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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Minorca, or whatever you want to call it

It's the smaller sibling of Majorca, anyway, and has several names. I'm using the one I consider most authentic. It's a very cute little place most of us wouldn't visit except on a cruise. The British do, of course, because it's a Mediterranean island close to home, and it's very laid-back. You have your beaches, your Roman ruins, your unique geology, your pretty little towns, restaurants and shopping. And let's not forget perfect weather. If I were from Europe, and I wanted to plop down someplace warm for a week, Minorca is as good a place as any. It may or may not have night-life, but for me that makes no difference at all.

We had no excursion scheduled, so we slept late, got off the ship and wandered around, which for us meant up and down the main street along the water, because this

was the alternative. Yeah, right? Are you shittin' me? Very picturesque. I'll stay down here, thanks. Presumably the shopping was better up there, but you know me; I don't shop. They had sandals and bottle openers and postcards at sea level. Also local draft beer.

Sandals, see?

And inexplicable signs. This one was on a closed garage door. It was Sunday, so maybe no ice cream in front of their business on Sunday?

Or how about a cheese?


More cutesy pictures from ground level:

The last one is Joyce again. All foolish pictures are to her credit.

And now some from the ship:

I'd like to show you all of them, but you know what? Go see for yourself. I didn't know anything about Minorca before I got there. Now I think a cruise around the Balearic islands would be a great vacation. I don't know why "they" don't tell Americans about this stuff, but maybe they're trying to preserve the peace and quiet. But now you know, so go check it out.

Monday, August 29, 2011

First day on the senior Windsurf

The first thing we noticed on this cruise was the age of the cruisers. On big party ships, like in the Caribbean, they are a lot younger, or on the Mexican Riviera. We used to do that. That's a lot of fun, too. And older people go on those as well. Just a different kind of fun. The pace of life on this ship was going to be a lot slower and quieter, the way we like it. There was one extremely young couple for the Oldy/newlywed Game, we found out later, and I think they had been married like, a week, but had been together maybe a year. They were the only ones in their 20s. Even the other "newlywed" couple was in their 40s, because it wasn't their first marriage.

Anyway, we enjoyed being in a group of people who just flat out don't make a lot of noise. A little rowdy, sure, espcially when we sailed away. That's always a crazy time because most of these people's vacations were just starting, and a lot of them were escaping from their jobs, unlike those of us who are retired. Honestly, we work harder on trips than at home.

The party was on the deck outside where we were eating, and the speakers faced OUTSIDE, so we could continue to eat and chat, and also hear the music and and watch the fun. This is making me want a beer. But at the time, I had a pinacolada, which is like, an annual indulgence. In fact, I think I had two. And there's a steward for every pair of guests. Ours was named "One," which we guess was an Anglicized version of his Indonesian name. Very sweet fellow, as was our cabin steward, Mayun, and all the lovely ladies at the concierge desk. One wasn't our ONLY steward, nor was he really assigned to us, but there were so many stewards, it felt like we all had one.

The food on this trip, except the fish, was spectacular. We sent the fish back twice, but they always had something better ready to replace it with. Somebody finally got our message that every meal must include at least one form of chocolate. Been saying that for years on cruises where they load you down with flan, vanilla pudding and empty pastry shells.

There were four restaurants on the ship. You had to have reservations for two of them, one of which was outdoors, so we never went to that or the other one, because our favorite restaurant was "The." That was it's name. "The" had all the kinds of food we like on ships: escargot, beef tartare, carpaccio, and so on. Even the night of the "barbecue" on deck (think hot, messy, waiters forced to sing and dance, loud music) we ate at "The." We also ate at the Verandah (yeah, with an "h") every day for lunch, with their fantastic buffet. And although most ships have a midnight buffet, this one didin't, and it didn't matter, because we were always in bed by 10 PM. Not big on partying, especially if there's an excursion the next morning. Anyway you could get room service 24/7, and it's included. Joyce said breakfast was always good, too, but I never saw it.

Let's see if we have any ship pictures:

See, there's one of my pinacoladas. Picture taken by One.

And two party pictures.

That night, the "entertainment" was a list of what the entertainment would be for the next week, and a bunch of announcements. After that, the DJ (more on her later) took over the lounge and we went to bed to read for a while. We had already unpacked, the bed was turned down, and everything was just about perfect. That's the way the start of a cruise ought to be.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Anchors aweigh

I know, very catchy title. But I use it because most people don't know how to spell "aweigh," nor do they know what it means. So I grab any chance I can to use obscure words correctly. Gnomon.

We've been on many cruises, but we never get tired of them, possibly because we always go someplace new. We don't go for food, entertainment or shopping (especially not shopping!) but to see a new thing. The only place on this cruise that we'd already seen was Civitavecchia, which is frankly not a tourist attraction, but you have to go through it to get to Rome. And Joyce had already been to Pisa, but who cares, right?

So this was our second voyage on the Windsurf. Last time we took it from Rome to Venice. It's been 11 years so they've added a spa, which means fewer people, which is fine with me. It only holds 320 people right now, all women, most of whom know how to behave very nicely. Now that we are older, our idea of misbehaving is not taking your meds and being a bitch. This is a lot easier to ignore than drunken screaming and fighting, and far easier to overlook than children running amok while their laissez-faire parents ignore the carnage they wreak.

So, here's the ship.

It's an MSY, or motorized sailing yacht, and is the largest such ship in the world. There are certainly tall ships with more canvas, but they have no motors to assist them.

Getting aboard a cruise ship is a special feeling unlike any other. It just reeks of possibilities for fun. It's a beginning, a new adventure, and you paid for it already, so that's over. Used to be, you were also isolated from news of the world. Not any more. CNN is running all day. I didn't watch it, but Joyce did occasionally. I feel the world can get along without me just fine, and vice versa.

Usually boarding a ship means standing in a lot of lines and being herded all over like cattle, but on a ship this small, there aren't as many lines. They gave us cold drinks and we walked right on. The three or four little lines were on the ship itself, in the lounges. Except for one hairy moment when Joyce lost her passport (actually I was holding it, having put my own away, but I sort of forgot, and she forgot she had given it to me) it all went smoothly. We got our ship ID, our room key, signed our lives away for shipboard charges, and signed up for our hot stone massages. Then we were free to wander and eat.

On deck of a docked cruise ship is probably the hottest place on earth, so why they hold the sail-away parties outside, I'll never understand, except at night. So we went to one of the inside food spots, a buffet, where we could see out, but not go out, until the ship was actually moving, and there was a breeze. This wasn't going to happen for four hours anyway, so we could eat, explore the inside of the ship, go to our cabin and all that sort of thing.

Here are our sail-away outfits.

And our cabin. The kids are having such fun, aren't they?

See the plain white door (hatch) on the left? That leads to the bath. It's enormous.

We met several very nice couples on this trip, and I hope they're reading this and will get in touch! We lost some e-mail addresses somehow, and have only managed to contact one pair. So if you're from Pennsylvania or Texas, you know who you are! Please leave a comment. Sorry to be such dorks.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Last night ashore

After Sagrada Familia, we were drained, so we went back to the hotel to swim. We had the pool to ourselves for about an hour and got out to have our daily beers up there on the roof. Then the man-boys showed up with their female entourage, and basically took over the entire space with their whooping and splashing and hollering. This is why we cruise with Olivia.

But we had at least been able to "swim" every night (I mean it's a plunge pool, but you can still enjoy cooling off in it). It was funny the previous night when we got up there around 7 PM and there were no towels. We called for some from the bar, and they said the pool was "closed." We were in our suits and the hotel robes already, se we laughed and went in anyway. I mean, there's nothing and no one to stop you, and when we called for beer, they came up and served us and could see we'd been in. No one said anything.

I have noticed in Spain and Italy that they "close" their pools very early, even in the middle of the summer. Why even have a pool? But I will have an even better pool story about Rome. Just you wait.

So, the previous night, again, after swimming in the "closed" pool, we decided to eat in the hotel restaurant. It cost the earth, but it was so convenient and so good! The usual rule is, don't eat in the hotel restaurant, but I think that has changed in Europe. I still wouldn't do it in the United States.

Anyway, we came back from the cathedral, swam, had our beer and decided to try a restaurant across the street. There were, like, four, within a block. We chose this place called the Mediterranean Pub, or something. Wow, was that fantastic! We had been planning to always eat fish in the Med, and this was our third fish in row, and it was the best. But the others were very good, too.

We could have eaten outside, where the Spanish equivalent of la passegiata in Italy was going on, but it's still too smoky in Europe, and it was too hot, for that. This place also has tapas, so people came and went the whole time we were there. It seemed pretty popular with the locals. Actually we were the only foreigners in it. See, here's us with the "kids."

Then we went to the local farmacia to get more moleskin, returned to our room, and packed. We had a really good time in Barcelona, and recommend it highly. We also recommend Granados 83 because it does not cater to families with children. It's a little strange, but the staff is terrific, and the beds are great. Great location, too.

A note on smoking: it's still more prevalent in Europe than in the US and Canada, but a LOT less prevalent than before, and there's no smoking indoors in any of the countries we were in this time. We were concerned about that, but I think everyone's getting the message that second-hand smoke will kill you. However, if you want to smoke in Europe, you still can. Just take it outside, and no one will bother you.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

La Sagrada Familia: Not Just a Drip Castle

For years I thought that's what it looked like. You know, you sit at the edge of the water, on the beach, dig down and make a drip, or maybe you call it a dribble, castle. It's the easiest kind. You don't need anything but your hands. From any distance at all, that's exactly what this cathedral resembles. You have to get up really close to see that it's something else.

We knew it was an important cathedral, because cathedrals simply aren't built any more. Some cathedrals in use now are still under construction, such as the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine in New York. Washington National Cathedral took over 80 years to complete. Cathedrals can take centuries to build, and they are clearly enormous enterprises that will not be completed in the lifetimes of those who begin them. Sagrada Familia has been in the works since the 1880s. So I guess you can say we went there to see history in the making, a sort of homage to such an effort, and also because Gaudi was clearly a nutjob.

I don't mean this in a bad way. Artists are frequently like this; they see things differently from the rest of us. Gaudi saw buildings as living things, and designed the inside of this cathedral to look like a forest. We knew Gaudi's work was all over town, but we couldn't see it all. Despite Barcelona being a lovely city with fantastic weather, you still don't want to do much in the summer heat. So we skipped Park Guell, a housing development he designed, and went for the cathedral. It's a good thing, too, because it took the whole day.

Let's put the link right up front. Blogspot has a new edition in which you can do that.

Okay, it won't let me, so screw it. This is the URL:

We slept in after the previous day's marathon and took a taxi to the cathedral's neighborhood and immediately ate lunch, by which I mean Joyce drank coffee, and then we ordered a meal, sat there and gaped at the cathedral. You simply can't grasp the immensity (not the enormity) from any one place except maybe a helicopter. This is likely to be the first thing you see:

These are the ticket windows in front of the Passion facade. It's almost done. Gaudi lived to see the Nativity facade almost done. The Glory facade is still in its infancy, and he knew that styles would change, and left no specific plans for the later two. Smart.

Listen, if you don't have a sense of wonder, don't go anyplace, okay? If you can't be awed by anything anymore, stay home. Travel is for the open-minded, and it will open your mind even more. Sagrada Familia is a wonder. It's not a drip castle, it's not a church, it's not even just a cathedral. It IS a living thing, and it's growing right there in front of us. It's not nearly done, either, although they consecrated it once they got the roof on. So go, see a cathedral being built. See a birth in progress.

And we also found souvenir t-shirts right there by our little cafe, cheap, and grabbed them. We wore them to board the ship the next day, so you'll see them soon.

The line to get into the cathedral stretched caround the block, and we're talking an enormous block, but it went very fast! Maybe 15 minutes. This gave us a chance to guzzle water, buy more water, and guzzle that. There was shade, too. Anyway, you never, ever, want to be touring around anyplace without your water bottle firmly attached. One reason is the heat, another is there are no water fountains. If you happen to find a restroom with agua potabile, fill up!

So we bought two tickets, two headsets and one elevator ride for guess who. Only a few of the 18 planned towers are built, and you can go up elevators in two of them, cross a teeny, tiny little stone bridge, and come down the stairs inside of two others. This is not for the faint-hearted, but I love to get up high, so I went.

But first, the headsets. Every place should have these, and yes, they disinfect them. We saw them do it. Even Joyce can operate these. You can choose your language, and then you can choose your location, and then you can choose how much detail you get. You can go in order or backwards or whatever. I have tried several other of these self-guided systems but this is the best. It gives you the most flexibility. Okay, you can't ask questions, but you can go find someone and ask, or look it up later. And because there's so much detail available, you probably won't have any, anyway.

So inch by inch we started to go over it. Like sculptures? You'd better love them, because they have a million of them. This is our absolute favorite:

It's on the Nativity facade, where the sculptor thought it important to include ALL the animals in the stable on Christmas Eve. We think so, too, because we have a dog from Oberammergau in our creche. The Nativity facade is all about animals, and the few required people, but animal sculptures are everywhere. This may be one good reason to bring a child, but for goodness sake, don't overdo it. A place like this can overwhelm an adult, so show the kids the animals and the baby Jesus and get out, please. Come back in a few years, look at something else.

Like, for example, this crazy hanging Jesus over the main altar. It's very interesting, but could frighten the unsuspecting. It also looks suspiciously like a monument to Bacchus. Perhaps the wine motif was taken a little too far? If you can't see it well, use the link, above. It also has a great shot of the nave which looks like a forest. Nothing either of us attempted shows it as well as that.

While we were there, the organ was being played, maybe for practice, and we sat and listened to that. They also recited a rosary, which I think they do every hour. We especially enjoyed the stained-glass. The entire place is just spectacular, and after we had worked our way back outside to the other side, and examined the entire Nativity facade, Joyce decided it was time for a break while I took my elevator ride. Here are a couple of shots from way up high on that tiny little bridge.

The second one is from behind the Tree of Life in the Nativity facade. Speaking of that, compare the stone in the two facades. The dark one, Nativity, was completed in the 1920s. The Passion isn't quite done yet. They need to get the doors on and a few other touches. See how dark the older one is?

It's not just a matter of different lighting or the distance from the lens; the older stone has weathered. Goodness knows how many centuries before the entire cathedral is the same color.

Joyce found a bench and put her feet up while I first took the elevator up the tower, and then climbed down these stairs,

and when I fell out this door, she insisted I do the same.

So we just sat there and gaped at it for a while, and we knew we'd never really appreciate it all. I mean, how can you? And none of the pictures we took will ever convey the beauty of this place, but they will help us remember.

I don't care what religion you are, or if you have none. It doesn't matter. Cathedrals are not just for people with religions, anyway. This is art for everyone. Go see.

The Dali Theatre Museum

Yeah, I know I said we went to Figueres in the last post, but we didn't exactly get there until this post, but it was the same day in real time, honestly.

So we arrived in Figueres and tramped all around the outside of the museum to get into it. Just piss-poor parking planning, that's all. And why "theatre"? Because that was what the building was before Dali moved into it and made it into a home and studio, and now a crypt. But that's only one little bit of it. They tried to convince us there is a floor plan and that you could follow some sort of scheme to get around it, but we pretty much gave up on that and just wandered. That means we probably saw some of it several times and perhaps some of it not at all.

Once again, there were screaming brats-in-arms, toted by clueless idiot parents. Listen, geniuses: most educated adults can't really grasp Dali. You think your darling DNA trophy in a poop-bag is going to get it? Yeah, right.

It was very hot and crowded but luckily, air conditioned, and we tried to tune out all the distractions and just enjoy the crazy work. Here are a few shots.

The outside:



And all the miscellaneous junk that seems to be strewn randomly all over the place? That belongs to the museum, too. As big as it is and as many displays as it has, it's hard to believe it's not the world's biggest collection of Dali, but it isn't. That's right here in Florida. We saw it when we first arrived, and now they have a new one, even bigger. We're going to see it next week, and I'll make that the final entry to this entire trip blog.

But back to the one in Spain, well, Dali is weird, and everything in the museum has some inexplicable aspect to it, and that's why it's fun.

Here's one of my very favorites. It probably has a formal name, but I call it the "Dripping Ship."

Here's something Joyce likes, I guess.

Here's a courtyard:

And a weird painting with some of the same objects it it as one we have at home.

And finally, a distant shot and a close up of a sculpture that's really eerie, yet attractive.

After all that, we had had enough stairs, and Joyce asked them to reverse the front turnstile to let us out, which they did. We went around a corner to the Dali jewelry exhibit and went in through a dark revolving door into a dark exhibit area, where you had to let your eyes adjust before you could see anything. When we were ready to leave, we saw the exit was up a lot of stairs again. Remembering the revolving door, we decided to go out that way. Well, the sentry, who was outside, decided, no, we weren't and started screaming in Spanish. For a moment, she trapped Joyce in this thing, which was as dark as a grave, but Joyce is big and strong, and forced her way out, yelling, "Let me out!" at the top of her lungs. Of course I felt it stop, then I heard the yelling, then I felt it go forward again (all while in the dark), and I burst through, whereupon the woman tried to push me back in. She didn't know me. I pushed her out of the way very easily, yelling, "No!" and "Stop it!" I have no idea even now how she thought she could physically trap us in her part of the museum. And to what end?

Then she started swearing at us and insulting us in Spanish and told us to go back to our own country, and we said we would be only too happy to do so, if this was how we were going to be treated. And then we went back in the other way and reported her to the museum, and also to our tour guide.

As I said several posts back, every once in a while we would encounter someone really mean. And this kind of thing can have a negative effect on our desire to travel. I mean, what if such a person was the first one someone met when going abroad for the first time? How much more of that would you like to absorb in the name of exploration of other cultures?

So it behooves us all to be nice to visitors in our own countries. You want to make a good impression and keep those tourist dollars coming? Be nice. Be nice anyway.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

You went where?

Figueres! We went to Figueres! And no, we never heard of it, either. We were way the hell back in the planning stage of our trip, when all we had arranged was the cruise, and we were looking at what to do before and after. We don't do this Olivia-style because we prefer to be a lot more independent. Joyce, especially, is prone to wandering off spontaneously, something she never does at home.

So we were watching the travel channel and guess what! A show about Barcelona came on, and they started talking about Dali and Gaudi and Sagrada Familia. We love art. We have been to the Dali Museum here in St. Pete. We actually have Dali's work hanging on our walls. And so they say, as we are watching this program, "If you go to Barcelona, you must take a day trip to Figueres, to tour the Dali Home and Musem."

So we watched this show, and we saw it, and we also saw a lot of work by Antonin Gaudi, who was clearly an insane genius, and Joyce said, "Well! We have to allow extra time for that!"

Of course. So I found a wonderful site called that arranges local day trips from afar, so you don't have to bribe the concierge or wait overnight in lines for big attractions. And we got our day trip to Figueres that way, and added a day for that and another for Gaudi's work. I mean, otherwise, we would have landed in Barcelona one day, and sailed the next. We didn't know Jill about Barcelona. Now I can reveal it's yet ANOTHER big ol' whopping European secret. You should go. Everyone should go.

From Barcelona to Figueres and back by bus, this bus:

is a very long trip, so they make it longer by throwing in Girona on the way. Like Figueres wouldn't exist if not for Dali, Girona wouldn't exist except for Figueres, because this is where we stop for a tour and lunch. So, we had never been to Girona, either, and you had to go there if you wanted to see the Dali Museum, so we went there.

Girona is a really pretty little town in the foothills of the Pyrenees. We entered on a level place, and it was all uphill after that.

We lost Joyce after several flights of steps masquerading as streets, but not very convincingly. We knew they were steps. You can't fool us! She handed over the camera and disappeared, I thought perhaps in search of beer, but I learned otherwise later.

On the way to the top, we saw many picturesque, medieval things. Here are some of them. This is a pretty little river or canal which isn't navigable, but apparently attracts wading birds.

Here's the legendary Witch of Girona. Click to enlarge the picture, scroll right and cock your head to the right. See? She's a gargoyle. Apparently she was mean to children and was turned into this. Childfree people are always made into villains. Anyway, I like her. She probably wasn't really as mean as she was intolerant of their nonsense.

And here's a bronze memorial to the rebuilding of the cathedral. It's a half-person (probably an architect) half-unfinished church (with an open nave).

This is the very top. I climbed over the broken city walls to take this picture.

When we got back down, Joyce was waiting on a main square they evidently told her we'd pass through. She had spent the entire time trying to cash travelers' checks (which are MONEY) into Euros. She visited every bank within walking distance. There's been some issue with counterfeiting, so no one would do it. Luckily our hotel did it for us when we got back to Barcelona.

We ended up here for lunch, and then drove about half an hour to Figueres, which deserves a whole entry of its own.

You may be wondering why the spacing has changed all of a sudden. I haven't got the foggiest God-damned idea.