Saturday, November 16, 2013

Day 14 - Friday, Nov 15, 2013 - Lisbon - headed home

We got up at 2:45am and got down to the Crystal Cove for a 4am debarkation and boarding a bus for the short 10 minute ride to the Lisbon airport.  The staff had set up coffee, orange juice, and pastries for us to grab before we left.  We grabbed our bags and boarded the bus with about two dozen other sleepy people. 
We arrived, checked our bags, and made it through security by about 5:10 (the lines at security were really slow until 5am when they increased the number of x-ray lines from 1 to 4.  We boarded the Air France flight to Paris, CDG.  The pilots came on and told us that there was a ten minute delay due to something with the plane.  They also said that there were really bad headwinds for the flight and we would be about 15 minutes late in total.  We had 1 hour and 5 minutes between flights and were starting to get a bit worried as we’ve had previous experience where going from one terminal to another in Paris can take what seems like hours.  The flight was uneventful as we tried to get a few minutes of sleep in the non-reclining, very tight seats.  However, we ended up being a total of 25 minutes late landing and in the middle of the airplane.  
When we finally got off we had about 25 minutes to get to the next flight.  We were in terminal 2F and had to get to 2E.  Not as long as it could have been and did not require boarding any transportation, so there was hope.  Of course, we had to go through passport control which had a line of about ten people.  We ran the whole way and heard on the loudspeakers that our flight to SLC was last call, final boarding.  Eventually we made it, running the whole way, along with Serena (one of the female dancers from the ship).  (We learned that she had 2 weeks off while the ship was in dry dock and so she was flying home to Montana to visit her family.)
The flight was uneventful on a 767, but very long: 10.5 hours.  We were scheduled to arrive at 2pm SLC time.  We landed a few minutes early, and then went through passport control.  We went through and although we had only spent about $50 on souvenirs, we were selected for further screening.  Sigh.  So, they passed us through to get our baggage, but kept our passports.  We waited for the bags to be unloaded and eventually learned that they had not made the transfer from the Lisbon flight to the Salt Lake flight.  Because we were selected for extra customs checking, we took our carry ons and had to wait in a room with about 6 other people.  One of the was Serena.  Her flight to Montana wasn’t until 5pm, so she wasn’t too worried about making her connection, and we were just trying to get out of the airport to get home.  After we waited about an hour, they eventually let us through.
We went out over to the Delta lost baggage counter and discussed our three lost bags.  They said that one of them did not make the flight in Paris and the other two were not in the system.  The other person there said that it was ok that all three bags were in there and they all were going through Atlanta.  They were scheduled to arrive around 9pm that night and would be delivered to our house in the morning.
We took a taxi to our daughter’s house where our car was.  We ended up doing some errands for her and eventually got home at about 8pm.  We had been up for 24+ hours with a few attempts at sleeping on the planes.  It was great to finally get home and get some sleep.
Postscript - Saturday morning
We woke up at 4:00 am and decided to get up because that was about only half an hour off from when we normally get up (4:40am).  Our bags had been delivered sometime during the night and were at our door when we got up.  We were working on unpacking and suddenly realized that all of our clocks were off by an hour because we weren’t home to reset them for daylight savings.  Doh!!!  So, we really got up at 3am.  Oh well, we got a lot of work done. 
Evaluation of the cruise:
It was our fifth Crystal cruise and first on the Serenity.  As usual, we loved the Crystal staff.  We made new Lido staff friends, which as on the Symphony is a highlight of the staff interactions.  We didn’t really like that the Cruise Director (Rick) did not provide weather information on the very brief morning updates.  Daily he said that he wouldn’t give the weather because he didn’t want to be wrong. On the Symphony, Paul would give the forecast for the day and next day which was extremely helpful as we planned our daily activity (jackets, umbrellas, etc).  All we could go on was the current temperature on the TV and whatever was printed in reflections (such as cloudy, high of 64).  Serenity is definitely bigger and also feels bigger than Symphony.  For the most part, we liked the layout changes although I don’t see why they put the two specialty restaurants on deck 7 where you have people walking by the specialty restaurant windows all of the time.  Instead the Stardust and Avenue saloon are on deck 6 with windows that are always shuttered.  The only thing that we could think of was maybe the designers wanted to reduce the sound transferred from deck 7 up to the cabins on deck 8 by placing the Stardust on 6.  Overall, the food was excellent, entertainment superb and staff wonderful.
Our biggest issue was being in port every single day.  We struggled with the port intensive itinerary.  Even trying to take a sea day, while in port was not the same.  For us, one of the important distinguishing features of Crystal are the wide range of activities such as the lectures, team trivia, and bingo.  None of this is available on the “fake” sea days and we missed it.  It felt more like taking a nice train from city to city, where the train stopped and didn’t move during the day.  We are currently scheduled on a back to back 16 day Crystal Mediterranean cruise this summer that has only 1 sea day and right now we are leaning toward canceling it.  It just isn’t the fun and relaxing type of cruise that we love.  

That being said, we still love cruising and we love Crystal experience.  We will be looking for itineraries with more sea days in the future.

Day 13 - Thursday, Nov 14, 2013 - Half Day at Sea and then Lisbon (but we stayed onboard)

We gained an hour time wise and got up at 7am.  The seas had been very rough during the night and Bob was not feeling great from motion sickness.  We had breakfast and then began the sad job of packing for our journey home on Friday.  At 9:45, we went to the first of two, back-to-back lectures.  Dr. Jay Wolff did the first one on the Lisbon during WWII and all of the spies that were here.  Spain and Portugal were both neutral in the war (although leaned heavily to Germany) and thus it was a haven for spies and refugees from the rest of Europe.  He told a great story about a double agent who was a Spanish national who spied for Germany but was really a double agent for the British.  The talk was highly entertaining.  Then at 10:45 Professor Roman Pryjomko talked about terrorism.  It was a very nice talk mostly about violence and how you detect people who will be violent.  He essentially said that there is a behavioral pathway to violence that always is followed and that they can use that pathway to detect those that are going to do a violent act.
After that talk, the ship docked in Lisbon and we decided not to get off and instead just do some relaxing.  After reading email, we went back and keep working on packing, had some lunch and then finished packing in the afternoon.  
We went to the Stardust for cocktails and then our final dinner in the dining room.  Bob had a goat cheese and beet appetizer that was brilliant.  His veal scaloppini was medium.  Julie had salmon, which she always enjoys.
After that, we went to the farewell variety show in the Galaxy lounge.  The male and female singers each did a song, the violinist was also back, and the night concluded with the comedian.  All in all, a very nice show.

We went to bed very early as we had to get up at 2:45am for our flight home.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Day 12 - Wednesday, Nov 13, 2013 - Cadiz, Spain (tour to Seville, Spain)

Cadiz (pronounced ca-dith) is a very short distance (we guessed less than 50 nautical miles, but since the Captain for some reason didn’t give us a briefing as we were ready to leave, we don’t know exactly) from Gibraltar, so we arrived sometime in the night.  By the time we got up, we were docked and looked out of the window and had this amazing view:

We had joined a Top Day Tours (www.spaindaytours.com) group that had been arranged by others on Cruise Critic.  We were scheduled to depart at 7:45 am.  We got off the ship, met the tour guide (Javier) and boarded the bus with nine other people for a total of eleven (three people didn’t show up).  We left about 8:05 am and drove through Cadiz on our way to Seville, about 120 kilometers to the north.
The terrain that we drove by was basically very flat with a few hills.  Lots of agriculture was visible.  There were a few towns that we went by, including some that are from the days of the Moores, which were all white (to reflect the sun) and narrow streets (so there is shade all day except when the sun is directly overhead).  On the way we learned that Cadiz is a very ancient city, originally founded by the Phoencians in 1200 BC.  Our guide told us an interesting story about how Napoleon was going to capture Portugal and worked an agreement with Spain to allow them to cross Spanish land to get there.  On the way, he apparently changed his mind (or had intended to do it all the time, the guide didn’t say) and attacked Spain.  All of Spain fell except for Cadiz.  It never fell.
Eventually we arrived in Seville.  Our guide told us about a “World Exposition” that Seville decided to put on back in 1929.  Their goal was to create a number of exhibits by the countries in the Americas and Portugal - essentially all those places that Spain ruled at one time or another.  Each country that participated had a large building created for them that housed their exhibits.  Our first stop was at Plaza de Americas that housed several buildings.  At this point we met our Seville guide - Carmen.  She told us about the buildings and the gardens that they had created for the exhibit.


After that, we boarded the bus for the few minutes to the exhibition building for Spain.  It was very unassuming from the outside, but once we got into the courtyard, we were absolutely blown away.  These pictures try to give the area justice, but it is very hard to do.  There are two giant towers on each side of a massive courtyard.  Then there are buildings arranged in a large half circle around the courtyard.  It was absolutely breathtaking.  The place has been undergoing refurbishment (it is completely out in the open, so difficult to protect), but was amazing.  The details on the tiles, the architecture, everything blew us away.
These three pictures show the tower, and two more parts in the half circle.  Together they make up about half of the entire pavilion.



This is our guide Carmen speaking in front of one of the murals.


After that, we then boarded the bus again for another short drive to the main central area (the old town).  This area was over 1000 years old and as you can see was intertwined tiny streets and three story buildings.  It was extremely clean and very well maintained.  The houses in the area leave their doors open so you can take a peek into their inner courtyards.  It was very impressive.

A picture for our daughter:


Note - we didn’t see a single Barber Shop in the whole town (our guide said that there are no Barber’s in the town, but did relate that Figaro was based on a real character in Seville).  [:) :) :)]
Eventually we made it to the main central area where the Cathedral of Seville and the Alcazar Palace is located.  We headed into the palace.  It dates back to the 1300’s and is currently an official residence of the King (although he very rarely uses it).  The architecture was fascinating as it attempts to merge Islamic and Christian parts into a coherent whole. 



There was also a very nice garden.

After that, we had about 80 minutes of free time.  We decided that instead of finding some place to sit, relax and eat Tapas (stupid us), we decided to visit the Cathedral.  It had an 8 Euro fee per adult and we went in and walked around.  It is simply huge (they said it was the third largest cathedral in the world following St. Peter’s in the Vatican and St. Paul’s in London).  It was massive (look at the size of the support pillar).


We came across the tomb of Christopher Columbus, which was quite lavish.


We wandered the place, looked at all of the amazing art and artifacts.  We then climbed the massive bell tower which has a series of ramps that are used to climb to the top (instead of stairs).  The bottom two thirds of the tower was made by the Muslims (originally a minaret) and the top two thirds by the Catholics.
(As an aside, our guide told us that there are no longer any synagogues or mosques left in the city.  They had all been purged away a long time ago.)
There were 34 ramps and it was 17 stories to the top, viewing area.  It was quite a hoof up to the top, but the views were well worth it.  You could see for miles and miles.  Seville is a city of about 800K inhabitants, doubling to 1.6M if you count the suburbs. 


We exited the cathedral, stopped at a shop or two and made it back by the appointed 3pm meeting hour (everyone else made it back on time as well).  We walked a ways to the bus and then drove straight back to Cadiz arriving at a little before 5pm.  
All in all, it was a great tour.  We thought that Seville was definitely one of the best cities that we have ever visited (and we have visited a lot of cities).  We would definitely use Top Day tours again (two for two on tours with them this trip).  Also, they were quite reasonable in price, costing us 70 Euros each.  The ship had a bus transfer only trip to Seville for $80, so we paid only a little more and got the full tour experience.  Well worth it.

Our ship was not scheduled to leave until 9pm, so we went for cocktails at the Palm Court and then dinner in the dining room.  Bob had the cheese ravioli and it was just to die for.  Wow.  After dinner, we strolled by the Crystal Cove and the orchestra was setting up, so we sat down and enjoyed the music.  At 8:30 we got ready to go to the show (it was scheduled to be Dwight, the piano player from the Avenue Saloon doing a Motown show).   Unfortunately, the show didn’t start at 8:45 like we thought, it was scheduled to start at 10.  We decided to get a DVD from the Library and watch a movie in our cabin.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Day 11 - Tuesday, Nov 12, 2013 - Half day at sea (really) and Gibraltar (The Rock)

We slept in a bit today and got up around 7am.  We had sailed all night and still had about 5 more hours before docking in Gibraltar.  So, we had a TRUE sea day (at least half of one).  There was entertainment scheduled and even a lecture at 10am.  Wow, it was wonderful.  No pressure to get off the ship and explore another unique place first thing in the morning.  We have heard lots of grumblings from many people on the cruise that so many port days in a row is just not good.  It seems that a few people love all of the destinations, but an awful lot complained that they needed the break that you get from sea days.  Plus, it just isn’t the same to stay on the ship while in port as there are no activities, so, even though on the ship it isn’t like a real sea day.  Thus we really appreciated the half day.
After our breakfast, we checked out the photos to see if the ones from the previous night were any good.  They looked pretty great, so we are debating what to buy.  Next up, we went to a lecture by Professor Roman Pryjomko on “Addressing a Global Crisis: Why Good Governance Really Matters!”.  The talk was quite good.  He talked about democracy and freedom.  He had a really good definition of freedom, which is essentially that the population can choose to do what it wants to be as successful as it wants.  He then talked about difference between governance (the rules and processes that define the democracy) and government (the roles and functions that execute the rules and processes).  Governance is apolitical.  It includes things like transparency as in how transparent is a government.  It was a great talk although we both wished that he had described more situations with existing governments.  He mentioned that trust is a key governance indicator and the citizens trust their government most are New Zealand and the Scandinavian countries at between 70 and 80%.  So, we would have liked to see how some of the countries with excellent governance ratings what their governance indicators look like.  Some of that came out in the questions, but really not enough for our tastes.  However, we both liked the talk and thought that it was a nice way to think about things.
After that, we went up on Deck 13 to watch us pull into the Gibraltar dock for a 12 noon arrival.  This is Gibraltar in the background.

A better view of the Rock:


Just a nice pix of Bob:


We had considered taking the rest of the day as a “sea day” but Bob decided that since we hadn’t walked our 10K+ steps for the day that we would walk the approximate .75 mile walk to the main square and then walk down the main street another mile or so.  The shopping is supposed to be pretty unique because the prices are both duty free and do not include a VAT.  We noticed a lot of typical British stores (such as Marks and Spencer) and a zillion jewelry, watch, liquor, and electronics stores.  It reminded us of St. Thomas.  

We stopped at the Burger King on the way back in the main square and ordered a Diet Coke to get access to the free wifi.  We sat for about an hour updating things on our phones and watching the people walk by.  After that, we returned to the ship.
Bob worked on the blog and Julie took a siesta.
We got ready for dinner, had drinks in the Palm Court, and then went to dinner at Prego.  The show was pianist Jonathan Ainsworth in the Stardust Club at 8:45pm.  We both thought that ht was ok, not great.  Bob thought that he missed an awful lot of notes.  Julie was disappointed that he didn’t play any Beatles songs as promised.  He was widely varied, but just wasn’t great.

After that, we went back and got ready to hit the sack for a very early tour (leaving at 7:45) in Cadiz to the town of Seville, Spain.

Day 10 - Monday, Nov 11, 2013 - Cartagena, Spain

We got up early again (6:30).  Bob decided after reading the various items that we have (and the fact that Rick Steves’ guide book has nothing on Cartagena) that since the city has such long history, that it might be worth it to take a ship’s walking tour to get to see the sites, but also to get the history behind it all.  So, he wandered down to the shore excursion desk to see if he could score some tickets.  He did, so we had breakfast and got to the Stardust for the 9:15 departure.
We joined about 90 people in the lounge and divided into three groups of 30 (we heard later that one of the guides didn’t show up so we ended up with three guides instead of four).  Our guide calling himself Jack (when talking to English speaking people) proceeded to tell us about three main time periods of the history of Cartagena.  The ancient times were from 229 BC until about the 4th century.  229 BC was when the city was discovered/formed by the Carthaginians coming up from the area of Africa now known as Tunis.  They formed the city and began its construction on five hills (much like the seven hills of Rome).  It was an important city both because it has an amazing harbor (protected on both sides of the entrance by mountains) and because it was rich in silver.  The Carthaginians had lost twice to the Romans and had to pay a tax of silver to the Romans.  They mined the silver in Cartagena and used it to pay.  The Romans were greedy and decided that they wanted to get the silver at the source and came in and took over the city in 209 BC.  They ruled it until the fall of the Roman empire, about the 4th century.  Because it was so far from Rome, it was essentially forgotten.  Note, Hannibal who was a Carthaginian began his journeys and attacks on Rome with the elephants from Cartagena in 219 BC.
The second phase was the golden era in the 1800’s when it was rediscovered as a mining haven.  This time, the main mineral was lead.  Lead was used for many different things (pipes, sewers) and Cartagena was the prime source for it.  The port also became a very important Spanish naval port and the Navy created a strong base here.  This second phase lasted until 1914 when WWI broke out.  
The last phase was the modernistic time and was essentially the 20th century.  It mostly consisted of not a lot happening in Cartagena because there was no mining and no navy.  That changed in 1960 when the first roman artifacts were uncovered and the people became to realize that tourism was their next big industry.
This next picture has not much to do with the history, but we both liked it as a weird contrast as a new modern building was built encompassing an older building.  Top and sides.  Very strange, but interesting.

Our first real stop in the tour was a Roman house (House of Fortune).  The house included a living and dining room, and an office for the head of household.  The office include the walls with even some fresco’s preserved.

Next we traveled up a big outdoor elevator to the top of the largest hill (elevator on the right):

There we visited the castle and observed the four other hills.  Here is a shot from the top of the keep of Julie with the Serenity in the background:

The guide mentioned that if the Carthaginians had built a wall between two of the hills, it would have greatly increased their chance of holding off the Roman army.  We also saw a bull ring that was being restored because it was discovered that it actually was built on top of a Roman colosseum.

We then traveled back down and saw an old Roman theater that is the fourth largest in the world.  What is amazing is that it was only just uncovered 25 years ago!!! 

We wandered the streets of the city and eventually got to the end of the tour at the City Hall building that used to house the local government.  It was discovered that this building was sinking and after many, many years of pumping concrete below it to shore it up, was finally restored.  It is now used for special occasion functions.

We then returned to the ship, had lunch, and spent time relaxing and finally getting caught up with the blogs.  
The evening was our second formal night and so we got dressed up.  We even had our pictures taken where the background was the back of the ship and the water.  Some came out great and so we will buy the best one.
For dinner, Julie had rock lobster and Bob had 72 hour prime rib (cooked slowly for 72 hours).  Both were excellent.  The prime rib was not served in the traditional large slab of meat style, but instead, smaller cuts sliced about 1/3 of an inch thick.  Really great.
After dinner, we went to a show- Rocket Man.  The show was Elton John’s music where Jonathan Kane, an Elton tribute “band” person imitated Elton and played and sang a number of his songs.  The guy was not a perfect copy, but he was about as close as humanly possible.  The show included the orchestra, the string quartet, and the dancers all performing during the “concert.”  It was spectacular.  We both thought that it ranks among the very best entertainment that we have seen on any cruise ship (and we have seen a lot).  We have seen the real Elton in Las Vegas about nine years ago and this guy was an amazing imitation.  

After the show, we went and had a drink, discussed the show, and then hit the sack.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Day 9 - Sunday, Nov 10, 2013 - Castellon de la Plana, Spain

We got up early again and saw another great sunrise.  



Today we were visiting Castellon de la Plana for the maiden port visit for the Serenity.  The area is known for its oranges and is known as the Orange Blossom coast.  We were scheduled to go on a half day tour.  Upon debarking, we were met by a band playing local music, a booth set up to give us a taste of their absolutely wonderful orange juice, and also some free olive oil grown and bottled locally.  




We boarded our bus and headed down the coast.  They had quite lovely beaches.  Eventually we arrived at our first destination, a Carmelite monk distillery.  In this place, they process and bottle about two dozen different wines and liquors.  We learned a bit about the distillation process (what was interesting is how very small the facility really is) and then entered the tasting room.  In this room were about a dozen small casks of wine and liquors that varied in strength from 15% muscatel wine up through their famous 34% herb-infused liquor.  The idea was to take a shot glass and put a taste of the booze in your glass, try it and then move on.  As the guide joked, if you weren’t quite sure, then you could go back through all of the casks several times.  Note, this was at about 9:30 in the morning.




The guide pointed out that the typical worker gets up, has breakfast, goes to work and at 9, gets off at 10:30 and goes and has a second breakfast.  Then they return to work for an hour and a half till noon when they get off have lunch/dinner, a siesta/nap (no longer than 25 minutes - as any longer isn’t helpful) and then goes back to work.  We couldn’t quite figure it out, but it seems hard to understand how many hours in a day they work.  Note, each break involves drinking alcohol of some kind.
We then left and drove through the city and eventually made it to the Caves of Saint Joseph.  This has the longest, navigable underground waterway in Europe.  We arrived a bit before our scheduled start time and wandered to the top of the caves and took some pictures of the area around.  





Here Julie is standing in front of one of the boats.


Once our time came, we entered the cave and boarded the boats.  Each boat had a driver (who spoke no English) and you were not permitted to take pictures.  You were also supposed to be silent and enjoy the serenity of the cave.  The boats were kind of tippy, but as long as everyone stayed in their places it was fine.  Also, the cave was extremely low in places and we had to duck down while floating along.  The driver used a pushing stick to push us along.  After about a kilometer, we disembarked and walked on a path through the caves.  It was great, seeing all of the formations and minerals.  Our boat met us at the end of our walk and we boarded again for the journey back to the mouth of the cave.  It was truly a great experience.  We both highly recommend it.

On the map below, we entered on the right, went to the left on the river until we got to the brown part.  That is where we got out and walked inside of the cave.  We joined our boat back where the brown intersects with the blue and floated back down the blue part.



After the caves, we took a siesta driving back to the port.  We boarded the ship, had lunch and then went to see the movie “Now You See Me.”  A movie we had seen before, but it was terrific the first time (maybe better the second).  We hope they make a sequel.
As we got ready for dinner, we noticed that a group of local dancers had arrived at the side of the ship.  They serenaded us with music and dance while we waited to leave port.



For dinner, we decided to go to Tastes again.  Julie had pizza (again) and Bob had spaghetti.  It is really nice to get some simple “comfort” food to break up the fancy meals you get in the dining room.
After dinner, we stopped by the Crystal Cove where the Serenity orchestra (6 pieces) were playing dance music (In the Mood, Chattanooga Choo Choo, etc.).  They were wonderful and there was tons of dancing.
After dinner, we saw a show that started with the dance team doing three dances.  They are extremely talented.  Then the comic, JohnJoseph came on.  He was extremely funny, interacting with the audience and telling stories mostly about men and women and their differences.  It was hilarious.

Day 8 - Saturday, Nov 9, 2013 - Barcelona, Spain (Second day)

We got up early, went to breakfast, and then got on the 9am shuttle bus to the World Trade Center (about a 5 minute ride).  We got out and walked up to the end of La Rambla, enjoying the architecture, interesting shops, stalls, and people.  

It wasn’t terribly crowded at such an early hour, but it was quite enjoyable.  We also wandered down some of the side streets and spent time at the market (which was amazing).  



We just missed the shuttle bus and decided to hoof it back to the ship.  Fortunately we made it back and the ship was still there.  We were so lucky!!!  (Ok, the ship wasn’t supposed to leave port until 6pm, but after Monte Carlo you never know!!).  We stopped in the Bistro and had a latte and pastry.

We then decided to do some email and blogging and then went to the 2:00 movie - “Before Midnight”. Not one of our favorite films……

We went to the dining room for dinner.  Being a bit fooded out, we decided to have only two courses for dinner (salad and entree), which threw off the timing of the wait staff a bit.  However, it was all good.  We then went to the show (in the Stardust lounge instead of the Galaxy).  The entertainer was a violinist named Claire Gobin  She was quite talented and was able to play an extremely wide range of music.

Day 7 - Friday, Nov 8, 2013 - Barcelona, Spain

We got up early:

for an 8:30 private tour with Top Day Tours (www.spaindaytours.com).  The ship was cleared at a bit before 8am and we got off at about 8:20.  Outside the terminal, we found our tour guide and boarded the bus.  It was one of those large fancy coaches that holds 50 people.  However, the guide said that we were only having 10 people today.  Bonus!!
We were going to pick up a group of 6 and another group of 2.  While we were driving to get the group of 6, she narrated the various sites going from the cruise terminal to the streets just above La Rambla, the main pedestrian walkway in the old town of Barcelona.
After collecting the other 8 people, we drove to a spot by the waterfront with one of the nice Barcelona beaches and some great views.

Next up was a visit to Sagrada Familia Church (Sacred Family) which has been under construction for the past 140 years and is famous because of Gaudi creating the major architecture.  Our guide told us that it is scheduled to be completed in 13 more years.   All of the inside is done and they are now working on the outside.  Currently there are 8 massive bell towers completed and another 10 are in the works.  The concept behind Gaudi’s work is that he is trying to create things that match nature.  Nature doesn’t have straight lines and thus his work does not have straight lines.  This is what makes it all seem so strange.  We did not have time to visit inside (we will have to do this in our next trip), so we just observed it from the outside.


After the church, we drove by Gaudi's house:

on our way to visit the top of Montjuic which is where the olympic stadium is located.  From there we had breathtaking views of the city.  We were struck by how densely packed the city looks.  

It also had a great view of the harbor, but unfortunately a giant set of grain elevators blocked our view of the Serenity.
We then left on the 50 minute trip to the Montserrat Benedictine monastery, up on a mountain north west of the city.  The bus managed to make it up a very winding road, to an elevation of about 2500 feet.  The place was beautiful, originally built in the 10th century (although it has been added to over the many centuries).  It houses the black Madonna which, according to legend, was discovered by some sheepherders in the 10th century.
The place is visited by several million people each year and we were struck by how commercial it seemed.  Shops and cafes dotted the lower area.  Eventually we made it up to the church which was beautiful.  Fortunately we arrived in time to hear their Boys Choir sing two songs (very similar to the Vienna Boys Choir).  That was preceded by a gentleman speaking in five different languages and then leading everyone in what we think was the Lord’s prayer.  There are 80 monks living in the monastery and another 40 or so boys (it is essentially a boarding school that they attend).  





After the performance, we wandered the shops and stopped to grab a quick sandwich before boarding the bus back for Barcelona.  Things that we learned along the way:
  • The state of Catalonia (of which Barcelona is part of) really wants its own independence from Spain - much like Scotland is attempting.
  • The economy in Spain still is in awful shape with around 20% unemployment.
  • The population of Barcelona is around 1.6M people, and if you include the outlying areas nearly 3M.
  • Healthcare is socialized as it is in most of Europe.  Pretty much the same standard where if you need surgery or something you get on a list and wait.  She did say that private insurance works fine for anything that isn’t complicated or requires special equipment and then they use the public system.
  • There are a number of Universities in the area and they are subsidized so residents pay about 1500 Euros per year.
  • The minimum salary is around 640 Euros per month and the average salary for everyone is around 23K Euros per year.
  • VAT was recently raised to 21K for pretty much everything except food and basic necessities which is around 4 to 6%.  Income taxes are about 18% for lower wages and go as high as 50% for top earners.  On top of income tax they also pay property tax.

Our last stop on the trip was Park Guell, a development conceived by Gaudi.  He designed the whole area including a square, roads, a market, etc. and was to build 40 homes on the hillside above.  After completing the infrastructure they ended up only creating three homes because the people of Barcelona didn’t want to move outside to the suburbs.  One interesting factoid is that when Gaudi created the pillars of the market place and the supports (that look like trees or something) for the roads, he figured out how to put steel reinforcement in the concrete in order to strengthen it.  He was the first to figure this out.


The marketplace is mixed in the columns and there is a big area above.

Note - this is the supports for a road above:




We then left, drove back and dropped off the other 8 people and we were dropped at the ship at about 5pm.  Overall, it was a wonderful tour.  The guide was spectacular and the bus driver really maneuvered our bus around well.

We changed for dinner, had cocktails in the Palm Court and went to “Tastes” for dinner.  This is what they call the neptune pool area where they serve “comfort” food along with a Chinese menu for dinner.  It was packed at 6:30 when we arrived (they open at 6:30).  We had salad and pizza for dinner that was great.  After that we headed down to the Galaxy lounge for a local group of flamenco dancers.  As with most things on this ship, they were great.  After dinner, we wandered around a bit and then went back to our room.