Europe 2006

Monaco, Spain, Portugal, France, England

Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Orlando to London

It was an easy trip. We took off about half and hour late for unexplained reasons, so arrived about the same amount late, shortly after 7am London time. The “premium economy” cabin on Virgin Atlantic was spacious. It occupied the top deck of a 747, with only two-and-two seating, plus a wide center aisle and side storage bins (since the overhead bins were small). There was lots of legroom, but the seat was narrow and the hardness of a church pew. Worth twice economy? Hmmm. . . that’s a close call. Which I suppose means they’ve priced it just right, from a business standpoint. I did get a few hours restless sleep, between trying to find new positions for my tailbone. I’m not sure Dani did. Alcohol flowed freely. These Brits like their booze. The food was also tasty, with beef stew turning out to be pot roast in barbecue sauce. No mistaking it for Air France, though. The lack of a connection and quickness of the flight were certainly selling points.

Immigration was slow. Our plane only had a dozen or two Americans. The English breezed through, while we got stuck in the midst of two planeloads from Ghana. As we waited in line we discovered we were next to a family with a seventh grade son in Trinity Prep!

Thursday, June 8, 2006


The Renaissance Gatwick is a good choice for the stopover. It’s next to the airport, has spacious rooms (by Europeans standards) and they let us have the first room that got cleaned, so we were able to get settled after only a half hour wait in the lobby. We were napping by 9:30am.

When we awoke we hooked up our Gordian knot of electrical cords to get everything recharged. In the afternoon we had a room service lunch of fish & chips and cottage pie. English food is amazing. It’s the only place in the world where they brag about your meal coming with “mushy peas”. The fish was actually decent, if greasy. There’s a bit of sticker shock here, though, as the exchange rate is $2 to one pound. So lunch was about $70.

Tomorrow’s flight leaves at 7am, so I arranged for the shuttle at 4:45am (ouch)! I guess there’s no point in even trying to get on local schedule quite yet. Our goal is just to get plenty of sleep and then hit the road again.

Friday, June 9, 2006

Monte Carlo

We arrived in the lobby at 4:46 for our 4:45 shuttle and discovered it had left. But the 5:15 shuttle got us to the airport in time — thanks to kiosk check-in — to have a pretty awful bagel while waiting for our gate to be assigned. The bagel was nothing compared to the almost indescribable snack served on British Airways, which was rendered all the more appalling because I suspect it turned out exactly as intended. Picture a stale dinner role with a slice of hard-boiled egg and a fragment of half-cooked bacon, and you’ve got the picture.

Air transit has suddenly become competitive in Europe, and even British Airways has been forced to drop their prices. A table in the flight magazine compared the rates from 1996 with this year: London to Nice – 239 pounds vs. 39 pounds.

The approach into Nice was beautiful, with clear, temperate weather to enjoy the view: golden beaches and Mediterranean villas, dotting the San Diego-like coastline.

Quite a few of our fellow passengers arrived on the same flight or about the same time; a whole herd of them were loaded onto buses. Since we didn’t book our airfare through the cruise line, I’d asked our travel agent to arrange a private van. This worked out well, as Dani enjoyed testing her two years of French on our driver, her first opportunity to try communicating in the real world. It seemed quite successful.

The trip from Nice to Monaco takes about thirty minutes. The road crosses several long viaducts and passes through a dozen or two tunnels, the last of which is nearly one mile long. After winding through one final French village, we arrived in Monaco, a country comprised of one bay, filled from edge to edge with the city of Monte Carlo. We threaded our way past the famous casino and fancy hotels on a narrow street still lined with barriers from the grand prix, held two weeks ago. By 11:30 we arrived at the Hotel Meridien, where a continental breakfast was provided during our two-hour wait for transport to the ship.

Since there’s no terminal in Monte Carlo, check-in was on-board. Everything went speedily — possibly because of the total absence of any security screening — and we were soon in our cabin. It’s the farthest cabin toward the stern on deck seven, so there’s some engine vibration, but this was the price we paid (or didn’t pay) for not having a pre-assigned cabin. At a savings of $1800, it was a good decision.

The cabin is pretty much the lowest category on the ship, yet it’s as nice as almost any we’ve had: a bit larger than category AC on Royal Caribbean, and outfitted in the same quality as that ship’s suites. In fact, the vast majority of cabins on this ship are identical to this one, and some of the suites have no more square footage, so this is an excellent buy.

Our cabin stewardess is a Pilipino (of course!) named Priscilla. She’s very cheerful and super efficient. Throughout the cruise she would anticipate our needs and adapt her housekeeping to the way we used the cabin. She certainly wasn’t unique, though. During any walk down the hall we were likely to be engaged in conversation with several stewardesses. It’s a surprising result of the no-tipping policy, that every employee has a stake in every passenger enjoying their entire cruise. The ship carries 700-odd (well, actually “old”) passengers, but doesn’t seem tremendously smaller than the Coral Princess. Service is extremely polite, interesting since there’s no tipping. We had a salad and burger for a late lunch on the pool deck, and the food seems typical.

Wireless Internet in the cabin seems solid, although the actual connection to the internet is iffy, so we’ll see how this goes. . .

We thought lifeboat drill would be more pleasant than usual because our muster station is the upscale Signature restaurant, but after gathering there we had to march outside single file with our hands on each others’ shoulders to our lifeboat stations. Princess and NCL seem to feel this step is unnecessary. I wonder if our captain is a pessimist.

Dani got a much needed — although unintended — nap, and then we we had dinner in The Compass Rose, the ship’s main dining room. An oddity of this ship is that all the dining areas close at 9am, so the only food available after that is from room service.

The dining room was very busy, but we were cheerfully greeted and offered our choice of several nice tables. The menu degustation was a multi course affair consisting of a shellfish assortment, consume, mussels, intermezzo, chicken cordon bleu, and dessert. The food all looked spectacular, but its taste was, in general, typical of cruise ship food — nothing spectacular. The standout was actually the Kahlua sorbet served as the intermezzo. For dessert I had a cheese plate which has some nice cheeses including L’explorateur and Maytag blue, although they were much too cold to really taste. I’m not sure why this was the case, as on subsequent night a real cheese cart was available, with room temperature selections that changed each day.

Service was beyond excellent — this continued to be the case throughout the cruise — and the wines that accompanied dinner were very nice, including an interesting South African sauvignon blanc and a superb California pinot noir from Alapay.

Dani took a break in the middle of dinner to attend the organizational meeting for teens. She reported that there are about fifty kids on board, including many seasoned 13-year-old travelers, but almost no one 14-17.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

At Sea

We slept late, but I awoke in time to shower and dress before our 9:30 room service breakfast arrived. It’s temperate but overcast today, a pleasant day for sitting on the balcony and watching the waves, or working on my new writing class.

In the afternoon we walked around the ship. All of the public areas are on decks 4, 5 and 11, which is similar to the design of the newer Princess ships such as the Coral Princess. Although the ship is scaled down from that size, it stills seems fairly large, and since there are only 700 passengers, it feels deserted. Perhaps it was deserted — everyone we saw was younger than 60, which is not representative of the demographics in the dining room last night.

The fit and finish are certainly better than any other ship I’ve been on, with tasteful decorating and top notch materials. It doesn’t handle that well in rough water, though, and even today’s swells had us weaving in the corridors.

There are some very nice spaces on the ship, including a piano bar, coffee and espresso bar, and a cigar room. All but the coffee bar were deserted this afternoon.

We ordered a late room service lunch and ate on our balcony. Delivery was prompt and the food quality was as good as if we’d gone to the dining room.

I had been meaning to have some pants taken in before the cruise, but didn’t have time. The onboard tailor did a top notch job in less than 24 hours, and at a bargain price.

At 8:30 we dined at Signatures, the ship’s top restaurant, which is operated by The Cordon Bleu. Dani looked lovely in one of her new outfits. In general the passengers were better dressed than on other ships’ formal nights, although there were not that many tuxes.

The food was certainly better than on other ships, with fois gras, freshly shaved truffles and a real cheese cart. It wasn’t exactly a gastronomic experience, but it was certainly good. And true to their word, we haven’t yet spent a cent on this ship.

We did discover that fresh mint leaves and Rousanne wine are an amazingly horrible combination!

After dinner we went to a show in the ship’s main theater. This is a very nice two-story space that seats perhaps 200 at individual cocktail tables. The show was a credible Broadway review, with sets of songs from 42nd Street (of course!), West Side Story, South Pacific, Cats, Les Miserables and more 42nd Street. In typical cruise ship tradition, the women were all about 15 years too old and the men were all the wrong sexual orientation. A pleasant hour, nevertheless.

By 10:45 the public areas, including the piano bar, were deserted. All the 20-somethings were easy to locate, though. . . in the Internet cafe.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Málaga, Spain

We docked in Málaga, Spain about 8am and after a light room service breakfast ventured onto the pier for our tour. There were about a dozen tour buses bound for various destinations including Costa del Sol, Granada and the Alhambra, but we opted for a half day visit to the local sites.

Málaga is a charming city, a mixture of styles from the past few centuries. Adjacent to the port is a beautiful beach, lined with thatched huts and seafood cafes. The season hasn’t quite arrived (although it was certainly a gorgeous day), so the beach was nearly deserted, but Málaga plays host to 11 million tourists a year, mostly in July and August.

The main street is lined with tropical palms and flowering shrubs, and there are scenic parks and fountains at every major intersection. It almost never rains here, so the river is dammed in the mountains to collect the water needed to support the city. But the riverbed isn’t completely dry, as seawater is let in to flow down the last mile.

Our first stop was at the Alcazaba, a fort constructed by the Moors in the 8th to 11th centuries. It sits atop the hill overlooking the city. Now in ruins, it was destroyed by French troops when they burned their munitions dump prior to withdrawing from the city in the 1820s.

The view of the city was spectacular, with the Málaga bull ring prominent in the foreground, and our cruise ship in the distance.

Our next stop was at the bull ring, which looked exactly like the one in The Three Stooges short. We watched a short demonstration put on by an aspiring bullfighter (the guy in blue) and his friend, who played the bull. The only difference was that the friend wasn’t actually killed at the end of the demonstration.

The aspiring bullfighter then had to rush off to his afternoon match in another city. Since he isn’t yet famous, he won’t be paid, but maybe they’ll let him keep an ear. Or, if the bull wins, may it gets one of his ears.

After visiting the bullfighting museum and enjoying some photos of the injuries bulls can inflict on the long-suffering matadors (although there seemed to be a general lack of sympathy among the viewers) we had a sample of the local wine, Moscato Málaga, which was quite nice. Made from raisins, it is fairly complex, reminiscent of Tokaji.

Our final stop was at Plaza de la Merced in the old city, for a short walk through the narrow pedestrian streets. We started at the birthplace of Málaga’s most famous native son, Antonio Banderas– er, I mean Pablo Picasso. A short walk took us past the Picasso museum (mostly early sketches) and the cathedral. Since it’s Sunday, the shops were closed. But church was open. Fortunately, it wasn’t open to tourists.

Across from the cathedral we sat in an outdoor cafe and had Perrier and a sort of French bread pizza, then bought some postcards before returning to the ship.

I would definitely come back to Málaga. It has the same relaxed feel as Barcelona, but in a more intimate setting. I guess that’s one of the nice things about a “positioning cruise” like this one — it takes you to less-frequently visited ports.

We spent the afternoon in our cabin discussing Dani’s book, which is tentatively titled The Last Telepath. She actually started planning this book two years ago, but it has gone in fits and spurts. After a five-hour brainstorming session, she had completed a pretty tight outline of her 88 scenes. I think she’s about ready to start writing the long form.

After a surprisingly mediocre dinner in the main dining room (which I think was the fault of the guest chef, Norway’s “leading” chef, not the ship) we headed back to the cabin, then realized it was already after 10pm, and we were scheduled to be passing Gibraltar. We hurried up on deck, and sure enough, there it was, wrapped in a halo of fog. Very eerie, looming up out of the dark.

That’s one big rock.

Monday, June 12, 2006

At Sea

The seas were 6-8 feet today, so the expression “bounding” comes to mind, but we spent a pleasant day in the cabin, writing. Buffet breakfast on the rear deck outside the Veranda was very nice. I don’t think the outside temp has varied by 2 degrees from 69 since we sailed. At 4pm we docked in Lisbon, but we won’t go ashore until tomorrow. Today is a special holiday, and we understand the partying is pretty wild.

Dinner in the main dining room was the best meal of the trip so far — sushi and duck a l’orange. In the evening we checked out the DVD of Lethal Weapon. I’d forgotten how funny it was, and it was amusing to see Mel Gibson trying to conceal an Aussie accent.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A Taste of Lisbon by Coach and Tram

Lisbon is a jumble of buildings that sprawls across many hills on the northern shore of the Tagus River, one of Europe’s best natural harbors. The city was destroyed by earthquake in 1755, so most of the buildings date from that year or later, which is coincidentally the last time any maintenance was performed on them. The historic port district of Belém (Portuguese for “Bethlehem”), located in the southwest part of the city, is in a particularly decrepit state. Here the building coloring choices are natural stone, pink, yellow or graffiti.

Our vivacious tour guide, Christina, met us at the pier and gave us a thorough — and interesting — history of Portugal and Lisbon. Her vocabulary was inventive, to say the least, and words like “touristical” kept us informed and entertained. Portugal rightfully regards itself as the nation at the forefront of 16th century world exploration. At one time they owned or had trade monopolies with much of Africa, China India and South America. I had been unaware that England’s involvement with India began when they received it as part of a dowry. Of course, now Portugal is pretty irrelevant, and the Portuguese seem pretty content with this. They even missed World War II.

Our first stop was at the Monument to the Discoveries, an impressive obelisk erected in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator, who wasn’t a navigator, but did start a school for them. Constructed in the waning days of Portugal’s dictatorship, it looks like 1930’s propaganda art.

A mosaic map in front of the monument highlights Portugal’s discoveries around the world, of which there were many. The stop afforded Dani an opportunity to brief me on the history of trade, about which she knows a great deal.

Next was the Torre de Belém,  built in a mish-mosh of styles called Manueline. Constructed in the harbor as a sort of check-in point for visiting ships, it’s now high and dry due to the river’s sedimentation.

Nearby was a bronze of the first airplane to cross the Atlantic, from Africa to Brazil, in 1924. Don’t get too excited. It took them three months. I guess they should have used wood instead of bronze.

The Mosterio dos Jerónimos was both a monastery and a cathedral. Conceived by Dom Manual I in 1502, it was financed with the riches brought back by explorers such as Vasco de Gama, who is now entombed there. The influence of these explorations is further in evidence at the tombs of Manuel and other kings and queens, which are supported on the backs of marble elephants. Successive kings were less enthusiastic about the project, leaving bare the columns and niches originally intended for statuary.

Departing the cathedral, we drove over jacaranda-lined streets to the new part of the city on the other side of the hills. This area — especially the Avenida de Liberdad, lined with four rows of trees and one row of Armani-type shops — is particularly nice. Continuing east we came to the oldest part of the city, a tangle of little streets on steep hills reminiscent of San Francisco. Here we boarded an electric tram for a tour of streets far too narrow for our tour bus.

This area was really quaint (if somewhat ramshackle) and the ride, although much too long, was fun. Along the way we were served some tasty ruby port and delicious Pastelle de Belém, a crispy pastry filled with custard. Throughout our day in Lisbon things were eerily quiet, as yesterday was St. Anthony’s Day. As the patron saint of the city, this of course requires observance with massive consumption of alcohol and all-night revelry. In fact, we understand most residents don’t make it to work all week.

We arrived back onboard in time to sail (barely) under the harbor bridge, which looks very much like the golden gate bridge. This is not surprising, since it was built by the same contractor.

Out on the open seas be resumed our bounding course northward. I suppose it’s just the combination of a smaller ship and being at the very back, but the ride — even on very slight seas — might definitely be a problem for some passengers. Fortunately it doesn’t bother us.

Our dinner reservation was at Latitudes, the ship’s Asian-themed restaurant. It’s an attractive space, with only about fifteen tables, which were never all full. Food presentation was beautiful (as with all the food on the ship)  and many of the items were excellent — particularly the lobster curry. There were a few too many fried items in the appetizer assortment, but it’s one of those restaurants where they serve you some of everything, so there were many choices. Service was perfect, as has been all service on this ship.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

At Sea (with stops at Vigo and La Coruna)

This morning we sort of slept through a brief stop at Vigo, Spain. The only way I noticed was that my bed stopped swaying like a hammock, and the stillness woke me up.

The purpose of the stop at Vigo was to let off passengers wanting to make the pilgrimage to the alleged final resting place of St. James. In the 12th century, 11 million pilgrims did; but last year it was down to 19,000. Apparently these days it’s harder to find people who believe that, after being beheaded, his body magically floated along the river in a stone coffin filled with scallop shells. Or something like that.

A brief afternoon stop in La Coruna is planned, to pick up the survivors.

Today the ride has been slightly rockier than in the past, but then we learned from the navigator that there has been a 100 kilometer per hour wind and 30-36 foot swells all day. Given that, I’d have to say the ship is doing quite well. In fact, the passengers seem to be doing pretty well, too. I wouldn’t want to have to use a cane to get around this ship with the deck pitching ten feet.

Here are some interesting tonnage figures Linda sent me:

Regent Seven Seas Voyager – 46K
NCL Norwegian Dream – 50K
NCL Norway – 70K
NCL Pride of America – 81K
Coral Princess – 92K
Star Princess – 109K
Royal Carribean Explorer of the Seas – 138K

During the day we had a nice lunch in the main dining room (we sort of missed breakfast) and then did a lot of writing. In the afternoon we played trivia, and would have won if we’d known how many stripes on an Israeli flag, which ear you can hear better out of, or which part of the body is most often bit by insects. (Two, right, foot. )

After we rounded the north west tip of the Iberian peninsulas the seas calmed a bit, and the gray skies began to lighten as we docked at La Coruna, Spain. It looks like a fair sized, rather non-descript city.

When our pilgrims returned from Santiago de Compostela at 7pm we sailed for Santander .

Dinner in the main dining room seems to improve each night. There were some excellent selections this evening, accompanied by a white wine from Provence that was quite pleasant. The wine selections on the ship have been almost entirely sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, or their cousins. I think this is an attempt to match as many foods as possible, but Linda would be disappointed in the lack of buttery Chardonnays. Of course, they have an extensive list of high end wines that I have even looked at, since it would be a waste to order an expensive bottle when Dani only has a sip. Drinking age onboard, incidentally, is 18, although it’s 16 in most of the ports. But no one really cares here in Europe.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Bilbao and Guggenheim Museum (Santander)

We docked at Santander (even accent on all three syllables) this morning. Santander is a non-descript city that hugs the coast of the Bay of Biscay. At 9am we  joined one of six coaches headed for Bilbao, about an hour and a half north.

Bilbao is in the Basque region of Spain, which is a culture different than Spain or neighboring France. The main language is Basque, which looks really weird, with lot’s of X’s. The sign are all in Basque and Spanish.

Bilbao is an absolutely beautiful city of tree-lined (and traffic-clogged) streets, beautiful parks, and daring architecture. It’s hard to believe just twenty years ago it was a depressed industrial port. Now the entire waterfront area has been turned into cutting-edge buildings. The whole city is a vital, walkable place, with inviting shops and restaurants, lots of foot traffic, and beautiful old buildings lining streets that radiate from dozens of lushly landscaped squares. There are construction cranes everywhere. Leading this renaissance of new architecture was the Guggenheim. It was designed by Frank Gehry, and opened in 1997 at a spot that used to be part of the industrial riverfront. It’s really a fantastic building, three stories inside, taller outside, with every surface covered in either limestone or titanium, and no flat surfaces or right angles anywhere. Much neater than it looks in a photo.

Our extraordinarily knowledgeable guide provided an architecture and art history tour of the museum for 18 of us. I was concerned this would bore Dani, but her World history classes brought new meaning to what we saw and heard.

Two of the permanent exhibits in the museum were particularly memorable. One was comprised of nine multi-story columns of scrolling LEDs, red on one side and blue on the other, that told a rather surrealistic story/poem in many languages. Sounds dumb, but it was quite effective. The other was a room larger than a football field, filled with twisting walls of rusty steel, fifteen feet high, two inches thick, and sometimes over 100 feet long. I’m glad I didn’t have to install them! These shapes formed spirals, twisting walkways, and concentric notched circles– all very clear when viewed from above, but a completely different experience as we wandered around inside them, a living part of the exhibit. Again, it sounds dumb, but it was neat.

The bulk of the museum is currently filled with art on loan from The Hermitage in St. Petersburg. In fact, I recognized several pieces from our visit there two years ago. Here it has been better arranged, and we were able to trace the history of Russian art and art collecting from the 12th through 20th centuries, in chronological order. It was fascinating to watch religious icons morph into romantic oil paintings, then impressionism, cubism, and op art. One small room by itself contained two Picassos, two Matisses and a Gaugin. Two and a half hours was only enough time to walk past everything; then we headed back to the ship, arriving about 3pm. Ravenous, we sat on the pool deck and had a grilled salmon burger (me) and hamburger (Dani).

The weather has been temperate but overcast, but it’s supposed to improve this evening.

A few hours after sailing we were out in the middle of the Bay of Biscay on the way to Bordeaux. The sea was almost glassy. A strange change from Wednesday.

Dinner in the dining room was excellent. The South Africa pinotage was an eclectic wine offering, but it seemed oxidized.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Bordeaux, France

Today I found a way to use the $200 shipboard credit Vacations To Go gave us when we booked the cruise. The self-service launderettes on this ship are free but completely inadequate — I’ve seen seven people crammed into the room waiting for two washers. I did manage to get a load done a few days ago before everyone else started running out of clothes, but today, even though I was there at 7am, there were already people waiting. It would help if they were open 24 hours instead of 7am to 10pm. Anyway, we’ll just have the ship do our laundry and dry cleaning. It’s only slightly cheaper than buying new clothes, but hey, who wants to spend their vacation in a laundry room?

This morning we sailed up the Gironde River and then into the Garonne, traveling 100 kilometers to reach Bordeaux. I didn’t realize how far inland it is. The land is fairly flat, and the banks are lined with agricultural and industrial facilities, but when we reached Bordeaux it was a complete surprise. I was expecting Bordeaux to be a collection of villages and vineyards. Instead it is a beautiful city, a sort of miniature Paris. Best of all, the ship docks along the quay in the exact center of town. It is as if you’ve pulled up between the Louvre and Notre Dame! Everywhere there are 19th century facades, their wrought iron balconies and sloping roofs lined up just as in Paris. The streets are lined with shade trees, and brasseries spill out onto the sidewalks.

I watched as the ship extended its gangway from deck 4 and then puzzled over a crane truck that drove up and installed another gangway from deck 5 to the quay. This latter gangway was at about a 45 degree angle, and would have made a good water slide if it hadn’t ended on the concrete. What was that all about? Later in the day my question was answered when we learned that even though Bordeaux is 100 kilometers inland, the Garonne is still a tidal river, with a difference of 16 feet between low and high tides every six hours! By the time we returned to the ship in the afternoon, deck four was below the quay and the other gangway was nearly horizontal! In fact, the ship sailed both in and out near high tide, and with the current in each case.

When I say the ship is in the center of town, I mean it. You can almost step off the gangway onto the sidewalk of the boulevard that runs along the river. The absence of security was either refreshing, amazing, alarming or simply French — I’m not sure which.

In the morning Dani and I ventured ashore and strolled the streets of Bordeaux, covering a lot of territory. We ended up at a circular building in the center of town called Grande Homme. On the top floor was a giant toy store, the middle floor was upscale shops (and a tobacconist where Dani stocked up on postcards), and the subterranean lower floor was a supermarket and food court. When I say food court, I don’t mean an American food court. Instead it was a collection of tables surrounded by the market’s bakery, fromagerie, charcuterie, plus prepared salads, Asian food, and so on. We purchased a loaf of bread, a pain au chocolate, and an epoisses (my favorite stinky cheese), then strolled back to the ship to construct our own bizarre lunch in the cabin. The bread was, of course, the best we’ve had since the last time we were in France, and amazingly, Dani discovered she likes epoisses. A home run!

At 2 pm we met our tour group on the dock for a trip around the city and then an excursion to a local winery. I was surprised to see how much of the city we’d discovered on our own, although the driving tour did reveal a really neat pedestrian street, Rue Sainta Catherine, filled with shops and bistros that runs 2 kilometers through town. We also passed the WWII German sub base. This concrete bunker is divided into 11 bays, and its ceiling is 25 feet thick, making it impossible to get rid of.

Then we headed out of the city center to the selected winery, which turned out to be Chateau Smith Haut Lafite, a Graves grand cru that has been totally renovated since changing ownership in 1990. In a few kilometers we were in wine country, and is wasn’t more than twenty minutes before we arrived at the chateau, passing Chateau Bouscat and several other properties I didn’t recognize on the way. The area is fairly similar to Santa Ynez, but not quite as arid.

The tour, conducted by the winemaker, was the best I’ve experienced. The winery has beautiful new pneumatic presses, stem separator conveyors where twenty people hand select berries, and extensive cellars. They also make half of the approximately 800 French oak barrels they need each year. Every detail of the white and red vinification process was described. Here are just a few things I remember:

White: 90% sauvignon blanc, 5% semillon, 5% grey sauvignon. Fermented in 50% new oak and lees stirred for 12 months. Sold upon bottling.

Red: 55% merlot, the rest cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc with sometimes a trace of petite verdot. Fermented in open topped stainless tanks for seven weeks, pumped over three times a week. Aged 18 months in 80% new oak. Sold upon bottling.

After the tour of the vinification area we descended into the (chilly) main cellar for a tasting of the 2004 white (peaches, grapefruit and black pepper, very balanced, no malolactic fermentation 92/100) and 2002 red (very smokey, blackberries, complex finish 93/100). Wine was available in the small boutique, and the winemaker himself processed the transactions. But there was no pressure to buy, and few people did (including me, although I eyed a double magnum of 1982 at 200 euros) as it was too hard to transport. I assume the winery was well-compensated for this terrific tour, though. (By the way, in addition to the winery, there is a beautiful spa resort on the property. )

Even in Friday afternoon traffic we were back at the ship in half an hour. Dani and I strolled through the city, trying to keep out of what had turned into a hot late afternoon sun, to the Rue Sainta Catherine, which was nice and shady. We looked for an open bistro and browsed the shops. No luck on the bistro. There were lots of great menus, but no one serves food until 8 pm, and we were to sail at 9 pm. At fnac (think trendy Best Buy) she bought some manga in French and then we headed back to the ship.

We had an excellent dinner in the main dining room. High praise in the face of the on-shore competition in France! My opinion of this ship’s food is going up. I think the trick is to avoid the guest chef’s menus. As always, service was Perfect with a capital ‘P’.

Wine selections were an oxidized Woodbridge Chardonnay (first chardonnay of the cruise) and a weird Zinfandel that still had one or two percent residual sugar. It grew on me, though, as it went really well with the little pieces of braised shortribs under the seared tuna appetizer. Who on earth came up with the idea to combine those two things?! It was excellent, though.

This morning’s 48-hour dry cleaning submission was already hanging in our cabin when we returned.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

At Sea

It’s a long way around the part of France that sticks out into the Atlantic. We’ll spend today sailing up the coast, and then turn the corner into the English Channel this evening. Seas are smooth.

So smooth, in fact, that this afternoon they opened the bridge to guests from 1 pm to 5 pm. This is an opportunity you never have on the huge Caribbean ships, but Voyager’s bridge is no less complicated. The ship’s propulsion is by azipods on the hull, which can be swiveled 360 degrees. Even with these, we learned that yesterday in the Garonne they used the anchor to complete their 180 degree turn without danger of being washed by the tide into the 17-section stone bridge that marks the end of the navigable channel.

The ship was running on autopilot when we visited today, as it usually does, except when in harbor. A tiny wheel, smaller than what you’d find on a go-cart, is the only obvious control. We visited just as the ship was completing its turn into the English channel, a turn that occurred over a distance of eight miles, and required only a one degree adjustment of the azipods.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, at top speed the coasting distance is half a mile if they don’t reverse the pods.

Dani looked lovely in her new blue gown for our final formal dinner aboard the ship. We had a lovely table and delicious meal. They brough out the good wines, tonight: Pouilly Fuisse by Lois Jadot, and an excellent Chianti Classico by, I think, Binti.

After dinner we caught the last half hour of the show, a Broadway review by singer Amy Baker, and bought a couple of her CDs. Amy has been mingling with the passengers all week, and has quite a following.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Honfleur, France

The approach to Honfleur took us up the Seine a few kilometers, past the industrial port of Le Havre. We were docked by 8 am. Although only 64 degrees in the morning, the day promised to be sunny and hot.

Dani surprised me with some Father’s Day gifts this morning, and a card from Linda, who sent me an email greeting, too. Originally we had scheduled a hike and visit to a goat farm today, but there weren’t enough others interested, so our tour was cancelled. We decided to explore the village of Honfleur on our own, rather than make the trek to see the Bayeau Tapestry.

What a great plan that turned out to be! Honfleur is a captivating small town just a few minute shuttle ride from the dock. At first it looks too cute to be anything but a tourist trap, but just a block from the waterfront the streets are filled with the “real” France: boulangeries, charcuteries, and wine shops. The local residents come out to walk their dogs and dally over lunch in the hundreds of sidewalk cafes. Heaven.

As in Bordeaux, it was great to blend into the crowd of locals — plus the weekend visitors from Paris — rather than be part of a storm surge of American tourists. That’s probably the biggest advantage of a smaller ship visiting smaller ports.

Dani spent the morning buying a few gifts for friends and more postcards — 37 sent, so far — as we strolled through the backstreets. Most of the tourist shops sell paintings by local artists, gourmet foods, cooking supplies, and souvenirs. The church here is wood, and was built in the 14th century. It looks faintly viking.

At lunch time we pretty much at random selected a sidewalk cafe overlooking the harbor and had a wonderful meal, of salad (lettuce, endive, sun dried tomatoes, and lots of other great stuff) and galettes. A galette is like a crepe, but made of buckwheat and browned with the ingredients in it. Dani had ham and cheese, and I had seafood. On top of mine were the most incredibly delicious baby mussels, a local specialty. Amazingly wonderful food. We dawdled over lunch, enjoying our favorite water, Badoit (two liters! Hey it was hot. ) After lunch we continued browsing, and made it four blocks before we had to stop for chocolate crepes. Yum. Then it was time to head back to the ship and pack. Sigh.

What a great place Honfleur is!

Leaving the harbor, we had a great view of the Pont de La Normandy, a two kilometer long suspension bridge completed in 1995. We also passed the Normandy beaches where the D-Day invasion occurred, which where filled with sunbathers on this beautiful, sunny day. Unfortunately we were too far away to determine the dress code.

We played tea time trivia a couple of times during the cruise, and due to our terrific skill (and considerable leniency in the interpretation of the rules) we won five cruise tokens. So this evening Dani visited the table on the shopping promenade and redeemed them for a sun visor and book mark.

Packing was easy, since we haven’t really bought anything other than a few tiny souvenirs. In fact, as advertised, we’ve spent almost nothing on this cruise. Our final bill included little more than the shore excursions and Internet time. Even the laundry charges were minimal.

The farewell dinner in the Compass Rose was excellent, with prime rib and Caesar salad, and accompanied by Caymus Conundrum and a good Chilean merlot.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Rubens at the Palace
Avenue Q at the Noel Coward Theatre

The Regent Seven Seas Voyager offers normal service on the morning of debarkation, so we had room service breakfast before debarkation. Getting off the ship was easy. We just waiting for our color to be called. It was star salmon. I had no idea star was even a color.

We stepped onto the coach and were on our way for the logarithmic drive to London. I say “logarithmic” because we approached Victoria Station asymptotically, seeming to go slower and slower the closer we got.

Ah, London, city of traffic, bad manners and inedible food. How you draw us back, again and again. And it’s nice to see how the Londoners have embraced the return of the traditional red phone booths. It’s solved the serious problem of what to do with all their trash. They should simply rename them “trash booths. ” Everyone has a cell phone fastened to their ear, anyway, so it make perfect sense. And you can tell when they start to get full, because you can monitor the trash level through the little windows.

It was only a few blocks from Victoria Station to our hotel, Rubens at the Palace, but we were heavily laden, and it was nice to get rid of the bags at the front door. The hotel is called “at the Palace” because it is right across the street from the slave entrance to Buckingham Palace. It’s a fairly nice hotel — for London — with fairly large rooms — for London — and is fairly quiet — for London.

After unpacking we walked down Buckingham Palace Way, looking for some edible food. Then we walked through St. James Park, looking for some edible food. Then we walked through Green Park, looking for some edible food. Then we walked down Piccadilly, looking for some edible food. We went in to Fortnum & Mason’s, a gourmet store. They also have a restaurant, but instead of selling the items they have out front, for some reason they’ve focused on boiled lamb, calf’s liver, and other, even less appetizing items.

Near Piccadilly Circus (it’s not really a circus, you know, just a semi-circle) we found a fairly dressy place called Bentley’s. It was full of business people and we decided to spend an hour with them, looking out of place. The food was surprisingly good, and they had the best mushy peas we’ve had so far this trip. The luncheon entertainment was provided by the woman next to us, who was trying to sell a Frenchman a house. Or lease him a flat. Or sell his current flat. She was certain she could do all these things in two months or less, but I wasn’t convinced.

I’ve been feeling like I’m flirting with a cold, so I started sucking zinc last night, and have continued today. Now I feel like I’m flirting with a cold and have zinc poisoning. Perhaps that accounts for the acerbic wit.

After lunch we found Dani a bargain leather jacket, because she forgot to bring anything warm and it’s going to be down in the 50’s tonight.

Then we walked back to the hotel for a little rest before the show. At 6:30pm we walked to the Hyde Park underground station and took it to Leicester Square. The Noel Coward theater has just reopened after refurbishment, and Avenue Q is still in previews. There was no sign of that in the show, though, which was very polished. It’s a sort of Muppets on steroids musical, with most of the performers carrying a Muppet and acting its part. The show doesn’t seem to have made any concessions for the UK audience, and is still set in Brooklyn. The voices and performances were great, and the set, a miniature city block, does all kinds of tricks. The audience was tremendously enthusiastic. Afterwards most of the restaurants in the West End seemed to be winding down, so we took the tube back and ordered room service before hitting the sack after our busy day.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Lunch at Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s
Coriolanus at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

We slept late since we hadn’t gotten to bed until 1am. Then Dani wanted to have her picture taken in front of Buckingham Palace wearing her Buckingham T-Shirt from her performance in Richard III. We stopped at a place called Pronto Manger (not to be confused with the sandwich shop Pret a Manger, of which there is one in every block of London) and purchased a croissant-shaped object we managed to choke down on the way to the palace. It was very crowded in front of the palace because it turned out they were changing the guard. (Why these guys aren’t old enough to change themselves, I don’t know. ) There was a marching band in the palace courtyard which was, oddly enough, playing the theme from Star Trek.

After our photo op we headed back to the hotel to change, then down to Victoria Station to take the underground to Oxford Circus. We strolled around looking in the shop windows for a while ($$$) and then relaxed in a quiet corner of the mezzanine at Claridge’s Hotel until our 2:30pm reservation at Gordon Ramsay’s.

Our six-course lunch consisted of:

  • Chilled Charentais melon soup, crab vinaigrette
  • Ballottine of foie gras marinated in Beaumes de Venise, pickled mushrooms, toasted brioche
  • Roasted sea scallop, broccoli purée, poached quail egg, Port reduction
  • Steve: Steamed line caught sea bass, crushed Jersey royals, braised radish, asparagus velouté
  • Dani: Best end of new season Oxfordshire lamb with confit shoulder, spiced aubergin, asparagus, tarragon jus
  • Steve: French and English cheeses
  • Dani: Banana and coconut bavarois, passion fruit jelly
  • Peanut butter parfait with milk mousse, cherry sauce

Including a glass of rose Champagne, a bottle of Chablis and the 12. 5% gratuity, it came to a bit more than . . . Needless to say, we didn’t eat again that day.

I must say that the food was everything we expected, with many surprising flavor combinations, and the service was much less stiff than in most upscale restaurants.

After lunch we strolled up Oxford Street and walked through Marks and Spenser, home of the £500 shirt. After recovering from the sticker shock , we took the underground to St. Paul’s. Linda gave me a laminated pocket map of London or father’s day, and it’s sure been invaluable for navigating the city and the underground. That’s definitely the way to get around in London, rather than sitting in a cab stuck in traffic.

From St. Paul’s it was an easy walk across the Millennium bridge to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

The reconstruction of the Globe was completed in 1999, and it is as accurate as they could make it, not even bowing to modern fire regulations for the most part. The largest part of the audience stands in the “yard” for the entire three-hour performance, but we had seats on the top level, in the front row. I use the term “seats” loosely. It’s a wooden bench about six inches deep, with no back. Cushion rental is another authentic touch, and one we definitely took advantage of. There’s definitely an age gradient of twenty or thirty years between the yard and the top tier!

It actually wasn’t as uncomfortable as I had expected, and the top level front low location allows you to lean on the rail and watch the performance and the people suffering in the yard. It turned cold during the show, and there were quite a few defectors during the interval (insert by Dani: Losers!).

Here’s Dani’s review of Coriolanus:

Well, let me start with my impressions of the building. WOW. We were walking into a building built right where Shakespeare preformed these plays for the very first time more than 400 years ago. How cool is that? And the fact the building looks like the original is even better. It was amazing, like stepping back into a piece of history.

For those of you who don’t know what the globe looks like let me describe “this wooden O” (Henry V Act 1 Scene 1). The building isn’t actually circular but is comprised of twenty sides and is 100 feet  in diameter. The rectangular stage juts out into the yard and is graded downward towards the audience (thus leading to the expressions upstage and downstage). The stage is covered by a roof supported by two pillars. There are three levels to view from, the yard (where the plebeians stand), and the middle and upper sections (for nobles and lords). The walls are made of oak beams covered in a lime based plaster.

Coriolanus is about a roman general who fights many battles for Rome and defeats many of their enemies. After his third war they want to make him consul, which requires the support of the people. Unfortunately he is a little egotistical and fails to properly ingratiate himself to the people. When stirred up by the two tribunes, the people riot, demanding his exile. Disgraced, he leaves Rome to return to his old enemy. With their forces, he leads an army to Rome to destroy it. But at its gates, his mother and wife convince him to make peace instead. As a result, his old enemy and new ally turns on him and kills him.

It was very interesting for me to see a professional production of Coriolanus after performing in so much Shakespeare. The show was very good with one glaring exception: the Stage Combat. In Julius Caesar we had a ten minute escrema stick battle followed by three other smaller battles. In this show, they didn’t know how to hold their swords, and there was a thirty second altercation where the only exciting thing to happen was they got one spark off their swords. The rest was very forgettable. But aside from that, the production was very good. Coriolanus’ mother was a remarkable actress. Every word she said was clear and understandable (no mics) and she knew what she was saying. Coriolanus himself was very good but I lost some of what he said when he was being too quiet or yelling too loud.

It was neat to see Shakespeare cold for the first time, without being in it or having read it before. The first ten minutes were rough going, trying to understand, but then something magical happens in your brain and you adjust to the Shakespearian language.

The show was amazing and it was amazing to see it where Shakespeare actually preformed it. To look down at the stage and — even though it’s a recreation — to imagine Romeo and Juliet and Henry V and Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth being preformed there for the very first time. It’s an incredible feeling.

(Did I mention I love Shakespeare?)

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Open Air Theatre

These blackout drapes are essential when it’s only dark a few hours on summer nights, but they have the side effect of causing you to miss the morning. But I guess that’s what vacations are all about. Dani got up at the crack of noon, and we took the tube over to Holborn, having a late lunch at Hason Raja, a recommended Indian restaurant (hey, anything to avoid English food). It started out well, but ended up being fairly mediocre. But it was Dani’s first try at this cuisine, and she enjoyed it.

Then we walked over to the British museum and strolled the galleries for a couple of hours. Dani posed in the same spot by the cat mummies that she did four years ago.

We took the tube (at rush hour!) to Baker Street (which has a new bronze of Sherlock Holmes in front of the station) and walked up into Regent’s Park, stopping to sip coffee by the tennis courts, and watch a tennis lesson. Then we made our way to the Open Air Theater in the park. The theater opens early, and there is outdoor dining and also picnicking on the grass. A cold wind was blowing some clouds in, and we wisely invested in a “picnic rug,” which kept us cozy later on. At the “Barbeque,” we unwisely invested in objects shaped like hamburgers and hotdogs, which were truly appalling.

The production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream we saw was brought back after a very popular run two years ago, and I can see why. I really enjoyed it. It was presented without amplification, except for a bit of singing. Our seats in the third row were perfect. This was a particularly interesting show for Dani, as she has a major part (Helena) in Trinity’s production, which begins rehearsals in August. Here’s her review:

I was a little surprised to walk in and find the stage completely covered in grass. The theater was really neat, it’s completely open air. The seats are arranged like an amphitheatre, but the stage has no back, just trees. It was the perfect setting for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where much of the action takes place in a forest. It was perfect the way it kept getting darker and darker.

For obvious reasons I watched Helena, for the most part. She was brilliant! Her timing was perfect and she was crystal clear, without sounding like she was yelling. I wish I knew how to project like that. The whole cast had found so many nuances in the text to play with. It was fun watching them, knowing in a month I’ll be rehearsing it.

The acting was very good, especially Helena and Bottom, but what was truly brilliant was the direction. The director found so many spots for wonderful stage action that really accentuated the comedy of the situation. He also added many hilarious gags not evident in the text. The way he coached his actors to characterize themselves was genius. He also had an interesting concept for the fairies, equating them to Peter Pan’s Lost Boys. The show was set in mid-Victorian times for the mortals, but the fairies were unique: bald and filthy, and  wearing tattered clothes and work boots. Oberon looked like Elrond from Lord of the Rings.

It was interesting to see that the types of people cast were almost identical to who is cast in Trinity’s production. Bottom is over the top theatrical (David G. ), Oberon is commanding and kingly (David VB. ), Titania is mystical (Lexi). Their casting was perfect, so ours should be to.

I can’t wait to perform this show!

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Billy Elliot at the Victoria Palace Theatre
Dinner at Le Gavroche

We finished our trip off with a highly anticipated visit to Billy Elliot, The Musical. The show, based upon a surprise hit movie, has a fantastic score by Elton John.

We had high expectations for Billy Elliot, and I was afraid the show might not live up to them, but it definitely did. I’d have to place it right up there with Wicked as one of the greatest shows I’ve seen. The story, the songs, performances and dancing were all exceptional. 12-year-old Liam Mower, as Billy Elliot, is a phenomenon. He’s one of five boys who alternate in the role, but it’s hard to imagine he’s not the very best.

Because of the subject matter — Labour vs. Conservative party, coal miner’s strike, adolescent homosexuality, and a deluge of four-letter words — it’s hard to imagine this musical ever playing in America in its current form. That’s a shame, because it really is an experience. In retrospect, I wish we had another day here in London to see it again (although it’s sold out for months).

After the theater we took the tube to Marble Arch and walked to La Gavroche. This classic French restaurant opened in 1967, and was London’s first Michelin three-star (although since it was taken over by the founder’s son it is now two.

Although expensive, our nine-course dinner (mine matched with seven wines) was no more than lunch Tuesday — an exceptional buy, given the perfect food, service and wines. In fact, I’ve never had wines close to this caliber in a food and wine pairing dinner. Perhaps the best course was the fois gras accompanied by duck pastilla with cinnamon, matched with an Alsatian Gewürztraminer. Heaven. And they also had the most extensive selection of French cheeses I’ve encountered. Even Dani enjoyed a few of them. Our three and a half hours at table seemed to fly past. Then it was back to the hotel to pack and sleep before our early morning call .

Friday, June 23, 2006

London to Orlando

Up at 6am, that’s a change! It was easier hauling the luggage the four block to Victoria Station than the other direction, due to it being slightly downhill. The Gatwick Express runs every 15 minutes, so we climbed right on and were at the airport in a half hour. We had a fairly appalling breakfast and then hung out in the terminal for several hours, Dani working on her book, and I reading Michael Connelly’s The Last Coyote (already listened to it on tape, but it’s probably his best work). Meanwhile Dani is reading an earlier novel in the same series, The Black Echo.

The Virgin flight was a nonstop to Orlando in a little over eight hours. Just enough time for both of us to finish our books. It’s a bit of a pain to clear customs in Orlando, because you have to wait for your bags, clear, and then recheck them, then wait for them again at baggage claim. The first wait was short, the second loooong, but we spent it telling Linda all about the trip.

Then it was home  to our comfy beds and a shower that doesn’t require contortionism.

Dani’s final postcard tally for the trip: 44.

Nice things about the Regent Seven Seas Voyager

  • No tipping
  • Free beverages including almost all alcohol, plus bottled water for shore excursions
  • Free self-service laundry (use it early in the cruise)
  • Unbelievable service from everybody
  • Food presentation beautiful
  • Fresh flowers everywhere
  • 24 hour espresso bar (free, of course)
  • Nice theater and (largely unused) lounge
  • Extensive DVD library
  • Relatively inexpensive Internet, with good wireless connectivity

Not-so-Nice things about the Regent Seven Seas Voyager

  • Somewhat rattle-prone cabin and a fairly rocky ride at the back if the seas are heavy
  • Guest chef menus were not as good as the regular ship’s menus
  • Small casino with no video poker (not that I cared. )
  • Small pool (I saw two kids in it once, so it’s not a pool kind of cruise)
  • No greasy pizza

Some Tips for Next Time

Transfers to and from the ship are expensive unless you get a package that includes hotel. The offered hotels in Monte Carlo and London were very expensive, but in retrospect, spending a night in Monte Carlo might have been cheaper than the transfer.

The Rubens was an excellent price. Its proximity to Victoria Station was great for the transfers, although the disadvantage of the Victoria Underground is that you must make a connection to get to most places in the city.

The Meridien in the West End might be the most convenient hotel location for London theatre.

Europe 2004

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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is alcornmcbridesarl1-1024x768.jpg

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

Paris Disneyland

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:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is bigthunder-1024x721.jpg
  • 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).

Not only is she smiling, she’s saying cheese.

We also visited the apartments of Napoleon III.

Why is this gargoyle wearing a German helmet?

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

Ancient Rome

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

At least Linda still has her nose.


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.

The right arm of this figure was lost. In the 16th century they “restored” it, as shown in the photograph. Then the original arm was found. Oops.

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.

Although it took 300 years to build, the duomo isn’t still under construction. Perhaps they’re using that scaffolding to replace some of the Legos it appears to be made from.

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.

People in Orvieto must wear tall hats.

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.

We didn’t have a donkey, so we sent Dani down to take pictures.

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.

I call this picture, “Can you hear me now, Monk?”

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).

The light in this weird alley looked neat.

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.

It works.

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

At Sea

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

At Sea

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

Kusadasi, Turkey

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.

“Magic Atmosphere”?!

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.

parthenon1 parthenon1

parthenon2 parthenon2
bigcolumn bigcolumn

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

At Sea

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

Livorno (Pisa)

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.

Linda listening to the echo echo

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.

Linda & Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss

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.

Obligatory tourist photo

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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is tender-1024x768.jpg

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


This is a monument at the location of Columbus’ return from the new world.

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.

The Guadi Cathedral is worth a close look.

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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is grandmarina-1024x336.jpg
Grand Marina Hotel

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.