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.

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.

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.

 

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.

 

A Few Days in Florence

Above: Ponte Vecchio Bridge

If you are visiting Italy you should not pass up a visit to Florence, the capital of Italy’s Tuscany region. From many Italian cities, including Rome, it is easy to reach Florence by express train for an extra night or two stay.

Michelangelo’s David

The city is the birthplace of the Renaissance where Michelangelo carved many of his masterpieces and where Dante Alighieri lived and the Medici family ruled. Galileo lived in Florence most of his life while Donatello, Giovanni Boccaccio and Leonardo da Vinci are also on the list of notable residents. It is difficult to stroll the narrow streets and cross the many piazzas without feeling that you are walking through history. Add that to the museums, art galleries, shops, cafes and great restaurants and it is impossible not to fall in love with Florence.

Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Flore

Last year we caught a train up from Rome and walked the few blocks from the Santa Maria Novella train station to our hotel. We enjoyed our stay at the Hotel Mia Cara and it was right on the edge of the historic center of Florence making it convenient to walk to many points of interest. The famous Duomo (Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Flore), Ponte Vecchio bridge, Uffizzi Gallery, Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens are only short strolls away. If you are an art lover and are interested in history, this is the perfect Italian destination because there is so much to see and it is mostly located in a concentrated area.

Piazza della Repubblica

Ten recommended destinations:

  1. Gates of Paradise, Lorenzo Ghiberti (1425 – 1452) at the Museo del Opera del Duomo (originally the doors of the baptistery)
  2. Madonna della Seggiola, Raphael (1513 – 1514) at the Pitti Palace, Palatine Gallery
  3. The Medici Palace, Michelozzo di Bartolomeo (1445 – 1460) near the Church of San Lorenzo
  4. The David, Michelangelo (1501 – 1504) at the Accademia (a copy is also in the Piazza Signoria)
  5. Primavera, Sandro Botticelli (1482) at the Uffizi Galleries
  6. The Perseus, Benvenuto Cellini (1545 – 1554) Piazza Signoria
  7. The Florentine Pieta, Michelangelo (1547 – 1553) at the Museo del Opera del Duomo
  8. The Slaves, Michelangelo (1525 – 1530) the Accademia

    Dante Alighieri
  9. The Mosaics in the Baptistery, (1240 – 1300) Baptistery in Piazza Duomo
  10. Madonna della Seggiola, Raphael (1513 – 1514) – in the Pitti Palace, Palatine Gallery

There are a series of three walking tours detailed at the web site visitflorence.com. Walking directions are provided along with background information on the art and sites along the way and even suggestions for good places to enjoy coffee and gelato as you stroll.

Mercato di San Lorenzo

Shopping opportunities are everywhere in Florence from street markets to exclusive shops. The city is famous for its’ leather as well as jewelry and embroidery. Check out bargains at the Mercato Nuovo, a leather and souvenir street market as well as Mercato di San Lorenzo for food specialties. Not to be missed is shopping on the Ponte Vecchio bridge and the small shops near the west side of the bridge.

Street vendors

Stretching between Piazza Duomo and Piazza Repubblica is Via Roma featuring Florence’s main department store, Rinascente along with Gucci, Cartier, Hugo Boss and many more premium shops. The home of Florence’s up scale designers is Via Tornabuoni. This street spotlights many of the famous fashion houses, as well as historic churches and plazas. Near Via Tornabouni, are Via Porta Rossa and Via della Vigna Nuova, offering more upscale fashion shopping.

While in Florence take time to sample la dolce vita (the good life) with frequent stops at sidewalk cafes for cappuccinos, gelato and wine. One of Italians favorite pastimes is sitting at cafes and watching the world go by.

Flor4
Perseus

From Florence you can take a quick side trip to Pisa. It is only a short train ride away with trains leaving about every half hour or so from Santa Maria Novella train station. The Regionale Veloce trains are the ones making this trip, which takes about an hour each way with ticket prices about $10. From the station in Pisa the cathedral and the leaning tower are only a moderate hike away. There are also numerous organized day tours outside the city at reasonable rates that include a day trip by train to Cinque Terre, a beautiful seaside town south of Genoa along with bus tours into the Tuscan countryside.

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Skagen, The Watch & Town

A few months ago when we started this blog we mentioned buying a Skagen watch in Skagen and we actually did. For a long time we have admired Skagen watches. Generally they are stylish, thin and not outrageously expensive. So when we found ourselves visiting Skagen, Denmark on a cruise it seemed a natural thing to do. Skagen (pronounced as if the g wasn’t there), Denmark is a smallish port located on the Jutland peninsula and Denmark’s northernmost town. Besides having a watch company named after it, Skagen is also noted for its scenery. On the northeastern outskirts, Grenen Beach is at the convergence of

Town Square

the Skagerrak and Kattegat seas. We walked into town and found THE Skagen watch shop along with a few hundred of our fellow shipmates. Maybe the shop isn’t accustomed to the number of people a cruise ship can deliver to their door, or at least that is how they acted. First you had to get the help of a sales clerk to answer questions and write up your order. Not efficient, but so far so good. Next you had to wait in line to pay at the counter and that is where things really broke down. Two or three hundred customers times ten to fifteen minutes divided by

Watches in the Skagen Store

two cashiers means you are going to spend the day here. At the time of the visit we really didn’t know much about the watches other than we liked them. We should have done our research. The watches are made in China and use a Japanese Miyota quartz movement. They have never been made in Skagen. Founded in 1989, the company has always been based in the United States. Started by Henrik and Charlotte Jorst, who moved from Denmark to the US in 1986. According to the Wikipedia , the company, Skagen Designs Ltd. was named for Skagen, Denmark , with the stated corporate aim to present honest, simple, purposeful designs and thus share Danish ideals globally. After locating the Danish-owned clock and watch manufacturer, Comtech Watches, a supplier that could manufacture watches at a lower price through its Hong Kong factory, the Jorsts began designing their own watches, Today Skagen is a subsidiary of Fossil, which agreed to

skagan4.jpg
Welcome to Skagen

buy Skagen Designs and its international affiliates for about $236.9 million in cash and stock in 2012. While we can claim that we bought our Skagen watch in Skagen we discovered that we paid manufacturers list price. Since then we have also learned that we could have saved considerable time and money buying the same watch onboard ship or in duty free shops elsewhere.

Before leaving Skagen we did some shopping and discovered Glaspusterblaeser, a great glass blowing shop in an old post office building located at Sct. Laurentii Vej 13. We bought a number of hand blown Christmas ornaments for our tree and to give as gifts.

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Barcelona to Montserrat

If you are visiting Barcelona, Spain, we would strongly recommend that you save a day for a trip to Montserrat. The mountain is home to a Basilica, monastery, convents, restaurants and two hotels.

We visited on a tour arranged for us in Barcelona but it is not difficult to plan a trip for a day on your own. Start at the Plaza Espanya train station in Barcelona. The train station is in the same building as a metro station. Follow signs for the R5 train. The train will take you to stations at the foot of the mountain but, before buying tickets, you will need to decide whether you would like to travel up Montserrat Mountain by Cable Car or by the Rack Railway . There are agents selling combination tickets who can help you decide, so ask them for advice. You also need to confirm which station to exit based on your choice.

The mountain of Montserrat would be worth a visit if it was only a geological spectacle and that alone draws rock climbers from around the world. It has also been a religious site from the days of the Roman Empire with a temple to Venus having been built there more than two thousand years ago. Since 888 AD there has been the Christian sanctuary of the Virgin Mary of Montserrat and, in 1025, Oliba, Bishop of Vic, founded a larger monastery at the hermitage of Santa Maria de Montserrat. The monastery soon began receiving pilgrims and visitors who contributed to the spread of stories of miracles and wonders performed by the Virgin. In 1409 the monastery of Montserrat became an abbey and from 1493 to 1835, the monastery underwent numerous improvements, growing and increasing in splendor.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Monastery of Montserrat became a cultural centre with The Montserrat Music School producing a number of significant composers. From the early nineteenth century on the Monastery was abandoned, rebuilt and restored a number of times because of the French War and the Spanish Civil War. Today, Montserrat is again a cultural and religious center welcoming pilgrims and tourists.

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Keukenhof In The Spring

Spring in Holland means flowers and the world’s largest garden and showplace is the Keukenhof Gardens  with over 7 million spring flowering bulbs on display. There are also acres of commercial fields around the gardens growing tulips almost as far as you can see.

The gardens are located in Lisse only a short distance southwest of Amsterdam. The festival runs from mid March thru mid May and is serviced by buses from Amsterdam airport with entry included in the fare. If you are staying in Amsterdam you can take a bus or tram to the central station and catch a train directly to the airport. Once there it isn’t hard to figure out – just look for the crowds and the red buses. You can check with tour agencies or your hotel but that will probably cost you an extra $5 or $10 and you will end up traveling the same route (bus, train, bus and return).

The Keukenhof is a trade fair whereover one hundred growers display their flowers. The name actually means “kitchen garden” and the place is fondly referred to as the Garden of Europe. The annual event features restaurants and coffee shops along with gift shops and, if you enjoy gardens, do not miss this. We’ve spoken to a number of people that didn’t go because of the crowds and they had regrets. The best thing is to anticipate a lot of people, go early in the day and be patient.

At the Keukenhof and the flower markets in Amsterdam, many people question if they can buy tulip bulbs and bring them back through U.S. Customs. The answer is yes and no. Some vendors sell bulbs with U.S. and Canada certificates that allow them through. These are a small selection and many of the same items are readily available back in North America and probably at a better prices. A majority of the bulbs will not have the certificate and are not allowed to be brought in.

If you are cruising across the Atlantic on a spring repositioning cruise headed for northern Europe, there is a good chance you will end up in Amsterdam around tulip festival time. Besides the Keukenhof, Amsterdam also has a city wide tulip festival around the same time that features dozens of gardens and grounds to visit, so keep that in mind as well.

More on Amsterdam at another time…


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Normandy: A Place for Reflection

Above: Cliff Tops at Pointe du Hoc

The Beaches of Normandy, France
D-Day Execution June 6th 1944
Memorial in the Surf at Omaha Beach
German Gun Defenses at Pointe du Hoc

We visited Normandy for a day as a stop on an eastbound trans-Atlantic cruise in the spring. If you find yourself on a similar cruise you will be offered a number of tours including Paris and Normandy. Our choice was partly based on a desire to see the landing beaches but also thinking that a one-day trip to Paris would be just too short. After that day we now firmly believe that if you want to see Paris – spend several days at a minimum but do not pass up any opportunity to see Normandy.

If you are visiting Paris for several days, you should seriously consider a day trip out to the D-Day beaches. There are a number of tours available from Paris to Normandy and many can be booked through hotels. Another option is to rent a car and spend a couple of days in the area on your own. The countryside is beautiful and the people welcoming.

The Seaside Town of Arromanches

Your day should include a visit to the Caen Memorial Museum, the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer, a tour of Pointe du Hoc, as many beaches (Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, Sword) as you can fit in, Arromanches-les-Bains and the Pegasus bridge. There are also a number of other cemetaries in the area honoring those that gave their lives from the British Commonwealth and many other countries.

Shell Craters at Pointe du Hoc

Generally, on past visits to France, we have found the French less then accommodating, but, throughout our day, we discovered the people friendly, talkative and still wanting to express gratitude for the American sacrifice on D-Day. While at Pointe du Hoc we saw a number of French school tours visiting and there seemed to be a serious effort to keep that moment in history alive for successive French generations.

Normandy American Cemetery

Even today, visiting the quiet beaches and the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, the enormity of that event in 1944 still has an emotional impact. It is overwhelming to walk thru the Normandy American Cemetery with the 9,387 head stones standing in row after row, like the fallen soldiers they mark. Walking in the cemetery it is hard to process the number of lives lost in so short a time. The land beneath the cemetery is U.S. soil and the cemetery is maintained and operated by American personnel.

90 Foot Cliffs at Pointe du Hoc

At Pointe du Hoc the tops of the cliffs are spotted with the immense concrete German bunkers and the ground is still gouged with the craters made by the Allied naval gun barrages. The most impressive thing, however, is to look down those ninety-foot cliffs and realize that 225 American Rangers climbed them while under attack from German gunfire and bad weather.

In addition to the D-Day experience is a drive through the beautiful French countryside. There are farms and villages spotted with yellow canola fields and bordered by oak trees thick with clusters of mistletoe. All-in-all an unforgettable experience.

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Rome to Civitavecchia (Part II)

Getting from Rome to the Cruise Port

A couple of times we have stayed in Rome to do some sightseeing before taking a cruise. We stayed at the Augusta Lucilla Palace Hotel just a few blocks from the Termini. Within an easy walk there are a few nice local restaurants and wine bars that offered good snacks and light fare. The hotel staff was friendly and helpful, the rooms clean and comfortable and the included breakfast was great.

There are trains leaving the Termini (Rome Central Station) for Civitavecchia about twice an hour throughout the day. In the main terminal hall are manned windows for ticketing but, be careful, and don’t just walk up to them. You need to get a number and watch the board for it to be called and to identify which window to use. Also, while most situations in Rome and Italy allow you to get by very well speaking only English, train ticket offices are often an exception (especially the smaller stations). Be prepared with written information about where you’re going.

Trains to Civitavecchia originate at the main Termini in Rome with most stopping at Tuscolana, Ostiense, Trastevere, and San Pietro. Many are double-deck regional commuters with room to set luggage but make sure you keep an eye on it. Fares are about €6 per person one way. There are a few faster InterCity trains between Roma Termini and Civitavecchia costing under €10 each.

Train schedules that are easy to understand are posted throughout the stations. Make note of the track number and follow the signs to the platform. Note that tickets for many trains are not for reserved seats. You can use them any time within the next several months, but the ticket MUST be validated for use.  Before boarding the train, punch the ticket in one of the little green and white machines around the platform area. There can be serious fines for not validating a ticket.

If the Termini is not convenient you can also catch many of the trains to Civitavecchia at Tuscolana, Ostiense, Trastevere, and San Pietro stations.

Once you get to the station in Civitavecchia the entrance to the port is a pleasant walk of a dozen or so blocks. (Out the train station and go right.) When you get to the McDonalds the entrance to the port is across the street to the left. The cruise ships provide buses out to the ships but  the bus locations and pick up spots change so you will need to figure that out when you get there.

A couple of times we have stayed in Civitavecchia and have stayed at the Hotel Porta di Roma. The accommodations were fine, the staff friendly and breakfast adequate. It was near a local pizza restaurant that was excellent and only a few blocks from the shopping promenade, the port and the waterfront.

Link to Rome Train Map

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