Sunday, April 19, 2015

Barcelona / Canary Islands Photo Scavenger Hunt

About a thousand years ago I read a photography article about asking friends/family for a list of photos you should take on your vacation. The author was surprised at the variety of options presented to him.  He had ridiculous options, mundane options, obvious options etc.

What he ultimately found is by having this list he was constantly scanning his surroundings. He found he was more aware of things on his vacation and found that trying to find these photos made him a better photographer in many ways. The first, and biggest in my opinion, is taking photos that you might have normally missed.

This vacation I had a list of 20 items that my friends and family had given me. Facebook is a wonderful thing for this type of game too. I had done this last year for the trip to Rome but wasn't prepared enough to remember to actually write the photos down. This year I had them written down and shared them with the SIL to help keep me focused on taking them.

Here's the scavenger hunt list and photos.

1. Pickpocket

You'd think it'd be easy to get this photo in a place like Barcelona considering we had been warned and warned about the gypsies and their pickpocketing career. Still I found it was super hard to do. Instead, I took a picture of this crazy woman sitting in the square. She was talking to the birds and yelling at the seagulls when they came around. The more interesting, and frightening, part is she was literally falling out of her shirt. I put on my telephoto lens to check her out when I noticed her girls were out as well. That is not an image you want burned into your brain.

2. Selfies
I'm horrible at selfies. I have short arms and a fat face, which leaves very little room for anything in the background. My friend H is constantly posting selfies and I noticed she rarely has her entire head in the photo.  So SIL and I decided to try that in this photo. We had just scattered Dad's ashes and were walking along the water front. These sand castles had been built for Easter and some of them were pretty darn amazing. I took two photos. The second photo was so bad of both of us that it's been deleted so it never EVER falls into the wrong hands.

3. Cafes and Desserts
Lunch at Cafe Zuricj
Did someone say tapas?

Breakfast at the hotel

This was a no brainer. Although I may have misinterpreted this one. When I was thinking "cafes" I was thinking what we were eating, not the actual café. I only took one photo of a café we ate at, but have several photos of our ham and cheese sandwiches and tapas. We didn't really eat desserts, so that part I didn't even consider.

4. Nature within the city
I wasn't sure how easy or hard this one would be. Some cities don't have "nature" that's worthy.  Barcelona, and many of the places we stopped, thankfully, had some great nature (trees, flowers, mountains etc.) I couldn't originally decide which photo to use for this. But this photo is one of my favorites. SIL and I were doing the walking tour of the Gothic Quarter and this little church was on the list. Alongside the church was this little garden with beautiful orange flowers.

5. Travel companion in a compromising position
No photo for this. Though I tried. SIL made it hard. She knew about this one and I think was hyper aware of what she was doing so I wouldn't take a photo of her in a compromising position.

6. Jamon

Probably the easiest of the list and yet the one I couldn't take enough photos of. We visited La Boqueria open market in Barcelona (and ultimately found a fantastic bar inside that had the BEST ham and cheese sandwiches). The thing about the open market is everything is out in the open. We marveled at how unsanitary we American's considered it. No refrigeration for some things where we would have and all the ham, seafood, etc just sitting out in the open.  There must have been 30 stores that were selling Iberian jamon.  In all the cases, these legs were hung up and when they were slicing it, the leg of pig was attached to this crazy cuff thing.

7. Someone in a hat sipping a coca cola
I love the specific-ness of this one. And I was sure I wouldn't get a picture of this.  I chose to take some artistic liberties with this one, and took this photo on the last day we spent in Barcelona before we came home. I wouldn't have even seen it had a friend we met on the cruise hadn't pointed out another guy in a hat drinking a coke.  The other guy wasn't nearly as interesting as this character. And whether he has coke in his cup we'll never know. My "artistic liberty" is that he's drinking coke.

8. An interesting doorway
This was one I knew wouldn't be a problem either. I love taking pictures of doors. I also figured Europe and Spain in particular would have a ton of interesting doors.  While in Casablanca I tried to get some interesting door shots with the Moorish arches.  That proved harder than I expected. Then when we were in the Kasbah and we were walking out of the fortress we passed this door. I knew it would be the door for this request.

9. Picture of myself in a disco, dancing
So yah, no photo for this one either. SIL and I aren't night owl type of people and were in bed well before the discos opened.  I did have a thought of perhaps using the disco on the boat during the day, but then completely forgot about this one.

10. Picture of someone named Heather
I knew that Heather wasn't a very popular name in Spain and figured this one wouldn't happen. Then when we were in Teneriffe many of the trees up on this mountain were Heather Trees.  So I again, decided to take artistic liberties and take a photo of a Heather tree instead. Then I couldn't get any photos of these trees without them being blurry. SIL and I decided that a blurry picture of a heather tree actually fit the personality of the Heather who gave me this photograph request.

11. Starbucks sign
Barcelona, turns out, has several Starbucks.  I think I counted about 6 different ones as we walked through the city.  Taking a photo of Starbucks wherever I travel is actually something I normally do anyhow.  So this one was a breeze.

12. A Spanish version of Linus and Lucy
This one sent me in an entirely different direction. It started in Casablanca when I saw the first cat. I took a photo thinking I may not get a photo of a black/white cat.  Then as I walked a bit further into the Kasbah, this beauty was sitting there. Ahhh...a Linus/Lucy cat...granted it wasn't in Spain. But I figured that at one time this cat's family had lived in Spain and she was just visiting relatives in Casablanca. So I counted it.

Then what happened is everywhere I saw a cat, I took a photo. In fact, at one point this little brat of a boy (he really wasn't a brat he was surprisingly well behaved) called me out for taking another photo of another cat.
Cat in the Kasbah
Another cat in the Kasbah
Mr. Cat in Tenerife
This little guy was mooching food in Casablanca
Also at the Kasbah
This sweet cat was at a roadside stop we made in Malaga
13. Chains

I stumbled onto these chains on the island of Lanzarote. We had stopped for lunch and across the street was this cut little church.  Wanting to go inside the church we walked over only to find a wedding of christening was taking place and we couldn't go inside. So walking along the outside I found this old chain fence. I couldn't decide which one of these I liked best.

14. Picture of a purple flower

These beauties were in the Alhambra.  Not only are they purple flowers, but they're the MomUnit's favorite flower.  And we had been at the Alhambra in 1986 and I had been flooded with memories from that trip. It seemed like a win-win to me.

15. A noteworthy mustache
Are you kidding me? I hate taking photos of people, let alone people I don't know.  I did see a few mustaches, but none of real "noteworthy-ness".  Then SIL went into this little store in Teneriffe that had this little doll. I think a yarn mustache is noteworthy...don't you?

16. An old padlock and key

I wasn't sure about this one. Finding an old padlock AND key might prove to be challenging.  So again, I took some liberties.  Finding old locks would be easier for sure. I took a couple of photos of old locks, but liked this one the best...even though the actual lock isn't old, the hatch is.

17. A crab
Since we were bringing the crab hats with us, this one wouldn't be too hard. But beyond that, La Boqueria made taking a photo of a crab easy. There were lots of live crabs in that market.  When we visited this underground lava tube that had a lagoon in it, the lagoon has these white, blind crabs only found there. I really wanted to get a photo of those, but in a dark room with crystal clear water, there was no way without a tripod.

18. A pretty, or interesting, bug on a bridge rail

THIS one was one I also put in the "not gonna happen" file.  I did find this interesting worm thing in Teneriffe. Granted it wasn't on a rail of a bridge, but at least it's a bug.

19. An obvious American tourist
My original plan for this one was to have SIL take a photo of me with two cameras around my neck, and a map in my hand...then we found/saw this.  SIL actually saw him first and on our last day.  I had my camera in my bag and couldn't get it out quick enough. Thankfully the American tourist had to stop before crossing the tree...and since I had a telephoto lens I could capture the photo. It isn't a great photo and really was only taken to check this off my list.

20. A picture of a pregnant woman on a Vespa
When I read this one I decided my friends must hate me. What was going to be the actual possibility of this? Almost none.  When we were in Casablanca I was watching the crazy traffic for something interesting to shoot. After having been in Saudi I knew that the chances of something crazy happening in this city with regards to traffic would be a possibility.  SIL saw a cow in the back of a truck, but didn't get a photo.  As we sat at a stop light, I saw this and had to take the photo.  It's not a Vespa. And it's not a pregnant woman.  But it's close.

And so there they are. I wanted to thank everyone who gave me a photo idea. It was fun doing this and practicing my "awareness" of my surroundings.  I am trying to think of a way to do this in my everyday life. Any ideas?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Norwegian Spirit

This is my second time on the Norwegian Spirit. The first was my first cruise in 2010 - the big family cruise out of New Orleans and cruising to the "exotic Caribbean". The ship had undergone an overhaul the year before so it was new and fresh. This trip? Not so new and not so fresh. 

First let me tell you about what I didn't like on this ship. 

The food in the cafeteria was tired and boring. While there were decent selections available each day, it's as if they rotated those selections. Monday / lunch - fried pork rice. Tuesday / lunch - fried chicken rice and so on. The flavors overall were just ok. 

The dining rooms have changed a bit too. In all previous cruises the two main dining rooms (a big one and a smaller one) had offered different "Chef Specials".  Traditionally one side of the menu stayed the same the entire cruise ( say the left side) while the right side changed every day and each dining room had something different. That was not the case this time. They still had the left side remaining the same throughout the cruise, the appetizers and salads changing up some, but the right side now stayed the same for both dining rooms. Which I guess makes sense from a business perspective, but from an variety for your guest perspective, not so much. 

Still the food in the dining rooms has been delicious. There's enough variety that I don't find I'm bored with the options available. And the service is always exceptional. The wait staff is very attentive and present when you need them. 

We tried two specialty restaurants; Cagney's Steak House and Teppanyaki.  The service on Norwegian has always been, in my opinion, outstanding. And this trip has been no different. Our experience at Cagney's was top notch. Fantastic steaks and an excellent experience. We walked away stuffed - as one would expect. The price was a bit more than I remembered, but it was worth it. 

The Teppanyaki was an entirely different experience. Let me be clear here, though, the food was outstanding. It was everything leading up to the food that was off. 

They tell you when you sign up for this restaurant that it's imperative you be on time. They have tight schedules to get guests in and out and need to make sure if your reservations are at 5pm that you're there at 5pm.  Janet and I, naturally were there on time. There was a couple sitting across from us and we nodded to them. The next couple came in and the lady (we'll call her Ethel because she reminded me of an Ethel) put her wine slip on the corner of the table, as did the gentleman. Then I asked if we could move to another seat because our seats were off to the side and we'd not get to see the action clearly. The head waiter said he needed to check to see if there was a party of 4 that would fit better in the front seats. Odd, since when did that take precedence? I figured first come first serve really. 

So finally he checked and sure enough we could move. So Janet and I moved to be front and center. Then the head waiter came in and asked the first couple (whom we nodded to) if they were sure they had reservations for 5pm because another couple had showed up with those reservations. He had a piece of paper, the waiter did, that showed their reservations for 8pm. The couple were sure they made them for 5, but didn't have their reservation slip because they had made it online. So the head waiter asked them to leave because his sheet showed they were to come back at 8. Needless to say, they weren't happy. 

Side note: turns out they came back with their reservation slip and sure enough they had it right, they should have been there at 5pm. More on this later. 

So by this time, Ethel still hasn't found her wine slip. None of the waiters seemed concerned when she said, "Can you check with the other guy to see if they picked it up?" And this, I tell you, went on and on. 

By now it's about 20 after 5. The remaining party of 4 still hasn't showed up. 

By 5:30 ish a mom and a son show up and announce that actually it's a party of 5 and they need to make the adjustment somehow. So they stuffed one more place setting and scooched all of us over so we were essentially on top of each other. Janet introduced herself to Ethel's companion and said she  might as well give him her name since she'd be sitting on his lap. 

Then the chaos really begins…

Dad and two teenage girls come in and plop down with the mom and son. They're from Israel we later found out. Finally the wait staff start to take our orders. We'd been sitting there forever and this girl needed a drink. 

The dad of the Israeli family said he'd order for everyone…and since they weren't there when they explained how the menu worked, the waiter had to go over it again. Then came the, "Well, what's in that because we can't have x, y and z." Finally the dad ordered for everyone and the waiter got to the rest of us. 

10minutes later the chef came in and started the show. The Israeli dad all the while I was barking orders to the wait staff. His soup was too cold and needed more spice. Snap of the fingers.  I need more water. Snap the fingers…and so on. I had the son to my right and by then had been poked in the arm with a chopstick and bumped a dozen times with his pointy elbows. 

The chef show went on without many problems. The chef was paying a LOT of attention to the Israeli family and barely looked or spoke to the rest of us. 

Then as the 7pm hour got there, we were barely finished with our desserts and the head waiter leaned down between Janet and I and said that he needed us to leave so they could start the next dinner. 

Um, what?

YOU started late because YOU allowed guests to be late and now YOU want me to leave …oh I was miffed. 

Ethel was none too happy we later found out either.  The second couple that got sat, the woman had just ordered a new drink when they asked us to leave, so she basically had to slam it. 

Janet and I pondered over this and finally decided we needed to tell someone we were unhappy. 

On the main floor there's a "Dear Armando" box which you either put comments or complaints in. Janet and I picked up two slips and off we went. Our complaint about the teppanyaki was very factual and to the point. I also did a different slip to cover the good customer service we had received up to that point. We had a toilet that wouldn't flush. In fact, one night Janet and I were sitting reading and suddenly the toilet flushed with neither of us having been in there for about an hour. We just looked at each other and broke out laughing. The second issue was I had an enormous lump in my mattress and asked for a new mattress. Instead they put egg foam on it. In both cases, they called and followed up with us.

So we put our slips in the Dear Armando box about 3pm and we forgot all about it. 

At dinner that night, it was about 8pm when we finally got sat. And this guy in uniform came into the dining room and bee lined it right to our table. His name was Martin and he managed all the restaurants. He heard from his friend Armando that we had had an issue with the teppanyaki restaurant. He proceeded to apologies profusely to us and was going to be taking the charge off our bill.

I was blown away with how quickly they responded to it - frankly I didn't expect to hear from them at all. And the fact that he knew right where we'd be and made a point to come talk to us. Impressed to say the least. 

So at the end of it all, while we didn't have the best experience there, Norwegian, again, showed they had excellent customer service. The ship could use an overhaul again, but otherwise, everything was great. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Malaga Stop - The Alhambra

In June of 1986 we visited the Alhambra and Malaga. My cousin Sue was living in Malaga at the time so I vaguely remember meeting up with her and her cooking us dinner. Then the next day, give or take, we were off to Granada and to see the Alhambra. 

Janet asked me today after we were there if I had remembered most of it. Interestingly enough, I have only a few memories of this place. I remember the inscriptions in Arabic. I remember the reflection pond (I have a photo of mom and I standing by this pond) and I have a vague memory of walking through the gardens of Generalife (pronounced Hen-er-al-leef-ay).  Otherwise, I didn't remember all that we saw today. 

The Alhambra sits in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The palace and grounds are perched on a hill that has walls surrounding it. At one time it was a working city with the palace as it's center. 

Our guide, Monica, was well spoken about the history and all the stories those walls contain. Six centuries of Moorish rule left an incredible mark on Spanish culture and architecture.  Originally the Moors built it for a Sultan - thus the Moorish influence (we were also schooled that it was not Arabic influence or Muslim influence. Arabs come from - at the time - Saudi Arabia and that area and Muslims are people who practice Islam. This was built by the Moors who were the converted people.). Then eventually Ferdinand and Isabel were conquering and converting their way through Spain. The Sultan at the time said he'd give them the Alhambra and Granada if they promised to treat the Moorish people well. So they did. 

From floor to ceiling, every inch seems to be covered with different patterns - geometric, floral or Arabic script. The ceilings were exquisite as they drip with stucco stalactites and each room seemed more richly decorated than the previous one.

The Alhambra was also attacked by Napoleon - his troops were ordered to destroy it. Thankfully they didn't. And the Alhambra has been through a couple of earthquakes. It's amazing it's still standing and in such good shape. Though the guide pointed out the earthquake reinforcements they now have in place…she thinks they're ugly and take away from the beauty of the Alhambra…and I agree. 

We started our tour with a leisurely stroll through the Generalife. The gardens of the Sultans wives. They are so well maintained and so beautiful. 

Then we passed through the palace built by the Hapsburg King - King Philip - who honeymooned there and wanted to then build a palace. They started the palace and then he died so the palace was never finished. 

Then we entered the cool, most interesting part to me…the throne room. The detail in the wall carvings, and the colors of the wall tiles was truly beautiful.  From the throne room we entered the Court of Lions which was designed for the wives. The arches were so intricately carved, I had a hard time no just letting the camera shoot freely. So much to look at and so little time. 

The tour was long and it was hot out. By the time we were done, well, we were done. Even Janet had finally tired out. 

The rest of the tour was a coach ride through the streets of Granada. I've gotta say, not impressed. The old city was interesting, but by and large, Granada wasn't very interesting. We had some free time so Janet and I parked ourselves at a restaurant, ordered a beer and the strangest cheeseburger we've ever had. But the beer was cold and the food decent…and then…there just happened to be a gelato shop right next store. So we grabbed ourselves some gelato and started walking back to the bus. 

Tomorrow is our last sea day and we'll end up back in Barcelona on Wednesday. Well spend half the day going back to la Boqueria for some last minute treats to take home - then it's up early the next day for the long flight home (we have a 5.5 hour layover in NYC - ugh).

There are many more stories that I want to tell about our trip, but they'll wait until I'm home. It's been a blast and I'm so glad I was asked to come along. We've laughed, we've drank, we've eaten, and we've taken a few photos (the total number is still TBD). And we've made some fine memories that will surely be talking about for years to come. 

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Lanzarote, Canary Islands, Spain

The moment we stepped off the ship this morning we were blown away…literally. Apparently because Lanzarote (lan zah wrote eee) is so flat the wind blows here fast and furious. 

The island of Lanzarote is among the newest of the Canary islands. Created by volcanic actions millions of years ago. The island is covered with volcanos.  And many of them have erupted and caused a lot of damage. One fourth of the island is covered in lava fields and are considered part of their national park. 

Our tour guide today was Eva. A born and raised Lanzarotan.  She loves her island and all that natural (and traumatic) beauty that exists here. 

We drove over one of the biggest lava fields I have ever seen to get to Timanfaya National Park - or the Fire Mountains. They call it that for obvious reasons, but as we discovered later those mountains of fire are still alive and kicking.

We reached the visitor center that was designed by Cesar Manrique. He's a local architect who used the natural landscape in his work. Everything we saw of his this trip was built into a cliff, or built into the lava fields to display the natural beauty and to enjoy it at the same time.

Anyhow, at the visitor center Cesar had designed it for visitors to witness the fury of the volcano. Each station displayed the one of the 4 elements: land, water, air, and fire The first station we all stood in a wide circle that had been drawn on the grown.  A worker then shoveled up from the ground in the middle of the circle some volcanic rocks. He handed each of us a handful and I'll be darn if those rocks were smokin hot. It was then I thought, "I'm standing on an active volcano!!"

The next station was about fire. There was a hole in the ground about 10 feet wide and as deep as anything. Off to the side of the hole was another hole. The worker grabbed a pitch fork and a tumble weed and put the tumble weed into the second hole. Within seconds that tumbleweed was on fire.

The third station was about water. There were these long tubes made of metal put into the ground. The work would walk over to one and put a bucket of water into the tube and within minutes the water would burst out as steam. 

The last station was air.  Cesar built a "chimney" if you will over this massive hole. It looked a lot like a fire pit…and on top was a grate covered in potatoes.  The hole that was below was so deep…you couldn't even see the bottom. Our tour guide said the temp coming out of the hole was about 400F…thus cooking of the potatoes. 

It was insane to see the activities at the visitor center. It really brought to live the fact that the earth is still very much alive and at any moment one or many of those volcanoes could explode. 

We left the visitor center in the bus and they put on a crazy recording that had funky music and the story of the first eruption.  Apparently in the 17th century is when the most aggressive eruption happened. A priest in the only village that wasn't covered in lava (they lost 4 villages during the 6 year eruption) had kept a diary so the story was told from his perspective. 

Anyhow, the bus drove this narrow road through the lava fields, the ash fields, more lava fields and all the while a story was being told.  I got to see bizarre craters, streams of lava, and fields of ash that were mixed together to make a nearly unrealistic lunar landscape. If I thought we were on Mars yesterday in Tenerife…this landscape would certainly qualify more. 

The called this route, appropriately enough, the "Lunar Route" and kids, it was freaking amazing. It went deep inside the heart of the national park and really was so well created and set up to see the landscape up close and personal. 

Landing back from Mars we then headed to the vineyard region. Lanzarote has no water and they get about 20 days of rain a year. So, as you can imagine, growing crops of any sort is almost impossible.  So through trial and error they discovered that the volcanic soil would suck the moisture out of the winds that blew through. So they grow the grapes in deep holes surrounded by a semicircular volcanic stone wall that protest the delicate vines from the winds. 

The wine region is called La Geria where the famous Malvasia grape is grown and cultivated into a wine.  We stopped to taste the wine and naturally I had to buy a couple of bottles. It has a nice mineral taste and was pretty darn good. 

Then we went to lunch in Mancha Blanca.  It was a buffet style lunch that offered fish, veggies, paella, potatoes (one of the few crops that they grow here) and a few other things. It was different, and tasty. The restaurant was called Los Dolores because the patron saint of Lanzarote is Dolores - I have no idea, I'm not Catholic. 

After that it was off to the Mirador del Rio viewpoint.  Cesar Manrique built this viewpoint into the cliff. From it you can see the "little" islands:  La Graciosa, Montana Clara and Alegranza. The view was amazing. And the "river" wasn't a river but more of the ocean between Lanzarote and La Graciosa. 

If you know anything about volcanoes, or have ever been to the Big Island of Hawaii, you know about lava tubes.  The largest lava tube is called Jameos del Aqua. The lava tube was also transformed by Cesar Manrique into a beautiful paradise. It has a small pond of sea water in it and these lovely little white crabs (that are apparently blind and only found here) dotting the bottom of the lagoon - it looked like a starry night. 

From there we headed back to the ship. It was a fantastic day full of landscapes that were both beautiful and rugged.  

Back on the boat and we had reservations for Tappenyaki tonight. Craziest night ever. We had a ditch lady on one side of the table who lost her wine ticket and was freaking out. Then a family of 5 from Israel showed up 30 minutes late - and had only made reservations for 4. And lastly an extra couple showed up and it turned out one of the couples at our table had made reservations for 8pm and not 5. Janet and I just sat back and drank our yummy Japanese Martini and watched the crazy going on around us. 

Tomorrow is a sea day and we both feel like we need it. Three stops in a row and we're pooped. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain

What an interesting island! It was like we traveled from a tropical paradise at sea level to Mars. 

We started early this morning and hopped on a double decker bus. In all my years of cruising I've never been in a double deck for a tour. It was pretty cool because we were higher than normal and could see so much more. And oh boy was there a lot to see. 

We started off very quickly with a scenic drive to the north of the island passing little quaint towns, vineyards and banana plantations.  Then we hit this teeny tiny, windy road that took us up into the mountain region and the La Esperanza forest. Eventually we popped out of the forest in what I thought of as Mars.  

Las Canadas del Teidi National Park was established in 1954 and covers 18,900 acres.

Tenerife (Tinner reef ay) has the third largest volcano in the world. El Tiede stands sure and proud overlooking the bay of Santa Cruz.  The surrounding landscape reminded me a lot of the Big Island - volcanic rock formations, ash dunes, lava fields and a caldera.  

When we finally stopped for photos and a bit of coffee the tour guide mentioned that we were now at 7200 ft above sea level.  He went on to explain some of us may get light headed tonight or have headaches. At which point I said to Janet, "If we drink enough wine we'll never know."

It was interesting to drive from a tropical area, through a pine forest and then end up in a very bare and no vegetation area.  Having that distinctive of climates is one of the reasons Tenerife can have several trades - from bananas to ash from the volcano. 

In the volcano national park we stopped at these crazy rock formations called Los Roques de Garcia. The wind and some earthquakes  helped form these rocks and since some guy with the last name of Garcia used to live out here, they named it after him. 

From there we drove into a beautiful colonial town called La Orotava. We got off the bus and had about an hour walking tour in which we walked along cobblestone streets as the guide pointed out historic buildings, churches, etc. In fact Tenerife has three main catholic churches and they are all named The Immaculate Conception.  Creative huh?

One of the historic buildings we saw is La Casa de los Balcones (house of balconies). The two houses belonged to aristocrats some time ago and in an effort to "keep up with the Jone's" they continued to build bigger, more grander balconies. Ultimately the houses looked ridiculous but yet had some charm to them. 

Finally we headed back to sea level and the tour guide dropped us off in the tourist area called  La Puerta de la Cruz. By this time we were starving so Janet and I stopped and had ourselves a pizza and beer. 

We were the last bus to get back to the boat tonight. The boat was leaving at 5:30 and we made it back by 4:45…cutting it too close for me. But since we were on an excursion through the cruise line we knew they couldn't leave us. 

Oh and I learned that the Canary Islands are not named after the birds. Instead the birds are named after the islands. Apparently Rome named them.  The people who lived here where sheep herders and had these amazing, very specific to the island dogs. So the Romans called the islands the Dog Islands. And dog in Latin is Canan or something like that. 

Tomorrow we hit Arrecife. Another Best of…tour.


Thursday, April 09, 2015


Ahhh Madeira. What a perfectly lovely island. I've, officially, decided I need to retire here. You can buy a one bedroom house for $70K. Granted it's tiny. But I won't need much room when I'm retired.  

The island is relatively small - and has about 260K people who live here. Their main export is now wine, but had been sugar cane in the past.  

The climate is mostly mild. They have "microclimates" all over the island. It can be warm in the town, and then up in the mountains be raining and cold. We experienced it today in that it was about 65F when we were in Funchal and then when we headed up the mountain to 1000 ft it got cooler. Then when we headed up even more to about 3200 ft, the cloud just sat there. It didn't rain, just looked like it.  

We started today driving up to the little village of Monte (pronounced mont). A sleepy little village who's main business is the toboggan rides down the mountain. And let me tell you they make quite a pretty penny. It was part of our excursion, but the prices showed 25 EU for one and 30 for two. Which makes no sense to me, but that's what the sign said.

Janet and I were put with another young lady from the Netherlands and the three of us barely fit into this "3 person" toboggan. I think they assume 3 European butts…

The toboggan run started in the early 19th century when a wine shop owner needed to find a quicker way down the mountain to his store. He'd see a ship come in and he'd have to run down the hill. He tried a couple of different things before friend developed this toboggan. It runs on wood runners that are greased and a wicker basket to hold the victims - er ah - riders. It was the first means of "downhill" transportation on the island and is mostly for tourist these days. The toboggans are "driven" by two men (who I assume have leg muscles) that are called carreiros and dressed in white with straw hats and black rubber boots that are used as the brakes. No lie. They use ropes to get the basket going then hop on the back and steer with their legs and weight. It's the craziest thing I think I've ever seen or done. It was a 10 minute, 2K ride.

After that thrilling adventure (we only screamed a little) we had a Fanta while we waited for the rest of our bus folks to come hurtling down the mountain.

The thrills weren't over yet though. From there we drove BACK up the mountain on teeny tiny roads that the bus barely fit through to then hop on their cable car. 

Now, I'm no fan of heights and the thought of getting into a closed gondola to ride 17 minutes in the air back down to the water just didn't seem like something I should do. But I did. I couldn't not do it and not see the fantastic panorama views it offered.

Back in the bus we road on a very windy, very narrow road up the mountain to a viewpoint called Pico do Serrado - at 3592 ft. The ride was another nail biter. I laughed at Janet who was on the side facing down the steep cliff until I was the one on that side on the way down. Ugh. I just closed my eyes and hoped for the best.

Anyhow, at the viewpoint was where we could see Nun's Valley (my retirement community at the rate I'm going). In 1566, the nuns from the Santa Clara convent fled from the pirates (bloody pirates) that were attacking Funchal (which means where the fennel grows by the way). This little village is nestled between two very steep, almost perpendicular mountains and offered the nuns a perfect hiding place. They managed to sustain themselves by growing their own food and what not. Apparently Madeira has extremely fertile soil.

Janet and I had enough time to have a quick café con leche before boarding the bus back down that road. I kinda wished I had something stronger than coffee.

Back in Funchal we stopped at an old Madeira winery. The family who owns this winery has for 9 generations.  We got to sample their sweet Madeira wine, and a ticket to try one other type. I choose to try their semi-dry and My Oh My was that good. So good, in fact, I bought some. 

We're back on the boat now headed for Tenerife. Tomorrow another day of guided tours, and hopefully no more small, windy, narrow roads. 


I'm going to stop posting photos for now. It's taking too long and costing too much. But here's the story of our Casablanca stop.

What an interesting city! Full of life, a little be grimy and yet it held my captive with its familiarity. Seeing signs in Arabic took me back to the Saudi days. 
Our tour guide, Hassan, was a 77 year old guy who clearly LOVED his country and LOVES the new King - Mohammed the Second. Apparently this new king is cleaning up the place, and put a stop to the political corruptness that existed in Morocco for decades. He's build schools, new highways, housing for the poor, and the list goes on. 
Casablanca is apparently named because the Portuguese who landed there several hundred years ago had a law that all the houses had to be painted white - thus casa / blanca - white house. Three languages are spoken here and can be found in every sign: Arabic, English and French.  Casablanca is Morocco's largest city and third largest in Africa. 
Our tour started with a 90 minute bus trip to Rabat - the diplomatic capital of Morocco. Here we got to view the Royal Palace and the Royal Mosque. Oddly the King wasn't taking any visitors so we didn’t get to see him. The palace was beautiful from the outside, I could only imagine the opulence on the inside. 
Back in the bus - after a quick gross bathroom break - and off to Chellah, and ancient Phoenician city. Ruins still stand showing the layout of the city. And the unique point of this city are the storks that live there each year. Hundreds of storks our guide said…I saw maybe 20. Maybe some got lost in the conversion from dollar to Euro. 
Back on the bus and off to see the mausoleum of Hassan II- the grandfather of the current King. His mausoleum was paid for by the monarchy and "not by the people" our tour guide said. Naturally I was trying to figure out how a King got his wealth if not by the people. At any rate, it was grand and beautiful and everything I'd expect a mausoleum of a King to be. Inside a man sat in mediation and read from the Quran at each prayer call. 
The other interesting part of this mausoleum is the people of Morocco decided to build a mosque here too. Only they never finished it. A tower still stands that's only partly built and the pillars of the mosque stand showing the layout of what the mosque was going to be. Hassan, the tour guide, said they had no plans to build the mosque now. 
Back on the bus and we headed to the Kasbah - I'm sure I wasn't the only one singing "Rock the Kasbah" the entire time through this lovely little town on the hill. Casbah, apparently means fortress, and the wealthy lived here. We were accosted by women who wanted to paint henna tattoos on our hands for "free". I was quick to brush them away…I didn't know where their henna had been. 
Lots of cats here. I stumbled onto a black and white kitty that I needed to bring home. Janet said no. 
The houses were painted white with blue half way up from the ground. Apparently blue is for luck. And almost every door had the hand of Fatima on it - which also meant luck. I'm still wondering why these people needed so much luck. 
Back on the bus and it was time for lunch.  Hassan promised us delicious and filling food. I was skeptical because of past lunches on the cruises where they were mediocre at best. And this lunch would be the same.
It started with this pica de gallo-esk salad. It might have tasted good, but the tomatoes had an odd texture to me. The bread was good. This was followed by over cooked chicken in a yellow, butter sauce. I surmised the yellow to be turmeric - which to me isn't overly flavorful, but pretty. 
The table had a bottle of wine on it which we shared with a couple from Sweden. They weren't really talkers - so Janet and I drank the wine and amused ourselves with people watching. By this time a feral cat had wondered in and I found myself feeding him from the chicken on my plate. He wasn't nearly as picky about his food. And by the girth of him I could tell he didn't lack of food. 
This course was followed by a plate full of couscous. The couscous was also yellow and had chunks of beef in it - slow simmered, and delicious beef. The veggies on the plate were completely over cooked and gross. In fact, I wasn't sure what some of them were. 
The dessert course were sesame cookies and fruit. The fruit wasn't cut up however. It was full apples, bananas, and oranges. I peeled and orange and shared it with Janet. It was sweet and really tasty…considering the rest of the meal was questionable. 
Back on the bus and we stopped at a store for shopping. Apparently all tourists like to shop. I couldn't help be wonder if Hassan had a deal with the shop keeper, or if the shop keepers were family. He seemed overly excited to let us "shop" here. We bought nothin.
Back on the bus - are you seeing the trend here? And we stopped at the "historic" (I put that in quotes because it's only 8 years old) Hassan II Mosque - the 7th largest mosque in the world. It holds 100,000 people 25,000 inside and the rest outside - so again I'm questioning the "holds" part of the story. 
Still the mosque was beautiful. I wished we could have gone inside, but it's only opened to the public once a week and today wasn't that day. 
On the way back to the cruise ship, we drove base the famous Rick's Café from the movie Casablanca. Apparently a woman from Boston owns it now and it seats 250 - though it sure didn't look that big from the outside. Reservations, according to our tour guide, were almost impossible to get. I'm guessing they were somewhat possible since people were eating there. 
We finally made it back to the boat and just in time for dinner. Tomorrow is a sea day and I'm pretty happy about the resting and doing nothing part of that. Janet and I have another wine tasting…so that'll be fun.