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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, Hotel Continental Barcelona.  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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