Friday, November 30, 2012

The Week in Review

Keith and Steve came back to our house after the cruise.  We all had lots to do in the way of laundry and getting caught up, especially Steve who had 1300 emails or so.  Sunday was spent getting the luggage emptied and laundry going.  Thank goodness we had attended Mass on the ship on Saturday night so we didn't need to stop at 6 pm and go to the last Mass of the day on Sunday.

Monday we continued with the laundry but took time to drive them around to see some of the area we live in.  Other than the ride to the country club on Thursday, it's about all of our Township they got to see.

Tuesday we drove to Brenham to the Blue Bell ice cream factory where the workers "eat all they can and sell the rest."  It's a lovely complex and delightful town so it was easy to spend the day there.  First we took the factory tour, then ate at the airport diner right next to the runway where the waitresses dress in poodle skirts and then we hit some of the shops along Main Street.  They had been looking for a pickle ornament (an old German custom is to hide that green ornament in the tree and have a gift for whoever finds it).  Our search had been unsuccessful until I was told to go to Fancy That.  I was so tickled to give Keith the decorated bag that contained it.

Here they are with the Blue Bell logo sculpture wearing their paper worker hats given on the tour.  The second photo is beside an old ice cream delivery truck with the original name Blue Bell Creameries.  Last is our waitress at the diner taking our order.

Wednesday we traveled to Old Town Spring and visited every one of the stores.  Despite many unique stores and boutiques, none of us bought anything.  We did however try several of the dips and spread samples some stores had out.

Thursday Keith and I continued our decorating quest.  Because we are usually gone, decorating has been almost non-existent since we moved into our present home.  He would ask where does this "go" and I would say nowhere in particular. It's been in the attic for 10 years.  So he had carte blanche to do whatever he wanted.

Late afternoon we headed to the country club for Thanksgiving dinner.  What a spread!  They had everything imaginable and it was all very, very good.  I didn't over eat though.  One trip to the salad station, one to the hot food for turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and vegetables and one piece of pie.  Well maybe that is overeating on Weight Watchers but after our eating frenzy on the ship, this was mild.  I did gain 2 lbs. while away but I didn't think that was too bad.

Ted was fighting an upper respiratory infection that I managed not to get.  Maybe my flu shot did work!  But we left him home and headed to the San Jacinto Monument.  We watched the movie, took the elevator to the observation platform and took in the exhibit.  This monument is taller than the Washington Monument, but then everything is bigger in Texas!

Next we went to the Monument Inn for a late lunch and watched lots of barge activity in the ship channel.  The ferry looked as if it was playing cat and mouse.  A barge would go by, here came the ferry.  Another barge went by, there goes the ferry.

Next up was a tour of the Battleship Texas.  We all enjoyed this part of the day because you get to go most anywhere you want on this ship.  There are many, many floors from the bowels of the ship with the engine room to the highest point of a crow's nest.  And you can go wherever you want.  No particular tour guide or anyone to stop you.  What they don't want you to have access to is locked.  We spent a lot of time here before heading home.

Too soon our week was over and it was an early morning run to the airport for them to head back to Connecticut.  This past week I had kept empty on my calendar because I knew that after a month of travel and company and Christmas coming I would have lots to do.

But I am in great shape now.  House decorated, Christmas card ready to go out through, shopping done mostly through Amazon and I just need to wrap the few things I have here for the kids that are coming.

But next week really gears up so I'm glad to be as far along as I am.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Water, water everywhere ...

... and not a drop to drink.  That's what the bars are for! 

Our trans Atlantic trip was so smooth we hardly knew we were at sea hundreds of miles from land for the most part.  We did pass through the Straits of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco in the middle of the night.  Some people stayed up or got up to see the Rock but in the dark they said it was a mere shadow.  The straits are about seven miles wide so we were very close to Africa.

I didn't take many pictures on the ship.  We filled our days with leisurely breakfasts which was easy to do because each night we gained an hour as we moved west.  There were mornings I went to the Promenade when it was still dark except for the Cafe.  The lights came on at 6 am.  Normally I would run into someone, have coffee, and after an hour or so would take coffee to our cabin for Ted.  Eventually we would head to the dining room for breakfast.

Our group would gather outside one of the bars on the Promenade and people would come and go for visits.  A priest was on board and said Mass at 9:15 each morning and sometimes we attended.  We took Spanish lessons, played Trivial Pursuit, walked the track on the top deck, played miniature golf and shuffleboard and did some of the activities the ship provided.  There were movies every day and we did see Chicago again because we both like it so well.

After lunch whoever wanted to play cards met in the dining room at 1:00 and we played until around 4:00.  By then it was 5 o'clock somewhere and the group would start gathering outside the bar again but instead of coffee, the drinks started coming.  Dinner for us was at 6:00 followed by great entertainment in the showroom after that.  When that was over most headed to their cabins because the day had started so early and we would gain another hour the next day!

Here is a group photo on the steps of the Rhapsody in Blue dining room and a "photo of the photo" (I don't have a scanner) taken by the ship's photographer on our last formal night.  By the third formal night, Ted refused to wear a tie, he said he was on vacation!  The six late diners and a couple others are missing from the group shot.  It was taken on our second formal night (and Ted has on a tie!). 

After six days at sea we docked in Nassau.  The sun was shining, the weather was warm and everyone was ready to set foot on terra firma once more.  Two Carnival and one Norwegian ship were in port along with us.  It made for a very crowded downtown.

Ted and I had visited back in July, 1973, when the Bahamas received their independence from England.  The bus driver actually mentioned that date during our tour.  We saw Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Blue Angels as part of that celebration.  There are two forts Fincastle and Port Charlotte and the Queens Steps but not much else to visit.  Here are Ted and I at the bottom of the Queen's Steps and at our stop at the beach. 

The one thing that has been developed over those 40 years is the Atlantis Resort where our tour made a brief stop. 

Some of the yachts parked in their basin.

My Edith Ann pose in the Atlantis chair in the lobby.

The fountain at the entrance to the hotel and casino.

Without a "bracelet" that you paid admission or are staying there, you can't go very far in the complex.  Of course they will allow you into the casino and shops!  I turned $5 into $8.50 in a few minutes at the casino but had to cash out quickly to catch the bus.  If you had the time, a day pass to the resort would be well worth it but we didn't have that luxury this time.

Ted, Tom and I walked through the downtown and I bought the jacket I am wearing in the formal photo above.  We had two more days at sea passing the Florida Keys and entering the Gulf of Mexico to Galveston.  On the last night we played bingo and I won $277, but the last game, the big jackpot that had been building, went to one woman for $5800.  That would have been nice but to win at all was a thrill.

When we arrived in Galveston we had reserved a bus to take 14 of us to Terry's where cars and rides awaited us.  It was a great trip!

But Keith and Steve were coming home with us for a week so there is more to come.

Canary Islands

We had a day at sea before arriving in Lanzarote, Canary Islands (also belonging to Spain) and pronounced Lan-Za-Roe-Tae.  This island reminded me of the Big Island of Hawaii since it was mostly volcanic in nature. 

Our destination from the coast to the higher elevations was Jameos del Agua Cave and Mirador del Rio.  All buildings are no more than two stories high and painted white. It was almost blinding in the sun.

The Jameos del Agua is part of a 6 Km long lava tube that formed about 3,000 years ago when the Montaña La Corona erupted. Molten lava continued to flow as the surface hardened, which in turn led to the formation of the tubes, which run down under the Atlantic.

The word Jameo is used in this context to refer to the large openings in the tube which formed when parts of the roof collapsed, due to a pressure build up caused by the volcanic gases. It is these open-air caves which Manrique used as the centrepiece for the attraction and which have given it a name.

You enter the Jameos by climbing down a stone-staircase into the first cave known as ‘Jameo Chico’, which has been turned into an unusual bar / restaurant, with views over a small lake.

This natural lake has extremely clear water — regulated by the Atlantic Ocean — and is home to a species of blind albino crabs known as ‘Jameitos’, which are only found on Lanzarote. These crabs have been adopted as the symbol of the Jameos del Agua. 

I took a picture of these crabs that are no bigger than your thumbnail but you really can't see them in the dark water.

Nothing is quite like walking out of the dark tunnel to be faced, suddenly with a huge open-air cave lined with tropical plants and the most fantastic swimming-pool you may ever see.  This crystal-clear, turquoise pool is truly paradise, even if you can’t actually use it, as swimming is forbidden.

From the far end of the ‘Jameo Grande’ you can access the auditorium, which has been constructed in part of the volcanic tube running down to the Ocean. The auditorium has unbelievable acoustics and has been the setting for some memorable concerts.

Mirador del Río is an attractively designed observation point / lookout, built over several levels anchored into the volcanic lava-rock cliff face. It overlooks the nearby Canarian island of Isla Graciosa and down the North West coast of lanzarote.  In 1974, César Manrique (iconic Lanzarotian artist and designer) transformed the site into its current form. The combined use of modern materials such as white-painted concrete, gigantic panoramic windows and abstract sculpture contrasts with the natural beauty of the coloured lava rock face that it is hewn from and the platforms tessellated with volcanic paving stones.

We headed back to our ship for our last stop for a week in Tenerife, also part of the Canary Islands.

Tenerife is a very busy port and our ship was met by an ambulance. I was just amazed at the number of people seeking medical attention and becoming seriously ill. When we were in Nassau a couple was removed from the ship. My understanding is there was some sort of "domestic violence." He was in the brig and she was confined to her cabin. Someone saw Security in the cabin with her directing the packing and removal of their things! I don't know if they were turned over to any authorities or just removed.

Our tour on Tenerife (Ten-Er-E-Fay) was Pyramids of Guimar. This is a step pyramid complex oriented astronomically to the summer and winter solstices. These show great resemblance to those found in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Sardinia, Sicily, South American and other parts of the world.

Thor Heyerdahl moved to Tenerife to study these pyramids and disprove the thinking that these were mere rock walls built by farmers removing rocks from their fields. If that was the case, these were some very talented farmers or had lots of time on their hands to build something so accurately that they have stood for centuries. The authorities are still out on their origin.

The port, Santa Cruz, where we docked was very modern and had a beautifully built art museum.   It reminded me of a cross between the art museum in Milwaukee and the Sydney Opera House.  Unfortunately we did not have time to visit it.  We were heading out to sea for six days. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

St. Peter's Basilica

This didn't get "published" so is out of order.  Sorry.  One of the things that started our "minor mutiny" was the lack of a visit to St. Peter's.  Who would plan a tour of Rome without including it?  When we arranged Thursday in the city instead of Tivoli, we agreed to get up early Friday and spend the morning at St. Peter's Basilica before heading to Civitavecchia (where the Costa ship left from before hitting the rock!). 

The first thing to greet you are the symbols of the papacy, the keys to the church.  Next up would be Michaelangelo's Pieta.  This was our second sculpture of his to see having seen the only one outside of Italy in Bruegge, Belgium.

I would normally rent one of the audio tours but I knew I did not have enough time to listen to it and see the entire inside of the church.  Going to the crypts below was out of the question but we could see through grates in the floor.

This is an altar dedicated to Pope John XXIII.  He has been Beatified which is a step to being declared a saint.  His body is encased in a glass coffin.  I believe it said there has been wax put over his face but his body remains intact.

There is much to see and the only way to get the full effect would be to take your time and use the audio tour.  There is so much church history, artwork, sculptures, etc. to admire.  But our time was short.  And we took time to attend Mass in one of the many side chapel alcoves.  Some young boys were servers at our Mass. I imagine they will always remember the time they served Mass at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. I know I will always remember attending All Soul's Day Mass there.

Just as it was finished about five cardinals in their red hats came out following someone all in white with a white miter hat who went to another chapel where the gate was closed and no one was given access.  I was tempted to tell them my joke "I'm an important Catholic.  In case of emergency, call the bishop."  But I didn't. 
Outside was a well where people were getting drinks.  It appeared to be very old but I cannot find any information on it.  One can only imagine how many centuries ago it was dug and put into use.  If I am not mistaken, those top structures are symbols of the papacy.


The Mariner of the Seas

I wished Rome and its lack of bathrooms, ungodly traffic and rude people "arrivederci" and enjoyed my ride to the port.  Our ship was a welcome sight.

It took no time to get our baggage off the bus and into the hands of the crew who would put in on board.  If things go right, and they did for us, the luggage shows up at your stateroom before dinner.  We did learn of a couple, not in our group, whose luggage did not get put on board.  It cost them $700 to have their luggage sent to our next port.  One had insurance and one didn't.  If you are ever going to travel like this, buy the insurance.  At least one third of our group ended up with a claim for something by the trip's end.

Because we are now Platinum members with Royal Caribbean we were given a special line for check-in but the lines were not long and we didn't get through any quicker than the others.  Once on board it was right to the buffet for our lunch because it was mid-afternoon.  Finding your way around the ship takes a bit of doing.  There is some "you can't get there from here" that goes on.  One bank of elevators will go to the top, another set won't.  Some floors don't go entirely through the ship.  My biggest problem is figuring out fore and aft.  But I did notice our side of the ship had blue carpeting, the other side red.  That helped me a lot.

We had a lovely cabin mid-ship, front to back and top to bottom on Deck 6.  We turned down an upgrade that was about 4 decks up and all the way forward.  We didn't think it would be a good spot in rough seas.  If we had known how smooth the crossing was going to be we would have taken it.

There was a king size bed with luxurious linens plus a couch and coffee table.  We also had a balcony which I liked because I could determine the weather before I got dressed.  I didn't spend much time out there but it was nice having it.

Our first port of call was Ajjaccio, Corsica.  That is pronounced A-Jax-See-O.  Corsica is an island off the coast and belongs to France.  Our tour was to the very top of the island to Prunelli Gorge.  The mountains are heavy with vegetation and there were many scenic views.  When we returned we had lunch and then took a walk around Austerlitze Square to view the statue of Napoleon who was born here.

This older gentleman caught my eye and just seemed to "belong" to the landscape so well that I took his photo.

Our next stop was Palma de Mallorca, also a Mediterranean island but it belongs to Spain.  This is pronounced My-Or-Ka.  Our first stop was Belver Castle followed by a stop at the bullring.  Bullfights are not as common as they used to be but they still exist.

I was busy at the Pearl Factory across the street doing some serious damage purchasing a graduation gift.  I have jumped through all the hoops to get my VAT tax back so I'll let you know if it appears as a credit on my Visa card in the next three months!

Our third port was Cartegena, Spain (pronounced Car-Ta-Hey-Nah).  What a beautiful city.  So clean and well maintained.  We were all impressed.  We visited the excavation site of the Theater that has been uncovered just recently.  Here is what we learned.

The biggest monument in Cartagena is the Roman Theater. It was ordered built by Augustus Caesar and the construction took place between 5 and 1 A.D. and was dedicated to Lucio and Cayo Caesar, the nephews of the Emperor. The theater could hold 6000 people.

In October of 1988, the city was going to construct a new building on the site and discovered that there were remains from Byzantine, Arab, and medieval times, and below all of these they found the Roman Theater. This was one of the greatest archaeological discoveries in Spain in recent times. The reason that the theater was not discovered earlier is that its location was in a part of the city that had been continuously occupied since Roman times. The theater was built on the side of one of the town's highest hills.

The site was restored very well and it was found that 60% of the original materials were found on the site. The restoration finished in 1988, and its museum was also finished. The entrance to the Roman Theater Museum of Cartagena is located in the Pascual de Riquelme Palace, which was a Baroque looking palace built by the architect Tomas Rico. The famous architect Rafael Moneo built a tunnel underground to connect the palace with the Roman theater, which is more than a block away. When one enters the Roman Theater from the top of the stands, one is highly impressed by the theater, one of the best preserved in Spain. Towering above it are the ruins of the walls of the Cathedral of Santa Maria la Vieja, which was destroyed during the Spanish Civil War.

We walked through very updated modern streets with restored architecture and lovely promenades and parks.  A vacation here would be nice I think.

This blog is getting photo heavy so I am going to do the Canary Island stops in the next blog.  Coming right up!


Bus Tour of Rome

Thursday was All Saint's Day and a national holiday in Rome.  There was little traffic and we were able to take a bus tour of some of the sights.  One of our first stops was at the Spanish Steps.  Just like St. Patrick's Well, some of us climbed the steps up, which is all the way to the monument, and down.  I just refuse to give in to my age and titanium hip.  I plan to keep going by "keep on going."  Getting a picture with no one on the steps is a minor miracle.

This is their Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  It is called "the wedding cake" and is not well liked by the Italians because the white marble is out of character for the city.  The photo below is their Supreme Court building.

After all the touring we had to decide if we wanted to ride back to the hotel and come back into the city for our farewell dinner or stay in town.  Taking 34 people anywhere without plans is a tough nut to crack but our guide took us to the Hard Rock Cafe.  She talked the management into opening the glass outside building up just for us.  It had started to rain so being warm and dry with some spirits to lift ours, we spent some time until dinner.

Our farewell dinner was another glass enclosed building at the top of the Spanish Steps.  The meal was fabulous and the wine kept flowing.  It was very late when we started back to the bus for our final night at our hotel before our transfer to Civitavecchia.