Tuesday, October 22, 2013


Imagine some lumpy green hills overlooking an emerald blue Mediterranean Sea, covered with seven story rectangular crème-colored hotels and apartment buildings, all lined up in straight little ranks like soldiers atop staircase mountain ridges rising gracefully to the north and ending with the snowy Alps; then crown the mid-ranges with wispy white cloud scarves that follow the hilly contours, and you have Cannes, and pretty much every other town along the Côte d'Azur, or French Riviera.
Cannes is nestled in the Bay of Cannes and the Vieux Port harbor is filled with giant sailboats and yachts – mostly Brits and Aussies – and fish farms, supplying fresh fish for the local restaurants. 

The underlying geology is white Limestone and is mirrored everywhere you look by the architecture.  The ornate boxes with their orange tiled roofs cover every hillside like white and orange lava.  It is a very dense and vertical world.

The new home of the Cannes Film Festival sits by the water’s edge and stands out amidst the balconied boxes by flashing the very latest in cruise ship architectural design.  It's the only modern building along the beach and looks like a white ocean liner.
The town has a population of 70,000 people which swells to 200,000 each May during the Film Festival.  The town lives for the movies.
We had booked our very fist Royal Caribbean shore excursion in Cannes.  Each excursion we would be taking on this voyage involved a lengthy bus ride to our destination and we didn’t feel comfortable just winging it like we always did down in the Caribbean.  You see, when they said that the Vieux Port stop included Cannes, Monaco and Monte Carlo, what that really meant was that we got off the boat in Cannes, but Monaco and Monte Carlo were about an hour away up the coast.  And given that you absolutely, positively had to be back at the dock in Cannes before the ship departed at its appointed hour – 6:30 sharp that same day – we couldn’t play games and hope we got the transportation right.
So, we went with the 7-hour-long “Discovering Monaco and Monte Carlo” shore excursion for $89 per ticket, leaving the dock at 9:45AM.  And they guarantee to have you back on time.
Royal Caribbean provides a very helpful and informative Shore Excursion Guide that tells you what each offering will get you.
“You'll go to both landmarks of the Principality of Monaco, Old Monaco and Monte Carlo. In Monaco (the Rock) you'll enjoy a guided walking tour of the old town and some free time to explore its colorful arched streets. In Monte Carlo you'll see the outside of the world famous Grand Casino and get free time to explore the area on your own. The drive from Cannes is made via Nice and the very scenic Lower Corniche road along the coast.

Discover the paradise of the world famous Principality of Monaco. Following your arrival by tender at Cannes' harbor, your coach will depart for about one and a half hour's scenic drive to the Principality of Monaco via Nice. At the Rock of Monaco, an ancient wall city overlooking the sea, your guide will escort you on foot through the Old Quarter where you'll have time to explore the vaulted passageways or visit the Prince's Palace Square and the 19th century cathedral.

En route to Monte Carlo, your coach will travel along a portion of the Grand Prix Motor Race circuit to the Grand Casino. Arriving at Place du Casino in Monte Carlo after an extensive necessary uphill walk, your guide will escort you on a short walking tour of the area and give you free time to explore the landmarks on your own. Those wishing to visit the inside of the Grand Casino (only when this tour is operated in the afternoon) and quickly try their luck may do so on their own during that time (entrance requesting 18 years of age, proper dress code and a valid picture id). There are many snacks and restaurants in Monaco and Monte Carlo for you to make your own arrangements for lunch.

- The Casino is only open for gambling in the afternoon, and guests wanting to go visit it on their own (if timing of tour allows it during free time) must be over 18 years of age, properly dressed, and carry with them a valid picture ID if they want to gamble. Guides are not allowed to accompany groups inside.
- Lunch is not included in this tour but there are many snacks and restaurants available in Monaco for guests to make their own arrangements.
- Access to the Principality of Monaco for coaches is very strictly regulated and limited during most of the month of May due to the Grand Prix being held in town (Formula 1 Grand Prix on Sunday May 26th, 2013,.with trials the whole week prior). As a result no tour to Monaco can be operated from May 23rd till May 27th included, as tour buses are not allowed there. Prior to that, tours to Monaco can normally be operated but guests must take a public bus shuttle service operated by the Principality. Royal Caribbean International is taking charge of the extra expense involved, but can unfortunately not control the frequency or travel duration of that shuttle service which depends entirely from the Monaco public transportation services at the orders of the Prince’s government. All guests must be aware that there are high risks of large crowds, long waiting time standing up, and slow traffic at that particular very special time.”

The luxury tour bus was packed with mostly grey-haired couples, but the guide was friendly and knowledgeable and the sights outside our broad windows were endlessly entertaining and far different than anything we were used to in the U.S.
In Cannes we passed the opulent villas of the rich and famous all divided by nationality into the English section, and the Russian section, and so on, like a mini Earth for the fabulously wealthy.  Birds of a feather, and all that rot.
Leaving town we headed east up the twisty coast highway, paralleling the high speed train line toward Nice.  The area was incredibly lush with vegetation, supporting a rich diversity of trees and lots of different cacti – the latter being super popular as landscaping ornamentals.
At each crossroad there was a roundabout, usually with some eye-catching artwork in the center or snappy directional signs and the seaside towns were quite hectic, even on a Sunday; but unlike America, the drivers understood the lane rules and traffic flowed fast and efficiently.
Interestingly, the oldest towns were spread across the back hills and not near the sea, because in the old days, the attackers came by boat.  As things got safer, people moved down toward the water, and, these days, the real estate values along the Mediterranean are incredibly high – in the millions.  And when you buy a house, the value is pegged to the view – the sea, mountains, snow – the more you can see, the more you pay.
Every town we passed was exactly the same – crème-colored boxes – almost like the color and design were required by law.
The first big town we came to was Nice, sitting on the Bay of Angels.  With a population of 400,000, it is France’s fifth largest city.
We skirted the outskirts of Nice and headed due north toward the A8 motorway, climbing into the majestic Alps which still had snow on the highest peaks.

The big highway into Monte Carlo had multiple tolls ranging from 1.50€ - 2.30€ at each stop because the roads are privately owned and expensive to run, given all the mountain passes and long tunnels.  The motorway was well-maintained and attractively manicured with colorful cactus pots hanging from the retaining walls.  And I’m not sure how they managed to pull it off, but there were no backups at the toll booths.

We exited the motorway at the Monaco exit and found ourselves on a twisting, narrow road filled with tour buses.  Houses and small businesses hugged the road like a security blanket.  We pulled off at a busy visitor center above our destination and got out for a pit stop and to look around.

We were all standing at a magnificent overlook with a view of two cities.
 On the left, there was the New Monaco awash in high-rises – property values are sky high and space is very limited with the sea on the front steps, the mountains at the back door, and Italy at stage left.  Even from a distance, the city screamed, “MONEY!”
And on the right, sitting atop “The Rock”, was the Principality of Monaco, a sovereign and independent state perched above the Mediterranean Sea like a triangular fortress.  Monaco is the world's most densely populated and second-smallest independent state on earth, right behind Vatican City.  It has a population of 36,000, occupying a mere 0.75 square miles (485 acres).  It’s a sardine can existence for millionaires with an army of gaping tourists traipsing by your front door every day of your life.
Monaco was founded in 1215, and has been ruled by the House of Grimaldi since 1297. You see the Grimaldi shipping line freighters and ferry boats in every harbor.  They have their hands in a lot of different pies.

I’m a geology guy.  After living for fifteen years at the Grand Canyon, I guess you could say it’s in my blood.  For me, the bottom line is always the ground you are walking on.  So, here’s a little Geology 101 about the Mediterranean.
The African plate is riding north and relentlessly pushing against the Eurasian plate which sits under the Mediterranean Sea.  The pressure exerted by the African plate causes the Pyrenees, Alps and Carpathian mountains to steadily rise.  These mountains are made of Limestone, the remnants of long-gone sea critters that died and then piled on top of one another, making skeletal mountains under the ancient Tethys Sea.  The African plate came along and started pushing them up out the water, making new land where the people of the region now reside.  And in between the two scraping continental plates, there lie several small remnants of other planetary plates, like seeds caught between grinding teeth.  And this constant gnashing produces volcanoes, like Vesuvius.

Monaco sits atop the Monaco-Ville, a rocky Limestone promontory about 200 feet above sea level.  Only 6,000 of its inhabitants are passport-carrying Monocasts.  It’s like the world’s most exclusive club and gated community.  The rest of the residents service the royal elite and their friends, along with the hordes of tourists.  Monaco has zero percent unemployment.  And Monocasts enjoy a life span of 98 years, the highest in the world.  They also have the most expensive real estate prices.  But you can't buy a house in the old city.  You have to marry into residency.  Prince Albert rules the principality from his elegant palace and there are no income taxes.  The Great Recession never hit this area because there was no industry to feel the crunch and the residents are filthy rich. 
Monaco is strictly regulated.  The city sets a limit on how many tour buses can come in.  They are required to park in an expensive underground garage where their arrival and departure are monitored closely by computers.  In order to drive a car up onto the mountain and into Old Monaco you need a Principaute De Monaco license plate. 
Monaco is a fairy tale country that still worships Princess Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier.  Chauffeurs pick up their employer’s kids at school in limos and many of the residents prefer helicopters to get around.  There is an immigrant service class that takes a bus into the old city each morning, does their job with a smile and a curtsy, and then leaves at the end of the day.
The first things you see when exiting the cavernous bus garage are a bank of red and white Coke machines.  Then you join the tourist throng, taking an escalator up to the cheesy gift shop/snack bar, which leads to another escalator, and finally to a crowded elevator that drops you at the top, right next to Jacques Cousteau's Yellow Submarine that is parked in front of the Musseu Oceanographique.
You can’t just wander around the teeny town, but must be accompanied by a guide, who takes you on a scripted walk, each tour group following the other like camera-carrying herds of cows.
It doesn’t take more than about an hour to walk around the city, but if you are incredibly lazy, you can hop aboard one of Monaco Tours’ red and white Choo Choo trains that haul the smiling tourons around the perimeter of the city like something you might find in some small Pennsylvania coal town.

Our first stop on the short walking tour was the church where Grace Kelly is buried.  This is by far the biggest draw in town.  People are absolutely enthralled with the Grace Kelly story, which I refuse to repeat.  Google it.
Then they take you to the Royal Palace which is framed by a beautiful square and surrounded by gilded royal buildings of buff limestone.  It really is quite spectacular.
Monaco has no army, so the French provide the security force.  And if you are really lucky, you might catch the changing of the guard each hour.
After they tell you about the palace, the guide cuts you loose to eat, shop, or just wander for about an hour.  That’s plenty of time.  Inna and I walked around the outside walls, looking down on the new city of Monaco where we were heading next.
The new Monaco is all steel and glass high-rise with glitzy marinas filled with mega-yachts.  Space is very limited so they use rooftops and below ground for things like play areas, garages, and roads.  They even have roundabouts in the subterranean tunnels, like an underground city on a far flung planet.  The modern Monaco wouldn’t win any beauty contests, but people will spend as much as 35 million euro for an apartment there.  Go figure.
Before departing the old city, we checked out the little gift shops along the narrow Medieval stone streets, the restaurants packed with tourists pounding drinks and downing bland-looking chow, and then our group met back at the yellow submarine, we sang a chorus of the Beatles song, and then it was time to hop on the bus, leave old Monaco and go check out the new city.
Monte Carlo (Mount Charles) is the administrative heart of the Principality of Monaco, has a permanent population of about 19,000, and is the home of the world’s most famous gambling center, the Monte Carlo Casino.  Surrounding the grand casino are the world-famous Place du Casino, the Hotel de Paris, the Café de Paris, and the Salle Garnier Opera House.
As we climbed the steep steps from the underground parking garage, we were greeted by black storm clouds barreling toward us down the coast.  A minute later, the skies opened up and everyone madly dashed for the front doors of the casino.  It was a total mob scene which I wanted nothing to do with.  Our guide had told us we had an hour before we had to regroup in front of the nearby Chanel store, so while Inna checked out the eye-popping casino, I went for a walk in the pouring rain.  I had good rain gear and it was warm; so other than the occasional lightning blast, it was actually a good time to be out and about because everyone else had run for cover and I was the only one on the street.
I checked out the seemingly out of place vineyard in the middle of the square and then watched the rich folk make their grand entrance at the casino in their snazzy Ferraris and Lamborghinis – mostly bored and arrogant Russian men, looking to throw their money around and show off their mean women.
I noticed a small park on the far side of the square.  It was the Jardins de la Petite Afrique (The Gardens of Little Africa), lined with humongous baobab trees and other African delights.  The park was empty and I felt like I was walking through the Garden of Eden.
There’s something about walking in warm rain that is very soothing.  The air smells sweet and everything seems to shine.
I strolled across the Avenue des Spelugues and entered an unnamed wooded park, following a paved trail that wrapped around the back side of the palatial Opera House, leading to a sculpture garden overlooking the angry Mediterranean Sea where waves crashed a hundred feet into the air and mimicked the thunder that was moving off to the north.
I checked out the life-size erotic sculptures adorning the well-kept garden as I slowly made my way toward the back side of the casino.  By now, the rain had stopped and I took off my poncho.  The sun broke through the clouds and the casino sparkled like a wet jewel.  There was not another person around; which was sort of weird because on the front side of the building, there were probably thousands of people snapping pictures and dreaming of being rich.
After rejoining the tour group our friendly guide led us back into the bowels of Monaco where tour buses were parked in diagonal rows and Chinese tourons walked in long, single file lines toward the light of day like animated zombies.  As our bus left the cavernous garage and climbed the steep hill out of town we entered the tunnel mountain above Monaco and came out on the other side of the rabbit hole.
Monaco is certainly interesting and attractive in a sort of picture postcard way.  But it doesn’t seem entirely real.  I can’t imagine actually living there even if it is considered by the world’s richest people to be the place to call home.  It definitely has all the bells and whistles for those who live to see and be seen, but it’s really just an opulent fish bowl.

We returned to the ship a little after five and the Serenade of the Seas departed Cannes precisely at 6:30.  It was already starting to feel like home.

Next stop:  FLORENCE

Friday, October 18, 2013


Barcelona is an architectural wonder, a joyous mish-mash of ancient and modern styles all mixed together like an intoxicating cocktail.  The city that gave birth to Miro and Gaudi is a city unafraid to experiment and celebrate its adventurous spirit.
There is a uniformity to most towns, a particular style that separates them from other places.  In Vegas, it’s the glitzy neon.  In Washington, it’s the white marble and granite institutional buildings.  In New York City, it’s the skyscrapers.  In Barcelona, it’s the lack of cohesion, the unbridled free-for-all approach to architecture and life which separates it from every other city in the world.

Just take something as simple as shoes.  Barcas are fond of wearing high top Chucks, but of every color and stripe – some even made of fine leather and costing hundreds of Euros.  And when you see a childhood favorite worn with such a cool flair, you can’t help but smile.  And in Barcelona, flat is back.  Barcelona men prefer flat shoes to those with arches or heels.  And women favor either sexy sandals or ankle boots of fine leather.

The clothing scene in Barcelona is equally flamboyant and expressive.  They like to mix and match all sorts of fashions.  The women are quite fetching and wear incredibly short shorts.  And old people often dress like teenagers.  Barcas are totally unselfconscious.  They are a very attractive people who like to show a lot of skin.

Barcelona is very proud of its Catalan heritage.  This manifests itself most joyously with their food.  Thin crunchy bread with local ham and cheese is a popular snack and all sorts of flat bread combos and gooey pastries tempt you from every shop window.  Spaniards definitely love their bread, pasta, and pork.

Fresh fruit and vegetables grown in Catalan make dining around Barcelona a real treat.  Local oranges and lemons literally grow on trees.  And the variety of yummy olives will thrill your taste buds to no end.  I had no idea there were so many varieties.

Barcas are very cultured and there are all sorts of museums around the city – Pre-Columbian art, modern art, Miro, Picasso, Gaudi, ethnology and every earth science under the sun, music, chocolate, maritime, an incredible Botanical Garden, and even the Museu de l’Erotica – and each is housed in a building that pumps up the message.  You could easily spend weeks just checking out the museum scene.

 Barcas are avid readers and there are book shops and outdoor tents filled with vendors hawking books all over the city.  Down along Las Ramblas, the insanely popular pedestrian mall where any visitor to Barcelona eventually ends up, we accidentally stumbled upon the Book and Roses Festival, dedicated to the City’s patron saint, St George.  Many of the books were in English which isn't a problem for the average Barca because English is mandatory in all Spanish schools and everyone – especially the younger folks – speaks at least a little English.  And we found it very amusing to see that most of the written informational materials, from brochures to instructions, were also written in English, like the reverse of Spanish in the U.S.

There are many similarities between America and Spain.  For instance, I am a big fan of electronic cigarettes and was pleasantly surprised to see that they are quite popular in Barcelona.  And culturally speaking, Barcas are obsessed with their cellphones just like Americans.  Billboards advertising the latest American movies could be found on buses, buildings, the Metro stations, and almost anywhere where Barcas gather.  Nike sports paraphernalia is extremely popular, to the point where the larger outlets have their own security guards.  And Barcas are utterly crazed when it comes to football, just like in America, and the Barcelona team has won their equivalent of the Super Bowl several times.  So, sports totally rule.

 No trip to Barcelona is complete without a stop at Sagrada Familia, Spain's most popular tourist destination.  After designing Park Guell, Barcelona’s hallucinogenic urban garden in the center of town, Atoni Gaudi turned his attention to his greatest masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia Cathedral.  Starting in 1915, he shepherded the construction of a grand house of God unlike anything else on earth, incorporating all the different elements of design he had employed during his meteoric career – Gothic, Byzantine, Oriental, Naturalistic – and utilizing every material he had ever worked with, from mosaics to trash.

During Gaudí's life only the crypt, apse and part of the Nativity facade were completed.  Upon his tragic death  at the age of 73 – he was hit by a tram on his daily walk to the Sant Felip Neri church for prayer and confession – his assistant Domènec Sugrañes took over the construction, followed by various architects who shared the master’s vision across time.

When asked how he felt about the fact that he would never see his gift to God completed, Gaudi replied, “Don’t worry, my client isn’t in a hurry.”

Words cannot adequately describe Sagrada Familia.  It’s like the Grand Canyon of architecture.  You cannot possibly imagine from the outside – which is overpoweringly out of this world – what it looks like on the inside.  It is like no other religious cathedral in the world.  I have seen some of the best – Notre Dame, Westminster, Ely, Durham, St. John the Divine, the National Cathedral in D.C. – but when I walked into Sagrada Familia and looked up, I literally gasped in shock and unconsciously stepped back in awe.  It was like staring into the world’s largest gemstone from the inside out, and on such a monumental scale that my mind couldn’t fully comprehend.

As I stared like a child at the massive white stone pillars rising to the roof in the shape of  sinuous trees it literally brought me to tears.  I’m not a religious person, but I stood there crying with joy at the thought that Antoni Gaudi, one puny human being from some obscure Spanish village, could have dreamed up and then designed on paper something so amazing, and that artisans could spend several centuries lovingly laboring to make it come alive in all of its glory – were, in fact, still bringing Gaudi’s glorious vision to life (It is still only about half finished.).  That feeling of sheer wonderment was overpowering.  Several times I had to sit down and close my eyes.  And for the first time in my life, I truly understood the extraordinary strength and commitment of the human spirit.  That lightning bolt of shocking insight will stay with me until my dying day.

Later that afternoon we hopped the Metro down to the beach, exiting at the Paseo de Colon which runs along the trendy Moll d'Espanya and Port Veil waterfront area that got a dramatic face lift in 1987, before the summer Olympics came to town.

Fancy restaurants and upscale shops line the sparkling promenade covered in a wash of spectacular sights: the great tower of Christopher Columbus facing out to sea, the Plaza del Portal de la Pau, the ornate Post Office Building, the La Llotja stock exchange, gleaming marinas, the Med’s finest aquarium, the Gothic Naval Institute with its castle turrets, spacious museums housed in eye candy buildings, bike trails, statues of marine animals, surreal Miro stone and metal figures, Roy Lichtenstein's sculpture "Barcelona Head”, the grand Casino de Barcelona, the emblematic Hotel Arts and Mapfre Tower, several stunning churches, the Olympic Sailing Center, and the sprawling cruise ship terminal on its own little island in the happening harbor.  Barcelona’s waterfront is a city unto itself.

We bypassed the solitary W Hotel on the west end of the beach, towering into the air like a blue-silver air foil sail, and then ended up taking a little side trip through La Barceloneta, a working-class barrio that used to the fishermen's quarter.  We walked its narrow streets, checking out some of the city's cheapest and best tapas bars and seafood restaurants bordering the beach that stretches for three glorious miles.  We found it interesting that rather than the usual high rise beachfront hotels, the poor folks owned the apartments overlooking the sea.

The beaches, like almost every place in Barcelona, are ADA accessible.  Wheelchairs are everywhere.

And environmental awareness plays a big role in the lives of most Barcas.  There are little green signs along the beaches, promoting clean water quality for safe swimming.  And while the beaches are always crowded, there was no litter.  The beaches are for all of the people, and apparently, the people have a right – and a strong commitment – to a clean environment.

Barcelona is infamous for its "natural" beaches where people frolic in the nude.  We chose Icària Beach
where they wore clothes, but many of the ladies went topless just the same.  Barcas are not shy.

Vendors roamed the beach, selling Majitos in cardboard cartons, advertising their wares excitedly like fishmongers.

The Mediterranean doesn't have waves like the ocean, so there is no surfing.  But paddle boards are super popular and the flat water makes for easy paddling.

The Med was salty and cool.  I swam about a quarter mile out to a bright yellow buoy at end of the long breakwater that was made from giant cubist blocks.  Even their shoreline protection was artistic.  The whole time I was swimming around, I only saw one aquatic critter, a small jellyfish.  There are no dolphins, or sharks, or whales in the Med.  It’s not a body of water where you will see big fish, other than tuna.  And that fishery is in the tank, along with many others due to pollution and overfishing.  Imagine trying to get all the nations bordering the Med – Europe, Africa, Middle East – to work together.  It’s an impossible task.

Spaniards are famous the world round as champion sailors and there were many sailboats of all sizes racing just outside the harbor, including some odd J-80-sized sailboats with their colorful bows rising out of the water.  There was a steady sea breeze and the spinnakers were flying in the sun like bright flowers.  It was a familiar scene for a lad raised in the Sailing Capital of Annapolis, just a bit more exotic.

Icària Beach was like the Tower of Babble, with every culture on earth enjoying the sea and sand, along with weirdly dressed Asian women in leotards giving massages.  Sleek French men and women danced in the sand to salsa music.  Boisterous Russians roamed in packs and muscular Germans did Majito curls while Africans sold sunglasses and knockoff handbags and Arab men gawked and giggled at the nearly-naked women.  It was all endlessly amusing.  And towering behind this international passion play was Frank Gehry’s giant bronze mesh fish sculpture called Peix.  I’m telling you, they could have charged admission.

 After a few hours in the sun without any sunscreen we sought shelter in the Museu d’Historia de Catalunya which sits at center stage on Barcelona’s waterfront, occupying the old General Trading Warehouse.  Each floor of the gigantic brown stone structure takes you through a different period of time, from the Palaeolithic to the present.  The first people to call Barcelona home lived in caves along the coast thousands of years before Christ and their ensuing evolution included tribal warfare, territorial violence, maritime conquest and commercial expansion, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Spanish Empire’s New World exploration and exploitation, the Industrial Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, and an unwavering reluctance to sit still and put down their weapons.  As a thriving seaport on the cusp between Christianity and Islam, Catalan was attacked and occupied by the Romans, the Goths, the Normans, the Turks, the French, and countless royal marauders from all over Spain, each building on the bones and smoldering remains of those who came before, each temporary alliance invariably leading to more bloodshed and destruction.  Their tortured history reads like 2,700 years of nonstop savagery.  But curiously enough, by the end of World War II, they had mellowed and absorbed the blood of so many different cultures, that the people of Barcelona somehow miraculously transformed themselves into a modern model of civility and tolerance.  And their fighting spirit has moved from the battlefield to the soccer field where Spain is the champion of the world.

Our last night in Barcelona was bittersweet because we were excited about our upcoming cruise but didn't want to leave such a lovely and charming city.

We were tired of tapas, so we roamed the side streets, looking for just the right place for our last supper.  We couldn't agree on where to eat and finally stopped at an attractive outdoor cafe overlooking a busy intersection off the Avenue Roma.  The restaurant servicing the outdoor tables turned out to be a little hole-in-the-wall joint called Restaurant Dana, run by a friendly Syrian family.  And, much to our pleasant surprise, it served up the best meal we had in Barcelona.

 Given the recent saber rattling madness surrounding Syria and the U.S., we couldn't help asking our chatty waiter what he thought about all this talk of war.  He said, without hesitation, "Assad is done", and then moved the conversation to what he really thought was important.  He showed us the ornate hookahs that the local Syrians smoke at 11 each morning.  He let us smell a pouch of his favorite grape tobacco and got a kick out of my electronic cigarette which just happened to be loaded with a grape nicotine filter – no comparison to the giant hookah, of course.

 All of the Syrians we met seemed hard working and incredibly gracious.  They hated the dictator Assad but seemed to have no affinity toward the rebels either, and clearly bore no animosity toward America.  They had made a new life in Spain, and Syria was a million miles away.

We ate an appetizer of large green olives and drank their sweet Syrian beer, followed by a lamb quesadilla dish called Arayas and an ensalada of spicy fried bread mixed with greens that were both simply out of this world.  The owner surprised us at the end of our meal with two free desserts made of nuts and some tasty date filling.

 We were in heaven.

A Mexican doctor and his wife and little girl sat down next to us and we struck up a conversation.  They lived nearby and the doctor and his wife walked to work each day.  We were interested in the cost of living.  He makes 1,800€ a month – before the world economic crunch he made 3,500€ – and a very nice apartment costs 800€ a month and about 300,000€ to buy.  
Spain’s economy is still in shambles after the Great Recession; unemployment is stuck at about 25 percent and even professionals like doctors have a hard time making ends meet.  As in America, husbands and wives both have to work in order to pay the bills.  I guess times are tough all over.

Getting from our hotel the next day turned out to be quite the ordeal.  We had been told that the green line on the Metro stopped at the cruise ship dock.  So we humped our heavy bags up and down steep steps, switching from the red line to the green, wishing all the while that we had taken a cab, and figuring that we had at least saved ourselves some money.  There was even a little cruise ship icon at the Metro stop where we got off so we figured we were on the right track.  We climbed the steps of the Drassanes Station and were greeted by ol’ Christopher Columbus atop his pillar of stone.  We crossed several busy streets that led us to the water.  We walked for about ten minutes until we started to realize that there were no cruise ships in sight.  And believe me, it’s pretty much impossible to hide a cruise ship.  We finally came to some sort of ferry terminal where a nice fellow told us to hop a nearby blue bus for 2.50€ that would take us the remaining two miles to the cruise ship dock.  Clearly, walking had never been an option.

The Royal Caribbean terminal seemed empty compared to San Juan and New Orleans, where we had departed on our previous cruises.

As we stood staring out over Barcelona from atop the twelfth deck of the Serenade of the Seas (the first ship we ever sailed on three years before out of Puerto Rico), I suddenly remembered the Egg Festival story we had heard about during one of our bus tours.  During this annual religious ceremony, the Mayor of Barcelona takes 12 eggs to the nuns at an ancient convent near the Pedralbes Monastery, asking for good weather.  Facing 12 days at sea, in three different countries, I prayed the ladies had done their job well.

 Unfortunately, they totally dropped the eggs.  But that’s another story…