Thursday, October 29, 2009

Nice

What's not to like?


Pisa, a cautionary tale



The second part of our stop was a visit to Pisa.

On the way, the guide cautioned us repeatedly about not purchasing things from the "Illegals" saying that police will fine you for doing so.

Oh my. All that she had warned us about did not prepare me for the onslaught of vendors and beggars. The Tower area itself was an infestation of souvenir booths and vendors and people and madness. South Franklin take heed!

We got the heck out of that area as fast as we could, and wandered into the town proper, much better.

Along the way, hot and tired, we found a lovely pastry shop, and decided to just sit down and have a little afternoon refreshment. I've been on the lookout for cannoli as good as those at Cafe Aurora in Poughkeepsie, and this little two-bite size version was perfect. With a glass of Prosecco....a lovely afternoon, away from the maddening crowd.

PS note the little Halloween treats in the window. Italy seems to celebrate Halloween too!

Not lost in Lucca



Our good friend Susan lived for a bit of time in Lucca, which was one of the options for our stop in "Florence", which is actually a stop in the port of Livorno with shore excursion options to Florence, Pisa, and Lucca. Susan suggested skipping Lucca in favor of Florence or Pisa, but looking at the time spent on buses vs the time wandering in the sunshine, we chose a Lucca/Pisa excursion.

Lucca is wonderful! What was she thinking? a graceful, quiet, old walled community, with very distinctive architecture (the guide was fond of pointing out that the towers in Lucca did not tilt....) and a very pleasant wide park atop the walls, a lovely stroll/running/dog walking place for the whole town. We had a bit of time on our own for lunch, and stopped at a little sidewalk cafe for pizza. Our guide advised us that the fresh mushrooms were in season, so I ordered my pizza with funghi, and John got his with eggplant. A different sort of pizza from the Neopolitan Margherita, but still, light, crisp, and yes I easily ate the whole thing....

Dining on Board

Visiting Rome, we spent time walking through the city with an old friend (a fellow Servas member who had visited us back in 1994 or some long ago time like that). It was very pleasant to visit the spots that he particularly liked, and he left us off at a place that specialized in salads for lunch. I had a really wonderful mixture of potatoes, green beans, capers, spinach, and a light dressing.

We had early on on the cruise determined that eating in the cafeteria "freestyle cruising" on the boat was just not our style, and pretty much stuck to the white linen, wonderful waiters, Grand Pacific dining room. That night we decided to try the smaller slightly more contemporary in decor Magenta dining room, and ended up being seated with a delightful family from Grenada. John and I had the roast beef with Yorkshire pudding.

What I enjoyed about the cruiseship food, aside from having very capable and gracious wait staff bring me stuff, was that the portions were small enough to be satisfying without leaving you feeling overstuffed. That plus the miles of walking every day, lost, from one city to the next. The food was all well prepared, and fresh. Quite good, really.

Lost in Naples

Before we left, John asked one of his Italian wine people from Naples what to do there. The gentleman was not too encouraging, but did suggest that the original pizza place was just off the wharf and we could go there, being careful of pick pockets, and get real true pizza. Somehow lost the directions, but how hard could it be?

We did sign up for a shore excursion to visit the Herculaneum in the afternoon, and thought we'd toddle over to the Museum of Anthropology, purported also just 15 minutes from the dock (probably the same 15 minutes that the pizza is) in the morning.

An hour later, still walking, we finally asked someone, and discovered that we had far overshot a critical corner...we did find the Museum, with barely 30 minutes in which to absorb all we could, so we stuck to the Pompeii and Herculaneum stuff, simply amazing. Next time, spend more time there.

Asked the guard on the way out for the shortest way back to the boat, and indeed, it was just straight down the hill with a right hand turn at the waterfront.....on the way down, we looked up a little alley and espied two competing pizza places, both looked and smelled great. We popped in and ordered up one each (they're about 6 inches in diameter) @ 1€. So good! Instant and fast. Directly out of the big oven, the crust a combination of crispy and chewy, just plain tomato sauce, a slice of mozzarella in the center, and a bit of basil leaf on top of that - the traditional Pizza Margherita, named for the Queen.

John went back for a second one.

The visit to the Herculaneum was fascinating and amazing. And our guide shared a recipe for zucchini - add a bit of mint to zucchini sauteed in a little olive oil with red pepper and salt.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Stinky Cheese Man


We managed to get to the Norwegian Gem by mid afternoon on Oct 9, and checked into our stateroom to find a platter of chocolate dipped strawberries on the bed, and shortly the room steward came by with a beautiful platter of cheeses, crackers, and bread, sent by our excellent travel agent (and sister) Randa@alaska4you.com. I confess that we did not eat the extremely brown and smelly round lump of cheese, but the rest was perfect.

4 Gats


Immediately around the corner from our Pension, in fact almost right under our window, is El 4Gats, opened in 1897 and famous because people like Picasso used to hang out there. It is sufficiently touristy now, but still quite charming.
When we arrived, our hostess had told us there was a good cheap breakfast place right around the corner that she recommended (which we did not find until searching for an ATM machine just before leaving and in fact it is just across the street and around the corner. Boy did we find a lot of things by being lost.) but we couldn't find it, and decided, touristy or not, we'd eat in the 4 Gats.
Elegant maitre d nicely dressed in a suit seated us, flicked his beautiful white cuffs, and whisked off to get tea and croissants, coffee for us, and indeed, the morning started beautifully. Tea in nice teapot, the china all imprinted with 4 Gats logo, hotel silver forks and knives, lovely. On the table a little advertisement for hot chocolate. We were invaded by a pod of German tourists but never mind, we are finished....
The second morning, rather than search fruitlessly for the recommended place, we decided to just go back to this place. This morning, Sunday, it was more casual, not the same maitre d, no teapots. John decided to go for the hot chocolate, which turned out to be a mug full of something similar to dark Hershey's syrup. John did his best before surrendering and requesting some steamed milk. (Same thing happened to the couple at the table in the corner.) And there were lots of children coming in. They have Sunday morning puppet shows for the kids! Delightful.

Dancing in the Dark

While wandering around in the Barrio Gotico looking for a restaurant listed in our old Lonely Planet, we came upon a large square in front of an old Baroque cathedral filled with people dancing traditional Catalunyan dances to music played by a small symphony. It was quite delightful, and the very nice symphony volunteers came around collecting money to support the symphony. We got little "symphony supporter" stickers so that volunteers didn't ask again (maybe that would be a nice plan for Concerts in the Park?)(Relatively funny story about how we found the dancing again the next morning after a visit to the Picasso Museum and gave them our next last Euro, not realizing that we needed 2 € each to take the bus along the waterfront to the ship and had to buy Euros from some passers by...). When it was over, we continued our zig zagging through the neighborhood, and finally came to the conclusion that the Talia Tapas, recommended by DJ as being the best choice, had replaced the place recommended by the Lonely Planet. Tired from about 9 hours of walking, we decided to eat there. Well, it was OK, but not worth a photo. DJ is right, it was hard to find good places to eat in Barcelona, without walking for miles.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Lost & Found in Barcelona


OK so this is where not reading and not paying attention really pay off.

We rose up after the 11 hour beauty sleep with a plan of spending the day seeing various Gaudi buildings and Park Guell. Wandered up Las Ramblas finding office buildings and what not, over to the cathedral, and then took the subway in the general direction, we thought, of Park Guell. We missed by miles. Took the wrong train (yes our hostess had written all the instructions on the map she gave us....) and ended up somewhere in the French Alps I think. We would point to the map and say "Park Guell" and the people would shake their heads and look puzzled.

Barcelona is not a flat city, and it was quite hot and sunny that day. We walked the better part of 4 hours, seeing interesting parts of where ever we were, but not the park. Finally, hot, thirsty, footsore (oops I forgot to mention that last night, as we were out looking for dinner restaurant, we thought we'd pause for a little light libation and some tapas. I thought John had the cash with him, he thought I had the cash with me....I had to run back through the streets to our pension to get cash, leaving John at the bar....and got blistered feet in the process. The bar owner was quite gracious about the whole thing.) and bordering on peeved, we spotted a local pub doing a good business, with outdoor tables. A beer! Wine! We took a table, ordered the beer and wine, and then noticed that the table next to us had some gosh darn good looking plates of stuff that smelled delicious. We ordered the little fried squid - chopitos......wonderful.

And then the waiter figured out where we were on the map, and set us off in the right direction. Park Guell is magnificent (we got lost getting OUT of the Park too....) and the trek to find the little squid worth every mile.

Barcelona Afternoon

Our hostess told us there is a wonderful food market just off Las Ramblas, just around the corner from the pension. We got there just before it closed, too late for tapas but still time for the wonderfully refreshing fruit drink/frappe for 1 €. Perfect.

We spent the rest of the afternoon rambling in and around Las Ramblas, through the Barrio Gotico, looking, smelling, and planning dinner. The hostess recommended avoiding dining on Las Ramblas as the prices would be higher than other places.

We found a popular, fairly touristy but nice place, La Fonda. We fell for the tourist menu (gazpacho - a creamy version garnished with hardboiled egg, and paella - way too much, and not as tasty as we hoped) but the people at the table next to us had wonderful fish and other things. We got to talking with them, ended up sharing another bottle of wine with them over dessert (or was that dessert) before toddling home to sleep for 11 hours.

Flying

American Airlines vs Easy Jet:
American Airlines was tight even for me at 5 ft 3. John was miserable. The steward hated us. Let's try to avoid that flight ever again.

Easy Jet is spacious, friendly and casually fun, although with odd ideas about efficient check-in procedures. We did not check any bags on AA, but Easy Jet Charles DeGaulle felt that we should so here's the deal: You check in and the check-in person gives you a slip of paper saying how much you owe for the luggage so you leave her podium and go to another wing of the airport to pay the fee, and then come back, butting into the line to hand her the slip of paper and get your bag tagged and checked in. Then you go to the boarding area and wait, boarding by group.

Oddly, in Spain, Easy Jet does it differently, and took a different view of the luggage situation - we did not have to check the bag.

32 Hours later, we landed in Barcelona, sunny, gorgeous, warm. Found the bus to Pla├ža de Catalunya, managed to locate Pension Nevada on Portal del Angel, and I managed to stay awake while the very gracious and lovely hostess welcomed us and marked all the important spots, with bus and train connection numbers, on the Barcelona map. M.P. dozed off during this conversation, with dire consequences later.

Les Vacances de Monsieur Paree

John and I, aided and abetted by my sister Randa at the Travel Connection (randa@alaska4you.com), booked a Mediterranean cruise and got out of town on Oct. 7. Somehow, we did not make the Air France flight direct from Seattle to Paris and instead ended up taking an American Airlines flight Seattle to Dallas and on to Paris, with connections on Easy Jet to Barcelona, a 32 hour expedition.
On the upside, Dallas is a nice enough airport to spend 6 hours in, they have very friendly and helpful visitor information folks all around, there is nice artwork, I had time to get my toenails painted (at 1/3 the cost it would have been on the ship) and we got to have some pretty decent pre-airplane food in a Tex-Mex restaurant. John went for the fajitas with iced tea.
There was a pretty good bookstore there, luckily, since I had not had time to get a bunch of trashy novels at Friends of the Library before leaving.
Picked up Maytrees by Annie Dillard, the Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, Dust by Martha Grimes, Daddy's Girl by Lisa Scottoline.