Monday, November 19, 2018

Barcelona, Spain - The Ramblas Ramble - A Self-Guided Walking Tour

We were very happy we made the decision to arrive in Spain a couple of days before our Mediterranean cruise left from the Barcelona port.  Today we would have a full day to spend in Barcelona.  That gave us the time we needed to see everything we wanted to see here and more.  We had an amazing morning visiting La Sagrada Familia (read about it here) and now we were excited for what we had planned for this afternoon.

After we settled into our hotel, when we arrived here the day before, we did Rick Steves' Barri Gotic self-guided walking tour (read about it here).  Today we would do his Ramblas Ramble tour.   The Ramblas Ramble tour was pretty much just walking down Las Ramblas boulevard with a couple of detours off and down side streets which made it much easier to follow than the Barri Gotic tour.

Our tour started at Placa de Catalunya.  We were getting very familiar with this plaza as it was right down the block from our hotel, Hotel Continental Barcelona, and we were using the buses that stopped here.   We got here very easily.


The second stop on our walking tour was Fountain of Canaletes.  It is a black and gold fountain that has been around for more than a century and it is said that if you drink from this fountain you are ensured a trip back to Barcelona.  Well, when we got to the third stop on the Ramblas tour, we knew we passed the fountain.  We backtracked and searched but couldn't find it.  I hate to admit it, but we were still having trouble following the GPS on Google maps.  

We did see a beautiful black and gold fountain, a little later that day, and decided this was it.  

Next on the Rick Steves tour was Rambla of the Little Birds.  Steves explains that this stretch of Las Ramblas was where, at one time,  you would see many kiosks selling different types of animals that people could buy and keep as pets.  These days the kiosks are selling mostly ice cream and souvenirs.

Bethlem Church was our next stop,  It was off Las Ramblas and down a side street.  This church is dedicated to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus.  The locals enjoy the nativity scenes that are displayed here at Christmastime.  We loved the one just above the tremendous doors of the church.

Back on Las Ramblas we found Rambla of Flowers.  This small, but fragrant, section is where vendors sell their flowers and seeds.  There were bags and bags of seeds at each kiosk.  Some of the seeds would produce plants we had never, ever seen before.  Soko found a bag of seeds that would grow into unusual looking fruits.  I couldn't add a picture of that package of seeds as this is a family friendly blog!

Our next stop was La Bogueria Market.  This is a very busy market and we saw many different foods and produce.  Again, we saw things that we have never seen before in America.  

I spotted a delicious looking fruit and I had to try it.  If you like a fruit that is not overly sweet, has a pear-like texture and is filled with tiny seeds then you will love this fruit.  

We had a hard time finding the next stop on our walking tour.  Rick Steves called it the Heart of the Ramblas.  We would know that we were in the right place when we saw, abstract artist, Joan Miro's mosaic on the ground.  We weren't really sure what we would be looking for but we knew Joan Miro created the logo for La Caixa bank and we had seen it a couple of times.  In fact, we had just passed one of the banks.  We decided to go back to look at the logo closer to see if that would give us a hint as to what we were looking for.  We finally did find the mosaic and had to laugh at how we thought we missed it.  We were looking for something smaller and this beautiful artwork was huge!  We just hadn't gotten to it yet.

Placa Reial was the next stop on our walking tour.   It was not too far from the mosaic but off Las Ramblas. This is a town square that has both old-fashioned bars and modern taverns with patio seating.  I was excited to see this plaza as I knew we would be treated to seeing  Gaudi's first public works, two colorful helmeted lampposts.  

As were heading back out to the Ramblas we were to look across the boulevard to see Palau Guell, another Gaudi project.

Back on the Ramblas we reached our next destination, the Raval Neighborhood.  Here we were looking for elaborately costumed human statues.  There were a bunch of them and they really fooled us into thinking they were statues!  These "statues" have to audition and register with the city government before they are allowed to perform here.

Of course, there would be an Antoni Gaudi statue here!

The Columbus Monument, our next sight to see, was across the street from Las Ramblas and there was no way we could miss this 200 foot monument dedicated to Christopher Columbus.  We didn't take the ride up to the top of this building because I heard that the elevator was very tiny.  If I wasn't claustrophobic we would have liked to view the city from the observation deck.

Just past the monument is the Waterfront and the last stop on Rick Steves' walking tour.  We took a leisurely walk down the promenade.

We were curious to see the Barcelona Head that Rick Steves mentions is at the end of the boardwalk.  It was worth the walk to see this iconic sculpture.

We really enjoyed Rick Steves Ramblas Ramble tour.   Now it was time to get ready for tonight.  We saw huge signs that made us think that there was something special going on this evening so we headed back to the hotel to have a quick bite to eat at their buffet.  

Look for our post, coming soon, to find out about Barcelona's largest annual street party, that we were fortunate to be in Barcelona for,  La Merce Festival.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Barcelona, Spain - La Sagrada Familia

We decided to arrive in Barcelona a couple of days earlier than we needed to.  We were boarding the cruise ship, here in Spain, that would whisk us off to places we've dreamed about seeing for many years.  We arrived in Barcelona early on a Friday morning and we enjoyed many hours of sightseeing.  On Saturday, we had a full day to enjoy this gorgeous city.  Our plan was to do Rick Steves' Las Ramblas self-guided tour but first we were going to see, the highly recommended, La Sagrada Familia, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

We researched and found a bus that would take us to the Sagrada.  We would be able to find it at Placa de Catalunya.  This is where we got dropped off, the day before, by the bus we took from the airport.  It was only a block away from our hotel, so it was very convenient for us to use this bus to get to the basilica.

When we got to the bus stop, we wanted to make sure we were in the right place.  There was a couple waiting at the stop and they didn't look like they were from Barcelona.  Hopefully they are Americans, we thought, but no, they could not speak to us unless we knew French!  But they were going to see Antoni Gaudi's greatest piece of work, La Sagrada Familia, so our plan was to just follow them when we got off the bus.  It worked perfectly!

We bought tickets online before we left for our vacation.  The tricky part of purchasing entry tickets beforehand is that you have to select a time, in addition to picking the day you want your ticket for.  We weren't sure how long it would take us to get to the Sagrada Familia, and wanted to be sure we were there for our scheduled time so we gave ourselves plenty of time to get there.   We wound up getting there about 45 minutes too early.   But that gave us a chance to walk around and enjoy the outside of the building.  The inside of the building is impressive, but I don't even have the words to describe the outside.  It really takes your breath away the moment you lay eyes on it.

I was so happy to see a shop selling turron as we walked around the church.  They are a nougat candy that I had read we would find in Barcelona and I was hoping to buy some to bring back to our kids.  This shop had many different kinds of turron, in addition to the usual hard or soft variety, in every shape and size.

After a little shopping, it was time to tour the magnificent church.  We were let in and directed to the area where we could pick up our audio tour headsets.  I was so glad we ordered these so we could understand what we were looking at.

Our audio tour had us starting with a look at a model of what La Sagrada Familia will look like when it is finally finished in 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudi's death.  We were told, and could see here, that Gaudi's design was made up of eighteen spires representing the twelve apostles, the Virgin Mary, the four Evangelists and the tallest of the spires would represent Jesus Christ.  Presently, 8 of the 18 spires are done.

From the model, we were directed to view the Nativity facade of the building. This is one of three facades which include the Passion and Glory facades.   Gaudi wanted this facade to be on the east side of the building which faces the rising sun.  Gaudi used lots of symbolism throughout this building and here the rising sun represents the birth of Jesus.

Gaudi wanted this facade to be the most attractive and accessible to the public.   It was the only one of the three facades that was completed by Gaudi before his death.  The Nativity facade was my favorite part of the entire building.

Next the tour took us inside the basilica.  The vibrant colors that filled the spacious interior was the first thing I noticed when we entered.   We were also immediately drawn to the altar and to the cross above it.   I have never seen Jesus hanging on his cross the way he was on this one.  It was beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time.

Gaudi put so much thought into every detail of this gorgeous church.  He used nature throughout the building, inside and out, and designed the pillars to look like trees with the branches holding up the ceiling.  A tortoise and turtle hold up the pillars representing both the earth and sea.

Gaudi dedicated to the four pillars around the altar to the four evangelists.   Each pillar displayed the symbol of one of the evangelists.  The lion pictured here is the symbol for Mark.

After our tour of the inside of the church, the audio directed us to go outside to view the Passion facade.  We were asked to exit through the western doors.  These unique doors tell the story of the Passion in Catalan.

The Passion facade was noticeably different from the Nativity facade.  This facade was all about the days before, during and after Jesus was crucified.  For this reason, Gaudi wanted this facade to face the setting sun.  He wanted the design here to be hard and bare, plain and simple and look like it was made of bones.

Looking on the left hand side of the facade you can see Judas giving Jesus the fatal kiss.  To the left of them is a box of numbers.  Every horizontal and vertical line adds up to 33, the age that Christ was when he died.

On the south side of the Sagrada is the Glory facade, the glorification of Jesus.  On this side you can see plenty of scaffolding and cranes.  This side is still far from being finished.  When it is done, it will be the largest and most striking facade.  It will represent the road to God - death, final judgment and finally glory.  

We would love to see La Sagrada Familia when it is finished so we are penciling in a trip to Barcelona in 2026 and crossing our fingers!  

We finished exploring this special church around lunchtime so we decided to eat at a restaurant we noticed earlier.  It had many different paella choices.  We wanted to make sure we had some paella before we left Spain so we thought this restaurant would be a perfect choice for lunch.

My seafood paella was really delicious and Soko really liked his paella which was filled with yummy veggies but I think what we enjoyed most about this meal was that it was served to us by this very friendly and extremely happy guy!

Look for this restaurant across the street from the Glory facade if you would like to enjoy some delicious paella!  Hopefully, you will also be treated to the same friendly service!

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Monday, October 22, 2018

Barcelona, Spain - A Walking Tour Of The Barri Gotic Area

We have always enjoyed cruising so when we started to think about seeing Europe, for the first time for either of us, we thought this would be the way to do it.  Now that we are back, I can say cruising our way through the Mediterranean worked perfectly for us.  And we can also say that our 40th Anniversary Dream Vacation was even more wonderful that we imagined it would be.  It is now at the top of our list of Best Vacations of our Lives!

So our ship was departing and returning to Barcelona.  We wanted to make sure that we didn't miss it, due to plane delays mostly, so we arrived in Spain two days before the start of our cruise.  We are so happy that we made the decision to spend two days here.  There was so much to see and we got to see  almost everything we wanted to.  We had a little trouble figuring out how to use Google Maps on our first day here so we missed a couple of sights because we couldn't find them.  But overall we did pretty well which surprised the heck out of us!

Before we left for our trip, I found out that we could hop on an Aerobus at the airport in Barcelona  that would get us within walking distance of our hotel.  We bought these tickets online, for $7.00 each, in advance of our vacation.  The ride took about 30 minutes and we made it to the hotel in time to enjoy their buffet breakfast.  We ate things we had never eaten before and enjoyed it all.  We loved the atmosphere of the hotel's rooftop dining area.  It was a perfect way to start our vacation.  And, yes, that is beer (It was available at the buffet all day!) that Soko is having along with his orange juice and coffee!

After breakfast it was time to explore Barcelona.  We decided we were going to do the Barri Gotic 
self-guided walking tour that we found in Rick Steves' travel guide.  I made a copy of the blog post I wrote that had a description of the sights of this walk.  I also made a copy of the map, that we found in Steves' book, of his walking tour.  We bought a sim card for my phone so that we could have wifi and be able to use Google maps to get around.  We were confident that we had everything we needed to find the sights we wanted to see.  Using Google maps that first day was not easy for two people who have never used it to get around in a foreign country or anywhere else for that matter!  It took a good amount of time, but we did find the first stop on the walking tour eventually, Avinguda del Portal de l'Angel.  This is a boulevard where you will find the most expensive shops in Barcelona.  We did not buy anything here!

Getting to the next stop was a little easier.  The Church of Santa Anna was not be very far from the shops and we stumbled upon it quickly.  It gave us hope that doing this walk would not be as difficult as it first seemed.

The stop after the church was a restaurant, Els Quartre Gats.   Picasso frequented this restaurant often and designed their menu cover.  We knew we missed it when we saw the fourth stop on our list, the Fountain decorated in blue and yellow tile work.  We tried back tracking and tried using Google maps but we never did find the restaurant.  We decided, then, that we would not worry too much about finding every sight.  

This walk was starting to become a scavenger hunt which was really fun but the riddles were not always easy to figure out.  Our next stop was Placa Nova.  From what we read in Rick Steves' book, this was an entrance gate at one time and we would see two huge towers that were part of it.  Once we got here we would see Picasso's artwork on the Catalan College of Architects on the opposite side of these towers.  I can't tell you how long it took us to find the towers, or figure out that what we were looking at were towers, and then the artwork.  When we finally found the towers we couldn't figure out where the opposite side would be.  The college turned out to be across the plaza from the towers but I guess it could be described as being on the opposite side also.

The beautiful Cathedral of Barcelona, next on our list, was impossible to miss.  It was the largest church we had ever seen before.  We couldn't get over how many statues were tucked into the walls of this building. 

Luckily, our next stop was a few steps away from the Cathedral and we could see it immediately as we walked away from the church.  Casa de l'Ardiaco is a mansion that once was the residence of archdeacons.   There wasn't any access to the inside of the mansion but we were able to walk around it's courtyard and imagine how the archdeacons might have enjoyed this area.

I remembered that we passed by a monument, when we were lost trying to find Placa Nova, that I thought might be the next stop on our walk so we just had to walk back to it so I could take a picture.  The Monument to the Martyrs of Independence was erected to honor five patriots who were strangled for resisting Napoleon in 1809.   

We read that Placa Sant Felip Neri was a plaza that Catalan children use as their playground so when we walked into a plaza filled with children, we knew we were in the right place.  Here was where we would also find a plaque that listed 42 victims of an aerial bombing in 1938.  The sad thing is that most of the victims were children.  I guess this plaza has always been a favorite place for children to play.

As soon as we passed through the plaza, we found the narrow streets of the Jewish Quarter, our next stop.  These tiny streets were where 4,000 Jews were forced to live .  There was a synagogue we wanted to check out here but it was closed.   

Soko found the next stop, Carrer del Bisbe Bridge which is a bridge that connects what used to be the president of Catalan's President's residence with government buildings.  I was not looking high enough to see this bridge.

Our next stop was Placa de Sant Jaume, the central square of the Barri Gotic area.  This is where we were on the lookout for Catalunya's patron saint, St. George (Jordi), slaying a dragon.  It would be above the doorway of one of the government buildings.  The dragon is an important Catalan symbol that I read we would see here and there but we only saw one other one.

We were beginning to get really tired and hungry at this point but had three more sights to see.   The Roman Temple of Augustus had huge columns that dated back to the first century BC and were as old as Barcelona itself.  We were very curious to see something that old so we decided to see this temple and skip the last two sights on our walking tour.   One sight was Place del Rei where the Royal Palace was. This palace was where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel welcomed Christopher Columbus after he came back from discovering the New World.   We also skipped the Barcelona History Museum.  

Jet lag was starting to get the better of us so we were ready to call it a day, but first we had to find something to eat.  We had heard from everyone who had ever been to Spain that we should have tapas and/or paella.  We found a restaurant, near our hotel that had a tapas sampler.  It seemed easy enough to point to the picture and get a few different tapas rather than trying to read or speak Spanish to order for ourselves.  We were both wishing we had paid more attention in Spanish class years ago.  Our dinner was delicious and the variety was perfect.  Soko doesn't eat much fish so I had to eat all the calamari which I was happy to do.  The dinner came with a dessert that was so good I wished Soko was passing on that also but he ate his!

The first day of our vacation was incredible!  We had to pinch ourselves all day to make sure we were not dreaming and we were really here in this beautiful place.  Now it was time to get back to the hotel because we were more than exhausted.  We fell asleep as soon as our heads hit our pillows at 9:15 that night!

(Read about Day 2 - Part 1 here!)

Monday, October 15, 2018

Pros And Cons Of A Mediterranean Cruise Vacation

We just got back from our Mediterranean cruise.  I can't believe that it is actually behind us.  It was a vacation that we dreamed about for years and now it is a wonderful memory that will last us a lifetime.  We had never been to Europe and thought that cruising would be the best way for us to see it.  Now that we are back, I can say that most of our trip met our expectations but some things we didn't expect.

The Pros:

The number one positive for us of traveling Europe via cruise ship was that we didn't have to move ourselves from one hotel to the next.
We saved ourselves hours of wasted time packing and unpacking our luggage.  One pet peeve I have about traveling is when we have to "live out of our suitcases".  We spent the first two nights of our vacation in Barcelona.  The room was very tiny and didn't have any drawers at all and only a small closet that we could fit five outfits in.  I took out the dress I brought for formal nights on the ship but the rest of my clothes were all over the place and starting to wrinkle up after the two nights.  It was so nice to be able to unpack when we got on the ship.

We enjoyed delicious dinners, great entertainment and relaxing in lounge chairs while we were whisked away to our next stop.
Instead of sitting on a train or bus to get to our next destination, we were enjoying the cruising part of our vacation.  Half of the fun of a cruise vacation for us is the cruising part.  Our Mediterranean cruise meant getting up early and spending all day on the go for 12 days.  Having the chance to relax while the ship brought us to our next destination kept us from getting overtired.

Being able to book excursions through the cruise line.
It made getting to the sights we wanted to see at each port stop so much easier than having to figure  out how to get transportation ourselves.
We booked an excursion for Rome which provided a shuttle to an express train to Vatican City.  We had a guide who gave us information on the shuttle bus and then led us to the train.  He also let us know when and where to meet for our return ride back to the ship.  He then led those of us who were interested to the Hop On, Hop Off bus we used to see the major sites in Rome.

Meeting many interesting fellow cruisers from different parts of the world and US.
We had lots of fun chatting with people from Australia, Ireland, England, Canada, Cuba and the states.  We took advantage of the time we spent with these nice people to find out more about their countries and states.  The people we met from Ireland were so excited to hear that we would be visiting their country next year and were happy to let us know what we need to do and see there.  They asked when we will be making our trip and we said February.  They had looks of horror on their faces (I'm exaggerating!) when we told them when we were going. "Why would you want to go to Ireland in February.  The weather is terrible!"  Oops!

The Cons:

The number one negative on our list would be that we had a very limited amount of time at each port. 
We definitely needed to spend at least two days at each stop to be able to enjoy each city more.
We knew that the time constraints was something we wouldn't be able to avoid but we really didn't expect to have only one hour to enjoy Murano and more than half of that time would be taken up by a glass blowing demonstration.  We enjoyed the demonstration but slipped away from the group when they were being led to the demonstrator's glass shop afterwards.  We really would have liked a little more than the 30 minutes we had to see the city.

Stressing about getting back to the ship on time.
At times we rushed to a sight and only stayed long enough to snap a few pictures before we ran to the next sight because we wanted to see everything but we needed to make sure we had plenty of time to get back to the ship before it left the port.  Three passengers were left at the Amalfi Coast even though the ship left about an hour later than scheduled.

Some cities were very far from the port.
We knew that Rome was almost 1 1/2 hours away from our port stop in Civitavecchia but 1 1/2 hours away compared to being on the other side of the world from it made Rome seem too close to not see it.  If  we were doing a trip in Italy another way, rather than cruising, we would definitely have penciled in at least 2 to 3 days to see Rome.

Having to go through security checks upon returning to the ship after disembarking at each port.
I know that security checks keep us safe and is a way for the cruise line to keep a head count of their passengers, but after a long day, the last thing we wanted to do was wait on line, take off our belts and watches and hold our breath (that's just me!) as we and our bags go through the security scanners!

We really had a wonderful time on our Mediterranean cruise vacation.  We immensely enjoyed exploring the countries and cities we visited.  Cruising enabled us to see a lot more than we could have if we had to get from place to place on our own.  We would never have been able to see 5 countries in 12 days that easily.

We would love to go back and do this trip again and we would do it the same way, by cruise ship, but we will know what to expect next time and be able to plan better.  The pros definitely outweighed the cons for us.

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