The Grand Journey – Touring Tuscany

My cruise posts aren’t over yet. Editing photos and writing up these posts is time consuming and I’ve been too busy to keep up.

So we’re going way back to Sunday, Nov. 17 and our stop in Livorno, Italy. The most popular excursions from this port go to Florence. We really wrestled with our decision on this one but chose to go to Tuscany. As I thought about it, I was only really considering Florence because I felt an obligation to go since other people said I should. I may give in to that in real life but not on vacation.

san gimignano in the distance

Our tour started in the medieval town of San Gimignano or St. Jimmy-John’s if you’re asking Mr. McB. It is that collection of distant towers in the photo above.

tuscitywallSan Gimignano’s trade came from wine, cloth, and saffron. During the middle ages, there were 10,000-12,000 residents; there are 1,400 now.

San Gimignano is known for its tower houses. In its heyday, there were more than 70 within the city walls. These were constructed with one room stacked on top of another. Workshops were located on the ground floor and living areas were on the the floors above. The levels were connected by moveable ladders instead of stairs for security purposes. The kitchen was located on the highest floor making it easier to escape in case of fire.

tustower1As with modern skyscrapers, the height of your tower was a direct indication of the size of your bank account. The highest tower was said to be about 50 meters or 164 feet tall.

tustwintowersWhen the Palazzo Comunale, or town hall, was constructed, there was a rule stating that no tower could be taller than the town’s tower. Officials removed parts of some structures to ensure that the rule was obeyed. The powerful Salvucci family got inventive and decided to create twin towers. Neither tower was taller than the town hall, yet their combined height would dwarf the municipal building.

tustower2San Gimignano was a popular stop for pilgrims traveling the Via Francigena between Canterbury, England and Rome. The city was very prosperous between 1199 and 1353 but then it fell to the Florentines. In a show of power, they destroyed many of the towers and only 14 remain today.

The town is more than just towers though. It is full of many lovely sites including the quaint Piazza della Cisterna. The well is made of travertine. It was originally installed in 1273 and enlarged in 1346. Guccio dei Malavolti, the craftsman who enlarged the well, left his insignia on the side. See the ladder in the picture below?

tuswhellSan Gimignano is also the site of the Basilica Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta.
This duomo is rather modest from the outside but we heard the inside is very striking and features black-and-white marble arches and vaults. There are also a number of impressive frescoes. It was Sunday, so we could not go in. We could see the procession of tractors and other farm implements that were going to be part of the harvest blessing at the church.

tustractorThis was shot as we walked into town.

tustractorblessingThis one was in front of the church. It was nice to get a glimpse into the traditions of this little town.

While the paintings inside the church were off-limits, we were able to see some frescoes in the courtyard of the Palazzo Comunale.

tusmural2Painted in 1507 by Giovanni Sodoma, this is St. Ives Administering Justice. On the right side, the rich folks are trying to offer bribes but virtuous St. Ives has barred the door. He is interested in handing out real justice not being a puppet of the powerful.

tusmural1This is another mural in the courtyard. This one was painted in 1370. You can see San Gimignano in the hands of the figure on the left side.

We also did a little shopping. Our niece asked us to bring back a jewelry box. This seemed like a simple request but we were disappointed with the choices up to that point. Thankfully, San Gimignano came through for us in a big way and we found the perfect box. It was made from Carrara marble from a nearby mountain. It was a very elegant (and heavy) piece.

tusdoorwayBuilding in San Gimignano

gate in san gimignanoAnother shot of the gate

tuswarmemorialThis is a memorial to soldiers from WWI.

We were soon back on the bus. On our way to Siena, the driver stopped to allow us to take some landscape photos and check out some of the olive trees that were almost ready for harvest.

tusvineyardtusolivetuscanySiena is yet another medieval town. Today, the city is known for its horse race called the Palio. While the Palio’s roots stretch back to the 6th century, some will recognize it as the horse race in Quantum of Solace.

tuscsquareThis is the Piazza del Campo where the race takes place twice each year. The spectators are in the middle and the horses race around the on the black stones.

tuscbalconyThe buildings in the square also have little balconies that are very popular during the race.

The race is an opportunity for Siena’s various districts known as Contrade to compete for civic pride. The city has 17 Contrade that are represented by animals or other natural symbols. These are difficult to miss as you walk around the city.

tuspalhorseThis is found on a building in the Contrada of Valdimontone (Valley of the Ram). Traditionally, the inhabitants of this neighborhood were tailors.

tusctwocontradaThis is the intersection of Aquila (eagle, one of the four noble Contrade) and Selva

            We saw the goose, the symbol of the Oca Contrada, everywhere.

tuscgooseflag
tuscgoosecontradaThis is another noble Contrada. It was also one of the two Contrade that won a Palio in 2013. As winners, they are eligible to hang and burn the celebratory lights you’ll see below.

tuscgooselamp The residents of Selva just celebrated their big feast so they were also allowed to hang their celebratory lanterns though only for a few days. If you look carefully, you can see the differences between the lamps. The ones below are decorated as branches with leaves. Selva is the forest so this is very logical.

tuscfeastlampsVisit http://www.ocaioloextramoenia.it/Palio/contrade.htm for more on the Contrade. Click “English” beside each link for translations.

Siena is also known for its duomo built between 1215 and 1263. Much of the decorative facade was added later. The mosaics came in the 19th century.

tuscsienacathedraltusccath2tuscsienacathcloseThe marble church is a fantastic representation of Italian Gothic style. It is almost too much to take in at once. There are so many decorative elements. I’ve seen it before and it was just as stunning the second time around. I wish we could have gone inside to see the black-and-white pillars and ornate decorations. As it was, there was still more of the church to see from the outside.

tuscathedralsideThis is the cathedral’s bell tower or campanile. It was added in the early 1300’s and matches the rest of the church very well. The black-and-white color combination is popular in the city and is said to represent the horses of its legendary co-founders Senius and Aschius.

As majestic and large as the church is today, there were plans to make the duomo larger than St. Peter’s in Rome. Due to missteps in the construction followed quickly by the Black Plaque, the expansion never occurred. Visitors can still see some of the remnants of the attempt.

tuscwalltuscbuckleIf you look closely, you will see that the top part of the column juts out a bit and there is some buckling due to the weight of the roof.

Our tour of the city also included a stop to see San Domenico, a church devoted to Saint Catherine. Our guide said that the color of the church is the inspiration for the “Burnt Sienna” Crayola crayon.

tuscstcatherineCatherine is credited for bringing the pope back to Rome from Avignon, France. One of 22 children, she lived a very interesting life. You can read more here and here. Her skull is displayed in a reliquary inside the church. While I feel sad about missing the interior of the other churches we visited that day, missing the skull didn’t bother me.

Walking away from austerity and vows of poverty, we made our way to Palazzo Tantucci which is held by Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the oldest bank in the world.

tuscoldesbankThis is just one of the three palazzi belonging to the bank.tuscbankdoorIt’s a bit more elegant than my local branch of BB&T, that’s for sure.

We had a little bit of time to wander around on our own before it was time to meet back up in the Piazza del Campo.

tuscsinstreetI spotted these fuzzy Christmas decorations,
tuscchristmasthis statue,
tuscsculptureand this one.
tuscmamaShe looks forlorn. Can you blame her with all those kids and all that bird poop?

We made it back to the square just as the sun was starting to peek through the clouds. It was still overcast but there is no rain obscuring my photo of the town hall or Palazzo Pubblico. Visitors can go to the top of the tower but we didn’t make it during our visit. It’s a reason to go back, right?

tusstowertuscfountainIt took eight years for workers to bring water to Piazza del Campo. This accomplishment was celebrated with the creation of the Fonte Gaia which is loosely translated to mean joyful fountain. The figures were created by Jacopo della Quercia.

tuscsienatuscmichaelMr. McB and I pondered the day in our own way.

tuscangelasitting My grandfather was a brick mason. He loved looking at the way things were constructed and could often tell you about the weather and other conditions when the work was done. I thought of him many times during our visit to the Colosseum and our time in Tuscany. There are so many bricks. He would love to see all of this architecture. Some how just sitting there and literally soaking up the heat from the bricks, I felt close to him.

It was a great day in Tuscany. Next time we’ll do Florence, Pisa, or maybe both.

 

Advertisements

Grand Journey – A Tale of Two Duomos

palsunriseAfter a short night of cruising, we arrived in Palermo. As you can see from the photo above, we were greeted with a glorious sunrise.

I took an excursion that visited the duomos of Palermo and Monreale while Mr. McB chose to explore the city on his own.

There was a general strike in Palermo and our tour guide was very keen to get us on the bus, to the cathedral in Palermo, and on our way before the inevitable traffic jams clogged up the route to Monreale. She was also very annoyed when people were looking out the windows at the teenagers who were gathering in the streets since she felt that we couldn’t look at them and listen to her at the same time. At one point she told us that she would not speak again until all eyes were on her. I understand that her job isn’t easy but I don’t think any of us deserved to be treated like children. She presented a lot of information but didn’t seem to be terribly personable. She said we were the last tour of the season so maybe her frustration was caused by fatigue and the inconvenience caused by the strike.

On the way to the church, we passed the quattro canti or four corners. This monument features statues representing a season, king of Sicily, and former patron saint of Palermo. There are 12 statues in total. Below you’ll see winter, King Philip III, and St. Agatha. You’ll also see the tiniest delivery truck which is ideal for navigating little Sicilian streets and alleys.

palquattroOur driver had to do some creative motoring just to get to the duomo. We parked around the corner and were greeted by the two corner towers that are part of the church. The towers were built in the 14th and 15th centuries but given a facelift in the late 1700’s.

pal_towersAround the corner, we spotted the church itself. This large cathedral was built in 1184 on the site of a former mosque which was built on the site of a former basilica. Like the towers, the church had a number of renovations and is a mix of architectural styles.

palcathedralThe Duomo of Palermo has a boat parked in the front yard.

palboatThe ship of salvation is used as part of the parade held on Saint Rosalia’s feast day. In life, Rosalia was a beautiful aristocrat who refused a marriage proposal, became a hermit, and devoted her life to serving God. She died in a cave at Mount Pellegrino. Centuries later when the plaque hit Palermo, a soap maker visited Mount Pellegrino, found Rosalia’s remains and had a vision that she would bring an end to the plaque if he would return her remains to Palermo for a proper burial. After some initial resistance, the church agreed. Following the funeral procession and burial, the spread of the plaque ceased. After saving Palermo, Rosalia replaced those four saints that grace the quattro canti as the city’s patron.

palrosaliaRosalia’s remains are housed inside the cathedral in the silver urn. Before the guide told us what was inside, I thought this looked like a massive chaffing dish. Clearly, I’m an American protestant.

The inside of the cathedral of Palermo is very lovely and ornate. The guide discussed some of what we were seeing but everything was hurried a little because we needed to get on the road and she thought that Palermo’s cathedral was rubbish compared to what we would see in Monreale.

pal_insidecathThe painting on the ceiling represents the ascension of the Virgin Mary.

pal_jesusHere’s another shot of the same scene that showcases the royal throne.

pal_cathedralI wish I knew what this blue thing was but again, our guide wasn’t really helpful when it came to talking about things in this church. I tried research this but cannot find an answer. If you know, please leave me a comment.

pal_primemeridanThese zodiac signs are part of the church’s heliometer. There is a tiny hole in the ceiling that allows the sun’s ray to illuminate the appropriate sign at noon. It may seem like an odd thing to see in a church but the purpose was to standardize the measure of time and dates. This was especially important when calculating the dates of Lent and Easter.

palpriestThis tomb belongs to Father Giuseppe “Pino” Puglisi. Father Puglisi ministered in Brancaccio, a rough area of Palermo and was an outspoken opponent of the mafia. In response to his opposition, two powerful mafia bosses ordered a hit on the priest who was gunned down outside his church in 1993. The 56-year-old became a martyr of the Catholic church and was beatified in May 2013. More than 50,000 people attended the ceremony.

This is one part of the cathedral where our guide took more time to talk. She spoke of the good works of this man and the tragedy of his death. On my last visit to Sicily, I took the “Godfather” tour and saw the very romanticized side of the Mafia mystique. This was a stark reminder of what the mob really is.

After walking back to the bus, we started the trip to Monreale located on the slope of Monte Caputo. After reaching the parking area, we walked up the steps to reach the cathedral. There is a taxi option for those who cannot navigate the steps. The cabs cost roughly $5 and can take up to five people.

After ascending the steps, we saw the cathedral from the outside. Our guide was very quick to tell us that we should not judge the church by its exterior.

pal_onetowerThe tower on the left was struck by lightening and has not been restored.

The Muslims took control of Palermo in 831. During this time they built a mosque on the site of the duomo (see above) and banished the Bishop. After reclaiming Palermo about 240 years later, William II thought it would be a good idea to build a church to show how thankful the Normans were to be delivered from occupation. Monreale’s duomo began in 1174 and according to our guide took 17 years to complete. Other sources state that the church was finished in 1182 or 1185. The important take away is that the construction work went very quickly because the church was built by a collaborative of Islamic, Byzantine, and Norman craftsmen. Each group brought their own touch to the church resulting in a very unique blend of architectural styles.

palmoncathoutsideWe gathered under the portico where the guide tried to prepare us for what we were going to see inside the duomo. The church features 68,000 square feet of mosaics featuring more than 400 kilos of gold.

palmonlargeSince most church goers could not read, these mosaics were their Bible. Above the arches, you can see the story of the creation and Noah’s arc.

palmon2More arc scenes

palmonceiling The ceiling in a section of the church closer to the main altar.

pal_monbottomMosques do not include human imagery and do not depict Allah in human form. You can see the contribution of the Islamic artisans in the image above. There are geometric shapes and a row of stylized palm trees which represent paradise.

palmon

New testament stories and Islamic palm trees

palmontallpalmoncandlesThe altar

palmonorganThe duomo’s organ

palmonchristChrist Pantocrator or ruler of all
This is church’s focal point.
Christ’s nose is one meter long.
His head and bust are roughly 25′ tall.
The distance between his hands, better seen below, is 46′.

palmonaltarMonreale was truly amazing. I’ve seen lovely mosaics before but they were nothing like what I saw in this church. The fusion of the styles and the sheer number of scenes was very striking. I admit to a little sensory overload just trying to take it all in. I was able to pick out most of the Bible stories. Some of the other scenes are symbolic and relate more to Catholic saints or the Norman kings.

We were given about 45 minutes to explore Monreale one our own. We were there on a Friday which seemed to be a pretty busy market day.

palmonstreetI ran across this small church, very different from the duomo, with its doors open and altar lit.

palmonotherchurchI continued to follow the winding streets and take in the little village.

palmonbldgpalmon_cityscapeBefore heading back to the bus, I followed the guide’s advice and stopped in at Panifico in the square across from the duomo and picked up a bag of almond cookies that would sustain us during our big Roman adventure the next day.

Before writing about Rome, I still need to cover the rest of the day in Palermo. Look for another post in the days to come.

Grand Journey Arriving in Italy – Trapani and Erice

Before the cruise, I reserved a tour of the Greek temples found at Selinunte near Trapani, Sicily. Unfortunately, I was one of the few people who wanted to see Greek ruins in Italy so the excursion was cancelled. Erice (Eh-ree-che) was my second choice and the tour that Mr. McB had booked, so I booked this excursion the day we left Barcelona.

We docked in Trapani, on Sicily’s west coast, around 8 a.m.

trapani_morningsea

Trapani’s original name was Drepanon from the Greek word for sickle because of its shape. There are two mythological stories behind the sickle shape. The first states that Trapani was created when the goddess Demeter dropped a sickle when she was looking for her daughter Persephone who was stolen by Hades and taken to the underworld. The second story states that the city was created when Saturn (or Cronus) castrated his father Uranus and threw his bits and the sickle into the sea.

trapani_shipShortly after arriving, we were on a bus and headed up to Erice. There is an option to take a cable car (or funivia) from Trapani to Erice but that tour was more expensive and Mr. McB isn’t really a big fan of cable cars. It seemed silly to pay more for what might have been a terrifying experience.

Erice sits 750 meters above Trapani. It was settled by the Elymians. It is thought that refugees from the ancient city of Troy may have moved here. It was later controlled by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Arabs, and Normans. The town is very well preserved and offers glimpses of both village life and the Medieval world.

erice_drive

This is a road to Erice; if motion sickness is a problem, you might want to close your eyes and think about that cable car option. As we climbed toward the town, we saw clouds and rain rolling in. Thankfully, our first stop was inside the duomo.

Chiesa MatriceSitting on the site of a former temple to Venus, the duomo or Chiesa Matrice (main church, there are 60 churches in Erice so it’s an important distinction) was created using building materials from the old temple. The church was constructed around 1314.

The church is dedicated to the assumption of the Virgin Mary. It’s plain, stone exterior gives way to intricate and beautiful patterns on the ceiling of the church.

erice_ceilingerice_churchceiling

erice_ourladyThe church has some silver pieces, decorative ceremonial robes, and relics. For a brief moment, I was afraid that they might have some of the mummified remains that are popular in other parts of the Sicily. It turned out that there was a large crucifix, and not a body, wrapped in this covering.

erice_bodyAfter touring the church, we walked through the town and toward the Norman castle. Erice’s steep streets are made of well-worn cobblestones. I cannot tell you how important it is to wear comfortable shoes with good tread. You should also watch out for dog droppings. They are plentiful.

erice_dog The rain and fog came and went during the walk. It made the town seem very quiet and isolated. It also made Erice’s maze of streets even more confusing.  One minute a corner was shrouded in fog and the next the sun was shining brightly. You had to look for landmarks and details to make sure you were headed in the right direction. It’s a lovely spot to get a little lost but if you have anxiety about getting turned around, I would recommend sticking to the main streets and making note of their names.

The clouds and mist created some interesting photos. You can see a low hanging cloud covering Monte Cofano in the second shot. You’ll see a clear view of the mountain later.

erice_foggycastleerice_cloudsFrom our perch at the top of the town, we could see Marsala which is home to the famous wine. Marsala is an Arabic name meaning port of god (Mars – Allah). The wine came to fame when Englishman James Ingram brought it in to England as a substitute for the Madeira wine which was popular but unavailable to the English due to troubles with the Spanish. I can only assume they were blocking the trade route since Madeira is a Portuguese wine. 

trapani_marsalaWe could also see Trapani’s salt pans. Salt allowed meat to be cured and was very important in the ancient world. Roman soldiers were paid in salt and thus we have the word “salary” coming from the Latin for salt.

trapani_saltpansSea salt, especially that coming from Trapani, is said to be better for you. It has a stronger flavor allowing you to use less. It is also said to be richer in other minerals.

erice_castleAnother shot of the castle’s tower as the sun chased the fog away.

erice_narrowThis gives you an idea of how narrow the streets of Erice were during Medieval times. This was thought to deter crime. Narrow, winding streets also made it difficult for an invading army to approach the town without being detected.

erice_priest This is San Giuliano or St. Julian who was given credit for the victory over the Muslims who had conquered the citadel. The church here was built in 1076 at the request of Roger the Norman. It was one of the first churches in Erice.

erice_trinaciaErice has many fine ceramic workshops. Here you see the trinacria, the symbol of Sicily. The three legs represent the island’s triangular shape. The face in the center belongs to Medusa and is supposed to keep away evil spirits. It is also said that drops of Medusa’s blood became the red coral that grows off the shores of Sicily. It is considered to protect the wearer.

erice_mcbMr. McB and I split up for independent exploration but met back up in time to enjoy arancini spinaci or a spinach rice ball before walking toward the bus.

erice_arrancini1erice_arrancini2After getting back on the bus, we drove down the winding road and back to Trapani.

erice_windingroadFrom the bus we were able to see Monte Cofano, a limestone mountain that is designated as a nature preserve. This was a stunning view of the mountain jutting out into the Tyrrhenian Sea. It was perfect and surreal.

erice_coffinaerice_coffina2The clouds continued to change positions and create different shadows as we continued our descent from Erice.

We returned to Trapani just before siesta. If we had made it into the cathedral, we would have only had about 15 minutes.I wasn’t interested in rushing so we decided against it. We were able to see the church’s decorative gates.

trapani_cathedralAfter studying the gates, we took a  walk to the other side of the island away from the port. The town is only a few blocks wide at this point.

trapani_coasttrapani_stinkybeachThis side of the island stinks. The beach is full of trash and some matted seaweed or algae and the whole thing reeks of decay. We were there during the off season so I’m sure the whole thing is well maintained during the summer. We turned away from this and headed into the town’s historical center.

corso vittoria emanueleThis is the Corso Vittorio Emanuele. At the end of the street,  you will find the building used as Trapani’s town hall.

trapani_cityhallOn the lower balcony you can see Trapani’s coat of arms on the maroon flag, the trinacria on the Sicilian flag in the center and the EU flag flying at the Palazzo Cavarretta. The Italian flag is displayed at the top of the building.

We also strolled through the park and gardens at the Villa Regina Margherita.

trapani_villamarg2There were crews cutting the palms in the park.
This shot shows a before-and-after comparison.

trapani_villamargtrapani_fountainTriton’s Fountain near the park

trapani_catsThese little cats were waiting to be fed. There was a little lady in the home who lowered the trays of cat food and water down to her hungry customers.

fountain of saturn trapaniThis is the Fountain of Saturn, the city’s mythical protector and candidate for worst son of all time. It is located near the Church of Saint Augustine.

trapani_churchThis is the Chiesa del Purgatorio and is dedicated to the holy souls in purgatory. Inside there are large figures representing the Passion of Christ. These are part of a parade on Good Friday. Again, we arrived during siesta so we missed the chance to see these figures.

We returned to the ship and enjoyed some time on our veranda. Small ferries and other vessels came and went while we were docked. It was surprising to see row boats mixed in to this traffic. The larger crafts left a wake so I was quite impressed by the rowers’ ability to keep their tiny boats upright.

trapani_rower That is some outstanding rowing.

trapani_rower2As was our custom, we watched the tug and pilot boats lead us out to sea. This pilot boat reminded me of a bathtub toy that I had as a little girl.

trapani_pilotboatThis evening we had a reservation at Toscana, the Italian restaurant. I got this shot of sparks flying out into the dark night sky as we walked to dinner.

trapani_sparksWe were both pretty hungry since that rice ball was very good but not the most substantial of meals and by now, our bellies were used to cruise eating. Look at this bread basket. My favorite roll there is a type of brioche with a cherry tomato and onion baked right into the bottom. They also serve these rolls at the buffet restaurant so they were there to tempt me all the time.

trapani_breadbaskettrapani_pastaM’s angel hair pasta appetizer
The handmade pasta is accompanied by a delicate sauce that adds flavor without overwhelming the pasta’s texture or taste.

trapani_calamariMy delightful calamari

trapani_tortM’s spinach and ricotta tortellini
This was also a starter. His main course was the Alfredo chicken.

trapani_gorgonzolaI had the filet with Gorgonzola, grilled polenta and red wine sauce.

trapani_lasagnaThis was my chocolate lasagna in a pistachio sauce. See the shiny layer of chocolate just under the crunchy decorative chocolate? That was very rich chocolate with the consistency of pudding skin or fruit roll-up. I did not love this dessert but I am glad I tried it. M continued his exploration of the various creme brulee options and declared this to be the best thus far.

Before I post about my time in Palermo and Monreale, look for a post about some of the tiny details that didn’t make it into this description of our stop.

Grand Journey – Our Day at Sea

With 483 nautical miles between Palma and our next stop in Trapani (Sicily), we spent the fourth day of our cruise on the high seas.

While I wouldn’t want too many sea days on a cruise, they do provide a chance to explore the ship and rest. The shore excursions can be grueling and a day on the ship means setting your own pace.

We slept in a little and woke to see gray skies. Later, there were low clouds with an odd yellowy tinge. Soon we were sailing in the middle of a rain storm. Mr. McB and I stood out on the veranda and watched it for quite some time. It was very interesting and we’re easily entertained. As the rain slowed a bit, we spotted the rainbow that appeared just outside.

sea_rainbowI will admit to boosting the color in Photoshop but this is pretty close to what we saw with the naked eye.

We spent the morning hanging out in the lounge chairs by the pool. It was a little cool to be in the pool but lounging around and reading was definitely in order.

sea_pooldeckBy lunch, the sun was shining so we found a spot on the Terrace Cafe’s outdoor dining area on the stern of the ship and enjoyed the view of the sparkling blue Mediterranean.

We took afternoon tea at 4 p.m. Sadly, I had the zoom lens on my camera so there are no shots of the white-glove service or the delicious praline cakes. There will be some high tea shots from later in the trip just not from this particular day. The whole experience was lovely and very civilized. A string quartet plays as you relax with tea and enjoy countless treats. We had scones with clotted cream and felt very proper.

oceania tea service at seaThis server is taking away some of the many used tea pots and plates. You can’t see it but he has just descended a spiral staircase carrying all that china. I admire his poise and balance.

sea_mjmMr. McB is enjoying the sunset and waiting to snap a few shots.

As you’ll see, the clouds and rain did lead to a gorgeous sunset.

sun set on the med

sea_sunset2

sea_sunset3After watching the sunset, we enjoyed dinner in the Grand Dining Room. Mr. McB had Jacques Pepin’s steak frites (steak and fries) and thought it was delicious. He finished his meal with the Canyon Ranch creme brulee and decreed that it was very tasty despite the fact that it was a diet version of the classic dessert. I had escargot; it was so delicious, someone could have easily lost a finger had they tried to sneak one of my snails. I also had the eggplant rolls and a gorgeous fruit tart with shortbread crust. The meal was lovely and I’m sorry that there are no photos to share. My taste buds are sorry I can’t easily whip up something like this right now.

I leave you with this sneak peek of Trapani. My post about the stop is going to be delayed but you can read Mr. McB’s recap of our excursion to Erice and time in Trapani.

sea_sneak

 

Grand Journey – Palma de Majorca

palma_fishermenOn Nov. 12, we docked in Palma de Majorca. Palma is Majorca’s major port and is the capital city of Spain’s Balearic Islands.

Mr. McB decided to take a half-day excursion to Valledemossa, a small town in the Tramuntana mountains. His photos and recap of the excursion can be found on his blog. I wasn’t excited about this, or any of the other excursion options, so I decided to see Palma on my own.

There were free shuttles from the port to the town. I did experience some difficulty in finding the bus and most of it was my own fault. In Valencia, it was impossible to miss the signage. Palma’s port authority decided to post people in the terminal to guide you to the shuttle; but, they were standing with the people who were trying to sell you things so I put on my “New York eyes” and walked by them without saying a word. I wound up with a lot of other confused folks and a pack of cabbies who were eager to get fares. With some persistence, some other cruisers and I got rerouted and eventually found the free shuttle. In no time at all, we were standing across from Cathedral of Santa Maria of Palma or more commonly known as La Seu Cathedral.

la seu cathedral There is some conflicting information about when construction of the cathedral began. Some sources state that the head stone was laid in 1230 after King Jaime I promised that he would build a cathedral in honor of the Virgin Mary if he and his crew were saved from a terrible storm in 1229. The official booklet distributed by the cathedral states that construction began in 1306 under orders from King Jaime II. The structure was built on the site of a former mosque and for this reason, it faces Mecca instead of Jerusalem. Construction was completed in 1601.

On the way up to the cathedral, I found an alcove with a small pond where these cygnets were swimming with their parents.

palma_cygnetI might have hung around to take more photos but my fear of birds did not mesh well with Mr. and Mrs. Swan’s protective posturing so I kept walking to the entrance to La Seu.

the portal mayor la seu cathedral palma de majorcaThese photos are of the Portal Mayor or the “Great Door” on the west side of the structure. In the center you will find the immaculate conception surrounded by 15 symbols of femininity that refer to Mary. The interesting thing about this door is that as massive as it is, it isn’t thick enough to be soundproof. Later, as I stood at the rear of the cathedral, I could hear the carriage rolling by.

palma_doorAdmission to the cathedral was six euro. Instead of audio guides, visitors were given guidebooks. After viewing Flemish tapestries and some lovely silver pieces, I made my way into the massive temple. Yes, it seems odd to refer to a Catholic church as a temple but that’s the term used in several places including the official guide.

palma_cathedrallightpalma_lightscathedralI arrived just as the cathedral was opening for visitors so I had the luxury of enjoying a few minutes when the space was almost empty. As you can tell, it’s enormous. There are three naves with the central nave soaring at 144 feet making it one of Europe’s tallest cathedrals.

After taking in the size, I was struck by the light. There are more than 95 windows including two facing rose windows that cause beautiful sprays of light to fall on the stark sandstone walls.

Twice a year, on Feb. 2 and Nov. 11, there is an “eight of light” when the multi-color image of the main rose window is superimposed on rose window on the opposite side causing the window to appear to glow and the colors to become even more vibrant.

palma_laseulongviewpalma_laseusideSmall chapels line the walls.

palma_holyfamilycathedralThe nativity is found in the Chapel of Saint Benedict.

la seu cathedral palma gothic altarThe old Gothic altar piece now hangs over the Portal del Mirador or the lookout door. It was Antoni Gaudi‘s decision to hang the piece here. More on Gaudi in a bit.

palma cathedral llit de la mare de deu mortaThis image of Mary is found in the Chapel of Our Lady of the Crown of Thorns. When the church celebrates the festival of the Assumption, the figure and the life-sized angels that surround her are moved to the central nave.

Now let’s move to the apses.

palma_modernnaveThis is the most modern of all the apses. Located on the right side of the church, the redesign of this nave was completed in 2007. Designed by Miquel Barcelo, the design incorporates elements of the sea (fish, eels) and the earth (fruit). The figure in the center represents the Risen Christ. The design is very different from the other elements in the church. Without the guide, I would have thought that this was Gaudi’s contribution to the building.

We’ll visit the other side before focusing on the central apse.

lleft nave at la seu in palma This is the Baroque-style Corpus Christi. At the very bottom you can see Jesus being judged by the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate. Above this, you’ll find a depiction of the last supper. As you continue up, there are depictions of Abraham and the wandering angels, the sacrifice of Isaac, and Melchizedek. You’ll see a closeup of the Last Supper below.

palma_lastsupperIt is in the central apse that we see Gaudi’s major contribution to the building. He completely reworked this area. He removed the choir stalls and removed two altar pieces that hid the Bishop’s throne. He pushed the altar toward the congregation and added the crown-shaped canopy or baldachin.

gaudi's baldachin in palmaThe bishop and other church officials wanted to see models of Gaudi’s work. Since he did not have a lot of money, he constructed most of the canopy from paper and cardboard. One source even states that dried pumpkins were used in the piece. The church and Gaudi did not agree on the vision and the artist was let go. The canopy that hangs in this glorious cathedral is still the same paper model from the early 1900’s.

Outside the main temple, works of art are displayed in the Gothic and Baroque chapter houses.

gothic chapter house in the palma cathedralGothic chapter house

palma_crucifixA beautiful crucifix in the Baroque Chapter House. In this area there is also a golden reliquary that is said to hold a piece of Christ’s actual cross.

After a stop in the gift shop, I headed out to walk around town a bit.

palma_christmasI saw that Palma was also hanging Christmas decorations in mid-November. I guess we Americans deserve a little break since we aren’t the only ones decorating early.

palma_placadecortThis is Palma’s Ayuntamiento or town hall; it was completed in 1680.

palma_angelaWere they expecting me? This was a tie shop.

palma_marketThis is the Placa Mayor or big plaza. The plaza dates back to the mid-1800s. The area previously housed the Casa Negra or House of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Despite the fact that Jews and Christians have lived happily in Palma for many decades, things changed with the inquisition. There were forced conversions and much worse. The Casa Negra was destroyed in 1820 after the end of the inquisition. For more on the inquisition and Palma, read this page. The plaza now houses a Burger King and open-air market. Incidentally, I’m listening to Slacker and “Always Love” by Nada Surf just came on. “Hate will get you every time.” Can’t think of more appropriate words at this time.

After walking around town for a bit, I decided to tour the Palacio Real de la Almudaina. This fortified palace started out as an Arab fort. It was claimed as a royal residence in the 1300s. King Jaime II ordered changes to the building including the addition of a chapel to Saint Ann.

palma_cathedralfrompalaceAs you can tell from this image, the palace is adjacent to the cathedral.

palma_palaceThis is another shot of the palace. There were no photos allowed on the inside. At nine euro for admission (14 if you wanted the audio guide), I can’t say that I would recommend this stop. It’s interesting but not as interesting as some other stops might have been. I regret picking this instead of the art museum that is quite close.

After touring the palace, I enjoyed a bite on the benches near the cathedral. I met McB when he got into town after his excursion. We enjoyed the scenery for a bit and then he toured Palma while I went about my day.

palma_seaparkParc de la Mare

I continued walking down through an area that looked like an old fortification. I thought I would end up at the Arab Baths but instead, I wound up running into a tourist that was either too cheap or confused to visit a proper bathroom. He was standing in the corner of the fort relieving himself. I saw this man and his wife earlier in the day and heard them speaking English. I’m not sure why his wife didn’t warn me about what I was about to see. I decided to head back to the main street for a different view.

palma_laseuoutsiderearpalma_artHere’s a view of our ship. We’re the smaller ship on the right beside one of the vessels from the Costa line. You know, that Costa line…

palma_shipsI took the bus back to the ship. I grabbed a dish of ice cream (Frangelico ice cream yummy) before retiring to our veranda for a relaxed look at the city and marina.

1palma_harborWe had reservations at Red Ginger, one of the specialty restaurants on the ship. Since the reservations were at 8:15, we had plenty of time to explore the shops and other parts of the ship.

1palma_mapMr. McB found the giant map.

1palma_mpPosing before dinner

Red Ginger was quite crowded when we arrived. After just a moment, we were seated and pored over the menu, not that this was the first time we studied it.

The meal began with an amuse-bouche of steamed edamame. The server also put a small pill on a plate and then poured a bit of boiling water over it. The pill puffed upward and became this little towel so we could remove the salt from the edamamae from our fingers.

1palma_magictowelI am nine years old so this was magical and very exciting to me. I proceeded to break our server’s heart by telling him that I did not want chopsticks for my meal. He took the glass box of beautiful chopsticks back to the kitchen and I felt a pang of guilt.

1palmasummerThe photo above is my appetizer. It is a summer roll filled with pomello (grapefruity citrus fruit), basil, and toasted coconut. McB had chicken satay.

I had the spicy duck salad with watermelon, basil and cashews. It was delicious but not terribly photogenic since it is served on a dark plate in a dimly lit restaurant.

1palma_teaatredgingeroceaniWe both had special tea. M chose traditional green tea while I had orchid and vanilla. It smelled like candy and was quite tasty.

1palma_lobsterpadthaiWe chose the same entree, the lobster pad thai. Holy moly, that’s really all you can say about this. My mouth is watering as I look at this photo. The flavor was light and delicious.

1palma_bountycakeI ended the meal with the bounty cake. It is a delightful mix of vanilla, coconut and chocolate. McB had the lemongrass and chocolate creme brulee. He didn’t love it but with a belly full of other delicious treats, he was satisfied.

We spent the next day cruising the Mediterranean. Look for more in my next post.

The Grand Journey Begins…

After a year of planning, Mr. McB and I left for our Mediterranean cruise on Saturday, Nov. 9. The details and photos from the trip will be shared in a series of blog posts. I’m thinking one from each port. I’m also thinking this could take from now until mid-December since I have more about 2,000 photos to cull down.

On Saturday morning, we drove to Charlotte for our flight to Barcelona. For all the rocking chairs and Southern hospitality inside CLT, the long term parking lot and shuttle service is not the least bit welcoming. There was a small shrub growing up from the pavement in our parking space. By time we returned, we were dealing with Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. The shuttle drivers were not friendly and did not assist with the bags. They growled when spoken to. Clearly, we were spoiled by the sweet and helpful drivers at CMH.

We took a puddle jumper down to Miami and a few hours later, we were on an American flight for BCN. We don’t fly American frequently so I don’t know if this happens on all flights but they played the truly bizarre “piano pop” tunes while we were getting on and off the plane. “Radioactive” greeted us as we found our seats. “Can’t Hold Us” was there the next morning as all us sleepy, stinky passengers jockeyed for position as we deplaned.

After going through passport control and grabbing our bags we were in a cab and off to the ship. Here’s a tip, always check the price of a cab verses the cost of the cruise line’s transfer from the airport. We paid less than 35 euro, tip included, for the cab and would have forked out almost $180 to take the transfer. There are certainly countries where I would not have felt comfortable with this option but our Spanglish is pretty solid and we had a printed copy of the address so we went for it.

We originally had this crazy idea that we might head into Barcelona after dropping off our bags. This went out the window when we realized just how tired we were. We took the time to explore and get acquainted with our new home.

There’s the sea and the sundeck.barcelona sundeckHere’s the port. barca_portHarbor cruisebarca_harborcruiseThe first of two lattes from Barista’s, Marina’s coffee bar. Mr. McB enjoyed a couple of Americanos before our cabin was ready for us. I highly recommend high-octane European coffee as a fabulous way to fight off a headache.

barca_latteAfter we settled into our cabin, our stewards stopped by to introduce themselves. We then took much-needed showers and prepared for our first night aboard. The most important matter of business before leaving port was our lifeboat drill. As you can see, McB took this very seriously.

barca_drillAfter the drill and dinner in the Terrace Cafe, we returned to our stateroom to watch the ship leave port. How lucky were we to have this kind of sunset? That’s another, much larger, ship pulling out of port.

barca_sunsetLook for photos and stories from Valencia, Spain, our first stop, in my next post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Traveling Thursday – It’s worth a shot.

Mr. McB and I are booked on a Med cruise in the fall. Last Friday we were looking up some details about the cruise and noticed that the price of our cabin had decreased by $900 per person and that there are now other goodies (free WiFi, shipboard credits, prepaid tips) in addition to the reduced fares. I decided to call the cruise line to ask about a fare adjustment and am very happy to report that Oceania gave us the new price and incentives.

The moral of the story, watch for price breaks even after you book a cruise and don’t be afraid to ask your cruise line or travel planner to honor the new price.