Tales from the Western Med Day 1A

May 9, 2017
Our flight out was pleasantly of little note. We flew out of Philadelphia instead of Newark, so much less hectic, and direct to Barcelona.
We had a beautiful approach to Barcelona and landed around 8:30a. It took us 2+ hours to make it to the hotel with passport, baggage, transport, traffic, but all-in-all a good journey. Barcelona is absolutely gorgeous and we had perfect weather: sunny with a cool breeze coming off the Med. With weather this good, it was time to get exploring! Our room was ready, so after a quick freshening up we hit the streets. We had 15:00 tickets to get into Park Güell, so for the next 6 hours we kicked around the old Gothic city center, El Gòtic, a collection of narrow haphazard streets centered around the cathedral with a Medieval feel, lots of shopping, and interesting architecture. Lunch was tapas, in this a case a "selection of Iberian meats," served with toasted baguette for my husband Phil, and for me ... pasta bolognese!
We happened upon a basilica, the Basilica of the Martyred Saints, which we thought might look interesting inside. To our surprise, for the cost of 2 €, we could climb the bell tower! After 150 steps we had a spectacular view of Barcelona!
After an espresso and Churros con Chocolate Caliente -- a thick hot chocolate that is used as a dipping sauce for the churros -- we headed to the nearest metro station bound for Park Güell.







Tales from the Western Med Day 1B

May 9, 2017
We picked up the metro from El Gòtic to Park Güell. The Barcelona metro is efficient and easy to navigate- and only 1€ per ride if you buy them in packs pf 10. Park Güell is situated on a hill. Count Güell had the idea to build a 60-unit upper class housing development in the area during Barcelona's rapid expansion in the late 19th cent. He commissioned his friend and renowned architect, Gaudí, to design the development 1900. Gaudí designed and executed the grounds, but only two houses were built. Lack of public transport and the exclusive nature made the development project unviable and the development concept was abandoned in 1914. Güell's heirs decided to allow the city to purchase the grounds as Count Güell had often allowed it to be used for community events. With Gaudí's unique styles, it became a UNESCO World heritage site in 1984. The area and artistic architecture is difficult to capture in pictures. This is one of the 'must' sites of a Barcelona visit. The is upper square bordered by a serpentine continuous bench decorated with brilliant tile work. The upper square has an excellent view of the Med and is supported by the Hypostyle Room, an area with 86 Doric columns and an undulating ceiling with tile work.

Tales from the Western Med Day 1C

May 9, 2017
After a 3-course dinner of an excellent tomato gazpacho , Catalan duck, and crema Catalan (like crème brulée), we walked up to La Pedrera, the nick name of the Milà Casa. This is a house built by Gaudí in 1906-10 that became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984. Gaudí's style is well represented in this house with everything designed to resemble elements from nature. The seven-story building is divided between two courtyards which bring light down to all levels from above-- probably a design that couldn't be anywhere else with less than perfect weather! There are large windows throughout, giving the building an open feel and it's nickname, La Pedrera, meaning the quarry as it looked like a big chunk from a stone quarry with various caves being mined out. Gaudí avoided straight lines in all his works. The attic has supporting brick work that looks like the backbone of a whale. The rooftop is amazing with sculptures for the chimneys and huge bell-like pieces. The tour we took was a night tour that ended with a light show projected on these sculptures. Afterwards we walked back to the hotel and collapsed after logging 8.4 miles on foot.

Tales from the Western Med Day 2A

May 10, 2017
Despite the long day yesterday, alarms were set for 5:30a so that we could get ready and arrive on time for our 6:45 bus to Montserrat (meaning literally, saw mountain) and the Benedictine monastery, Santa Maria de Montserrat. Located about a hour by bus NW of Barcelona, Montserrat has a unique serrated shape compared to the smoother sloped mountains around the area. There is evidence of monks inhabiting this mountain as early as the 9th century. The construction of the abbey is centered around the Miracle of the Black Madonna, a wood carving from around the 9th century that was found in a cave. A bishop wished to move the Madonna off the mountain and build an abbey, but when people attempted to move it, it became heavy as if it were made of iron. It was then decided to build the abbey on the mountain. Because of the mountain's unique shape it had been considered a holy place for centuries. Geologically, its formation is thought to be from sedimentary rocks formally at the bottom of a great sea. The forces that pushed up the Pyrenees also pushed up Montserrat while ancient rivers cut the distinctive shapes.
Our early tour time paid off with us being the first to the abbey before other tourists arrived. The surrounding views are spectacular! We toured through the abbey, saw the black Madonna, then took a funicular ride another 800 ft up the mountain to take in even more awesome views. We were treated to the site of a mountain goat impossibly traversing across a steep slope. Once back down to the abbey, we looked through a small museum of art curated by the abbey with several paintings we had not seen previously. Also included in the tour was a tasting of multiple styles of digestives made in the surrounding area. Very yummy! And there was much sleeping on the bus ride back!

Tales from the Western Med Day 2B

May 10, 2017
Lunch was very simple, local cheese bought outside of the abbey and fresh baked bread. After relaxing at the hotel, we walked to Casa Bòtllo (pronounced boy-ya), another large building designed by Gaudí. The tour is self-guided using iPhone-like devices with headsets. Like La Pedrera, there are many examples of Gaudí's style of imitating nature in the structural elements; however, there is much more tile work on display. These huge Barcelona houses built in the early 20th century are named from the wealthy family that commissioned them. The family would reside on the main (2nd) floor, and would rent out rooms on higher floors as apartments. Gaudí was masterful in directing light to all parts of the building with skylights and windows. On the roof, the chimneys are grouped together to become sculptures.







Tales from the Western Med Day 3A

May 11, 2017
This morning we saw Gaudí's most famous work, Sagrada Familia. construction started in 1882 and is still an ongoing project with architects. This is an astounding structure both inside and out. If you visit, you must plan when you'll go and reserve an entrance time online with prepaid tickets. We entered ~09:15, exited ~10:30 and saw the next available entrance time for walk up purchase was 17:15! Inside, the normal Doric columns transform into tree trunks as you look up. Helical elements like staircases appear to go on forever rising up to heaven. Iconography is present throughout, but modern and unmistakably Gaudí. The stained glass in the nave goes from sunrise to sunset passing through all the colors of the rainbow. We were able to go up the Nativity tower. You get an elevator ride up and climb down. Excellent views of Barcelona, but also you get close up views of Gaudí's designs. The exterior is also something to enjoy with many sculptures and symbols made of mosaic tile.

Tales from the Western Med Day 3B

May 11, 2017
After a quick visit to the Barcelona cathedral and some lunch (tapas!) it was All aboard the MSC cruise ship, Orchestra! Check-in was painless and quick. We took a taxi from our hotel to the docks and arrived a few minutes before our designated boarding time. After dropping off our bags, security check, photos, etc we were in our room in less than 30 min and our bags were delivered about an hour later. Our ship is 300 x 32 meters and can house 2550 passengers served by nearly 1000 crew members.
Not much else besides settling in, having dinner, and relaxing as we cast off for Corsica.

Tales from the Western Med Day 4

May 12, 2017
Our ship docked in Ajaccio on the island of Corsica.
Corsica is 184x 84 km., but has more than 1000 km of coastline. It is the 4th largest island in the Med and quite mountainous; the highest point is 2,700 m and we could see several mountains with snow. Our guide told us that destination signs in km are rare, and more often road distances are communicated in time, (Just like L.A.!). You will often see two languages on signs, both French and Corsican. The Island is subtropical and evergreen year round. There are 30,000 goats, 100,000 sheep, but only 300,000 people. There are many varieties of cheeses and meats from their livestock which are highly valued since the sheep and goat are free range.
Our Excursion was called "Discover the Calanques." We were driven along the Corsican coast to the town of Piana which is near the Calanques, a UNESCO a World Heritage site. The Calanques are steep-sloped reddish limestone rock formations with distinctive shapes that fire the imagination. Enroute we heard interesting tidbits about Corsican life and its history. We also stopped at Cargèse, a small town with an interesting Greek Roman Catholic church. The church was formerly a Greek Orthodox, but was forced to become a Roman Catholic in the 18th century. It had interesting frescos and Orthodox style of iconography. On the way back we stopped at a small town where we could sample the local sweet chestnut beer or local wine. There was a royal clipper ship docked beside us on our return.

Tales from the Western Med Day 5

May 13, 2017
We docked in Civitavecchia, which is the largest port in Italy. Civitavecchia literally means "ancient town" and was built on the ruins of an Etruscan settlement more than 3 millennia old! Most passengers are off to excursions in Rome which is 50 miles south and a 2 hr bus ride away. We didn't feel like doing that as we've seen the standard sites of Rome. There isn't much to see in Civitavecchia, but we had heard that Tarquinia would be a good day trip. We walked to the train/bus station with a Russian couple we met at dinner. Round trip tickets by bus or train to Tarquinia cost only 3€ (25 min bus ride or 15 min by train) plus another Euro for a local bus to the old city center which was 3-4 km from the Tarquinia station. Tarquinia is a beautiful, old, rural Italian city but was of great importance when the Etruscans ruled the land. There is an UNESCO World Heritage site called The Monterozzi Necropolis with some 6,000 ancient tombs. Many are tumulus tombs with chambers carved in the rock below, and several of these have beautiful fresco wall paintings over 2500 years old. Outside of Egypt, these are likely the oldest viewable paintings. The necropolis was known to exist in the 19th century, but not its extent. In the 1960s, a systematic archeological search was done with geological equipment to determine the locations of the underground chambers. Small structures have been built over chambers and you can descend by stairs into the tombs where you switch on a timed light to view the paintings. I found an entertaining travel guide written by D H Lawrence in 1937 (public domain, so downloadable, "Etruscan Places") about his visit to the tombs known at the time. We also visited some local churches of Tarquinia and had gelato before making the return trip to Civitavecchia. We had a wonderful time, but were quite tired; so, we skipped the evening entertainment since we have an early star for an all-day excursion tomorrow.

Tales from the Western Med Day 6A

May 14, 2017
We docked in La Spezia, another large Italian port. La Spezia was a critical naval base for Italy since the 1860s, so it was one of the most heavily bombed Italian cities in WW2. Even though the city is old, there is a lot of modern construction.
We started our excursion for the day with a quick bus ride to Porto Venere, an old Medieval town unreachable by train, only by motorcar or boat. I thought that this was simply to be our launching point to experience Cinque Terre, but Porto Venere turned out to be a gorgeous city, and we had about 30 min of guided touring and 90 min to explore on our own.
While settled since 1st century BC, Porto Venere became a Genoese colony in 1113. We were shown marble troughs which were used for measuring wine and oil for purposes of taxation. There is a fortress to guard the town from land attacks and a wall of tall, colorful houses to guard against sea attacks. The houses were built on the rocky shore, but in modern times some of the bay has been filled to create a promenade in front of the houses. Gorgeous views are to be had from all over the city. There is a local black marble that was used for building, but now is limited to mostly craftwork sold in shops. You can see the marble in churches as columns that alternate between white and black. The surrounding mountains slope directly into the sea forming grottoes. One grotto can be reached by steps and is famous for inspiring Lord Byron while he lived in Italy. After a bit of exploring, we boarded a small touring boat to view Cinque Terre.

Tales from the Western Med Day 6B

May 14, 2017
We started our boat tour on the Trie Frè (three brothers in the local dialect) which cruised up the coast. Cinque Terre (pronounced Chin-qua Ter-a) means five lands. This refers to the five fishing villages carved out of the mountains along the coast. (Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore). We had a guided tour on the boat and stopped at the northern most city to have lunch and walk around. The Cinque Terre region (including Porto Venere) has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1997. Dry white wines are produced with three varieties specifically identified to the region since 1973. There is a train connecting the five villages completed in 1928. It is also possible to walk a trail between the cities, but that would only be for the most adventurous. We docked in Monterosso al Mar, the largest of the five villages, founded in the 11th century. After a brief guided tour we had lunch: for Phil, stuffed mussels, a specialty of the area, with a regional white wine and for me ... pasta bolognese! After looking around the village for a couple of hours taking in the beautiful sites, we boarded the train which took us back to our bus which delivered us back to the ship in La Spezia. It was a long but excellent day!

Tales from the Western Med Day 7

May 15, 2017
We docked in Genoa, a city we had never visited which is easily accessed from the port; so we did not sign up for an excursion and instead walked around the city. Throughout this cruise we have visited places that were Genovese colonies (Corsica, Porto Venere) where the common theme was the heavy taxation by Genoa. Walking around the city we can see where all that tax money went! Building after building is ornately decorated in sculpture and frescos. The palaces on La Strade Nuove (the "new streets," now called Via Garibaldi), were built by the most influential Genovese families to show off their prestige and power during the city’s “Golden Age” (1557 to 1627). Genoa is sometimes called "the Vertical Town" as it was forced to build up the Sarzano hill as it extended from the sea. Many streets have steps on the sides because they are so steep, but climbing them is rewarded with spectacular views. Besides meats and cheeses, a specialty of Genoa is focaccia and many flavors can be found. Unfortunately, this was our port on Sunday (on a week long cruise there must be one!), so many places were closed. But we still had a marvelous time looking at the buildings and admiring the views.

Tales from the Western Med Day 8A

May 16, 2017
It sounds so nice, "tender access," or "tender service." But when you're on a cruise ship it means your ship can't dock at the port, and you need to get packed into lifeboats to be ferried ashore. MSC did an efficient job of it after our ship anchored about 1000 m off the shore of Cannes in the Côte d'Azur. We took an excursion that toured us around the Cape of Antibes, the old city of Antibes, and the city of Cannes. We walked around Antibes where we saw yachts from many different countries. Antibes was settled during the Iron Age and was an important Roman port. Many structures are made from Roman stone. Like many other towns on the coast, it is the home of the very rich in modern times. Nearby Golfe Jaun is where Napoleon disembarked after escaping from Elbe and re-formed his army before his defeat at Waterloo. His return is celebrated each year with a reenactment.

Tales from the Western Med Day 8B

May 16, 2017
The Côte d'Azur was a winter retreat for European nobility up until WW1 and quite dead in the summer. This turned around between the wars when "the Lost Generation" started partying there in the summer and writing about it. The Americans also introduced jazz, and now there is a large annual jazz festival.
We proceeded to Cannes where the famous film festival starts in only two days and runs from May 17-28, so Cannes was bustling with preparations. 6 months before the festival, a board works to select the movies for the festival by searching all over the world for works from new directors. A 9-member jury decides the Golden Palm (top award) and other awards. Will Smith and Jessica Chastain represent America on the jury this year. The Festival was conceived in 1939 to counter fascist propaganda films, but was delayed until after the war in 1946. 11,000 professionals in the industry participate.

Tales from the Western Med Day 9

May 17, 2017
Nice, lazy day on our last day of the cruise. We didn't dock into Palma de Mallorca until 2pm, so we could sleep in and get partially packed for our departure tomorrow. We took a leisurely walk around Palma during the day and went back briefly at night to look at the lit up old city. Bright blue sky and pleasant temperatures all day. Palma's architecture shows North African influence and the island was under Islamic control for over 300 years during the 10-13th centuries. The old town is dominated by the cathedral, one of the tallest in Europe, built between the 13th and 17th cent. Gaudí was commissioned to restore the building in 1901 and it shows as a "trial run" on the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. There were other early 20th century buildings that seemed to have been influenced by Gaudí. Besides taking in the sites, we sampled a "cremadillo," which is a local pastry filled with a chocolate custard.