Here’s another travelogue from the Halls.
Patricia and I, along with our friends Don and Mary Ann Sadon, traveled to Barcelona in May to join a Mediterranean cruise on the Insignia, a ship of the Oceania Cruise Line. We spent two nights in Barcelona at the Hilton as part of Oceania’s “Pre-Cruise” package and two nights at the Marriott in Lisbon in the “Post-Cruise” opportunity.
The ports we visited included Civitavecchia (Rome), Sorrento, Amalfi/Positano and Taormina all in Italy; Malta; Tunis, Tunisia; Gibraltar; and Casablanca, Morocco. It was a rather exhausting itinerary made more tiring by the fact that we had signed up for “Shore Excursions” at nearly every port.
BARCELONA: This was our second trip to Barcelona, we ended a cruise here two years ago and I reported on it extensively in a previous travelogue. So, I’ll try not to repeat myself too much.
The main shopping area of Barcelona is a wide walking street called Las Ramblas and the adjacent old town area. We had a lovely time exploring the shops. “Living Street Art” (our term for those individuals who dress up as the Joan of Arc and want you to pay them to be in your photographs), is numerous and imaginative.
Barcelona had just won the European “Futbol” championship and the town was still celebrating. Don and Mary Ann have a Grandson who collects soccer jerseys and they thought it would be a swell idea to take home a Barcelona team jersey for him. They asked in several stores and were finally referred to the Nike store on Las Ramblas. (Yes, there’s a Nike store on Las Ramblas.)
By good fortune the Championship Jerseys had just arrived and were on sale for 120 Euros, or about $160 American. And, you thought sports stuff was only expensive in the States.
The 14th Century Gothic Cathedral, located in the “Gothic” area of old town was full of tourists on the Friday we visited. There were several cruise ships in town at the time. As with most European Cathedrals there are numerous “Chapels” within the confines of the edifice and while we were there, three different Masses were going on in three different chapels in three different languages, Latin, Spanish and English. All were being well attended by tourists and it occurred to me that the Church had finally found a way to participate in the “Tourist Economy.” In most European cathedrals, unless you are there on Sunday, you can spend a Euro to light a candle or buy a postcard, but that’s about all in terms of spending money. Here is a way the visiting faithful can actually put a little something in the collection plate (or basket) when it comes around. Smart marketing in my view. It’s also a way to give aging clergy a chance to feel needed – all the priests conducting the masses seemed to be Octogenarians. Aged or not, they were lively and fervent, too. On the way out we saw a list in several languages of the dozens of Masses scheduled during the day.
TAPAS: Spain has invented a marvelous new meal: Tapas. The Spanish are committed to an afternoon “Siesta.” Businesses and government offices are typically open from about 10 AM to
1 PM, then everyone closes up until about 4 PM when everyone opens again and stays open until 8 or 9 PM. The main meal of the day is what we would call “lunch” (a really big lunch) and is followed by a rest period. Most Spanish restaurants don’t open for dinner until after 9 O’clock and they aren’t really busy until Midnight.
What is an American tourist to do? Stuck with an “Excursion” time of 8AM and dedicated to a 10 PM or earlier bedtime, he could starve to death. The Spanish have invented Tapas to fill the gap.
Tapas are simply heavy hors d’oeuvres. They are individual servings of various entrees and appetizers which are served early in the evening. Most often, they are served in “Tapas Bars.”
It’s where we had dinner most every night.
The only meal worth mentioning this trip was in a Tapas Bar called “La Vinya del Senyor” at Avineda Sarria 15 relatively near the Hilton. The four of us shared a small cheese pizza, chicken croquettes, Spanish olives, barbecued ribs (one each) and a baked potato with a poached egg in the center. It was terrific and, we followed it up with an Apple Tart about the size of a donut hole. The trick is to simply say to your waiter, “What do you recommend?” They won’t let you down.
We tried Tapas the following night on Las Ramblas and were disappointed. As usual, the places that cater to tourists are the worst.
FLAMENCO: If you like Flamenco Dancing, (and who doesn’t?) you’ll love El Cordobes on Las Ramblas. We were there last year and I mentioned it in our last travelogue. They serve dinner prior to the show, but you can elect to forgo the food attending only the dancing show.
Flamenco is a Gypsy invention. In spite of the fact that the Gypsies (they call themselves Romany), originated in Central Europe, and can be found throughout Europe, Flamenco dancing has become synonymous with Spain. This particular show features about a dozen dancers, 3 guitarists and 4 Flamenco singers. You’ll love it.
GYPSIES: The Romany are a fascinating ethnic group. I’m told they are the only culture in the Northern Hemisphere without a written language. You’ll find them begging in every European country and they’re famous as the world’s greatest pickpockets.
One famous Gypsy scam involves a group of children who will approach you holding out a newspaper trying to distract you while the smallest of the lot extracts your wallet from pocket or purse with great expertise.
A second scam involves a Gypsy woman with a baby. She will approach you holding the baby out with one hand while begging for a coin or two with the other. If she gets close enough to you she will thrust the baby into your arms, distracting you while she lightens your pocket or purse.
IS IT WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE? This is a common inquiry by an American which is always answered in the affirmative by the Spanish (or nearly any other European, for that matter).
They will then take a map, draw your route for you and give you the address. It always seems nearby. Europeans are used to walking long distances and we’re not, so it could be a lot longer than you think.
A big factor is the way street numbers are used in Europe. Unlike American street numbers, a number is hardly ever wasted. So, a block starting with #1 will end with #9, with all other numbers in between also used.
In the States, on the other hand, all the numbers between 1 and 99 will show up in a single block. The next block will be 100 to 199, etc. In Europe the distance between 100 and 200 is ten blocks, not one.
Our advice is take a taxi. There is also an excellent Underground System if your Spanish is good enough. Ours isn’t. So, always pick up a business card from your hotel to show to the cab driver when you’re ready to return to the hotel. Your foreign language pronunciation may not be as good as you think it is and there is no telling where you might end up if you’re misunderstood.
Finally, Barcelona is not laid out in a grid the way major American cities such as New York are. A number of the large boulevards are “Diagonals.” This causes great confusion among visitors and improved fares for cabbies who always seem to know the longest distance between two points.
As we’ve said before, everything in Barcelona seems to be about a 10 Euro cab ride from everything else.
ROME: The port for Rome is Civitavecchia. It’s about an hour and a half by bus from Rome and unless you’ve never been there, it’s a “must do.” But, we’ve been there and on our last cruise we elected an alternate excursion. However, Oceania offers a train into Rome. The Sadons had never been to Rome so we elected to try the Train. It was vastly more comfortable and consumed a lot less time.
When you leave the train in Rome you board a bus for the short trip to a very famous Church, “St. Peter in Chains” which houses Michaelangelo’s Moses. From the church it’s a short walk to “the Forum” site of the center of old Rome. Julius Caeser was assassinated here 50 years before the birth of Christ and Mark Anthony’s eulogy was delivered from this very spot. It’s mobbed with tourists today, but, still it’s a magnificent site to see even though few of the original buildings are in tact. All of the old Pagan temples were destroyed by Christians, Muslims or Huns anxious to replace them with their own deities. The only Pagan temple in Rome to survive in tact was the Pantheon because it was converted to a Christian Church.
From the Forum you are whisked to “the Coliseum” built about 80 AD, for the entertainment of the Roman elite. The Coliseum was the scene of incredible shows featuring gladiators, wild animals and, of course, Christians.
The Romans, who conquered almost the entire known world over a 400 year period, took no prisoners when they sacked a town. The defeated population was given two choices, death or slavery. This probably explains why the Romans had so many slaves and how they could afford to train some of them to become Gladiators to kill each other for the entertainment of their masters.
One of the highlights of a trip to Rome is lunch, or any meal for that matter. We were dropped off in the Piazza Navona for a lunch break and enjoyed a typical Italian meal in Ristorante Panzirone. Sitting outdoors on a beautiful day made the Fagiole Soup and the Spaghetti Vongole especially delicious.
Then we were off for a visit to the Vatican and St. Peter’s Cathedral. I was struck by the security screening installed to protect the Pope and the treasures in the Vatican. It takes more than 30 minutes between the time you get in line and the time you finally pass through the metal detectors. But, once inside of course, you are so overwhelmed by the beauty and majesty of the place that it makes any wait worth the effort. The tour did not include a visit to the Sistine Chapel or the Vatican Museum. It takes a whole day or more to take it all in, so, you just have to resolve to return to Rome and devote the time necessary to see it all.
SORRENTO/POMPEII: The really big ships have to dock in Naples for this venue, but we were able to drop anchor at Sorrento and “Tender” in. There are a number of great available excursions from Sorrento including a spectacular tour of the “Amalfi Coast,” an all day boat trip to Capri and a half day trip to Pompeii.
We selected the Pompeii trip and enjoyed it immensely. That option also gave us time to browse in Sorrento and have lunch there before returning to the ship.
Pompeii, of course, is the Roman City buried in ash by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. It lay undisturbed until the 1740 when Charles IV of Bourbon, an amateur archaeologist, began the excavation. Today the archeologists are still at work, but a huge amount of the old city is available to tour almost exactly as it was nearly 2,000 years ago. By a process they will explain to you, they have produced plaster casts of Pompeii citizens exactly as they were caught in the disaster.
We had a great guide who explained to us that the eruption of the volcano, Vesuvius, “didn’t destroy Pompeii, it preserved it.” The destruction occurred almost 15 years before when a powerful earthquake knocked down most of the city’s buildings. Public buildings such as the Public Bath had been reconstructed during the time between the disasters, but a number of private residences were simply abandoned after the quake and lie today as they did the day after that event, in rubble.
If you like history you’ll love the tour of Pompeii. Be aware that one of the great attractions in Pompeii has been closed to the public for renovation and there has been no announcement of when it will reopen. The “House of the Two Brothers” a fabulously preserved mansion which featured sexually explicit graphics in the “Slave Quarters” to encourage their slaves to procreate is now unavailable. It’s a shame.
One caution, take extremely comfortable shoes, you’ll be walking on 2,000 year old cobblestones and about half of the tour is uphill.
PIZZA IN SORRENTO: This is a fabulously beautiful city built on the side of a mountain sloping into the Sea. It is known for its Ocean Views, its artichokes, its lemon liquor and its Pizza.
I think most folks know that Pizza was invented in nearby Naples, where purists insist the only “real Pizza” is served. Sorrento claims that all the good Pizza chefs now reside in their town and you are urged to have Pizza if you go either place. We found a place, Ristorante Il Pozzo, which specialized in Pizza “Sorrento Style.”
Pizza in Italy is about baked bread and cheese. All toppings are just “froo froo.” Don’t worry about which size to order, there’s only one – single serving. If you want to share with your friends, order more than one and share, as we did. Don’t expect your Pizza to be covered with topping. My “Mushroom Pizza” had 3 or 4 slices of a single large mushroom.
Your Sorrento Pizza will be offered in a number of the standard configurations (Sausage, Mushroom, Olive etc.) plus a number of combinations. Ristorante Il Pozzo even recognizes it has a lot of American customers by offering a “Hawaiian” Pizza with pineapple and ham.
However, Italians love Anchovies and many of the Pizzas feature them. They are stunned if you ask to have them removed, and if you agree to leave them, you’ll find that Italian Anchovies are less pungent and add greatly to the experience. You’ll also find some toppings, such as boiled egg, you won’t find in the States. However if you order one you’ll have to admit it’s wonderful.
AMALFI/POSITANO: After over-nighting anchored off Sorrento we pursued the short sail to Amalfi. A small, but very “in” town on the coast, Amalfi features spectacular homes perched on cliffs and precarious mountainside, many of them owned by “The Glitterati.”
Our tour to Positano featured a one hour boat ride along the most beautiful coastline you’ll ever see. High above you can see the highway along which the “Amalfi Coast” tour buses frighten and amaze tourists with daring drivers intent on showing off the spectacular ocean views with an “E Ticket Ride.”
At present, Positano doesn’t have a dock, the previous one was destroyed in a storm, so your excursion boat actually “beaches” and let’s you off on the sand. But, that just adds to the ambience of this very “Tony” resort. Everything, simply everything, is uphill from the beach.
We climbed about 100 stairs to visit shops and the beautiful old Catholic Church, then down again to enjoy a beer in a beach front restaurant. We noticed young men with hand dollies hoisting crates of produce and other supplies up the numerous stairways delivering goods to various businesses on the hillside. Delivery Trucks can’t reach most of Positano, so supplies are delivered by boat. These muscular young Capitalists have found a “need” to fill.
TAORMINA, SICILY: Off the southern boot of Italy is Sicily. Now very much a part of Italy, Sicily has been occupied by many conquering armies. In fact, it was over Sicily that Carthage and the Roman Republic first clashed long before Hannibal attempted to cross the Alps with his elephants.
Taormina is a town on a mountain-top near the port city of Messina. It was occupied first by the Greeks who built a beautiful outdoor theater with spectacular views of Mount Aetna, the island’s dominating volcano. The Carthaginians took the island from the Greeks about 300 BC and the Romans took it from the Carthaginians a hundred or so years later. They found the Greek Theater in ruins and rebuilt it. The theater stands today with a Roman structure built on a Greek Foundation. Many famous performance artists appear in Taormina today and the theater was featured in the Woody Allen film, “Mighty Aphrodite.”
Don and I found a nice little wine bar in Taormina in which to rest while the serious shoppers combed the shops. We found a number of Sicilian wines featured and decided to buy one to try on the ship. The family who owned the Wine Bar sent over their youngest son to wait on us because he spoke some English.
“What type of wine is this,” Don asked.
“Red,” said the son while the family stood near by, beaming over his language prowess. What could we do? We bought two bottles and it turned out to be terrific. Our advice - try “Sicilian Red Wine.”
MALTA: Malta is an independent nation, a group of islands about half way between Sicily and the North African coast. The Knights of St. John came to Malta in the 16th Century after being chased out of Rhodes where they had been since they led the Crusades 300 years before. The Knights were invited to Malta by Carlos V, King of Spain and ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, they were required, under the terms of their lease, to deliver to the King a live hunting Falcon once a year. Thus the legend of “The Maltese Falcon,” made famous by Dashiel Hammett.
In a great battle in 1565 the Knights drove off the Ottoman Turks, sinking 500 of the Sultan’s ships, and reputedly saved Europe from becoming a part of the Ottoman Empire. Malta remains a very Catholic nation even though it was ruled by the British for 100 years before being given its independence.
If you go to Malta, there are numerous opportunities to see the ruins of prior civilizations going back to the Greeks and Romans. We elected to take a taxi into the center of the Capital, Valletta, to shop and see the sights. We toured the Cathedral of St. John, very interesting because it is Byzantine in decoration and quite different from the Churches of Italy.
The shops are full of interesting and unusual things to buy, including oh, so many different versions of that damnable falcon. There are also exact replicas in miniature of the Knights of St. John in their armor. A perfect gift for that friend who collects toy soldiers. I bought one for a friend of ours who’s a member of the Knights of Malta, the Catholic service organization.
One bad thing happened the morning of our Malta landing, Patricia discovered that her curling iron was not working. She always carries an extra except, of course, this time. Luckily, she had a permanent before she left home, but, that promised to be only a short term solution.
TUNIS, TUNISIA: Tunisia is a relatively small Muslim country on the north African coast wedged between Algeria and Libya. It’s interesting to tourists because Tunis, the capital, is built on the ruins of Carthage.
The Carthaginians were early rivals of Rome. Their empire about 200 BC included much of the Mediterranean with Sicily as its northern boundary. The Romans, of course, thought of Sicily as a key to expanding their territory and a series of wars followed with the final great assault planned by Hannibal who famously outfitted his army with elephants for transportation over the Alps.
You know the rest of that story, which ended with the total destruction of Carthage including the Romans sewing the farmland with salt so that it could never, ever be used again.
Those Carthaginians that survived became Roman slaves and Carthage disappeared from the face of the earth until, incredibly enough, it was rebuilt by the Romans 300 years later when that portion of North Africa became an important part of the Roman Empire. The ruins that you tour today are not the ruins of the original Carthage plundered by the Romans; they are the ruins of the Roman Carthage plundered by the Vandals. What goes around comes around. No?
Whatever their origin, the ruins of Carthage are spectacular. On your tour you’ll be taken to a number of sites, including the baths where the Historical Museum is located. Fascinating!
We were there on a Sunday, just another school day in Muslim Tunisia. Many student groups were touring the museum while we were there and a young man, perhaps 16, approached us and asked in English if we were English. When we told him we were American he literally bubbled over with enthusiasm: Where were we from? California. San Francisco? No, Los Angeles area. Do you know Arnold Schwarzenegger? No, but we voted for him. We realized that he was practicing his English, which was quite good and drew a crowd of other enthusiastic kids who wanted to know with which movie and rock stars we were acquainted.
A few of the girls wore burkas, perhaps 10%. All the rest were dressed in western dress as kids might have worn 30 years ago - short sleeved white shirts, denim pants and skirts for the girls.
There were no pierced lips or navels, no tattoos, no naughty t-shirts and no plunging neck lines.
There was certainly no animosity toward us or any of the tourists by these students.
One of the things that happens to you on any excursion in the Arab world is that you are taken to an area in where you can buy local merchandise. It also happens in non-Arab countries, but, outside the Arab world the sales people are not so aggressive.
We were taken to a small village called Sissi Bou Said for shopping. We don’t react favorably to aggressive sales people, and we didn’t buy anything but it wasn’t for want of trying by every shop owner. They grab your sleeve and get in front of you to usher you into their shop.
We did tour some of the residential area of the village. Everything in the village is painted blue or white. All the houses are white and all the doors are blue, an electric baby blue reminiscent of the jersey’s of the San Diego Chargers.
All of the doors have 5 or 6 knockers of various sizes and, we were told by our guide, each of the knockers is to be used by a different member of the family. Each wealthy Tunisian man has 5 wives, those of less wealth have as many wives as they can afford. The head wife has her own knocker on the door the distinctive sound of which tells the servants she is home. All the other wives use a single knocker reserved for them. Naturally, there is one for the Master of the house, one for the children and one for visitors.
From our brief visit it appeared that there were no women at all in the village. We saw only one female, an elderly woman bartering with a produce salesman. There were no women working in any of the businesses, no women in the restaurant, no women in the tea room, and no women on the street. It’s possible the local gentry ordered their wives to stay behind the walls as long as we infidels were in town.
Not surprisingly Patricia did not find a new curling iron in Tunisia.
GIBRALTER: Yes, it is a very big rock situated at the western entrance to the Mediterranean. It is separated from Spain by mere yards and the fact that it is British territory has been a thorn in the side of the Spanish rulers ever since Sir Francis Drake trounced the Spanish Armada. We were told the Spanish have attempted to take it back by force 15 times, but have failed in every attempt.
Gibraltar is a “Free Port” which means the streets are lined with Duty-Free stores offering great opportunities for shoppers – particularly those who know what they want and what they want to pay for it. Patricia and Mary Ann set off to find a curling iron and found one in an electronic store.
That was the good news, the bad news was that when we got it back to the ship we discovered it had a European 3 pronged plug that wouldn’t work on the ship or with any adapters we had brought.
The little town on Gibraltar is very picturesque and a fun stroll. Don and I found a swell outdoor spot in which to enjoy a beer while the ladies explored the shops. This was the only port that the cafes didn’t have a local beer or wine to offer tourists, but, there were plenty of brews from which to choose, mostly from English speaking countries. We chose Fosters, from Australia.
We did not climb “the Rock,” although we were signed up for a tour that would have taken us to the top on a very nifty funicular. But, the tour was cancelled and we elected to shop instead. We did not see any of the Gibraltar Apes who populate the Rock and its environs. These, we were told, are relatives of the Orangutan and are quite nasty if you encounter them. They are, of course, protected by law and so they pretty much have the run of the place and they know it, too. They know you can’t lift a hand against them and, we understand, they can reach a local lawyer on their cell phones instantly if you lay a hand on them. Just kidding.
CASABLANCA: By the time we reached Casablanca we were fatigued and none of the excursions sounded interesting to us. They all promised to acquaint us with mosques or take us to the Kasbah. No tour offered to take you to “Rick’s Café.”
We decided that we would wait until we docked to decide whether to venture into the city. It was very hot when we arrived in Casablanca and when we left the ship to wander down the dock we ran into a couple who had just returned from a walk to the “souk” (central bazaar). The woman was wearing walking shorts and said they left the bazaar because the locals were offended by a woman in such attire. As in Tunisia, the only women in the bazaar were tourists.
As we reached the end of the dock we were swarmed by taxi drivers trying to get us to hire them. Pulling at shirt sleeves and speaking rapidly with the same type of aggressive “In your face” sales pitch used by the merchants in Tunisia.
Patricia told us of a previous visit by a tour group of which she was a part. One of the women in their group indicated an interest in buying a carpet so the whole group was taken through the maze of the Kasbah to a carpet shop. In the end, the woman decided not to buy the carpet in spite of the displeasure of the shop keeper and the tour guide who lost his commission. The tour guide was so incensed that he “ditched” the group in the middle of the Kasbah and it was only Patricia’s recollection of the way out that saved the bunch of them from missing their bus.
We decided to stay on the ship.
LISBON: We’ve been in Lisbon 3 different times, but this is the first time we arrived by ship. Lisbon is a city of monuments and it’s an exciting place to approach over the water. The Mariner’s monument, the monument to their great explorer Vasco de Gama and their own version of the “Golden Gate Bridge” all make the entrance to the city a great spectator event.
After checking into the Marriott we grabbed a cab to go the City’s “Rossio,” central city shopping area where we had lunch and shopped in the many high end stores on their “walking” street.
When we returned we found that Pat’s new Curling Iron didn’t fit in the Marriott’s plugs either because Portugal has different plugs than England, of which Gibraltar is a part. But, the hotel gift shop sold an adapter plug that would work in the Portuguese outlet and Patricia was able to fix her hair, at last.
SPEAKING AND BEING UNDERSTOOD IN PORTUGAL: A word here about the Portuguese language. If you took High School Spanish as I did there is much about the written Portuguese language that will look familiar to you, but pronunciation is almost totally different.
As an example “J”s and “G”s are hard sounds in Portuguese. So, Jorge is not “Hore-hey” the way it is in Spanish, but “George” just as Americans would say it. When you talk about yourself you don’t say “Yo” you say “Joe.” Etc. It has the effect to making the language sound very guttural and almost Germanic to my ear, but when we discussed Portuguese pronunciation with our tour guide she said, “Portuguese is a much sweeter language, don’t you think?”
The end result is, unless you know the language, you won’t understand much of what is said no matter how many languages based on Latin that you speak. So, be sure to take along a written note of where you want to go to show your taxi driver.
CASCAIS AND SINTRA: On our second day in Lisbon we hired a driver to take us up the coast Cascais and then up to Sintra a lovely mountain top village famous for its Castle and its shopping.
On the way to Cascais you pass through another popular beach resort, Estoril, home of the largest and oldest Casino in Portugal. It is little known that Portugal was neutral during the Second World War. Estoril played host to dignitaries from both sides at the beautiful Palace Hotel. Several members of the European Royalty rode out the war in lovely Estoril.
A monarchy until 1910, Portugal became a dictatorship under an iron fisted tyrant named Salazar who didn’t take sides during the War and profited from catering to all combatants. Portugal didn’t become a republic until 1974.
From Estoril, the road to the beach resort of Cascais is a beautiful drive along the ocean. We were given time to stroll though the lovely streets of Cascais and along a bit of the ocean front.
While the town was full of tourists and it was a warm day, we didn’t see many folks in bathing attire. Our guide told us that the only thing that prevents Cascais from rivaling the Costa del Sol and the Riviera is that the water is too cold, hardly ever warmer than 60 degrees. That is the difference between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. However, we all agreed that Cascais would be a really swell place to spend a vacation if you’re not into scuba diving or body surfing.
Wind surfing is big sport here, however, and there is spot that is purported to be the best wind surfing in Europe because the wind never stops blowing.
From Cascais we drove up the coast passing several castles. Our guide said the Portuguese built castles all along the coast to protect themselves from invasion by water, but, every invasion they ever had came by land, a “backhanded” slap at the Spanish whose country totally surrounds theirs.
Of interest to drivers, the freeway in Portugal has a different speed limit for each of the 3 lanes; 50km for the right lane, 70km for the center lane and 90km (about 60 mph) for the left lane. For their part, Portuguese drivers seem to ignore all speed limits and drive with a macho “kamikaze” aggressiveness that gives Portugal the highest death rate per mile driven of anywhere in Europe.
There are 7 miles of bike trails along the coast highway and you can borrow a bike at no charge on either end of the trail to ride up and back. Perhaps it’s their way of getting a few of those kamikazes out of their cars.
After leaving Cascais we went to a place called “Rocca” which is the Western most point in all of mainland Europe. There is of course a gift shop and a snack bar there, but, unless you collect such places on your resume, there isn’t much to see.
Then we turned up the mountain to Sintra. It’s a beautiful drive from the coast and you will pass many large estates and palaces. Many of these palaces have been converted into hotels. Sintra is a great little place to explore and we found the very best ceramics there than we saw on the whole trip. We had lunch at a place called the “Hackle Caffee” and it was probably the best meal we had in Portugal. Don and I had “Calzones” that were really outstanding.
Our tour guide then took us back to Lisbon for a complete guided tour. It’s a very beautiful city and a very modern city. There is much there that we didn’t get to see in just two days.
MONEY MATTERS: As reported in previous travelogues, travelers checks are a thing of the past. Nearly everyone takes credit cards, even most taxi drivers. You’ll also get the best exchange rate when you use your Visa because there is no currency being exchanged. When I needed currency I found an ATM every time I needed one.
But, here is a word of caution, your American dollars are not as welcome as they once were. In Italy, before the Euro was introduced, the average Italian shopkeeper would beg you to pay in dollars instead of Lira. Now the Euro is definitely the currency of choice.
While in Rome Mary Ann and Patricia decided to get a gelato after lunch but discovered after they accepted the cones that the proprietor would accept neither American dollars or a credit card for so small a purchase. I came hustling across the piazza with a few Euros to bail them out, but, not before the melting gelatos were dripping off their elbows.
LIFE ABOARD THE INSIGNIA: The Insignia is one of three ships operated by the Oceania Cruise Line. We all agreed we liked it a lot and we’ve had a lot of experience with cruising as you will see in the accompanying essay “On Cruising.”
Oceania was founded by former executives of Crystal Cruises and they brought with them the best things about Crystal and made some changes to accommodate the smaller ships. Also, they refer to themselves as a “Destination” Cruise line which means they visit a port nearly every day and stay in port longer than most ships do.
To accommodate this theme, they don’t have assigned seating or times for dinner and the dress for all meals in the dining room is what they call “Country Club Casual” Most cruises will require a man to wear a tie about half the time and at least once during the cruise they will have a “formal night” requiring you to wear “formal wear”. Not so with Oceania.
Food on Oceania, like Crystal, is a matter of pride. In addition to the formal dining room and a buffet terrace, Oceania ships offer two specialty restaurants; a steak house and an Italian restaurant. They also have a grill that serves hamburgers and hot dogs all day and of course an ice cream bar.
We had two minor complaints about the food. 1) Like many cruise lines Oceania has become enamored with “California Cuisine” which is featured in the main dining room. We hate California Cuisine, however, if you don’t like what’s on the menu you can always ask them to fix you something else, which they will almost always do. 2) No one on the Insignia seems to be able to understand the term “crisp bacon.”
Part of our happiness with the cruise was our success gambling. I did very well at Blackjack and Don and Mary Ann each had a big win at Bingo.
One final thing we love about Oceania, they have Fox News on the in-room -TV. On all other cruise lines CNN International has an exclusive. If you can believe it, CNN-International is even more anti-American than the CNN you get at home and much worse than the British “Sky-News” channel which is sometimes also offered.
AT LAST THE CONSLUSION: We had a great time on this trip; we were blessed with good weather and good traveling companions but, it was a bit warmer than we expected. Patricia says no matter what she brings to wear, she always has the wrong thing.
BOSTON: While in Boston we stayed in our favorite Hotel, the Boston Harbor. It has a beautiful view and is a short walk from the Faneuil Hall Marketplace. The food and service are wonderful, and as you might expect, it costs an “arm and a leg,” particularly if you have a “Water View.”
The current downside to the Boston Harbor Hotel is it’s adjacent to the “Big Dig” the monumental engineering project aimed at putting the downtown Boston expressways underground. While it’s only a five minute walk to Faneuil Hall from the Boston Harbor, you’ll be walking through a construction zone and will end up with a thin coat of dust on your clothes and shoes. The locals claim the Big Dig will be completed by 2007, but, I’m doubtful.
THE DONOVANS: One of our reasons for going to Boston was to see our good friend Mary Donovan, (widow of my very good friend Jack), her son John, Daughter-in-Law Allie and little Jack who at age two is the spitting image of his grandfather. Allie was “great with child” and has since delivered a little granddaughter for Mary to spoil.
They met us at the hotel and we walked to nearby Rowe’s Wharf for lunch at the “Chart House.” We had a lovely visit and vowed to stay with Mary in Hilton Head one day soon.
SHOPPING IN BOSTON: The Faneuil Hall Marketplace has lots of places to shop that‘ll be familiar to you: Crate and Barrel, for example. It also has a lot of little shopping carts with tourist type merchandise and “Quincy Market” a huge food court with vendors selling all the good seafood Boston has to offer. It’s also around the corner from our favorite Irish Pub, the “Black Rose” where John Kennedy made his acceptance speech. You won’t find a better Corned Beef Sandwich anywhere.
Our favorite shopping area, however, is “Newbury Street.” Extending from the Boston Commons a mile or more, it is anchored by the venerable Ritz Carlton Hotel, a great place to have an Irish Coffee when your shopping is done.
Newbury Street has all the upscale designers, art galleries, pottery shops and antique stores. We spent an entire afternoon enjoying it.
HOW ABOUT THOSE RED SOX?: To say that New England is “bonkers” for the Red Sox is putting it mildly. In Boston, Kennebunkport, Portland and Brunswick, wherever we went, we found signs proclaiming the Red Sox “Number One.” But, for every sign or t-shirt proclaiming “I love the Sox” you’ll find twice as many that say, “I hate the Yankees” or “Yankees Suck.”
What makes this interesting is that you don’t see the same sort of adulation for the football Patriots, who after all have won two consecutive NFL Championships.
EATING IN BOSTON: We didn’t have many meals in Boston, but the ones we had were very good.
At Quincy Market we had an early dinner at the “Rustic Kitchen” where we had Hot Wings, Clam Chowder and Baked Manicotti. It was better than we expected and it’s a place you may want to stop for lunch when you explore the Faneuil Hall Marketplace.
Saturday Night we went to Hanover Street in Little Italy to the “Cantina Italiana” where authentic Italians have served Bostonians for three generations. We had Pasta Fagioli soup, Eggplant Parmesan and an Italian Cheesecake to-die-for. Our waiter, who was ‘just off the boat” from Italy wanted to tell us the Cheesecake was “Out of this world.” What he said instead was, “It’s the end of the world.” But, we got the idea, and he was right.
One meal we always eat in the hotel at the Boston Harbor is breakfast, where they serve the best “Irish Oatmeal” you’re likely to find anywhere.
ON THE ROAD TO PORTLAND: We rented a Ford Taurus, which feels like driving a tin can in comparison to my Toyota Avalon. But, it was a serviceable vehicle and didn’t give us any trouble during our four days together. We drove north on I-95 about 40 miles to Dover, New Hampshire.
Dover, located off I-95, is the site of the first English settlement in New Hampshire. One of those first settlers was Deacon John Hall my 8th Great Grandfather who arrived about 1630. Three generations of Halls were born here before the family moved off to the Portland area some 50 miles away.
We didn’t stay long in Dover, but, we were there long enough to get stuck in a Traffic Jam. We sat through the traffic light at the center of town three times before getting through. And, it was Sunday. We stopped in an Antique Store to browse and asked the proprietor about the traffic. She told us that huge numbers of people are moving to New Hampshire from Massachusetts and Maine to escape very high taxes. New Hampshire is one of the few remaining states with no income tax.
Back on the Highway we continued north to Maine. Located at the first I-95 Turnpike exit in Maine is the huge Kittery Outlet Mall. I missed the turnoff and thought I’d just go to the next exit and turn around. I discovered there isn’t another exit for more than ten miles, so we went on to Kennebunkport.
We stopped in Kennebunkport for lunch and found lots of little craft and art stores. We bought several items and had them shipped home for Christmas Gifts. A Saleslady told us that on the first weekend in December Kennebunkport has a Christmas festival called “Christmas Prelude.” Townspeople walk to the center of town singing Christmas Carols. Don’t tell the ACLU. It sounds like fun, but, bring your “long johns.”
THE SUMMER PEOPLE AND THE LEAF PEOPLE: It turns out we picked a very good time to visit Maine, the last two weeks in September. The trees haven’t “turned” yet, so the “Leaf People” haven’t arrived and the “Summer People” all go home at Labor Day. So, September is a pretty good time to get dinner reservations, but, shops have a tendency to close early without warning if business is slow.
PORTLAND AREA: We arrived in Portland on Sunday late afternoon and experienced a big disappointment when we arrived at our hotel.
We’ve had wonderful experiences in Embassy Suites Hotels around the country. In fact, when our electricity went out in Sierra Madre during the “Great Gray Davis Brownout” we moved into the Arcadia Embassy Suites until we could go back home.
But, the Embassy Suites in Portland advertised as “convenient” to the Airport is actually on the Runway and it’s not sound proof. In addition, when you walk in you’re overwhelmed by the smell of Chlorine because the pool is right off the lobby. The building was old and the furniture shabby. It was certainly not up to the standards of the Embassy Suites we’ve encountered elsewhere. So, before we even unpacked a bag, we checked out and moved to the Doubletree two miles closer to the center of town.
A suite at the Doubletree in Portland will run you less than half of the cost of a plain regular room in Boston or New York. There are a number of hotels in the “Old Port” area we thought we might try someday, but, for us the Doubletree worked out just fine.
HALL FAMILY HISTORY: After 3 generations of Halls were born in Dover, the clan moved to the Casco Bay region of Maine (or to be more accurate Massachusetts, because Maine didn’t become a state until 1820). The Hall in question was named “Hatevil” pronounced “Hate Evil” (not an uncommon name among Puritans of the day). He was a Quaker and a maker of chairs. He moved his whole brood of 10 children to the Portland area around 1750 and my 3rd Great Grandfather, Paul Hall, the eleventh child was the first Hall born in Maine. Three more generations were born there, with the last, my Grandfather Frank Hall, born in Brunswick, Maine in 1860. Around 1890 Frank pulled up stakes and moved to St. Paul, Minnesota with my grandmother, his brother and assorted in-laws. I have no idea why they left Maine. It couldn’t be the weather; St. Paul’s winters are every bit as bitter as those in Portland.
BRUNSWICK: On Monday we went to Brunswick, 20 miles north, to attend a meeting of the Brunswick Rotary Club. Rotarians are encouraged to attend other club meetings when they travel, and since Patricia is an honorary member of the Sierra Madre Rotary Club, we were both welcomed. I told them my Grandfather had been born in Brunswick and several members came up afterwards to compare roots.
The program at the Rotary Club that day was a presentation by a lawyer opposing a proposed “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” initiative which was to be on the Maine ballot. He said the problem with “Mainers” is “They have Massachusetts tastes for government services, but a Mainers’ pocket book.” So, if they wanted all the government services enjoyed in Massachusetts, they should defeat the initiative. I was waiting for someone to ask about the appetite for services in New Hampshire where they have no income tax at all, but, nobody did. Like California, large employers have been bailing out of Maine and Massachusetts in large numbers to seek business friendly environments elsewhere.
FREEPORT: It was a nice day on Tuesday so we opted to go to Freeport, famous as the home of L. L. Bean. It is perhaps less famous for being the site of the wedding of my Grandparents.
L. L. Bean, the giant outdoor clothing and camping gear retailer has a massive
“Headquarters” store open 24 hours a day in the village of Freeport. The whole downtown area of Freeport is occupied by “Outlet” stores strung up and down the main drag all in New England architectural style. In addition to the usual names (Ralph Lauren, Coach, Hanes etc) there are a number of art galleries, gift shops and restaurants. It’s very quaint and a lot more fun than the usual Outlet Mall surrounded by acres of parking lot.
PORTLAND AND THE OLD PORT: Most shopping and other activities enjoyed by tourists are located in the “Old Port” area of Portland. It’s where the vast majority of night life is, too.
We checked out the Portland Public Market and visited the Maine Historical Society located next to the home occupied by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (available for tours). Along Commercial and Fore Streets you’ll find many interesting shops and lots of pubs with names like “Nasty McSwines.”
We stopped in one called “Rosie’s Pub” for pizza and a beer while watching a Red Sox/Yankee playoff game. There were a lot of people at the bar, in the middle of the afternoon, enjoying the game. The pizza was good and the beer was cold, but, the service was a little slow as the waitress had a hard time tearing herself away from the game. Had we revealed we’re Yankee fans I fear we might have come to bodily harm.
We loved exploring the residential areas around Portland and particularly liked the little town of Falmouth just to the north of the City Limits.
EATING AROUND PORTLAND: Food in all of New England is good and Portland is no exception.
In Portland we had dinner with our friend Ida Morrison who lives nearby. She suggested we go to “DiMillo’s Floating Restaurant” which was excellent. I had Haddock Chowder and Lobster. I recommend it. Ida teaches nursing at a local college and it turned out our waitress had been her student so she took extra special care of us.
One evening in Portland we felt like Italian food and were referred by out hotel clerk to “Espos Trattoria,” a block or two down from the Doubletree. It turned out to be a meal of epic proportions, if you’ve eaten at Bucca di Beppo, you’ll know what it’s like. And, the food was excellent, except one salad and one entrée would have been enough for both of us with plenty to take home in a “doggy bag.” The sautéed calamari was “to die for.”
In Freeport we had lunch in a lovely little Italian place called the “Azure Italian Café.” I had Lobster Roll, the obligatory local dish, and now I know why they are famous for it.
THE BIG APPLE: The rest of our trip was spent in New York City where there is never any excuse for being bored.
BROADWAY SHOWS: We were scheduled to see three Broadway Shows this trip. But, one, “All Shook Up,” the Elvis Presley tribute, closed just before we arrived.
We like to buy tickets through ‘Broadway.com” so we know what we’re going to see as well as when and where we’re going to see it before we leave home. But, here’s a tip - I’ve always liked to have the ticket in my hand, so when given the option of having tickets mailed or picking them up at “Will Call” I’ve usually opted for the mails.
However, if the show is cancelled, you’ll have to deliver the tickets back to the source before getting your refund. Had my tickets been in “Will Call,” the refund would have been automatic back to my credit card. From now on I’m a “Will Call” kind of guy.
This trip we saw “Wicked.” We really liked it, but, Patricia and I both agreed it was a little too long. The music was wonderful and the singing voices, as always in New York, were spectacular. Ben Vereen and Rue McClanahan were in the cast. We recommend it.
We have friends in Sierra Madre who are ‘Hollywood ex-patriots.” Dave Ruprecht has been on T. V. for years. From “Gilligan’s Island” to “Cold Case Files” Dave has an easily recognizable voice and face. For years he was host for a game show called “Super Market Sweeps.” His wife Patty Colombo is a renowned Choreographer.
When Dave told me Patty was working on an off-Broadway show called “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” we bought tickets. It was still in “previews” when we saw it, but we enjoyed it immensely. It is very funny and the music was first rate. We think you’ll enjoy it, too.
Patty’s new project is the Broadway revival of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and we’re looking forward to seeing it on a future trip.
SUNDAY IN NEW YORK: Our Sunday in New York was a great example of why we love the place so much.
We started the day with the 10:15 Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. This is the Main event for the Cathedral and the Mass is conducted by Cardinal Egan himself. It was very moving and impressive; the place was filled almost to capacity.
After mass we walked to Bryant Park at 6th Ave and 42nd Street to see the “Big Read.” Located immediately behind the New York Public Library, the park is named for William Cullen Bryant noted 19th century Poet, a New York resident. The Park was full of tents, each with an author and a stack of books, signing for lines of people waiting patiently. Authors rotate every hour, so if you spent the whole day there you’d probably end up with 200 autographed books. Several tents featured authors reading from their works. The longest line, full of kids and Moms and Dads, was for children’s author R.L. Stine.
The Book Fair, sponsored by the New York Times Book Section is an annual event.
When we were finished at the Book Fair we walked toward 5th Ave and noticed several people wearing formal clothes with broad red and white sashes. It turned out to be the annual Polish Day Parade, perhaps not as well known as the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, but the participants were every bit as enthusiastic. We watched youngsters in ethnic dress perform native Polish Dances, but, decided not to wait for the main part of the parade because it was time for lunch.
We stopped at Annie Moore’s Pub on W 43rd St. across from Grand Central Station for a lovely meal and walked through Grand Central to Lexington Avenue to walk back to our hotel on 50th. We found Lexington had been closed down for a street fair in conjunction with a “Bike-a-thon” for Breast Cancer Research. We were sorry we had eaten because every possible type of food was available along with blocks and blocks of “flea market.”
We had spent the whole day in Manhattan being royally entertained and nothing had cost us a dime, except of course for lunch.
THE RADIO AND TELEVISION MUSEUM: Several friends had suggested we visit the Radio and Television Museum on west 52nd street near Rockefeller Center. There are two floors of theaters each showing continuous historic footage and a Library where you can order out just about any TV or Radio Show ever done which you can then watch in a private cubicle. Patricia and I opted to listen to “The War of the Worlds,” Orson Welles famous 1939 radio program which caused a national panic because it was so realistic. One nearby cubicle was occupied by a couple of students reviewing Watergate Era newscasts for a class project.
After we left the library, we went down a floor to one of the theaters where we watched an old George Burns and Gracie Allen sit-com.
It’s a great way to spend an afternoon for about the price of a movie ticket.
SHOPPING: We had a lot of fun shopping in New York, we always do. One day we walked up Lexington to Bloomingdales. If you’re used to California malls, you’ll never get over the size and selection available in New York Department Stores. You can spend a whole day and not visit every department.
We strolled up 57th street where there are many upscale stores and then walked over to Central Park a couple of blocks away. We strolled in the park and had lunch at “Mickey Mantles” on Central Park West. Then we went to FAO Schwartz.
FAO Schwartz, if you don’t know it, is a gigantic Toy Store. We’ve never paid much attention to it, but now that we’re grandparents we’re interested. The first floor is devoted to stuffed animals from very tiny bears to 20 foot giraffes. Upper floors have about every toy a kid ever dreamed of. They have life size piano keys on the floor which are played by dancing on the keys, by store clerks trained for the purpose; it was featured in the movie “Big.” The Baby dolls are in an area that looks like a nursery and all the clerks are dressed as OB nurses. We didn’t find much we thought would be of interest to little Andrew Scott Whitmer, but, we’ll probably go back many times before he’s old enough to vote.
Then we went back down 5th Ave stopping at Tiffany’s. If you can’t find what you’re looking for in New York, they probably don’t make it anywhere.
On another day we took a cab down to Union Square located near 15th Street and browsed in their huge open air produce market. Then we went across the street to the original Barnes and Noble Book Store, six floors of just about every book in print.
Afterwards we went across the street for lunch at the Blue Water Café, one of our favorite places to eat.
EATING IN NEW YORK: We’ve talked about our favorite restaurants in previous travelogues. This time we went to Montparnasse, San Martin, O’Neills Steak House, Ruth’s Chris Steak House among others we’ve already mentioned, all of which were as good as we remembered them. I’ll only detail two, one old friend and one new find.
I’ve written several times about Giambelli’s, our favorite Italian Restaurant on 50th near Park Ave. The food is excellent and the waiters never change, it seems even the “Bus Boys” have been there for years. Mr. Giambelli himself is there every night to greet every diner and give a long stemmed rose to every female guest. I mention it again, because on this trip Mr. Giambelli was definitely “failing.” Over 90 now, he no longer lives above the restaurant because he can’t negotiate the stairs and walking is obviously painful. Our waiter told us that he still shows up every night, but, now he retires around 7 PM.
If you get to New York be sure to go to Giambelli’s, I’m not sure how much longer it will be there. But, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Giambelli doesn’t will the restaurant to his employees, they are a fiercely loyal lot.
We also found a new (to us) Italian Restaurant we would recommend. La Magenette Ristorante is located on 50 th Street at 3rd Avenue. Patricia had Penne with Marinara Sauce which she said was excellent, and she’s a harsh critic of mediocre pasta sauce. I enjoyed excellent Linguini with Clam Sauce.
OUR NEW YORK HOTEL HOME: We stayed again at the Hotel San Carlos on 50th between Lexington and 3rd Ave, just a half a block from the Waldorf. We had a suite for half the price of a room at the Waldorf and the staff there is beginning to know us and make us feel really at home. I’ve detailed the many advantages of the San Carlos in previous travelogues.
A FINAL WORD: If you’ve reached this paragraph I owe you my thanks for sticking with me to the end. Patricia and I hope these travelogues are entertaining and informational for you. You’ll find them all posted on my website, Frankhall.com.