Monthly Archives: November 2015

A Viking Star

Cruising on the Viking Star

Now that our 2015 trip is over, (sob!) we thought a quick focus on our ‘Mediterranean Odyssey’ cruise would be useful for people contemplating an ocean cruise.

This all began way back in 2013 when we took a Viking river cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest, and we met some wonderful travel companions from the USA and Canada.

The Viking Mob

As we had such a good time, our ‘Tribenzi’ all stayed in contact and we started the search for another fun journey to share.

Viking made it super easy for us as they were launching an ocean-going fleet to add to their very large fleet of river cruise boats. None of us had been on a ocean cruise before, and to be honest it wasn’t really on any of our bucket lists.

But once we saw this itinerary starting in Venice and ending in Barcelona, we were hooked!

The compact size of the ‘Viking Star’ ship really appealed to us as it is relatively small with accommodation for only 928 passengers. We don’t think we would enjoy joining 5000 other people as is the case with many current cruise ships in service – that’s just like living in a small town somewhere!

A pretty relaxed time was envisaged once aboard. We were not disappointed.

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The ship is very well laid out with lots of areas where you can just chill out for as long as you like.

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Very tastefully decorated throughout with a Scandinavian vibe (obviously), and it was a very pleasant experience.

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The food – a pretty important part of the experience – was first class… and you could eat very healthily as well as indulge in some amazing creations. No multiple sittings for meals and the staff were very attentive.

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Our favourite spot had to be the World Cafe at the rear of the ship as we enjoyed the varied menu available – we all found something fabulous to eat every day! Check out these sushi with delicious wasabi…

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In addition to this large selection the chefs always had several ‘cook to order’ options for breakfast, lunch and dinner and they loved creating new dishes for us. Don’s special fiery chilli omelette for breakfast didn’t even raise an eyebrow!

We enjoyed a special night out at the Chef’s Table – a ‘sweet and salty’ five course menu paired with special wines. A wow experience. Check the plate of grilled scallops with a sweet beetroot reduction balanced by a dash of passionfruit in the photo below… Or strawberry and basil jelly with ‘black Hawaiian lava salt’ – it does sound OTT but it was VERY special.

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Of course you have to work off all those calories somehow, and fortunately our itinerary included a variety of active excursions at every port.  These were selected well in advance, and we enjoyed all the ones we chose.

As we only had a day at each port of call, most tours were a half day or so but there was a good variety of optional trips. For example, we loved our full day tour of Sorrento and Pompeii – what a contrast!

However these trips enable you to have a quick look at lots of interesting places, some of which we would like to revisit for a more in depth experience.

Of course you can also just stay aboard if you like, or just head off on your own private walk – as far as we know no-one got lost?!

Unfortunately our friends’ add-on tour to Madrid was not the experience they had hoped for so we were grateful that we had decided to stay on in Barcelona – a fabulous way to end our holiday.

Overall, we found this cruise was good value and a great experience – we can recommend it! Let us know about your favourite trip or what you are planning next???

Barcelona!

Our previous blog focused on the amazing Sagrada Familia as it just overwhelmed our senses, so now we can focus on other interesting spots in Barcelona. Just that name conjures up             a certain waiter from Fawlty Towers, but fortunately we met many funny and competent waiters bearing no resemblance to Manuel!

After docking, we left the huge port and were driven around some of the highlights on a rather cool and wet day (this causes grumpy photographers) so we later returned in beautiful sunshine.

Fabulous views from Montjuic Hill.

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Lots of infrastructure was built for the 1992 Olympics and beautiful art galleries and monuments abound.

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Check out this massive column of Christopher Columbus. Apparently he is meant to be looking out towards “that far distant shore” he discovered but in reality he’s pointing to Sicily. Oops!

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Where else could you find the old bullfighting amphitheatre housing a modern day shopping centre?

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We ‘needed’ to check out Les Cortes Ingles – an upmarket department store, with a magnificent supermarket section in the basement. Here they sell the famous jamon iberico. It’s also very expensive  – check out the (Euro) price of the single ham in a boxed gift wrap below! Fortunately they are cheaper and available in smaller amounts at butchers and the markets…

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Along the Passeig de Gracia. Lots of clever forward thinking people in this city… The early roads were designed with expansion in mind and with major intersections angled to allow easy turning.

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So back to the Viking Star for our last night on board and fond farewells to our friends – last drinks on the balcony, last dinner at the World Cafe. So sad, but we are already making a shortlist for our next meeting place…

A Last nite aboard

Next morning the Aparthotel Silver went out of their way to make our stay memorable – our room was ready for a 9.30am check in straight from the ship, top quality advice on all the transport options, discounts, and a bottle of bubbly waiting for us… What is not to like?!

Off to shop till we dropped on Las Ramblas, a 1 km boulevard – crowded with what seemed to be a good mixture of tourists and locals.

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Our favourite spot as usual was the huge food market, dotted with bars for a quick selection of snacks and a drink.

Each evening we wandered the streets to find a un vaso de vino blanco y una cerveza, and of course tapas. Not only because it is such a great way to eat, but because cafes and restaurants don’t start serving dinner till 9pm (at the earliest).

We want to try and re-create several dishes at home. Number one will be the Catalan traditional tomato bread that accompanies tapas. It looks so simple but has excellent taste and texture and is perfect with jamon, anchovies, cheese, olives – yum!

Barcelona’s population is 1.6 million with a total of 7 million in the province of Catalonia. There is a chequered past  – and future – in regard to pro-Catalan vs anti-Spain sentiments in this region. Passions run high and strong…. This interesting blog describes some of the challenges for the younger generations.

We have barely scratched the surface of Spain, so it now joins our wish list of European countries to explore in a longer time span and at a more relaxed pace. We will have to keep buying those Lotto tickets…

Inspirational Gaudi…

Antoni Gaudi – What a man, what an imagination! We had been introduced to some of his works in and around Barcelona on a hop-on hop-off coach tour of this beautifully planned and laid out city…

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However, we were not prepared for the visual WOW! of the Sagrada Familia designed by Gaudi as an ‘exceptional place of worship’.

This building is a photographer’s dream – everywhere you look you find interesting things to capture. The exterior is amazing in scale and the amount of sculptured fine detail – animals, dragons and serpents mix it with Gothic arches, mosaics and beautifully formed window surrounds in the typical Gaudi style. It just goes on and on…

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Yes, those are cranes and construction teams swarming all over the building because it has been “a work in progress” since 1883 and they hope it will be finished in 1926, exactly 100 years after Gaudi’s death. That’s five generations who have witnessed this tower being built to Gaudi’s design!

HOWEVER, the interior is something else again! It was as I would envisage walking into a cauliflower kaleidoscope… It is simply breathtaking to witness. Organic forms are everywhere and the columns stretch up like huge plant parts to the ceiling – all illuminated by the sun streaming through acres of stained glass. It has been planned to allow one side to be largely blue/green and the other red/orange/yellow… The sun was coming through the red/orange/yellow side (probably the south west side – I am always confused with light direction in the northern hemisphere).

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The Director of the school of architecture who handed Gaudi his degree way back in 1878 apparently stated “He is either a genius or a madman”. I won’t go on any more, but let the photographs show the result. Enjoy….

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” Gaudi’s architecture is timeless since it does not rely on styles or tendencies and still gives pleasure three-quarters of a century after his death in the same way as flowers or mountains do”

From GAUDI the entire works… Joan Bassegoda i Nonell

Monaco & Toulon

As we glided into Monaco, our waiter said “Now you will start to smell the money!”

What an accurate description of this principality where the cost per square METRE averages   60 000 Euros, and each letter on the Yacht “Lady Moura” docked beside us is printed in 24 carat gold!

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We assumed that Monaco and Monte-Carlo were one and the same – wrong! Monaco is the (tiny) country, and Monte-Carlo is the area on the hill that houses the famous casino and most of the luxury hotels.

We walked around the medieval “Rock” section and through a very pretty garden – we gave up calculating how much each flower or leaf would be worth in real estate value!

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We could see the Musee Oceanographique literally hanging on a cliff. It was directed by the wonderful Jacques Cousteau for many years – how many people recall watching his magic TV shows? Wish we had known ahead of time as we certainly would have goofed off to explore there…

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Then it was off to the famous cathedral where Grace Kelly was buried. Sadly we had reached our quota of religious and royal exposure for the week.

The police detail that appeared suddenly scattering the crowd was interesting though – suddenly an armoured car with the number plate MC01 whisked past us. Yep, Prince Albert 2 self driving in his Lexus! Guess we still got our quota of royalty for the day!

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Speaking of which, the crime rate in Monaco is very low. This could be due to having 1 policeman to every 40 people, not including any of the palace guards.

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Also it was great to hear that social housing is provided for citizens ‘without wealth’ for a tiny 400 euros a month rent. We saw some of these apartments around the harbour which looked great and were well located.

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That evening was a fun night organised by Don Lehman for our group of 8 at the Chef’s Table on board the Viking Star. Thanks Don, we really enjoyed the night!

The five course “Sweet and Salty” menu gave us a chance to try out several new tastes. We will spare you from the full menu with all the diatribe of posh ingredients, but Ian’s rave dish was the beetroot jelly with grilled scallops and a hint of passionfruit.

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Ginny loved the dessert – not usually her favourite part of the menu. A thickened Bavarian cream with basil jelly and strawberry sauce … Finished with a tiny scattering of rock salt. Sublime!

Each course came with a selected glass of wine which was perfect over the evening. Later on we even managed to dance the night away at a Beatles tribute. Well, the ‘we’ is not quite true as the pain in Ian’s knee prevents such frivolity (roll on his operation in November!) but fun was had by all.

Next morning saw a stunning French sunrise as we arrived in Toulon.

A Sunset at sea

The local Provençal market was interesting – beautiful flowers everywhere and about 12 different varieties of olives…

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However we saw some limp blackish cauliflowers that were a worry! We’ve seen this in a few places now and it seems weird and such a total contrast to all the other beautiful fresh produce. Does anyone know if there is a reason for this? Maybe a special recipe?!

There are many fountains and squares throughout the city, some in better shape than others. Our guide indicated that funding to maintain and renovate the Old Town is very limited in the current economic climate. Parts are uninhabited or unsafe, and sadly they have a nasty virus in many of their palm trees.

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In contrast the Opera House is in constant use and is a very beautiful building with many sculptures adorning it.

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So there you are.  Monaco & Toulon, third and second last port of call before Barcelona…

Livorno & Pisa

We witnessed a lovely sunrise as we approached the very busy port of Livorno in Tuscany and travelled to Pisa, home of that amazing leaning tower.

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En route we were surprised to pass a huge American army base. Camp Darby was first established in 1951 and is apparently the largest base outside of US territory. It seemed an odd contrast to the peaceful Tuscan countryside.

Back in medieval times Pisa was one of the most powerful Italian maritime regions, but today the city is about 20 minutes from the sea (blame river silting for this). Now the residents’ main income comes from two sources.

One is as a university town (founded in 1343!) with approx. 25,000 students. This is where Galileo was born and studied and they are naturally proud of this, showing such relics as the swinging lamp in the cathedral he studied to come to his theory of isochronism in pendulums – “that the period of the swing is independent of its amplitude”. There is some dispute about this as the present lamp dates from 1587 (after Galileo had moved away) and cost over 600 scudi! However, there probably was another which preceded the one now hanging there. Nice story and nice lamp and of course the original was candle lit! The lamp would have had to be lowered to light the candles and there would have been movement induced at that time…

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Pisa’s other income comes from tourists like us visiting its art and architectural treasures, mostly in the buildings in the Piazza del Duomo, the so-called Square of Miracles. The Leaning Tower is a bell tower and is probably the most famous building, but this piazza also contains a cathedral, baptistery and a cemetery.

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Gino was our wonderful guide and has been teaching tourists about Pisa since the 1970s. He lives in an apartment within the area where the tower is predicted to fall in 2126. As he pointed out, that will probably be of little concern to him!

It’s worth mentioning here that almost all the places we have visited on our trip have been under restoration or reconstruction – which has made photographing them awkward – and ugly sometimes, although it must be said that efforts have been made to mask off these construction processes.

We had enough time to have a fortifying un bicchiere di vino bianco e una birra among the hundreds of hawkers plying their wares… And that was how we met the only other West Australian couple travelling on the same cruise. It is a small world indeed!