May 8, 2012: Alicante, Spain
Our tour guide was a nice informative guy, but the tour itself was a little too disjointed to be really satisfactory: too much driving time, not enough time on the ground. We saw the old city center of Alicante, some of which is quite nice; went up to the Caves of Canelobre in the mountains outside the city; and visited the Castillo de Santa Barbara (St Barbara's Castle) on a high mountain right in the city. The Castillo is the old Moorish fortified town, with significant Christian additions done later on. Before the time of the Moors, the town had been on the low seaside flats below, which is also of course where the city is today. This part of Spain was the last to fall to Franco in the Spanish Civil War of the '30s, and a part of the Castillo was used as a prison by both sides of the conflict, at one time or another. Our guide showed us a section of the Castillo where released prisoners carved their names (and often the dates of their release) in the stone flooring of a plaza that overlooks the town and sea below. It's a really impressive fortress, with a great view and beautiful architectural features. Unfortunately we didn't get to see a lot of it from within because our time was so limited. The drive up to it, and down from it, was really something, though, a very narrow winding road which enormous buses nevertheless go up and down regularly. Our driver was quite skillful. We discovered the wifi opportunities at the pier just outside the ship when we returned from the tour, and so I got a little bit of catching up done, including posting to the blog, which you of course know by now!
May 9, 2012: Barcelona, Spain
I slept to a decent hour--8 a.m.--and had a leisurely breakfast, walk, shower and post-breakfast--before taking the shuttle into town to do some walking and shopping. None of you will be surprised that, of the three and a half hours I spent in Barcelona, I spent about 2 in bookstores. I came away with three books--two original Spanish publications, Oscuro bosque oscuro (which more or less means In a dark dark wood) by Jorge Volpi of Mexico and En salvaje compania (In wild company) by Manuel Rivas of Spain--and one translation from the German--De la vida de un inutil (About the life of a useless man) by Joseph von Eichendorff. The most interesting of the bookstores was the one I visited last--unfortunately--knowing nothing of it ahead of time: La Central. It had a large selection of fiction which I could have spent much more time in if I hadn't already been so long in the other two stores! It's the one where I found Eichendorff, and they had other books by authors I'm interested (but can get easily in English) like W.G. Sebald and Joseph Roth. As far as I know, none of the three I bought is available in English translation, although there may be a very old translation of the Eichendorff as it's 19th century.
I put a few miles on my feet of course, walking the length of Las Ramblas, a famous series of streets, each called La Rambla (Something), with a wide pedestrian median between two fairly narrow one-way streets. Lots of restaurants and shops along both sides, with kiosks appealing to tourists and seating areas for various restaurants in the median. I had a cookie and a cup of tea in Starbucks on Las Ramblas as I went "up" and then fries and a Coke in Burger King after I left my second bookstore. When I went wandering off Las Ramblas, ambling toward the church of Sant Pau (which I also remembered from 2007) I came across the Museum of Contemporary Art with a large abstract sculpture on the plaza outside and some interesting graffiti on a wall across the street. I made my way through some basically residential streets, with high-rise apartments on both sides of the narrow way, and saw a brightly painted playground on an empty lot where a multi-story building used to be. Clever use of a fairly small space. This enormous cat sculpture was in the shade in Las Ramblas, with a young couple having their lunch underneath.
When I got back to the bus pickup area near the harbor and climbed on, someone called my name, and there was Debbie who had left her day-tour at its end so that she could try to find a good wifi location. No luck for her, unfortunately. She is traveling with her new iPad and has hardly been able to use it at all because somehow her order for 4G in Europe, which she placed before she left Texas, didn't get processed correctly. At least she can download her photographs into it from the camera, and work on writing up her experiences.
May 10, 2012: Cassis, France
Today Debbie and I both took the bus tour to Cassis, a small town on the coast to the east of Marseille. We spent almost two hours on the bus getting there, because the tour guide took us through the heart of Marseille and along the coastal road most of the way so that we could see more of the sights. There is an enormous cathedral in the heart of Marseille, built of alternating reddish and cream-colored layers of stone. I think the guide said it is second in size (in France) only to Notre Dame. There are also old fortifications guarding the harbor, including those on the small island where Dumas had the Count of Monte Cristo imprisoned. There are lots of really striking jagged hill- and mountaintops--reminiscent in many ways of the Big Bend area of Texas, though with more greenery--and, not far from Cassis is Cape Canaille, which is--if I understood the guide correctly--the highest vertical drop (or fjord, as he had it) in Europe. Once again, I think many of us were amazed at the roads these enormous tour buses manage to make their way on.
Cassis itself wasn't terribly impressive to visit, though apparently it is quite a summer hotspot: a nice beach, lots of boats, sunshine. The median income must be quite high here. There were vineyards in the area too, so I suppose there is a lot of locally produced wine. Debbie and I mostly wandered along the streets around the bay/harbor there, taking photos and looking around. For 60 cents Euro you can use the clean public restrooms (I know you'll all want to know that), and you can have an inexpensive munch after a visit to the Petit Casino grocery store (supermarche) where you can get Lay's Barbecue Potato Chips (Debbie did), fresh fruit, and galettes bretonnes (butter cookies--I got those). We had a little semi-picnic on a little plaza, then wandered a bit more. Most of the eateries seemed to be geared more to full-scale meals or ice cream than to nice little coffee shop/bakeries, so I didn't have a cup of tea and a pastry.
Here's a photo of the cool (and pretty new-looking) lighthouse. Look carefully and you can see a man sculling at the bottom.
We returned to Marseille mostly by freeway and got back about 1, after which it was time for "actual" lunch on the ship, working on photos and blog entries and so forth. Later this afternoon it's "classical cocktails" in the Wheelhouse Bar with the Polonia Quartet on tap.
May 11, 2012: Pisa, Italy
Today is my friend Tim's birthday (48th, hehe), but I won't be able to email him and tell him happy birthday until tomorrow at the earliest. So I hope he's having a wonderful day. At the moment it is, I believe, about 6:45 a.m. in Dallas, so I suppose he's getting ready for work. Happy birthday, Tim!
I took the ship's tour to Pisa today, and saw the Miracle Field (or Campo Mirabile, if I spelled that right). It's not the site of a miracle in a normal religious sense, but rather the area just inside the medieval walls where the Duomo (cathedral), Baptistry and Bell Tower (the famous Leaning Tower) are all located. Also here is the cemetery, the walled Campo Santo (holy ground) which would have been fun to wander, I think, if I'd had more time. The ancient western gate opened right into this area, but it's not used now--instead we came in through another gate underneath a Medici shield--just a few hundred yards over. The newer parts of the city are outside the gates, which do not completely survive. The ancient Jewish cemetery is right outside the western gate, and just barely left of center in this photo you can see a section of the old walls. As our guide Pierino reminded us, Jews weren't allowed to be buried inside the city walls in centuries past.
The Miracle Field area was quite crowded with tourists, as you can imagine, and more than once I saw someone striking either the "holding up the tower" or "pushing over the tower" pose that is much a part of tourist visits here. Pierino also pointed out to us that the leaning tower is not just leaning--it is also sort of curved, because the tilted sinking of the tower became apparent even as it was being built and the builders had to adjust some of the higher stories because of the unstable ground. So the roofline of some of the floors is not actually parallel to the floor. The tower is the bell tower of the city, and there are seven bells near the top of the tower which can be seen through their arched openings. It's still allowed to walk up to the top, but you have to buy a timed ticket and go in at a certain time, so I didn't even look into it. In this photo below you see the tower just to the right of the cathedral, the Duomo (dome), and most of the dome structure is visible too in this photo. The entrance is at the opposite end of the cathedral, farther to the left than this photo goes. The building of the cathedral began in 1064, and the architecture reflects the Romanesque tradition, but also Moorish and Byzantine elements.
The city's enormous baptistry is just a bit to the west (I think) of the church, and it too is domed. Pierino said that, until 1913, it was the only place in the city someone could be baptized into the Catholic Church here. This photo shows a storm drain outside the Baptistry. The Baptistry is an amazing, intricately decorated building, and I think this lovely storm drain is worthy of the building!
After our walk from the bus parking lot into the old walled city, and our tour of the Miracle Field, Pierino set us free for about an hour to wander. Will it surprise you that I went first to a coffee shop and had a cup of tea and a cornetto integrale (an "integral" croissant)? The croissant was excellent--with just a bit of sweetness to it--and the tea was very good too--a French brand I've never heard of--Dammann Brothers. I had my snack standing at the front counter in the Italian fashion, and then visited the stylish WC (water closet) before heading back out to explore. Mostly I roamed the large open area of the Miracle Field, but I also set off down a couple of side streets, a little less crowded, and saw a "living statue" just off the main road, all decked out like the Renaissance and standing strikingly still (though I did see him turn his head).
Policemen were in prominent evidence, I suppose because of the tendencies of pickpockets to target tourists, and I'm sure that made most of us feel a little better. Though we had fog on the drive over to Pisa, the weather otherwise was quite sunny, and it actually got warm enough that I could walk about in just a shirt without a windbreaker. Such an occurrence has been astonishingly rare on this trip. I have little doubt this has been the warmest day since leaving Florida, or possibly even Texas.
May 12, 2012: The Cruise Ends
I am exhausted! The cruise ships treat you great while you're en route, but once the final morning arrives they can't wait to get you off the ship. They delivered me to Rome's Fiumicino Airport at 7:10 this morning for an 11 o'clock flight. I might have had the great advantage of arriving 15 minutes later if my luggage tag hadn't had the wrong group number on it, but even so I was still up at 4;30 and having breakfast at 4:45 a.m., an hour which shouldn't even exist in the conscious mind. Once again, no one from the Italian government had stamped our passports when we got off the ship, and this time, even though I argued for 10 minutes with the police at the airport (I had plenty of time, remember), they adamantly refused to stamp my passport showing the date that I had entered the EU. Their excuse? I didn't enter at Fiumicino--I entered at the port. The fact that no one at the port did his/her job made no difference at all.
Why does this matter? Because Malta insists on a date-of-entry stamp on your passport when you get ready to depart the country. SO when I landed in Malta and got my bag, I went to a tourist information office to find out how I could get a stamp there so that I would have no trouble on the day of my departure week after next. And you can already guess my results, I bet. They adamantly refused to stamp my passport, telling me I would have to wait until the day I am leaving; check in at the airport; THEN, with boarding pass in hand, go to the immigration police and once again have them fill out all the paperwork complaining about Rome's refusal/negligence in re my passport stamp! This is incredibly frustrating. A hotel employee, when I checked in, recommended I talk to the American embassy and see if I can get the issue resolved ahead of time instead of having to add one more stress to a very early departure on May 24. Wish me luck.
On a more positive note, my sister Jane and my friend Lou Ann would be very pleased with my hotel accommodations this time: the Grand Hotel Excelsior in Floriana, the town which shares the peninsula with Valletta. I'm about a 6-8 minute walk from Valletta's entrance itself. The hotel (but not my room) overlooks Marsamxett Harbour and has some very pricey rooms. My room however faces the entrance. The hill the hotel is built upon is so steep that my room is ground floor on the entrance side, but sixth floor on the harbor side. It's certainly the swankest room I've ever stayed in on my own though even so the shower doesn't drain properly--I believe this is a characteristic of British and (former) British Commonwealth nations. The hotel's my splurge for this trip--not something I had originally planned, but something that developed as the pieces of the trip fell together.
The two biggest pieces of news here on the island are the championship season of the Valletta Football Club, which--I was told--still has one game to play but has already clinched the title. The city is celebrating.
Less pleasant for the moment, but perhaps more momentous, is that the old Valletta city gates, which date back to the British period, are gone. They are being replaced as part of a huge renovation project right inside the city walls: a new parliament, a new open air performance theater (to replace the opera house bombed in World War II), and a new city gate which will also be open at the top, doing away with the road that once ran along side the walls there. Needless to say this has messed up the first few blocks inside the city walls, at least to one side of the main road, but will, I suppose, be beautiful to look at at some point. I hate to see the main gates go, but it's high time that the performance hall was restored and the open plaza that's now vanishing was not particularly attractive either. There is also restoration going on at St Catherine's Church, where I have listened to so many musical performances in the past, so I won't be hearing any of those on this trip. Hopefully I'll be able to catch a couple of performances at St James Cavalier Center for Creativity and maybe even at one of the other churches which had posted an upcoming performance of "sacred and profane" vocal music. The only performance scheduled for Teatru Manoel, the knights' old theater, is tonight, and if I tried to go to that I'd certainly fall asleep. I hope to be in bed by 8:30, which will be 16 hours after I got up this morning. Wish me deep sleep tonight.