Spring Fling #16: The Vatican

This was the day we learned the advantage of booking with a guided tour company – in our case, Trafalgar. Someone else was responsible for our transportation to the Vatican, for booking tickets with specific entry times, and knowing when we should go where. We started at the Vatican Museums, went to the Colosseum, and then back to the Vatican for St. Peter’s to make the best use of our time and avoid crowds as much as possible.

Our included tours for this day were the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica, and Colosseum. Our optional tours were the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain.  We also had an optional group dinner. We did it all! Throughout our whole trip, we did it all!

Not only was our day in Roma very long (16,433 steps) but it would be a novel of a blog post!  This post will detail only our time in Vatican City.

Vatican City is the smallest country in the world, a city-state within Rome.  It is a monarchy with the pope as head.  It was established in 1929 when Mussolini signed Vatican City into existence after the resolution of a dispute between Italy and the Roman Catholic Church.

Vatican City is a UNESCO World Cultural Site but is not a member of the United Nations.

This picture shows a portion of the two mile wall that surrounds the 109 acres of Vatican grounds.  

There are gates to enter Vatican property.

In the middle Ages, the Swiss Guard were hired as mercenaries and body guards for monarchy. Pope Julius II hired them in 1506 and the Swiss Guard has served at the Vatican ever since. The only unit of the Swiss Guard remaining is the one at Vatican City. 

The Vatican is the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church and is home to the pope. The top row of windows are those of the papal apartment however the current pope, Francis, chooses to live in the more humble clergy quarters.   

We were told that the citizens of Roma revere Pope John Paul II.  This memorial to him is outside the Vatican.  Pope Benedict was not favored and the opinion is still out on Pope Francis.

Our day started with a visit to the Vatican Museums. We had timed entry and allowance to visit areas not available to those on a public ticket.

We went up the original Bramante circular staircase, built in 1505. This did not appear to be accessible to most guests. We had a nice view of Roma.

The museums house a vast amount of iconic art, artifacts, and ancient Roman sculptures.   

Renaissance frescoes and tapestries line the museum corridors.  

Every ceiling is decorated! 

This ceiling is painted, not carved. It is flat surface! The depth the artist was able to simulate is impressive!

A gorgeous hallway in a Vatican Museum!

Papal and church ornamentation displayed.

The newer Bramante’s Staircase, built in 1932, leads you out of the Vatican Museums.

Our morning continued with a timed entry into the Sistine Chapel, famous for Michelangelo’s ceiling. This chapel is also where conclave is held for electing a new pope. Think white or black smoke.

Because silence is required within the chapel, there are placards outside where guides explain what visitors will see.  Our tour guide, or local specialist as Trafalgar calls them, was in the family business as both his mother and sister are also guides within the Vatican. He introduced them both as we ebbed and flowed with other groups on the grounds. Each guide has their own flag, umbrella or sign for visitors to follow.

Photography was not allowed in the Sistine Chapel and that rule was enforced vigorously.  There are photos on the internet if you want to see inside.  It is a small chapel, separated into two sections with limited bench seating around the perimeter.  Michelangelo’s ceiling is thought to be one of the most significant works of art in the world.  

Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor and did not want to paint the Sistine Chapel.  Pope Julius II insisted and offered him a large sculpting commission in addition to payment for the chapel ceiling.  Michelangelo spent the years between 1508 and 1512 completing the works and damaging his eye sight in the process.

The Sistine chapel frescoes were cleaned between 1980 and 1994.  The restorers purposely left a dirty patch and the difference is stunning. The cleaned art work is very bright and colorful – even decades after cleaning.

At the far end is St Peter’s Basilica, with the piazza in front bordered by palaces and gardens. 

Atop the columns on two sides of the piazza are 140 statues of saints and martyrs.

This is from the basilica looking towards the other end. Notice the obelisk.

The history of St Peter’s square dates back to the great fire of Rome in 64 AD.  Nero accused the Christians of starting the blaze that almost leveled Rome.  In retribution he had many Christians killed, including Peter, disciple of Jesus and leader of the Apostles. Peter, first bishop of Rome, and considered to be the first pope, was buried on Vatican Hill with other early Christians.

Four centuries later, Emperor Constantine, offering official recognition to Christianity in Rome, began building a basilica atop the graveyard.  

The present basilica, built in the 1500s, sits over a maze of catacombs and St. Peter’s tomb.

The altar sits directly above St Peter. It is possible to go below to see the tomb, as well as many others, but we did not. Darn.

This is the entrance to the grotto below. There are 90 previous popes and high ranking priests entombed at St. Peters.

The former Queen Kristina of Sweden, who died in 1689, is one of only three women buried here and is in the the tomb next to Pope John Paul II. She abdicated her crown in favor of her cousin Carl Gustav. After converting from Lutheranism to Catholicism, she spent her final years in Rome. The other two women are Countess Mathilda of Tuscany (1046-1115) and Marie Clementina Sobieski of Poland (1702-1735).

This pope or saint lies in a glass coffin upstairs in the basilica proper. My notes and research failed me for knowing who he was.

St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest religious building in the world.  It was very impressive inside!

Michelangelo’s Pieta is behind a protective shield.  It was vandalized in 1972.  Michelangelo sculpted three Pietas.  The others are in Florence and Milan.

The priests came through quietly.

This is the dome of St. Peter’s. It is possible to go up there but we didn’t. Darn again!

The US Capitol dome is modeled after the dome at St. Peter’s.

Here is a close up of the obelisk seen earlier. Built over 3000 years ago from a single piece of red granite, the obelisk was brought from Egypt after the Roman conquest. Emperor Caligula (37-41AD) set it up as a jewel in his Roman amphitheater It was moved to St. Peter’s Square in 1586 under the direction of Pope Sixtus V.

The sculpture, Angels Unawares, sits in St. Peter’s Square and was dedicated by Pope Frances in 2019 for the 105th World Day for Migrants and Refugees. The sculptor was Timothy Schmalz. It was very touching and thought provoking.

That was a lot, I know! And it was only about half of our busy day touring Roma! Next time – the Colosseum!

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Spring Fling #15: Roma!

As we planned this trip, one of the things I spent time on repeatedly was the transition between our cruise that ended in Civitavecchia and the land tour which began in Rome – a distance of about 50 miles apart.  Our options were a paid ship transfer to the airport and then a tour transfer from airport to the hotel, a very inexpensive passenger train into the city but requiring transfers from ship to the train station and from the train station to the hotel.  In the end, we opted to pay about $150 for the convenience of a personal driver from the pier to the hotel. 

When we walked off the ship, our driver, booked through the international tour platform Viator, was waiting. There was no government intake or customs desk that we needed to proceed through of any kind. (When we checked into our hotel in Rome they did copy our passports so I assume that sufficed.)

When we arrived at our hotel, our tour guide, Fabrizio, was there to greet us. As it was early he suggested a few sites within walking distance from the hotel and we set out.

Our first stop was Santa Maria Maggiore Church, the third most important church in Roma. Although it is not within the boundaries of the Vatican, it is owned by the Vatican. It was built between the years 422 and 432, and consecrated in 434. There have been a number of modifications and renovations over the centuries. The14th century bell tower is the highest in Rome at 246 feet.

There are about 990 churches in Rome and more than half of them are named for the Virgin Mary.  

The mosaics found in Santa Maria Maggiore are some of the oldest representations of the Virgin Mary. 

The priests were leading mass while we were there.

We continued walking and came across this area of ruins.

The stairs and doorway in the ruins seemed picturesque.

This statue was actually a person holding a pose! He startled several people as they walked by.

We walked to Vittoriano, also called the Altar of the Fatherland. This national monument was built between 1885 and 1935 to honor Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of the unified Italy. 

This is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Vittoriano.

From the top we could see the colosseum! We’d be there the next day!

After sitting street side for a lunch of pizza and wine, we made our way back to the hotel to gain access to our room. We were also able to meet our 25 fellow tour participants. They included three family groups, six couples and one solo woman. All were adults and all were from the United States.

We had a city orientation bus ride and a group dinner to begin our Best of Italy Tour by Trafalgar.

 We saw the oldest bridge in Roma. It crosses the Tiber River and dates back to 100 years BC.

We were introduced to a couple of Fabrizio’s favorite sayings such as “The traffic lines in Roma are only ornamental” and our “The mother of the stupid is always pregnant!”

We saw some creative parking throughout our days in Roma!

In the previous post I said that Napoli was one of Randy’s two favorite destinations.  Roma was mine.  There is so much history and it took two days to see just some of it. It will take at least three posts to review our visit to Roma.  “Andiamo guys, Andiamo!” “Let’s go, guys, Let’s go!”

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Spring Fling #14: The Best Last Day!

We were mentally preparing to leave the Nieuw Statendam after 21 days aboard and had just one more port – Napoli or Naples. 

We knew pizza was invented in Napoli so signing up for another food tour excursion was easy. We love pizza! Unfortunately our tour guide was 45 minutes late due to a traffic accident and it was raining,  It wasn’t a good beginning.

During the delay we learned from fellow travelers that Holland America offers cabin credit for shareholders in the parent company, Carnival Cruise Lines.  We were already signed up for future cruises so Randy got on his phone and bought the necessary 100 shares of stock while we waited. 

Our tour guide, Aldo, finally arrived and we walked from the pier into the city, learning some things along the way.

The port buildings were constructed in 1934, under the Fascist government of Mussolini. The architecture was very severe and uninspired compared to everything else we had seen on this trip.

Napoli is the densest city (very little open space) in Europe and the third largest city in Italy. Napoli is in the red zone for the still active Mount Vesuvius.  The castle at water level is the “new” castle.

The “old” castle, above the city, was built in the 1100s during the French domination.  

Previous structures on this site dated back to the 1st century BC when a Roman Emperor had his villa up on the hill.

We walked past the “new” castle that was built in 1274 under the third king of Naples.  Being the king of Naples was not the same as being the king of Italy. The various kingdoms were unified as Italy in 1871. 

This new castle was damaged during WWII and the damage is still evident between the windows above and below on the right.

This is the front of the new castle. The white portion was added in the 1400s and shows a transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.  The temporary fencing is there because buildings from an old Roman port were found while excavating for a metro stop.

This picture shows what has been excavated so far.

We continued our journey and went into Passione di Sofi where we could sit comfortably and sample spaghetti omelets.  

Aldo, our guide, was “tall, handsome, and hot” because he ate 1000 of them growing up. (That’s what he said and who’s to argue?)

A spaghetti omelet is made with whatever leftovers are available.  Aldo described the recipe as “Mix 100 grams cooked pasta with 1 egg – or more to the same ratio.  Put half in the bottom of a hot pan.  Add leftovers, cheese etc. Top with the pasta mixture,  brown and flip.”  They were very good.

Moving on, we walked by the palace of the second king of Italy.  His wife was Margherita. It was this Margherita for whom the Margherita pizza is named.

We walked through the Umberto Gallery for the first time.  The gallery was built in 1880, the same period as the Eiffel Tower.  It was built by King Umberto, (that second king of Italy who was Margherita’s husband), along with the rich families of Napoli, to give the people of Napoli something good after a bad cholera epidemic. 

The lighter portions on the right side were rebuilt after World War II. We walked through the gallery several times as a way to get from here to there to escape the rain.

This is leaving one end of the Umberto Gallery. There is scaffolding evident on the right side for renovations.

Our next stop, San Carlo, started with wine and bread with olive oil.

Aldo was very interesting while telling us all about Napoli!

We had Caprese salad.  Italy is famous for tomatoes and mozzarella was invented in Napoli.  It was a delicious combination.

Finally, we got to the pizza! Queen Margherita was served this bread, tomato, cheese and basil concoction for the first time in Napoli and she liked it. So did we! We learned that in Napoli pizza ovens cook at 930 degrees, while in the rest of Italy, the ovens are usually heated to 700 degrees.  

Aldo told us that the first groups of Italians to emigrate to New York were from Napoli because the king prioritized the north and there weren’t many opportunities in southern Italy. Pizza went to New York before it made it to northern Italy.

“Every time Chicago makes a pizza – Jesus is crying. That isn’t pizza!”

We were happy tourists on our Napoli Food Tour!

Everything ends with cappuccino.

There were several pictures of Sophia Loren in the restaurant. She is from Napoli.

Walking through the Umberto Gallery for the last time we stopped at a pastry shop and had sfogliatelle.

Sfogliatelle is a layered pastry about the same consistency of a croissant.  Yummy!

The food tour that was delayed and had us walking through the rain was a true highlight of our trip.  The food, and the tour guide, were exceptional. Naploli was one of Randy’s two favorite destinations on our whole trip.

We got back to the ship and found that Covid tests had been delivered to our cabin. The ship’s personnel didn’t know that we weren’t flying home and a negative Covid test was required to fly into the US. 

We were to begin a land tour the next day and were required to be vaccinated but not tested. We had a bit of a dilemma. We weren’t going to lie that we were negative if we were positive, but we also didn’t have to take the test. In the end we did the right thing and tested. We were both negative and went on with a clear conscience.

As we left port, this gull rode on the lifeboat near our balcony for a long time! We were wondering if it was hitching a ride all the way to Rome -but it eventually flew back towards Napoli.

It was the best last day!

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Spring Fling #13: Cannoli Snobs

Our next stop was Polermo on the island of Sicily.  Sicily is the largest of more than 400 islands under Italy’s administration and sits near the toe of the boot. The other primary island is Sardinia, which sits northwest of Sicily.

Our tour guide met 32 of us on the pier and we walked towards the city center.  There was a lot of trash everywhere.  We hoped that once we left the port area it would get better, but improvement was marginal.  (Randy said India was worse, but I’ve never seen worse.)

Our guide told us the city of Palermo goes back about 3000 years.  There have been 14 separate dominations.  All are still evident within the city in the architecture and food.  These blocks are from the Roman era.

The Teatro Politeama Garibaldi is the performing home of the the Orchestra Sinfonica Siciliana.

The premiere theater in Palermo is the Teatra Massamo.  Opera is performed there.

Our primary activity of the day was a food tour – something we look for where-ever we travel.  This tour specialized in Palermo Street Food. Although similar to Italian cuisine, Sicilian food has Greek, Spanish, French and Arab influences.

Our first food stop was in the Capo Mercato.  The sign and the food were very colorful!

An array of fresh seafood – expected on an island.

Our tour guide told us “Sicily loves fried food, we fry everything.”  She also said food in Sicily is simple,  having just a few ingredients. The population was generally poor so food was made with inexpensive, local, fresh ingredients and lots of olive oil.

We went to Da Ariana, a food stand within the Capo market.  It recently won a televised Sicily Food Challenge.

First we were served arancini. Arancini are rice balls that are stuffed with whatever is available, coated with breadcrumbs and deep fried.  They are a staple of Sicilian cuisine.  These were delicious.  The second item is caponata, an eggplant dish very famous in Sicily and also very good.

Our second course was fritters made from chick pea flour and crocché – breaded and fried mashed potato segments.

We walked on and saw the Cathedral of Palermo, built in 1184 by the Normans.  It was a Christian church on the site of a Muslim mosque,  built over a Christian basilica.

The cathedral was also a fortress.  Normans, Arabs and Jews all lived cooperatively together in the city of Palermo.

The walk brought us through this intersection.  The carvings and ornamentation on each of the four corners represents one of the four seasons.

Our second food stop was typical in that we stood, or sat, outside the establishment to enjoy our street food.

We had a second version of arancini – good, but not as good as our first. These were baseball size!

Then we were instructed about cannoli, a dessert originating in Sicily. (Cannoli is plural and cannolo is singular.) We were told that the only way to eat a cannolo is to pick a shell, pick a filling and pick one or more toppings.  We were told we should NEVER accept a pre-filled cannolo as the bottom would be soggy.

As we were a food tour and they were trying to assist 32 of us quickly, we were allowed to pick our shell and toppings but we all received the same sweet cream filling.  Oh wait, it wasn’t sweet cream – it was ricotta cheese – amazing, light, fluffy and sweet ricotta.

The cannoli were delicious – among the best things we ate on our entire trip.  It was also our one and only experience with cannoli because we never again saw them when they weren’t pre-filled.  We learned to be Cannoli Snobs to our own detriment!  (We’re eating the next authentic cannoli we see – even if it is pre-filled.)

On the move once again, we saw the Church of San Cataldo.  It was built in 1160, during the Norman occupation of Palermo. 

It was a Christian church but with an acknowledgement to the Islamic population, evident in the red domes.

This is a typical Palermo building where people have lived for centuries.

Our last stop was a restaurant awarded the title of Sicily’s Best Street Food.  They specialize in fried fish.  

Imagine sardines breaded, fried and eaten like we would eat french fries. 

Now imagine a large cone with generous portions of sardine fries, calamari and shrimp.  We tried to decline but ended up accepting one so as not to seem ungrateful.  I almost never eat fish or seafood and Randy did not eat very much because imagine having fish after a sweet cannolo!

We did manage to eat another dessert originating in Sicily – gelato!  Although we never again had cannoli, we enjoyed gelato many times!

We very much enjoyed our tour and learning about the history of Palermo and the street food of Sicily.  We walked a lot on this tour – about 14,000 steps.  That was good because we ate a lot!

We got back to the ship just before the rains came.   As we sat on our balcony watching the storm, we also watched the Regal Princess leave port, tooting the love boat theme as a goodbye!

Next up:  Another food tour – this time in Napoli. Napoli is one of Randy’s two favorite places in Italy.

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Spring Fling #12: Stormy Seas

Our next port was supposed to be La Goulette, Tunisia (number 4) on the north coast of Africa.  We were booked to tour ancient Carthage and the picturesque Sidi Bou Said – think white buildings with blue roofs next to the blue, blue sea.

We were having an early breakfast and wondering why we had not yet docked.   The captain eventually announced that the winds were too high and the seas were too rough to safely dock in Tunisia.  The port day was canceled.  

Some of the more experienced Mediterranean cruisers had already been suggesting as much.   Missing out on Tunisia, due to weather, has happened before.

It was very windy and the seas were rough.  Once the decision was made, the ship’s crew wasted no time heading north to calmer seas.

We were both comfortable with the rocking and rolling. It was just a new part of our adventure and we never felt at risk.

Although we were a little disappointed not to see the sights, a bonus sea day is never a bad thing.   At least we had made it to the continent of Africa with our Ceuta stop earlier in the cruise.

The ship’s crew stepped it up by adding some entertainment and demonstrations that we would not have seen otherwise. It was a good day.

We have the ports of Palermo and Naples left on the cruise before disembarking near Rome.   We have food tours booked in both ports. That would not usually be my scheduling preference – but it is food – and it is in Italy!

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Spring Fling #11: Portovenere and Cinque Terre

While on our cruise, we made the specific choice to stay near the port for our shore excursions.  We did not want to exhaust ourselves by going on 9-10 hour excursions when we were in new ports day after day.  We also had the advantage of knowing we would see many inland sites while on our Tour of Italy.

Livorno was the single exception. We chose a ten hour tour that allowed us to see Cinque Terre from the sea. If you have seen those iconic colorful villages on the mountainside overlooking the Mediterranean Sea – that may have been Cinque Terre.  

Leaving the ship, we went by bus to the dock where we boarded our tour boat.  It was the big one!

There were four or five groups boarding, each with their own guide.  We all had headphones “tuned” to the frequency for our guide.  That strategy was used many times throughout our trip.

We saw an Italian Navy ship as we were leaving the port.

Here is a map for orientation. This is the north central coast of Italy and Livorno is further south than the map shows.

Our first stop was Portovenere, just south of the Cinque Terre.  We were able to get off the boat and explore.  

The ruins of Castello Doria sit above the village.  Another fortress existed on this site in 1139 when the Republic of Genoa gained control of the village of Portovenere. In 1161, the new castle (adjoining the old) was built. The castle was a focal point of battles between Genoa and Pisa in the 13th century.

We entered through the ancient gate, a gate that was locked in the evenings to protect the village from seafaring enemies. 

After some basic instructions, we were let loose to explore.

We walked through the village towards the ancient architecture on the hill.

We saw some interesting things along the way.

The San Pietro church is on the point beyond the village.  It was built between1256 and 1277 by the Genoese on top of a former pagan temple dedicated to the goddess Venus Ericina.  

The inside was simple but interesting with the striped rock.

This is an old organ!

The church underwent extensive restoration between 1929-1934.  This protected area displays some of the original floor.

These are views looking toward the opposite side of the point.

There is a cemetery below the walls of the Castello Doria.

Before we left Portovenere we had focaccia bread! This region of Italy, Liguria, is known for originating focaccia. They were delicious – ranking high in our culinary memories of Italy!

We rejoined our tour and boarded our boat once again.

Leaving Portovenere.

We had a great view of San Pietro church from the sea.

Another great view as we rounded the point.

We motored the short distance north to the Cinque Terre. the collective name for the five small villages built up from the sea. The villages are Riomaggiore, Manorola, Coniglia, Vernazza and Monerosso. They formed in the 12th and 13th centuries and were collectively given the named Cinque Terre in the 1400s. 

They are truly mountain villages next to the sea. People joined together to protect themselves from pirates. Young boys were targets of North African pirates in the 1540s to be used as galley slaves.

The main economy was viniculture as the microclimate is perfect for growing grapes.  There were once 4700 miles of terraces used for vineyards and 2000 miles still remain.  

Eight thousand people lived in the Cinque Terre area in the1920s and there are currently about 3000 inhabitants.

Cinque Terre is a UNESCO Heritage Site and a National Park and Sea Preserve.

Rail is the best way to travel to Cinque Terre. It is also the best way to go from village to village, taking about five minutes between stops.  There are hiking trails but only the narrowest of roads. Motor vehicles within the villages are generally limited to scooters or motorcycles.

Although we didn’t actually set foot in any of the Cinque Terre villages, we are glad we made the decision to see them from the sea.  The train would have been fun but hiking up and down all those stairs would have been exhausting! 

The Disney-Pixar movie Luca was visualized in Cinque Terre. Those who have seen Luca spoke of the recognizable authenticity of the landscape.

After a short time we docked at Levanto, north of the Cinque Terre.  I’m sure there were impressive things to see in Levanto, but our primary destination was food!  We sat at a tiny table along the narrow path between buildings and had a lovely lunch with Italian wine. 

Our next port was Tunis, Tunisia but there was a problem blowing in!

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Spring Fling #10:  France – Our Bonus Country

Our original itinerary had Monte Carlo as a port destination but changes offer opportunities and ours was to go to France.

Our port was the Bay of Villefranche. Our ship was too large to dock directly so we used tenders – a taxi vessel that took us from our ship to land. We learned that the Mediterranean Sea is not effected by lunar tides.

Nearby was Nice on the French Riviera, also known as Côte d’Azur (blue coast). Nice thrives on tourism, perfumes and a growing tech industry. Nice is the fifth largest city in France with 400,000 people.

There is a nice promenade along the beach.

Elton John has a home way up on a hill. Telephoto lens in use here!

We traveled by bus to Saint Paul de Vence Village.

There were once 3500 inhabitants inside these 16th century walls. 

We entered the village through the arched gate.

Some of the oldest buildings are from the thirteenth century. 

Villages like these were built on hills so to avoid flooding and pirates. 

Being up high on the hill also allowed them to see any enemy that was approaching.

The mountains in the distance are The Alps.

The traditional architecture is white-ish with red tile roofs.

More recently artists arrived in Saint Paul de Vence and created the current version of artist colony. In the early days artists would pay for drinks and food with art.  

Currently, only about 300 people live here.  It is very picturesque but not very convenient for vehicles or deliveries.

The village is very picturesque!

There is a lovely fountain in the middle of the village.

Of course there is a Roman Catholic church.

There was a cemetery with a view.

We left the village and made our way back down to sea level.

While tendering back to our ship we saw the St. Helena out of London. A little research revealed she had been one of the last two ships holding the RMS designation and had served as a mail ship and lifeline between Cape Town and the remote British territory of Saint Helena.

In 2016 the ship was retired, sold and entered a two year season of refurbishment. Efficiency was a priority to her new owners. The engines were rebuilt to run on low-sulphur marine diesel and the propellers were refurbished to reduce friction. Underwater sections are painted with anti-fouling paint to keep her more streamlined thus reducing emissions.

The ship supports the Extreme E’s Five Race Global Odyssey – an all electric grand prix conducted near ports around the world. Who knew?

And there is our Nieuw Statendam. It was a good bonus day in France!

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Spring Fling #9: Barcelona – Less Than We Expected

Barcelona was the end of the fourteen day transatlantic segment of our cruise and also the beginning of a seven day Mediterranean cruise. Eight hundred passengers, mostly American retirees, left the ship in Barcelona while six hundred of us were to continue on to Rome.

While the ship was going through the process of departing and embarking passengers, we had our choice of a variety of shore excursions. Our tour was the Highlights of Barcelona- with about 40 other passengers. We had met a number of passengers and crew who love Barcelona, and we had really enjoyed our previous ports in Spain, so we had high hopes for a great day.   

Unfortunately, our experience in Barcelona was less than we expected. We took a shuttle into the city and our first impression wasn’t great. We stepped off the bus right into a disturbance. There was a loud argument with pushing and shoving involving a dozen men and one woman. It was something about one of the men not getting paid what he thought he should. Our guide hurried us away.

Then we had a man yelling non stop at a sculpture as a form of protest and other preparations for a mass protest. We were not told what either was about.

Almost immediately many of our fellow passengers started whining. I need the toilet NOW. We’re moving too slow. We’re moving too fast. I want to stop and go back to the ship. The tour guide isn’t pronouncing English clearly enough. Good grief!  Like any of these people could speak Castilian Spanish, Catalan, French and passable English! And those are the only languages we know she speaks. She was a 28ish woman trying to herd seniors of varying physical condition and tolerance. Unfortunately it continued throughout the tour! 

Okay, enough of my whining about the whiners! Now on to what we saw in Barcelona.

We walked into the Gothic Quarter, the ancient part of Barcelona. The city was founded 2000 years ago as part of Roman expansion over the Pyrenees Mountains. 

These ancient walls are a combination of Roman and Medieval influences. We found it so fascinating that apartments were built within the old walls.

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We were able to see the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, but only from the outside as an event was happening inside. Some people were going in, but not tourists.

It was common in cathedrals we visited that mass was conducted at the front and tourists sat at the back or walked around quietly. We have enough experience in liturgical churches that we generally knew what was happening even if it was in Spanish, Italian or Latin.

This is another side of the same cathedral built in the 14th century. Notice the unicorn to the left of the bell tower. Unicorns are mentioned in the Bible eight or nine times depending on translation but research says that the original Hebrew likely meant “beast with one horn” as opposed to the mythical unicorn.

A building adjacent to the cathedral is now a museum commemorating the Jews who were martyred during the inquisition.  

This candle shop, the oldest in Barcelona, dates back to 1761.

As we learned in Malaga, Picasso lived in one of these apartments as a child. 

Our primary destination was Sagrada Familia a hallmark of Spain and Barcelona. 

Even though it looks as though it is very old, and possibly under repair, in fact it has not yet been completed.  

Sagrada Familia has been under construction since 1882, 140 years. It was supposed to be completed in 2026, the 100th anniversary of Antoni Gaudi’s death.  Unfortunately COVID has altered that plan with completion now planned for 2030.

Gaudi was the primary architect and is buried in a tomb in the crypt of the church. The architectural works of Gaudí form a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  

Sagrada Familia is the tallest religious building in the world at 566 feet.  It is known throughout the world and visited by millions of people every year. The capacity of the church is 9000.

The different colors are because materials have come from different parts of the Catalan region of Spain.

Elaborate carvings depict different stories of Jesus’ life in stone.  Some portions were damaged during the Spanish civil war and were repaired by a Japanese sculptor.

Most of our viewing was near the Nativity Entrance – the area depicting Jesus’ birth.

The Passion Entrance

The area around the Passion Entrance (Death of Christ) was very limited because of these apartments.  There is a legal dispute as to whether they can stay after they were approved in error.

We were very disappointed that our tour did not include entrance into the Sagrada Familia. Our experience was just to take pictures from the outside. Even that was challenging because the area around the church was very busy.  There seemed to be a festival going on in addition to just regular Sagrada Familia visitation. We were warned about potential pick-pockets.

We walked back to where we could meet up with our transportation to continue our Panoramic Tour – that means “see what you can from the bus”.  Two monuments we drove by, but couldn’t see well, were the Arch of the Triumph and the Christopher Columbus statue, both built as part of Barcelona’s World Expo in 1888.

We briefly saw the Bull Fighting Museum. Bull fighting was banned in this region of Spain in 2010 and a former bull ring is now the museum.

And we kind of saw the Olympic Stadium built for 55,000 for the Barcelona Olympics held in 1992.

Barcelona holds 1.5 million residents and is currently the fourth busiest port in Europe.  It was not as clean as the other Spanish port cities we had visited.  Certainly American cities have the same, but our earlier port cities in Spain had been spotless.

So,  we enjoyed our earlier stops in Spain enough to know we’d like to come back and give Barcelona another chance.  The on-line pictures we’ve seen of the inside of Sagrada Familia make it a must do.  We’re willing to try again. 

Back on the Nieuw Statendam we found that one thousand people joined the cruise so there were now1600 passengers on the ship from Barcelona to Rome. Sixteen hundred was still a very comfortable amount for the ship’s facilities. The new passengers were younger and more diverse.  

As appealing as younger and more diverse was, they were not generally compliant with the captain’s masking requirements. despite repeated admonitions,  Of course, they weren’t on the ship when we got that shocking letter that we had COVID onboard. We too had enjoyed that false sense of security that everyone testing negative prior to boarding had given. They were living that storyline as we departed.  

The plan was to visit new ports on five of the next six days, in three countries and two continents.

Next port:  Nice, France

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Spring Fling #8: Alicante Spain and the Caves del Canelobre

We viewed a lovely sunrise from our balcony as we came towards the port of Alicante Spain.

This area has been populated for 7000 years by the regular cast of characters, the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Arabs. The Spanish monarchy recaptured Alicante in 1214 AD and established Catholic rule.

We could see the ancient fortress way up on the hill.  We learned later it was the Castillo de Santa Bárbara, built over a span of 1000 years, but primarily in the 16th century.  

Alicante actually has two castles, the second being the Castillo de San Fernando.  We didn’t go to either. What were we thinking?

We were thinking something different – the Caves del Canelobre.  We had a brief city tour before heading inland.

We saw the expansive public beaches the city is known for a well as the Explanada de España.  This tree lined walkway has restaurants, shops and open air events.  It took about five minutes of waiting to get this photo with the walkway mostly clear of people.

There are 6.6 million tiles in three colors.

We saw the Alicante Town Hall, built in the baroque style in the 18th century.  The four flags represent Valencia, Spain, Alicante and the European Union.  

This sculpture by Salvador Dali (1973) was inside the entrance of the town hall.

These ruins were discovered about ten years ago.  They are from a 13th -18th century Christian city.

Walking in the old town area, we saw the Basilica de Santa Maria built in the 14th to 18th centuries.  The outside style is baroque.

The style inside is gothic and has a glass floor above the crypt.  The basilica served as a church and a fortress and was built over a 9th century mosque.

We enjoyed a ride through the countryside on our way to the Caves del Canelobre.

The caves, formed in Jurassic times, were discovered during the Arab era.  They also have an interesting recent history.

During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) the primary cave was used by the Republicans as a place to work on airplanes.  The Republicans were at war against the Nationalists who were led by Franco and supported by Mussolini and Hitler. 

An attack on Alicante by the Nationalists Italian Air Force on May 25, 1938 killed more civilians than any single bombing raid anywhere in Spain during the Civil War. 

The Nationalists overthrew the left-leaning democratically elected government and Franco ruled as dictator until his death in1975.

This tunnel was built during the civil war and is now used to provide access the cave.  The cave opened to the public in the 1950s. 

Pictures are not allowed in the cave so this is from their advertising. 

The Canelobre Cave is considered the biggest cathedral in rock measuring 70 meters tall.   In addition to tourism, the cave is used for concerts because of its great acoustics.  

We had a guided tour that lasted about 30 minutes.  We descended into the cave several hundred steps and then departed on those same steps.  The guide, speaking very good English, said the cave was last full of water 7000 years ago.  

We go into caves whenever possible and now we have been in a cave in Spain!

Our next port is Barcelona – our only bad day of the whole trip.

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Spring Fling #7: Málaga and a Boring Yacht

We were in the part of the cruise that had a new port every day, mostly along the southern coast of Spain.  Our next port was Málaga, a city thought to be 3000 years old. Established first by the Phoenicians approximately 700BC, the name Málaga, meant “queen” in their language. The city was also ruled by the Romans, Moors and eventually Christians.

Our tour took us to La Alcazaba, also called Castillo de Gibralfaro.  On this relief map it is on the high point over looking the city.  (The cathedral is in the right foreground.)

The fortress, originating in the Roman era, was abandoned and restored many times.  The site was extensively expanded and modified by the Moors late in their occupation of 711 – 1492.  

Spanish monarchs, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, captured the city in 1492.  

From high up on the hill those in charge, and we, had a good view of the sea and the city below.

We saw our ship, the Nieuw Statendam.

We saw the Bull Ring.

We saw the Málaga Cathedral.

The “Catedral de la Encarnación de Málaga” is similar to other cathedrals we saw with a large central nave and altar.    

There was an ornate choir.

And a very old organ.

There were side chapels.  

The Málaga Cathedral was built between 1528-1782.  While still unfinished,  construction was stopped due to a lack of funding.  It is widely believed that the city of Málaga contributed funds to the American revolution.  Our tour guide told us that the US offered to help complete the cathedral post revolution but the offer was declined.

Christian rulers in Málaga, and throughout Spain, built churches over mosques, or refit them for Christian purposes. This entrance still has the Arabic arch.

In more recent Málaga history, Pablo Picasso was born here October 25, 1881 on the first floor of the building behind his statue.  His childhood home was on this square.  At the age of ten his family moved to Barcelona where he was educated.  Picasso eventually moved to Paris.  There is a Picasso museum in Málaga, opened in 2003, with artifacts given by his daughter in law Christine Picasso.

This Obelisk was dedicated to celebrate the Heroes of Independence in 1921.

This Roman theater was discovered in 1951 during excavations,  It is used once again for concerts and has great acoustics. 

The discovery of old ruins continues to happen. This construction site was on-hold until the archeologists determined what was there and how best to preserve it.

In 1960 actor Antonio Banderas was born in Málaga.  He lives here part time and built a large performing arts venue for the city.

In 1974 Málaga became a sister city with Mobile, Alabama.

In 2022 we saw this yacht in the Málaga marina.  It was so white, so spartan, so quiet and so boring that we wondered if it was confiscated from a Russian oligarch.  There were very few people ever visible and no deck chairs or color anywhere. 

We eventually saw the name, Rising Sun, and did some research.  It was built in 2004 for Larry Ellison the CEO of Oracle Corporation.  Hollywood mogul David Geffen bought a half share in Rising Sun in 2006 and then the entire yacht in 2010.  The initial build cost was $200 million but with refits it is valued at $570 million.  The yacht’s annual expenses are estimated to be $25-40 million. 

We learned that many celebrities have spent time on the Rising Sun.  Also, billionaire David Geffen was highly criticized for posts showing self isolation on his yacht in the Caribbean during the early days of COVID.  We don’t often side with billionaires on anything, but self isolating on the ocean during a pandemic does seem to make some sense.  

Randy watched activity on and around the yacht with his binoculars and believes he saw David Geffen alone on the bow at one time.

We enjoyed doing research about the Rising Sun and more yachts and ships we saw in various ports.  More to come in future posts!

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