Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Our Alaska Adventure begin

Friday, May 26, 2017

Having celebrated Tim's birthday in Paris, Lynda was asked to decide where she wanted to celebrate hers.  She decided on an Alaskan cruise and wanted to include her brother and two of her cousins.  When all was said and done the cruise was booked and it included her brother, Gerry Brown and his wife Cathy, and her California cousin, Beverly Drury and her husband, George. The plan was to meet Gerry and Cathy in Seattle the night before our cruise began and Bev and George would fly into Seattle from San Diego the morning of the cruise and meet us at the ship.

We have been very lucky in all of our travels to have very few problems. Our luck seems to have changed with the beginning of this trip.  Our flight to Seattle out of Detroit was delayed by an hour and a half due to a brake problem. We were all asked to deplane with all of our carry-on luggage while the repairs were made and then we had to go through the whole boarding procedure again. Instead of arriving in Seattle at 5:30, we arrived at 7:00. In the grand scheme of things probably a minor problem. It meant that we met Gerry and Cathy for dinner at 8:00 instead of 7:00.

Our hotel in Seattle was located about 5 blocks from the Space Needle, an iconic Seattle landmark. We were not interested in the Space Needle itself but rather the Dale Chihuily Glass Garden at the base of the Needle. Chihuily is a world famous glass artist whose work we have seen and admired in other locales.  This display included several typical art gallery type rooms of his glass works as well as a small but lovely garden that had his glass creations interspersed among the flowering plants.  We also were able to watch one of the glass artists, not Chihuily, working with an apprentice, showing her how to create a small glass bowl.  Very interesting.

We scheduled with the hotel a 12:30 shuttle bus to the pier for our 1:00 embarkation time. The whole checking in process went smoothly until we arrived at a large lounge just outside the ramp to the ship where all the passengers were being held.  There was no announcement as to the cause of the delay of actually going aboard the ship but there seemed to be some unrest among the passengers who had arrived earlier. We had a relatively short wait which was not a problem because this was where the Browns and the Crandalls met up with the Drurys. Once on board the next problem was that our luggage did not arrive at our room. When the steward for our room stopped by we asked him to look into this. He later reported that the original scanning of our luggage showed something that would cause that piece of luggage to be rescanned which would not take place until after the life boat drill.  We did finally get the luggage in time to change for dinner. There was no explanation as to the source of the problem but we suspect it was the bottle of Bailey's Irish Cream we had purchased the night before and had put in the suitcase.

The major problem was Lynda discovering about 90 minutes before the ship was to leave port that she had lost her cell phone. We retraced our steps in the terminal and talked to the personnel in the terminal but they had not found the phone.  We also called the hotel and they checked with the shuttle driver who also reported finding nothing. So, much to Lynda's consternation, she is without a cell phone for the rest of the cruise.

Finally, to mercifully end this litany of problems, once the ship left the safety of Puget Sound we encountered rough seas which lasted all the first night and the entire first day of the cruise which was to be a day of tranquil sailing. Walking about the ship was a challenge, particularly when going through the buffett line at breakfast or lunch.  We all felt like drunken sailors. Fortunately, by Friday morning the weather had calmed and we had reasonably calm seas. Throughout all of the rough seas the sun had been shining and we were able to observe spectacular scenery.  Friday morning as we approached the port of Wrangell, Alaska, we observed a large number of what we were told were Black Sided Porpoises cavorting along next to the ship.

Wrangell, Alaska, our first port of call is a small village located on one of the many islands along the coast of Alaska.  There may be 2800 residents in Wrangell and this village turned out to be the least touristy of all of our ports. None of the ship sponsored tours were of interest to us so we left the boat and strolled about town, stopping in a local department store and a hardware store.  It was great fun chatting with the locals who were all exceedingly friendly. The main point of interest in Wrangell was a lovely little park that contained three authentic totem poles as well as a cherry tree in full bloom as well as a gorgeous rhododendrum. Before returning to the ship we made one more important local discovery: Alaska Amber Beer.  It is delicious.

Saturday morning we arrived in Juneau, the capital city of Alaska.  We had some time before our tour to walk about Juneau. Our goal was to find the capitol building. It is without a doubt the most unassuming capitol building of all 50 states, nothing more then a 7 story brick office building. There are some things that don't change in state capitals however.  Our tour bus driver told us that Juneau's average temperature was higher then any other city in Alaska because of all the hot air coming from the capitol.  Before leaving home we had booked a local tour company tour that included a two hour whale watching cruise and a visit to Mendenhall Glacier.  The whale watching cruise was incredible. Within 10 minutes of leaving the dock our captain stopped the boat for our first sighting.  We were observing humpback whales. These whales will stay submerged for 5 or 6 minutes and then surface two or three times to expel the salt water they had swallowed while feeding before diving again. You know they are diving again when their fluke (tail) comes out of the water. They are initaily spotted by the plume of water that comes out of their blow hole. We watched this whale make two seperate surfaces before moving on to find another.  While watching a second whale, a third come a bit higher out of the water and then proceeded to spend the next five minutes or so slapping it's fluke against the water. We were about 100 yards from this whale and could easily hear the sound of the fluke on the water. We had a naturalist on board our boat as our guide and both she and the captain told us that it was highly unusual to observe this behavior.  To add to the excitement, a fourth whale rolled on its side exposing one of its flippers. We saw 5 whales in total and at the end of our cruise our guide told us we had been particularly lucky on this cruise.  We agreed, especially since Tim was convinced we wouldn't see any whales at all.

The next stop was the Mendenhall Glacier.  We were not able to get very close to the glacier  but we were able to see how much the glacier has receded in the last 50 years. While very interesting to see, the trip to the glacier paled in comparison to the whale watching.

Sitka was our port of call Sunday. This city claims to have the highest remaining population of Russians in Alaska. There is still a Russian Orthodox Church with a Russian bishop in Sitka. The first stop on our tour in Sitka was the Alaska Raptor Center. This center specializes in the rescue of raptors, mostly Bald Eagles and the re-introduction of them back to the wild. The injured birds are brought to the center where they are treated for their injuries and a determination is made of their future.  About 40 percent of the raptors brought to the center are released back to the wild. The remaining are placed in zoos or trained for visits to schools and the like. As part of our visit a handler brought a juvenile bald eagle into the room we were in.  The eagle was tethered to her arm so it was unable to fly but still.  It was a magnificent sight to see that up close and personal.  From the Raptor Center we took our bus to the Fortress of the Bears. This turned out to be a very zoo like experience.  There were five brown bears, a species that is larger then grizzly bears, in two very large open air pens. There  is a smaller pen containing three black bears. As we arrived  one of the zookeepers began feeding the bears. This was particularly exciting because almost a dozen eagles came swooping in trying to steal the food from the bears. We had been told at the Raptor Center that eagles can be rather lazy birds, perfectly willing to eat the leftovers of other animals' food. Tim had the opprotunity to talk to the zookeeper and discovered that these bears were all orphans that the State of Alaska would have killed if this facility had not taken them in. The Fortress of the Bears is lobbying the state legislature to allow for the re-introduction of these bears into the wild much like the Raptor Center.  Our last stop on this tour was a National Forest Park that is home to over 60 totem poles. It was fascination to read about the preservation efforts of these totems. Restoration specialists clean the totems, do any necessary repair work and then coat them with a water repellent. The totems are then reattached to a pole so that the original is not touching the ground, again to protect the totem from moisture. Many of these totems were located along a path the wound its way through a beautiful pine forest.

Memorial Day was spent in Ketchikan, Alaska. As in Wrangell, we had no tours booked in Ketchikan but instead enjoyed a leisurely stroll around town.  Other then Wrangell, the other ports, unfortunately, featured the exact same jewelry stores so that you had the feeling that if today is Sunday, this must be Sitka. The one distinguishing feature to Ketchikan was Creek Street so named because it went beside a picturesque little creek. Up until 1954, Creek Street was the Red Light District of Ketchiken.  Prostitution was outlawed in Ketchikan in 1954 but, according to signs on some of the houses on the street, a few of the women continued to ply their trade as best they could. Most of the homes have been turned into gift shops, although one did offer a "Red Light Tour". A sign on the side of this particular house advertised Creek Street as the place where salmon and men come to spawn.

While we have had excellent meals on board our ship the meal that deserves special mention happened off the ship in Juneau. We stopped at a small trailor, think food truck, that was offering fish and chips, the fish being fresh caught halibut. We ate at a picnic table with no silverware, just the fish and chips and an Alaska Amber beer.  Nothing better.

Tomorrow we will be cruising the Inside Passage completing our cruise in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Cemeteries and Champagne

February 15, 2017

Monday morning with left the beautiful town of Clervaux, Luxembourg for a scenic two hour drive to Nunkirchen, Germany. Nunkirchen and the surrounding environs is where Lynda's maternal side of the family is originally from. We found a cemetery here and actually found two grave sites with the name Johanntgen. Lynda's mother always spelled Johanntgen with one "n" but we figure an "n" could have been lost in the shuffle of emigration.  After the cemetery we found the local church, a beautiful church dating from 1886. Next door was a community center for the church. Unfortunately, the only women we found spoke no English and had not heard of any Johanntgen's in Nunkirchen. The local postmaster was of no help either.  We drove on to nearby Wadern.  Here we lucked out. In a bookstore we found a women who spoke English and she looked up JoHanntgen in the phonebook and found two people listed, both in nearby villages. Next was a visit to the Wadern cemetery but it  did not have any gravestones of Johanntgens.  We did driveby's of both addresses we were given but saw no sign of life. We did find a third cemetery which had two more Johanntgen gravesites. We checked into a Wadern hotel and rested a bit before going out to dinner.  On the way to dinner we stopped again at Peter Johanntgen's house where there was no answer, but Marlies Johanntgen answered her door. Again, the language barrier reared its ugly head but it seemed that Marlies denied being related to the Johanntgens of Nunkirchen, about 4 miles away!  As frustrating as that was Lynda enjoyed seeing the hilly country around Nunkirchen and realizing how her JoHantgen family must have been amazed by their new home in flat Ohio.

Nunkirchen cemetery 
Nunkirchen church

Tuesday morning we drove around the area outside of Nunkirchen on the off chance we might find another cemetery. No luck, so we headed for Riems, in the middle of the Champagne region of France.  As is often the case, we got sidetracked and ended up in Verdun, famous for the longest battle in modern military history.  During WWI the Battle of Verdun lasted from February to November and resulted in the highest number of casualties in a single battle. Of the 300,000 soldiers from both sides who were involved in this battle, over 100,000 of them were either killed or injured. We focused our visit on two American facilities, the first being the American Memorial. This impressive memorial stands over 190 feet tall and sits on a hill with a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. Next was the American Cemetery. This cemetery is the largest American Cemetery in the world with 14,246 gravesites as compared to Normandy where there are over 6,000 gravesites. We never cease to be moved by the beauty of the many American Cemeteries we have visited.
American Memorial Verdun

American Cemetery Verdun

The rest of the day was a comedy of errors. We drove on to Riems from Verdun and while we were driving Lynda searched for a hotel on line. She did not want to stay in a chain hotel, even a European chain. She found a small hotel in a small village outside of Riems that was right in the center of Champagne country.  The hotel turned out to be farther outside of Riems than Lynda thought so what was to be an easy hour drive into Riems ended up being a two hour drive. On our arrival we found the hotel closed.  We then stopped at a nearby hotel we had passed but it, too, was closed. At least at this hotel we found people who were able to direct us to a hotel that was actually open. It ended up being a cheap chain hotel with small rooms and no charm. To rub salt in our wounds, the hotel restaurant was doing a very tired looking buffet. After some quick research, Tim found a nearby restaurant that was getting good reviews.  When we arrived at the restaurant they were fully booked for their Valentine's special meal. We were disappointed because it did look really good. Next we found a pizza place right next to an Asian Buffet restaurant.  The Asian restaurant had a long line of people waiting to get in so we tried the Pizza Restaurant.  It was also fully booked. We made one more last attempt following signs to a restaurant that turned out to be in a very impressive hotel on a gated property.  Also fully booked. Evidently Valentine's day is a big deal in France for going out to dinner.  We headed back to the hotel planning to make a meal of the cheese left over from our last night in Paris. When we drove into our hotel parking lot we discovered a kiosk next door selling fresh made pizza out of their booth. So we bought a pizza and a bottle of wine and went back to our cramped room to celebrate Valentines Day.  Tres Romantique!

This morning, Wednesday, we drove into Champagne country and found a winery that was open. Michel Fallet Champagne is being produced by the fourth generation of the Fallet family. Mrs. Fallet was nice enough to give us a brief tour. The Fallets produce about 38,000 bottles of Champagne each year. She explained which variety of grapes were used for each of the different champagnes they produce and went through the whole process of producing champagne. When the bottles are first filled and the yeast is added to the wine a metal cap, similar to a pop bottle cap, is placed on the bottle. The wine sits in the bottle this way for a minimum of 15 months. Next the wine in the bottle passes through a chiller that freezes the yeast particles so they can be easily removed from the bottle. Sugar is then added and the bottle is corked. At this point the champagne is ready to be labeled, sold and drunk. We were particularly interested in the corking process. Mrs. Fallet showed us a cork before it goes in the bottle. It is a perfect cylinder. The corking machine compresses the cork to fit into the bottle. Once it is in the bottle the cork expands to the shape of the bottle giving it the distinctive shape we have all seen when a cork is removed from champagne. It was a bright, cloudless morning as we drove through acres and acres of vineyards thinking about the bottle of champagne we had just purchased directly from the winery.

Wine storage vats. Beige vats are 2nd
generation and stainless steel are new. 

All of these crates contain bottles of
champagne before the yeast has been removed.

Cork before being used (right) and after removal
from a champagne bottle.

Vineyards in Champagne country.

Both of us have been a bit under the weather the last day or so so we decided to find a hotel with more room then last night's so we can repack our suitcases and rest up for our flight home tomorrow.  This is our last posting from this marvelous trip.  As always we hope you have enjoyed reading our blog as much as we have enjoyed writing it.

See you all soon.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Froid Paree (translation: We're freezing our butts off in Paris

February 12, 2017

As we write this posting we are sitting in a hotel room in Clerveax, Luxembourg after a wonderful weekend in Paris.  As the title of the post indicates, it was cold all weekend. As a matter of fact, there were snow flurries both Friday and Saturday.

We left Barcelona Thursday morning on a high speed train to Paris.  As we expected, it was a smooth, comfortable ride.  There were monitors in our carriage that gave pertinent information including the fact that at times our train was traveling at close to 300 kilometers an hour. That is roughly 180 mph.  Traveling by train in Europe is a joy, although Lynda did complain that the train never goes through the nice parts of the cities we traveled through. Our Paris apartment was not nearly as nice as the one in Barcelona, but, in all fairness, the Barcelona apartment was one of the nicest we have rented.  Thursday night we strolled along Blvd. St. Germain loving being back in Paris.  Paris is Tim's favorite city in the world; for Lynda it is 2 or 3. We found a nice brassarie and had a typical french meal of Boeuf Bourguignon and red wine.  We did not do any actual sightseeing in Paris on this trip. Rather we visited Galeries Lafayette and Bon Marche, both high end department stores similar to Bloomingdales or Marshall Fields in the states. We did not buy anything but it sure was fun wandering through the different departments. Part of Bon Marche is the La Grand Epicirie du Paris, a food market, that we had not heard of.  Lynda's California cousin, Beverly, had suggested we visit it.  We are glad we did. The highlight of the weekend was Tim's birthday dinner at L'atlier du Joel Rubochon. See the preceeding posting for more details.  We spent a lot of time in the apartment just reading and relaxing. Saturday, while we were out and about, we picked up a baguette, cheese and wine and stayed in Saturday for a light dinner.

Sunday morning Tim picked up our rental car, drove to the apartment to pick up Lynda and the luggage and we headed to Bastogne, Belgium, the site of the Battle of the Bulge during WWII. Tim had been there in 2009 with the Holland American Legion Band and thought Lynda would enjoy visiting the museum there. Unfortunately, the last admission to the museum had occured before our arrival.  We did see the impressive Memorial nearby and found the plaque for the 35th Infantry that Tim's Dad was attached to during the war. The 35th Infantry was a part of a number of units involved in the Battle of the Bulge.  From Bastogne it was a short drive to Clervaux. Tim had stayed in Clervaux on the 2009 Band tour and had always wanted to bring Lynda here because it is such a picturesque city. Lynda registered for our room while Tim brought in the luggage and was suprised when she was informed that Tim's name was in the computer as a former guest.

Tomorrow we head to Nunkirken, Germany to visit cemetaries where some of Lynda's relatives are buried.  You won't want to miss that blog posting.☺

Saturday, February 11, 2017

A Foodie Blog

February 11, 2017

A word of warning:  this entire blog post will be about the amazing meal we had last night.  If you have no interest in food check back later this weekend for a more all encompassing post about our time in Paris.

Tim had long fantasized about celebrating his birthday at a Michelin star restaurant in Paris. Michelin is a French tire company that began publishing a guide for travelers identifying locations of gas stations, hotels and restaurants.  The restaurant part of the guide became so popular that in 1920 Michelin expanded into an international guide. In 1926, the star system of rating restaurants was introduced.  Restaurants are rated one, two or three star with three stars being the best. A Michelin star has become the most coveted rating a chef/restaurant can receive.  As we were planning this trip Tim finally voiced his fantasy to Lynda so last night, on Tim's 70th birthday, we went to L'atelier de Joel Robuchon, Saint-Germain, a one star restaurant. This restaurant was picked out after much internet research because of its 12 course tasting menu.  What follows is a description of that meal.

We arrived at the restaurant at 6:30 and were shown to seats at the end of a L shaped bar. We were a bit taken back until we realized we had ringside seats looking into the kitchen. Our server gave us only a brief time to peruse the menu and immediately took our wine order and then the fun began.  As each course arrived it was ceremoniously placed in front of us and then described in much detail. Obviously this was a tasting menu so each portion was very small. The first course was what the French call an amusement. It was gravelax, raw salmon, with celeriac and a wasabi sauce.  Our taste buds were definitely amused.  The second course was a cold soup.  The bottom of the small soup bowl contained King Crab with vichyssoise poured on top of it. A tiny, thin slice of potato floated on top with a dollop of caviar on top of the potato. Vichyssoise is a cold soup made with potatoes and leeks. This was very thick - probably set with agar or some other modern science.

First course

Second Course

 Course three was also a cold soup; chestnut cream with bits of chestnut, duck liver and bacon. The cream was infused with celery. The liver was very mild and the bacon incredible.  The fourth course was an egg cocotte, a steamed egg in cream with pink onion and bacon with a thin slice of black truffle on top. It was warm and the menu referred to it as a carbonara. Course five was foie gras, a small portion of pan fried duck liver with a very thin slice of pineapple rolled up and placed on top of the liver. The sauce was infused with hibiscus to give it a beautiful scarlet color. Again, the liver was very mild.  We both commented that it was nothing like the liver and onions we remember our parents having. Up to this point the taste profiles had been somewhat similar.

Third Course

Fourth Course

Fifth Course

The sixth course was a change of pace.  It was two small Japanese raviolis, stuffed with chicken and leek in a red wine sauce flavored with ginger and mint. The ravioli was a much thinner pastry then a typical Italian ravioli. Course seven was the restaurant's take on Scallops St. Jacques. The pan-fried scallop sat on top of a bed of Sardinian pasta, very couscous in appearance. We had to move the slice of black truffle to find the scallop.
Sixth Course

Seventh Course

The eighth course was the main course. This was the only decision we had to make at the beginning of the meal.  Our choices were lamb chops, veal sweetbreads, or quail. Lynda choose the lamb chops, Tim the quail. Each was served with mash potatoes with a slice of black truffle on top. Had the potatoes not been identified as such we probably would not have known that that was what we were eating. We asked our server how the potatoes were prepared.  We were told the potatoes were a special variety from a region of northern France that have just a bit of milk added and then are whipped by hand. At that point we realized we had been watching one of the chefs whisking the potatoes. He whisked them very vigorously and for some time. Again portions were tiny but delicious.

Tim's Quail

Lynda's Lamb Chops

The main course was of course followed by dessert. In this case two desserts. The first dessert, course nine if you are counting, was little slices of pink grapefruit with a white meringue on top. The meringue was cover with hibiscus sorbet infused with hibiscus to again give it a vivid red color. The combination of the tart citrus flavor of the grapefruit with the sweet meringue was amazing. L'atelier de Joel Robuchon must have known Tim was coming because the final dessert was chocolate temptation. A small bowl of chocolate ganache covered with a chocolate glaze with a chocolate truffle sitting on top was place over a larger bowl that contained ground up oreo cookies. One spooned a bit of the ground up oreo over the rest of the dessert. It was incredible.  Lynda is not a chocolate lover like Tim and could not finish her chocolate dessert. So as not to offend the chef, Tim finished it for her. What a guy! The last course was madelines and caramels. The madelines were sweet pastry made into a lovely shape and deep fried. They were light and yummy, a nice compliment to the decadent chocolate we had just consumed.  The caramels, in the form of a soft candy were fabulous. Tim is not a big fan of caramels so after one bite to confirm how delicious they were he let Lynda eat the rest of his.

Ninth Course - La Meringue

Tenth Course - Le Chocolat

Madelines and Caramel

There was about 10-15 minutes from the time a course was delivered to the delivery of the next course. This gave us time to observe the kitchen at work. At one station there was a large pot of boiling water with several little baskets hanging on the edge of the pot where individual portions of pasta were cooked. Canisters containing emulsions that were required to be hot were also stored in this pot. All of the pasta dishes were finished in a saute pan. At this same station was a smaller pot where something, probably broth, was kept warm. Chefs were ladling whatever was in the pot onto dishes they were preparing. We also watched a chef slice long, paper thin slices of salmon from a beautiful fillet. There never seemed to be any tension in the kitchen nor was it particularly noisy. We did observe several instances of an apprentice chef being mentored by one of the chefs.

The entire meal took almost three hours but because it was 11 courses and we had the show of the kitchen in front of us, the time flew by. The wait staff was friendly and efficient. It was really a wonderful meal that we are both glad we experienced.

Happy Birthday Tim!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

More Amazing Architecture

February 8, 2017

When ground was broken in 1882 for the building of the Sagrada Familia, the land was in a field outside of the walls of Barcelona. Some clairvoyant city fathers at that time decided that a well-conceived plan for the growth of Barcelona was needed. Such a plan was conceived, resulting in the demolition of the walls with a grid of streets laid out. Looking at a present day city map, one can see where the walls probably had been and the resulting grid of streets.  The street, Pg. De Gracia, became the main thoroughfare leading north from the old city to the hillside outside of Barcelona. Today Pg. De Gracia rivals other great boulevards in the world and is home to all of the same high end stores.  It was on this street that Antonio Gaudi, Sagrada Familia's architect, was hired to design homes for two wealthy Barcelonians. We visited both of these houses Tuesday. These two buildings stand out in stark contrast to the buildings around them.  The first of these homes we visited was Casa Mila - La Pedrera.  It was built in 1902 and is actually two buildings structured around two courtyards standing nine stories tall.  Casa Mila is now home to a foundation that manages the building. An apartment on the top floor is open to the public and is furnished as it would have been when first built.  The attic is also open and contains a museum about Gaudi and his buildings. The most striking part of the building is the roof, also open for the tour. The apartment and the museum were interesting but it was the roof that left us awe-struck.  As with the Sagrada Familia, we will post as many pictures as possible.  Understand that all the strange looking structures you see in the pictures are actually covering important functioning parts of the building like chimneys, vents, etc. The white structures are covered in a mosaic of broken ceramic bits in a design very emblematic of Gaudi's work.  The green mushroom-like structures are mosaics using broken champagne bottles.  Naturally there is a wonderful view of Sagrada Familia from the roof.  The second home we visited was Casa Batllo, which was about a 10 minute walk down the street.  The house does not have the fantastic roof that Casa Mila has so we decided not to take the tour of the apartment.  While Casa Batllo has many of the same design elements of Casa Mila, it is much more colorful on the outside.  It seemed that there were more people photographing Casa Batllo then the Casa Mila.  Antonio Gaudi was not a name Tim was familiar with before this trip but that has changed.

Wednesday ended up being a catching up day.  Catching up on sleep and laundry.  We went out for lunch and enjoyed another nice walk about the Gothic section of Barcelona but otherwise hung out in the apartment. Tomorrow we will be taking the train to Paris, which is a six hour trip. Having used European rail before we know it will be a smooth, comfortable ride.  Once we have arrived at our apartment in Paris and done some unpacking there probably won't be time for anything but some exploration of the area around our apartment and finding a nice bistro for dinner.

Hope you have enjoyed Barcelona as much as we have. We'll talk to you again sometime this weekend from Paris.

Casa Mila

Roof of Casa Mila

Attic Casa Mila
Roof of Casa Mila

Casa Mila Exterior

Casa Mila Interior Courtyard

Casa Batllo

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Barcelona - Art and Architecture

February 7, 2017

Sunday morning we disembarked the Viking Sea in Barcelona.  We've not said much about the ship itself. Viking has long been a major player in river cruises but has only entered the ocean cruise business in the last two years.  There are only two ships in its fleet now but by 2018 there will be eight.  Our ship is less then a year old and is beautiful.  As you can imagine, the design of the ship is Scandinavian, which we like.  Much attention to detail was spent on the design with many wonderful small touches throughout.  It is truly a beautiful ship. We ate in all four main dining venues and all were excellent.  The only disappointment was "The Chef's Table".  This was advertised as a five course culinary adventure with the chef using many innovative techniques in the cooking and presentation of the food. The meal was very good but we were not blown away by the chef's innovations.  All staff were friendly and attentive.  The shore excursions were good and the on-board entertainment was first rate.  All in all a very nice cruise.

We left the ship at 9:30 but could not get into our apartment until 2:00.  Our landlord was kind enough to let us drop off our luggage in the morning so we did not have to schlep it all over Barcelona.  The apartment is located in the Gothic area of Barcelona. This is the oldest part of the city and, like all European cities, has wonderful little streets to wander around. Which we did. We are just two blocks from the Cathedral of Barcelona and half a block from the Market of Santa Caterina.  Our loyal readers know how much we love markets.  We stopped at a tourist information center and discovered that there is free admission on the first Sunday of every month to the Picasso Museum.  On arrival at the museum we stood in a long, but fast moving, line to get tickets. Tickets give you an assigned time when you can enter the Museum. We chose a time later in the day so that we would have time to have lunch and settle in our apartment.  The Picasso Museum in Barcelona has one of the largest collections of Picasso's work in the world. Arranged in chronological order, it was fascinating to watch Picasso's style evolve into the style he is most famous for today.  During his transition years there were portraits that you would not have identified as a Picasso next to a painting that anyone could have recognized the artist. It really was a large and interesting collection, although Tim suggested that maybe these were all the works he couldn't sell.

Monday was a long, tiring, but amazing day.  It started at the Basilica Sagrada Familia which is quickly becoming the face of Barcelona. Construction was begun in 1882 and the projected completion is 2026, the centenary celebration of the death of Antonio Gaudi, the church's designer. Construction of the church was delayed by the Spanish Civil War and World War II. There was a 25 year period starting in 1926 where not much construction took place. Also, Antonio Gaudi was killed in a tram accident in 1926 and there were concerns that the replacement architect was not properly following Gaudi's original designs. This church is unlike any we have ever seen.  We have always thought of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris as being the most beautiful on the outside of all the churches we have visited.  Sagrada Familia is stunning as you approach it.  The interior took our breath away.  We'll include as many pictures as possible because we can't begin to describe it.  We are aware that our taste in art and architecture is less then traditional and many of you will probably not be as enamored with this Basilica as we were and that's ok.

After leaving the Sagrada Familia we visited the house where Gaudi lived for 20 years. In addition to Sagrada Familia, Gaudi also designed several houses that we will visit on Tuesday as well as overseeing the designing of Park Guell, a lovely park on the hillside overlooking Barcelona. Here we saw examples of some of the furniture he designed for these homes as well as learning more about his life.

Monday evening we took a "Tapas Walk" that we had booked on the internet before our trip. Tapas are a Spanish food tradition that is like appetizers but not really.  They are small plates of food such as small pieces of bread with toppings of meat, seafood or cheese or various kinds of small croquettes or fritters. People usually go on tapas walks where they go from bar to bar sampling the different tapas at each establishment.  Our tour included stops at two different restaurants for tapas. However, for us, the highlight was when our guide took us into one of the many markets in Barcelona and described the different products in the market and how to go about buying them and what to be watchful of. For example, in many of the markets we have visited, particularly in Spain and Italy, there are legs of ham on display where the butcher slices off thin slices for you to purchase. Think Italian prosciutto.  We were shown the differences in quality of the various hams. Also, as part of the tour we went into different shops where we sampled different olive oils or different kinds of candy nuggets. The walk was a lot of fun, but we returned to our apartment exhausted.

Buenos dias for now.

Sagrada Familia
Sagrada Familia
Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

Guell Park, Barcelona 
Tapas served on the bar

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Two days, two continents

February 4, 2017

Most mornings on all of the cruises we have ever taken, we awaken in the morning already docked at that day's port of call. Thursday we did not sail into Algiers harbor until 10:00.  It was one of the most beautiful harbors we have visited. The city is built up the side of the hill that surrounds the harbor and many of the buildings are in a french style architecture which makes sense because Algiers was a French colony when most of the building occurred. Unfortunately, what appeared beautiful from a distance was not so shiny up close. As we bused around Algiers we saw signs of poverty but the people were friendly. The visit was quite interesting.  It turns out Algiers is new to the tourism game. Our cruise was only the second time Viking had docked in Algiers and our ship was the largest cruise ship to visit in many years. Algiers was very controlling in regard to our visit. No one could leave the ship unless they were with one of Viking's official tours. Our tour was a two hour "Highlights of Algiers" tour.  Our bus was in the first group of five that left the harbor. As with Tunis, we had a police escort with our buses the entire trip. The only stop we made where we were allowed to leave the bus was at the "Memorial of the Martyrs," a tower commemorating those who had lost their life during the Algerian war of independence with France. It is a lovely tower with three facsimiles of palm leaves leaning against each other to form an obelisk.  It would have been even more impressive if it had not had a cell tower at the top.  Really. The rest of the tour was drive-bys of places like the Parliament Building, City Hall and several important and historic Mosques. We did notice that as our motorcade of buses moved about the city, many of the locals smiled and waved at us as we drove by. Obviously, tour buses are still a novelty in Algiers.  After the tour we decided that Algiers needs to develop more places of interest if they are to expand their tourist industry.  We left the harbor as the sun was setting behind the hill and the lights of Algiers were coming on. The Muslim call to worship was sounding all over the city.  The view from the top deck of our ship was even more beautiful then this morning's. Sadly, we were now aware of the reality behind the facade.

This morning, Friday, our ship was docked in Valencia, Spain.  None of the ship-offered tours interested us so we decided to go into Valencia on our own.  The ship offered a shuttle from our pier to the historic center of the city, about a 15 minute trip.  We were both excited at the prospect of being on our own.  We don't do guided tours well.  We often go where the spirit moves us, usually resulting in unique and unexpected experiences.  We were delighted to find Valencia to be a very clean city, at least the part we visited. The city center was a warren of narrow streets that went in all sorts of different directions. We stepped into several churches that were beautiful, much like those we had visited earlier in the cruise.  We also went into the Central Market.  Much like markets of this type in other cities around the world, this market featured many stalls selling fresh meat, seafood, fruits and vegetables. Like the rest of Valencia, it was very clean. The rest of our time in Valencia was spent leisurely strolling the narrow streets, visiting lots of interesting shops.  On our return trip to the ship we drove by the Casa de Cultura (House of Culture) which was actually a small campus of three striking contemporary buildings that serve as a cultural center for the city. These buildings were examples of Valencia's effort to combine the contemporary with beautifully preserved historic buildings. It is a city we would would happily return to.

Tomorrow we arrive in Barcelona and disembark the ship first thing in the morning.  We will spend the next four days exploring what for us will be a new city.

See you soon.

Algiers, Algeria

Memorial to the Martyrs, Algiers

Central Market, Valencia, Spain

Valencia, Spain

Casa de Cultura, Valencia, Spain