La Serenissima

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Cruising the Mediterranean – first leg: from Barcelona, Spain to Livorno, Italy

Have you ever thought about taking a cruise?

Well, I hadn’t. I had many preconceptions about what it might be like though … being stuck with hoards of people who you had nothing in common with … queuing up at dinner buffets groaning with mediocre food (not to mention being breathed on by all and sundry) … being frog-marched around in enormous groups on shore tours … having your ears (and possibly eyes) assaulted by loud stage shows performed by broken down entertainers well past their use-by date … Well, how wrong I was on every count.

It all started quite by happenstance. February2007. Julian and I weren’t long back from a trip to the US and I received an unsolicited brochure in the mail about Silverseas cruises, boasting delightful cruises in the Mediterranean. They looked fabulous, but not surprisingly, they were fairly expensive. Silverseas is a boutique, high end affair. So, with the help of our travel person and friend, Rosie, I discovered Celebrity cruises. Perhaps a tragic name for us in these parts, but the choices of itineraries, on board accommodation and service, it looked like the decision had been made.

So, the Mediterranean it was, from Barcelona to Venice, stopping at Villefranche (between Nice and Monaco), Livorno – Tuscan sea port, for Florence, Pisa etc, Civitavecchia  – Rome sea port, Naples, Athens, Santorini, Corfu, and Dubrovnik. I chose Concierge class, larger stateroom with balcony and butler service – well, everything looked so much more reasonable compared to the prices I’d been looking at, and, what the heck??!! Maybe this would be a relatively lavish but short-lived experiment!

The kick-off… Barcelona, Spain

I stayed in Barcelona  – Barri Gotic (the old Gothic city) – for 3 nights prior to cruise departure at a lovely hotel, Duc de la Victoria. Located in an interesting neighbourhood, close to the Cathedral and Las Ramblas – the fabulous pedestrian street that runs between Placa de Catalunya and Mirador de Colom – overflowing with all manner of cafes, tapas bars, boutiques, the eccentric market stalls down the middle and the Mercat Boceria.

The hop-on hop-off bus service – Bus Turistic –is a great way to see the place. There are 3 or 4 routes, and 2 day passes. They cover all of the main things you’d want to see – lots of opportunity to see Gaudi architectural wonders such as the yet to be completed Cathedral Sagrada Familiar, Casa Batllo, La Pedrera, Park Guell, the University and the Barcelona Football Club, if you are so inclined. You can also see the World Trade Centre – a modern building situated on the waterfront, with lots of cafes and shops; the Montjuic area, which apart from being a site for the Olympic Games in 1992, it also houses the Historical Museum of Barcelona and Port Olympic.

Antonio Gaudi took inspiration from nature for both methods of constructing and decorating his works. This process has come to be known as “organic construction”. His legacy, not just to Barcelona but to all of us, is a portfolio of astonishing, surreal designs that celebrate form, colour, texture, geometry, harmony and dramatic juxtapositions. He is buried in the Sagrada Familia crypt, the chapel he loved and to which he gave much of his latter years.

My own highlights included wandering through Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, with its soaring columns and dramatic sculptures inside and out and stopping to take in his Casa Mila, a beautiful residential building formed with organic, flowing curves in iron and glass. I also strolled around the Barri Gotic, finding fine examples of lovely Gothic architecture, boutiques and a fabulous tapas bar right nearby which also did good coffee and cake during the day. It was there that I met up with 2 elderly ladies during the coffee/cake hours on a Sunday– they speaking no English, me relying on Spanish learned in an intensive course at La Trobe University in 1974! But, we had a great conversation and a generally splendid time. Another day, I visited the Mercat Boceria, which faces into Ramblas, and got totally entranced by the way produce was displayed and sampled some of the   delicious fresh melon on show. That night I attended a Spanish guitar concert in the Basilica del Pi, listening to the sublime music of Albeniz, Rossini and Bizet. Barcelona has an “easy” feel – a beautiful location and a charming city. It’s a place you can easily spend 4 days in.

Check-in and boarding Celebrity Millennium

Immediately my taxi had pulled up, a porter was hovering at the door to take my luggage for loading. Entering the terminal building – think check-in at an airport – there was already a huge queue for ordinary staterooms (as cabins are called these days) but Concierge Class, much like business class, only had a few people. So I was onboard in no time and checking out my stateroom. Hmmm, pretty nice really, all amenities, (including fresh flowers in room and bathroom, and floor to ceiling double glass doors leading to my balcony, furnished with table and chairs. No time to waste – on with the unpacking.

So here I am, case open, wardrobe doors open, drawers out (sliding variety, not underwear!) when there is a friendly reminder in the intercom about emergency drill in 10 minutes. Yikes! I’d forgotten about that … better get my life jacket down; don’t know how long it takes to get that on right …

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m kinda used to the natural circumference of my chest of 34 inches … but now I measure at least 56 inches; my torso generously upholstered with weightless house bricks – quite a lot of them – and I appear to have turned into a bright orange robot, complete with “whistle and light for gaining attention”!! Oh well, getting this thing on didn’t use up the whole 10 minutes, so I’ll just keep on with the unpacking … gee, it’s hard to bend over the case in this thing … lungs dangerously compressed now … am I normally this red in the face …? … beep beep – oh what a relief, we’re off to our muster station to practice avoiding an epic of Titanic proportions!…

Ville Franche, France

After a rough-ish day at sea, we arrived in Ville Franche, a pretty coastal town between Nice and Monaco. I decided to do my own thing and not take a tour. So, I took our tender (small boats that take you ashore when the ship is at anchor and not in port). The tender was open-topped and the ride exhilarating. After looking around the town, I caught the local bus, along with many other ordinary citizens from the local environs, to Nice. I must say, for a “suburban” bus in many ways, the ride was spectacular. How many local bus rides have you taken that tootle down the Cote d’Azur, sparkling blue Mediterranean and palm trees on one side, lovely (and quite possibly very expensive) houses perched high on the other? Not bad for about 2 euros!

I enjoyed walking around the tiny, winding streets in the old part of town (back about 2 blocks but parallel to the Corniche), full of little artisan shops and cafes – one of which I sampled. My big objective here though was, to find a supermarket and buy a particular brand of delicious herbal tea that my friend Patricia (who now lives in the Loire Valley – tough gig but someone has to do it, right?) introduced me to a couple of years before. Big news flash – I got it!! Much to the amusement and entertainment of my newly acquired French Canadian friends who shared my dining table, and couldn’t believe that you would go to such a gorgeous place with the objective of buying TEA??!!

Note re dining companions: I shared a table with 6 French Canadians from Montreal to be precise. I need to tell you right away that they were a lovely group and we all got on very well. … But, back to the start. They said hello in French, so I reciprocated “ah, bon soir! Je m’appelle Suzanne (thank goodness for a French name) et je suis D’Australie. Et vous?” … Ok smarty pants … they answer all at once, ALL in French! Mon Dieu! Dios Mio! Dio Mio! Madonna Santa! And other dramatic religious utterances … Long story short, of the six, two were confident to speak English, and were assiduous in their translating when I looked lost – which was about 3 times a minute. The others always spoke only French. Anyway, it was all good fun; I got to practise some French and they got to practise their English!

Livorno, Italy – Tuscan sea port, for Florence, Pisa etc

I opted to do a tour to Pisa, as I had not been there. A pretty bus ride later, here I was gazing at the wonderful marble wedding cake we all recognise. It was a warm, clear day, perfect for strolling around the site.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

San Francisco to LA by road

The Zephyr arrived in San Francisco (Emeryville, on the Oakland side of the bay) by 9.30 in the evening and we checked in to our hotel an hour or so later. As always, we had a very relaxed time in SFO; it was lovely. The architecture there is charming, with lots of the Victorian timber houses – the ones you see in the movies – still standing and quite a lot of Spanish style apartment buildings too.

We spent a deal of time just nosing around our neighbourhood in the Marina, Cow Hollow, Pacific Heights – where there are lovely homes and public buildings, such as the Palace of Fine Arts from the early 1900s. Another delight is walking up Fillmore street to Union street – home to lots of boutiques, cafes, stylish homewears, a great old art deco theatre – and buying roses at the florist on the corner. Then, closer to the Marina, is Chestnut street, offering lots of eateries, a wonderful Italian delcatessen that’s been there since the fifties and an Italian restaurant of similar vintage. All very welcoming and easy to feel at home in.

The Golden Gate Bridge is familiar to everyone, but the lesser shown Bay Bridge is also quite beautiful, shining silver rather than red. For contrast, we also recommend the Hispanic area in the Mission district – crazy and lively!! Very Mexico.

We generally use the public transport system there too (although we had a car). You can get a MUNI pass for 1, 3 or 7 days at reasonable prices which allows you to take trolley buses, street cars and cable trams. So we did a bit of zooming around that way. It’s interesting to be out and about with the regular folk of a place – you get a different feel to it compared with just going to the tourist places on a tour. And you can hop off in areas that appeal to you and pick up the bus or whatever later. The street cars are fascinating – MUNI has a collection of old street cars from many places in the US, such as Philadelphia and St Louis.

Of course, no visit to San Francisco is complete without walking in Muir Woods, across the Golden Gate Bridge on the northern side. Soaring redwoods, cool, leafy ferns and babbling brooks await. Aaaaagghhh! For a bit of culture, a visit to the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park was rewarding. As it happened, there was a fabulous exhibition of Egyptian artifacts as well as regular exhibitions, such as Mexican sculpture.

We drove down to Monterey (via Gilroy*) and stayed there for 2 nights. Had a lovely lunch at a place we know at the old fisherman’s wharf and just hung out really. A visit to the Aquarium is also a regular must do. The scale of the tanks is quite amazing – one houses a kelp forest of some 20 feet high; another, some 30 feet wide, is home to all manner of fish, including tuna, which are actually enormous – look like they’re wrapped in silver foil – and quite ferocious at feeding time! 

There are also several visual art touches, such as a glass column housing sardines and a glass sculpture of jellyfish. The real jellyfish are just as beautiful and they are exhibited with picture frames around the tanks. Not surprisingly, this area is called “Jellies – living art”; they are simply gorgeous. 

I mentioned Gilroy because it’s one of the major outlet shopping precincts in California. Suffice to say, we had a power shopping day there and left at 4pm with the car stacked high!!

The drive down “the One” – highway number one – along the West Coast is one of life’s most beautiful journeys. The scenery is steep and rugged in parts; other times more gentle and undulating. The much photographed Bixby Bridge is also a lovely architectural contrast that harmonises with the landscape and the Pacific Ocean. 

From there we went to Santa Barbara, where, you guessed it, we had lunch on the pier. Fresh broiled lobster. Very nice. Santa Barbara itself has a relaxed atmosphere and features it’s Spanish origins strongly. The courthouse building is a great example of this and inside many walls are decked with hand painted Spanish tiles.

One of our favourite haunts for breakfast in Santa Barbara goes by the politically incorrect name of Sambo’s. It’s been there since the early fifties, and has on display an old copy of – you guessed it? – Little Black Sambo!

Then we went on down to LA. We stay in Marina del Rey, a nice spot and handy to other areas like Manhattan Beach. There’s also a great café down the street called Café Buna (a discovery of Julian’s and a “must go to”). They have fabulous breakfasts – you can have pretty much anything – and the staff are fantastic; very friendly and lots of laughs.

The Getty Centre is a wonderful complex of art and exhibition galleries with a fabulous Impressionist collection and other special exhibitions, this time on Art Deco furniture. The Getty also provides a dazzling panoramic view of LA – on a clear day, that is!

Architecturally, there are some gorgeous old art deco buildings on Wiltshire Blvd and there seems to be quite a lot of renewal happening. Opposite Macarthur Park, there is the most wonderful art deco hotel – the Parkview – which has Egyptian style goddesses (stone sculptures that is) set on the top floor, watching over the building. Quite amazing. The hotel appears in a lot of films. A modern retail mall carries on the deco theme … 

 From Marina del Rey, you have easy access to the freeways and/or surface roads to get to Century City (great shops) Macarthur Park (which was neither melting nor were there cakes left out in the rain), Echo Park (if you are a Michael Connelly fan, you’ll know this one), and the La Brea Tar Pits (which are actually on Wiltshire Blvd, and you can see them bubbling from your car!)

Now back to reality!..........but planning the next adventure…… here's some closing scenes from California …