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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Montserrat & a Waltz down the La Rambla

Tram to the Top

Montserrat & a Waltz down the La Rambla

This is Tuesday and we took a trip to Montserrat by train. We had already found out where to catch the train. So after breakfast we grabbed cameras, turned in the hotel key, and headed out the door to flag a taxi to the station. The cab showed up and we were on our way to the Plaza d’ Espanya. MA engaged the cab drive in some high level Spanish and learned that he was staying home on Wednesday in support of the General Strike throughout Spain. More on this later. We arrived in plenty of time to catch the 9:30 am train to Montserrat.

Montserrat, which means “serrated mountain”, is the location of the Monastery of Montserrat. The Monastery is surrounded by hermit caves, chapels, and jagged rocks which give it its name. It has a basilica, a museum, and is home to hundreds of Benedictine monks. It dates back to 9th Century, expanded in the 11th Century, attacked by the French in 1811 and rebuilt in 1844.
Basilica Facade

Interior of the Basilica

After about an hour and ten minutes train ride during which MA and a couple from Brazil engaged in a lively conversation in Portuguese, the train stopped below the Monastery and we boarded a tram which took us high up to the top of the mountain, 4055 ft above sea level. The view was awesome. We stopped in the cafeteria and had coffee and walked into the Basilica. The monks surely built a “one of a kind” place of worship.

Soon it was time to head back to Barcelona so we took the tram down to the train station. It was lunch time so we opened our ham and cheese sandwiches and had a lunch while we waited for the train. The ride back was a little confusing because the train we boarded didn’t go all the way to Barcelona. MA had made friends with a young Spanish woman, Noemí who showed us how to transfer to another train at a designated station. It is sure handy having a quad-linguist wife!

La Rambla

Our plan was to ride the train back to our starting place and use the remaining day on our Touristic Bus ticket and get off at the Old Quarter and go through the city museum. Instead we hopped off and started up the historic and famous “La Rambla”. This pedestrian walkway stretches from the big Plaça de Catalunya to the Mediterranean.

It is filled with souvenir shops, flower stalls, mime artists, musicians, dancers, newsstands, and cafes, tourists, natives, and don’t forget the pickpockets. MA and I sat down at a café and watched a mime dressed as a fruit tree come to life whenever someone dropped a coin in his cup. He would suddenly grab a wreath of artificial fruit and loop it over the payee’s head along with a hat of artificial fruit until someone took a photo.

We saw some strange people on this walk but the biggest surprise was finding a huge open-air market with all kinds of fruit, nuts, meats, spices, flowers, etc along the walk. I can’t wait to edit those photos. At the end of the walk we boarded our open air bus and made our way back to the hotel.

Stuck in Barcelona

The Spanish are going on a “General Strike” tomorrow, 29 September and we were holding our breath hoping our flight would not be affected. It is.  We were notified by Continental that our flight was cancelled and they rescheduled us for Saturday. No problem. MA got on the computer and got us a room at an airport hotel so we won’t be sleeping on waiting chairs. We are just going to make the best of it and fly home Saturday. We stopped at the local mini-market and loaded up on bottled water and snacks and checked our trip interruption insurance to see what they are going to pay! This means we will regrettably miss our Bible Study class for one more Saturday and MA sent out an SOS to the ladies that Friday night Bible Study is also cancelled.

So, hasta la vista you-all! Later! WW

Some more pictures:

Barcelona by Bus (2 Days in the Catalonian Capitol)

Barcelona-Day 1

Barcelona by Tour Bus from the Ship

The Ruby Princess docked for the last time (Sunday) here in Barcelona, Spain. We decided to spend three additional days here so we could see some of the city without rushing. We had arranged to go on a tour from the ship to get an idea of how the city was laid out. Our luggage was carried off last night and it was waiting for us as we departed the ship. We grabbed our bags, rolled them to the bus and hopped aboard.

Our tour would take us through some of the highlights of Barcelona; Sagrada Familia church, Old Gothic Quarter, Barcelona cathedral, and other sites. This was Sunday and there were hundreds of people around the cathedral watching Spanish folk dances. The tour ended at a square where we caught a cab to the Hotel Antibes, located in the center of the city. We unpacked, had a pizza for dinner and called it a night.

Day-2 (Monday)

Barcelona by Open-Air Bus; Hop-on-Hop-off

MA and I had decided to see Barcelona by the open air buses that weave through the city stopping at all the highlights. The run about every twenty minutes and you “hop on, hop off” at whatever stop suits your fancy. We were up early, and out the hotel door at 8:00. We walked the four blocks to the huge Gaudi church called La Sagrada Familia and found the Bus stop. We purchased two-day tickets.

We took a little time for more photographs of this huge church that truly is THE landmark of Barcelona. It was begun in 1883 by architect Antoni Gaudi and it’s still under construction. It would take me much longer to describe everything to you but just let me say it is unbelievable, awesome, symbolic in Christian faith, and will still not be completed for another 30-40 years. The towers are over 400 feet high. The interior is so massive it you can’t believe human beings could build something like this. The photos don’t do it justice. I took plenty and will dedicate an entire gallery to just this church.

It was finally time to start the bus ride so we hopped aboard the Blue Line which serves the north and west part of Barcelona. After touring the northern part of the city we headed by to the central district. Our first bus transfer was at the Plaza de Catalunya, the central plaza of Barcelona. We jumped aboard the Red Line for two stops and got off to walk into the old Gothic Barri (Quarter). It was lunch time so we got two cold drinks at a café and opened our “sack lunch” and had our ham and cheese sandwiches which we had made at the hotel breakfast.

After lunch we walked around the old quarter, tried to get in a museum but most were closed on Monday. We hopped back on the Red Line bus, found some empty seats on the top and enjoyed the view from the upper deck. We hopped off again at the Plaza d Espanha to purchase two rail tickets for a trip to Montserrat Tuesday and check out the rail station where we need to be on Tuesday.

Back on the bus and rode it to the top of the hill of Montjuic which rises to 700 feet above the streets. The National Palace, which is now a museum, dominates the architecture of the district. From this landmark you can see the whole skyline of Barcelona. I took some photos and we hopped back on to back to the Sagrada Familia church where we hopped off. We decided to have dinner and it was a choice between McDonald’s and the Luctuca Restaurant-Buffet. We chose the buffet. The food was good, kind of like Sweet Tomato and topped off with a small ice cream cup and decaf espresso.

Back at the hotel, the prayers for our return kicked in when the hotel clerk offered to hook us up with his cousin who works the night shift and would probably be interested in driving us to the airport Wednesday. Given that the local transportation will be on strike, it was a welcomed suggestion. I later met up with Alex and we’re all set to at least get to the Continental counter tomorrow. We’re watching the flights and if our inbound aircraft takes off from New York for Barcelona we might be OK after all.

I then decided to walk back to the church and take some night photos. On the way back about a block from the front door, I was approached by a stranger wanting to know directions to the subway. I immediately recognized him as a “thief” and held my tripod up pointing it at him. He then asked me if I had a map and I replied no and told him to take a hike. About that time two plainclothes police officers walked up, identified themselves and asked the guy for his ID and asked me for my passport. I pulled out my police ID and showed it to the cops and they smiled. I thought the crook was going to choke. The cops him to take a hike and not to be accosting tourists He quickly walked off. The cops had a big laugh and told me to be careful.

Off to Montserrat on the train (Tuesday). Thanks for all the comments and the prayers! WW & MA

Christopher Columbus Monument

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Monte Carlo & Eze

Saturday: Monte Carlo and the Medieval Village of Eze, France

Setting Full Moon Over Monaco

The Ruby Princess anchored in the bay just outside of Monte Carlo in the Principality of Monaco on Saturday morning. There were numerous huge yachts anchored in the bay because of a yacht show that was going on for the high rollers. But of course our “yacht” was much bigger!

Monte Carlo from the Promanade Deck

The ship uses tenders (powered-lifeboats) to get passengers to and from shore when it cannot dock. We were up and at ‘em early as our tour left at 8:30 for the medieval French village of Eze. We jumped on a tender and headed to the dock in Monte Carlo. I can’t recall seeing so many huge multi-million $$$ yachts in one place in my life.

We made our way to a luxury motor coach and drove out of Monaco on the same streets that the Grand Prix racers use in May each year.

Eze church
 Eze has its origins in the Middle Ages and is perched on the top of a mountain 1500 feet above sea level not far from Monaco. The tour bus left the harbor of Monte Carlo and followed a winding, twisting road that carried us up to the village. We had an option of staying with the guide or meeting him at the top of village to get into the upper gardens. I chose to take off and look for photographic subjects. I’d rather seek out my own interesting and wonderful subjects so off I went to explore Eze. I met up with MA about an hour later and we found our group. We then entered an unusual cactus garden high on the top of the hill with a helicopter-type view of Monte Carlo.

After some photo ops up there we started back down and stopped in a small café at the bottom of the mountain. There were two French gendarmes having coffee inside, so I went in and introduced myself. They were happy to meet me and on the way out stopped at our table. MA practiced her French with them. They were very nice to us and I must say a true credit to cops everywhere.

Monte Carlo from Eze
We boarded the bus for the downhill ride back to the ship. As we arrived back at dock there were hundreds of people waiting to get back onboard. But the tenders moved fast and soon we were on board and motoring back to the Ruby Princess.

Last night was it for our time on this ship so we finished packing our bags, put on the color coded tags for our next-day Barcelona tour and placed them outside the door. At dinner we said good bye to our new friends from New York, Long Island, Nashville, Tennessee, and Manchester, England.

The plan for today (Sunday) was to do a five-hour city bus tour to help get us oriented and then taxi to the hotel. One of the things I’ll write about later is the awesome Sagrada Familia cathedral. You just can’t imagine this historic place designed by Gaudi. I wanted to get as much photography in as possible so after a while, MA went outside and started looking around to see if she could spot any pickpockets. She did and two unaware ladies were very grateful to her alerting them that they were being targeted. She showed me the guy later, I think she was on to something.

It’s been a wonderful cruise and I’ve taken some photos I’m really happy with and will send you the link to later. Adios, amigo. WW

I did not get this as a souvenir, but thought it was funny.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Pisa, from the Italian port of Livorno

The Ruby Princess docked early Friday in Livorno, the second largest port in Italy. It is a jumping off place for the tourist attractions of Florence and Pisa. MA and I chose to go to Pisa today with a group tour and had the morning free to start packing for Sunday’s disembarkation in Barcelona. We met the tour group at 12:30 and we were off the ship and in the bus by 1:00 pm headed north and east from Livorno. Our tour guide was a friendly Italian by the name of David.

We arrived near the “Field of Miracles” and parked in the tourist bus area about a half mile from the Cathedral, Leaning Tower of Pisa, which is a bell tower, and the Baptistry. I had seen Pisa in 1968 with my Air Force roommate, Bill Muzenski, and remembered it very well. MA had never seen it and she was quite amazed about how it really does lean to the south and the beautiful marble it is made from. We walked around, took photos, and entered the Cathedral where my D3s was able to capture the enormous beauty inside. The tour lasted about 4 hours and as we were walking back to the bus we got separated from the group by a pair of railroad crossing arms and we had stay behind until the train came and went. The Princess ship’s escort waited anxiously on the other side for us! We boarded the ship and set sail toward Monaco in the night.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Tarquinia & Etruscan Countryside

Tarquinia & Etruscan Countryside

We docked early at the port city of Civitavecchia that serves Rome and surrounding areas. The weather could not be better: low humidity and temperatures in the 70’s. After breakfast we got ready for a tour of the medieval Italian town of Tarquinia, located about 30 miles away.

Our guide today was Michele or Mickey as he said. He was a no-nonsense Italian guy with a shaved head. We were dropped off in the medieval town of Tarquinia and I took off to take photos of the town and people while Ma set out to find out about a pending general strike in Barcelona on the day we are supposed to fly out, September 29th. After using three languages she managed to get an international calling card, figure out how to use it, go into a hotel and use their internet to get an Italian phone number for Continental, get them on the line only to be told they have not made any provisions yet for the strike, in fact the agent knew nothing about it.

I had better luck, meeting a couple of local cops and saying hello. They seemed to appreciate the gesture. The rest of the morning was spent in a “Gelateria” where we watched an Italian signora make Italian ice cream called Gelato and we were given generous samples. It was good, but I still prefer Blue Bell. Tomorrow: Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Naples & the Amalfi Coast

Naples & the Amalfi Coast

When the moon hits your eye, that’s a big a pizza pie, that’s amore….

The Ruby Princess left Mykonos Island in Greece and sailed west from the Aegean Sea into the Mediterranean Sea, then north into the Ionian Sea, crossing the Straits of Messina between Sicily and Italy and on into the Tyrrhenian Sea. This was a day at sea and the next morning we docked at Naples, Italy on the west side of southern Italy.

Naples is where the ancient Roman city of Pompeii was discovered. Pompeii was destroyed by the Mt. Vesuvius volcano in 79 A.D. We did not go to Pompeii as both of us were tired of looking at ruins so we chose a tour of Sorrento and boat ride down the the Amalfi Coast with time in the small village of Amalfi. It was a great choice.

We were in Brown #1 and at 8:00 am we made our way off the ship and onto the bus. These buses are nice. Most are Mercedes-Benz brand and very comfortable. Our tour guide for the day was a young Italian woman by the name of Roberta. She spoke English with a heavy Italian accent but her vocabulary was great and we understood most of what she was saying. After about an hour riding on a narrow and steep mountain two-lane "highway we arrived at the coastal town of Sorrento.

In Sorrento we had an hour and a half to explore on our own (my perference too btw) and then meet up with the tour group at 11:00 am. MA and walked around this old city with winding narrow streets. I asked a lady at a fruit stand if I could take her picture and she said yes and then fluffed her hair and I took her photo. The lady then handed MA with a giant lemon as a gift. We said “Grazie” and continued our walk. Next I spotted a lady hanging out her laundry on a second story window sill and I asked her if I could take her photo. She stuck her head out the window and smiled. It took me under five seconds for the D3s to click that photo. We stopped and had coffee at the Coffee Shop Sorrento and continued our sojourn.

We met our group back at the square and were escorted to unch to at a nice Italian restaurant. Joining us was Ken, the ship's ports of call narrator. Ken is retired from teaching at a university in England and really knows world history. Our other lunch companion was Harley, retired FBI, from Seattle, WA. Lunch was typical Italian fare and very enjoyable.

The second part of our tour was a boat ride from Sorrento up the Amalfi coast to the town of Positano. Two busloads boarded the tour boat and we headed north along the Amalfi coastline which is dotted with watch towers. During medieval times the watch towera were used to warn people of invading Turk pirates. The coast is dotted with small villages perched on hilltops or in coves on beaches.

After an hour or so the boat docked at Positano, a medieval Italian village. Our guide took us to the town square dominated by a very old cathedral. We were on our own for two hours. We walked around and MA sat down below the steps of the huge cathedral to people watch and I went inside. Magnificent. It reminded me of St. Peter’s in Rome. The photo of the interior I will post in a gallery later. I found MA outside or should say she found me and we met our group back at the town square and walked back to the tour boat with dripping cones of gelato ice cream.

Amalfi Cathedral
On the ride back to Sorrento MA was trying to photograph a handsome Italian sailor. She said it was for her single friends. Yea, right. I was in the bow of the bow and watching all of this go down. The handsome Italian grabbed MA’s camera, sat down very close to her, gave the camera to someone and asked them to take a photo. I told MA I saw it all and reminded her that we were not taking any such Italians home as souvenirs. The day was really pleasant, temperatures in the 70’s no humidity, no wind.
Back aboard ship I got ready for the full moon rise at 6:46 pm. I positioned myself on the stern of the ship with my camera mounted on my travel tripod. The moon rose and reached a perfect height around 7:30 pm. As the old song says,” When the moon hits your eyes like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.” I call this photo Moon Rise Over Mt. Vesuvius.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Mykonos my Mykonos, a Greek Delight

Mykonos……….my Mykonos, a Greek delight

Our day began still at sea about 4 hours from the Greek Island of Mykonos and the first order of the day was to have breakfast. (Notice again: the priorities!) Our cabin is starboard-aft on the 11th floor. Breakfast and lunch are served starboard-aft on the 15th floor buffet style, a quick elevator ride. We sat next to a couple from Denmark, Jarl and Jane. They spoke more English than we did Danish so we had a pleasant conversation with them over breakfast. One thing I have noticed about all Europeans is that they eat with their fork in their left hand and knife in their right hand, using the knife to push food on their fork. There is no charge for that observation; MA’s done since her college days in Mexico City.

The Ruby Princess docked at the Mykonos Island pier shortly before 12:00 Noon. We were ready. Originally we planned on going on an organized tour but changed our minds and decided to explore Mykonos on our own.

It was a good decision particularly because Princess provided a free shuttle bus to town and MA can now say “good afternoon, thank you and bye” in Greek. I’ve noticed when she tries to speak the languages of others and adds a big smile to the effort; the responses are a surprised welcoming smile in return. Anyhow, off we went to look for photo ops.

Mykonos Island became a travel destination thanks to its proximity to mainland Greece. There were six other cruise ships anchored in the bay. And of course, the town features shops, restaurants, cafes, jewelry stores, and surprise (!) souvenirs.

Almost every home and building is built with white-washed stone and bright blue shutters and doors. The streets are stone or tile inlay. There is a section of Mykonos called “Little Venice” because of the narrow and winding streets. The most visible landmarks in Mykonos are the 5 windmills at the south end of the bay. I don’t think they do anything anymore except pose for tourist photos but they used to have something to do with processing grains. The town mascot, a huge white Pelican, waddled up to the waterfront fountain and sat there taking sips and daring anyone to come close.

We walked down to the waterfront and I photographed some Greek fishing boats and a fisherman mending his nets. The water at the beach is crystal clear and makes the Galveston beachfront look like a mud bath. We stopped in the Kastro-Café and got a cold drink and met the owner, a young man by the name of Akaratzas. He took our photo and I returned the favor and photographed him behind the counter. We wandered around enough for me to get some great photos around the island and we headed back to the ship after stocking up on bottled water (60 cents Euro on land versus Princess’ cost of $4 Euros per bottle!)

The Ruby Princess sailed away at sunset. I wanted a photo of the harbor with all the ships and the rising moon over the bay so I waited for the right moment at the stern of the ship and got my shot. After we got away and were sailing west I looked forward and realized the sun was going down quickly so I rushed to the bow to get a photo of the sunset. I thought I had missed it but a few minutes later the sky lit up with rays from the sunken sun and turned the low clouds different shades of red, yellow, purple the likes of which I can’t recall.

Lazy day at sea today and tomorrow we are in Naples. Thanks for reading the blogs! You have no idea how much we enjoy doing them as we recall the beauty and planning of God for his people.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Istanbul, not Constantinople

Istanbul, not Constantinople

The Ruby Princess docked at Istanbul this morning shortly after sunrise. I was on the top deck watching this mysterious city coming to life. Istanbul, Turkey is the only city that spans two continents, Europe and Asia. The European side, which has the most of the history, spans to what is called the Golden Horn. The Asian side is called the New City. The Bosphorus Straight separates the two continents and the city is linked by the Bosphorus Bridge and another bridge.

The history of Istanbul goes back to 650 BC. It was first conquered by the Persians, then the Greeks, and then the Romans. The Roman Emperor Constantine the Great renamed the town after himself and it became the second capitol of Rome. Constantine was responsible for spreading Christianity throughout the Roman Empire and Constantinople became the center of Christianity. Then In 1054 when the church split into the Roman Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, Constantinople became the Eastern Orthodox religious center. The city was taken over by the Paleologos dynasty in the late 14th Century and in 1453 the Ottomans conquered the city and it became the center of the world of Islam. The Ottoman Empire stretched from Austria to Persia to Egypt to Morocco. It was broken up into many countries and Turkey became a republic after World War One.

Today Turkey is a modern secular Islamic Republic, with the emphasis on secular. It is trying hard to become a member of the European Union and our guide mentioned that a lot. The population is about 12 to 15 million with at least 70% living in Istanbul and surrounding area. Nine-five percent of Turkish people are of the Islamic faith, however, our guide said that some drink alcohol, he likes bacon, most of the women do not wear traditional Islamic clothing, and they love tourists.

We were on another tour and left the ship early at 7:45 am. Our guide was a very intelligent guy called Gukhan. We would be Bus Pink #4 today. The first stop was a Turkish carpet & jewelry store called Galata where we were treated to Turkish coffee, about the consistency of mud but a real morning eye opener. We watched a live demonstration of how carpets are weaved, thread by thread, using a double knot and tie. I was so impressed I bought a small one for our living room and they are shipping it home for us. I only did that after Princess guarantees the quality and delivery. We boarded our bus and we were off to the see the old Roman Hippodrome and the Blue Mosque.

The Blue Mosque is a place where Muslims come to pray daily so there are certain rules you must abide by when entering. Everyone removes their shoes and puts them in a plastic bag. Women must cover their shoulders. MA was aware of this and thought she had dressed appropriately with a long skirt and a shirt with sleeves but apparently she didn’t pass the Mosque police sleeve test and they made her wear a shawl to cover her arms.

Surprisingly, they allowed photography inside. I cranked my D3s to its highest ISO and took some photos of this amazing place. The huge center dome is covered with blue tiles and is supported by four pillars which the Turks call elephant legs. We listened to our guide explain not only about the place but also about his Muslim faith. From there it was a short distance to the Hagia Sophia Museum. The museum was originally a Christian church, then it became a mosque and today it is a museum. This is another massive Byzantine structure with huge domes and pillars inside. The church in Venice is modeled after this original Christian church.

I must tell you about the street salesmen. No matter where we walked we were constantly bombarded with vendors trying to sell us something; “genuine” fake watches, spinning tops, carpets, wooden flutes, cold water (which we bought), felt hats shirts, scarves, flutes, and souvenir books (which I bought). There were also food and drink stands selling pomegranate juice, boiled corn, candy, and a Turkish pretzel called a “simit”.

It was getting to be lunch time and Pink #5 headed off to the Bosphorus Straight water front where we boarded a tour boat for a Turkish lunch and cruise. There were about 150 of us on board from four tour buses. The boat has a dining deck where we ate lunch and a top deck for viewing. We sat down to eat and were served some really interesting food, most of which I sampled. Here is the lunch;

Appetizers: Feta cheese with parsley, fresh grape leaves stuffed with rice, hummus with pastrami, chicken breast with garlic, eggplant with onions in olive oil

Hot Appetizer: Pastry with minced meat & yogurt sauce

Palace Cuisine: Beef wrapped in eggplant served with rice

Dessert: Apricot dessert with cream, flour Helva or Turkish delight

Beverages; Unlimited soft drinks; water, tea and Turkish coffee

The tour boat docked and we were off to our final site; the Topkapi Palace which was the home of the sultans who ruled the Ottoman Empire. I can tell you these guys had a lot of money. I enjoyed the story about the guy who found a huge rock and didn’t know what it was so he sold it for three loaves of bread. The bread salesman took it to a jeweler who realized it was a huge diamond. The Sultan found out about it and confiscated it for himself.

Our tour ended and we were deposited at the harbor and boarded the ship. We sailed away from Istanbul at sunset. Now we’re off to Mykonos, Greece. See ya!