European Ferries; The Great Grimaldi Line

The Grimaldi Line: A wonderful  European Ferry

Ferries or Cruises?

“I love ships”, I have told myself, “but I don’t like cruises.” It is a subtle difference, and one that I have a hard time explaining.

What I really mean, I suspect, is that I can’t stand the idea of spending a week or more on a floating version of Las Vegas being urged to have more and more “fun” and trying hard to avoid “locals”. This is a more upmarket version of a Butlin’s holiday camp, and the idea of enforced fun has never sat well with me.

But I do like ships; and I have, in the past, chosen to take the Queen Mary II across the Atlantic, all the time decrying the evils of cruising. I like the idea of using these majestic passenger liners as transportation and not solely as a crutch to sightseeing; I like getting on a ship in one port and disembarking in another having used it solely for transportation. It is, to me, a minor accomplishment in these days of Easy Flying.

And so, as I plotted the itinerary for this wander, I wanted to try and use one of the many Mediterranean shipping services that crisscross this vast sea. Palermo to Tunis seemed a reasonable choice, and the Grimaldi Line are a venerable and huge shipping concern; their vessels would exactly suit my needs and my mood, and so I booked passage.

Grimaldi Lines Ferry to Tunis
Tunis harbour after our arrival

The Grimaldi Line

The Grimaldi Line is a fascinating organisation; owned by a Naples family and sharing the famous name of Monaco’s rulers, to whom there is apparently no connection, it operates a major shipping concern throughout the Mediterranean, the North Sea and the Baltic Sea; it operates a substantial fleet of cargo ships, “cruise class” ships and commercial ferries, and it was on the latter of these that I sailed on the MV Catania.

She is a workhorse; a 26,000-ton vessel that carries 800 passengers and a cast array of trucks, cars and containers, I boarded shortly before midnight from the Sicilian capital. Boarding was a unique combination of Sicilian organisation and Tunisian order, and as we all stomped through the opening gate to the single elevator that would haul us up to the accommodation decks I was rather excited. The ship was full, and this meant that those without cabins were actually rushing to claim their piece of floor in the lounge area, a pursuit that didn’t actually involve me at all.

European Ferries - Grimaldi Lines
The Catania cabin; perfectly cosy with ensuite facilities. Exactly what one wants for an overnight journey to Africa.

I was caught up in the spirit, however, and soon found myself bursting into my cabin. I had taken the precaution of booking a cabin for “sole occupancy”; not a terrific extravagance (€135 for the one-way journey), but as it turned out, a wise investment.

Sailing: A night on a European Ferry

The weather was rough; now, I like a bit of a blow, but this is a sentiment that was obviously not shared by everybody on board. When I rose in the morning for coffee, there was no food (Gordon Lightfoot’s “Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya” was running through my mind) and the deck did look a little like the morning-after-a-fine-party. But no matter, I had coffee and repaired to my cabin to wait for Tunisia to appear.

The crossing did, in fact, make me want to do more. Grimaldi’s route network is substantial, and very useful to travellers seeking to explore Europe. They offer service between Spain and Italy, and the route from Valencia to Salerno (in southern Italy) looks particularly tempting.

They sail between Barcelona and the port of Civitavecchia, just to the north of Rome, on a route that is a very viable alternative to flying between these popular points. It leaves from Barcelona at 2245 the voyage to Rome takes about twenty hours, and becomes an integral part of a European vacation. Sardinia, a fascinating addition to any exploration of the Mediterranean and the major Adriatic ports are all part of their route network, and well worth considering. And, of course, Tunis is on their extensive route network, and this is a city worth visiting.

Grimaldi Line Ferry .. European
Boarding in Palermo; there is a lot that you couldn’t take on a plane.

So it wasn’t a cruise and it wasn’t a ferry but it was a journey. And this, the ability to turn a trip into a journey is what I love about travel. Two ports, linked by a regular service, and a ship carrying nearly 1,000 people home, away, between and these countries adds a level of intrigue to the journey, and the simple requirement of getting from A to B becomes exciting!

I love ships, and I was to love Tunis too