Barcelona, the Heart of Catalonia

Plaça Reial

Based on recent events, we thought it might be a good time to promote one of our favorite cities. We have visited Barcelona several times as well as passing through on our way to join cruises along with day stops while cruising. This city has so much to offer it belongs on a short list of great cities of the West like Rome, Paris, New York and London.

First off, it is an ancient city founded by Phoenicians and Carthaginians. The original name of the city was Barcino, probably named after the Carthaginian ruler Hamilcar Barca. The Romans arrived in the 1st century B.C. choosing it as their capital of the region. Ruins of the Roman period can be found in the Plaza del Rei and in the old Gothic quarter.

After the Romans came the Visigoths and during the 8th century the city was occupied by the Moors and remained under their control for over 100 years. The Franks conquered the city and drove out the Moors and the Spanish Catalonians eventually replaced the Frank rulers and Barcelona became the cultural heart of Catalonia.

Plaça d’Espanya in 1929
Plaça d’Espanya

Barcelona has always been a prosperous city and has used its’ assets to provide an international character to its’ culture. It hosted a world fair known as the Exposición Universal de Barcelona in 1888, which added to the cities’ significant architecture. An even more impressive set of structures were built around the Plaça d’Espanya at the foot of Montjuïc for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition. Adding onto this tradition in 1992, Barcelona played host to the Summer Olympic Games.

Gaudi’s Basilica of the Holy Family

In addition to Roman sites, the old medieval quarter, Gothic cathedrals, and the buildings of the international expositions and events, Barcelona is home to the creations of Catalan architect Gaudi. Antoni Gaudí was born in Reus in 1852 and received his Architectural degree in 1878. Gaudí is admired by architects around the World as the creator of unique and distinctive architectural styles. His work has greatly added to the architectural character of Barcelona and you will see incredible examples of his work all around the city centre.

Perhaps Gaudi’s most recognized work is the Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family. It is the large unfinished Roman Catholic Church in Barcelona and is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In November 2010 Pope Benedict XVI consecrated and proclaimed it a minor basilica.

Other sites of special interest are:

La Rambla – A large street and pedestrian mall stretching thru central Barcelona. It is famous for its’ restaurants, bars, nightclubs and shopping. It is our favorite neighborhood and is home to a number of nice, reasonably priced local hotels. Two which should be considered are Hotel Curious and Hotel Arc De Ramblas. Both offer a great location and reasonably priced (but small) rooms.

Plaça Reial

Plaça Reial – A square with a large fountain and ringed by good restaurants, many with outdoor seating. It is located just off La Rambla.

Cathedral of Barcelona – the Gothic cathedral and seat of the Archbishop of Barcelona, Spain. The cathedral was constructed from the 13th to 15th centuries, with the principal work being done in the 14th century. From the end of November until just before Christmas it is home to Fira de Santa Llucia, the largest Christmas market in the city.

Christmas market at Fira de Santa Llucia

Basílica de Santa Maria – The church was built between 1319 and 1391. The style of the church was Catalan Gothic with a single nave. It has a light and spacious interior but is devoid of the imagery commonly found in Gothic cathedrals.

La Boquería

Mercat de Sant Josep de La Boqueria – often simply referred to as La Boquería, is a large public market in the Ciudad Vieja district. It is one of the city’s foremost tourist landmarks with an entrance from La Rambla. It is a favorite site of ours for strolling through the food booths and it is a good place to purchase Spanish smoked paprika to take home.

Palau Nacional

Palau Nacional – (Catalan for ‘National Palace’) was the main site of the 1929 International Exhibition on the hill of Montjuïc. Since 1934 it has been home to the National Art Museum of Catalonia.

Local Eats

No trip to Barcelona would be complete without paella! Maybe not invented here but surely perfected here.

Try “la bomba” (meaning the bomb). With its’ roots in violent resistance, it’s basically a tennis ball-sized potato croquette served with two different sauces and is a Barcelona original.

La Rambla Prominade

Pa amb Tomàquet which is literally “bread with tomato,” is a bread rubbed with garlic and the juice of a tomato and seasoned with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Locals will eat it with cheese and slices of meat any time of the day.

Crema Catalana! Made with a vanilla custard and fired to form a glassy crust, it’s the Barcelona version of “creme brûlée.”

In Barcelona, the one cheese you simply must have is mató, an unsalted goats cheese. Soft, sweet, and spreadable, the locals eat this with honey and walnuts – a perfect dessert!

Last but certainly not least is Tapas which is an institution in this city. Be sure and try a sampling along with some excellent Spanish ports, wines, sangrias and vermouths.

If you are in the La Rambla area and are looking for an inexpensive place to eat we would recommend Restaurant La Poma (Pizzeria Mediterránea La Poma). It is modern, reasonably priced with a good selection of pizza, pasta and wines.

We have also had tapas and drinks at Ocaña in the Plaça Reial. Good prices, attentive service and the perfect place to sit outdoors and people watch.

A Spanish chain that was trying to gain a foothold in America is 100 Montaditos (Cerveseria 100 montaditos). The Chain features many inexpensive Spanish mini-sandwiches plus beer & wine in a tavernlike setting. There are four or five locations around central Barcelona.

The best neighborhoods to shop

Barcelona has become one of Europe’s shopping capitals and, in contrast to London, Paris or Rome, it is not only noted for setting new fashion trends, but is also still relatively inexpensive.

La Rambla, as already mentioned, is a good location for shopping but trends toward discount stores and souvenir shops. Just up from La Rambla is Plaça Catalunya featuring shops with internationally recognized brands such as Chanel, Armani, Cartier, Miró, Mont Blanc and Zara. In the same area is the Hotel Actual which offers nice rooms at a reasonable price.

Alternatives to the big names and stores are found in the narrow streets and alleys of the Old Town. There are countless small shops featuring jewelry, beads, house wares and souvenirs.

In Barrí Gotic (the Gothic Quarter), you will find antique shops, small food markets and new fashion designers.

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The El Raval area has an international population featuring a mix of foreign supermarkets and shops which gives the district a multicultural atmosphere. You’ll find discount stores, music shops and small boutiques featuring ethnic clothes.

 

 

 

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Grand Cayman

Seven Mile Beach

If you’re cruising, you’ll find Grand Cayman is a popular stop on many Caribbean itineraries. It is a tender port which means small boats serve as ferries between the ship and the island. The tenders drop you off right in the center of George Town, the primary city on the island, where you can find many duty-free stores. Grand Cayman is dotted with great beaches (one called Seven Mile Beach), terrific snorkeling and diving and a multitude of American chain restaurants.

As a word of caution, the Cayman dollar is permanently fixed to the US dollar with the exchange rate being one Cayman dollar equals US$1.25. This makes everything 20% more expense than it first appears as prices are normally quoted or shown in Cayman dollars. Be sure you know exactly what something costs before you pay.

Sting Ray City

If you are on a cruise ship, our recommendation for a great day is a tour to “stingray city”. It is advisable to book through your ship as it is a long day and sometimes can get dangerously close to missing the ship’s departure. We suggest picking a tour that visits the stingrays and also a coral reef for snorkeling.

If you have decided to fly in for a holiday, finding accommodations will not be difficult. Cayman has more hotel rooms per square foot than almost anywhere else in the Caribbean and thousands of condos (many owned by Americans) available for weekly or monthly rental. If your plans include staying in the Seven Mile Beach area, you can probably get by comfortably without renting a car. A limited number of taxis are available and there is a local bus service, but a rental car may be a better choice if your hotel is not centrally located.

If beaching and shopping start to wear thin, there are a few diversions on the island. The biggest attraction is the Cayman Turtle Center (https://www.turtle.ky/) , located in West Bay. It was the first commercial venture to domesticate Green Sea Turtles and is now home to around 11,000 of them. Also in the neighborhood are the Dolphin Cove (http://www.dolphincove.ky/) where you can encounter dolphins and the Hell post office and gift shop where you can send post cards to your friends at home postmarked from “Hell”.

Most of the better beaches are found along the coast between George Town and West Bay, including Seven Mile Beach, which lives up to its name. If you are looking to get away from the crowds, we would recommend driving out toward Bodden Town and beyond where there are still some smaller pocket beaches and coral formations near the shore. Back in the day, Grand Cayman was dotted with hundreds of isolated small beaches. You could find them in the direction of West Bay along with dozens of rustic dive hotels. A look at Google Earth today, however, quickly shows that the shoreline is now dominated by resorts, mansions and condos.

Whether you are arriving by airplane or cruise ship, Grand Cayman is still a great tropical destination if you are looking for incredible beaches, clear turquoise water and all the comforts of home.

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Insurance & International Travel

A recent incident involving an acquaintance and a conversation with a travel friend have highlighted the importance of international travel insurance. We will take this opportunity to offer our thinking on this matter along with the results of a little research. Please understand that this is focused on American travelers but we are also aware of similar plans offered in Canada and other countries.

There are a number of different categories of travel insurance and you need to understand how your specific travel plans should determine the insurance you buy. Generally, insurance is available to cover problems in five specific areas:

  • Trip Cancellation and Interruption
  • Theft of Property Loss
  • Health and Accident
  • Medical Repatriation
  • Life

In truth, we have maybe been too casual in selecting our own travel insurance. Our concerns have been focused in three main areas. First is a concern in having to cancel an expensive trip at the last minute and losing our invested money. The second is travel interruption causing us to miss difficult connections or a cruise sailing. Lastly are medical cost concerns while being out of the country.

We usually buy a cruise policy for longer cruises to cover us in the event we have to cancel or we unavoidably miss a sailing. Normally we forgo this insurance on shorter cruises because the potential loss in dollars is small and there is little likelihood of missing the cruise. In general, these policies provide medical cost reimbursement and property theft and loss protection. Some also, but not all, cover the cost of medical repatriation.

As a habit, we do not buy air travel insurance. The cost of these policies is mainly focused on the life insurance component and not on trip interruption, which, in most cases, is the airlines responsibility.

Our health insurance does have an international travel component that pays up to $50,000 with a lifetime cap of $50,000.

We have also carried a medical evacuation and repatriation policy for the past number of years that, to us, seems a reasonable expense. Less than $200 for an annual plan.

Situational Considerations

Cruise only – Let’s say you are taking a Mediterranean cruise with flights into and out of the sailing port, a cruise insurance policy probably provides the appropriate amount of coverage in most areas. We have at times been charged for medical services while onboard and had to submit documents to get reimbursed under these policies. We also had one occasion where a camera was stolen and we never seemed to be able to provide enough proof to get the loss paid but that is typical with many insurance policies. Most cruise policies also cover medical expenses if you need care in a local clinic or hospital while on the cruise as well as medical evacuation and repatriation. The same policy usually covers booked cruise/land packages.

Cruise with an extended land itinerary – If you are taking that Mediterranean cruise but then plan to go off on your own for a couple of weeks in Europe, chances are that a cruise policy will terminate on disembarking the ship. For that reason you need to understand that you will not be covered for medical emergencies above the limits of your American health insurance and, based on the incident involving our friend, that can be financially catastrophic.

Frequent international travel – If you are a frequent international traveler it is most important to analyze your risk concerns and how much you are comfortable paying. You have options of buying a complete medical plan (Geoblue) , a medical evacuation plan (EA+) or a complete annual insurance policy (Allianz, Amex) that offer some coverage in virtually all areas. Most policies however only provide coverage while on trips of less than 60 days each.

In our case we take a number of cruises and international trips a year and our biggest concerns are medical emergencies and evacuation so we keep an annual MedEvac plan in place. We believe our Medicare supplement offers adequate (we hope) medical coverage for now and will buy cruise policies on individual trips as mentioned above.

There are also complete annual travel policies, which should be considered if you travel internationally often. Generally they have lower limits on coverage, especially in areas like trip cancellation and property loss. For example most annual policies limit cancellation protection to $2,000 per year. Following is an example from a recent annual generic quote provided by Alianz for a typical retired couple.

Note: 26 European countries require health insurance to visit.

In early 1995 twenty-six European countries signed an agreement that abolished enforcing their borders between member states. As a result the area mostly functions as a single country for international travel purposes, with a common visa policy. Anyone from a country that requires them to apply for the Schengen visa to enter Europe must have international health insurance.

The 26 countries in the zone are Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.

A letter from your insurance company is required, and this needs to mention that you will be covered in Europe for any medical, evacuation and repatriation expenses during your whole stay. The medical expenses have to be covered for at least 30,000 euros.

Americans and Canadians along with a number of other nationals do not need this visa to visit. Because of the immigration crisis of the past years there have also been a number of Schengen countries that are again enforcing their borders on an emergency basis.

This post was prompted by a travel friend contacting me wanting to know what travel insurances we use. We compared notes and kicked around some scenarios and decided it was a good subject to post about. Thanks to a  visitor from Reviews.com  we were directed to their extensive article on buying travel insurance and if you have additional questions I would highly recommend reading the article from Reviews.com HERE.

 

Cruise Line Loyalty Programs

Five cruise ships docked in Nassau

If your future plans include more then an occasional cruise, you might want to consider focusing your bookings on a particular cruise line because of the loyalty programs they offer. Benefits can include discounts on or even free internet, laundry, photos, cocktail parties and fancy coffees. Some lines also offer cabin upgrades and priority treatment with boarding and tender usage.

Owners Suite Vision of the Seas

Picking Your Cruise Line – There are a lot of similarities between the major cruise lines but there are also differences that make some more suitable to your particular needs. They all feature good dining options from main dining room dinners to buffets to specialty restaurants and good entertainment and shows, but the things that set them apart is often related to the passengers they try and attract.

Most lines cater to families but a few are stand outs because of their children’s programs. Two of the best are Disney and Royal Caribbean. There is also the price range that varies from one cruise company to another. At the economy end of the price range are Carnival and Norwegian. Stepping up a bit in price are Royal Caribbean, MSC, and Princess followed by Holland America and Celebrity, which are a bit higher still. At the other end of pricing you will find Cunard, Disney and Oceania with Silver Seas and Seabourn being the ultra exclusive lines.

Besides simply price, there are a number of other things to consider when picking a line. Following are some observations we have made regarding a couple of cruise lines:

Carnival – Besides being the price leader, we have found Carnival to be a favorite with young adults. Especially in the Caribbean, these ships have a non-stop party atmosphere. We have not cruised with Carnival outside of the Caribbean so other itineraries may be less that way. The food and service have generally been good and the cabins a bit roomier then many.

Royal Caribbean – Good value in a cruise line and really focused on families. It has one of the best kids’ programs at sea with great entertainment options. Many of the ships have basketball courts and climbing walls and a couple have ice skating rinks and Flo-Rider surfing. Some of their newest ships have simulated sky diving and an amusement park style area.

Celebrity – Features a step up in service and appeals to a more mature cruiser. We like this line because of the enrichment programs, which include lectures and classes. Celebrity also offers a number of longer itineraries and more exotic destinations than some of the other lines.

MSC Cruises – Has been trying to “break into” the U.S. Caribbean market with true two-for-one pricing and has also offered to match your frequent cruising status from another cruise line. We have not, as yet, cruised with them.

Disney – The name alone says kids & family and you won’t be disappointed. From movie themed areas to Disney characters the whole ship is a Disney experience. One feature that really appeals is an evening dinner rotation that moves your group to a different style restaurant each night and your table staff goes with you. Oddly Disney is also really good at providing adult only areas that are more strictly enforced than other lines.

Plans and Perks – If you plan on cruising on a regular basis, even as infrequently as once every year or two, you should still join a cruise line loyalty program. Royal Caribbean’s is The Crown & Anchor Society and it’s free to join. If you don’t join you won’t earn the points. In their case, once you reach Diamond status you get a dedicated lounge on board with specialty coffee, some free internet, a free photograph, a special gift and a free cocktail party each evening. Priority boarding and other perks are also offered.

 

CruiseLife8
Royal Caribbean Flo-Rider

Carnival Cruise Line has their VIFP Club with members-only promotions, invites to cocktail receptions while you sail, priority boarding & more. Like most programs, the more you cruise the more you get.

Celebrity has the Captain’s Club  and when you reach Elite status you get access to the Captain’s Club Lounge for daily coffee house style breakfast and evening Cocktail hour. Other features are complimentary 90-minute Internet package, some complimentary dry cleaning and laundry on every sailing, a private shipboard departure lounge serving continental breakfast, priority tender service in tender ports of call and more…

If you’re going to cruise anyway, you would be wise to commit your loyalty and begin accumulating some perks.

One additional note, Celebrity is part of the Royal Caribbean family along with Azamara and frequent cruise status can be extended in a one-time transfer between these cruise lines.

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