An Italian Adventure Part 1

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An Italian Adventure

Part One –  A Cruise from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida to Civitavecchia, Italy

May 1, 2011

Dateline: Ft. Lauderdale, Florida

Latitude at Ft. Lauderdale 26.7 degrees North, 80.8 degrees West

This trip came about as we came to the realization in the summer of 2010 that we were approaching a major milestone – 40 years of marriage and we needed to do something appropriate (or else really inappropriate) to celebrate. Not only that, our long-time friends, Paul and Kathy were approaching the same milestone and our friends, Ray and Candace had just passed the 20 year mark. We decided that such major milestones called for a major celebration and the idea for a cruise was born. We chose a repositioning cruise (where cruise lines move their ships from one market to another based on the season – in this case from winter in the Caribbean to summer in the Mediterranean) with the Celebrity Equinox ,which would take us from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida to Civitavecchia (pronounced Chee-veet-ah- veck-ee-ah with the accents on  “veet” and veck”), Italy, which is the port for Rome.  Coincidentally, we also had other friends making the crossing, John and Evelyn and Bill and Ann.

We thought as long as we were on “The Continent” we might as well spend a little time (and a lot of money as it turned out, but that’s a different story). We all flew to Ft. Lauderdale the day before to ensure we did not literally miss the boat in case of airline issues. Packing was tricky since we needed both cruise ship clothes and wear-it-all-day -tramp -around –the-city clothes, but we solved that with our plan to leave a suitcase full of the frilly stuff and impractical shoes at a hotel in Rome and retrieve it on our last day before flying home.

We stayed at the Hollywood Marriott in Ft. Lauderdale which was mostly uneventful, except that at dinner, Paul got accidentally christened by a waiter with two full glasses of red wine, but we received a respectable credit toward our meal, and the shirt came clean so all was well, especially since the wine belonged to another table. All of our wine was consumed in the normal manner and since the christening did not involved bashing a bottle against Paul’s person,  there was no harm done, but we did  have to stay vigilant to be sure he did not attract ants.

May 2, 2011

Dateline: Ft. Lauderdale

The Pool on the Celebrity Equinox

The Pool on the Celebrity Equinox

We were able to board the Celebrity Equinox today around 1:00 p.m. and we found the ship to be fabulous. It is only two years old and its designers had apparently taken many cruisers’ fondest desires into account (i.e. to be able to see the ocean and have places to sit indoors and out and watch it go by.)

The ship is 122 thousand tons, carries 2850 passengers, and is cared for by 1250 crew members. It was first launched in 2009 and measures 1,033 feet long, with a beam of 121 feet, and a draft of 27 feet. The ship has 15 decks rising above the water. It is one of Celebrity’s newest types of ship, the Solstice Class – a particular design with passenger luxury in mind that includes maximum glass, open deck space, and every creature comfort imaginable, built at a cost of $750 million. It can achieve 21 knots maximum speed, but the average is 16, (1 knot equals 1.15 mph). The ship is registered in Malta, flying that country’s flag on the stern, which is a white cross on a red background. (Yes,  it’s a Maltese Cross).

We entered on the 4 Deck into a lobby soaring up to the top levels of the ship with glass elevators crawling up and down, distributing passengers on the 11 decks above us. The ship is very glitzy with an airy feel to it – more Vegas than Buckingham Palace, with modern art, bright colors and plenty of shiny surfaces. There  are big mirrors on one atrium wall  that spell out “Here Comes the Sun”,  and indeed when the angle is just right, the sun lights it up – sounds tacky, but somehow it worked.  This ship is not what you’d want if you are retracing the steps of Arctic Explorers, but is just the thing for the sunny Atlantic at this time of year.

Balcony Cocktails on the Celebrity Equinox

Balcony Cocktails on the Celebrity Equinox

We decided to wait for our luggage to arrive in one of the many bars on board and chose the Ocean View Bar, outdoors on the stern of the ship on Deck 14. We promptly met a cocktail waitress, Claudia, from Slovakia, who recommended the All You Can Drink (my terminology, not theirs) beverage package  for $49 per person per day, plus a service charge of 15%. It was a good deal for one day – but not so much for 14 where endurance comes into play. The guys all took the bait and proceeded to do themselves proud the first day (and pointing out the money being saved – i.e., you are ahead after only 7 or so bar drinks or 10 glasses of wine, or some combination thereof.  The cruise lines have got this figured out. A splurge the first day, hangover the second resulting in total abstinence,  an attempted comeback with a modest effort the third, a declaration of wellness and total indulgence on the fourth, oops another hangover on the fifth and so the cycle continues. And five of the 14 days are in ports of call, so that further undermines the business case for buying the package, unless of course you choose to stay on the ship and drink instead of going to visit Provence or Barcelona, which would be a most imprudent stance, assuming the drinking package purchaser intended to celebrate another anniversary with the current spouse. I dare to say that no cruise ship has ever lost

The Lawn Club on the Celebrity Equinox

The Lawn Club on the Celebrity Equinox

money on these packages. We roused ourselves from the comforts of the Ocean View bar and made our way to our rooms and from there to explore the ship. One of the more unusual discoveries was the Lawn Club, up on the top deck where there is an expanse of grass to walk or sit on. (A variety that thrives on salt air so we were told). Also equally incongruous was the Glass Blowing center, where glass blowers perform their art daily and their work can be purchased for a small fortune. We had our first dinner and met our assigned waitress from Serbia named Liliana. We found that Liliana ran a very tight ship and did not allow any talking by passengers when she was explaining the (perfectly understandable to readers of English) menu. Despite her rough edges, she was an excellent waitress and we did become attached to her.

May 3-May 8, 2011

Dateline: Atlantic Ocean

Distance from Ft .Lauderdale to Ponta Delgado Azores 3,304 miles

Our voyage would take us south of Bermuda on a heading of approximately 77 degrees and the crossing would take 6 days. Our  days at sea were something of a blur, and somewhat repetitious, but in a blissful, not in a boring way –  so for the sake of convenience I am blending them into a 6 day lump of days at sea.

Bar Activity is central to life on board – there are 15 bars here for 2850  passengers – more than enough to do a daily pub crawl and to ensure everyone gets served and in some case over-served   And for the non-drinkers there was always reading and eating and gambling and movies and Bingo and an unending list of other diversions.  For those who like to tipple, the ship published a schedule for the week of bar and culinary activities such as a Cinco de Mayo celebration, Sail Away parties in each port,   as well as Wine , Martini , Bourbon , Single Malt,  and Irish Whiskey Tastings by country or area – California, Italy, South America, France  etc.

The Martini Bar

The Martini Bar

One of the bar highlights for us was the Martini Bar with its frosted bar surface and magician/ bartenders mixing and pouring. There was an elaborate menu of martinis to choose from – very delicious and most definitely nap-inducing. In the olden days that was how they cut down on the threat of mutiny – nowadays it ismore about customer satisfaction (how can you complain about that which you cannot remember?) The Martini Bar’s bar was an almond shaped oval where the bar’s surface  was covered with a thick layer of frost so the martinis stay chilled.  The surface was perfect, like a mini Zamboni had smoothed it. We scraped our initials into the icy surface one night and voila, they disappeared by our next visit. We think they got the mini Zamboni out the minute we left. We are thinking that the Martini Bar may encourage obnoxious behavior. They also had bartenders who performed the multiple martini cascade, pouring 12 or so martinis at one time. We saw this one done with

Making the Martini Pyramid

Making the Martini Pyramid

12, but  we learned that the record number was reportedly 27. The bartender would make separate martinis, each in its own shaker, and then form a pyramid of glasses and pour all simultaneously, with no spills. Another favorite bar was the Sky Lounge up on the 15th deck and forward, with glass on three sides so you could have the same view as the one from the bridge. The guys played a daily cribbage (Championship of the Atlantic) match that travelled to various bars around the ship, and of course the bars provided wonderful hidey-holes to read and perchance to nap.

 

A Wine Vending Machines

Enomatic Wine Vending Machine

And if you can’t find an open bar, there are the Enomatic Machines in a cozy pub-like bar called the Cellar Masters. It is like a fountain drink coke machine only they dispense high end wines by the glass. You simply put your ship card in to charge it to your room. There were also mixology classes in various bars around the ship and there was always a Drink of the Day to be had – Mojito, Mango Margarita, Kumquat  Daquiri, Sangria and so forth.

If reading in a bar does not appeal, there is also the two story library with plush club chairs, and all sorts of parlor style seating in the common areas, where usually some sort of music was being performed by quartets, guitarists, chamber groups, etc. We also found a truly delightful place to read was the outdoor pool since we had balmy weather for our entire crossing, and of course there was a Pool Bar in case you should get thirsty and the pool in case you got hot. They also had an indoor pool, but this was way too steamy for us.

Of course food played a huge role in life aboard ship. Passengers typically plan their days around it, but there was really no need since you could order from Room Service 24 X 7.  And there were the excellent restaurants including these:

The Silhouette Restaurant  was the main dining room with a menu that both changed daily with a choice of all courses, and a standard menu that was offered daily in case you didn’t want anything from the specialty menus.

The Ocean View  Restaurant is a  buffet open 24 hours with coffee tea and juice. The only time you can’t get food there is from 1:00 a.m to 5:30 a.m. (perhaps quite a hardship for some, but if this is worrisome, you can always squirrel away some food from any of the restaurants or order room service.

The Mast Grill is a burgers and hot dogs place by the pool so you only have to take a few steps from your poolside lounger to feed your face.

The Aqua Spa was the only restaurant we didn’t patronize. We found it to be more for the tofu and bean sprout crowd who come to nibble on celery sticks and watercress between aerobics and yoga. The patrons here were not our people.

Bistro on Five is a creperie (dinner crepes and dessert crepes) for light meals,  but the meals are not at all light on calories. They also have a gelateria. They have free ice cream in the Oceanview Buffet, but for hard core decadence, we would buy our gelato here.

Café al Baccio is the equivalent of Starbucks. You could get your lattes and specialty roast coffees here, along with biscotti, if the mood struck you. It has never struck me since biscotti seems to be what you get when you leave cake in the oven for too many days, but the hot chocolate was good.

Murano is a French restaurant with truly delectable food (why it is named after an island in Italy we do not know).

Silk Harvest is an Asian fusion restaurant, with also really good food and a lot of it. Instead of large portions, they served dozens of things to nibble on, but the cumulative effect was the same as eating a 24 ounce steak and baked potato.

The Tuscan Grill is a restaurant with  an Italian theme and served up huge portions of  steak and Italian specialties, and again the food was outstanding.

There is entertainment galore on board with musicians performing all over the ship in the lounges and public spaces, plus there is a major show ( 2 performances) each night that is really top notch and with enough variety that it doesn’t seem repetitious. There were Big Broadway productions mixed with individual performances by a virtuoso violinist, a magician, a comedian and so forth – Las Vegas headliner types.

The casino was also a huge source of entertainment and also a money maker for the ship, but it is closed in port. As a measure of its popularity, there is a report in the daily paper ,Celebrity Today, with a cumulative slot machine payout. Our last day on board the payout was recorded at $1.522 million. (no word on slots pay in – a far larger number of course) Also popular (although not equally so) is a huge spa and fitness center, as well as a track. (Eight laps = 1 mile)  Gary and I did use the track in order to get a little bit of exercise.

There were daily classes on a wide range of topics and games of all sorts, as well as movies and lectures on really interesting topics.  If you are bored on this ship, you really have to work at it. You can be as busy or as indolent as you want to be – we tended to lean toward the indolence end of the spectrum – going for lazy sea days, but we often worked up the energy to listen to a lecture on astronomy, navigation or history and also we would almost always watch the great evening entertainment. Gary is prone to sing along with performers, especially when they do Broadway tunes, whether he knows the words or not – I call this Gary-oke.  One of our favorite events was Dancing with the Stripes (versus Dancing with the Stars) whereby selected ships officers danced with passengers in an elimination competition which proved to be quite hilarious.

Lounging on the Celbrity Equinox

Lounging on the Celbrity Equinox

Of course we couldn’t do everything so we had to be selective, but I am sure we never missed a meal.  For example, we had to pass on the Fab Abs classes, but we did manage the Argentina Wine Tasting. We would have liked the Language Learning classes they had daily, but the first sessions were too early in the morning since 10:30 for us about breakfast time and then the afternoon session would have interfered with the cocktail hour. Champagne High Tea sounded intriguing, but we never seemed to have our timing right.

We did have a small moment of drama on our voyage. Half way between Bermuda and Azores the captain announced that we needed to make a slight detour to rescue another ship in distress.  It was 17 miles from us and dead in the water. It was actually a 40 foot catamaran called the Lady Freda with 5 people on board. They had lost the use of their mast, were out of fuel and running low on food and water. We came alongside just at sunset and transferred drums of fuel, food and water to get them to the Azores. They had been at sea for 5 days and were drifting when we came to the rescue and of course they were really glad to see us.

May 9, 2011

Dateline: Ponta Delgada, Azores

Latitude at Ponta Delgada 37.44 degrees North, 25.40 degrees West

Celebrity Equinox in Port at the Azores

Celebrity Equinox in Port at the Azores

After 6 days at sea crossing the Atlantic, we saw our first landfall in the form of the island of Sao Miguel (Saint Michael in Portuguese) and we docked at the port of Ponta Delgada, a city of 120,000 people and the capital of the Azores since 1522, on Sao Miguel’s south coast. We had pictured these islands as bleak and desolate, sort of Galapagos-like, and were pleasantly surprised to see them so lush and green, sort of a cross between Ireland  (lush fields of emerald green, rocky cliffs) and Hawaii (volcanic mountains, tropical foliage and sandy beaches. At least Sao Miguel, the largest island is like this; they tell us the others are not so green. Today the islands are part of Portugal and have been used by mariners of various nationalities for centuries. In Portuguese, the name of the islands is spelled with a “C” instead of a “Z” and pronounced “ah-sore-ess.” The “C” is like the c in French that has the little hangy-down thing called a cedille which indicates the letter should have an “s” sound.

An Azores Village

An Azores Village

The Azores are made up of 9 islands,  which are actually very high volcanic peaks rising from the ocean floor, covering 373 square miles, lying about 800 miles off the coast of Portugal in latitudes 30 degrees to 40 degrees North, and longitudes 24 degrees to 32 degrees West.  It was a common stopover for provisioning  ships traveling to the New World in the 15th and 16th Centuries. The islands were discovered  by an obscure Portuguese sailor and then in 1444, under orders from Prince Henry, the Navigator of Portugal, the first settlers came to the Azores with cattle and established farms for wheat, sugar cane, dairy and vegetables. Farmers also became prosperous growing oranges and exporting them to England, along with tobacco and tea. Today the Azores are famous for their pineapples which are grown in greenhouses since they can get cold (and salty) damaging storms off the Atlantic. Since the islands proved to be prime real estate, other countries conquered them from time to time including the English, French and even the Algerians.  The locals  had defensive barricades to prevent pirate attacks, which were effective perhaps for  amateur  pirates, but no match for conquering navies and thus there was repetitive “regime change”.  Eventually the Azores came back to Portugal in 1640 when those other countries decided to mind their own business for a while, or at least focus their colonialism on  bigger fish such as China, India and North Africa. The waters off the Azores are very rich with cetaceans – whales and dolphins in particular. Whaling was big business here for centuries, but thankfully it was banned in 1981. Today they have quite a diversified economy and continued prosperity.

The Azores Countryside

The Azores Countryside

We had only a short stay in port from 8:00 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. and we chose a tour of the countryside in a 4X4 vehicle, so we were able to go on the “roads less travelled” with our guide and driver who had the improbably name of Milton. He was a native to the Azores and had a charming accent (Eyesland was the way he pronounced “Island” and while searching for the English word for horseback riding, he came up with “walks by horse”. The main attraction for our drive was an extinct volcanic crater 1,900 feet above sea level with two freshwater lakes at the bottom. One lake is deep blue, the other pale green even though they are side by side. They tell us the reason is that one reflects the sky, and the other reflects the vegetation of the crater walls. Unfortunately, we were observing them in the pouring rain so their colors were not as vibrant. This area is called the Sete Cidadas, which translates as Seven Cities  and

Blue Lake

Blue Lake Sete Cidades

which dates back centuries to when people believed that there were mythical cities out there on the ocean somewhere and this might be the place where they had once been..  There are in fact seven volcanic peaks in this area, so some historians believe this is the origin of the name. There is also a tiny village with this same name where we took a walk and sampled some local wine called Vinho Verde (green wine) which is a specialty of the area. This part of the island is covered with moss and ferns and ancient wind-swept trees, their trunks and branches bent from centuries of wind off the ocean.  Hydrangeas grow wild here and

Green Lake Sete Cidades

Green Lake Sete Cidades

line all the highways, but were not yet in bloom. The azaleas were in bloom and were mostly all one color – deep pinkish-red  – with only a few interspersed whites. There was an abundance of Calla lilies everywhere, but not yet in bloom.  Trees were imported to supply the demand for lumber flourish here and are comprised mostly of cedars and cryptomeria, originally brought here for building houses and ships. It is a veritable greenhouse of an island, with a moderate climate and plenty of rain.  All too soon our wine drinking and touring came to and end and it was back to the ship to continue our voyage.

May 10-11, 2011

Dateline:  Eastern Atlantic Ocean

We had two days at sea before our next port as we travelled south parallel to the coast of Portugal before turning east to transit the Straits of Gibraltar, 1,200 miles away. We made the transit on May 11 around 4:00 in the afternoon. Unfortunately it was cloudy and we couldn’t see much of Gibraltar itself, but we did see dozens of vessels all around us making for the same narrow entrance to the Mediterranean Sea.

May 12, 2011

Dateline: Cartagena, Spain

Latitude at Cartagena 37.37 degrees North, 0.59 degrees West

Cartagena

Cartagena

We arrived at 9:00 a.m. in Cartagena and departure was scheduled at 5:00 p.m.  so we would have to explore quickly. This city is actually the namesake of the more famous Cartagena in Columbia, renowned for its drug smuggling and hit men, but this is a much kinder, gentler Cartagena. The name comes from the ancient civilization Carthage (the ruins of which are in modern day Tunisia, just across the Mediterranean to the south and east,) and in fact the name means New Carthage. There is evidence that this was once a colony of theirs. Cartagena is located on the southeast coast on the Mediterranean Sea in the autonomous region of Murcia. It is the home port today for the Spanish Navy, such as it is.  There is a natural sheltered harbor with large headlands suitable for fortification on both sides of entrance. Despite the defensive opportunities afforded by the harbor, Cartagena has succumbed to a steady parade of seagoing warriors over the years – Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Moors, Barbary Pirates, the Spanish Armada and the British and French navies.

Hannibal grew up here in Cartagena and in 218 BC he launched his invasion of Italy with elephants over the Alps from here, which proved to be a really bad idea.  He had 60,000 men and 37 War Elephants, which he led across southern Gaul (now France) and over the Alps. He fought the Romans for 15 years, and of course they fought back, and Carthage fell to them in 210 BC. Cartagena was prosperous under the Romans until the Vandals (the barbarian tribe, not the motorcycle hoodlums) moved in around 400 AD. They were followed by the Visigoths, which were probably the prototypes for those Capital One barbarians in the TV commercials. They came and stayed 200 years, but were eventually defeated by famine and disease. Then in 711 AD, the Moors from North Africa moved across the Straits of Gibraltar and ruled for the next 700 years. Unlike the barbarians, the Moors made great cultural contributions in architecture, art, literature, mathematics, science and medicine.

Around 1000, AD Castilian and Aragon kings regained control of the area from the Moors in wars called the Reconquista and in 1492 were able to drive out the Moors altogether. But then the Barbary pirates came in and captured over a million Christians and sold them into slavery in Morocco, Algiers and Istanbul – So much for those headland fortresses. From this point the area fell into decline for several centuries and has only regained a spot on the world map due to tourism, although it is famous for pomegranates and roses so they say.

The Segway Gang in Cartagena

The Segway Gang in Cartagena

We chose a combined walking/Segway tour to see the sites of this ancient city and it proved to be a lot of fun with hardly any collisions. First we had a short driving lesson where we learned we must lean forward to go forward and lean backward to stop and to back up. What took a little getting used to was the tendency to overdo it, so there was a lot of overcorrection involved. Segways operate with a battery and gyroscope and respond to weight shifts and distribution. It is important to stand still and straight if you want to remain stationary.  Our guides were two young ladies, one leading and one following to ensure we did not straggle or stray into traffic or mow down any pedestrians. We took the Segways up winding streets past the ruins of the Concepcion Castle,  a fortress that was part of city’s defenses built on a peak that overlooks the harbor, and then back down through the Old Town to the City Square and the Town Hall  called the Palacio Consistorial.

Ruins of the Roman Theater - Cartagena

Ruins of the Roman Theater – Cartagena

We parked our Segways and continued our tour on foot which included an ancient Roman Theater dating back, of course to Roman times,  (It makes you wonder, if there was anyplace the Romans overlooked or anyplace they saw where they didn’t build something ).  The Roman Theater was buried for 2,000 years under rubble and new construction, until the ruins were discovered in 1987. Once excavated archaeologists found, cut into the hillside of city’s old neighborhood , the 6,000 seat theater. It is still being excavated and restored today with the

major goodies – statuary, carvings, relics -relocated to the museum, which we also visited. One thing that really hampers restoration is the age old habit of people using ruins as a building supply resource. We saw one whole wall built in later centuries of broken sections of columns. It must be like trying to work a jigsaw puzzle with about half the

Odd Building Supplies

Odd Building Supplies

pieces missing. There is evidence that  the Plaza de Toros, a bull ring built in the 1850’s, was constructed on the foundation of a Roman Arena and efforts are underway to excavate that as well.  We noticed from almost any angle, you can see laundry hanging from apartment windows and between buildings, so much  so that if you did not know your were in Spain, you would think you were in Naples.

For our second stop we fast-forwarded several centuries to visit the limestone caves of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s. Cartagena had the misfortune to be on the losing side when it was the Fascists versus the Communists. The Fascists won and Francisco Franco ruled as a dictator until his death in 1975. The people of Cartagena suffered enormously from bombings, executions and all other sorts of mayhem.  They ended up living in limestone caves, along with shafts and tunnels of defunct silver mines  to avoid the bombs and today there is a museum re-creating their school rooms, offices and sleeping quarters.

After our tour, we had a light lunch of cheese and bread at the Ristoranted y CafeteriaTeatroromano on the town square across from City Hall and strolled around the city a bit enjoying the quirky art around the city – for example a perfectly carved human head  made to look as if it is emerging from the ground and a life sized  bronze of a merchant marine seaman occupying a park bench. These seemed to be intended to give passersby reason to pause and smile. We returned to the ship several hours ahead of our departure time since the guys had a lot of catching up to do on their “All You Can Drink”packages . We watched  Cartagena  disappear from the Ocean View Bar as the Celebrity Equinox put out to sea.

May 13, 2011

Dateline: Barcelona, Spain

Latitude at Barcelona 41.23 degrees  North, 2.10 degrees East

New Barcelona on the Waterfront

New Barcelona on the Waterfront

Barcelona is on the northeastern coast of Spain and the Iberian peninsula, nestled between the Pyrenees Mountains and the Mediterranean, not far from the border with France, To the south is Montjuic – a mountain that is named for a Jewish community that was there in olden times. It is the second largest city in Spain with 3 million people and is the capital of Catalonia, one of 17 autonomous regions in Spain. There are two languages spoken here, Catalan and Castilian Spanish, which is what we would recognize as real Spanish.  There is evidence of Greek and Phoenician civilization here, and of course the Romans came, saw and conquered and  founded a city here in the Second Century BC. You also may remember the 1992 Summer Olympics were here.

There was a lot of wealth here in shipping and trading until the Suez Canal opened in 1869. Catalonia was also on the losing side in the Spanish Civil War and under Franco, speaking Catalan was banned, but it was brought back under King Juan Carlos I. and regional autonomy was granted.

Barcelona Bikers

Barcelona Bikers

We had a full day in Barcelona and so we decided to rent bicycles for a tour of the Old Quarter and the new parts of the city, which proved dangerous for us and the pedestrians. Our guide was an American who got laid off from his job and decided to hang out in Barcelona and be a tour guide. We were cautioned not to ring our bike’s bells in the Old Quarter or else we would risk having cold water thrown on us from above. Apparently bell ringing does not sit well with residents, unless it is church bells, of which there are multitudes. We were also cautioned that if we do not lock or carefully watch our bikes, our bike tour will become a walking tour, since bike theft is rampant here.

We found Barcelona to be as we remembered from a prior visit, a mix of the  very old and very new. This time we chose to skip a visit to the Sagrada Familia  (translation is Holy Family) Cathedral, designed by Antonin Gaudi (whose surname gave rise to the adjective gaudy and is pronounced the same way) . Gaudi built other houses and palaces, but none so weird as the Cathedral. Gaudi was run over and killed by a tram in 1926, and, at the risk of being insensitive, I have to admit I wondered “is it just a coincidence that his cathedral reminds me of a train wreck?”  The Cathedral  has sort of a melted look, like an elaborate wedding cake left out in the sun (or rain – I can’t help but think of the song MacArthur Park  sung by Richard Harris and later Donna Summer). Of course you don’t usually see wedding cakes with chunks of broken glass and colored beads in them, but you get the idea. We also chose to pass on the Picasso Museum  (Call me bourgeois, but I’m not a fan of abstract art) and the Catalan art museum whose paintings are of religious themes with not so skilled (in my humble opinion) drawing which tends to be very flat and  two dimensional. Culture and the arts have flourished here for centuries, and have nurtured many of the strangest of the strange such  as Picasso, Miro and Dali.

Parco de la Citadella - Barcelona

Parco de la Citadella – Barcelona

That being said, there are still plenty of other things to see. We started our tour in The Old City (a.k.a. Ciutat Vela)  which is also known as the Gothic Quarter  and is the oldest part of the city. Its streets are mainly pedestrian only, lined with buildings from the 13th Century medieval city, which was surrounded by walls until the mid 19th Century. There is a wealth of Arabic influences throughout to make it even more exotic. A maze of streets leads to the Cathedral of Santa Eulalia, built between 1298 and 1454. She was a 13 year old Christian martyr  who was reportedly rolled in a barrel of broken glass in an attempt to convince her to renounce her faith.  (How do they think this stuff up?) Her sarcophagus is carved in bas-relief showing her torture and execution, lit by 500 year old stained glass windows. Also nearby is the Plaza of the King (Placa del Rei in Catalan) where he lived in the Palau Major (translation, also in Catalan is Big Palace).  City Hall and the palaces of lesser notables are also still standing in the Gothic Quarter, particularly along the Carrrer Montcada, reflective of the prosperity of the 13th to the 15th Centuries.

Flower Market on Las Ramblas

Flower Market on Las Ramblas

The streets in the older parts of the city are canopied with shady sycamore trees (although they call them plane trees in Europe). The most impressive street is called Las Ramblas, which was built on a dry river bed.  It is a wide boulevard with shops, newsstands, flower stalls and outdoor restaurants in the median. We rode down Las Ramblas to a large fountain and the Columbus Monument. From there we rode to the Yacht Basin, which was nowhere near as harrowing and dangerous as riding among the tourists of the Gothic Quarter, but there were dangers nevertheless. The main danger (for the guys anyway) was the distraction of topless sunbathers, although more often than not,  the “tops” on display were such that they guys just wished  they would cover them up. As in Cartagena we had someone leading and someone riding drag to round up strays. We left the waterfront and rode past some of the high end hotels such as the W and the Artistes. We stopped for refreshments at a biker bar (no Harleys, no tattoos – these bikers are all on Schwinns or the Spanish version of a Schwinn) before continuing to the Parc de La Citadella where we enjoyed the gardens from our perches on our bicycle seats. From there it was back to the Gothic Quarter to return our bikes.

We walked back to Las Ramblas to explore a bit more on foot, particularly the Boqueria Market, which offered fascinating sights and a good stop for lunch. It is a fresh market offering all sorts of delectable fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as oddities such as cow snout, pig’s tail and chicken feet. Everything is for sale here except the oink, cluck, quack, bleat and moo. Despite just having seen a cow snout, we were hungry and so we had lunch at the market at Las Ramblas. Paella  (seafood, chicken and vegetables served on saffron rice) is big here and so we ordered it to share.  A fish dish called Zarzuela is also a specialty with up to a dozen types of seafood used in this dish and cooked in brandy and wine sauce, which sounded way too fishy for me. Sangria is a specialty here so we sampled that as well as glasses of Priorato, a popular local wine.  After lunch we ambled down Las Ramblas to catch shuttle to the ship to assume our positions  in the Ocean View Bar for our 5:00 p.m. departure.

May 14, 2011

Dateline: Toulon, France

Latitude at Toulon 43.7 degrees North, Longitude 5.55 degrees East

We docked in Toulon (pronounced Two-Lawh with the accent on the last syllable, pronounced with sort of a snort) at 7:00 a.m. and were scheduled to depart at 5:00 p.m. Toulon, the port for Provence, is squeezed between the mountains and sea and is the capital of the Var Region.  Provence is filled with mountains and fortified medieval villages, lavender fields and olive groves,  and is adjacent to the French Riviera with St. Tropez  just to the east. And of course, Provence is also a fabulous wine region. Toulon has been a trading port since Greek and Roman times and today France’s largest naval base is here in its large natural harbor.

Toulon was founded in 600 B.C. by the Phoenicians, but soon became a mixed bag of cultures as Celts arrived, and at the same time the Greeks established a city called Massalia, which later became Marseilles. They were independent under the protection of Rome from 154 B.C. to 49 B.C. (when the barbarian Gauls tried to move in) At this point they were taken over by Rome in retaliation for rooting for Pompeii over Caesar.  The Romans stuck around for about 700 years, which of course gave them plenty of time do all that building they like to do, so Provence is chock full of antiquities. Christianity took hold as Rome declined and this area became part of the Holy Roman Empire in 1032. The area was aligned with the house of Anjou by marriage in 1246 and thus  they were part of France as it evolved.  The harbor for Toulon where we docked is called La Seyne sur Mer which translates as “reeds by the sea”, named for the extensive marshes that once were there, but which are now landfill.

The Spice Market in Aix

The Spice Market in Aix

To see Provence we chose a bus tour to the town of Aix-en-Provence (Aix is pronounced “ex”). It was an 8 hour tour, which included about an hour each way on the bus. Aix-en-Provence is the former capital of Provence, dating from the 12th Century up until the French Revolution. Aix has been through many civilizations – going back to the Greeks. The city gets its name from the Latin word for water, which over time became Aix, since there were thermal springs here that are still running today. They invited the Romans to come to this area (then referred to as Gaul) and help them drive off the barbarians and of course Romans being Roman, the came, they saw and they conquered. And  of course with the hot springs,   they could also have a hot bath afterward and the Romans were  always crazy for baths. The name of the area “Provence” takes its name from the Latin word for province.

Aix also prospered in feudal times as a base for the various feudal lords of France to drive off the Saracens, which were nomadic invaders from Syria. The feudal lords created Marius Provence (noble county) which of course required a count to rule the county. They unified over the years with other parts of France, but not with Paris, at least not for several centuries and several wars. To this day there is a disdain for things Parisian, and of course the Parisians are disdainful right back, and thus  the word “provincial “has come to indicate a serious degree of country bumpkinhood.  However, Aix is also a university town famous for art, music and literature and today it is a frequent venue for festivals.

 Cezanne's Atelier Aix

Cezanne’s Atelier Aix

We entered Aix-en-Provence under a canopy of plane trees, creating filtered sunlight along the narrow streets. The town’s major claim to fame is that it was the hometown of Paul Cezanne, the Impressionist painter. Our first stop was a visit to his studio (called an atelier) which is exactly as he left it when he died in 1906. Cezanne born, in 1839, was a descendant of generations of Cezannes in the area since the early 1700’s. He was educated here and later attended a free drawing school held in a Knights of Malta Priory in town. In the studio things were left just as they were when he died, including the still life he was working on (now with plastic fruit of course). He had windows specially built to face north for consistent light for his painting on the second floor of the building. He also had a large slot cut in the wall to take large canvases out without having to negotiate the winding stairs. He walked here from his home in town almost every day and he was quite sociable – going to cafes, attending church and holding art exhibitions.  Many sights in Aix today are Cezanne family homes or historical sites related to his work, including Saint Sauveur Cathedral where Cezanne regularly attended church. He was reputed to be generous, making up little batches of coins to pass out to beggars upon leaving church.  Most of the buildings  are from the 1800’s – Cezanne’s time, but there is little left from the Romans or others  that followed them.

Many Impressionist painters from all over Europe came to Provence for the light, which is captured in thousands of paintings, including those of Renoir and Van Gogh).  Cezanne painted in several media, from oils thickly daubed with a palette knife to delicate watercolors.   Later in the day we saw Montagne Sainte Victoire (Mount Saint Victory), a frequent subject of his paintings. He painted it 44 times in oils and 43 in water colors so he was apparently quite taken with it. It was 2 kilometers from his studio and he was often sighted trudging along toting his easel, paint, and palette.  He painted right up until the day of his death, which is attributed to pleurisy, following what was described in those days as a “fainting fit”, contracted while painting Mt. Sainte Victoire in a rain storm lasting several hours (One would think he could have painted it from memory after the first 50 or so versions of it).

Aix Cathedral

Aix Cathedral

The bus then dropped us off in the old city center (Centre Ville) to wander the streets under mild sunny skies.  There seemed to be flowers in bloom everywhere, with the heady scent of jasmine floating in the air. This happened to be market day so we were treated to several squares with open air markets selling fresh produce, spices,  clothing, flowers and all sorts of other interesting things, such as santons, which are colorful clay painted figures traditionally placed around the Christmas tree and  fragrant soaps and marzipan made of almonds and eggs in fanciful shapes

The streets were lined with buildings dating from the 17th and 18th Centuries, housing residences, outdoor cafes, and interesting shops, including patisseries and boulangeries on

Patisserie in Aix

Patisserie in Aix

every block. We learned the difference – a patisserie is a pastry shop, whereas a boulangerie is for bread and often has sandwiches and quiche.  There is some crossover, but purists say this creates mediocrity, but I don’t think I’ve ever had anything from any French bakery that was anything near mediocre. The French certainly know how to make good food. The cricket is sort of the mascot of the city and was prominently featured in many crafts sold here. We bought herb tapenades to eat later and an herb grinder featuring a cricket to do our part for the French economy.

From the city center of the old town, we strolled to the main street called the Cours Mirabeau, a wide tree-lined  boulevard, built on the ruins of an old Roman wall. We saw two of the famous thermal fountains  – large moss covered rocks that trickle warm water year round ,  built on roundabouts on the Cours Mirabeau.  Before stopping for lunch at the picturesque restaurant, La Bastide du Cours. We had a lovely table looking out onto the boulevard and a delicious lunch featuring lamb, which I don’t even like, but it seems when the French cook it, it actually tastes good.  Provencale food features lots of olives in tapenades (a paste of capers, olive oil and lemon juice with a dash of anchovies and aioli, which is a garlicky mayonnaise) and bouillabaisse  (fish stew). Their specialty drink is pastis – a pale green anise based drink served with black olives, but we did not get a chance to sample this. We learned from our guide that green olives are simply black olives not yet ripe – who knew?

Our guide told us that the French do indeed say “ooh la la” and she encouraged us to use it for our own expressions of wonderment. She did advise that the French often get a chuckle out of our mispronunciations of merci beaucoup (which means “Thank you very much”).  She said with our American accents, we do the “merci” part okay, but on the beaucoup part, we often sound like we are saying the French words for “beautiful ass”. So she suggested we may want to stick with a simple thank you. On the subject of accents, we were charmed by our guides “ahn?” at the end of each statement, sort of like the mobster’s “capisce”, but without the implied threat – more like “do you understand”? We also learned that the French drink exceptionally strong coffee (even by Gary’s standards). In France American coffee jokingly referred to as “Cat Pee”. We headed back to the ship, looking forward to a return to Provence – ooh lah lah indeed!

May 15, 2011

Dateline: Livorno , Italy

Latitude at Livorno 43.32 North, 10.18 East

We had a short overnight trip and at 7:00 a.m we arrived at the port of Livorno, with a full 12 hours ahead of us to explore.  Livorno itself is mostly unremarkable as a tourist destination, but it is the sea gateway to Tuscany and Liguria. Pisa was a port in the olden days, but the Arno River silted up and, with dredging still not invented, shipping moved to Livorno around the 15th Century, Most of the passengers were headed  to Florence or Pisa, but since we had been to both places several times, we chose another excursion to a region called Cinque Terre in  Tuscany’s neighboring region  called Liguria to the northwest. Cinque Terre (pronounced

Carrara Itally

Carrara Itally

Chink-we Tay reh with accent on Chink and Tay and translates as 5 lands) is  built on craggy coves on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea. It was raining so we put on our raincoats took our umbrellas and set out driving north from Livorno, past the port of LaSpezia ( which was a Nazi fuel and ammo depot and thus site of significant Allied bombing in WWII. ). As we drove north on the mountains in the distance, we could see the marble mining operations of Carrara with the exposed pure white marble looking very much like snow.

Cinque Terre is considered part of the Italian Riviera, often called the Riviera Levante, referring to its position east of the Riviera familiar to all,  but is very rural and aside from the busloads (and boatloads weather permitting) of tourists that descend upon it, there aren’t that many people here. In ancient times, the villages each had their own dialect, although they are one kilometer or less apart The towns give the impression of a world of Munchkins with miniature

Cliffs on Cinque Terre

Cliffs of Cinque Terre

harbors and inlets, handkerchief size beaches with more pebbles than sand,  tiny squares lined with small houses and small chapel-like churches, and there  are not even any Vespas, much less automobiles. Each town is built on a vertiginous cliff or in a steep ravine clinging to the hillsides.  It was called Five Lands because in medieval times, each city was isolated, and villagers could hide in case of a Saracen invasion (you may recall the Saracens also terrorized Provence with people captured and sold into slavery). The 5 Lands could easily be defended from the sea and could not be reached by land. The area was virtually unknown to outsiders for centuries.  Villagers would post lookouts and build fires on watchtowers to alert the towns of the

Sentiero Azzurro Cinque Terre

Sentiero Azzurro Cinque Terre

approach of invaders. The threat remained until the last raid in 1545 when the Saracens apparently found other things to do.  As piracy declined, fishing, grape growing and trade prospered. Only recently were the towns connected by rail.  Prior to that, footpaths and mule paths (called sentieri) were used for centuries. Today the towns are connected by hourly trains and footpaths have been widened (with nets installed  to catch falling rock and guard rails installed to prevent falling tourists) replacing the narrow paths  dating back to ancient times. Today it is called the Sentiero  Azzurro (translation is the Blue Path). Trails, generally narrow with many rocky steps, are occasionally closed due to rock slides of such magnitude that they overwhelm the nets. No word on how many, if any, tourists have been lost in this manner.  The vegetation is a mix of wildflowers, cacti, palms, olives, and terraced grape arbors which have produced wine here since the 14th Century. The dramatic cliffs, breathtaking vistas and a dazzling sea below are the subject of countless postcards. We didn’t see much dazzle since it was raining, but we could envision it once the sun peeked out.  The area is quite understandably designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Pathways of Cinque Terre

Pathways of Cinque Terre

The northernmost village is Monterosso, southernmost is Riomaggiore with Vernazza, Corniglia and Manarola in between. We began our adventure in Riomaggiore which is is the least resort-like of the towns – looking very commercial  with a laundromat, boat dock and bus parking lot, but just off the main street are little pastel houses from a bygone era. Terraces on the hillside enabled the growing of vineyards and gardens, requiring of millions of cubic feet of dry stacked stone which are decorated with murals. There is a small beach and harbor and on the cliffs above are old WWII bunkers, as well as the 14th Century Madonna di Montenoro sanctuary.

The Train Station at Manarola

The Train Station at Manarola

From Riomaggiore (translation Big River) we strolled to Manarola on the section of the Sentiero Azzurro called the Via dell’Amore (Pathway of Love). This trail was only built in 1920’s between two of the towns, Riomaggiore and Manarola and it became a young lovers meeting point with the associated graffiti . We noted that hearts with arrows through them seem to be universal language. The newer trend, however is that lovers attach padlocks onto fences and cables as a symbol of their devotion and presumably the key is thrown over the cliffs to seal the deal. A local hardware store sells locks if spirit should move you, but we passed on this and wisely spent our euros on wine. This path winds through a series of tunnels used as bomb shelters in WWII. The Allies were really intending to bomb the sea ports, but their aim was not always so good in those days.  All along the Via dell’ Amore there are little alcoves with benches with an abstract version of two lovers, their heads together, rounded and featureless on stalk-like necks attached to painfully thin elongated bodies, like starving young lovers.   The Five Lands are ideal for strolling, and even dawdling, and our guide told us that we Americans seem to have the knack, particularly when compared to Germans tourists, whom she reports seem to favor the forced march.

Boats in the Piazza at Vernazza

Boats in the Piazza at Vernazza

We took the train from Manarola to Vernazza,  bypassing Corniglia in the interest of time. Corniglia is the only one of the five villages not on the water and is most famous for its wine. Vineyards there will reportedly let you sip a sample of wine out of the barrel with a straw. It sounded interesting, but it was also interesting getting off the train. Because there are so many tourists, they have more train cars than they have space to accommodate them on the train platform, so some cars stop in a darkened tunnel as our did. A few embarking passengers took headers out the exit door before we realized there was not a platform and there was a giant step down to the tracks. We concluded there are no personal injury lawyers here or else they would be lined up signing up clients. Our guide told us that boat service is the best way to see Cinque Terre, but the water was too rough that day, so the train it was. We did see how that would work though, if the weather did permit boat touring. To disembark we would essentially walk a plank (no rails) from boat to shore, presenting even more opportunity for lawsuits.

Vernazza Cinque Terre

Vernazza Cinque Terre

Vernazza  is perhaps the most scenic of the five towns. There are castle ruins, a pint-sized harbor, a tiny church in the Piazza Capellini dating from 1338 and pockets of vineyards terraced onto the surrounding hillsides. Buildings seem to be tumbling down the ravine, hanging by a thread. Boats are launched in harbor with an I-beam crane and ladders go down to fingernail-sized beaches from precarious rocky perches above. The cemetery is up the hill offering all “residents” an outstanding ocean view.  The small harbor is lined with outdoor restaurants which are tiny and few in number. We stopped for a glass of wine in the piazza and the sun came out briefly. With the rain gone, the locals emerged (easily distinguishable from tourists) and engaged in what we were told is a favorite pastime – the Passeggiata, which involves strolling up and down the main street – we would learn this is popular everywhere in Italy. Their walk takes them around the piazza and the site of the Fontana Vecchia (old fountain) which is long gone, but the name is still there. Townswomen used to do their wash nearby in a river in the ravine that has since been channeled underground before they got their Maytags, and for that matter electricity. There is also a monument to the World Wars. In 1943 in Italy, Hitler called up all boys 15 and older. Many took to the hills to become resistance fighters, while others were drafted and so tragically they often they were fighting each other until Italy judiciously switched sides after the Allied Invasion.  The harbor was actually extended with a breakwater to allow boats to come inside to pick up the areas only export – wine. In an era of prosperity the villagers also saw fit to double the size of the church in the 16th Century, more or less of overwhelming the tiny piazza. We were advised that we did need to keep an eye on the surf, since it has been known to surge over the breakwater and douse the tourists sipping wine in the piazza. Boats are tied up on buoys, except during winter storms when they are dragged up on the piazza.

The Train Tracks at Cinque Terre

The Train Tracks at Cinque Terre

From Vernazza, we again took the train, this time to Monterosso , the northernmost of the of the 5 towns. It is partially built on flat land, and like Riomaggiore on the south end of Cinque Terre, it sports a parking lot where our bus waited.  Monterosso has a 16th Century watchtower built in 1545, a pillbox bunker built by the Nazis and a street of shops that curve around a crescent of sandy beach. From the waterfront, you can see the other 4 towns. Like Vernazza, it also has a breakwater  and a harbor for small boats. We paused here for a tasty gelato and pondered the next 3 weeks as our Italian adventure continues. Tomorrow we will disembark from the Celebrity Equinox in Civitavecchia after completing our trans-Atlantic cruise of 5,320 miles.