Friday, April 13, 2007

The Rain In Spain Falls Mainly On


We're in the Mediterranean at last, heading for Barcelona. Yesterday was a complete contrast to Sao Miguel--no guide and lots of walking. Don't worry, Lorna got her, uh, arthritis medicine at the, uh, exercise bar last night, so she's quite chipper today.

The clock moved forward for the last time (before Greece, I think) the night before. and since we faithfully attended our exercise class that night, there were only five hours for sleep. The ship docked at 7 a.m. and the gangway went down at 7:30. We did hang around hoping to get another couple to join us in a taxi tour (to cut the cost in half) but no joy.

So off the the Estacion del Treno (Train Station) we went. My Spanish reached unrivalled heights: "Dos, Ida y vuelta, Jerez de la Frontera". I did that so well that I was complimented by the lady behind the counter. I immediately resolved to say nothing more in Spanish for the rest of the day so as to quit a winner.

An hour or so later we arrived in Jerez. We walked into the town, inspired on our way by the overwhelming perfume of orange blossoms. We meandered until we reached the Alcazar (ok, not the famous one, which is in Sevilla, two hours out of Cadiz). We walked around, took pictures and went in.

The original purpose of this complex was as a combined palace and fortress for the caliph of Sevilla. The Christians re-took Jerez in A.D. 1264, Alfonso the Wise taking the credit. The evidence is in the mosque, which has two prayers to Mary by Alfonso posted in it. There's a remnant of a smallish Roman-style bath built and used by the Moorish kings.

A man in the museum called the Escuella Real (where horses, like the Lipanzaner Stallions, are trained) but the show was already booked up. We took a taxi anyway, intending to see the museums there. But we decided we were hungry.

We wandered off and ended up at a cerveceria along the Calle Sevilla (Sevilla Street). Pescado (fish) and potatoes with cebillones (onions), all in olive oil, filled the empty spot. Lorna noted that my beer and her bottle water cost the same. And we were a little non-plussed by the high tables with bar stools all around that appeared to have taps built into them. Now thats what I call serious beer drinkers.

We then wandered some more, looking for a store to some some Sherry (for which Jerez is justly famous). But the sky opened up on us and we fled to a taxi stand outside some hotels, hiding under our umbrellas (we're from Vancouver, eh).

Eventually we got a driver and off to the Estacion we went. The driver tried to talk us into a ride straight to Cadiz ("only twenty minutes") but you will recall we bought train tickets "ida y vuelta", so we declined.

Since there was some time before the next train, I wandered around, found a supermercado (come on, you can figure that one out) and found a wonderful selection of wines. So now I have a bottle of dulce sherry. That fino stuff from Tio Pepe is mouth-puckeringly dry and meant as an aperitif. I like my sherry a little sweet and before bedtime.

Lorna napped on the way back, but adventure has it's costs (including mild anxiety) and I kept looking over my shoulder, trying to see Cadiz. When we arrived we strolled into the old city, bought a souvenir plate (for Lorna's collection) and toured the Cathedral. By now it was past four and with the gangway going up at 5:30, we decided to head back.

We agreed that in Barcelona we would try the tour buses. You know, the kind that do a continuous loop, stopping at the various sites of interest. You get on and off as you please. This might be a better use of time and easier on Lorna's feet. And the arthritis medicine is very expensive.

And I still say the Canucks are stumbling, but at least in the right direction. Get them to smarten up or I won't have any hockey to come home to. But that must have been a game and then some. Even CNN International was showing replays from it (in between cricket and futbol). It annoyed me though that he pronounced the winning goal a being by seh-din rather than seh-deen.

We have three port days in a row now: Barcelona Saturday, Monaco Sunday and Civitavecchia (Rome's port) Monday. I'll see if I can squeeze a note in before bed the next couple of nights, but don't hold your breath.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The 2007 Grand European Farewell Tour Begins

As in "wife, say good-bye to Europe, we're never doing back". We spent eight days at sea onboard the M.S. Veendam. Here is the first installment in the tour.

Monday was our first port day since leaving Tampa and our second visit to the Azores Islands. Hiring a guide to chauffeur us around Sao Miguel island was quite different from renting a car (which we did two years ago). There's not the same sense of adventure and the excitement of chance discoveries. The chances of something going seriously wrong are greatly reduced also, however.

Certainly, time is better spent, questions that pop up are answered and everybody gets to gawk out the window at the stunning tropical beauty passing by. Ricardo, our guide, took us first to the Santo Cristo church in town, where the statue of the Miraculous Christ resides. Once a year, on the Fifth Sunday of Easter it is brought out in procession. It is the major devotion in the Azores, I believe. Lorna and I were content to give a quick thanks for the beautiful crossing.

Then we headed out towards the Lagoa das Furnas (Furnace Lake), where the cozido meal is made. We stopped along the way at the Sixteenth Century chapel of our Lady of Peace on a hill high above the coast. It was built just five years after a major earthquake flattened the town below.

Arriving just a few minutes too late to see our lunch being removed from the ground in the hot springs at the lake. We made our way over to the village of Furnas to the restaurant Ricardo had picked out for us. It was a bit anti-climatic, though a bit tastier than the last time, since we already knew what was coming. The couple who joined us, Ron & Fran, however, didn't. And the sight of the blood sausage in the mix positively put them off. The result was that the meal--already too much for the four of us, but enough for three Azoreans--went half eaten.

We then went to a park in the nearby village of Caldieras complete with a pleasnt garden and boiling hot springs, one of which the locals use to cook their corn in. Several villages are in the huge caldera (3-4 miles across?). Property values will plummet when this volcano stirs again.

We re-visited (from two years ago) the beautiful viewpoint above the lake, overlooking the huge caldera. Then we crossed over to the north side of the island to enjoy some great scenery.

We learned a bit about the local customs and beliefs. For example, Ricardo explained that nearly all of the islanders are Catholic and he said this was because of the earthquakes. Three had been felt in the 24 hours before our arrival. And everyone being Catholic explains the islander's peculiar custom: "When a man wants to divorce his wife, he brings her to this scenic viewpoint (several hundred feet of sheer cliffs above the sea)". I pondered the obvious advantages of this over our Canadian system of divorce, but then I remembered that Lorna had the money and the credit cards. So we proceeded on as a couple.

Liquer tasting in the second ("and last") city, Ribeira Grande, was next. I highly recommend the passion fruit brandy.

Then back up over the sharp spine of the island with a stop for an admiring look at Lagoa de Fogo (Fire Lake), the second of the three great calderas on the island. Then down the winding road to the south coast, while swapping jokes. I'll spare you Ricardo's favourites: blondie jokes.

He dropped us off, as scheduled, in the center of town (Ponta Delgada) at 6 p.m. We did a bit of shopping and then parted company with Ron and Fran, who wante to walk around the town. Lorna and I got a taxi back to the ship and had a late dinner in the Lido Restaurant, while admiring the sun setting over the island.

So, adios Azores. Tomorrow, ola, Cadiz.