Beautiful Barcelona

After our fun ride in from Tarragona and our lunch at La Rita, we got a decent night’s sleep on the first bed I had been comfortable on in 21 days. The next morning all six of us had been scheduled to do a 5-hour tour of the city, and the Gaudi highlights with Olga from Tours By Locals. Sadly, my brother had eaten something that did not agree with him so he and Jamie stayed at the hotel, and the rest of us set off for what was to be an outstanding tour. It was outstanding, primarily because of the excellent Olga.

I know I have mentioned Tours By Locals before, as we used two of their guides previously on this trip, Hans in Amsterdam and George in Athens. Both of them were great. I have used them on many occasions, but Olga may have been the best guide they have ever sent our way. To start with, she was 10 minutes early. I love early. I got a call from the lobby saying that our guide was there. As soon as Pam and Dave were downstairs, Olga’s driver pulled up in a wonderfully spacious Mercedes van. It was so GREAT not to be stuck in a “luxury motor coach.”

Kathleen and I with Olga on the roof of Casa Mila.

When I first contacted Tours By Locals a month previous, it had been hard finding a guide that either wasn’t already booked or could accommodate some of the things we wanted to do because of the festival going on for the entire time we were in the city. On the other hand, Olga was completely willing to work with me on setting up a tour that would incorporate the best of Barcelona. That’s what I love about Tours By Locals; the guides will work with you to see the things you want to see. When you go to Barcelona, some of the things most people want to see are the works of revolutionary Antoni Gaudi, the most famous of which is La Sagrada Familia. We knew upfront that the church would be completely closed to anyone but locals, so seeing the inside was not an option. Olga made suggestions of things we could see that would be a good alternative, and I liked them all. We decided to do Gaudi’s Casa Mila, Park Güell, see the outside of the La Sagrada Familia and then tour the old town. Olga said she would try and throw in some surprises along the way.

La Pedrera—Casa Mila)

When Kathleen and I were here in 2007, we toured the beautiful La Pedera—Casa Mila building. The building is an entire block made up of two condominiums totally designed by Antoni Gaudi (who designed La Sagrada Familia) as well as many other one-of-a-kind buildings throughout Barcelona. We wanted to see it again and make sure that the rest of the group also got to see it. Kathleen had no problem touring this building in 2007 and thought she could still do it because when you did the tour, you took the elevator to the top of the building. And then you walked down and did the tour on the way.

Olga told us that this had changed since we were there last (what hadn’t 😜?) and that now you walked UP the stairs and then exited by way of the elevator. This just wasn’t going to work for us. So Olga jumped into action as soon as we got there, and in no time, Kathleen and I were going up the original apartment elevator (not open to anyone but employees) to the top floor to start our tour down. I wish I had taken a photo because it was one elegant elevator. It even had a Gaudi-designed, hand-carved wooden bench that Kathleen got to sit on while we went up. This is what makes local guides so good. They know the people to talk to (because Olga toured there constantly), and they know what can and can’t be done with the right request. We were blown away.

We had an awesome time touring the building. I am going to let the photos and the captions tell you the rest of the story. 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…

Park Güell

Our second stop on the tour was the beautiful Park Güell. This is another of Gaudi’s masterpieces that was originally built out in the country north of Barcelona, but over the years, the city has grown to swallow it up, and it is now almost in the city center. There is so much to see there, but I will just let you see it in my photos. Enjoy.

La Sagrada Família

Even though this incredible church was closed to non-locals due to the current festival, Olga wanted us to see it close up from the outside so she could explain the building and the significance of the art on the outside. You can’t believe the art on the outside of La Sagrada Família. Maybe you will have you see my photos. If you get bored with all the closeups, please feel free to jump out, but I did pair this down from more than 200 photos. 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 old city of Barcelona

Our next stop after the incredible La Sagrada Família was to head downtown (in HORRIBLE TRAFFIC) to the oldest parts of Barcelona. We walked by the original cathedral, which dates to the 13th century, while Olga pointed out a lot of truly remarkable sights. We saw a piece of art by Pablo Picasso that he drew with his usual minimalist style.

About this time, we were starving. So Olga recommended we try pintxos. If you have never been to a pintxos restaurant, it is almost worth a trip to Barcelona just to try it. Olga took us to her favorite place, Bilbao Berria Barcelona. Pintxos are topping of every kind placed on slices of awesome bread, and they put different colors and styles of sticks into the stack. The stack includes either cold or hot toppings. Hot ones might include melted cheese, roasted tomatoes, sausages, and serrano ham and the cold ones include cheeses, veggies, and so much more. There are even dessert pintxos. These are all set up on a number of buffet tables, and you choose what you want. Then after you eat them, you put the stick into a small metal container on the table, and when you are done, they count the sticks (different prices for different colors) and give you your check. Five of us ate a BUNCH of these, and the total bill was less than $80 and that included a bottle of wonderful Catalan wine. An amazing value, and every one of them is delicious. Here are some pictures from this part of the tour.

After lunch, we walked from the cathedral campo towards another campo where Olga was hoping she had a surprise for us, and she did. Hopefully, you remember a couple of posts ago when I wrote about the human pyramid building contests in Tarragona. Sadly, I could not see any of the actual pyramid building itself when we were there. I only got to take photos of the parade before the competition, which got rained out.

But when we walked around the corner in Barcelona, there it was, a castella (the Spanish name for the human pyramids) right in front of us. We got to watch this team (who were doing a demo, not a competition) build a three-story high human pyramid. Just look. It’s amazing.

A walk on my own

After watching the amazing human pyramids being built, our tour time was over. Olga had released our driver when it got to five hours, but she stayed with us to walk the other Kathleen, Dave and Pam to Las Ramblas to grab a cab and walked with me as I headed back to the hotel about four miles away. I wanted a few more photos to show you the huge crowds and incredible craziness that is Las Ramblas, the main tourist street in Barcelona. Here’s my last set of pics for Barcelona. 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…

That about did it for our day in Barcelona. It so far exceeded my expectations and gave us a wonderful end to this incredible 29-day adventure that had started in August in Amsterdam. I guess you could say that when it comes to European cities, we went from A to B on this trip. I have one more trip-related post for you. Hopefully, I will have it up by tomorrow. It will be my review of the entire cruise and what we loved and didn’t love on Viking Sky. Then after that, I promised a post on how I shoot my photos. I so appreciate all the comments I have gotten on them. They are my pride and joy. If you want to see more of my pics, please follow me on Instagram (jimbellomo13) or Facebook (Jim Bellomo) where I post a single travel photo every day. Just one. Or you can see a lot of my photography that I sell here on my Picfair site.

Barcelona is my life, and I do not plan to leave.   —Gerard Pique

The Best Day of the Entire Trip—Cinque Terre


The day after we took our day off in Rome was absolutely the best day of the whole trip from Amsterdam to Athens to that day. The ship was docked in Livorno, Italy, which is the port for Florence. And about 95% of the passengers on board were headed to either Florence itself or the Tuscan countryside and Pisa to see the Leaning Tower. We, on the other hand, had decided to do our own thing.

As I said about Rome in my last post, you can’t see Rome in one day. I also believe you can’t do justice to Florence in one day. If you really want to see the Uffizi or the Academia, you need half a day in each. That leaves no time for the Duomo, the baptistery, the Ponte Vecchio, or so much more that is Firenze. Besides, we had been there before. So we opted out. But sadly, that was the only place that Viking was offering tours to. So we created our own.

About three months before the cruise, I started looking for someplace else to see in the general area of Livorno that we had not seen. We had never seen the Leaning Tower and the rest of Pisa, but that was a two-hour tour, and we would be in Livorno for two days and would see that on the second day. So where to go? I searched maps and Cruise Critic for ideas, and in doing that, I looked up the coast, and lo and behold—Cinque Terre. We had heard so much about it but had never been there, and we really wanted to see it, but for some reason, Viking does not do any tours in that direction (although it took us the same amount of time to get there as it did to get into Florence). That meant I had to find us a tour. So off I went to Google, and the first tour that popped up was a “Tour to Cinque Terre from the Port of Livorno” by BellaItalia Tours. That sounded like just what we were looking for, so I contacted them.

Like most tours, this had one price—the price of the tour. Actually, there were two possibilities—a tour with a driver who got you there and got you off on your way into the first “land” and then picked you up and took you back to the ship after you finished touring everything. The other option was a driver AND a guide. The driver got you there, but the guide accompanied you throughout the day from village to village telling us all about them on the way. We wanted to do this because we were looking for someone to walk us through the entire thing.

If you got the driver and the guide, the price was just about 800 euros for two people. But if you could find more to join you, the price went down because you were paying for the car, driver and guide no matter what. Up to 8 people could come along. To find someone else to join us (the other four in our party had never been to Florence, so they were going there), I went on Cruise Critic to our roll call (click here if you need Cruise Critic and Roll Calls explained) and found Corky and Larry from Maui who said they would love to join us. This meant our price was basically cut in half. And not only did that make this tour a bargain, but we made two great friends in the process.

As soon as the ship had been cleared by the port authorities, we were off and looking for my name on a placard being held by our guide, the amazing and hilarious Luigi. And he and our driver (Alessandro) were waiting right where they said they would be, we jumped in their Mercedes van, and we were off. What joy it was to ride in a van and not a “luxury motor coach.” It meant that there were two of us to a seat, with plenty of legroom and Luigi giving us non-stop play-by-play as we drove along.

On the way, we got to see some things we hadn’t expected, like the famous marble mountains of Carrara. I suppose if I had thought about it, I would have realized that the Carrara marble that makes up so many buildings in the Mediterannean or our very own tile floors at home comes from a huge mountain of marble. The mountains are magnificent to look at, as you can see in this small gallery. 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…

A little while after passing through Carrara and some amazing hilltop towns on either side of the AutoStrada (Italian for freeway), we reached La Spezia, a coastal community that is the gateway to Cinque Terre. You climb far above it and that puts you about even with those hilltop towns, so here are some views from the hill above La Spezia and some hilltop towns we had seen between there and Carrara. Don’t forget; they can be viewed as a slide show.

As soon as you have seen La Spezia go by, you go over the hill, and you are looking down at the first of the five “lands” of Cinque Terre (literally translates to “five lands”), Riomaggiore. It’s a beautiful little village built into the side of a very steep hill. Alessandro dropped us off, and we walked down into the town itself. We would next see our illustrious driver at the other end of Cinque Terre. From this point on, our transport was the Cinque Terre ferry. Luigi led us down through the town, pointing things out to us as we went. We all took a much-needed restroom break and then met Luigi to board the ferry to move to the next land.

Luigi was a font of knowledge all about the region. We all learned a lot, especially that we should wait for the fourth village, Vernazza, to get gelato because they had the best, then have lunch at the end of the journey in Monterosso because they had the best food. We liked that—eat dessert first.

The second stop on our visit was to the village of Manarola, which might have been the most picturesque. The photo at the top of this post was taken there. Luigi was more than thrilled to help me find my shots because he said we had something in common. His real vocation in life was a guitarist, and he loved it. He told us it was “his art.” And he said photography was mine. I truly appreciated his interest, and from that point on (he had this conversation with Kathleen on the ferry while I was outside taking photos) he took me to what he thought would make great pictures…and he was right.

The ferry to the next of the five lands (actually four because the ferry does not stop in the middle land of Corniglia as there is no place for it to dock—it is only accessible by train) comes just about every hour, so once we landed in Manarola for instance; we had an hour to take photos and look around before we got back on the next ferry and left for Vernazza.

Vernazza was the village where we heard about the awesome gelato, and again, Luigi proved to be correct. He had advised me that if I truly wanted to try what the locals loved, I would have basil gelato (seen at right). So I did, and it was wonderful. Kathleen had lemon, and when we put the two together…perfection. Vernazza was a great village for photography, so again, I took more shots until the hour went by and we boarded the ferry for Monterosso.

Monterosso was the final village and is the most commercialized of the five. It has bigger hotels, sandy beaches, etc. It also has amazing food, and this was where Luigi said we should get lunch. He was all set to drop us at a restaurant to fend for ourselves when we insisted he join us for lunch—our treat, which he did. He said that like the gelato I had tasted, the people of the five lands believed their basil was better than any other basil in the world and therefore, their pesto sauce was the best anyplace—hands down. So, of course, we had to try it. The traditional pesto pasta is improved in Cinque Terre by the addition of potatoes and green beans to the mix. This came about when they started making pesto at a time when those things were plentiful, and the recipe stuck.

Besides the pesto, there was one more thing I wanted to try while we were having lunch. It is something that Rick Steves had mentioned in his Cinque Terre video—fresh anchovies. Rick said that if you come here and order them fresh, you would be amazed how little they would resemble the anchovies you see on a pizza or a caesar salad and he was right—almost. I ordered (with Luigi’s help) “Tris di acciughe del marinaio” or Lemon, salted and stuff anchovies. The salted looked very much like what we put on pizza but bigger. It tasted like you might think but much less salty. Luigi told me that this is what it should taste like when brined, but it is much saltier when we get it because it has sat for weeks in a can on its way to America.

Then there was the stuffed version, filled with some rice, some veggies and who knows what, but it was delicious. But the winner of the three was anchovies marinated in lemon juice and olive oil. I could eat those every day, all day long. Delicious.

After we finished lunch, we walked around Monterosso for a while longer before we walked up a hill (thankfully much less steep than the one we walked down in Riomaggiore) to the top of the village to be met by our faithful driver Alessandro and transported back to the ship. This was around a nine-hour trip from ship to ship, but I have to say I enjoyed every minute of it.

This brings me to the subject of shore excursions. One of the reasons Viking appealed to us was that they included a free shore excursion in every port. But we are just not sure if that is a selling point anymore. After our day in a van with a guide and being able to move at our own pace, we think if (probably when) sail with Viking Ocean again, we will book our own shore excursions again. We had pretty much always done that in the past until COVID came along, and you couldn’t book a lot of private excursions. Now you can again and we likely will. It is so much more personalized, and you meet incredible guides. We had done three tours on this entire trip with private guides (in Amsterdam with Hans and Athens with George), and those were the best tours. Far better than being put into a “luxury motor coach” with 26 other people and a guide who is just a monotonous voice in your “whisper headset.” This really hit home with us after touring all day with Luigi and Alessandro. Luigi became a part of our group. Just look at the photo at the top of this post. Don’t we look happy? Cinque Terre—what a day. And here are the photos from that day. 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…ESPECIALLY THESE!

It took us about 90 minutes to get back to the ship, but after the day we had, the time flew by. I truly hope I did a good job expressing my joy about this day and my gratitude to the amazing Luigi, who took such great care of us. I can’t recommend him more highly. If you decide to go, book with Bella Italia tours and ask for him specifically. You will not be sorry.

I think people in Italy live their lives better than we do. It’s an older country, and they’ve learned to celebrate dinner and lunch, whereas we sort of eat as quickly as we can to get through it. —George Clooney

 

Pizza and Piazzas in Napoli

For those who were worried because I missed a day, never fear. We were in Monaco yesterday and did an eight-hour excursion that had us wiped out by the time we got back, so we had dinner and slept. But I am back now with my short tail of pizza and Piazzas—a Napoli excursion.

We had initially decided to do this elective (as opposed to included) excursion because, being the pizza-crazy Italian-American that I am, I wanted to watch them make pizza in the home of pizza—Napoli. But first, the Piazzas.

Wait! I should mention that when I got up for my morning walk on deck 2, I was treated to an incredible display of lightning on the sea about (I am guessing now—using the old count, the time between the lightning and thunder) 20 miles behind us. Every time my walk would take me aft, I would see five or ten streak lightning bursts hit the sea behind us. As we were trying to get into port, the storm caught up to us. Luckily for me, I had finished my walk by then and was safely inside. The storm was pretty much very heavy rain by this time. But it also meant that the visibility was cut down so much that we could not get into the port. It wasn’t because we couldn’t see to get in by because the pilot boat could not bring us the pilot. So Viking Sky kind of went back and forth just outside the port until the pilot boat could come in and get us. Here are a couple of photos I took while I was waiting for us to be able to dock. 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 should mention here that when we eventually got into the harbor, we (Viking Sky) were moored very close to Wonder of the Seas, the largest cruise ship in the world. This Royal Caribbean behemoth made Sky look like a lifeboat. We have 9 decks; she has 18. We carry 928 passengers while she carries as many as 6,590. I didn’t notice a huge difference in how crowded the port was, but my brother, who went to Pompei (we had been there before), said the place was swamped with her passengers.

Before I tell you more about the pizza, I should tell you that Kathleen bowed out of this excursion. She still had not been sleeping well, and we were worried that the old stones of granite and marble that made up most of the walking surfaces in Naples would not be conducive to her not falling again as she had in San Francisco on our last trip and in Taormina on this one. So I was off on my own. The “luxury motor coach” picked us up just outside a flooded parking lot at the cruise terminal in Naples, and off we went for about two hours of just driving around. I think we stopped once to take pictures, but that was it.

This needs to be mentioned here (and it was just as true when we were here on a previous trip); Naples is a dirty city. There is garbage everywhere. Since it is highly industrial, the air isn’t the cleanest. So when you see my pics, realize that they do reflect the place.

Then it was lunchtime (we were running late due to getting into port late), so it was pizza time. This was fine with me because that’s why I was there. We stopped at Viking’s designated pizza stop. As you can see from the sign, Solopizza has been in business since 1979. Since pizza was invented in Napoli, I kind of thought we would get a place that had been in business since 1799, but it was not to be.

Inside we all sat down and waited while our pies were made. I was under the impression that we were going to be able to see a demonstration of how the pizzas were being made. I love making pizza, and I am always looking for new techniques, so this was the real reason I signed up for this tour. I asked the guide, and she said she would see what she could do. I got really lucky. Since I was the only one who even asked about it, she got them to let me watch them make the pizzas in the kitchen and take as many pictures as I wanted. I got some great technique ideas from the two pizza makers. You could tell they had been working together for quite a while as they made the pizzas with very little discussion, just one after the other. And let me tell you, the pizza was amazing. The hit was the Pizza Margherita, the most traditional Napoli pizza with just tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, basil and olive oil on it. The crust was as close to perfection as I had ever eaten. They also had a rule, “One person, one pizza.” Thankfully when they brought the pizza, it was to be split among the groups at each table. But then they just kept bringing pizzas. They brought enough (and left the empty trays in the middle of the table) that we (9 of us at the table) realized we had almost eaten one pizza per person. It was a great lunch.

We then hopped back on the “luxury motor coach” and drove back into downtown Naples where we disembarked for a short tour of downtown followed by 30 minutes of “on-our-own” time. To me, this meant go take some pictures, which I did. Here are the fruits of my picture-taking in Naples. 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…