Barcelona, Spain - April 19, 2015
Valencia, Spain - April 18, 2015
Our day in Valencia was absolutely perfect.
The port in Valencia is huge and you are not allowed to walk around it. We caught a cab with Bill and Terri (new friends from Maryland) and met the rest of our tour group (12 of us in total) at the City of Arts and Science buildings of Valencia. These modern buildings were all designed by Santiago Calatrava. We learned from our tour guide that there is a lot of controversy about them (and especially him). The buildings were late, over budget, the tiles fell off and are being re-done, and they were originally designed with no fire exits. When we were in Barcelona our guide there went as far to call Calatrava a crook. Anyhow, the buildings are interesting and we were there early so we had time to explore.
Once our guide Suzie from Tours in Valencia arrived, we were fitted for our bikes and started the tour. First we learned all about the modern buildings - arts and science, opera house and the bridge - which is nicknamed ham in Spanish. Of course. Suzie told us there are a lot of rice fields in the area which is why paella originates from Valencia. Traditionally the men cook paella, usually on the weekend, and use rabbit, chicken and beans. Now seafood paella is also popular in Spain.
Back to our bikes. We rode around the building to get a good view from all sides. We sent messages through the curved wall. The guys on one side and us on the opposite. Hard to explain but the acoustics are really neat.
Then we rode through the park to see what the locals do on a Saturday morning - we saw joggers, dog walkers, soccer games, dog parks (with agility equipment), the start of a run/race, a kids park and lots of people walking. After the city flooded in the 1950's they decided to re-route the Turia river. The city converted the dry river bed to 9 km of gorgeous park area with a bike lane. It was a really nice ride.
Valencia doesn't have any of the buildings from Muslim rule. Unlike the south they did not use the structures (mosques), they tore them down and rebuilt. Apparently the people from the south were too lazy to tear down buildings and re-build which is why they converted the mosques to churches. Not my thoughts, just repeating what we were told! When the Spanish regained rule they told the Muslims they had to leave or become Christian. Unfortunately all the intelligence for how to create water systems and engineering left with the Moors. They should have thought that one through.
On the tour Suzie told us about Fallas - a celebration where the city burns elaborated sculptures over 5 days in March. It starts on March 19, St. Joesph's Day, and historically old wood pallets and carpentry wood was burned. Over the years it has grown in to a large creative and satirical festival. One fallas is saved each year and it goes in to the museum. Some other tours went to the museum and said it was very interesting. This video is a bit long but explains it well.
We took our bikes through the city gate and left them at the bike rental shop. We walked through the old town area and visited the cathedral. It has three different architecture types. We looked through a window area that locals always peek through when they pass by. Straight ahead you see the Virgin Mary statue and you will notice a glowing light in the middle of her forehead. Some people see red and some see green. We both saw green...that means good luck for the day. Red means bad luck.
We stopped for some tapas with toothpicks (known as pintxos) and a drink - sangria for me, beer for James. The sangria is really good here. Much better than the sangria we had in Alicante a few years ago. Everything was delicious.
Next stop was the market - Mercado Central, one of the oldest markets in Europe. The building is stunning with spectacular stain glass. With about 1000 stall, talk about sensory overload! The locals actually shop here for their goods and they are fresh. Of course there was lots of ham, meats and fresh seafood. Including live eels. Cheese, fruits, vegetables, baked goods, candies and drinks. We stopped to sample some ham, cheeses (including manchego, my favourite Spanish cheese) and cava mixed with fresh Valencian orange juice. Yum!
Across the street from the market we stopped in a store that only sells products from Valencia. The building was formerly a pharmacy and it is gorgeous. Here we sampled Agua de Valencia. It is really good and I can see how it would be easy to drink while sitting out in the Spanish sun!
Next stop, the UNESCO world heritage site La Lonja, The Silk Exchange building. This gothic structure was built in the 15th century at the height of economic and cultural times for Valencia. It is where all mercantile business went down. The palm tree shaped columns are spectacular.
After touring the Silk Exchange you can imagine we were famished (it must have been 45 minutes since we last ate!) so time for more tapas...and sangria! This time we sat outside and Suzie ordered for us. We had bread, gazpacho, squid, potatoes with mayonnaise and shrimp floating in oil.
Once we were completely stuffed, the tour ended. We hung around with Terri & Bill a bit longer in the old town area - no need to go back to the ship early. Bill tried to get some olives but there was some sort of communication barrier so we had more sangria, wine and beer.
Suzie is amazing - friendly, fun and knowledgeable. She gives just the right amount of information. If you go to Valencia, I highly recommend Tours in Valencia! Suzie will customize a tour to your interests.
We opted out of happy hour today - we had enough sangria - and had a short rest instead. We met Terri and Bill at Canaletto for dinner and had a great meal with excellent company. We are sad that they are getting off the ship tomorrow in Barcelona. We'll have to plan another cruise together!
Cartagena, Spain - April 17, 2015
When planning for the trip there were some ports that we knew exactly what we wanted to do and others we weren't sure. Cartagena was a port that I really didn't research much so we decided to play it be ear and decide what to do when we got there. Good call - we had a wonderful day poking around at our own pace.
We got off the ship early, walked across the street and we were in town. I love when we dock right in the city. The ms Amsterdam was pulling in to the dock as we were heading to town. The Amsterdam has the world voyage (they get on in January and off at the end of April) passengers on it now. I read a couple blogs from people on the ship.
Cartagena is a very old city (founded 227 BC) and has been one of the most important naval ports in the region and defensive harbours in the Mediterranean since the 16th century.
We bought a ticket to see 4 attractions that we could easily walk to. The first stop was the Roman Theatre Museum. A fascinating museum which leads you around artifacts, through a tunnel under a church and when you come out - voila a spectacular roman amphitheater that has been restored. The theatre dates to the first century BC and over the years, other buildings were built on top of it and adjoining it. It was only re-discovered in 1988. In its day (late first century BC) it was used for entertainment, political purposes and for worship. We could go right on to the stage (James did a performance) and all the way up to the various levels of seats. We kept climbing higher and higher - the views were spectacular - until we reached Castillo de la Conception (Conception Castle). Here we could climb even higher - great views of our ship and the ms Amsterdam. There were peacocks and a DaVinci exhibit - not related, they both just came to mind. The castle dates back to the thirteenth century. It was abandoned and restoration started in 2010.
Most people take the lift to the castle but we just kept climbing up on our own. We took the lift down to street level and visited more ruins at the District of the Roman Forum. A fascinating glimpse at what was the ancient city of Carthago Nova (209 BC) - now Cartagena. The area shows two blocks of an ancient site. The site has thermal baths and an atrium building with banquet halls. There were archeologists working on the site. It was really cool.
After getting our history in, we did some shopping. We found a great store that sold items from local artisans. Then we sat in the sun to enjoy some Iberico (Iberian) ham and wine. Iberco is cured ham from a specific type of black pig with black hooves. They only eat acorns and therefore, we are told, it is healthy - even the fat according to the locals. It is delicious but it is slightly odd to sit down with a plate of cured ham and 4 little bits of bread...some olives and cheese would have gone nicely! The guy carves a big cured pig leg (hoof on) right on the front counter. Things are pretty cheap here - especially shoes but I didn't buy any.
We had a fabulous sail away from Cartagena with tapas and sangria on the ship. Except I got some red wine on my white pants. I'm testing out my Tide to Go pen. A delicious dinner at the Tamarind restaurant, a comedy show and a trip to the spa rounded out another great day.
You can have laundry done on the ship. All you can stuff in to the bag for $20. We stuffed!
Malaga to Granada - April 16, 2015
This morning we met our tour and ventured out to Granada to visit the Alhambra. The drive is about two hours so we made a stop at this most amazing service station. It was a hotel/cafeteria/convenience store/washroom. I think there were 4 or 5 tour buses stopped at it but it didn't seem busy. And no line up for the washroom. We bought some snacks including ham flavoured chips...when in Spain! The Spanish love their cured ham.
The drive to Granada was very interesting. Tons of olive trees, asparagus fields and beautiful landscape. There are a lot of rocky hills and it is very green.
We only had time to visit the Alhambra so we will have to come back and explore Granada some day. We did see the Sierra Nevada and it still has snow on it so they are skiing.
I won't get in to a lot of Spanish history, but basically for 800 years starting in 711, Spain was under Islamic Moorish (north African Muslims) rule. The Alhambra (means Red Castle because it looks reddish) is the last Moorish palace of its time and it is an amazing fortress. Ruling families, servants and workers (about 2000 in its day) lived in the palaces, with the beautiful gardens and its own elaborate water system. The Moors were an advanced culture for the middle ages - very mathematically inclined and good at engineering so everything is well thought out. The water system with fountains and aqua ducts are very impressive. The walls in the palace are carved with Islamic calligraphy with poems and verses from the Qur'an to praise God, it is absolutely exquisite. The phrase "Only God is Victorious" is repeated 9,000 times in the Alhambra. The gardens are beautiful. It is a very busy site, and today was no exception! About 8,500 tourists visit each day. I will have to read "Tales from the Alhambra" by Washington Irving. Our guides kept referencing it and I guess it was a catalyst for the restoration of the Alhambra - now a UNESCO site.
We didn't have time to explore Malaga this trip. It looks interesting...next time.
We had an entertaining night on the ship - happy hour followed by sail away, dinner, the show (amazing performance by the ships singers and dancers - included aerial acrobatics) and then a hilarious session of who's bluffing. A type of game show on the ship. We laughed really hard.
Cadiz, Spain - April 15, 2015
Early this morning we arrived in Cadiz - pronounced caa-dith. There is a "th" lisp in southern Spain (example Valencia is Valen"th"ia and Andalu"th"ia). Most people on the ship were heading to Seville (about a 90 minute drive) but we went to Seville in January 2014. This time we decided to take a tour to Jerez de la Frontera for sherry tasting and horses. This area of Spain is known for sherry, bull fighting, flamenco dance and beautiful Spanish (Andalusian) horses.
This area gets 300 days of sunshine/year. Today was not one of them. Although we did get some sun in Jerez.
Cadiz is on a peninsula so on our drive out we saw all the beach area. Our guide told us that people eat lunch at 3 pm, dinner at 10 pm and stay out on the beach until 1 am (they light the beach at night). It's no wonder the Spanish need a siesta! He also told us there is 40% unemployment rate. What?!? Maybe it's the 40% that stay up until 1am at the beach?
On our drive to Jerez we also saw the salt mines, vineyards, pink flamingos and the big black Osborne billboard bull. Sherry wine can only be produced in this area of Spain - called the sherry triangle. All of the vineyards are out of town but the wineries are downtown. We visited Gonzalez Byass - found in 1835 and now being run by the fifth generation of the Gonzalez family. The tour was very interesting. We learned about the grapes, the process to make sweet vs. dry sherry, the barrels (which last 80 years and then are sold to Scotland for scotch aging), we saw casks that royalty and famous people signed who visited (Lana Turner, Steven Spielberg, Picasso, Winston Churchill...). We also saw the little ladder that leads to a glass of sherry for the mice to enjoy with some cheese (tapas) - true story. Oh, and we tasted two types of sherry - both white, one dry and one sweet. I still don't like sherry but if I had to choose, I'd take the dry. You can check out my reaction on James' video from the day. The bodegas are stunning - full of character.
Next up, the Royal Andalusia School of Equestrian Arts. This is also in the middle of the city and it is spectacular. It is the most famous dressage school in Europe along with Austria. They only take 5-8 students per year and students come from all over the world to train. It is a 4 year course that combines theory and practice. There is also saddle making taught at the school. We visited the stables which are immaculate, the horses are so regal and the tack room is incredibly organized and temperature controlled for the conditioning of the leather. We watched some practice in both inside and outside arenas. The students are good but the instructors are amazing. One horse looked like it was dancing on a cloud.
We returned to the ship and headed out to explore the old town of Cadiz. We had a great time exploring until it started pouring and we had to make a long trek back to the ship in the rain. With no umbrella.
I have to mention the orange blossoms in this area. The blossoms are just about done but the smell is divine! Fresh and sweet.
We learned that our captain is leaving us tomorrow. He was just subbing for a month on the Eurodam so I assume/hope we get a new captain when he leaves! We watched an incredibly talent violinist tonight, Craig Halliday. He even got a standing ovation. That rarely happens on a Holland America cruise!
We watched a very quick but stunning sunset on a great day of sherry, horses and exploring Cadiz.
Well, blogging during our transatlantic adventure didn't work out like I hoped it would. Poor internet made trying to post frustrating (and expensive). There's no need to get frustrated while on vacation! Now that I'm back to the land of copious Internet, I'll post the entries from the ports we visited over the next week or so.
We had an amazing vacation but after being away for 25 days we were happy to come home to see the pack! Although I do miss going up to the Lido for breakfast and having my room cleaned twice per day. Oh, and a good night wish with a towel animal and chocolate on my bed every night!