"" Writer's Wanderings: June 2010

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

France - Bordeaux

Our view of the city of Bordeaux was just as beautiful in the morning as it had been the evening before. We left the ship after breakfast to join an excursion that was basically an introduction to the city. The bus drove along the shore line a bit and then to an industrial area where there was an old World War II structure, a u-boat pen, still standing where German submarines were repaired. Basically it looked like a huge multi-compartmented garage on the water for large boats. The explanation for its continued existence was that they didn’t know what to do with it.

The bus rolled by the submarine pen and back toward the city stopping at the art museum which sits next to the large cathedral. We exited the bus and walked down a narrow street to a plaza to see the cathedral. The air was cool and fresh and the sun was warming just a bit. We explored the cathedral and listened to the guide but to be honest, about this time in the trip you generally don’t remember much of what they say. Unless something unusual really stands out, their talks begin to sound much the same.

As we stood outside and duly admired the sculpted last supper over one of the entrances, my thoughts turned to what a refreshing day it was and how I had to get back on a bus. I nudged Bob and suggested we set out on foot and find our own way around town. We had two maps and knew which direction to go to get back to the ship when we were ready. He concurred and we “jumped bus.”

I snapped a shot of the giant crocodile sculpture in the courtyard of the art museum as Bob explained to our guide that we were striking out on our own and then we walked back to the cathedral. Bob wanted to walk back to where the altar was. When we entered, someone was practicing on the organ and the music wafted through the arches and filled the immense building. I let Bob go on his exploration and I just sat for a while and soaked up the music.

Outside, we saw a sign by a building that said “Hotel de Ville.” It took us a few minutes to realize that it wasn’t a hotel. It was the city hall.

We found the pedestrian area where all the stores were and enjoyed picking our way among them. The McCafes in Europe and actually everywhere else in the world but America serve beautiful coffees. They don’t serve it out of a ready-made machine. It’s made fresh like in a real coffee shop and decorated beautifully on top. When we saw the McCafe, we stopped for a mid-morning coffee break.

Fortified with caffeine, we walked the rest of the Rue Sainte-Catherine to get a glimpse of the Grand Theater. Turning the corner, we headed to the river with one thing on our minds—the mussels we had seen the previous day.

Back along the river, we located the restaurant where we had seen the pots of mussels being served and found ourselves a seat. Bob ordered a creamy garlic based broth with his and mine was plain. His was better but the mussels were all good. French fries were served as a side and we agreed they were probably fried in real fat.

Our mussel craving satisfied, we started back for the ship along the river walk past all the abundant gardens and the mirror fountain. The fountain was a large flat area that alternately filled with about an inch of water and then smoked just before draining and filling again. In between, if no one was wading in the water, the still surface mirrored the stately buildings around it. Unfortunately the waters were rarely still with dogs, kids, and visitors splashing through them. Nice concept though.

When we returned to the ship, we found that the tide was out—way out. The gangway that led to Deck 6 was needed to board. On the other side of the ship, we could see old wrecks of a few vessels that were not visible when the tide was in. Just after dinner, the tide was up again and we were on our way out of the river and into the sea. Destination: Dover, England.

Monday, June 28, 2010

France - Le Verdon to Bordeaux

Early in the morning, the Crystal Symphony docked in Le Verdon. We were about to spend the next two days in the famous Bordeaux region of France where many of its fine wines are produced. Quite a few people disembarked for a day long journey into the region to see the vineyards and taste the products. We opted to take a short look-see of Le Verdon and then stay on board and enjoy the half empty ship.
Le Verdon is a seaside town. I'm sure that sometime in the warmer weather it is bustling with visitors. The beach looked very nice but it is in the north of France and on the colder part of the ocean. Wonder how long their season really is? There were lots of shops to explore if you were interested in shopping. It took us about twenty minutes to walk from the complimentary shuttle stop to the beach and back again. We got back on the bus and returned to enjoy the ship.

Back on board, Bob got a massage (we were trying to use up some onboard credits that came with our cruise deal) and me, well, I just zoned out. A day to relax. It was great!

About 1:30 in the afternoon, the ship pulled in its gangways and we started up the Dordogne River and then made a starboard (right) turn into the Garonne River to our destination, the city of Bordeaux. It seemed strange to be taking a cruise ship up a river but it was a very pleasant trip with lots of great scenery along the way.

Since the rivers are tidal, the captain had to plan his journey around the tidal tables. Once we arrived in Bordeaux, we were intrigued by the crew setting up two different gangways, one on Deck 4 and another on Deck 6. We would see the next day why that was necessary.

Our attention turned to the city itself which was a wonderful scenic view from our docking area. A riverside boardwalk stretched as far as we could see lined on the land side with prolific gardens and stately old buildings that defined the term “old world beauty.” After dinner and a short walk, we were treated to a beautiful sunset that silhouetted church spires—every bit as romantic as an evening in Paris.

Along the way during our earlier walk, we had found exactly what we hoped, a restaurant featuring mussels in several different types of broth. Already our taste buds were anticipating a delicious lunchtime treat for the next day.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Spain - Bilbao

From Lisbon, our ship the Crystal Symphony sailed to Bilbao, Spain, another place new to us. Whenever we visit a new port on a cruise, we choose to do a general introductory excursion if it’s available. We chose a panoramic excursion which was a morning tour that took us through the city and up a mountainside for our panoramic view.

Bilbao was a wonderful mix of modern and old world architecture. The city sits on the banks of the River Nervion in the Basque region of Spain. Because of its location, it is a highly industrialized area including mining, steel, and shipbuilding industries. At the beginning of the 20th century it is said that Bilbao was the wealthiest city of Spain.

I was amazed at the beautiful gardens in the city. Everything was so trim and well-designed. Once we finished our tour, we opted to exit the bus at the shuttle stop in the city so that we could walk around a bit before returning to the ship. One of the great perks of the Crystal Cruise line is their free shuttles from the ship to the city.

We found the old section of town and explored the Santiago Cathedral a bit, then wandered up and down a few streets. We had left our map back in our stateroom so we didn’t venture too far from the shuttle stop.

One of the neat features of the city’s architecture involves their subway system. They have what appears to be a spiraling see-through tunnel that covers the entrances to their subway stops.

A big attraction for the city is the Guggenheim Museum, an ultra-modern designed silvery structure that sits on the riverbank. It was designed by Frank O. Gehry. The design has no symmetry. The architect is quoted as saying, “. . .the randomness of the curves are designed to catch the light.” It was opened in 1997.

As we headed back to the shuttle stop, we walked through a large park area which was full of booths selling books. We guessed it was a book fair of sorts. Behind the booths, we found a beautiful bandstand in the middle of the park. The ceiling of it was an intricate stained glass.

Our day was not without excitement. As we sat on the shuttle bus awaiting departure, we heard and then saw a bunch of police vehicles come from all directions and stop right near our bus. It was enough to make a tourist’s heart skip a beat. In a few moments we heard the familiar cadence of a chant that indicated we were in the middle of a demonstration of some kind. Sure enough, marching down the street behind a lead police vehicle, was a group of workers protesting something. I later learned it had to do with the closing of a plant in their city. At least I think that’s what it was. Between my limited Spanish and Yahoo’s Babel Fish, that’s what I gleaned.

Travel is never boring.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Portugal - Cascais

After visiting Sintra, our driver and guide took us down the mountain to the coastal area. We traveled along some beautiful coast line with lovely beach areas and into the resort area outside of Lisbon. The community we stopped in was Cascais.

We pulled into the Grande Real Villa Italia Hotel and Spa for refreshments. The hotel reserved the patio area for us that overlooks the pool and served us tea and coffee with an elegant assortment of small sandwiches and pastries including one that is a favorite in Portugal, Pastel de Nata. We saw several different versions of the pastry which is basically a custard filled treat. The hotel offered two: one that was more like a little custard spread between two pieces of a cookie-like pastry and the other, said to be the original recipe, was more like a pastry shell with custard filling. I'm sure there are as many variations as there are pastry chefs in Lisbon.

The hotel was beautiful and duly noted as a possible place to stay for a precruise experience (if we can afford the five-star prices). Hey, it was good enough for Microsoft to have a conference scheduled there. As we explored we found a conference room reserved for them.

Our next stop was the harbor area of Cascais. It doubles as a resort area and a fishing harbor--make that lobster trapping as you can see from all the traps stacked up on the dock.

As we drove through the main seaside road, I again wished for more time to explore. This is one of the reasons we like to cruise into places where we've not been. It gives us a taste of the country/city and if we are interested in further exploration, we can return on our own someday.

Driving back into Lisbon, we passed a fortress and of course more buildings with the decorative tiles adorning the outside. I'm sure the people who live/work in the buildings don't think anything of the tiles. Isn't that the way it is with most of us? We often don't appreciate what we have around us as being unique or interesting.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Portugal - Sintra

With great anticipation, we disembarked for our day in the Lisbon area of Portugal. This was our first visit to mainland Portugal. We stopped once in Madiera which is an island and a favorite port stop for many cruises before going transatlantic. Originally we signed up for an excursion with the cruise company but our travel agent belongs to a group, Vacation.com (an organization of travel agents that offers special tours/packages for their clients) and we were invited to join a group for a special tour of the countryside. Since we like getting out of the ciey, we couldn't pass it up.

Our guide spoke excellent English and was a delight as she included history, culture, tradition and all sorts of other interesting facts into her talks as we rode out of the city and into the coutnryside. Passing through a part of Lisbon, I couldn't help but be intrigued by the elaborate mosaic sidewalks. Each block of the main thoroughfare seemed to have a different pattern.

We arrived at a little historical town named Sintra. And, after a brief introduction, our guide gave us plenty of time to explore on our own. Bob and I wandered the streets and alleyways admiring the intricate tile work on the buildings. As you look at the picture of the town, note the large tower on the left. It is not a minaret. It is actually the tower of the old town hall.

Our guide had explained that many buildings were tiled on the outside because it protected them better from the elements of wind and sea water. Some of the work, like the scene portrayed in the set of tiles in a section of a city wall, was very decorative.

One of the historic national palaces, Palácio da Vila, is in the center of the historic district. As with so many buildings in Europe, this one is a combination of many different styles as wings and towers, etc. were added through the centuries. The oldest part of the building dates back to the 13th century.

Up on a hill overlooking the town sits a Moorish castle which apparently is just a shell and is overgrown with vegetation in the center. I didn't think I wanted to climb again just to check it out. The memories (and the pain) were still fresh enough from our Cinque Terre climb.

This was the kind of town where we truly would have liked to linger. It's about 50 minutes by train from Lisbon (lots of stops along the way) and would be a nice day trip. We were already mulling over a plan to return someday to Portugal. The rest of our tour confirmed the decision.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Tangiers, Morocco - The Kasba

The “still-emerging” tourist industry in Tangiers is interesting to say the least. As our tour continued, we stopped near the entrance to the Kasba. Nearby was a hotel/restaurant. I’m not sure exactly what it’s status was but we were to enjoy a bit of refreshment there in the way of cookies and apple juice—at least I think it was apple juice. I never tasted it.

The place was also the only rest stop along the way and needless to say the facilities were a bit primitive. Luckily one of the ship’s escorts had tucked a roll of toilet paper in her backpack and portioned it out.

While the restroom might not have been elaborate, the rest of the place was intricately designed with all sorts of painted ceramic tiles. Ornate doesn’t begin to describe it. In the middle of the large room where we were seated for refreshment, was a group of musicians entertaining us with a sampling of their music.

There was no time to linger however as our tour was only a half-day and we still had the Kasba to see as well as the shopping opportunities the Medina would offer.

The Kasba is the old fortified area of the city where the original palace is. Walking through the narrow streets was as interesting as I thought it would be. All the old movie themes played in my head. At any moment I was sure Humphrey Bogart or Peter Lorrie would appear.

The palace was a mix of the ornate and the historical. There was not a lot of explanation and we mostly explored the palace courtyard area on our own. Ah, but we needed to move on as we still had places to go and things—well to buy, of course.

On our way out of the Kasba and into the Medina, there was an opportunity to visit a craft bazaar which just happened to have a rug dealer on the second floor who wanted to explain how intricately made his rugs were. They were beautiful but none would have fit into a suitcase and I wasn’t sure we could afford the rug and shipping as well.

The Medina is the shopping area of Tangiers and is made up of hundreds, maybe thousands, of little shops some of which aren’t much more than a 6 foot wide space between buildings. As soon as shopkeepers realized a tour group was coming through, they would gather a sampling of their products in their arms and follow us down the street a bit tantalizing as best they could. Given more time, it might have been fun to bargain a bit but there wasn’t much that we were interested in.

All in all, it was nice introduction to Tangiers and now that we know what to expect, it might be fun to return and see how much more their tourist industry has emerged in a few years.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Tangiers, Morocco - The Cave of Hercules

Tangiers. It sounded mysterious and romantic. And it would afford us the opportunity to set foot on the only continent left we had not ventured onto in our travels. Days before we were to dock in the Moroccan city, we began seeing and hearing little disclaimers about the excursions that were offered there. It was obvious that the cruise company was trying to limit expectations. “Tangiers has a still-emerging tourist industry,” we were told.

As we ate breakfast, our ship approached the harbor of the city. You could see a sprawling metropolis. A tall minaret stood in the center of the two and three story buildings that fanned out over the rolling hills for miles in the distance, a reminder that we were definitely in a Muslim country.

On the dock, the buses were lined up and tour guides, most in robes but many in shirts and pants and/or suits. As we exited our ship, we were handed an immigration ticket with no instructions as to what we were to do with it. Each ticket had obviously been recycled several times. We tucked it away with our cruise cards and figured if we needed it, someone would ask.

For the first part of our tour, we drove through the city trying to understand our guide who spoke English quite well but spoke way too fast to be able to catch all that he said. I had the feeling he would make a good used camel salesman. We drove to the beautiful beach area where there were very nice resorts and lovely beaches most of which did not look very busy. Hassan kept telling us that no one goes to the beach before 11 a.m.

Our first stop was at a historic lighthouse that happened to be in an area where there were lots of street merchants set up just in case we wanted to do a little shopping. The view was lovely and these merchants were not terribly aggressive. We moved on.

There is an old legend that says that Hercules separated the African continent from the European continent and the mystery was revealed in the Cave of Hercules that was our next stop on the tour. On our way from the bus to the cave entrance, a little boy scurried by with his small donkey. Actually the donkey scurried by with the little boy trying to keep him in line. Hassan explained that he wanted money for a picture—a universal enterprise we have run into in other countries.

The cave was massive. Obviously “Hercules” must have been very busy carving it out. You could see where his tools had left grooves in the stone walls. We were quickly led from place to place and shown formations in the rocks and holes that mysteriously resembled the continents when viewed from the right perspective. Again, there were “cave” merchants who had set up shop in niches along the cave entrance and exit.

On our way out, I could not resist the boy and his donkey. Bob gave him a Euro and he flashed a big grin for me—followed by a big yawn. He must have been up early so he could catch the tourist trade.

At the request of a few camel enthusiast, our bus driver back tracked to a man with a pack of camels we had passed when the usual camels hadn’t shown up at the cave as Hassan had promised. Others were out riding most of the camels when we arrived but this little guy was left standing there looking happy that no one was on his back.

Once everyone had their camel pictures, it was back on the bus and off to the Kasba. Come with me tomorrow to the Kasba.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Barcelona, Spain - La Segrada Familia

One of the most famous structures in Barcelona is the Sagrada Familia, the huge cathedral designed largely by Antoni Gaudi who took over the work in 1884. The building is a monumental undertaking and has outlived Gaudi who died in 1926.

When it is finished, it will have a total of eighteen towers. Twelve are dedicated to the apostles, four to the evangelists, one to the Virgin Mary and another, which will rise above them all, to Jesus. Each façade is ornately covered with sculptures and carved stone that relate to the Biblical stories and also to nature. Gaudi apparently based his work on elements in nature. There are trees, fruits, animals and other implied elements as wind and waves in the structures he designs.

Take a look at the turtle who appears to be holding up one of the critical supporting columns. I’m not sure what his expression is indicative of—surprise, pain, determination?
And why choose a turtle? Why not an elephant or other more common beast of burden? Perhaps the fanciful designs Gaudi created were more whimsical than we give him credit for.

Inside the cathedral, work continues as well. Supporting columns are made of several different materials. It will be quite impressive when the machinery and scaffolding are removed. When that happens will depend upon how donations come in. The entire project has reportedly been done by private donations.

A part of the basement of the cathedral is devoted to a museum of Gaudi’s original models. He worked mostly from three dimensional models and had some unique ways of calculating dimensions like the strings he hung with small weights to get the measurements needed for the towers. If you look at the picture and imagine it upside down, you will see the shape of the towers. From this he calculated the measurements and was quite accurate according to modern day techniques.

Several other structures in Barcelona were designed by Gaudi including the apartment building I’ve pictured here. But as our guide informed us his designs as intricate and overdone as they are along with his name did not give origin to the adjective, gaudy. It’s simply a coincidence. Okay, if you say so.
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