The Pride of Bilbao will set sail for the last time on 27th September 2010 thereby bringing to an end P&O’s loss making Portsmouth to Bilbao route. It sounds like the end of an era but The Pride of Bilbao has only been in service on this route since 2007 having been built in 1986 and originally named Olympia ( history here on Wikipedia), it was renamed put into service by P&O in 1994. The fact that she underwent a major refurbishment in 2002 I find surprising because the environment took me back to when I was a child in the early 1990s going on family holidays to France (via Portsmouth – Le Harve for example).
It’s the red carpet in the reception, the dark mirrors framed by soft pink lighting on the back walls of the staircases between decks that give the illusion of grandeur, the homogenous corridors of red carpet and beige doors in the cabin areas… there was nothing self- conscious about this boat. The decor, the staff, the cabaret, and the passengers all managed to encapsulate an era before irony and cynicism and it was refreshing in its innocence. For those of you who know the sitcom Birds of a Feather will get an idea of the kind of optimism I’m referring to.
You come up from the car decks below to a world that for the next 33 hours will be a respite from the modern life (but not Broken Britain), and as you do an extraordinary amount of walking on these boats, will also be afforded the opportunity to observe various levels of social strata present in British society who are forced by the convenience of the route to briefly cohabit the same space. There is not often reason for these groups to mix and when you add in their vulnerability that they are in their family units then it is quite amusing.
For example on the afternoon of the first day we were sitting on the observation deck drinking our Rosé and being flecked with ash from a chain- Mayfair-smoking frizzy red-haired pink-lipped and yellow-toothed northern mother surrounded by the clutch of generations that ‘these people’ travel in. The constant repetition of words such as “joshing” to reinforce that she was in fact “joshing”. It was only the noise of our eyes rolling and mumblings that was able to drown out her decision to teach her youngest the red lorry yellow lorry tongue twister.
The other prime example was the obvious Guardian-reading mother who congratulated her two ‘tween’ daughters on combining team work and problem solving as they scrambled on top of each others shoulders to grab onto a metal railing in the corridor leading to the observation room. Notable was the lack of admonishment for causing a nuisance in a quiet area.
I too provided an amusing sight for other passengers when putting my V-neck sweater on backwards on leaving Langan’s Brasserie. I ascended three decks and through various bar areas before feeling that twinge of discomfort that an incorrectly adorned piece of clothing provides. I’m not sure what strata that places me in.
We were lucky, by all accounts, with the weather. It was a calm August weekend and the Atlantic was gentle enough not to notice that we were on the open sea. We arrived in Bilbao at 7am on a Sunday morning having departed Portsmouth Friday evening. We were relaxed, if a little tired, and enjoyed breakfast in Bilbao before planning our drive west.
There are no plans as yet for this route to be replaced, but there are other ways to Northern Spain by way of avoiding France. I just hope it will draw the same interesting people.