Archive for Continental Connoisseur 2012

Wrap-up: Continental Connoisseur Marina Cruise

We have been home now since Friday evening, getting back into the swing of things.

All in all, we had a very nice trip and enjoyed almost every moment. If I had to make a list of the top ten highlights, it would be the following:

1) Seeing the inside of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona - words can’t begin to describe this sanctuary
2) A fun horse carriage ride in Sevilla and seeing the Sunday crowds at the exquisite Plaza de España in the park
3) An excellent 4-hour tour of Lisbon and Belèm with Inside Lisbon Tours (just us) - what a charming city!
4) Our private tour for six with Henri Challau and his company Bordeaux Wine Tours to three chateaux in the Medoc region plus lunch at a wonderful restaurant in Margaux. Boy, was that duck good!
5) Our private tour for six to Cognac, especially our two-hour experience at Remy Martin - we now know how to drink Cognac!
6) Seeing Santiago de Compostela cathedral and Monserrat monastery, which are he two huge Catholic pilgrimage sites in Spain
7) Visiting the charming town of Concarneau in Brittany on a Sunday and sitting at a sidewalk Cafe watching people walking their dogs and seeing artists painting the scene.
8) Relaxing at a riverside cafe on a sunny day in the Port of Dinan, near St. Malo, while Steve ate an industrial-sized pot of steamed mussels (I had them the night before in Jacques and they were awesome).
9) Visiting the Bayeux tapestry and cathedral, the artificial harbor at Arromanches built for the D-Day invasion, and strolling around beautiful Honfleur
10) Dinner at La Reserve on the ship and at Petrús (a Gordon Ramsay restaurant) in London

There were a few disappointments and lowlights (not very many, that’s for sure):

1) The top one for us was whining and rudeness of some of the people we met on the cruise - Some readers might take issue with this to some degree, based on comments (sorry, it is our blog, so we document it as we see it), but we seemed to have the bad luck of running into quite a few folks that were not having a good cruise and did not like Marina or had to start a conversation about why they were unhappy about something, rather than sharing any positive moments. Some were just plain rude. This was our 20th cruise and we have had our share of “fun” folks on other cruises, but this went to a whole new level. The folks from our Roll Call are not the ones that had this tendency, just in case there are concerns. We learned quickly to stop asking people if they were enjoying the cruise.
2) Bruges was a bit of a disappointment - it seemed too touristy, the locals were a bit unfriendly and we didn’t like the way the ship’s “on your own tour” was managed, with them treating us like children who couldn’t find the bus (same thing happened in Seville). I also committed the faux pas in the Church of the Sacred Blood, which was not a positive moment.
3) Steve’s wallet adventure in London was a heart-stopper initially, but turned into a very positive experience about a taxi driver’s honesty and good memory.
4) Bilbao was also a little disappointing, but we did enjoy seeing the great architecture and the food market. The shuttle bus scrum to return to the ship was not a lot of fun.
5) Mont St. Michel looked pretty, but it was definitely not in my range of capabilities right now. The parking lot payment system was also a fiasco (it allowed them to make more money because you wasted time having to walk a long distance to pay the fee because the exit kiosks didn’t work).
6) Finally, the treatment we received at the hands of the fine security at Frankfurt airport - They make the TSA look like amateurs when it comes to intrusive methods, including engaging in a bit of sadism (I still can’t believe that woman hit my knees and made me kneel and bend my knees as far as possible). Thoroughness is a good thing, I guess, but this went beyond the pale. We will try to avoid this airport on future trips, if at all possible.

For the cruise itself, I gave it a 5 out of 5 review on Cruise Critic (you can up to a 5+). Oceania always gets downgraded for their tours, which are very expensive and not very good. The food was awesome, other than the steak in Jacques. The service was superb, other than one young officer who needs better people skills. Our PH2 was superb and our room staff and butler were the best we have ever had. The drinks and internet packages were positive developments. We really like the ship, including its size (it is certainly not a “cattle car”). It will be interesting next year to compare Marina again to a R-ship, because we are doing an 18-day cruise on Nautica up the coast of Norway and as a far north as Spitzbergen (Svalbard), which is several hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle.

We did not have any real issues with the itinerary changes and are glad for the concerns for our security. Oporto would have been interesting, but the strikes were apparently random and I am sure the crew did not want to risk getting stuck in port. Plus, the bonus day at sea came right at the right time for me to recover from so much activity. Casablanca is no great loss, according to many have been there and we thoroughly enjoyed Gibraltar.

My new knees behaved well, although I had lots of stamina issues and tired easily. In retrospect, I am amazed at what I did on this trip and hope it continues to get better and better.

One more observation: We are concerned for the future of some of these countries. Spain may become three countries before the end of 2012 (lots of Catalonian flags in Barcelona and the Basques are voting soon on separation). Portugal is at the end of their rope in terms of austerity programs. France is starting to see the issues with a Socialist president, as their wealth-producers are fleeing the country. London looks more and more like the Middle East. We hope and pray for the best for everyone.

Well, that’s it for final thoughts on our 2012 cruise adventure. Stayed tuned for more travels from Steve and Barb.

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At Frankfurt airport: The security check from hell, glad to heading home

We are in the Lufthansa business class lounge in Concourse C at the massive Frankfurt airport. We passed through the equally massive Barcelona airport early this morning and flew here to catch the non-stop to Denver.

We both had a restless night, probably because of the early wake-up time and the travel day that loomed ahead of us, so we are quite tired.

My new knees now garner me special attention from airport security. Interestingly, I only set off a couple of the metal detectors at the ports we visited, which is probably not a good news story. In Barcelona airport, it wasn’t too bad - the woman from security did a fairly quick scan of me with the magic wand while chatting with her friend and we were on our way. However, we had to go out of security here at Frankfurt and re-enter it again and it was not a pleasant experience, although I am glad that they are being thorough, given the propensities of certain groups to target aircraft.

Of course I set the metal detector off and was consigned to a dour woman who had her magic wand turned up the maximum gain (not to be too graphic, but the metal clasps on my bra made it squeal, as did a tiny metal piece on my wood necklace). I had a little piece of tissue in my pocket and this got her upset that I forgot to remove it (who thinks about tissues in their pockets?). She was extremely personal in her body checks, grabbing and probing private body parts as well. The worst was the treatment of my knees. She banged that damn wand really hard against the front of both knees and “Buzz”, my left knee, did not like that at all (It is still somewhat sensitive in the scar area). She also made me kneel on a pad with both knees (something else they’re not used to). She was impatient and unsmiling, sort of like a microcosm of many of the residents of this country (we have traveled in Germany quite often and sadly the stereotypes are often true and I’m sure we ugly Americans live up to our reputation, too).

Besides this fun, we had both carry-on bags torn apart and had to explain every item, plus they grabbed one of the cameras for a special check. I almost had a heart attack at this point because those cameras used to be carried in a backpack that Steve started using for bringing guns to the range. I made him buy a new backpack for this trip. Fortunately the camera passed the check. The supervisor who did this was a friendly sort, for a change, and I told him that I thought their inspector was pretty rough on my left knee that is still recovering from surgery. He promised to look into it. I like the thoroughness, but hate that we have to be subjected to this stuff. When we were coming in to the terminal on the bus from our Barcelona flight we passed an El Al plane that was being processed and were amazed to see an armored vehicle parked in the area and the entire plane perimeter was roped off. Of course, the Israelis practice something that we should do, which is detailed profiling of passengers rather than assuming that elderly white-haired grandmothers, small children and middle-aged Cruise travelers are equally guilty.

After that jollity, we are happy to be sitting in this lounge, looking at A380s and an ANA 787. We board our flight to Denver soon (about 11 hours total flight time).

I will write a final wrap-up of our adventure very soon.

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Barcelona - Photos on the last full day of our trip

Yep, we’re here in beautiful Barcelona. The day was cool and nice, and La Sagrada Familia? Awe-inspiring. Take a look at the photos. We’re flying home tomorrow. BTW, if you want to see the pictures in high-resolution glory, click on ’em.


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A last day in Barcelona: A taxi driver with a Formula One jones; a sanctuary of eternal transforming beauty; Las Ramblas

We got off Marina this morning just before 9:00 am. As “independent” travelers, we were able to get off last and get in the queue for a taxi to our hotel near the airport. We really, really enjoyed our cruise, although it went by like a blur of seconds instead of days.

We waited about 20 minutes, then snared a yellow and black Barcelona taxi to the Renaissance Airport Hotel, located near the huge airport south of the city. Our driver was a personable young man who immediately launched himself into Steve McQueen Le Mans mode, driving precisely like a bat out of hell (Meat Loaf would have been impressed), screeching to a stop in front our hotel in a new Catalan land speed record. The trip still cost us €37. Steve pulled 3 gs on several curves and I saw my life pass before my eyes several times as our intrepid driver swerved around lots of trucks while talking on a cell phone (my life was good, for the most part, by the way). . Woof!! Who needs coffee?

We checked in, but of course a room wasn’t ready yet. We stored our bags and put valuables in a safety deposit box. We were too late to get the free shuttle back to town, so with great trepidation we hailed another taxi. This time, we had a very sedate driver who took us with great care all the way to the neighborhood of Sagrada Familia, for only €22. We had booked tickets on-line on Tuesday to enter this amazing basilica and Steve finally found a place to print them out (a nearby La Caixa bank ATM).

We had time to kill before our entry time at 12:00 pm, so we found the same sidewalk cafe located across from the stunning structure that we visited (only from from the outside) in June 2007, with my late Dad in tow, when we did a Barcelona city tour the day we embarked on a 10-day Disney Magic Western Mediterranean cruise (I can’t fathom how some of the snobs from our just-ending Oceania cruise would react if we told them that we also liked Disney Cruise Lines. I can imagine, however, that there would have been lots of shuddering and harrumphs and hurling :-().

We found the access line, which stretched halfway around the Basilica. I was suspicious, and asked a young couple in front of us if they had tickets. They said they did not, so Steve went to the entrance and found where we could go in immediately through the Internet ticket line, kind of like a Disney Fastpass line (how ironical). At precisely noon, we scanned our tickets and entered the Basilica, which was consecrated by Pope Benedict in 2010 and is still under construction, until at least 2026 (a long, long story).

A moment please…..we have been in many, many major Christian churches in the world, including some incredible ones on this very trip. We walked into the still unfinished Sagrada Familia and could not believe what we saw. This was a transformational experience, one that was was amazingly, profoundly moving. We sat in center seats in the sanctuary and on benches on the side for most of the hour we had and stared at this organic, nature-driven and fundamentally mathematical structure envisioned by Antonio Gaudí that has been in work for over a century and will not be finished for at least another decade. The path and the pointer to God is here, that’s all I can say; many people entering this place break into tears when they first see it.

After this experience that cannot be captured in words, we stumbled out and hailed a taxi and took it to the Mercado de la Boqueria, the huge food market near the Barrio Gothic and Las Ramblas. We found a great tapas restaurant near the mercado and had a repast of Jamon Iberico, the great cheese from Bilbao, good bread and some good dri nks. Later we found a place across from the Opera House on Las Ramblas and had another beverage and sat there in the perfect evening air and watched people for quite a long time.

Our luck ran out when we found another place at Plac Real, a square near Las Ramblas, where we had incredibly rude service and I had to climb many steep stairs without a railing to a restroom. We decided to head back to our hotel. We found a taxi driver who did not have any idea where the Rennaissance Airport hotel was located, but we got there eventually. When we arrived, the staff here had no clue that we had already checked in. Fortunately, we got our room, claimed our stuff and are having a light dinner in the bar area.

We have to be over at the airport very early tomorrow (6:00 am), but will be home tomorrow night, God willing. We had an amazing day in Barcelona for our last day, thanks mainly to Sagrada Familia. Overall, our trip was a major success!!

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Barcelona, Day One - Photos

Today we arrived in Barcelona, and took a private tour (with three other couples) to Monserrat and to Cava (the Freixenet factory!). Here are some images of our last day on Marina.

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Barcelona, Spain: A black virgin, dramatic scenery, Freixenet wine, more entitlement stories

We arrived in Barcelona, Spain this morning to cool, but mostly clear skies. Marina slowly made her way past three other cruise ships, including Costa Favolosa, Regent Seven Seas Mariner, and Serenade of the Seas, to finally berth at the front of the dock area facing the city..

We had a tour set up today with Barcelona Day Tours to Monserrat and the Cava wine area. We had ten people initially, but one couple cancelled two days ago. We had a nice 32-passenger bus for eight people! Our tour guide Eva was a personable young lady who moved here to Barcelona twenty years ago from Poland.

Our first destination was the religious destination of Monserrat, high in the dramatic rocky Monserrat peaks west of Barcelona. This monastery has the “black virgin”, a mysterious dark statue of Mary with the Baby Jesus. This is the second most important pilgrimage destination in Spain after Santiago de Compostela, so we certainly hit the biggies on this trip.

The church was spectacular, with many unique silver candelabras and a high niche above the altar with the black virgin. The line was over two hours long to visit the famous relic. We wandered the sanctuary and took some photos (no sacrilege committed by me this time) and also lit a candle. Next to the monastery was an art museum that was actually quite good, with works by El Greco, Caravaggio, Monet, Sisley, Picasso, Dali, and many excellent Spanish painters.

Our group met up after nearly three hours exploring this place and we headed to the Freixenet facility for a tour. This huge producer of sparking wine that is aged in caves is a major employer in the region. Our tour was quite fascinating, although quite difficult for me because I have just about burned out on walking up and down stairs and standing. The facility has over 140 million bottles of different sparkling wines being processed at any given time. We had a tasting after an hour-long tour, then hopped on the bus and headed back to the ship. By this time it was quite chilly and raining a little bit. We hope for good weather tomorrow.

We finished packing, then had a final dinner on-board at the Terrace’Cafe. The place was packed, so we offered to share our table with another couple. These two turned out to be snobby, entitled elitists that were so annoying that Steve ended up kicking me under the table to keep me from saying something I would regret. The woman complained constantly; she was irked about not being able to get to Brussels when we were in Zeebrugge two weeks ago (that’s where we had the pilot concern for the heavy seas that delayed our docking); she moaned about not seeing Oporto and Casablanca and couldn’t figure out why they “decided” not to go to those ports. She didn’t like the ship and the number of people on-board. Whine, whine, whine…

We also had a conversation tonight with the couple from Tasmania, who are wrapping up an eight-week holiday. They were terrific folks and they enjoyed their cruise as much as we did. They shared the ultimate entitlement complaint they experienced: A woman on an excursion they were on was appalled because the tide was out in a picturesque location and it ruined her photographs! This compares to someone we heard few days ago moaning and groaning because we were stopping in Cadiz (Sevilla) on a Sunday - they were really irked because things might be closed that day or would not be accessible (I guess the cruise line needs to skip certain days of the week or waste fuel circling around for a day so you can avoid inconvenient days like a Sunday).

We’re ready to come home. We really, really enjoyed our cruise, but it’s time to be at home again for a while. More tomorrow from our final day in Barcelona…

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At sea, on our way to Barcelona: Zombies chill out (or heat up?); the bars make out like bandits

We slept in this morning, having a fantastic, long night of sleep. We kept the veranda door open and listened to the sea.

We are cruising about 15 miles of the coast of Spain on our way to Barcelona. It is an absolutely gorgeous day, very warm and sunny. The pool area is packed with people frying on the loungers and many heads are bobbing in the pool like Japanese macaques.

We have been pacing several container vessels and freighters today, going at a sedate clip (probably 12 knots) on placid seas. We have had lots of good Internet time; I posted a positive story about the Marina drinks and Internet packages on Cruise Critic (no responses yet). We’re currently imbibing a very expensive French champagne to up our average daily bar bill (we bought the unlimited bar menu drink package and it has worked out well).

Shortly, we are going to the room to cram stuff into suitcases in a hilarious attempt to pack ahead of our day-long tour tomorrow; our bags must be outside our rooms by 10:30 pm tomorrow night, We have not bought very much on this trip - we have some small bottles of cognac, some magnets to hold up our refrigerator, a fold-out guide to the Bayeux tapestry, and three small art works of Lisbon from street artists. I don’t need to bring home the entire contents of a crapola emporium anymore to remember our journey.

Tonight, we have our last specialty restaurant reservation, at 6:30 pm, in the Polo Club (steakhouse). We have been starving ourselves all day!

I’m a bit worried about the tour tomorrow - I am so stiff and sore, which is starting to include the new knees, and we are going with 6 other people to Monserrat and Cava. I want to go at my pace, so hopefully that will be acceptable (we started this tour with Barcelona Day Tours and originally intended it to be just for us). We had one couple bail out because her hip is bothering her (and she is much younger). Well, we hope for the best.

More from Barcelona…

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Gibraltar Photos

Today was our unexpected stop — on Gibraltar. This UK outpost is semitropical and quite nice, although we limited ourselves to a short shore excursion in the morning. This afternoon, we had another cooking class with Chef Noelle Barille, this time learning five different cooking techniques for fish. Here’s what we have:

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Gibraltar, UK: A meeting of seas, a big rock, cute macaques

We arrived this morning in Gibraltar before dawn. I wasn’t feeling very good during the night and wondered if it was the revenge of the tuna croquettes from Sevilla, but I have improved as the day has advanced.

This British outpost, claimed from Spain over 300 years ago, is nestled on the side of the famous rock promontory, overlooking the straits of Gibraltar and a short distance from Morocco. We had an early tour booked, a two-hour overview of Gibraltar, including Europa point, the St. Michael’s caves, the famous “Barbary Apes”, a view of the amazing drive-through airport to the mainland, and the old town.

Our tour guide and driver was a genuine character, a local named Paul. He was trained as a zoologist and ornithologist and lost his job a few years ago when he advocated moving many of the macaques (they are macaque monkeys, not apes) back to the Atlas mountains in northern Africa, instead of arbitrarily culling the groups. He had a sharp sense of humor and had us laughing as he careened our mini-bus through the narrow streets and several narrow tunnels to Europa point on the far side of Gibraltar.

The Europa viewpoint overlooks the strait, which has strict traffic controls and represents the dividing line between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Morocco is only 22 miles away, although there is a closer location to Africa on the Spanish coast west of here. Ships are parked all over the place, awaiting their turn through the straits (just like going through the Panama Canal).

Near the viewpoint was a new huge mosque, built with funds from the Saudi Arabian king, so it is likely a Wahhabi sect mosque. The Reconquest of Europe slowly and stealthily advances while everyone drinks beer, sleeps, sweats the soccer scores or worries about getting good Internet coverage.

Our guide next took us to the upper reaches of the Rock, to the nature preserve. We stopped for a quick tour through St. Michael’s caves; I looked at the caverns from the entrance but decided to skip the stair-intensive walk through them, as my left hip is not doing well right now. Steve wasn’t that impressed with them.

Our next stop was the highlight of the tour, a visit to the macaque territory. These vigorous monkeys jumped on top of the bus and hung onto the mirrors. Paul warned us to leave all bags, hats, and sunglasses on the bus. Those who didn’t heed this warning were treated to the experience of a macaque jumping on their heads or shoulders from a bus to try and steal their hats.

Paul was obviously on buddy-buddy terms with a large male macaque named George. As a tour guide, he is allowed to bring a few treats and George has learned to put his paw into Paul’s pants to get these treats or sit there cutely posing next to Paul. We could get very close-up pictures of these playful animals, but you do not touch them or make direct eye contact with them. They reminded us of the Cape of Good Hope baboons in South Africa or the mischievous Vervet monkeys in Zambia.

Our next stop was a viewpoint overlooking the city and the airport. The only road to the mainland crosses the runway of the airport. When a flight is expected to depart or arrive (and there are regularly scheduled British Airways and other flights), barriers come down and stop the traffic about five minutes before the landing or take-off. Spain actually closed off this access to Gibraltar from about 1968 until 1985; there is also the continuing controversy over who has sovereignty over Gibraltar, just like the Falkland Islands.

Also near this airport viewpoint are the great siege tunnels, built in the 1700s, but also used during WWII. Britain and the United States planned Operation Torch (North Africa invasion and operations) from this location. The strategic importance of Gibraltar has been noted for centuries; there are now more underground tunnels on Gibraltar than roads and streets.

We ended our tour going through the narrow streets of old town. Steve and I decided to go back to the ship for R & R on this beautiful, warm day.

At 4:00 pm we had our second culinary class, Flavors of the Sea. We did three cooking techniques and learned about two more. The first technique was pan frying. We used tilapia for this preparation and pan fried it in pure olive oil, then plated it with a remoulade type sauce (roasted red peppers and mayonnaise). This was accompanied by a Provence Rosé. We next saw the techniques for deep poaching and baking, with salmon in a court bouillon and Chilean Sea Bass in the Asian sauce they use in Red Ginger.

We then had to cook the next course, which was a shallow poached halibut . We did something similar to this last Friday, but this one used a lovely heavy cream sauce. This was accompanied by a sauvignon blanc. Our final cooking method was searing. We had scallops we seared in a little clarified butter, then brushed on a sauce that was reduced that had soy sauce, brown sugar and sherry. Yum, yum, yum!!! As usual, I was a complete idiot, but Steve did great.

We’re back at our usual table outside by the pool, hoping they don’t kick us out for some reason. We may get a small bite at the Terrace later, perhaps as we sail out at 8:00 pm.

We’ll have a little more from our day at sea tomorrow. We arrive at 9:00 am Wednesday at our debarkation port of Barcelona. We are doing a tour Wednesday to Monserrat and Cava near Barcelona, then get off the ship Thursday morning, go to our hotel by the airport, do a little exploring of Barcelona, then fly home early on Friday through Frankfurt. We cannot believe how fast this trip has gone by; it has all been a blur.

UPDATE: with a glorious sunset as the backdrop, we sailed out tonight and enjoyed a light dinner at the Terrace Cafe looking at two continents.

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Sevilla, Spain — Photos

Another great day! Between laughing our asses off at the pronunciation of some words the tour representative on our bus destroyed and a wonderful ride in a horse-drawn carriage through the streets of Sevilla, we had a lot of fun. Check out the pictures, be sure to click on them to bring up a full-screen photo browser.

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