Rome, Rome, Venice, Florence, Naples, Pisa, Athens, Ephesus, Monte Carlo, Barcelona
Tuesday, June 8, 2004
Orlando to Paris
Last month Linda sold her Mitsubishi Eclipse to a friend and is driving a rental car until the 2005 RX8s are available, so it was very convenient to drive to the airport Tuesday morning and simply abandon the car. We had a long layover in Miami, spent in the Air France lounge. Security in Miami is ludicrous. At the entrance to the escalator they check your passport and boarding pass. Then, at the top of the escalator there is a line for the metal detectors. Before you may enter the line they check your passport and boarding pass. After passing through the metal detector, you enter the terminal, but first — you guessed it — they check your passport and boarding pass. There is no way for anyone to enter or exit this process between start and finish, so what is the point. . . other than to spend your tax dollars?
Because the terminals at Miami are connected by an unsecured area, you must do this even to change flights. And since we originally were looking for the Air France lounge in the Air France terminal (silly us), we ended up having to clear security three times Tuesday. That means Linda’s purse went through the X-ray machine three times. Yet when we arrived in France and she emptied her purse, in the bottom she found a full-size Swiss Army knife! Now don’t you feel secure?
Dinner on Air France was very good: smoked duck salad, scallops and shrimp, and a nice steak. Dani and Linda slept, I listened to an audiobook of Mystic River, extremely well-read. (Has anyone ever actually been able to use those in-seat video screens, or are they perpetually being “reloaded”?)
Wednesday, June 9, 2004
Henry, Marjolaine and Nathaniel met us at Charles de Gaul airport Wednesday morning. Four of our five bags showed up. The other — Dani’s — was nowhere to be found. While Nathaniel played with the parachute toy we’d brought him I visited baggage services and was eventually directed to a different carousel where I was told the lost bag would emerge. Three seconds later the power went out in the building and the carousels all stopped. (Henry says the electrical workers are striking by cutting power periodically. That’s so French!)After about five minutes a head poked out from between the flaps at the conveyor entrance and then the missing bag was pushed through. I wish I had that on film. It took two cars to transport the six people, five bags, three carryons and one parachute toy to the Holiday Inn Paris Disneyland, about a mile from Henry’s house and Alcorn McBride sarl. The hotel is touristy, but quite nice, with spacious rooms that are an interesting cross between American and European accommodations.
We took a several-hour-long nap and then Henry picked us up for a trip to the market to buy dinner. Grocery shopping is one of my favorite activities in France. Auchon at the mall in Marne la Valee is like a giant toy store for hungry adults. Bread, wine, pate and stinky cheese — we were set. Off to Henry and Marjolaine’s for a relaxing dinner outside, overlooking the valley. The weather was in the low 80s, and the food and company were excellent. In true European style, dinner ended about 11pm.
Thursday, June 10, 2004
We sort of missed Thursday morning. I can’t remember the last time I slept 11 hours. But we were up in time for lunch with Henry and Jean Marc (head of A/V for DLPI) at Walt’s, on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom.
We did a little theme-parking:
- Pinocchio Same as Florida as far as I could tell.
- Pirates The best of the three I’ve been on. The scenes are in a different order, but it’s closer to CA than FL. The dueling pirates were moving, but they are no longer making contact.
- Haunted Mansion The best of the three I’ve been on. It’s audio is MUCH better than the others, there is more story line, and a whole section of western sets at the end.
- Big Thunder About twice as long as the CA or FL versions. Henry spent most of the day on the phone with customers. As it happens he was in the process of answering his cell yet again as the Big Thunder cameras snapped our picture. I wonder what the customers thought of the screaming in the background?
- The Dragon Few people discover this well-animated dragon that is sleeping(?) in the dungeon under the castle.
- Auto Stunt Show We drove over to the second gate, a very modest implementation of Disney Studios. There are only a handful of attractions here, although we understand they are going to add Tower of Terror if they can figure out where to get the power. Henry says they may have to synchronize with Rock ‘n Roller so they don’t both launch at the same time! The stunt show was very interesting to car aficionados, and even those of us with not automotive genes were impressed by the precision driving (skidding?) ballet. Like most stunt shows it would have been better without the fake movie shoot plot.
- Cinemagique This was the best show of the day. It’s a beautiful theater with great audio. During the show a guest with a cell-phone (not Henry) is chased “through” the screen and finds himself pursued through a montage of famous movies, from silent to sci-fi. The screen transitions are pretty amazing, and the use of both English and French works extremely well. This show was considered for use at Disney MGM studios, but I think it’s a bit too long for American attention spans.
We had a nice dinner at Chiny Cottage, a little house-turned-restaurant on the way to Lagny. Linda and I had been there in 1992 and it was still good, if a bit expensive for what it was.
Friday, June 11, 2004
Dani and I nibbled at a truly appalling breakfast at the hotel (sort of an American version of a German buffet?!!) and then I headed to the office for a couple of hours. At lunchtime the five of us met up and headed for the medieval city of Provins, about 30 miles southeast of Marne La Valee.
At La Fleur de Sel creperie we had some delicious jambon, gruyere, eouf and ongion crepes, followed by chocolate or caramel and butter crepes. Yum.
Then we explored the Tour Cesar, begun in 1152. It perches atop a hill in the center of the walled city. Visitors can squeeze their way through increasingly narrow stone passages, all the way to the bell tower (that part’s almost brand new, having been added in 1689).
For dinner we went into Paris to one of only 25 Michelin three-star restaurants in France, Arpège. Words cannot express the quality of this meal. Numbers cannot express the price of this meal. Well, possibly using scientific notation. Each course had layers of subtly complex flavors, particularly the vegetables, which are the chef’s specialties. We had:
- A glass of 1996 Taittinger Champagne from magnum, bottled for the restaurant.
- Incredible artisan bread and butter.
- Amuse Bouch consisting of a small egg, served in its shell, with honey and vinegar cream.
- 1997 Clos de la Roche, a deep and complex Burgundy.
- Various vegetables including carmelized onions au gratin and green beans with almonds. Dani had Osetra caviar, which was sufficient to serve the table.
- A consume containing stuffed ravioli with spiced cumin.
- (At this point in the meal I went out and quickly sold Henry’s car so that we could continue eating. )
- Main courses including lobster, chicken and squid.
- An incredible cheese cart, from which we selected twelve cheeses.
- A variety of small pastries (to get us ready for dessert).
- Various desserts including chocolate souffle, Mille Feuille and tomatoes(!) that had been basted with vanilla and a dozen other spices for most of the day.
- Coffee and herbal tea.
Saturday, June 12, 2004
We spent a quiet day at Henry and Marjolaine’s house in Chalifert. Linda alternately read a book in the back yard and wrestled with the washing machine, which, like all French washers, is the size of a coffee grinder and similar in results. Dani, Henry and I went to the mall for a little shopping and groceries and when we got back home Marjolaine had returned from her mother’s with Zacharie, who is one year old. He is very cute and inquisitive. We made it an early night, so we could get up early to drive to Paris.
Sunday, June 13, 2004
Henry picked us up at 9am to go to our favorite breakfast spot, La Duree. After some delicious croissants and pain au chocolat we stopped on the Champs Elysee. While Henry had a short meeting about show control programming at the Renault showroom Dani, Linda and I walked up to l’Arc de Triomphe.
Then it was on to the Louvre so that Dani could visit locations mentioned in The Da Vinci Code (which she finished yesterday).
I’ll skip the explanation so there are no spoilers, but it was fun taking pictures of all the tourists taking pictures of La Jaconde (the Mona Lisa).
We also visited the apartments of Napoleon III.
Henry was somewhat disgruntled that we dragged him to a hot dog stand next to Notre Dame for lunch, but that was where Dani had a fondly remembered hot dog three years ago after four days in food hell (i. e. London). I’m not sure this hotdog was quite as good, but it was filling.
We made a brief stop to take a photo in front of La Tour Eiffel, and then headed back to the hotel for a couple of hours before our farewell dinner at Henry’s home.
Monday, June 14, 2004
Paris to Rome
In the morning Dani, Henry and I had breakfast at Paul, a tea house at the mall. It’s one outlet of a bakery established in 1889. The French bread flute and coffee were delicious. After a brief stop at the office to take photos and check email we picked up Linda and headed to the airport. The brasserie lunch we shared with Henry at the airport was really quite good. Then we bid Henry goodbye and headed for Rome. Just to show you that airport security really is protecting you from terrorists (in the interest of political correctness I can’t say crazy arabs) Linda (who had repented of her mini-jihad and stowed the Swiss army knife) was unable to smuggle aboard a pair of plastic children’s scissors (airline approved) which were promptly confiscated and deposited into the receptacle for dangerous-things-confiscated-from-people-in-wheelchairs-and-short-women. By the way, when you’re paying $10 per kilogram for overweight luggage, don’t pack Diet Coke. The flight from Paris to Rome is less than two hours, so we arrived by 6pm. We had arranged for a driver to meet us at the airport with an eight-passenger van — the only thing with enough room for our luggage! Actually we don’t have that much luggage for a month-long trip, but it would overwhelm the small Mercedes they usually use. Because the airport is a ways outside the city and there are no expressways in the city it takes close to an hour to wend your way through the streets into the ancient part of town. I’m always fascinated to see the modern buildings that abut — and in some cases almost swallow — the historic structures. Nothing can be knocked down, but that doesn’t mean you can’t build all the way around it!The Empire Palace Hotel is a pretty nice hotel considering it is offered as part of the Princess Cruises land tour. We’re on our own for two days before the tour actually starts; when I booked the extra days I was surprised to find it was a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World.
Our room is a bit odd, but not unpleasant. It’s shaped like a flag: You enter at the base of the flag pole, turn right and advance twenty feet down a two and a half foot wide hall before it opens out into the living space. The bathroom is rather small, with one of those corner showers with diagonal doors, like in a small cruise ship cabin. There is an emergency cord in the shower, but I can’t imagine what for, since it would be physically impossible to fall down. Perhaps it’s in case of claustrophobia.
Around 9pm we ventured out into the pleasant evening weather and walked a half dozen blocks down a side street until we came upon a small trattoria called Ai Tre Moschettieri, where we had a very pleasant meal. I enjoyed Tagliatelli alla Arrbbietta and Saltambuca Romano. Dani made the best choices, though, Tagliolini Bolanese and grilled shrimp (and rejected squid). When we arrived the place was full of Americans, but by the time we finished we were alone. The service was very friendly, and the owner treated us to some limoncella, that lemon liqueur from Capri. Dani stayed up late playing the new Harry Potter game on her PC.
Tuesday, June 15, 2004
I had an excellent breakfast of bread, croissants and espresso at the hotel restaurant while Dani and Linda slept in. Then we walked to London. No, seriously, we only walked halfway to London. We set out first for the Trevi Fountain. Along the way we stopped at an Internet cafe in the Piazza Barberini, where I caught up on email. The Trevi Fountain is an enormous, elaborate thing, shoe-horned into a tiny piazza and surrounded by tourist vendors. Still, there’s something pleasant about the sound of the water and all the pigeons fluttering about. Legend has it that if you throw a coin into the fountain you will return, and it seemed to work last time. This time Linda and Dani threw in Euros, so I guess they’ll be coming back to the continent. Ever thrifty, I threw in an American penny, so I guess I’m going to Illinois. We continued on in search of a Jesuit church with a fabulous tromp l’oeil ceiling, but missed it (and upon our return discovered it was closed anyway) but found ourselves at the Pantheon, our next destination.
We had a pleasant lunch of pasta and pizza in an outdoor cafe on the square there, then ventured into the enormous structure.
The Pantheon is the best preserved of ancient Rome’s buildings, probably due to the fact that in the sixth century Christians, claiming to be troubled by its demons, converted it to a church. This was better than the sixteenth century approach, when the Christians converted much of ancient Rome into a sort of Home Depot for those needing marble and limestone to build ugly churches. The Pantheon’s several hundred feet of unsupported dome is pretty impressive when you consider it’s constructed of 2000-year-old stone.
We continued our trek, heading east past the “wedding cake”, a monument to Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of united Italy. (There were only five before 1946 when, as a result of losing WWII, Italy became a democracy. ) This was Mussolini’s favorite building, so you can assume it is overblown. Behind the wedding cake lies the Roman Forum, which is currently undergoing some fairly extensive exploration by a lot of archaeology students. It’s a little difficult to picture all the great structures that were once located here, but it looks just like the jigsaw puzzles. We visited the ruins of the temple of the vestal virgins. These girls were selected at age ten to supervise the eternal flame, and it was a pretty good job except that if you forgot to keep it lit you got whipped and if you forgot to keep your virginity you got buried alive. The girls held the position for thirty years, and could then retire. No doubt that’s where we get the expression “life begins at forty. “
Beyond the forum is the Palatine Hill, where Augustus, Rome’s best — and most enduring — emperor lived. We would have explored it, but we were about five miles into our walk at this point, and it was after 3pm, and the Palatine Hill is, after all, a hill.
Turning left we encountered the Coloseum. Well, it had actually been looming over us for some time, but we decided to finally acknowledge it. We purchased a tour from a company called Romaround — which gives you an idea of their sense of humor. Everyone selling the tour was from the US and spoke perfect English, but the guy giving it was Italian. That’s actually not an accident, though, because the law requires a local guide. Anyway, he was very funny, and being on a tour lets you jump the line.
When Dani and I visited the Coloseum three years ago, we could walk across the arena, but now you can’t. Here’s a bit of trivia for you: did you know the word “arena” comes from the Italian word for sand? The floor of the Coloseum was wood, covered with three inches of sand (it’s good at absorbing blood). Under the wood floor were all the cages for the thousands of animals they slaughtered each year. Those Romans really knew how to party.
Speaking of animals, everywhere we looked in the Coloseum we saw cats. What’s up with that? Anyway, Dani enjoyed photographing them sitting on the ruins and licking their butts.
We had intended to catch a cab back to the hotel, but this seemed to be impossible, so we decided — to Dani’s disgust — to hoof it. Hey, it was only halfway across Rome, and we’d already walked about twice that far. Of course, Rome was built on seven hills. . .
On the way back we were passed by some sort of honor guard consisting of twenty horses and a very busy street sweeper. Now that’s efficient. For dinner Dani had room service and Linda and I had a simple meal of Italian cheeses and Chianti Classico by the fountain in the courtyard of the hotel.
Wednesday, June 16, 2004
Dani had a bit of a sore throat this morning and opted to spend the day reading. I had breakfast in the hotel and then walked (yes, amazingly my feet do still function, albeit painfully) down to the Piazza Barberini for some quality Internet time. My June Theme Park Engineering class starts today, so I needed to populate the discussion forums. The going was a bit slow; I thought I’d been clever to select an English keyboard layout since yesterday’s Italian layout led to many corrections. Unfortunately I discovered that even with the English layout, the key assignments were still Italian — double trouble. At lunch time Linda and I walked east, past the Baths of Diocletian and the central train terminal, stopping at at Ristaurante Al Fagianetto (I know what you’re thinking), a cafe near the Mediterraneo Hotel where Dani and I stayed three years ago. After a nice lunch of bruschetta, pasta with porcini mushrooms and pizza, we walked back to the Museo Nationale Romano. This part of the museum was in the Palazzo Massimo. It houses Rome’s largest collection of Roman artifacts, with two floors of statuary and a floor of floors — mosaic floors, that is — mounted to the walls. There were also some very nice frescoes from the house of Julia, daughter of Octavian. I can’t imagine how they move these frescoes intact. One of the most interesting things in the museum was the basement. The entire room is a vault, filled with numismatic displays. Excellent interpretive signs traced the history of coinage from lumps of bronze to the 20th century, with the emphasis on the Roman era. It turns out they were constantly devaluing the currency and reducing the precious metal content, just like modern day politicians.
In the late afternoon we headed back to the hotel for an organizational meeting with our tour director, Larry Bell, who looks just like Sean Connery. We opted out of all the optional excursions for the remaining time in Rome; after all, we’ve already walked halfway to London.
Wednesday, June 16, 2004
After breakfast I carried the laptop down to the Piazza Barberini, where the wireless connection and familiar keyboard turned an hour’s job into ten minutes of work. I was even able to transfer this journal to date over to the web server. Dani is still a bit under the weather. She finished a 591-page book yesterday and is now well into another. It’s her last chance to veg for a few days. Linda and I had lunch at an outdoor cafe, Taverna Flavia, just a block from the hotel. The smoked swordfish was delicious.
A driver and guide picked Linda and I up at the hotel at 1pm for a tour of the Vatican. Our guide, Isabella Roggero, was incredibly knowledgeable. We didn’t ask her a single question she couldn’t answer during the entire afternoon. As a result, out tour of the Vatican Museum was filled with previously unimagined insights into the significance of the various statues and paintings.
Since the popes claimed all of the objects unearthed in Rome until about a hundred years ago, all of the good stuff is in the Vatican: the only surviving gold plated bronze statue, which survived because after being struck by lighting the superstitious Romans buried it; rare dark red marble sarcophagi for the wife and daughter of Constantine, the former unaccountable engraved with pictures of warfare (Isabella said it had originally been intended for Constantine’s father, but maybe he and the wife didn’t get along); Florentine tapestries from the 14th century, clearly superior to the Italian and French ones; and a corridor of maps, once showing the Po river in its old course, far from Venice.
Isabella also provided wonderful interpretation of the Sistine Chapel. In the recent restoration they were able to determine from the plaster marks that Michelangelo worked on it 449 days over a five year period. (Frescos must be painted on wet plaster, so you must mix a fresh batch each day. ) Since Michelangelo had to learn the technique to do the job, you can clearly see the improvement in his designs in the large panels on the ceiling, which improve as you approach the altar. You can also see the tremendous difference in mood between the fanciful ceiling (painted at age 35) and the tormented Last Judgment on the wall behind the altar (painted at age 65). In St. Peter’s we admired the scale of the building (The Sun Bank building in Orlando, 24 stores tall, would easily fit inside the dome), Bernini’s outrageous monuments and canopy, and the recently beatified pope somebody or other, whose waxen smile welcomes everyone strolling past his mummified corpse. Beneath the basilica is the reputed tomb of St. Peter. But Isabella clued us in to the fact that the box everyone is taking photos of doesn’t hold his relics (that’s “bones” to you non-Catholics). It actually contains one of the Pope’s old shirts. St. Peter’s alleged bones are another level down.
Because Isabella was such a fabulous guide, we asked her to spend another hour with us. She took us to the Roman houses beneath the basilica of Ss. Giovanni e Paolo (that’s Mr. John and Paul to you non-Italians). John and Paul were a couple of fourth century Christians who lived in a house that is reputed to be the first Christian church in Rome. When Constantine died, the next emperor, Julian the Apostate, wasn’t a Christian. As a result, John and Paul lost their heads. Literally. They were buried under their house. In the fifth century the current basilica was built on top of the house. The rooms below were used for storage and wine making, and some of the pagan frescoes were painted over. The basement was listed in the Middle Ages’ equivalent of the Zagat Guide to Holy Tourist Spots and lots of pilgrims went to lower their neck chains into the hole over the reputed tombs. Then the whole thing was filled with dirt and forgotten. Later, someone built a well right down through the middle. Then, in 1887, Padre Germano, priest at the church, decided to try to find John and Paul. When he started digging he was amazed to discover the Roman house, adjacent apartment complex and shops, and even an earlier house beneath that. In fact the only thing he didn’t find was John and Paul. Visitors can follow catwalks through the many fascinating levels of the excavations far below the church. The frescoes have been uncovered, and you can walk around the shaft of the well! This is probably the single most interesting site in all of Rome. The adjacent museum holds an amazing array of artifacts from the house and apartments, including fine glassware, plates, coins, statuary and Pokemon cards (just checking if you’re awake).
For dinner we went back to the same trattoria where we had lunch, but Dani wasn’t feeling up to it, so I walked her back to the room. She felt better later, though. As it grew dark — a little past 9pm — Linda and I enjoyed drinks in the courtyard.
Friday, June 18, 2004
Umbria (Orvieto and Todi)
Today we actually joined the tour group. We met in the lobby while we waited for the bags to be collected, which took 30 Italian minutes (an hour and a half). The group is comprised of a wide range of ages, including another girl Dani’s age (13) several other teenagers and even a few middle aged folks, as well as the grandparents who are treating all the teenagers to European tours. The group is entirely Americans, except for two retired South Africans who now live in Chicago. It’s a better traveled (and therefore better behaved) tour group than any I have been with before.
While we waited we swapped stories about travels in Australia, England, France and Italy. We boarded our comfortable tour bus before 10am and driver Simone (pronounce the final ‘e’) headed us north. In less than two hours we found our bus climbing the steep road to Orvieto, a town in Umbria.
Umbria is the only one of Italy’s districts that doesn’t border an ocean or another country. It is rural, with only about 90 people per square mile. We saw corn, olives, tobacco, grapes and many vegetables along the way.
In Orvieto we visited the duomo, a basilica constructed from 1290 to 1590 (these things take time). If you’re keeping score, this was the third church of our trip. It was riveting. Just kidding. The construction of the church was inspired by (I’m not making this up) a miracle in nearby Bolsena, when the consecrated wine actually turned to blood and spilled onto the altar cloth. I hate when that happens.
We had a very nice group lunch in the small Trattoria la Grotta: ziti, a delicate vegetable lasagna, chicken, beans, salad and a wonderful tira misu were accompanied by white wine (Orvieto, of course) and a not-too-sweet spumante (I didn’t know there was such a thing). The bread in this part of Italy is not that great, because it lacks salt. This tradition dates to the building of the Trevi fountain, when a tax was imposed on salt, and the city-states outside Rome refused to pay.
After lunch Linda and Dani pursued the traditional Renaissance activity of trying to get a stuffed toy out of the claw machine in the arcade next to the duomo. No luck.
We did a little shopping. Dani found some nice glass pen and ink sets as gifts, and Linda bought a pair of Etruscan-style earrings.
In 1527 Pope Clement VII commissioned the construction of a huge well, the Pozzo di San Patrizio, to provide Orvieto with water in case the city was attacked. (In those days Italy was comprised of many separate city states that couldn’t get along. . . a lot like today, in fact. )But this well is no ordinary well. This well is a work of art. In case you don’t know your arts from a hole in the ground, let me assure you this is one big hole. It’s 203 feet deep. And there’s no rope. But this pope was no ropeless dope. There are two intertwined staircases, each with 248 steps that spiral down the sides of the well. One for down, the other for up.
Why two staircases, you ask? It’s hard to turn a donkey around on a staircase. And they don’t swim well.
An hour’s drive east from Orvieto brought us to another hilltop town, Todi. The two towns are separated by rolling countryside, farms and a zigzagging River Tiber.
Our hotel, The Bramante, is nestled on a hillside below the town, and is connected to it by a nearby funicular (inclined elevator car). The Bramante was formerly a 12th century convent. What the nuns did with this swimming pool, I have no idea.
Anyway, our room is about twice the size of the one in Rome. It’s a lovely, peaceful spot. funicular funicular
In the evening we took the funicular to the top of the hill and wandered the medieval streets of Todi. It’s a charming little town of 17,000 residents and 18,000 churches. The many gift shops seem reasonably priced. todidinner todidinner Linda found a wonderful trattoria, with a floral bedecked patio overlooking the Umbrian valleys. We had a leisurely dinner as the sun set. The wine was a 2000 Sagrantino di Montefalco by Antonelli, a dark and complex red with which I was not familiar. We took the funicular back to the hotel around 10pm.
Saturday, June 19, 2004
Tuscany (Assisi, Siena and Florence)
The cool breezes wafting across the terrace at the hotel provided a lovely environment for our al fresco breakfast. Then we headed to Assisi, about an hour northeast.
Assisi was the home of St. Francis, founder of the Franciscan order. There a local guide, Maurizio, provided a tour of the basilica (number 4 if you’re keeping count). My “Whisper” radio receiver was on the blink so I can’t comment on the commentary, but Linda and Dani(!) said it was interesting. For me it was among the more boring hours of my life.
To summarize, the church is unusual because it acknowledges not just Catholicism, but also Judaism and Islam, without invoking weapons.
Beneath the church is the crypt, with the tomb of St. Francis. There you can purchase a candle for St. Francis. You pick it up from one box and place it into another. There is a sign that says “Please do not light”. The church has discovered they last much longer this way. Yet another miracle.
Back in the main church, at the shrine of St. Duracell, you may place a coin in a slot and an electric candle will light for a while. Sort of a parking meter for blessings.
Finally we escaped from the church into the courtyard in front of the monk’s quarters, turned around and climbed the steps into — aaargh! — another church, this one the top level of the previous. That’s number 5.
As with the one downstairs, the walls and ceiling had been covered with pictures of flat people painted by perspective-challenged artists. Those by Giotto included just enough perspective to demonstrate how bad he was at it.
Slowly I inched toward the fresh air and natural light beyond the exit, and at last we were released. On the way back to the bus we visited the subbasement of the church where for fifty eurocents we paid homage to the pagan god of white porcelain.
The two-hour drive northwest to Siena gave us time to nap and appreciate the fact that we were not in a church.
Siena is a gothic (13th century) town that was once a powerful city state until it was conquered by the Medici family of Florence, an event the local residents still resent.
We had a rather long walk to the restaurant for lunch and it was hard on quite a few of those in our group. Fortunately the three of us got into training in Rome.
On the way we passed through the Piazza del Campo, an unusually large square where an annual bareback horse race is run. There are no rules, just three times around the square, the winning horse is the first to cross, with or without its rider.
Lunch was different.
Different than good, anyway: antipasti, odd pieces of thick crust pizza with strange coatings, and then a bowl of garbanzo bean soup. Fortunately there was plentiful white, red and dessert wine, perhaps an attempt to make up for the food. The dessert wine was the most interesting, a late harvest Sangiovese.
The restaurant featured 13th century architecture and acoustical treatments (brick).
A local guide met us after lunch and took us on a torturous tour of Siena, which exhausted many of our group. But you’ll never guess what we saw on the tour–Oh. You guessed.
Yes, we visited 183 churches.
The largest church in Siena is the duomo. (I think the Italians have all these different names so you won’t realize that all the buildings are churches. ) Unlike the duomo in Orvieto, which is white and light gray striped, this one has an important difference. It’s white and dark gray striped.
In their competition to “out stripe” the Florentines, the residents of Siena began building an addition to the church that would have converted the existing structure to a mere knave. The Plague put and end to the supply of both workers and congregation, but two walls still stand.
The best church was the one that displayed in an open box (I’m not making this up) the head of St. Catherine of Siena, who apparently didn’t need it after she died in 1380. I wish we had stuff like that at Disney World.
Dani was still hungry after watching us eat lunch. Deciding against communion wafers, she made a fast food run to Siena’s only McDonalds while the rest of us straggled back to the bus. I suspect more than a few people on the bus were jealous of that burger.
It was a very quiet hour and a half bus ride to Florence.
In retrospect, I don’t think visiting Assisi and Siena is a waste of time, but I do think the activities our tour engaged in were pointless and repetitive. I am certain everyone in our group would have preferred a couple of hours in Siena to find lunch on their own and to shop. Unlike the four hilltop towns we’ve just visited, Florence (which is really called Firenze) is located in a valley, and is divided by the Arno river. Much of the town is a typical 20th century European city, due to the beating it took in World War II. Our hotel, the Anglo American, is quite nice. Our room is cool. You enter into a small sitting area with built-in desk and cabinets, and a love seat that makes into a twin bed. There is also a fair-sized bathroom. Along one wall are open stairs — no railing — that go to a loft with two more twin beds and a large bathroom. (All of the bathrooms we’ve had have included bidets, but this is the first time I’ve encountered little bottles of “intimate cleanser”. The ingredients are identical to the shampoo. Hmmm. ) We walked along the Arno River about six blocks to Harry’s American Bar and Grill for dinner. It’s not the dark, wood-paneled, intimate space in the ad, but rather a bright, noisy place. I wouldn’t say it’s really American, but it’s not really Italian either. The service was formal, reminding me of continental restaurants from the 1950s. One of the reasons we decided to try Harry’s was that our guide Larry warned us the place was expensive, and we wanted to see what a $34 hamburger looks like.
Maybe it’s just that after Arpège nothing will ever seem expensive, but it didn’t seem all that bad. The hamburger was only 19 Euros. . . and the fries another eight. . . hmmm, let’s see. . . that makes. . . $34.
Anyway, I had smoked trout and an Entrecote that was excellent. Linda had — I’m not kidding — pasta. The wine, a 1999 “super Tuscan” by Collazzi, was superb.
Sunday, June 20, 2004
Sunday was a beautiful, blustery day, with cool breezes to offset the heat of the sun. It rained a few minutes during breakfast, then the wind pushed the clouds east.
Florence is marvelously walkable. Although the city is large, the central area is only about a half mile square.
Today was a church-free day.
We wound our way through the twisty streets to the Piazza di Signoria, stopping along the way for some shopping in an outdoor bazaar. Many shops were open even though it’s Sunday.
At the bazaar we recognized a bronze statue of a boar. There is a copy of it at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress in Orlando. Legend has it that if you rub its snout for good luck. . . the snout will stay shiny.
In the Piazza we admired the scaffolding that surrounds a copy of Michelangelo’s David. (This is where it originally stood, prior to being moved into a museum for safekeeping during the 1880s.) More impressive was Cellini’s bronze of Perseus Beheading Medusa, which stood opposite. What they say about the medusa must be true, because all of the figures around it were stone. There was also Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women, but they hadn’t gotten to the raping yet.
We skipped the lines at the Palazzo Vecchio and Uffizi art museums (sort of Italy’s version of the Louvre) and instead focused on what Florence is really all about: shopping.
Dani bought a leather bound journal and wax seal with her initials, and a few gifts. florencepontececchio florencepontececchio The place to buy jewelry — at least the place for tourists to buy jewelry — is in the shops that line the Ponte Vecchio. This bridge, the only one to survive the German demolition teams as they retreated during WWII, used to be the location of the butchers and tanners. But the smell was so bad in the 1500s the ruling families kicked them out, and the jewelers moved in. Across the upper level of the Ponte Vecchio is a causeway the Medicis used to get from one palace to another without having to mix with the peons. Untended by the Germans during the war, it became a route for the resistance to cross the lines with plans of their artillery placements.
We had lunch at Ristorante Dei Bardi, a wine bar with a spectacular view of the river and the Ponte Vecchio. Wine, cheese, salads, fish, meats, pastas, bread, fruits and coffee — a typical two-hour Italian lunch. On our way back across the bridge Dani bought a Roman coin of Constantine I, mounted in a pendant. Linda bought a chain for Dani to hang it on, and another chain for herself. (I gave Dani her allowance and trip money on a prepaid Visa card. She has been enjoying the novelty of paying with plastic. )We assembled in the lobby at 7pm and a fleet of taxis drove our group across town to Tavernetta Della Signoria for our farewell dinner. The company was good; we enjoyed hearing everyone’s travel stories. Larry, our guide, has had an interesting life, raising a family while working for the US foreign service in Morocco and Paris, and now traveling the world hosting different tours almost every week.
After dinner I decided to walk back to the hotel by myself so I could take some photos of Florence at night. The moon was out and it was a glorious evening along the Arno, with the sky still fading to indigo at 10pm.
Monday, June 21, 2004
Florence to Venice
The Eurostar Train pulled out of Firenze Station at 8:50am for our three-hour eastward trip across Italy to Venice. This is the final leg of our land tour.
In Venice (it’s really called Venezia) we went straight to the ship, and were onboard by 12:30. Our suite is on the stern of the ship, so we have nearly a 180 degree view, guaranteeing we can see the port city no matter which side is used to dock. We can see Epcot’s — er, I mean St. Mark’s — tower from the ship.
Our cabin layout is virtually identical to that we had last year in Alaska, except mirrored. There is a sitting are with a convertible sofa, and a bedroom area with a queen bed. Both sides have built in desks and drawers so Dani and I can leave our computers set up. There is also a bar, walk-in closet and a divided bathroom.
Our cabin stewardess, Nicole, is the best we have had. She and her husband have been aboard for eight months, and this is their next to last voyage. During that time the Star Princess has been all around the world.
Nicole clued us in to a few features of the suite we weren’t suspecting: free laundry, dry cleaning and Internet access (although unfortunately no wireless access. )
We spent the afternoon exploring the ship and doing. . . well, nothing. It felt great. Then we had a pleasant dinner in one of the ship’s dining rooms and hit the sack.
Tuesday, June 22, 2004
We were up early for our morning tour of Venice. It began with a motor launch that took us through the lagoon to the Grand Canal where we went on a 40-minute gondola ride in the canals. Often people describe things as unique, but usually it isn’t really true. Venice surprised me. It really is unique. There are no cars, not motor bikes, not even any bicycles in the city. The streets are few, and they arbitrarily narrow to only a few feet wide, because there is no need to accommodate anything larger than a person. The city is actually a network of 118 islands separated by 150 canals and connected by 400 bridges. Most of the canals have no sidewalks, so it really is almost impossible to get around without using a boat. The cheapest form of transportation is a water bus, at about one Euro. The most expensive is a private water taxi, which costs 70 Euros(!) to go from one side of the city to the other, a distance of only a few kilometers. The tide seems to run only a few feet, but it appears to get dangerously close to the ground floor of most buildings. It’s a very harsh environment for construction. I was amazed at the amount of traffic on the canals: not just tourist gondolas, but launches delivering vegetables and supplies, construction and baggage handling boats, even garbage collection boats.
It was rush hour Venetian style.
Our next stop was Morano, a collection of islands a few kilometers away, where glass has been made since the 12th century. We watched a demonstration of a decorative carafe being made. It was impressive, but not the delicate ballet of four glassmakers we watched at the Hedeland Glassworks in Sweden.
The shop upstairs was ridiculously priced — a set of six goblets was 1600 Euros — but we bought a few decorative trinkets downstairs. stmarks1 stmarks1 The final stop on our tour was a church, but we escaped and caught a water bus across the lagoon to St. Marks square.
It’s a lot bigger than the Epcot version — and a lot more crowded.
We explored the side streets and canals for a while, looking for a restaurant that wasn’t a tourist trap. Finally Linda saw one that looked fairly traditional, and we went in and sat down. . .
. . . only to discover the ceiling of the room was decorated as a cave! The food was actually pretty good, and a carafe of wine was less than four Euros.
After lunch we walked back to St. Mark’s Square and had great fun feeding the zillions of pigeons.
The Star Princess left port at 6:30. We watched from our aft balcony as a tugboat wrestled against the ship’s engines, rotating it to squeeze through the lagoon and into the Adriatic.
Wednesday, June 23, 2004
Today we did nothing. It was nice. Actually, Dani and I spent a couple of hours painting ceramic boxes. They don’t have a studio here like they did on the Coral Princess, but they do have a cart up on the pool deck, with the same selection of bisque and glazes. We’ll decorate our boxes with scenes from the trip, just like we did last year in Alaska. Then we did nothing. We discovered that having the cabin on the rear of the ship has a disadvantage: the white noise created by the wake is really quite loud. The balcony is fine for reading, but conversation is a challenge. It was formal evening, so we dressed in our best and headed for the Promenade Lounge, where Dani, Linda, Dani, Steve and Dani shared some caviar.
Sabatini’s is one of two restaurants that have a small cover charge in exchange for finer dining. We had dined at Sabatini’s on the Coral Princess, so we knew we should only have a bite of the first dozen things we were served! They weren’t exactly courses, since the waiters only replace the plate after every half dozen items or so, but we were served food 28 separate times! Even being careful, it was still impossible to do justice to the cold water lobster when the entrees finally arrived. The wine was an excellent 2000 Amarone.
Thursday, June 24, 2004
More ceramics in the morning, then more nothing. I wish I had a dollar for every Dan Brown book on this ship. I guess Dan Brown does. While she was sick in Rome Dani read the DaVinci Code and Digital Fortress (plus three other books that didn’t earn Dan Brown and money). Linda brought Deception Point and I forgot Angels and Demons, but found it in the ship’s store. So Dani is reading that now. I must have seen a hundred other copies of those books around the ship today.
Dinner was at Tequila’s/Sterling Steak House, the other cover charge restaurant on the ship. Originally I suspect they were trying for a Mexican-themed steak house, but the only remnant of Mexico was the decor. The steaks were excellent, the service a bit clueless, and the band truly horrible. It’s difficult to say which rendition was worse, Spanish Eyes or Horse With No Name, but the fact they were both in the same set gives some suggestion of the band’s awfulness.
Friday, June 25, 2004
The ship docked at the town of Kusadasi (Coo-SHA-duh-see) while we were having breakfast on our balcony. The town has grown from a sleepy fishing village to a large resort area over the past 30 years. Before the war in Iraq there were as many as eleven cruise ships in the harbor at once. Today we were the only one. A security boat circled our ship all day, staying between us and any small boats that passed. Despite this precaution, Kusadasi seemed like a very clean and safe — if annoying — town. It’s been a long time since I was in a place where every shop keeper tried to drag me into his store full of tourist crap, but it only took me a few minutes to remember why it had been so long.
Fortunately our bus departed almost immediately for Ephesus, a Greco-Roman city about 25 minutes outside Kusadasi. By the way, did you know that Turkey is actually spelled Turkiye (with some funny little marks I can’t make) and is pronounced tur-KAY-uh?Although GWB is working hard to turn the Turks into enemies, the Muslim influence in Turkey is somewhat muted. (Istanbul was originally on this cruise but was removed in February. Just as well — they’re rioting against Americans there this week. ) A statue of Ataturk, founder of Turkey, stands on the hill above Kusadasi even though graven images are a violation of Islam.
Ephesus was founded in the fourth century BC by the Greeks. In the second city BC the Romans moved in. At its peak there were a quarter million residents. It was a very rich town because of its excellent harbor for traders and the nearby Temple of Artemis (several times larger than the Parthenon) which brought many pilgrims. The traders and pilgrims brought money. The streets of Ephesus were paved in marble. Every house had indoor plumbing. There were toilets with running water, sewers with manhole covers, even a marble bed heated by hot water pipes. The library had double insulated walls and cubbies to store 12,000 scrolls.
A small theater — still in use by performers like Elton John and Ray Charles — seats 1400. A larger stadium seated 37,000. (I suppose Elton was once popular enough to fill the larger stadium, but it’s a crumbling ruin. . . a bit like Elton, in fact. )
By the fifth century AD Ephesus was in decline. The harbor filled with silt, leaving the city two miles from the sea. The Romans, now officially Christian, no longer made pilgrimages to the temple. Earthquakes finished the job. Ephesus lay undisturbed until the late 1800s. Even today, only 10% of the site has been excavated. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable, and also funny.
We were truly impressed by what a beautiful city Ephesus once was. While not preserved like Pompeii, it was easy to glimpse its former glory.
Back in town we were ushered into a carpet salesroom for an almost exact replay of our carpet salesroom experience in Morocco over twenty years ago. They’re cheaper at Home Depot. The carpets are woven by girls belonging to nomadic Turks, who comprise about 8% of the population. They take about a year each to weave, and comprise the girls’ dowries. Many of the carpets contained repeating symbols of five squares, symbolizing the number of times a day that Muslims pray. (According to the salesman, good Muslims pray five times a day, bad Muslims sell rugs in Kusadasi. ) A little hot apple cider, a pita, and many carpets later we escaped with wallet intact. (It’s traditional for salespeople to give you apple drinks and food. Selling through guilt. Hmmm. . . I wonder if that would work for Alcorn McBride. . . )
I wrestled my way through the salesmen back to the ship; Linda and Dani stayed to shop. Later they returned with two rugs about the size of cat boxes. (Past experience suggests this is an apt comparison. ) They had a pleasant lunch on the pier, where the local cats were enthusiastic about the shrimp and lamb kebabs, but weren’t allowed to use the rugs.
We went up to deck 17 and watched the 360 degree view of the ship leaving Kusadasi harbor, then Linda and I snuck down to the Promenade Lounge for some caviar without Dani.
Saturday, June 26, 2004
We docked in Piraeus, Athen’s very busy harbor, a 6:00 am, and were boarding a coach for the Acropolis a little after 7:00 am. It was worth getting up so early, because we were one of the first groups to reach the hill, and it was uncrowded and not yet hot. Both conditions would change within an hour. It’s quite a climb to the top, but we were in good shape after our training in Rome. The weather was pretty hazy, and so was our guide. Actually Angelica knew her subject, she just wasn’t very interesting. I’ll try to be more exciting.
The Parthenon was constructed by the Greeks, and is only one of a number of temples on the Acropolis. In addition to its use by the Greeks and Romans, it was also at one point converted to a Turkish mosque — complete with minaret. The reigning Turk kept his harem in a nearby temple named — I’m not making this up — the Erectheon.
The Parthenon was in fairly good shape until the Turks decided to store ammunition in it, and it was bombarded by enemy artillery until the obvious conclusion was reached. Today it has been 45% reassembled using 85% percent original parts. The rest of the original parts (all the good stuff) are in the British Museum. Like everything else in Athens, the Greeks have decided to spruce it up for the Olympics (which start in a month) by surrounding it with scaffolding.
Like everything else in Athens it won’t be ready for the Olympics. Actually, the Olympic venues we saw appeared to be ready — if you don’t think landscaping, parking and infrastructure are particularly important. The major challenge of these Olympic games will be simply getting to them. The problem is that after WWII Athens was a town of 800,000, but within 15 years the population had grown to more than 3 million. Plenty of buildings were constructed — which is why Athens looks like a modern city. (Here’s a bit of trivia: 92% of Greeks own their residence, the highest rate in Europe, perhaps anywhere. ) But no highways or other infrastructure were constructed to go along with all those buildings. As a result traffic on the twisty little streets is terrible.
Fortunately, we were in Athens on a Saturday, so we only had to contend with the weekend traffic as we left town and headed for Corinth, a little over an hour west. Along the way we stopped at a French beach resort for a buffet lunch that was quite tasty, but of no discernible nationality. (I use the term “beach” loosely. I wonder if the brochures mention it’s 100% gravel. )
Ancient Corinth was located on the isthmus that connects the Peloponnesus Peninsula to the Greek mainland. It was originally a Greek, then a Roman city. The agora — shopping and meeting area — have been excavated down to the Roman level.
We enjoyed exploring the site because unlike at Ephesus we could wander among the ruins. Dani and I climbed down into the underground tunnels that connect a distant spring to the city’s fountains and water supply. The system still works. It was 90 degrees, and the sun felt like a radiant heater, so we tried to keep to the shade. Linda and a few others even carried parasols.
On the way back we stopped at the Corinth Canal, dug by the British in the late 19th century. The 4-mile-long, 250-foot-high canal eliminated the several hundred mile trip around the Peloponnesus. Unfortunately, at only 75 feet wide and 25 feet deep it almost immediately became useless for modern commercial shipping.
Sunday, June 27, 2004
Champagne breakfast on the balcony. Sometimes the ship’s passage brings school of small fish to the surface. They dart through the light blue wake as greedy seagulls swoop down, trying for an easy snack. Once we saw a good sized fish leap four or five feet in the air, perhaps chasing an unseen insect. Over and over he soared, until we left him far behind. At 8 pm we squeezed through the Strait of Messina, where Italy’s toe almost touches Sicily.
It was the second formal night, and we dined in Sabatini’s.
Monday, June 28, 2004
Naples (Pompeii, Sorrento, Capri)
It’s a shame that Pompeii, Sorrento and Capri are all near Naples (which is really called Napoli). It’s just too much to do in one day, particularly when it’s 95 degrees. Fortunately our tour was in the reverse order from when Dani and I visited three years ago, and we were able to see Pompeii before it got really hot. Our first stop was at a cameo factory near Herculaneum. It was a bit of a tourist trap, but soon we were on our way to Pompeii.
Our guide, Enzo, was much better than the previous one, and gave us some real insights into everyday life in Pompeii. Of all the archaeological sites, it’s definitely the best. It’s frozen at 2pm, August 24th, 79AD when Vesuvius erupted, burying 2000 of its 20,000 residents in 30 feet of ash.
Unlike our previous tour, this one wasn’t the erotic tour of Pompeii. But although we skipped the house of Vetti and the whorehouses, it was still hard to overlook the thousands of phalluses (phalli?) that sprout from almost every wall. We also found a special barstool for Linda.
Down the coast about 20 miles (and through two very long tunnels under the mountains) is Sorrento, a city that Dani and I only passed through. This time we had a nice lunch at Villa Rubinacci and did a little shopping along the Corsa Italia before climbing the steep stairs down to the jet boat dock. The Corsa Italia is the only north/south route out of Naples. It’s about 30 feet wide (enough space for two lanes of traffic or about 1500 scooters). When you consider there are 3 million people living on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius — still a very active volcano — it’s pretty scary.
In twenty minutes we were on Capri. Up until this point we had been in a group of 44 people, but we suddenly found ourselves dumped together with about 400 other people from the Star Princess, all trying to take the funicular from the harbor up to the town. We were all packed into a super-heated loading area for an interminable wait. Finally at the top of the funicular we emerged into. . . a tourist trap of a square filled with 400 Star Princess passengers. This wasn’t at all like Dani’s and my previous trip to Capri. Depressed, we wandered around for about a half hour before we found a path leading to the back side of the island, and the Garden of Augustus.
The view was fantastic. This was the idyllic Capri we remembered. In retrospect, the last time we took a wild bus ride to the very top of the island, where things are much less commercial.
After another torture session we took the funicular back down and caught the jet boat directly back to the ship. Even after showers all the way around Linda was still hot and tired, so Dani and I went to dinner on our own while she ordered room service.
Tuesday, June 29, 2004
It was strange wandering around a deserted cruise ship today, as nearly all of the passengers left early for the long trip to Rome. The girls just wanted to veg today, so I took an early shuttle down the long pier and into the port city of Civitavecchia. On the way I passed the stone fort at the harbor entrance, with still visible WWII bombardment damage. The city is a place where people — mostly maritime industry employees and their families — actually live, not a tourist trap. It took less than an hour to walk the grid of the commercial district, with its collection of clothing and appliance stores. There were many people out walking, but few tourists. At the end of an alley I spied a crowd and went to investigate. I found myself in an open-air market: more than a full city block of stalls selling fruits, vegetables, meats, clothing, and an assortment of flea market merchandise. People were rather dressed up for market day. The older women in particular wore dresses with fancy beaded necklaces or colorful scarves. They haggled over the prices, then loaded their purchases into baby strollers or pushcarts and moved on to the next stall.
My only purchase was a fairly hard-sided suitcase, for 20 Euros, to transport some of our more fragile acquisitions. Then I headed back to the ship, before the day began to heat up.
Wednesday, June 30, 2004
Imagine having a guide who despised the place she’s guiding you to. That was Viola. Apparently there is a longstanding rivalry between Livorno and Pisa. We boarded our bus in the port of Livorno and were greeted by local resident Viola, who quickly admitted she hates Pisa. During the 30-minute drive she delivered a litany of everything that was wrong with the place. This was particularly remarkable, considering that Livorno — at least the industrial area where the ship docked — is slightly less appealing than the anus of a dead goat. So it was with considerable skepticism that we approached the “miracle square” of Pisa, with its duomo (yes, another church), baptistery (a church in disguise) and leaning tower (a church bell tower).
As it turned out, even Dani and I had to admit that the church was the most beautiful we’ve seen on this trip, both inside and out.
And the baptistery possesses incredible acoustics, designed for Gregorian chanting. Any sound reverberates for perhaps half a minute, as demonstrated periodically by one of the female guards, who delivered a two minute performance that was quite remarkable. Linda and Dani climbed the 243 steps sandwiched between the inner and outer domes, all the way to the top.
The tower is open to the public again, after an 11-year effort to straighten it from a 5. 5 degree tilt back to a 5 degree angle, removing about 200 years of settling. This was accomplished by carefully digging underneath the high side. Forty brave people are allowed to climb the hollow cylinder each half hour, but insurance is not included.
I knew they had made some adjustments during the 100-year construction of the tower, but I never realized they had resulted in it being slightly banana shaped. If you look carefully at the photo you can see that it actually curves back toward the duomo.
Even though it was hot, it was definitely worth the trip to Pisa. Still, we were happy to return to the ship, even if it was stuck in the rear end of a goat.
Dani and I headed for the sun deck for hotdogs, iced mochaccinos and a dip in the pool while Linda took a nap. montecarlo montecarlo
Thursday, July 1, 2004
Monte Carlo, Monaco
The city of Monte Carlo is essentially the same thing as the country of Monaco, since the entire country is less than one square mile. It’s a cluster of mostly 1960s high rises pressed against the steep mountains on the coast between France and Italy.
The Star Princess is bigger than the entire harbor, so we moored off the coast and took tenders to the dock.
The city isn’t really oriented toward cruise ships. Instead the marina caters to multimillion dollar yachts. The shops along the pier are an eclectic collection of art galleries, upscale brasseries and boat maintenance businesses. The only gift shop was closed from noon to 2:30 pm, the majority of the time the ship was in port.
We had a delicious lunch at Quai Des Artistes. It was nice to find some true French cooking after two weeks of Italian and cruise ship cuisine.
After lunch Dani and I spent only a few minutes walking around before deciding to head back to the ship. Linda went on a tour of the casino made famous in many James Bond movies.
Friday, July 2, 2004
At Sea / Barcelona
It’s a long way from Monte Carlo to Barcelona, so the ship doesn’t arrive until noon. There was a 25 knot wind during the night, which made for a bit of a wild ride; I was glad I was lying down!We have sailed 2593 nautical miles since leaving Venice.
Most of the passengers left the ship for shore excursions, but since we have two more days in Barcelona we stayed aboard and had the ship to ourselves for a leisurely day, much of it spent fitting all our stuff back into the luggage.
Saturday, July 3, 2004
Barcelona is a beautiful city. Rarely have my expectations been so completely wrong. I had envisioned a sleepy, dusty old town. Instead it is a vibrant, clean metropolis. We purchased a two-day pass for the tourist buses that continuously circle the city. These double-decker busses are open on top. You can hop on and off at any stop, listen to the commentary in eight languages, or simply enjoy the sun, the wind, and the occasional tree branch in the face. Barcelona offers a dazzling mixture of modern, traditional and truly fanciful architecture. Most impressive are the many buildings by the architect Gaudi, whose organic structures fascinate the eye and impart a playfulness to the entire city.
His cathedral, the Temple de la Sagrada Familia, which is about halfway through a 200-year construction project, is simultaneously beautiful and creepy. Currently at 100 meters, when its twelve towers are complete it will reach 170 meters The towers are hollow parabolas, designed to enhance the sound of the bells to be hung in them. Taking the recommendation of one of the hotel receptionists, we dined at a restaurant on the Passeig de Gracia called Tapa Tapa. Not surprisingly, it was a tapas restaurant. It was also delicious. We had many, many courses, most of them only about $3. Ordering was simple because the hundred or so selections were pictured on the placemats. This was a good thing, because the descriptions were in the local language, Catalan, something across between French and Spanish that took considerable deciphering.
Catalonia is the eastern corner of Spain. With a population of 6 million, it is one of the most densely populated areas in Europe. Its major city, Barcelona, is one of the most important ports on the Mediterranean. It is a center for art, finance and commerce.
After lunch we waddled up the block to a book store where Dani added to her Harry Potter collection with editions in Spanish and Catalan.
The five star Grand Marina Hotel is easily the nicest of our trip. The ultra modern building is circular, and sits on a cruise ship pier in the marina. Our room is huge, with an expansive bathroom and hi-tech shower separated by futuristic sliding glass panels. Every surface is covered in rare wood or marble.
There is a fantastic guide book in our room, even though it’s one of those hard cover advertising books you find in all hotel rooms. It’s filled with maps and useful information, arranged in order, and even lists non-advertisers. It weighs about 20 pounds and costs $85.
The book describes a night on the town: dinner followed by a night club. Night clubs open around 12:30 am and some go to 6 am. Then you can go for a stroll, and still have breakfast as late as noon. (Presumably one then sleeps. )
After a siesta we went in search of an early (for Spaniards) dinner at 10 pm. We walked to the marina and had seafood at El Chipiron Monchos. Linda and I shared a passable paella. Dani ordered spiny lobster, but her plans changed when the intended victim showed up at the table writhing indignantly.
Since evening is the central point of the day here anyway, we’re trying to get on a later schedule in preparation for our afternoon flight home on Monday. So now bedtime is 1 am.
Sunday, July 4, 2004
Happy 4th of July!
It was a beautiful day in Barcelona and we made good use of it. I started the morning catching up on email and uploading my journal in the hotel’s business center, which is really just a corner of the lovely piano bar on the first floor.
Sunday breakfast was popular, and the patrons spilled out of the adjacent restaurant into the hotel’s courtyard. It was close to 11 am by the time I finished uploading (while listening to piano music and leafing through a beautiful book about Dali). I hurried up to the room afraid that Linda and Dani would wonder where I’d gone, and found them. . . still asleep! Spanish time, indeed.
Eventually we made our way to the historical center of the city and strolled down the Rambla de Santa Monica, admiring the many booths of jewelry, pets (including chipmunks), postcards, and souvenirs. There were also street performers, including a horrible Mickey Mouse and two ratty Pooh Bears. And mimes. Always the damn mimes.
Soon we found ourselves on Paseig de Gracia. Since it was now lunch time — 1 pm, early for the locals, but hey — we decided to have lunch in Citrus Restaurantus, one flight above where we ate yesterday. This meal was more Mediterranean than tapas, but it was nice.
After lunch we crossed the street to admire Gaudi’s organic Casa Battlo. Truly beautiful.
We caught the tourist bus and took it past the Temple del al Sagrada Familia (no visible progress since yesterday) to Parc Guell, where we found Gaudi’s house and a lot of other wild architecture. (It was a long steep walk up to the park, but we’ve been in training. )
The central plaza of the park is supported by 84 Doric columns, the outer ones canted inward. There is also a winding portico supported by strange organic pillars covered with lava rock. Everywhere there are mosaics.
Next we caught the tourist bus and took it to a shopping area on the aptly named Avinguda Diagonal, which cuts diagonally across the entire city. We were looking for a shop Dani wanted to visit: Chocolat Factory. It lived up to its billing chocolate-wise, even if it wasn’t a factory. Nothing like 77% cocoa to bring a smile.
We rehydrated at an outdoor cafe as the sun set behind the buildings, then caught the tourist bus back to the hotel to clean up and relax before dinner.
Tired, we selected the restaurant on the first floor of the hotel, which proved to be a good choice. It was quiet, intimate and sophisticated, and since it wasn’t yet 10 pm there weren’t many other customers. We had their seven-course tasting dinner which was pretty adventurous, with giant sardines, grape soup, turbot, suckling pig, and two different desserts. The most interesting thing was the chocolates they served afterwards, which seemed to contain something like ground up Pop Rocks. Weird.
Monday, July 5, 2004
Barcelona to Orlando
The Barcelona airport is bursting with colorful shops and cafes. It was so nice we would have been happy to browse, but after a short wait in the Air France lounge we boarded our Delta flight for Atlanta, and connection to Orlando.
It was a great trip — perhaps a week too long, as (some of us) missed our pets — but full of interesting places and fun experiences, and we enjoyed each other’s company throughout.
Some Tips for Next Time
When booking a cabin, check the exterior view of the ship in that area. Our balcony was substantially blocked by a support member. The suite next to ours was not.
Avoid aft cabins. The wake is noisy.
The Star Princess and other ships in its class are not as well designed as the slightly smaller Coral Princess. The elevators don’t cooperate well with one another and dining and shopping access is all in one spot.
While most of the service on the Star Princess was excellent, the room service was, to be kind, incompetent.
Also, the attempt to emulate NCL’s “Freestyle Dining” with flexible seating in the dining room simply doesn’t work well, with long waits at popular times. The smaller and newer Coral Princess didn’t have this problem.
Don’t try to do Pompeii and Capri in the same day; select one. And don’t take the funicular in Capri, take a taxi to the very top.
The people who visited Pompeii and the farm in Sorrento really liked that tour.