Saturday, December 31, 2016

Madrid - Our Post-Cruise Extension and Last Stop

We were one of the last groups to disembark the ship, because we had purchased the post-cruise extension tour to Madrid (and why not?).
Spanish landscaspe outside Madrid
As we left the ship, we were greeted once again by the hotel manager, Sinjith Mohan, who we left with hugs and well wishes, before making our way to the post-cruise meeting area where we assembled with 18 other cruisers.
Really moving it
Together we boarded a bus which took us to Santa Barcelona, the regional train station where we boarded one of those high-speed trains that Europe is famous for.
Spain's National Library
When you go with Viking, you go in class and we had reserved seats in the train’s first-class section.

The train left the station 2 minutes past its scheduled time for our 3-hour ride to Madrid. The Renfe train is capable of speeds up to 300 km/hr (187 mph/hr), and we were barely out of the station when we were hitting speeds in excess of 150 mph.
The fresh seafood market
Once we were out in the countryside, we were easily cruising at speeds of 180-185 mph, and at one point the information panel indicated the maximum speed of 300 km/hr. And it was smooth. We could almost qualify for the Indianapolis 500!
Anyone want some ham?
This train system is very impressive and something that should go over big in the states. At the station we changed guides to one that was intimately familiar with Madrid. The other guide that brought us over was more familiar with Barcelona.
View from our balcony
We boarded a bus that would take us to our hotel. Along the route, our guide, Claudia, pointed out several monuments and landmarks, but who can remember them all?
Columbus monument
Like Barcelona, we were impressed with Madrid’s cleanliness and remarkable architecture.

We were delivered to our hotel and checked into a room on the top floor with a balcony overlooking the boulevard below.
One of the gates to the city
We had the rest of the afternoon and evening to explore Madrid on our own, and we headed out to scout out the neighborhood surrounding our hotel. We came across a ‘supermercado’ (supermarket) and went inside to see what the people of Madrid ate.
Almudena Cathedral
It was a totally different experience than a U.S. supermarket, especially the fresh seafood offerings and the ‘jamon’ (shaved ham) that the Spaniards so dearly love. Tired and worn out, we returned to our hotel for an early bedtime.

At the palace
After breakfast the next morning we boarded a bus with Claudia and proceeded on a guided tour of Madrid.   Our first stop was at a monument commemorating Cervantes’s character, Don Quixote where we stopped and took some photos.
Don Quixote monumente
We drove by another statue of Columbus (they love this guy over here) and past two ancient gates to the city, before getting off the bus to view the king’s palace, or the Royal Palace of Madrid and the adjoining Almudena Cathedral. King Felipe VI and the royal family do not reside in the palace, which is only used for state ceremonies, choosing instead to reside on the outskirts of Madrid.
Bakery House frescoes
We were not able to go into the cathedral and the line to view the palace was over 2 hours long.
The city is Spain’s capital and the third largest city in the European Union with a population of around 3.2 million and a metropolitan population of 6.5 million.

Leaving the palace and cathedral, we walked a route that would take us to the Plaza Mayor, Madrid’s central plaza, a popular place with locals and tourists. Along the way we passed by some very old Roman buildings that had been diligently restored and preserved.
At the palace

The Casa de la Panaderia (Bakery House) dominates the plaza and displays beautifully painted frescoes on its facade.
Mercado de San Miguel
The plaza had a small Christmas village with a variety of vendors and is home to the Mercado de San Miguel, a very popular market with locals and tourists. The market was closed which was just as well since we couldn’t bring any of the items available for sale back on the ship (fruits, vegetables, meats, etc.).
Bear in berry tree-symbol of Madrid
After we spent a little time in the plaza, our guide took us to place where we re-boarded the bus.

We were in for a treat as our next stop and final stop was the Prado Museum, famous for its spectacular collection of paintings and sculptures. While the museum is home to many Italian, French, and Flemish paintings, it is most noted for its collection of Spanish masterpieces ranging from 12th century Romanesque murals to 19th century works by Goya.
The Prado Museum
We were fortunate that our guide was very well versed on the history of the various works we viewed as it made the viewing much more interesting and engaging. We viewed works by Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, and several works by Spanish painters Velazquez and El Greco, the latter who was actually Spanish though he painted mostly in Greece. Our time in the Prado lasted almost two hours, and we barely scratched the surface of the works it contained.
San Jeronimo el Real church next to Prado
We were offered more time, but it would mean that we would have to make our own way back to the hotel, and we thought we should return on the bus as we had to leave for the airport tomorrow at 0430.

We returned to our hotel and rested for a while before we went out to get some dinner. We found a tapas bar and had a selection of olives, meats, and cheeses with some beer and wine. It was just enough as we weren’t really very hungry. Back at the hotel we turned in early for a 0315 wake up alarm. We met our driver and rode to the airport with two other couples in about 20 minutes (not much traffic in Madrid at 0430!). Our flights would take us from Madrid to Munich, then from Munich to Miami. It was a long flight back to Miami and we arrived around 1700. We found our van and drove to a motel in Florida City, not too far from our Key’s rental, where we would spend the next 3 nights before we could check in, and crashed about 2 hours after we arrived. It was a great trip, but as usual, it was great to be back home.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

We Finish Our Cruise in Eclectic Barcelona

We sailed from Toulon into some really stormy and heavy seas on our way to Barcelona.   The next day, Christmas, would be spent at sea , not necessarily because we probably make Barcelona in a day and a half day (we were going at a really slow pace), but more likely because there would be nothing to do in port on Christmas day as all of the businesses would be closed. We arrived in Barcelona at around 0230 on the 26th, and we would do a driving/walking tour later on that day.
Gaudi’s Casa Batlló

Next to Casa Batlló
Barcelona is the capital of the autonomous community of Catalonia in the Kingdom of Spain. With 1.6 million inhabitants it is Spain’s second largest city and boasts a metropolitan population of around 4.7 million. Founded as a Roman city, Barcelona was besieged several times giving it a rich cultural heritage and making it today a cultural center and popular tourist destination. The city is renowned for its architecture and it has 8 UNESCO World Heritage sites, five of which are attributed to the genius of Antoni Gaudi, a modernistic architect that designed in the mid-19th century. We tried to get the optional tour dedicated to Gaudi’s works, but it was sold out and we were relegated to the included riding/walking tour.
Castell del Tres Dragons

Casa Vincens
We boarded a shuttle bus and rode around the city so that we could view the various architectural masterpieces, with some old and some much more recent. Viewing the Barcelona in general, we were taken aback by the city’s cleanliness as well and the marvelous architecture. We went pass several structures our guide called out as noteworthy and tried to capture some images as the bus sped by. Specific works we were able to view were Gaudi’s Casa Batlló, a remodel in the modernistic style located in the city’s center and decorated with snowballs for winter; the Castell del Tres Dragons (Castle of Three Dragons) built as a café-restaurant for Barcelona’s 1888 Universal Exposition of Barcelona; the Arc de Triomf in the beautiful Parc de la Ciutadella and the main access gate for the 1888 World’s Fair; and Casa Vincens one of the first buildings designed by Antonio Gaudi in the modernistic or art nouveau style.
Arc de Triomf
Picasso's first gallery
It was a lot to take in given the short contact time we had with these impressive works.

With the bus-ride portion of our tour concluded, we were deposited for a walking tour of the Gothic Quarter in the center of the old city. As we were walking toward the quarter, our guide suddenly detoured to show us Pablo Picasso’s first gallery; a small, corner shop that is now a restaurant. We entered the quarter, and after viewing the Bishop’s living quarters, we headed for the 14th-century Gothic church Santa Maria del Pi. This beautiful church was restored after it was gutted by a fire in 1936. Outside there is an octagonal bell tower and the interior features 6 side chapels and a beautiful Baroque wooden choir stalls.
Santa Maria del Pi
We viewed the cloister and the 13 geese that serve to protect the church. We were fortunate that no mass was being conducted which allowed us to enter and roam the vast interior. Finishing our church tour, our guide gave us a little over an hour of free time.
Santa Maria interior
We hooked up with Pam and Kit and walked down to a closed market place that featured a multi-colored ceramic tile roof. Since this was the day after Christmas, most stores and shops were closed with the exception of the church’s gift shop.
Another interior shot
Pam and Jane went shopping, while Kit and Capt. Larry had a beer at a nearby street café.

Rejoining our guide we next headed for Palaça del Rei, or King’s Square.
Entrance closeup
When Christopher Columbus returned from discovering the Americas in 1493, he presented his findings to Spanish King Ferdinand II of Aragon in this very square according to our guide.
Colored roof marketplace
It was moving to be at a site where world history was made and changed. This square is also bordered by an ancient Roman building and also has some underground Roman ruins.

Church exterior
We left the square and made our way to the Plaça de Sant Jaume, home to the Barcelona City Hall and the Palau de la Generalitat, the seat of the Government of Catalonia and the Presidency of the Generalitat.
Roman ruins
These two buildings lie directly across the square from each other. This concluded our tour and we were given the option of returning to the ship with the guide, or staying in town and finding a shuttle bus later.
Palaça del Rei
We started to go back to the ship Kit and Pam, but at the last moment decided to stay behind. We headed back into the old city where Pam and Jane started looking for souvenirs.
Palau de la Generalitat
We had lunch of pizza and beer at a delightful café, and found a tapas bar we had seen earlier on our way back to the ship.
City Hall
We finished off our Barcelona visit with assorted olives, spicy chorizo, beer, wine, and great company.
Statue of Columbus
This concluded our cruise and we would have to disembark tomorrow. Pam and Kit would fly back to Florida, and we would extend our vacation with a trip to Madrid.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

We Visit a Tower in Pisa, Monacco, and Toulon, and Have a Special Holiday Dinner

Next stop: Livorno, IT, the seaport gateway for Florence/Pisa in Italy’s beautiful province of Tuscany. Famous for its landscapes and Chianti wine, this region is considered the birthplace of the Renaissance, that creative burst of art, architecture, and science that changed the world from the 14th – 16th centuries.
City wall
We had a difficult time deciding whether to tour Florence, with its art history, museums, and architecture, or Pisa with its leaning tower. It just didn’t seem right, however, not to see the tower—something that most U.S elementary students learn about. Straddling the River Arno, Pisa has around 91,000 inhabitants with metropolitan population of 200,000. Known worldwide for its leaning tower, Pisa is also home to more than 20 other historic churches, several medieval palaces and various bridges across the River Arno. The city is also home to the University of Pisa with a history going back to the 12th century.
Baptistery and Cathedral
Beautiful baptismal font
We boarded a bus that would take us through 15 miles of Tuscan landscapes from Livorno to Pisa, and entered the Piazza dei Miracoli or the Square of Miracles. This walled square is dominated by four religious edifices: the Pisa Cathedral; the Pisa Baptistery; the Campanile (leaning tower); and the Camposanto Monumentale (Monumental Cemetery). The grounds also house a hospital and a Cathedral Museum. First entering the round, Romanesque Baptistery that was started in the 12th century and dedicated to St. John the Baptist, we were astonished by the artistry in the octagonal baptismal font and the pulpit.
Baptistery pulpit
Aside from these feature, however, the interior is relatively unadorned. But the construction of a double dome with a space between the layers serves as a sounding board and produces amazing acoustics.
Baptistery, cathedral, campanile
This was demonstrated by two singers, one on the ground level and another higher up in the dome, who sang a religious chant producing a beautifully amazing sound. Exiting the Baptistery we went to the cathedral. With construction begun in 1064, the church set the model for the distinctive Pisan Romanesque style of architecture, but the pointed arches and the interior mosaics show a strong Byzantine influence. The gray marble façade, massive bronze doors, and the black and white marble interior with its gilded ceiling and frescoed dome are simply stunning.
Cathedral facade
A fire in 1595 destroyed much of the ceiling, but it was repaired by the Medici family and now bears the family’s coat of arms.
Ceiling and Medici plaque
Galileo’s Lamp, an incense lamp suspended from the ceiling, is believed to have inspired the formulation of his pendulum theory.
Cathedral interior
We viewed the elaborately carved pulpit with its 9 narrative panels and the bones of St. Ranieri, Pisa’s patron saint.

Outside the cathedral we saw the Campanile which is simply the cathedral’s bell tower.
Cathedral pulpit
The last of the 3 major buildings built on the piazza, it was built in three stages that spanned 177 years.
The Leaning Tower
Five years after construction began, with the building 3 stories high, weak subsoil and a poor foundation caused sinking on the building’s south side. By 1990 the lean was 5.5 degrees when a team of engineers and architects finally stabilized the building to its present day lean of around 4 degrees (they didn’t want to correct it totally or the tourists wouldn’t visit!).

Our guide pointed out the Monumental Cemetery, but didn’t take us to view it.
Pisa backstreets
Instead we were given free time to peruse the street vendors and shops and take bathroom breaks. Jane purchased some souvenirs from a street vendor, while Capt. Larry bought some limoncello and Chianti wine from a gift shop.
We concluded our visit with a walk through some backstreets and alleys before hiking back to our bus for the ride back to the ship.
Big boats in Monte Carlo marina
Walking along the waterfront
Overnight we sailed to Monaco, waking up to find our ship surrounded by luxury motoryachts and sailboats in the main marina. As we viewed this sovereign city-state scrunched up against the base of the French Alps from our balcony, it became apparent that this was not going an ordinary port of call. The entire landscape just oozed of wealth and money and a certain level of refinement that only a lot of wealth and money can produce.
Oceanography Museum
Officially the Principality of Monaco, as it has always been ruled by a prince or princess and never a king (making it a kingdom), sits on the French Riviera and is bordered by France on three sides and the Mediterranean Sea on the fourth.
St. Nicolas Cathedral
With an area of only 0.78 sq. mi. and a population of almost 39,000, Monaco is the second smallest (only the Vatican is smaller) and most densely populated country in the world. Monte Carlo is the most populous quarter in the country. Through land reclamation and seaward expansion Monaco has increased it land mass by 20%.
Monaco jail with sea view (and chef)!
Millionaires comprise about 30% of Monaco’s population and the country is a popular tax haven. Monaco is also home to the prestigious Grand Prix of Monaco car race.

The included walking tour began with meeting our guide on the pier, and then proceeding through the heart of the medieval quarter known as “The Rock.”
Cathedral interior
We learned that Monaco’s major source of income is tourism, but it has also evolved into a major banking center and promotes certain "green" industries. We walked along a path that ran by the sea and passed by the Oceanographic Museum that houses a renowned aquarium.
Christmas park
We entered a beautiful park with a varied assortment of plants and trees from all over the world, and learned that Monaco was an early leader in environmental protection. There is little space for yards and vegetation areas, so green spaces on top of the high-rise buildings is strongly encouraged.

Monaco has been ruled by the Grimaldi family since 1297 and today is governed by a constitutional monarchy with Prince Albert II as head of state.
Monaco at night
Our guide brought us to St. Nicholas Cathedral where the royal family is buried, and where Prince Rainier III and actress Grace Kelly were famously wed. We entered the cathedral and viewed the graves of the royal family, including Prince Rainier III and Grace Kelly. Grace Kelly was immensely popular with the people and had a very positive influence on the country’s development.

In the park
We then viewed Port Hercules, a 500 acre area created by reclamation and seaward expansion. We made our way to Monaco’s main square, the Place du Palais, and viewed the Prince’s Palace.
The prince's palace
We didn’t get to see the palace’s changing of the guard, but did get to photograph the colorful guards. This concluded our tour and we were given the option of returning to the ship with the guide after an hour of free time or wander back on our own.
The palace at night
We chose the latter and Jane bought a few items at a gift shop and we headed back to the ship. Along the way we came across a Christmas fair and entered to see what it offered. Geared mostly toward children with festive, brightly colored characters and Christmas scenes, there were a few vendors offering jewelry, collectables, and food (something we really didn’t need!). We boarded the ship and decided that Monaco was a really great port of call and a great place to live, if you have the bucks.
Sunrise over Toulon, France
Tour Royale
"Thick Tower" walls
French Mediterranean Fleet (gotta zoom)
We left Monaco at 2300 (so the gamblers had some time ashore) and cruised to Toulon, FR. Toulon is the principle base of the French navy and holds about 60% of the total tonnage, including the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle and support group, as well as nuclear submarines. The navy is a major employer for the Toulon area. We had pleasant but cooler weather as we boarded our bus for the included tour of Toulon. Our first stop was at the naval arsenal and dockyards where we viewed the French Mediterranean fleet, before visiting the Tour Royale. Built in the 16th century to protect the harbor, the fort was also called “The Thick Tower” because of its 22-foot-thick walls. We left the harbor and headed out for a bus ride for the remainder of the tour. The bus took us to various sections of Toulon, but none really very notable.
Downtown Toulon
Several buildings were pointed out, but hard to gauge their historical importance as most seemed to be ordinary buildings.
Busy Toulon marina
It was also difficult to hear and understand the guide. The tour was short and we returned to the terminal, only to walk back into town to visit a shopping mall so Jane could pick up a few things.
Mmmmm! All kinds of olives
On our way back to the ship we passed by a farmer’s market.

We were given a special treat that evening (Christmas Eve). Jane had spotted one officer a few days ago that she was pretty sure had been on our Antarctic cruise. When we spotted him in his office a couple of days ago, she asked him if he remembered us and the cruise. As soon as she mentioned some details of the cruise, his face lit up and everything came back to him. He told us that he had joined the Viking cruise line four years ago and that he was now the general hotel manager. He said that he was putting together a special table for Christmas Eve and asked us if we would join him and his other guests.
Viking gingerbread!
We affirmed. So, on Christmas Eve we had dinner with the hotel manager and two other couples.
Dinner with the hotel manager
Sinjith Mohan told us about Viking’s ambitious expansion plans, the company ownership, and his responsibilities with about half of the crew (~450) answering to him. We had a delightful dinner with excellent wine (special stuff!), food and conversation. He was called away before the end of the meal, but we spotted him the next day, thanked him for including us, and expressed hope that we could spend another Christmas with him again in the future. It was a great reunion.