vibrant, new, future Carnival.

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Gotham Lounge, Deck Three

Passenger flow through this vessel is the best that I have ever seen on any Carnival ship. She absorbs something like 2,100 passengers quite beautifully- far better than the more recent, larger ships in many ways. The only exceptions to this are when the dinner line for second sitting gets mingled helplessly in with those posing for portraits at no less than five- and I do mean five- photographer’s hot spots set up along the same side of the ship. It’s maddening, and completely needless.

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Lobby Bar at the very heart of the Carnival Miracle

Most of the bars, as well as the huge casino and the lounges, flow one into another from forward on Two Deck, to the entrance to the Bacchus dining room, right aft on the same deck. There are a handful of public rooms up on Three Deck but, in the main, Two Deck is the true heart of the ship, and there is literally something for everyone along it.

Live entertainment suffuses this vast, sassy ship from bow to stern, and includes some excellent live bands, as well as a pair of really deft acoustic guitarists. What is sadly missing is any kind of live jazz or big band; an anomaly that Carnival is supposedly looking at changing in the near future.

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Nick and Nora’s Steakhouse, located in the funnel

Two highlights from my trip; firstly, Nick and Nora’s Steakhouse has possibly the most spectacular setting of any such venue on any ship. Achieved via a spiral glass staircase from inside the buffet, it sits nestled in the forward base of the vast funnel, and offers stunning views out over the ocean. Food and service is sublime from start to finish and, at a supplement of just $35 per person, it is both a visual and actual feast that represents far and away the best buy on the ship.

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Part of the aft facing Serenity

Second is the aft facing Serenity zone; an adults only, 21 plus oasis sprinkled with hammocks, comfy circular pods and padded loungers, as well as comfy chairs, sofas, a pool, and a hot tub that overlooks the ship’s wake. On the face of it, it seems nothing unusual compared to similar, sometimes larger such zones on other Carnival ships.

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Serenity in the shade…..

But here, the location is perfect. Overlooking the stern, it is protected from most breezes, and it has a canopy shading the main seating area from the sun. With a nearby bar and buffet area, this trim, tidy little eyrie adds hugely to the pleasure of a cruise on this cool, comfortable ship.

Cabins run the gamut, from inside grades to decent sized suites with balconies. I had one of the Seven Deck balcony cabins. It boasted a good sized Queen bed that could convert to twins, a powerful shower in a bathroom that had good storage for toiletries, more than adequate wardrobe and drawer space for clothing, a nice sitting area and- most importantly for me- a tidy little teak lined balcony with a couple of chairs and a small table.

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Sunset from the balcony of my cabin #7170

That balcony proved to be a perfect little window box to watch some amazing sunsets (and one magnificent sunrise), as well as the perfect venue for some great, end of evening stargazing. Say what you will but, for my money, having a balcony cabin enhances the pleasure of a cruise no end.

So; there we go. Some of the highlights of the Carnival Miracle. If you really want to sail on this ship, my advice is to do it now, while you still can. Come 2018, she is slated fro transfer to the Chinese market, along with the larger Carnival Splendor.

Get out there while you can.

 

PULLMANTUR AND CDF TO ‘SHARE’ FLEETS

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Horizon will become part of an initial, four ship line up for the combined Pullmatur/Crosieres De France line up from this winter

In something of an inevitable retrenchment, the fleets of Spanish accented Pullmantur and it’s French cousin, Crosieres De France (CDF) will ‘share’ its existing tonnage, effective from coming this winter onward.

The move- a merger in everything but name- will give the two Royal Caribbean offshoots a combined, four ship fleet. This will rise to five ships when the current Majesty of the Seas joins the line up in 2018.

The transfer of Majesty of the Seas to Pullmantur was originally expected this year but, to the surprise of many, Royal Caribbean initially decided to retain the last of it’s three Sovereign class ships. For this new role, Majesty of the Seas is scheduled for a substantial refit, including the addition of a massive movie screen, new water slides, three new restaurants, and an expanded casino. Thi should be completed by May, after which the 74,000 ton ship is due to move to Port Canaveral to operate a series of three and four day Bahamas sailings.

Now, after sailing for Royal Caribbean through 2016 and 2017, Majesty of the Seas  will indeed be transferring to Pullmantur/CDF effective in 2018, there to rejoin her original sister ships, Sovereign and Monarch. Each of those two ships will undergo a $5,000,000 refurbishment before beginning their upcoming winter schedules.

Meanwhile, Spanish passengers will continue to be offered cruises on the 46,00 ton former Celebrity sister ships, Horizon and Zenith. These two ships operate as an all inclusive product and, over the next season, the CDF ships will also revert to being an all inclusive service. French passengers will also be offered the opportunity to sail on the three Sovereign  class vessels under the Pullmantur flag. Coincidentally, all three of these were built in the French shipyards of Saint Nazaire.

Interesting times over at the French and Spanish operators. As ever, stay tuned for updates.

 

 

CELESTYAL CRUISES PLANS EXPANSION

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Ocean Countess was typical of the ‘old guard’ at Celestyal/Louis Cruises. Now, it looks as if considerably bigger new builds are on the way

Greek cruise operator, Celestyal Cruises, has announced some radical departures from the usual during the Seatrade conference currently taking place in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

As previously alluded to in this blog, the company will begin a first of a kind ever winter cruise season in the Eastern Mediterranean over the winter of 2016-17. These cruises will be offered by the company’s current flagship, the 37,000 ton Celestyal Olympia, originally the 1982 built Song of America of Royal Caribbean International.

In another major move, Celestyal CEO Kyriakos Anastassiadis announced at Seatrade that the highly successful winter cruise programme around Cuba, currently served by the Celestyal Cristal, will become a year round operation with effect from 2018. As of yet, no ship name has been announced for this venture, but it is quite likely that the current Thomson Majesty’s charter to Thomson Cruises will end after 2017. Her subsequent return to Celestyal would allow the line to free up either her, or another ship, for a year round Cuba deployment.

But most significant of all is the news that the line is looking to order a pair of new builds- the first in the history of Celestyal. Carrying around 1,800 passengers each, they will be considerably bigger than the smaller ships that the line has always been known for. None the less, they will still be considerably smaller and more intimate than many of the modern mega ships now in service.

At present, the company is talking to different potential shipbuilders with a view to arranging building slots, and is also in the process of locking down finance for these new ships.

In the next few weeks, the fleet will be augmented by the entry into service of the 19,000 ton Celestyal Nefeli, on a new programme sailing out of Turkey. The ship is currently undergoing final upgradings and renovation at a dockyard in Piraeus. With her addition, Celestyal will offer a three ship deployment out of Piraeus to the Greek islands and Turkey for the 2016 season.

As always, stay tuned for updates.

THE SECOND MAURETANIA

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Cunard’s second, magnificent Mauretania of 1939

Another vessel that often ‘falls through the cracks’ in terms of ocean liner recognition is the second Mauretania of 1939. Though she was actually slightly larger than her famous, speedy forebear of 1907, this second liner to wear the hallowed name looms nowhere near as large in the public memory as the original namesake.

Built by Cammell Laird of Birkenhead, she entered commercial service in June of 1939, mere weeks before the outbreak of a second global conflict. At a little over 35,000 tons, she was a relatively small ship when stacked up against the likes of the Queen Mary, the Normandie, and the Bremen. Almost from the start, there seemed to be a notion that existed that this second Mauretania was not at the forefront of the transatlantic lists. As things stand, that in itself is something of a shame.

In fact, Mauretania was in many ways a template for the impending, much larger Queen Elizabeth. Her raked bow, curved forward superstructure and pair of stout, stand alone funnels were aesthetic stand out points that would be repeated on the new Cunard liner in 1940. With a speed of around 23 knots, she was never intended to be a headline grabbing record breaker. All the same, I have always felt that this quiet little ground breaker deserves more than the casual glance that historians often throw her.

Several things combined to overshadow her from day one. Mauretania was always in the shadow of the Queen Mary- sometimes quite literally- and the spotlight of world attention was already turning to the new Queen Elizabeth. Her maiden voyage came right on the cusp of the most ghastly global conflict in history. Caught between these points, it is little wonder that the doughty liner often gets forgotten.

And yet, in terms of accommodation, service and facilities, the Mauretania was right up there with the Queens. Her war record, while not as widely trumpeted, was every bit as heroic and important, and her post war restoration to a belated, regular civilian service was every bit as thorough and painstaking.

Converted for full time cruising in 1962 and painted in ‘Caronia green’, the old girl was by then slipping fast. Yet she seemed to disappear with indecent haste; not for her the drawn out eulogies that garlanded the two great Queens in their respective farewell seasons. The Mauretania had started life quietly, and she ended it in the same way. There was something almost desperate and shameful about the entire business.

But for many millions of passengers, and for the thousands of troops that she conveyed safely from peace to war and then home again, the Mauretania looms larger than life; a kind of emotional lightning rod that marks out one of the key times in their lives.

In that respect, this dignified, beautiful ship has left behind a legacy and a legend that is truly imperishable. She was every bit as much a proud, reliable Cunarder as her famous namesake of 1907, and she deserves a little bit more from posterity than just the occasional nod.

THE ANDREA DORIA- POST WAR ITALIAN ROYALTY

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The Andrea Doria at speed on the Atlantic

For many, the Andrea Doria is primarily remembered for her untimely demise off Nantucket on a foggy night in July of 1956. As the last of the ‘great’ North Atlantic liners to founder, the drama of her sinking has largely served to overshadow three years of successful service, and the actual concept of one of the most brilliantly beautiful ocean liners ever constructed.

Andrea Doria and her almost identical sister ship, Cristoforo Colombo, were constructed to re-open the premier Italian Line service from Italy to New York and back. Before the war, this same route had been served by a pair of imperious 50,000 ton liners, the Conte Di Savoia and her running mate, the record breaking Rex of 1932.

Both of those liners became victims of the Second World War, as did much of the infrastructure that had built and maintained them. Many Italian shipyards were in ruins in those early, post war years, and this perhaps influenced the size- and style- of those first, nascent Italian liners to emerge in the early 1950’s.

Planning for the two new liners also deliberately eschewed any ambitions of creating a speedy record breaker. With normal speeds of around 23 knots on a 29,000 ton hull, both ships were designed to make a regular, nine day crossing from Genoa to New York, usually sailing via Naples, Cannes and Gibraltar.

Built by the Ansaldo shipyard in Genoa, the Andrea Doria was named in honour of the great, sixteenth century Genoese admiral of the same name. With accommodation for some 1,240 passengers across three classes, she was ready for her maiden voyage in January of 1953.

The ship that emerged was a stunning beauty, with a gracefully raked bow, a near perfect cruiser stern, and a sheer that gave her hull the same curvature as a subtle smile; a kind of nautical Mona Lisa, if you will. It was crowned by a white superstructure that ended in a series of stepped terrace decks that cascaded down to the stern. Each of those terrace decks contained an outdoor swimming pool- one for each class of passenger on board.

The funnel was the real crowning glory. As beautifully proportioned as a charm bracelet, it had a nonchalant, rear facing slope that gave the Andrea Doria an almost unique, quite racy stance. From bow to stern, both sister ships were exquisite examples of post war Italian styling; the perfect antithesis to the quite brutal ‘Mussolini Modern’ look that had dominated Italian architecture for the better part of the previous two decades.

Internally,. she was exquisite. A million dollar art collection, sprinkled around the ship, gave her an air of breezy, quite spectacular opulence. Superbly fed and served by an all Italian crew of 500, the new national flagship was a spectacular burst of bravado at the dawn of the stale, austere 1950’s; a sassy, splashy statement of intent.

Her maiden voyage in January of 1953 was a stormy affair, but the new Andrea Doria made jaws drop by the thousand when she sashayed into New York harbour for the first time. Tugs rode shotgun on the Andrea Doria, shooting icy plumes of welcome spray into the air. Overhead, helicopters buzzed the lithe new liner like so many curious dragonflies. Almost immediately, the travelling public took the ship to their hearts.

She was soon joined in service by the equally curvaceous Cristoforo Colombo and, before very long, the two Italian beauties had cornered the cream of the ‘Sunny Southern’ trade. Because they sailed on the often sunnier, more balmy route from the Mediterranean to America. the ships offered up the indolent, raffish lifestyle of the Riviera afloat.

With her open air lidos, outdoor cafes and pools, the Andrea Doria offered a delicious prelude- or even extension- of the seductive summer lifestyle that her passengers could anticipate in Sorrento, Amalfi or Portofino. She was Italy afloat; an amazing, seagoing maritime art gallery featuring a cultural glut of treasures that might remind passengers of their visits to the Uffizzi, or perhaps even the Pantheon. The two sister ships were a state of mind, and each was a fantastic advertisement for the mother country.

Andrea Doria and Cristoforo Colombo formed a popular, highly seductive duo for three years, and offered what was easily the most highly styled service on the southern route.

The tragedy that took out the Andrea Doria on the night of July 25/26th 1956, should not be allowed to stand as her sole claim to fame (or notoriety, if you will). Under any circumstances, she was a shimmering, sultry creation, and her loss deprived the travelling public of far more than just a certain amount of confidence.

PULLMANTUR CLOSES SOUTH AMERICA OFFICE

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Pullmantur’s Sovereign, the former 1988-built Sovereign of the Seas

The well respected website, Cruise Industry News (www.cruiseindustrynews.com) is reporting that Pullmantur cruises is closing it’s South America office at the end of March.

The Spanish cruise line- an offshoot of Royal Caribbean International- has been sailing troubled waters for some time now.

Last year, the intended transfer to Pullmantur of Majesty of the Seas was put on indefinite hold. The ship- the third of the original, pioneering Sovereign class of mega ships- was earmarked to rejoin her sister ships Sovereign and Monarch in the Pullmantur fleet.

Instead, it was decided to keep the ship at RCCL instead and, after a substantial refurbishment, she is due to start a new series of three and four day cruises from Port Canaveral for the parent company.

Then came the news that the 1990 built Empress (ex Nordic Empress, Empress of the Seas) would be leaving the Pullmantur fleet and returning to Royal Caribbean as- Empress of the Seas. The ship is currently being refurbished in a shipyard in Cadiz, before returning to Royal Caribbean after some eight seasons with Pullmantur.

All of this should have been enough to set alarm belles ringing, especially after the end of the rival Spanish cruise operator, Iberocruises. This offshoot of Costa had also been struggling for quite some time.

Thus far, Pullmantur is planning to have one ship in South America over the coming winter of 2016/17, and the likelihood is that she will be chartered and sold by one of the local market operators, such as CVC.

The South America market as a whole is witnessing some enforced contraction, with MSC, Costa, and even Royal Caribbean itself downsizing their winter deployments there. Interestingly, only Norwegian Cruise Line is bucking the trend right now, with a deployment this winter of the popular Norwegian Sun down South America way.

As for 2016, Pullmantur has the Monarch in the Baltic, marking the first ever deployment of a Sovereign class mega ship on any Northern European itineraries.

Part of the problem for Pullmantur is that, while Sovereign and Monarch are still fine ships, they have far too many small inside cabins, precious few balcony cabins, and few of the bells and whistles of the rival Costa and MSC ships. They also lack the raft of alternative dining options offered by the competition. Those likely so sail down South America way are more likely to be attracted to these newer vessels in many cases.

Pullmantur does have the theoretical advantage of being an ‘all inclusive’ product compared to the competition, but current events would seem to suggest that is not enough to even the scales.

It would be a shame to see this spirited little Spanish operation go to the wall. Let’s hope it does not come to that.

As ever, stay tuned for updates.