When we first booked this cruise with Viking, the itinerary finished in beautiful Barcelona. About three months later, we received a note from Viking that we would NOT be docking and spending an overnight in Barcelona. We would instead be docking and spending the night in Tarragona, a (we researched) small, industrial city south of Barcelona. (You can see how far apart they are above.) That kind of ticked me off because I was really looking forward to being able to wake up on the ship and then go for my pre-dawn photo walk and still be able to sleep on the ship that night.
We later learned that Viking had to switch because even though Barcelona is a HUGE port for cruise ships, there were going to be so many there over the two days (Friday and Saturday) that she would not have been able to stay for three full days. She needed four days tied up at a pier because we would have two days there (arrived Friday morning, disembarked Saturday morning) and then the cruise that followed ours would need the same (embark on Saturday afternoon, sail late on Sunday). Viking just could not take up a berth in Barcelona for that long. So that’s why we wound up in Tarragona.
In hindsight, I am so very glad that we did because it turned into one of my favorite photographic experiences on the trip. And I almost missed it once we were there. I almost missed it because we had tickets for the Viking-included excursion called “A Snapshot of Tarragona,” and when we got up, we just weren’t sure that we wanted to go. After being on the road since August 29, we were pretty much done. Kathleen wanted to just stay on board and pack, but she encouraged me to go ahead and take the excursion. I still (up until 15 minutes before it left) had not committed myself to go. But go, I did.
The first thing to note about leaving the ship was that it was docked a VERY long way from the gate to the port. In other words, this was NOT a port I could have walked out of. And then, once you got out of the port, it was a long way to the city. To say it was a very long way is an understatement. When we got on the “luxury motor coach,” we were then driven for about 30 minutes, and we were still in the port. It is a HUGE industrial port, and we were moored all the way out as far as you can get before still being at sea. And the road out of the port had what seemed like continuous speed bumps that the “luxury motor coach” could not go over quickly. Once we were out of the port, it was another 20 minutes before we were off the coach at the edge of downtown.
At this point, I am beginning to think that I made a mistake in coming. Viking was running shuttles all day long, about every 15 minutes, so I knew I could go back whenever I wanted. Our guide for the day was another guide that seemed to be paid by the word. She walked us around some Roman ruins (as much as I love Italy, if I never see a Roman ruin for a few years, that will be OK with me), which were pretty cool, but they didn’t really hold that much interest for me. I have so many photos from my Tarragona day that I will put the Roman ruins and what we could see from them here. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…
The first Roman wall and turret.
Looking behind me, this more modern church.
Of a chariot race track.
More ruins still.
And the obligatory narrow street scene.
And more ruins.
Lived the cool patterns on this tile.
And another cool street.
On the other side of the citadel.
More narrow streets. But cooler colors.
More citadel but another view point.
Inside the ruins
Upstairs on the ruins.
More and more ruins.
Stop the ruins!
And the (even though they are cool) narrow streets.
But I did live this actual ruin that was left in place. Each door goes into a different restaurant’s patio.
Yes, more ruins.
With cool windows
And cool verandahs.
One more ruins for you.
What did grab my interest were explosions and gunshots going off about three blocks away. We had been told that there was a Catalunya-wide festival going on that weekend (Catalunya is the “state” that both Tarragona and Barcelona arein) so we were pretty sure that this was what we were hearing. We could also see fireworks and a parade at the end of those three blocks. Here’s what I saw when I looked down the streets and then walked around to do some more investigating.
You can see the crowds.
I took this from about two blocks away. You can see a lion “float” on the right.
Throughout the city center you could see people like this having a festival breakfast on the sidewalks.
And the crowds were growing.
The square was filling with people.
There were many more people having a meal together.
The wine was flowing at 9:45 am
Note the different colors of shirts everyone is where.
Here’s the green team.
And this is what they would be competing in later in the day—human pyramids.
No, I did not get to see the human pyramids in Tarragona. To show you the photo above, I took a picture of a picture. But we did get to see one being built on Sunday in Barcelona. We weren’t able to see one built in Tarragona, because around noon, it started to rain, accompanied by quite the thunderstorm, so they were canceled for Friday. After looking at a few more ruins, the guide said we would now have some free time, but not to go downtown, it would be too loud and dangerous near the parades. So you know what I did…I went right downtown where the parades were. I am so glad I did. An amazing experience, as you will see.
On the way downtown, I found people getting ready for a parade. It turns out they do the parades twice in the morning. Once from the square and once back. So I ran into a bunch of people getting ready to march on my way down. Here’s a quick gallery of those people.
The red team members getting ready.
Not sure which neighborhood these guys represented.
When I finally reached the city square, I could tell they were getting ready for something. At this point, I thought I had missed it all. Then I heard (from a side street) firework explosions. I headed from the square to where the parade would be coming from, and this is what I saw. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…
What downtown looked like before the parade.
I heard the parade comiing so I headed up the side street where the explosions were coming from.
This curve was just a little up the street
But it was close confines.
All that smoke you see is coming from the fireworks and it was LOUD!
Costumed characters lighting off fireworks.
You can see how smoky it is.
The mascots of each neighborhood led their groups down the hill.
The mascots had fireworks attached to their costumes.
The fireworks would scream for a while and then explode.
It was beyond loud.
I will try and add a video so you can see how loud it was. Probably not on this post.
These people are placing the fireworks
And lighting them.
And now the bull is fully loaded.
When he snorts, they go off with their screams.
He rears up and they explode.
There were bulls, dragons…
Very strange dragons
Each mascot was followed by a band from that neighborhood.
All of them were followed by peopel with muskets that when they fired them, it was louder than the fireworks.
And another band.
Then the golden chicken
With a pigeon in its mouth.
Everyone cheered the pigeon while he danced.
The king golden chicken/
And there was a horse.
Kids would pose with the mascots before they started marching.
The horse would dance into the crowd.
And the bands play on.
Here comes the armadillo.
And his band
Did you know there were Spanish bagpipes? Neither did I.
Here comes the lion
Followed by some huge dolls.
And another band.
This is a sequence. The man on the real horse has drums…
…and recognizes a man in the crowd.
He decides to pull the man up on his horse.
Found out later, the man being pulled up…
…was the Mayor of Tarragona.
He had a heck of a time climbing on.
But he finally got there to the cheers of the crowd.
Now he as to get off.
That may be hard than he thinks.
Friends try and help him off.
Quite the job
Ended up taking four people.
They finally got him down.
And our rider got his hat back.
More incredible figures in the parade.
They just kept coming.
People would greet each other on the steets like they hadn’t seen each other in years.
Everyone was so friendly.
Including this guy.
The red team gets ready to march.
The remains of the fireworks were everywhere.
This woman had no idea he was behind her.
Ladies with swords.
Teens getting ready to dance.
And I turned to a side street and this is what it looked like. No one there.
Back around and ready to go again.
The teens dancing in the street.
Loved the action.
This festival was amazing.
OK, sorry to post so many photos, but it was a photographic bonanza where I got to combine travel photography with street photography, my two favorites. I spoke to so many other photographers during the parade. They would see my camera and comment on it, and I would ask about theirs. Or about what was happening in the parade. They all spoke some English, and I speak zero Catalan, but they were so hospitable, and they did their best to tell me about their city and the festival. This, to me, is what travel is all about. What an incredible time I spent shooting in this awesome city.
After I had shot all these photos, it was back to the ship (I actually shot more than 900 photos of the festival—aren’t you glad I didn’t put them all online?) I was actually back on the ship in time for lunch with Kathleen. Then we spent the afternoon with Kathleen napping and packing and my processing photos, posting the photos and writing about our adventures. Speaking of processing and writing, I have had a couple of people ask about what cameras and lenses I use and how I decide what to post and not to post. I promise to do a separate post about that when I have finished the cruise write-up.
Two more posts will finish this trip. One for our disembarkation and full day in Barcelona and another to sum it all up and review the cruise. We are sitting in Barcelona airport, ready to board our flights home. See you soon.
I saw a human pyramid once. It was very unnecessary.
After our three days in Venice, we were both totally wiped out so when we arrived in Sibenik, Croatia, at midday on Monday. We both decided that we would pack it in that day. I did take some pics on the way in and on the way out that I will share with you below but first, a couple of things I have really loved on this ship.
First, those of you who know me know I love to walk. At home, I walk a minimum of four miles a day, sometimes more. And yes, I fully realize that I am walking when I do tours, but, to be honest, walking and taking photos is not exercise. So pretty much every morning since we have sailed, I have walked four miles before breakfast. On most ships, I have to walk around a top deck, running track. Never liked those walking tracks; they were too small and had too many people. But Viking Sky has a full circuit walking/jogging track on deck two. It goes completely around the ship with no breaks and is exactly one-quarter of a mile. It’s really wide (except for a few feet at the front of the ship), and very few people use it. In fact, most days, there’s one other runner and me. I was so happy to find a totally wrap-around deck. On modern cruise ships, they are few and far between.
We have also been eating most meals since Venice by ourselves in The World Cafe (buffet). The food is still the best we have had on the ship, and the service is WONDERFUL! On our second day after Venice, we went up and sat at a small table way at the aft (back) of the ship, where there is a wonderful young lady taking care of the tables whose name is Nanci. The first thing she said to us that first night we sat there was, “Would you like to see our wine list?” I almost fell over. Finally, after almost ten nights, someone offered us a wine list. And when asked for suggestions, she looked at what we had selected from the buffet, and she came back with two outstanding glasses of Italian red. Not only that, but when I told her how much I loved the chocolate desserts, she asked if I was going to try them that night. When I came back from getting them, she had brought me a glass of Chianti and told me, “Nothing goes better with chocolate,” and she was right. We have been back to her table every night since. She is wonderful and thoroughly fun to talk to. When we asked her where she was from, she asked me to guess. I told her (because I had heard her say a few words in Italian) I thought she might be Italian. She told us she lives in Italy but is from Guadalajara, Mexico. She is a gem and has really improved our dinners.
Tomorrow night we will miss her because we are joining some new friends for dinner in the dining room. They have a favorite server and promise us we will have a great meal. We shall see.
As I am writing this, we have just finished our day in Naples. Since Sibenik, we have stopped in Bari, Crotone and Messina, so I still have all that to catch you up on. Here are the pics for Sibenik. You may not believe it, but I took every one of them from our stateroom’s verhanda.
Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please… (I have heard a vicious rumor that a close relative is looking at my pics on a phone. For that, she will have to eat my food again and watch all of them on our TV when we get home😜).
The pilot boat arrives. I love pilot boats.
The pilot jumps aboard.
It is a very twisty and turny approach to Sibenik.
But we can see the city in the distance.
We saw hikers on the high ground nearby.
And a nice welcoming sign.
Lots of interesting things to see on both sides of the ship.
And more caves
The house at the top of the hill is for sale if you are interested.
And one of the battlements once we were docked.
The views of the city
Including a Duomo
A large church
The gulls almost seem to be part of the marketing.
Looking back at the zig zag..
…that we sailed through and would sail back out of at the end of the day.
Some sunset photos
Like this one
Or this one
I liked this silhouette of the captain and the pilot as we sailed out.
Looking back at the city.
And behind again.
Was very happy with my sunset shots.
As you know, I love taking sunrise photos but…
I do love these sunsets.
Tomorrow we will be the port for Rome. Kathleen and I have been there quite a few times before, so we are staying on board. So that means I will do my best to catch up with the four ports between Sibenik and Rome. Lots to share.
You know more of a road by having traveled it than by all the conjectures and descriptions in the world. —William Hazlitt
First, if you are reading this in an e-mail, please do yourself a favor and click on the headline and read it in a web browser. The photos look better and the formatting is the way I intended you to see it. If I could figure out a way to get WordPress to just send you a link and not the complete post I would.
This was written starting on Sunday but I haven’t been able to get it out until today (Tuesday). They keep us very busy. So it looks like I will be about two days behind from here on in.
It’s Sunday morning and I am going to start this post now while I have a few minutes. We are waiting in our Quito hotel lobby for our charter flight from Quito to Baltra where we will tender (Zodiac) out to Flora for our Galapagos adventure.
This morning we had to have our checked bags in the hall outside our hotel rooms by 8:00 and we went down for our health screening at 7:45. We had been told it was just an antigen (spit) test but it turned out to be a full PCR, up the nose, test. Our first one (if you can believe that) and now I get what everyone complains about. Not that bad but still brought a tear to my eye. Breakfast in the hotel did not live up to the two previous meals but I guess the chef has to sleep sometime and leave the food in the hands of his assistants…who kind of failed. It was just “fine” with our first cup of coffee being cold, my “Everything” omelette having nothing in it and no jam for the rolls and croissants but it was still satisfying and should get us through until we have a box lunch (I am assuming) on the plane…which we are off to in about 10 minutes.
Eight hours later
We are onboard and have been VERY busy. At this point, I am being what my friend Paul would call a “grumpy git.” I get that when things are off from what I expected, I find that I forgot something, or something does not go the way I had planned. Hopefully I will get over it.
Ten hours later
It is now 3:45 am and I am not over it. In fact, this is the worst night I have ever spent on a cruise ship or maybe on vacation, in my life. I have been awake since 1:30 am (went to bed around 10:00). I am sitting in a lounge on the top deck all the way forward. For a variety of reasons I am not able to sleep. Noisy stateroom, noisy ship. Horrible pillows–my neck aches. Ship is rocking and rolling. I sat in bed for more than two hours trying to get back to sleep before I just got the hell out of there and let Kathleen sleep.
For those of us who have this sleep affliction (although I have slept GREAT every night since we left home) of waking up and not being able to get back to sleep, this is NOT the ship to do it on. On most ships if I can’t sleep, I can get up and go find a quiet place to sit and do stuff like this (writing or working with my pics). But on Flora that is impossible. This tiny lounge at the front of deck seven is the only place I could find. All the public areas on deck four are in pitch black darkness with doors closed. I have not seen a crew member anyplace. This is one of the benefits/problems with a small ship I guess. But…this lounge sucks because it is playing what I call thump-thump (electronic music) at a volume level that is not helping my massive headache. Much of my grumpiness now is due to my lack of sleep and inability to find someplace to just sit and write that is quiet and warm. Where I am is cold and noisy. the ship is really rocking and being on the top deck all the way forward is not a good place to be so I will have to go down and see if I can find someplace better.
I found a spot on deck three. The chairs are really uncomfortable but at least the music is better and not as loud. So let me explain where things went wrong.
We did leave the hotel right on time and made it to the airport. This is where I have to add that if you don’t like waiting in lines, producing document after document then this cruise (at least for the next few months until the world returns to more normal times) is maybe not for you. I had to show my passport and other docs at least five times yesterday. That doesn’t sound like a lot but it does mean that I usually had to stand in a fairly long line to do it. I have also filled out at least four forms (that could easily have been sent to me as PDFs way before the cruise for me to fill out and bring with me).
(Note from Kathleen – BRING AT LEAST ONE PEN – YOU ARE GOING TO NEED THEM!) Some of those were health forms, others for all kinds of things like one promising to not do anything bad I while I am in the islands (future Flora cruisers should note here that you can bring absolutely no food to the islands. That includes pre-packaged granola bars—the penalties are pretty big so leave everything edible at the hotel or on the plane).
I think things really headed downhill when we got in the Zodiacs to head out to the ship. I am trying very hard to find a way to phrase this that does not sound like I am whining or don’t understand how the crew feels but I can’t, so I will just tell it as I see it. Please know that since you aren’t on the first cruise back like we are, hopefully some of this will not happen to you if you decided to do this cruise. But I digress.
When we got off the plane as we headed into the terminal we saw our first Galapagos animal–an iguana waiting to meet us. Actually saw two. Once in the airport they had a really nice lounge ready for us to wait in until they could call us to take a short bus ride to the Zodiacs. I was all smiles. But this is where things started bothering me. I am not sure what we did or who we offended but somehow we always seem to be called last for every line. The cruise director came into the lounge and started calling numbers for people to board the bus and went through the all of deck five including the stateroom numbers on both sides of ours without mentioning ours. Then she did half of deck six. Then we were finally called in the next to last group. This played out poorly a little later on.
Since this was the first ship back post-pandemic the crew led by our gung-ho hotel director was really trying to celebrate the reopening. I totally get that. But that meant they wanted each of the Zodiacs to arrive by itself so the 12 or so people on board could be escorted into this hallway on deck 3 where they blew horns and danced and chanted about how happy they were to have guests back on board. If it had been any other circumstances, I would have thought it was great but to make sure that each Zodiac had group had a separate welcome, they delayed each one out in the water for almost 40 minutes.
What should have been a five minute ride to the ship (we were even told it would take about five minutes—we could see the ship) turned into a thirty+ minute ride. We were not prepared for that. No sunscreen, no hats, no water. They did try and make it interesting by taking us near the coast where we could see some of the local birds (pelicans, blue-footed boobies and a few others) but the entire time we were baking in the sun. I personally was totally frustrated because here we were seeing all these great birds and my camera was in my camera bag and I could not get to it. I had my phone with me but the photos I got with it did NOT make me happy at all.
After baking in the sun for all that time we finally got on board the ship around 4:00 and went through the welcome by the crew, were able to pick our carry-ons back up (they had been sprayed with disinfectant) and then the scheduling started. I tried to find a way to describe it but I think it is better to just show you the schedule and then give you some details. I should also say that this schedule is not printed anyplace on paper. If you don’t have a phone/tablet/laptop, you are out of luck. Again, another COVID thing? Not sure. Here’s the schedule for day one.
Let’s start with the first item. Because we were driven around baking in the hot sun on the Zodiac for almost 40 minutes (we knew this was what was occurring because our Zodiac driver kept radioing the ship to ask if he could bring us on board) we didn’t arrive in time to get anything to eat. So at this point it was the snack they gave us on the plane that was going to hold us until dinner which was supposed to be at 7:15.
As you can see there was a “mandatory meeting” at 5:00. So between when we finally got on board and got to our stateroom it was almost 4:20. In that time between getting on board and the meeting at 5:00 pm we are supposed to do the following: 1) Go to our stateroom, get settled and meet our stateroom attendant so they could explain how the room amenities work (we still have not met that person as of Monday morning). 2) Go to deck seven to attend the new post-COVID muster drill where we sat at a table with a naturalist (just the two of us) and had our life jackets explained to us. 3) Then go back to the stateroom and unpack and sometime before 5:00 find time to get something to eat. I have a video tour of the stateroom but I will have to publish it later. My laptop battery is almost gone.
We were able to do most of that (other than eat) by 5:00 but just barely. So at 5:00 pm when the “mandatory” meeting was supposed to take place we are sitting in the Discovery Lounge ready to hear all the important stuff they needed to tell us. Strangely enough, we were sitting there alone. People started straggling in about 5:10 or so and the actual meeting we were there for did not start until pretty close to 5:30.
As you can see from the schedule this meeting was supposed to transition (in the same place) into a “snorkel safety briefing,” and it did. Then our hotel director (a very nice and well meaning guy) had another surprise planned for everyone. We stopped the meeting and went up to deck seven (top deck) so that we could sail away from where Flora had been anchored. The other Celebrity ship in the Galapagos (Expedition‚ which is not sailing yet) was off our port side and many of her crew were standing outside waving to us while the ship’s horn went off and the crew on the Expedition shot some water in the air from hoses on their back deck.
After that it was time to distribute the snorkeling gear so we went back to our stateroom to wait for them to call us down to pick it up. Again, we are one of the last staterooms called. But eventually I did go down and get my wetsuit, snorkel, mask, flippers and small life vest. You get to leave much of this stuff (other than the snorkel and mask) in a big mesh bag near where you get on the Zodiacs so that’s a good thing. Kathleen has decided that she is not going to attempt snorkeling so she didn’t get any gear. I am still not sure I want to snorkel either but I thought I better get the gear anyway, just in case. More about that tomorrow.
This might be a good place for me to talk about logistics. I like to be organized when I travel. I like things to be planned. When I don’t know how something is going to go, I worry. Right now I am sitting here typing this and I am worried about what is going to happen at 8:45 am this morning. I guess I will find out (and I did…it went fine).
Hopefully I will feel better about this after I have done it and things will just come together but I am not at this point holding out a lot of hope. You will have to come back later or tomorrow to see how I manage all of this. I know I will be surprised. Of course the way I am feeling right now, I may not go at all.
Back to the schedule. After I got my snorkel gear squared away, it was 7:05 so we had missed the Captain’s Welcome Aboard Toast but we still needed to get to the excursion briefing. These briefings take place every evening. The cruise director (who is also a naturalist) explains what excursions are available the next day, their degree of difficulty and what we can expect to see. Then when she is done, you see one of the other naturalists and sign up for the ones you want to do. You sign up for one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Here is tomorrow’s schedule:
We have chosen to do Option 3 in the morning and in the afternoon Kathleen is doing Option 2 and I am doing Option 1.
So we again, since it is 7:05, think we are late (unavoidable since we weren’t called to get snorkel gear until 6:45). But we get to the Discovery Lounge to find we are almost alone again. There is an entertainer playing an out-of-tune piano loudly so we sit down to wait. Lo and behold we find out that we have not missed the Captain’s Toast…it still hasn’t happened yet. It is now around 7:20. They start the toasting. The captain (a very nice fellow) makes a nice toast and attempts to get us all to do the wave with our glasses held high. I am hungry, tired and have a headache and I am not in the mood. I just want to get this over with and eat dinner and go to bed. But no! Not only is the captain making a toast so is someone from corporate and so is the hotel director who tells us a long story which at any other time I would probably been moved by. Right then, I just wanted to be moved along.
Finally at around 7:40 we get to the briefing. The cruise director does an excellent job and we find out all about what we will be doing the next day (yesterday). We then get in line and sign up for what we want to do and finally it is time for dinner. At 8:00 pm (approximately). The last time we ate anything at this point is on the plane around noon. At home I have dinner ready at 5:00 and I can be adaptable but this is just too much.
We have dinner in the dining room (all that is available tonight). It seems very strange to sit in a ship’s dining room in shorts and sandals but that’s what we do. Most of the people there are similarly dressed but some have gone and changed. Where they are getting the clothes from is beyond me with the limitations of weight imposed for the flight from Quito to Baltra.
We sit at a socially distanced table for four (there were six chairs–more about the COVID restrictions later on) with a very nice couple (John and Laura) from Southern California. The service and food are Celebrity good (really excellent) but there are again problems with some things. No paper menus. Just like your favorite takeout joints at home, you scan a QR code with your phone. Only problem with that is we had four people at the table and I was the only one with a phone that had set up their internet account (free WiFi which you had to have to access the menu) so we had to pass my phone around. And to be honest even though I have a pretty decent phone, I have a really hard time reading menus and schedules on that size screen, even with my reading glasses on. All this does mean that I can post the URL links to the menus and you can see them.
I ordered a shrimp ceviche with avocado that was superb. My main course was listed as seafood rice but it was really seafood risotto. Lots of shrimp but no octopus (even though it was in the description). I wish I had taken a photo of it because it was beautiful but I just plain forgot. Kathleen had a beet salad and an excellent Ecuadorian chicken dish. We both had Ecuadorian wine (she had white, I had red) and both wines were excellent. Dessert was a “buffet” of red, white and blue things because it was Independence Day. They had cupcakes and donuts and pies and ice cream, all decorated in red, white and blue. When I say it was a buffet, I mean that you could look at it but then you told your server what you wanted and they brought it to your table. Another COVID thing.
It’s almost time to go back to the stateroom and wake Kathleen and get started on what I hope will be a better day but I am not sure. So I will add a few pics at the top and see you tomorrow. Hopefully feeling better and with some amazing flora and fauna shots.
PS: Kathleen normally proofs these but she only got through half of this so I want to get this online so I am going to go with it as is. Please excuse any typos or grammatical errors. One should never proof and edit their own work. More photos tomorrow. I promise.
I’m a perfect example of the grumpy, old man. I’m really good at it. –Ned Beatty
This episode of Jim & Kathleen’s Food Experiences will conclude the lunch portion of our show 😀. I am going all the way back to our very first international trip in 2002 for these two but they must be special if they stand out almost 20 years later.
Lunch in Venice—Eating with locals
It was November and we were ready to head to Italy, the home of half my ancestors. We had stops planned in Venice, Florence, Rome and Sicily. What the Italians call the “Golden Triangle” (plus Sicily where my family is from). Our first stop was Venice and it is there we learned a valuable lesson about eating in a foreign country—find where the locals eat AND then eat there.
We had spent the morning taking the vaporetto (if you haven’t been to Venice, that’s kind of a water bus) to the separate islands of Murano (where they make some really cool glass) and Burano (where they have some amazing and brightly colored houses I wanted to take capture photographically). Between walking around on both islands and the vaporetto ride to each of them, we didn’t get back to the main part of Venice until it was well into the middle of the afternoon and by then we were STARVING! Italians don’t do big breakfasts. Our typical breakfast in Italy was a croissant and coffee, maybe with some cheese or Nutella and some of the best coffee I have ever tasted. No eggs and bacon there. So when I say we were starving and it was 2:30 pm and we were STARVING.
Now the trouble was finding a restaurant that was open and that we would be able to get a decent meal in. Luckily for us, the vaporetto from the islands docks on the far side of Venice so you don’t get off (or at least you didn’t then) right into the touristy spots. If it had, we might never have had this experience.
Wandering around looking for someplace to eat we passed a bunch of places that had already closed. There were also small stand up bars where we could have gotten a small sandwich but we were looking for more than that. Luckily we almost got lost going down a small street (you can easily get lost in Venice) and saw a restaurant that looked open. When we looked inside the place was good sized but it was empty except for…about 20 gondoliers having lunch. We looked at each other and decided if this was where the gondoliers ate their lunch, it must be wonderful. And it was. We had not yet had an Italian specialty—spaghetti carbonara. If you have never had it think really great spaghetti with bacon, eggs and cheese. I have had it since then a few times but nothing can compare with that day. Of course looking back on the experience I often wonder if the carbonara was that good or if we were that hungry or if it was the entire experience of eating it in Venice in a restaurant with twenty very noisy gondoliers.
Lunch in Sicily—meeting Vito
About a week later we were exploring Sicily’s mountain towns looking for the final resting place of my great-grandfather in Corleone. Yes, my grandfather’s family comes from a town with the same name as The Godfather’s family. It was a Monday. If you have not been to Italy, finding almost anything open on a Monday is very difficult. This is especially true of restaurants.
We had risen early in our hotel in Monreale (just above Palermo) and headed into the Sicilian hills—a phenomenal drive as you pass walls and hill towns as old as the Roman Empire or the Moorish invasion. We found Corleone and headed to the cemetery where we not only found my great-grandfather’s grave but a man who claimed he could be my cousin who worked at the cemetery. By this time it was again about 2:00 and we wanted to find a place to eat lunch. Nothing was open in Corleone so we started heading back to the coast.
We passed through two or three small villages with nothing open. We were getting really hungry at that point. Plus, we really wanted to find someplace where someone spoke at least a little English so we could kind of know what we were ordering. All of a sudden we turned the corner into the tiny village of Masseri d’Amari and saw a big sign that said “Trattoria—Open!” By that time we didn’t care if they spoke English or not, we just wanted food.
When we got inside there was a HUGE seafood buffet all along one wall, a fairly empty dining room and two servers. One approached us and we asked if he spoke English. He didn’t and neither did the other. Since the buffet was all seafood we needed to know which dishes had no shellfish as Kathleen is allergic. We were about to abandon the place when in walked a huge man wearing all black with gold chains around his neck hanging down into a shirt that was unbuttoned fairly far down and showing a LOT of chest hair. Think Tony Soprano with a bunch of dark, black hair on his head. He saw us and walked over and said, “Hello, I am Vito. Can I help you out at all? I am visiting from New Jersey.” Seriously? We were in a tiny hill town in Sicily and we meet a Tony Soprano type guy with the name of Vito?
He was incredibly nice, told us what had and didn’t have shellfish in it and we grabbed a couple of plates from the buffet. After we had sat down at our table, Vito came over and asked if he could join us. We were thrilled to be able to talk to someone who spoke English and might know something about the part of Sicily we were in. As it turns out Vito knew a lot about that part of Sicily. He had grown up there. In fact, his family owned the restaurant we were in as well as most of the other businesses in town. We also found out that he spent about half the year in Sicily working on the family business and half the year in New Jersey. We asked him what he did in New Jersey and he REALLY said, “I work in waste management.” Unbelievable and kind of hilarious all the same time.
We had had a lovely lunch with Vito (who didn’t eat but just joined us to talk and order us the largest bottle of coke we had ever seen). When we were done we were both pretty full but Vito said, “You must have a cannoli. They are the best you will ever eat. The milk we made the cheese from was in the goat this morning.” We couldn’t pass that up so we said, “maybe just one.” Vito ordered and in about five minutes the server came out with two of the largest cannolis we still ever seen. They must have been at least six inches long and about an inch around and they were delicious!
That just about concluded our lunch experience except that when it was time to pay, there was no check. Now getting a check in Italy is pretty hard most of the time. The restaurants really don’t want you to leave. Seriously. It can often take 15 to 20 minutes after dessert is over to get the bill. But this time, there was no bill. I finally (after waiting a little while) asked Vito (since his family owned the place) if he could ask for it for us as we had to get on our way. He just reached down below the table and motioned with his hand so I could see it while saying, “Do you have 10 Euro? Just give it to me.” Far be it from me to turn down an amazing price on lunch or to not do exactly what this man told us to do 😀. And even after that, Vito insisted on walking us to our car and on the way introducing us to his brother who owned the local car dealership. It was a crazy day and we felt like we had found the true Sicily starting with Corleone and ending with Vito from New Jersey.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch. —Milton Friedman
Been severely tardy getting a post out lately but blame my daughter. For now I only have a finite amount of time for writing and for my birthday in December, my daughter gave me a one year subscription to StoryWorth. It is a very cool website that sends me a question to write about every week for one year. These are questions about me. For instance, since the first of the year I have written about what vacations were like when I was a kid, what my grandparents were like, something in my life that really surprised me, etc. At the end of the year they will print a book of everything I have written for my grandkids to know more about their grandpa. Kind of a history of me and my family. So each week I have been writing about my favorite topic, me 😜 and neglecting this blog.
Which brings us to another episode of Jim & Kathleen’s favorite food experiences. This time it comes with a big endorsement of the Seattle Area’s greatest travel expert, Rick Steves. If you love travel like we do, you have undoubtedly heard of Rick. When we decide to go someplace in Europe, we read Rick’s book about the city or country first. When we first started going to Europe we carried the books with us. Now we get them on Kindle so we have them on our phones. You can even download guided tours to use on your phones as well.
Lunch in Versailles
Don’t get me wrong. We don’t just follow Rick’s advice 100% of the time. For instance, we don’t always agree with Rick on lodging. Rick will stay in hotels with shared bathrooms—we won’t. We are just too old for that 😜. But when it comes to sightseeing, Rick gets it. If you ever decide to tour the great art museums of Europe, you would be crazy to do it without a copy of Rick’s book, “Mona Winks.” We have used it in the Sistine Chapel, the Louvre, the Ufzizi and others. He even puts a note in the book that you should tear out the chapter and carry it with you into a particular museum because the book is too big and heavy to lug around. And then when you get home, you send him the chapters you tore out and he sends you a new book. Pretty cool!
Rick also “gets” food. At least the kind of food we like. Food that is all about the region we are visiting. In that respect Rick is responsible for two of our very memorable food experiences, both at lunchtime, one in France and one in Italy.
Let’s start with France because that food experience happened first. We were on our second trip to Europe, on a two week ground trip that started with six nights in London, three nights in Scotland and five nights in Paris. While we were in Paris we did all the touristy things, the Louvre, Montmartre, Notre Dame and other Parisian must-see spots. One thing we wanted to do was take the train to Versailles to tour the palace and the grounds.
The palace is amazing. (That’s Kathleen at right, inside the Hall of Mirrors.) But when we went to see the grounds, it was FREEZING! It was a really cold day in November and we saw a little of the gardens before we decided we had to find some place warm to get lunch. We went into the village of Versailles and looked around and we were about to succumb to one of the touristy spots selling the touristy kind of “French food” you would expect to find in a tourist village. But these places looked cheesy and they had people standing at their doors trying to get people to come in and eat. Not an optimum experience.
We suddenly realized that the Rick Steve’s guide we had with us not only had a section about the palace and gardens (that we had used to tour those places) but recommendations for where to eat. We knew that Rick would never steer us wrong on food so we looked up the downtown village of Versailles and he gave a strong recommendation to a tiny place (whose name I can’t remember—this was in 2003) on the main square of the town. The biggest endorsement was…this is where the locals eat. So off we went and had a culinary and cultural adventure.
When we walked in the door, the smells were amazing but the place was JAMMED! In fact there were only two chairs left open—right in the middle of a long communal table. Each side of the table must have seated 20 people and the two chairs were across from one another just about in the middle of the table. We looked at each other and thought, “What the heck!.” We were cold and starving and this place was warm and the food smelled amazing. I don’t remember exactly what we had but I do remember it was awesome. And the people on either side of us were very friendly. It was a wonderful lunch.
Lunch in Sienna
Six years later we were on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean and we had docked in Livorno which is the port for Florence. Since we had been to Florence before we decided to hire a guide and head to the hill town of Sienna. We consulted our buddy Mike, the god of shore excursions and he hooked us up with a driver and guide named Marco that he had used before and really liked. So we were really looking forward to an awesome day. We had prevailed upon some of our Cruise Critic roll call friends to join us as well.
We should have known that there would be a problem when Marco did not meet us but instead we were met by Francisco. Marco was supposed to be taking us himself as we had been told he spoke excellent English and lived in Sienna. Francisco, although a very nice man, barely spoke English and with me sitting with him in the front seat trying to translate, we headed off to Sienna.
We still had hopes that we would be met by Marco once we reached Sienna but that was not to be. After the two hour drive (during which Francisco got lost twice), upon entering Sienna, Francisco drove up a one way street in the wrong direction and when a car came down the other way, he had to back up almost all the way out of the city. He then hollered out the window, “Excuse me, how do I get to the Duomo?” But the real kicker came when we arrived in Sienna and Francisco told us he would meet us to take us back to the ship at 3:30, handed me a copy of Rick Steve’s Tuscany and said Ciao!
We were astounded. We had contracted for a guided tour of Sienna and we got a car and driver who barely spoke English and who got lost both coming and going. But we made the most of it. We grabbed the Rick Steve’s book and walked the city.
No one else in the group wanted Rick’s book so Kathleen and I took it and headed out to see Sienna.
All in all it was great day as the rain stopped and the city and its Duomo were a truly amazing sight. The Duomo has incredible etched and painted floors that are kept covered for most of the year. But at the end of August each year, they are uncovered for only two months. We arrived six days before they were to be recovered so we got to see what many never do in Sienna.
We had a great time following all Rick’s advice about what to see…but then lunch rolled around and we knew we would be OK because we had Rick along. Sure enough, we opened the guide and found a wonderful little restaurant below ground level that we never would have seen just walking around. Not only was it gorgeously decorated but the food was amazing. I think the best way to describe the experience is that it was unexpected on a lousy day. Again, I can’t remember what I had but I know one of the best things that happened on that entire trip was that lunch.
Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch. —Orson Welles
After what seemed like a very short night we sailed down an incredible fjord into Akureyri, Iceland’s most important northern city. It’s small town (a population of only around 27,000) but it is the gateway to some pretty amazing natural wonders. The day started with beautiful weather and the sail-in made for some great photos.
I almost forgot to mention that before we got to Akureyri the captain of Reflection decided to make us all what my friend Bob (a long-time Navy guy) calls “Bluenose Sailors” which I am sure means we have been inside the Arctic Circle. He sailed the entire ship north of where he needed to so we could say we had been inside the Arctic Circle. What a guy! We even got a certificate. Kind of the like the one we got when we crossed the Equator many years ago on our SouthEast Asia cruise.
Sailing into Akureyri takes you up a long fjord that has amazing views
Then we saw whales
And more whales
You know how I love pilot boats
Along Eyjafjörður fjord
Goodbye pilot boat
Our first glimpse of Akureyri
A beautiful waterfall
We were met by our guide Auðun of No.17 Tours. He had been recommended by the god of shore excursions, my buddy Mike Preisman. Mike had used the services of Auðun a few years ago on their Icelandic cruise and had spoken highly of him. He was right. I should point out that Auðun told us his company used to be Taxi 17 because when it wasn’t touring season, he would drive a taxi but now the government says he is too old to do that. He can drive a bus, a truck and a tour van but at 76 he can’t drive a taxi. Who would have thought. He is an amazing guy who really knew the area he was showing us. Plus he had some great stories from his 27 years as the skipper of a fishing trawler.
We set out a little earlier in Akureyri as the ship was docked and let us off by 10:30. Auðun was ready for us and we were off to see the northern waterfalls, stand with both my feet in different continents and see some other amazing geological wonders as well as two versions of the Blue Lagoon. And we finally got to see puffins. We had missed them before on previous trips to places where they live but this time we got to see a bunch. Check out the photos for all the sights we saw.
Even though we had gone out earlier than we had in Reykjavik, the weather had turned both cold and gray and by the time we had seen the puffins and the waterfalls, we were wiped out so we asked Auðun to just head us home and we were off to the ship were we pretty much caught a late dinner and collapsed. But we did have a super day and the Icelandic landscape is even more amazing up north.
The brand new 9K tunnel that saved us more than 20 minutes more than the tours used to take.
Sorry, I just couldn’t stop taking pics of Godafoss
On the way to the Lake Myvatn area
These two mountains stand next to each other, one peaked and one with a flat top
Couldn’t resist this shot
Dimmuborgir an area of lava
Dimmuborgir an area of lava
The right side of this photo is in North America, the left in Europe. I stood with my foot on each one.
A smaller and cleaner northern version of the Blue Lagoon
Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe
The other end of Dettifoss
A very cool horseshoe falls
Puffins on the northern coast
And more puffins
Northern Coast house
One more Blue Lagoon wanna be, the best yet!
I still don’t know why, exactly, but I do think people can have a spiritual connection to landscape, and I certainly did in Iceland. —Hannah Kent
Most everyone else in our party slept in a little bit after getting back at almost midnight from our Golden Circle tour with Birkir. I on the other hand, love it when a ship overnights in a port so that I can get up early the next day and walk through the city. (One of my best photo walks ever was in Québec last October when we overnighted on Summit). More and more cruise lines are doing this (overnighting in cities) and you can get off and on whenever you want all night long. This was a good day to do that but I really missed that early morning golden light I had when we were in Edinburgh and Dublin.
I got up at 5:00 am and headed out to walk the seaside walkway into downtown Reykjavik but the light outside was already like 10:30 in the morning as you can see from my pics. I got some decent stuff and then headed back to the ship to shower and meet Kathleen and others in our group to take a taxi back into downtown to see some more of the city. My pics and their captions will pretty much tell the tale on that. Don’t forget to click on the first one and view them as a slide show. And if you want to see more, check them out on Flickr by clicking here.
We were back on the ship by 2:00 pm and Reflection set sail for Akureyri at 3:00. It was a pretty great day considering how little sleep was involved. Thursday, I will post all about our travels in Akureyri, in the north. And we cross the Arctic Circle!
Hallgrímskirkja—this church dominates the Reykjavik skyline
Sun Voyager—Huge 1990 stainless-steel sculpture of a boat by Jón Gunnar Árnason, set on granite beside the sea.
Reykjavik’s version of the bridge in Paris
The green lock kind of drew my lens like a magnet
Harpa Concert Hall
Noticed this ship coming in. Not sure what it was.
Turned out to be a small cruise ship. We met some people who were onboard later at coffee.
Sun Voyager from a different angle
A sculpture along the walkway. Looked different on every side
See what I mean?
Viking Sky coming into the harbor. This is the ship that had the engine failiure earlier this year.
The Hofdi House built in 1909, the home of Icelandic poet Einar Benediktsson also hosted an iconic political summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbatsjov
The lupine was everywhere and in full bloom
The end of my walk. Almost back to the ship.
Out later with Kathleen saw this photo shoot in front of Hallgrímskirkja
Hallgrímskirkja up close
Inside Hallgrímskirkja we found a small chamber orchestra rehearsing
Inside Hallgrímskirkja Cassie and Jamie look at the ceiling of this magnificent church
Above the altar in Hallgrímskirkja
I love taking photos of artists as work.
Such great expressions
See what I mean
Outside of Hallgrímskirkja is this incredible statue of Leif Erickson
Kathleen found a friend. Hey, I have to take these tourist photos once in a while.
Great street decoration
This is a real place. Seriously.
I never did find out who these statues represent.
A closeup of Harpa Concert Hall to end our stay. We went inside but the photos didn’t come out as well as I would have liked.
This is a picture I took yesterday because I found these (photo above) when I was looking for something else that I wanted to take with us tomorrow when we fly to Edinburgh. What you are seeing is the SeaPass card (combo room key and onboard credit card for you non-cruisers) from every cruise we have ever taken (except the one on Carnival we don’t tell anyone about). Starting in the upper left with our first Alaskan cruise on the old Holland America Westerdam in 2000 all the way through out Fall Foliage cruise last October on Celebrity’s Summit. Those SeaPass cards represent a lot of great times with a lot of great people.
The trip we leave on tomorrow will include our 26th cruise. Not as many as many of our friends (including our buddy Seth who has taken more than 65 cruises) but we think it’s pretty good. This time we will be adding a SeaPass card from Celebrity’s Reflection headed from Dublin to Belfast, on to two ports in Iceland and then back to Cork and Dublin Ireland before we fly home. Before we ever get to the cruise we will be staying five nights in Edinburgh, six nights with our fellow Martini Mates, Paul and Gail in the Yorkshire region of England and then three nights pre-cruise in Dublin,. Lots of travel and that’s just how we like it.
We invite you to join us as I will try my best to (and since I won’t spend my entire days driving like I did in Arizona) post some pics and notes every day we are on the road. So come back here often and let us know what you think by commenting.
Enthusiasm is excitement with inspiration, motivation, and a pinch of creativity.
Since I started writing on these pages last month I have had a few people ask me if we are all about cruising. They want to know if we just help clients plan cruises. Nothing could be further from the truth. We at Expedia are a full-service travel agency. On our door is the slogan, “We plan, you pack.” We do have cruise ship in our name and Kathleen and I do take a lot of cruises but we have traveled on land in Europe and all over the USA. Plus, with most of our cruises we usually spend quite a few days either before or after the cruise exploring the city or region we are leaving from on the cruise we are taking.
For instance, we are doing an 11-day cruise from Dublin, Ireland to other ports in Ireland and spending four days in Iceland. But before we get on Celebrity’s Reflection, we will spend four days in Edinburgh, almost a week in Leeds, England visiting good friends and three days in Dublin before we embark. So when a client comes in and doesn’t want a cruise but does want a land trip, we can do it all. We can book you with a tour company who will take you everywhere in the country or region you have in mind. Or I can plan an entire trip just for you.
Last year I had two clients who came in during the spring asking me to help them plan a European trip for their families last summer. One wanted a four country tour with a cruise to the Greek Isles right in the middle of the land visits. The other asked for an eight city, 34-day tour by train, plane, rail and automobile. We arranged flights, rail tickets, hotels, dinner reservations, day trips and guided tours all over Europe. If you would like to see the entire tour, you can click here. It even has pictures and lots of great places you can visit if you are in any of these cities.
If this is the kind of vacation you are looking for, we’re the people to talk to. I love planning stuff like this. BTW: This is not the kind of plan you are going to get from an online or big box travel agency where you talk to a different person every time you call. And believe me, this planning took about two months and countless e-mails, phone calls and texts getting things reserved and set up. For me, it was just fun. For the clients it was a great time…at least that’s what they told me when they got back.
Traveling expands the mind rarely. —Hans Christian Andersen
One of the other travel consultants at our agency sent out a note yesterday that I just want to pass on in a very short post today. This is a message from TSA that came our way yesterday:
Beginning on Jan 22, 2019, TSA will enforce the federally-mandated REAL ID requirements on all domestic travel. For details by state, visit https://www.dhs.gov/real-id .
I should warn you that the website this sends you to to is down until after the government shutdown is over but the big news is that after January 22, you won’t be able to use your plain vanilla driver’s license to board an airplane in the USA. But that’s OK because hey folks, it’s time to plan for future world travel and get a passport.
Now I will admit that I did not have a passport until I was almost 50 years old but since then I have been making a really good effort to fill them up (on my second one–they last 10 years) with visa stamps from all over the world. Been making up for lost time.
So if you are even thinking about getting on a plane anywhere in the USA after January 22 you will need a “Real ID” enhanced driver’s license (and not every state offers those) to be able to board. Washington offers them but you have to ask for them and pay a little extra. At least that was the case the last time I checked. But the real message is, get a passport.