Travels with Lois and Jason

Portugal, Spain and Italy

August 9 - 30, 2008

This was two different vacations rolled into one.  From August 9th to 23rd we cruised the Atlantic and Mediterranean.  We spent the 23rd to 30th in splendor in Sicily with our three granddaughters (and their parents) who live in Israel.  The week with the kids was spent swimming at the pool, playing at the beach, and eating, and was wonderful.  We see them too infrequently, but when we’re together, its great.  It was a fabulous way to end one of the most educational cruises we’ve taken.

Our cruise was officially titled Voyage to the Mediterranean, with the subtitle of Moorish and Christian Influences on Architecture.  We selected this particular cruise for two reasons:  it was visiting ports we never heard of before, and we really liked the cruise company, Swan Hellenic, with their emphasis on educational cruising with an all inclusive cost structure.   We were not disappointed.

Our travel adventures the past few years have focused on scenery and natural beauty.  This adventure was a feast for the mind, bringing ancient history into sharp focus, and delighting our senses with man-made structures and accomplishments.   There were three truly amazing highlights of the trip:  Our introduction to Henry the Navigator in Portugal (Portimao), the Alhambra Palace in Spain (Malaga), and the Ostia ruins in Italy (Civitavecchia).

mapThe map shows the route of our cruise.  We flew to  London on August 7 (our 42nd anniversary day), arriving at Heathrow on the 8th.  We embarked on the 9th from Dover, around 4:00 PM in stormy weather.

Our first port of call was to be St. Peter Port, Guernsey, one of the channel islands between England and France.  The ship's tenders were to be used to take us ashore, but when we arrived on the 10th, the seas were so rough that it was decided that walking the gangway to the tenders would be tantamount to walking the plank on a pirate ship, and so we moved on without dropping anchor and spent the day dealing with rough seas and huge swells crossing Biscay Bay (that large crescent shape formed by France on the north and Spain on the south).  The captain gave a talk later in the cruise encouraging everyone to go to Antarctica, and said that our two days crossing Biscay Bay was no worse than sailing the Drake Passage!  (See our Antarctica adventure for details.)
Our time at sea was spent attending outstanding lectures focused on the history, culture, and architecture of our ports of call.  There was so much new information it wasn't until toward the end of the cruise that many of the names and events began to fit together.  One of the lectures discussed "The Grand Tour," that educational journey taken by well-to-do young Englishmen at the end of their formal educational, at about age 18 - 20, during the 17th and 18th centuries, to round out their knowledge and give them a sense of the world.  We felt like we were on our own "Grand Tour" with basically the same goals.  We made our first landing at Oporto, Portugal, on Tuesday, August 12th. 

12 Aug     Oporto, Portugal (port Leixoes)

Arab RoomOporto is known for its port wines, and we visited a winery for a tasting.  We had our first taste of exotic Moorish architecture while visiting the Palácio da Bolsa (Classical Stock Exchange).  The tour took us from room to room, pointing out the beautiful inlaid wood work, geometric patterns and different exotic woods (some naturally red in color, others black) from Africa and the New World to demonstrate the wealth accumulated by Portugal at that time.  Then we went into the The Arabian Room and were blown away by the colors and intricate designs as shown in Lois' picture at right.  Click here for Internet view of the entire Arabian Room.  For several hundred years, Jews, Moors and Christians peacefully co-existed throughout the Iberian Peninsula, in both Spain and Portugal, and they each played an important role in the commerce of the area.  

13 Aug     Lisbon, Portugal

The highlight of this port was the Tile Museum where we learned how tiles were made.  There was one panel that went around the entire room depicting the history of Lisbon in 1700, before the great earthquake of 1755 that completely destroyed the city.  Since Portugal had no artists, the tiles were made by the Dutch and are called Delft tiles (named after the city where they were made) and are all blue and white.  As we drove around Lisbon we noticed decorative tile works on homes and buildings everywhere.  This exterior decorative use illustrated a major  difference between European and Moorish architectural styles of the time.  The Moors made the outside of their buildings plain, but their lavish interiors would take your breath away.  The Europeans on the other hand, made extensive use of decorative exteriors and embellished both inside and outside of churches and buildings. 


14 Aug     Portimao, Algarve, Portugal

Compass rose at
      Henry's Fortress
We spent the morning walking around town and the beach area (and purchased tee-shirts), and then the afternoon tour took us to the lighthouse on Cape St. Vincent -- the western most point of the European continent (and historically referred to as the "end of the earth").  We next went to the fortress build by Henry the Navigator, who, as legend has it, created the scientific center of his time (circa 1420).   Scholars and scientists of the early 15th century were brought together to study astronomy, map making and seafaring navigation, and laid the foundation for and invented many of the tools used by the explorers in their great voyages of discovery, with of course, that of Columbus the most famous.  We marveled at the great compass (or is it a clock), which was state-of-the-art at its time.

5 Aug     Cadiz, Spain   

Today was Sherry wine tasting in Jerez, a small town west of Cadiz itself. 

16 Aug     Granada, Spain (port Malaga)

AlhambraAlhambra NichesWe took a two hour drive through the foothills to the base of the Sierra Nevada, into the region known as Granada, and up to the Alhambra Palace.  As we drove the landscape looked very much like Southern Cal, with hillsides of brown dried out grasses and a smattering of trees.   Our road transversed a major agricultural area, with olive and avocado groves.  We saw only minimal livestock.  We went through the city of Granada, and then up a steep windy road to reach the Alhambra, where we were transported back in time to buildings out of the Arabian Nights.  The Alhambra was a palace and fortress complex of the Moorish rulers of Granada in southern Spain, dating from around 1235.  When Ferdinand and Isabella conquered the Moors in 1492, they wanted to make the Alhambra their capital given that it was considered one of the most beautiful buildings in all of Spain.  But after their deaths in the early 1500's the capital moved to Madrid and the Alhambra went into disrepair.  It was the American writer Washington Irving, whose travel guide Tales of the Alhambra, first published in 1850, brought this incredible architectural gem to the attention of the world. The Alhambra is considered one of the greatest accomplishments of Islamic art and architecture.  The horseshoe archways, the intricate and rich designs, the quiet fountains and lovely gardens were truly awesome.     We saw the remnants of colored tiles, decorative motifs including arcades, pools, fountains in a spectacular garden, and inner courtyards, vistas and rooms with intricate niches, ceilings and vaults.  We were told that the Arabian Room at the Oporto Stock Exchange was illustrative of what the interior of the entire Alhambra would have been.  We ended our visit seeking out a gift shop to purchase both a copy of Washington Irving's Tales and tee-shirts.

Alhambra Courtyard  Alhambra flowers  Alhambra Fountain

17 and 18 Aug     Cruising the Mediterranean Sea        

Excellent lectures on antiquities, culture and art of the ancient world.  The lectures on daily life of Roman citizens set the stage for our visit to Ostia (Port of Rome) where the lectures really came to life.  Speaker after speaker, and the various tour guides in different cities, explained that when the Roman's conquered a territory, they would adopt and incorporate all that they could from that culture rather than simply destroy it.  There were also a couple of talks on the history of Sicily.  For centuries Sicily was known as the "breadbasket" of the known world, and that combined with its strategic location, made for lots of wars and changing rulers.  Our speakers focused on the Norman kings who ruled for most of the 11th century and built the incredible church, Monreale Cathedral, that we were to visit in a few days. 

19 Aug     Sardinia, Italy (port Cagliari)

For our short visit, the name Sardinia was more mystical than the place itself.  The city tour took us to the old city walls and some nice view points, but not much to write home about.  We saw lots of flamingos in the salt flats as our bus whizzed by.

20 Aug     Civitavecchia (Port of Rome), Italy

Ostia Elephant
We took a morning tour to Ostia, at the mouth of the River Tiber.  Our guide was among the top we have ever had on any trip anywhere.  Not only did she bring the ruins to life, she helped us tie so much of the history of the ancient world together.  Ostia was founded by the Romans in the 4th century BCE.  This city which thrived for almost 800 years was the Port of Rome, the commercial gateway  – the world trade center – through which all ocean based trade with the entire known world flowed.  Merchants used mosaics to advertise their wares, whether it was elephants from Africa, grapes from the north, or local ship builders. Eventually the river shifted course, leaving the city “high-and-dry” (in other words, making the city obsolete), and thus abandoned.  The ruins now give a good impression of everyday life in a working Roman town.  The ruins of the shops, homes,Villa Lante
      Gardents trading houses with their beautiful mosaics, are well preserved, as are the sewer and fresh water canals.  The Roman government’s position was at the time to provide free food and entertainment to keep the populace happy and content (i.e., preventing uprisings and rioting).

Our afternoon was a visit to the Villa Lante di Bagnaia gardens, constructed during the 16th century and listed as Italy's most impressive examples of a Renaissance art garden.  The goal of the garden planners was to create a certain mood and demonstrate man's control of nature.  The garden was on four levels, with water as a central theme throughout.  The upper garden was to represent nature in its "wild form" and the fountain (which was unfortunately dry) was supposed to represent flooding, while the lowest garden, pictured right, is total serenity, manicured and calm.   Everything was laid out symmetrically, again to emphasize man's ability to control.  It was lovely!  

21 Aug     Sorrento, Italy

Amalfi Drive

Our ship dropped anchor in the Bay of Naples by the town of Sorrento, which is perched atop the cliffs overlooking the sea.  We took the ship's tender to the docks and had planned to take a public bus to Amalfi, a town a couple of hours south along the very scenic Amalfi Drive, a narrow coastal road that connects Sorrento and Amalfi.  The road is built along steep bluffs and is one hairpin turn after another, and houses and hotels are built into the rocks.  From Amalfi we were going to take a hydrofoil back to Sorrento.  But half way down the drive (about an hour drive) we had to get off the bus at Positano as a landslide had closed the road a few miles ahead.  So, we got back on the bus going the other way and enjoyed the spectacular views on the return ride.  The ride to Positano was gorgeous.  

22 Aug     Palermo, Sicily, Italy

Our Palermo tour was interesting as we were shown more opera houses and theaters than churches, not that the churches weren't there and plentiful, just not as dominant.  At one point we were shown a street sign written in Greek, Arabic and Hebrew as that was the Jewish quarter and the sign was to commemorate
the contribution of the Jewish community to Palermo. Our tour took us up to the mountains surrounding the city to the Monreale Cathedral, a church built by the Norman kings, blending both Norman (thick fortress like walls) and Arab (intricate and delicate interior designs) architecture.  Every square inch of the interior was covered with some form of artwork, mosaics, statues, and all with gold leaf.  The Cathedral's interior is considered one of the most ornate (and expensive) in all of Europe as two tons of gold was used on its walls and ceiling.  And the cloisters where equally beautiful, with every column decorated and with an artistic rendering of stories from the Bible on each of it's capital.  Our tour ended at the Mondello Beach Resort where we had high tea.  We were fascinated by the changing room which people rent all along the beach area.
Palermo beach

23 - 30 Aug     Club Med Kamarina, Sicily 

Spent the week swimming each morning at the children's pool and building sandcastles on the beach in the afternoon.  What a treat to spend an enjoyable week with the grand-kids, and a great way to end our vacation.

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September 13, 2008